audio interface

Choosing the right audio interface for your home studio

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Shopping for an audio interface for your DAW or computer? Here are nine questions you should ask yourself to get the one to best suit your needs.

If you are preparing to set up a home recording studio, this article can help you better understand some of the basic elements regarding the audio interface with your computer or DAW (digital audio workstation). These concepts can get very complex, but this post will focus on some of the more basic points about the subject. Here are nine questions you should ask when comparing audio interface options.

A typical audio interface

1. How many instruments will you record at the same time?

The first thing you should consider is the environment you will be working in and how many instruments you need to record at once. Some people only need the ability to record two tracks at a time and others need a minimum of eight. This is the first and most crucial step to understanding your set-up.

Note that hardware companies advertise their products as having “x” amount of inputs and “y” amount of outputs. For example, you may see this in the specifications for an audio interface:

  • (Product Name) 10×6 Inputs/Outputs
  • (Product Name) 16×8 Inputs/Outputs
  • (Product Name) 8×4 Inputs/Outputs

This does not mean that you can record 10, 16, or 8 inputs at once. It is a way of telling the end user how many connections are on the product. Hardware companies can up the number of inputs on a device if they include the following:

  • Hi-Z inputs that override microphone inputs
  • Line inputs that override microphone inputs
  • Effects returns (No microphone pre-amp, just AD converters)
  • Headphone Outputs

You need to look for the term “simultaneous audio” in order to understand how many inputs a device can record at the same time.

In reality, a device may actually have these types of specifications:

  • 10×6 Inputs/Outputs (8 simultaneous inputs, 6 simultaneous outputs)
  • 16×8 Inputs/Outputs (12 simultaneous inputs, 8 simultaneous outputs)
  • 8×4 Inputs/Outputs (4 simultaneous inputs, 4 simultaneous outputs)

Make sure to look out for this, it could really throw a wrench into your budget if you don’t.

2. What kind of connections will you need for the instruments you’re recording?

There are four basic types of connections you will need to consider when shopping for an audio interface.

audio interface input connections

XLR and XLR/TRS combo. If you intend to record acoustic instruments, you will need to use a microphone and an XLR cable to use the XLR plug on your audio interface. Audio interfaces that come with combo XLR/TRS jacks are great because they can accommodate either of two types of connections. (Make sure to check if your microphone needs “phantom power” and if your audio interface supports this. Some interfaces label this as “+48v.”)

TRS (tip, ring, and sleeve). For use with instruments that do not need a preamp. Look for this type of connection if you are recording non-acoustic instruments like keyboards and sound modules.

Hi-Z. Used for guitars, basses, and any other high impedance connections.

3. What are outputs, and what will you use them for?

Outputs are used mostly for listening to the audio coming out of your recording program.

Examples of outputs are:

  • Headphone jacks
  • Main outputs
  • Sub outputs
  • Outs labeled 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, etc.

These connections are typically XLR or TRS connections. This is where you would connect things like studio monitors or external effects processors.

4. What kind of connection does your computer or workstation need to connect to an audio interface?

The most common types of connections needed are USB 2.0, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800. These all stream data at different speeds but in the end tend to get the job done pretty well.

DAW connections for an audio interface

When shopping for an audio interface, check to make sure it has compatible connections for your computer or DAW.

5. Will you use any devices that require MIDI connections?

Some examples of MIDI devices include:

  • Rack-mountable synths
  • Drum machines
  • Effect units
  • Guitar amp simulators
  • MIDI sound modules

These types of hardware units require MIDI connectivity such as MIDI In, MIDI Out, and MIDI Thru. Note that a lot of MIDI devices these days connect to a computer using USB, but older units tend not to have the USB connections.

6. What sample rate will you be recording or working with?

A sample rate is a measurement of samples taken from an audio signal over time. Humans can hear up to 20 kHz. To properly represent an analog signal in a digital domain, the sample rate must be at a minimum of double the range of the human hearing. This is why 44.1 kHz is the standard sample rate for any hardware interface. Some audio interfaces support sample rates up to 96 kHz or even 192 kHz. These sample rates produce higher resolution audio.

The next logical question you might ask is, “should my audio interface support high sample rates?” The following examples outline a couple scenarios where having a piece of hardware that is flexible across many sample rates is important.

Scenario 1
If you are mixing a recording that was recorded at a professional studio, they may have tracked the entire project at 96 kHz and given you just the project files. If your audio interface does not support 96 kHz, you will not be able to open the project up without some headache or strange behavior. Owning an interface that supports up to 96 kHz could be a great investment so you can open up just about anything that is given to you.

Scenario 2
When working as a freelance recording engineer you may be asked to record at a minimum of 192 kHz for reasons of clarity and high fidelity. Some major touring orchestras and choirs do this as a standard. Obviously this is a pretty specific scenario, but if you are not equipped to deliver on that kind of work as a freelancer, you may miss out on some opportunities.

You may not encounter either of these scenarios, but it’s important to be aware of these details before you invest in expensive hardware. Recording and mixing at 44.1 kHz is just fine, but if you are looking to spend some extra money on an interface that can record higher sample rates, then go for it!

7. Will you need more inputs in the future?

An expandable interface is usually a bit higher in price but could be useful down the road if you want to integrate it into a more serious setup. The types of connections that will allow you to sync multiple devices together include:

  • ADAT: 8 channels at 48 kHz
  • TOSLINK: 2 Channels
  • D-Sub: Depends on manufacturer’s spec
  • AES/EBU: 2 Channels
  • SPIDF: 2 Channels

When going down this route, you should definitely be conscious of “clocking.” This is the first thing most users will run into when daisy chaining multiple digital devices together. One piece of hardware should send “clock” to the others via one of the digital connections or (if available) a BNC connector. This keeps the two devices in sync with one another. Without a proper clocking method you will experience jitter – which is the sound two digital audio devices working together at different clock speeds.

Some audio interface manufacturers allow their devices to be synced together when both are connected to a computer at once. The drivers on the computer manage the synchronization. This is a rather specific situation, but it does exist.

8. Does your interface need to be portable or compact?

The size and portability of an audio interface is definitely something to consider when shopping for a device. Check out audio interfaces that are bus powered and do not require their own power supply. They could be especially useful when you are sitting in a place where only one power outlet is available (airport terminal, tour bus, train). Interfaces that are bus powered are great for taking with you on the road because most of them are small and sometimes even fit in your back pocket.

Larger audio interfaces that are portable typically will take up one or two spaces in a rack. These will ship with rack ears or have rack ears available for installation. Most of these audio interfaces are not bus powered and have their own power supply. If you end up having a few of these units, then it’s important to purchase a power conditioner. Think of it like a power strip for your rack. It keeps voltages regulated and will save your audio interfaces from getting fried by an insufficiently powered outlet.

9. Should you purchase a sound card or an audio interface? What is the difference?

A soundcard is the system on your computer that handles all of your sound. An audio interface connects to your computer through USB or firewire ports. One is internal and the other is external.

Soundcards stream audio from the Internet, games, applications, and anything else that requires basic audio playback. For the most part, stock sound cards are compatible with MME (32bit) drivers. MME (32bit) drivers are not the recommended driver mode for digital audio workstations because their functionality is limited. Most DAWs require the use of an ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) compatible device.

When shopping for a brand new sound card, make sure that you are purchasing it from a pro-audio company if your intentions are to record and mix within a DAW (some high-fi companies produce sound cards that will say ASIO compatible). The best way to know if your sound card can be used with recording software is to read its manual or technical specifications. This is where it will list what recording programs are compatible with your device.

This post on DAW best practices and choosing the right audio interface originally appeared on Cakewalk’s blog. Reprinted with permission.

Cakewalk is the leading developer of powerful and thoughtfully designed products for the modern musician. These products include award-winning digital audio workstations and innovative virtual instruments. Millions of musicians worldwide – including Grammy® and Emmy®-winning producers, composers, sound designers, and engineers – use Cakewalk products daily to produce audio for the professional music, film, broadcast, and video game industries. The Cakewalk blog offers technical tips, tutorials, and news relating to their products and audio recording.

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