Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How to choose an audio interface.

Audio production gains more and more enthusiasts every year. The market literally swarms with audio interfaces ranging from 25$ to multiple thousands. In this Article i'll help you to choose an interface that will meet YOUR requirements. Read on, pal!

First of all, you need to ask yourself, what do you need an audio interface for. Ok, obviously you need it to record/mix some kind of audio, be it music speech, or sound design. Let's put it simple:

Situation A: This one is probably most common. You're making electronic music and use mostly plugin synthies and drum machines. For this cause almost any audio interface will be sufficient. Since no multiple inputs/outputs are needed, you should choose a small interface with 2 or even 1 audio inputs and outputs or you could even consider to use an audio interface with no inputs at all, like the Focusrite VRM Box.
                               Pic. 1: Focusrite VRM Box

With this unit you'll be able to mix in headphones and select between multiple mixing situations like pro studio/bed-room/home-studio and nearfield monitors like the ns-10, adam, krk etc. Of course, you shouldn't expect the 99$ unit to simulate a real mixing environment to 100%, but if you learn how to use it and learn to know what results to expect, you will be able to produce good mixes.

However, if you want to use an audio interface with speakers (nearfiled monitors, or a hifi-system) or want to record vocals and/or instruments or hardware synthesizers you'll need an interface that has mic/line inputs and outputs. There are hundreds of these on the market and most of them are playing in the same quality league. From my expirience i can advise the Tascam US-144 MK2 It has all the I/O you will need in an electronic music studio and overally offers good bang for the buck.
                                             Pic. 2 Tascam US-144 MK2

You'll get 2 Mic inputs with phantom power for condenser microphones, 2 line/instrument inpĂșts to connect an electric guitar, synth or drum machine, an insert for an external haerdware effects unit, Midi in/out and s-p/dif out (for example to connect it to a hifi system without unnecessary ad/da conversions. This set of functions, along supporting up to 24bit/48kHz resolution is standard for the most interfaces in this price range (about 120$). Othe good examples are: Focusrite Saffire 6 USB (139$), Steinberg UR22 (139$), Alesis IOl2 Express (95$) and so on. If you want to invest more and get an interface of real high quality you should consider to get the Apogee Duet 2 (499$). This would be a longterm high quality solution for any home-recording studio. The only downside: support MAC only. For die-hard windows users the RME Babyface (540$) would be a great alternative.

                                                     Pic. 3: Apogee Duet 2

Situation B: You want to build a home-recording/project studio to produce music that requires live instrumental recordings. The first thing you need to keep in mind, when choosing an audio interace is: Are you going to record live drums, or are you going to use some software plugins like Superior Drummer? In the second case you still can go with a 2-in/2-out interface, because you will not need more than to mics to record guitarsm guitar amps or acoustic instruments and vocals, so if you're tight on the budget, you should go with something like tascam us-144. For the beginning the quality of the tascam's preamps wil be sufficient, however i highly advise to get an audio interface with additional spdif or adat inputs, like some of the focusrite's smaller interfaces. The focusrite interfaces deliver great, neutral sounding preamps already, but for more professional recordings you would probably want to use a channel strip. A channel strip is a combination of a preamp, compressor and equalizer (sometimes also with gate, de-esser, enhancer) "taken" from professional studio consoles and will be able to deliver professional quality recordings. When choosing an interface, the most important thing about the preamps is the signal to noise ratio. However, not every manufacturer gives a precise description of these values, so you really should listen to the interface in the shop, or just ask your local dealer. I have heard pro-sounding tracks recorded with the Apogee Duet 2 or RME babyface, so if great quality is of big importance for you, you should consider to save some money.

Pic. 4: RME Babyface Blue.

If you're going to record live drums, you will need an interface with at least 8 inputs. These are, of course, more expensive than 2 in/out interfaces. The cheapest 8-Input interface i could think of is the Behringer FCA1616 (250$). It has 4 XLR inputs and further 4 1/4" inputs, both firewire and usb, midi i/o and spdif, adat and s/mux i/o. I did not have the ability to test this interface, but when thinking about the price i presume, that they have to save on the quality of the components to achieve this low budget. And you're still have only 4 XLR inpuuts instead of 8.

                              Pic. 5: Presonus FireStudio Project.

The Presonus FireStudio Project (399$) has 8 XLR-Inputs and a stere spdif input, so you will be able to record max. 10 channels simultaneously if you'll get an addition 2-channel preamp or a channel strip with spdif output. Presonus offers good quality for the money, but only works with FireWire and no ADAT-I/O. For 60$ more you can get the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 (460$). Like the presonus, the Saffire Pro 40 has 8 analog combo xlr/jack inputs, 8 line outputs. But it has some more features to offer: 8 Channels of ADAT and 2 spdif (so you're be able to record upt to 16 channels, if you'll get an additional 8-Channel adat preamp and a spdif 2 channel preamp), 2 Headphone outputs, which is really great for recordign situations. You can also route different mixes to the headphones, so, the singer for instance, would listen to the mix with less music and more vocals, so he can hear himself better and you cann listen to the normal mix with your pair of headphones. Also the saffire pro 40 has better mic preamps.

Pic.6: Focusrite Saffire Pro 40

Alternatively there are: M-AUDIO ProFIre 2626 (FireWire, 449$). Mackie Onyx Blackbird (FIrewire, 499$), Motu 8Pre (FireWire, 499$). Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 (USB, 499$), Phonic FireFly 808 U (USB, 385$), Steinber UR824 (USB, 738$). 

If you want to go more pro, you should consider some products of RME, Apogee (MAC only), Universal Audio. You'll have to pay at least the double of the "cheaper" manufacturer's gear.

Some mixers like Alesis Multimix series or Behringer Xenyx series also have a built in usb interface, however the affordable once do only have 2 channels and are mostly good for recording your current mix, but the quality is also questionable.

If you're new to recording & mixing, i advise you to not invest too much in the beginning of your audio practice. A professional audio interface will not do you any good, before you invest in acoustic room treatment, great microphones, good studio monitors and so on. Firtly, you should learn how to record multiple channels, excercise in micing and mixing and gain staging. It will take some time, until you will actually be able to hear and make use of the difference between cheaper and more expensive interfaces. If you're really tight on the budget, just buy an aused audio interface on e-bay, but bear in mind, that there's no guarantee on used gear. 

Here are the most important points to keep in mind when selecting your interface:

  • 1. Quality of the pre-amps (Are they noisy? Do they color the sound too much? Do they have enough gain?)
  • 2. Input/Output diversity (At least 2 inputs for electronic music and live music without drum recording, at least 8 XLR inputs, good sounding and loud enough headphone output (better 2), MIDI I/O, spdif (adat highly advised as well), at least 1 HiZ input for direct electric guitar or bass recording.)
  • 3. Audio resolution (At least 44 kHz and 24 bits) Many interfaces support up to 192 kHz, which is in my opinion an overkill. Only few people can actually hear the difference between 44 and 48 kHz. The mosr professional recording studios i was working with mostly work with 44 kHz and still make professional production. The difference between 16 and 24 bits is however very significant, so make sure you have 24 bits.
  • 4. As soon as you're focused on some interfaces, read reviews about how the driver stability is. You don't want your interface to crash your system or add glitches and other sonic artifacts during your recording session.
  • 5. USB, FireWire or PCI. Both deliver enought bandwidth to record multiple channels without problems, however FireWire is sadly not very common in today's PCs and even less common with Notebooks. There is a possibility to add a PCMCIA firewire card to your laptop, however it costs extra and some people expirience sonic interferences when using these cards. If you have FireWir i advise to go with a FireWire interface, because it is very likely that you use lot's of hardware via USB (like external hard drives, printers, usb-controllers and so on) So you might get some problems with the bandwidth. PCI-Interfaces are only an option for a desktop computer and are not a comfortable as external interfaces, because you'll have to crouch under the table every time you want to connect/disconnect a cable.
  • 6. Phantom power is crucial if you want to use condenser microphones.
  • 7. Make sure that the interface you're interested in gets frequent updates. If it's not the case, there might be some problems that are ignored by the manufacturer, or are not capable of being solved. Maybe the interface is not supported anymore. Read some forums, to know user's feedback about the problems of the device. Manufacturers never tell about the downsides of their hardware.
  • 8. Don't buy an interface for 2000$ before you actually have all other components of your studio of the same quality level. Better spend 500$ on the interface, 500$ for monitors, 500$ for microphones and 500$ on acoustic treatment of your studio. This will bring you much more than just buying a professional interface.

I hope that this article will help you to find the audio interface that you need and enjoy it! Feel free to ask any questions! Stay tuned!

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