Audio Interfaces

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Audio Interfaces information

An audio interface essentially forms a bridge between an analogue audio source like a microphone or guitar, and a computer. Audio interfaces send audio in both directions: to and from your computer. Also referred to as sound cards, audio interfaces send sound to the audio software of your computer (like recording software) as a digital signal, or the other way around, where a digital audio signal is sent out to the interface so you can hear analogue sound through a connected set of headphones or monitor speakers. Every computer, laptop, tablet and phone has some form of sound card built in - otherwise you wouldn't hear any sound at all - but an external audio interface can sometimes be an improvement and often gives you more connection options.

External & Built-In Audio Interfaces

External audio interfaces are the most popular, and aren't integrated into your computer but can be set up on the desktop nearby. Built-in audio interfaces either come pre-installed in a desktop computer or can be installed. While you can't easily change or install a sound card in a laptop, you can check if your desktop computer has an insert for one (this will usually be a PCIe) so it can be connected to the motherboard. A good thing about these kinds of interfaces is that they're neatly integrated into your computer rather than taking up space on your desk. The number of inputs and outputs of a built-in model can be limited, but using a break-out cable, you can easily add plenty of extra connection ports. In general, built-in sound cards are a better option for more experienced users looking for really specific features.

The Sound Card of Your PC, Tablet or Phone

The internal sound card of equipment like a laptop, phone, or tablet is no longer a real card these days, but a little chip mounted on the motherboard. This chip is responsible for the audio of the device and passes the sound on to built-in or connected speakers. These chips can also work the other way around, by converting the sound of a connected microphone into digital audio. However, if you want to record and mix music on your device, you'll definitely want better audio quality and more connection options than the internal sound card can offer. In this case, it's a good idea to level up with something better - like an audio interface.

USB Audio Interfaces

External sound cards come in roughly three forms: a USB audio interface, a Thunderbolt interface, or a FireWire interface. USB audio interfaces are the most popular, simply because most PCs and Macs don't have a FireWire or Thunderbolt port. If you're just starting to record using an interface, then you'll be more than satisfied with a USB audio interface, but more experienced musicians and producers often prefer the faster performance of Thunderbolt interfaces. FireWire is becoming more scarce: it's faster than USB 2.0 but slower than the USB 3.1 ports, which are becoming the standard for most computers.

Audio Interfaces for Mac

The same is true of Mac computers as it is for Windows PCs: an audio chip is installed on the motherboard as standard and it's this little chip that send sound to the speakers. Just like with a PC, you can also connect an external audio interface up to a Mac computer via a USB, Thunderbolt, or the less common FireWire port. Almost any audio interface that's compatible with Windows computers, will also be compatible with Mac computers. If you've already spotted the audio interface that you want, just double check the specification to see that it's compatible with the operating system of your computer.

Audio Interfaces with MIDI Support

Some audio interfaces also have MIDI ports. Are these useful? Well, that depends. If you have a MIDI keyboard, for example, it's probably fitted with a USB port so you can just connect it directly to your computer via USB, without the need for an audio interface. But you've got some MIDI gear fitted with old 5-pin MIDI ports, like vintage synthesizers and digital pianos, then an audio interface fitted with MIDI ports will definitely come in handy. This way, you won't have to pick up a separate MIDI interface as well.

Cheap, Good Quality Interfaces

For under £50, you can easily set yourself up with an audio interface with one or two inputs and few handy controls and functions. These interfaces will immediately sound better than the built-in audio chip of your computer and will offer more connection options, like a microphone input and jack inputs for a guitar. Between the £50 and £100 mark, the models on offer start to grow in both quantity and quality, so you can get an interface from popular names like M-Audio, Behringer, or Devine.

Guitar Audio Interfaces

Most 'standard' audio interfaces will have one or more inputs for a guitar (these are also referred to as Hi-Z inputs), so they can be used to record an electro-acoustic or electric guitar. But there are also audio interfaces that have been specifically designed for guitarists. These sometimes have a more straightforward setup with just one input for your guitar, and most models also come with special computer software or a smarphone app for applying effects or amplifier emulations to the sound of your guitar. These interfaces also do more than just record, since they can be a great replacement for real hardware like effects pedals and guitar amplifiers.

DJ Audio Interfaces

If you're a DJ, then you can just use a standard audio interface, sine there are no specialised DJ audio interfaces. The exception are interfaces built for DJs that work with timecode vinyl (or DVS), and interfaces with a built-in phono preamp so they can directly connect to a turntable.

External Sound Cards & Sample Rates

The sample rate of a sound card or audio interface gives you an indication of how detailed the audio capture is. Most external audio interfaces will be able to record with a sample rate of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 or 192kHz. To be certain you're getting the best, you can always pick up a model that's capable of the highest sample rate. For beginner musicians and producers, 44.1kHz will be enough, but as you gain more experience, you might start to notice that while you're mixing, certain effects have better results at a higher sample rate. The possible down side is that the file size gets bigger as the sample rate goes up.

Ableton Audio Interfaces

If you're an Ableton 2 user, you can couple it with any audio interface you want. No specific brand or model is exclusively compatible with Ableton 2, which is not only standard recording software, but one of the most popular DAWs out there, and will work with any audio interface. However, MIDI controllers are a different story since they don't function as audio interfaces and have nothing to do with the sound. MIDI controllers provide manual access to Ableton functions and can include grid controllers (like the Ableton Push 2 controller) which work perfectly with Ableton.

Behringer Audio Interfaces

Behringer is a big name in audio interfaces, since they produce great external audio interfaces for a relatively low price, making them the go-to entry-level choice for musicians and producers. Check out all Behringer audio interfaces.

Focusrite Audio Interfaces

Focusrite make enormously popular audio interfaces. The Scarlett Series alone is a best-seller, and offers a stylish and high-quality step-up from the cheapest audio interfaces on the market. They also offer a lot for your money: good sound, plenty of options, and plenty of included software. Among other things, Focusrite are renowned for the quality of their converters, which is where the quality counts, since the converter is responsible for translating the analogue audio into a digital signal that your computer can work with, and then converting the digital signal into an analogue signal that your headphones or speakers can work with. Focusrite also produce high-end professional external sound cards. Check out all Focusrite audio interfaces.

M-Audio Audio Interfaces

At the cheapest end of the spectrum, M-Audio is known for building good interfaces for a really good price. Even professional producers and musicians swear by their M-Audio gear. Check out all M-Audio interfaces.

Frequently Asked Questions About Audio Interfaces

Which audio interface should I get?

There are so many different audio interfaces to choose from, it can be tough to find the right one for you. To make life a little easier, it's worth thinking about what you want to use your interface for. Are you just using it to play music through a set of monitors? Are you going to be recording using a microphone, a guitar, or other gear like a keyboard? How many microphones will you want to record at the same time? The answer will tell you how many inputs your interface will need. Many beginners are more than happy with a good budget interface, and if you go for a budget model, you can always upgrade later when you have more experience. By using the filters on the left of the page, you can select the features that you need and sort models by price. For more help, see out Audio Interface Buyer's Guide.

What's the best interface for good-quality recordings?

If you're just learning to record, then the sound quality of any relatively cheap interface is likely to be impressive enough. Even a cheaper interface will improve the quality of the audio chip in your computer. A more experienced musician or producer will have a more critical ear and is more likely to notice the enhanced audio quality of a more expensive interface. More expensive models will have higher-quality AD/DA converters, which are responsible for translating analogue audio into a digital signal and back again. Other features like microphone preamps also have a lot to do with the sound quality. In short, the best audio interface will be the model that best meets your demands; your level of experience; how critical your ear is; and how critical the ear of your audience is. So, while one audio interface is perfect for one user, other users will demand something more top-shelf.

How do you set up an audio interface?

It's actually pretty simple. You just connect the interface to your computer using the included cable. Depending on the model you're hooking up and the operating system of your computer, you might have to install a driver, but this will be explained in your user manual and will only take a few minutes. Once installed, your computer will be able to recognise your interface and you can select it as the audio input and output via the audio settings of your audio software, like a DAW. Once done, you can record and play back audio via your audio interface.

What is a USB audio interface?

A USB audio interface can be directly connected to a computer via a USB cable. Most audio interfaces are hooked up via USB, and once connected, you can record and play back music, game, and produce content for video and podcasting platforms and more. USB audio interfaces basically improve the audio quality of the sound chip that came on the motherboard of your computer and expand the connection options, so you can plug in a microphone or guitar.

What's the best audio interface brand?

Some of the most popular names in audio interfaces are Focusrite, Behringer and Steinberg. Since so many people swear by their gear, their models are the most trusted. But that's not to say that they produce the best of the best, since the best audio interface for you is the one that gives you everything you need. Our advice: figure out exactly what you're going to be using your interface for and what you're going to need in terms of connection options and sound quality. Then you can use the filters on the left of this page to select the features you need and then read some reviews to see which model might be the one for you.

What kind of sound card does my computer have?

The motherboard of every computer, tablet, or phone includes an audio chip. This chip is what takes care of the sound you hear when you play back music or receive a message. In most cases, this audio chip will do everything that the average user could want. But if you want to record and mix music on your device, you're likely to want better sound quality than the audio chip can offer. You might also need some more professional inputs for microphones and other audio sources or instruments. In that case, you'll need a separate audio interface, which will take over the job of the audio chip, offers more connection options, and improves the sound. If you're working with a desktop computer, then you could go for an internal sound card.

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