So you’ve embarked on setting up a home recording studio. Whether for music, podcasts, or just for fun, you’re going to need an array of equipment: studio monitors, pro tools, condenser microphones, headphones, a digital audio workstation, mixer tracks, a MIDI controller, inputs and outputs, and so on to ensure the perfect sound quality.
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But if there’s one piece of equipment that you should choose wisely, it’s the audio interface.
So which one should you choose?
The internet and brick-and-mortar music stores are inundated with different brands and variations of audio interfaces you can buy. This guide is here to help you decide.
What is an audio interface and why should I use it?
Before we dive into the good stuff, let’s break down what exactly an audio interface does. We found the perfect explanation over at B&H Photo and Video: “an audio interface is any device that improves the audio capabilities of your computer, allowing you to connect anything from instruments to microphones to your computer.”
In short, it takes the analog input (such as your voice or guitar chord) and translates it into digital information that audio recording software can read.
If you’ve ever encountered a song someone produced that sounded like it was recorded on a calculator, that was probably because that person just recorded their song using only their computer microphone, which was never designed to record high-quality audio. An audio interface is what lets you get better results from home.
So how do you get those results?
Step 1: Know what connection your computer has.
Not all interfaces will connect to just any computer or device. Imagine getting your interface in the mail, eager to plug it in and check out the specs, when you discover that you can’t connect it to your computer.
Don’t do that to yourself. Take the time to figure out what kind of connection your computer has. If you use a newer Mac with a Thunderbolt connection, get a Focusrite Clarett 4Pre Thunderbolt Audio Interface.
For computers with a USB connection, there are more options, so do some research and decide which one is best for you. Same goes for Firewire and PCIe connectivity.
Step 2: Decide what you want to record.
This is the foundation that you will build off of when you decide how to go forward in your home studio. Recording a podcast will be different than recording a cappella covers to recording full band songs.
And if there’s a chance you will use your studio for more than one purpose—a versatile audio interface will be able to handle your various interests. A quality interface can cater to microphones, instrument and/or line-level sources.
For example, check out the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 pictured above.
It has four analog inputs: two for microphones and two for instrument inputs. With impressive conversion and sample rates, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 would be good for anyone out there that doesn’t want to get bogged down by too many inputs, knobs, and cords.
Alternatively, if know that you’re just going to do some light vocal recording, an audio interface with just one input will do fine. They’re cheaper too so that might help sway your decision if you’re on the fence.
A good simple audio interface with one XLR input and one instrument input is the Behringer U-Phoria UM2.
With just one mic line, you can have a simple studio setup with a microphone connected to the Behringer, giving you a hassle-free start.
Decide on the intention of your recording studio. If it’s full songs or an EP, you’ll want to get an audio interface that can handle more inputs and thus more instruments, microphones, or other equipment.
This will require more money and smarter cord storage so they don’t get tangled or lost. Otherwise, get yourself a cheaper, less input-based audio interface.
Step 3) Learn the lingo.
Don’t get intimidated by the talk of bits, hertz, and DAC. If you’re confused, don’t worry. We’re here to help you sort it all out.
You’ll often see X-bits on the specs for an audio interface. 1 bit is approximately 6 decibels (dB), meaning how loud a piece of audio can be. A 16-bit audio interface, which is CD standard, has the range of (16 x 6) 96 dB.
At this level, the noise minimum will be high and the dynamic range will be small. So, your quiet sections will be noisy, and if you like to sing loudly, you’ll get the whirring noise of the interface not being able to handle the input.
That’s why 24-bit is the standard for music recording since it gives you ample range of recording while not having your audio sound shoddy. It’s highly recommended.
You’re also going to see the term DAC, which is Digital to Analog Converter, and they’re everywhere. Whether it’s your computer, gaming console, or smartphone, if you hear audio, you’re encountering a DAC.
Creating professional-quality recordings will require a high-quality DAC since that is ultimately what your audience hears. A good DAC lets you hear the minutia of your recording and lets you critique it better than something with a mediocre DAC.
There’s definitely a lot more to learn out there. If you stumble across something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to do a little research first. Know what you’re buying before you make a commitment.
Step 4) Consider the future.
While it might not be what you’re concerned about now, considering where your professional recording will go ultimately defines what kind of equipment you’ll buy now, as it will influence how you use your equipment now.
If you want to create songs or podcasts to make a profit for you, you’re probably planning to upgrade your equipment within a few years. By gaining a decent following you’ll be able to make a profit from your recordings.
Therefore, you can gamble with a more expensive interface since you will use it indefinitely, or at least until you’ve made enough money to buy a better one.
Whether you have a growth mindset or are just a hobbyist, by deciding your plans for the future, you should be able to determine the kind of audio interface to buy.
Get an audio interface that’s worth your money
With all that in mind, you should be prepared to get an audio interface for your home studio. By knowing the technical requirements, your budget, plans, and needs, you’re just one step away from setting up your recording studio with an audio interface that’s perfect for you.