Q: I’m starting to get into home recording and I want to find a good audio interface for around $100. What’s the best interface for that price?
A: This is a really common question on audio forums so I just summed them all together. It is a valid question though, if you’re just getting into home recording all the jargon and tech specs can seem confusing and overwhelming. Do you need S/PDIF? What’s ADAT? Do you need a preamp if you’re recording keyboards? Do you need one to listen through headphones? Truth is, the manufacturers of cheap interfaces would like you, the consumer, to be in the dark. They can keep selling the “latest-and-greatest” without ever really improving their product.
Anyway, let’s talk about it.
What is an Audio Interface?
Interpreter: An audio interface is actually a set of tools that are usually required to record with your computer. At the very minimum the interface will act as an interpreter to get the digital data to the computer in a format the computer will understand. This means the interface may accept digital information and convert it into something that can be passed to your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). However, what you’re typically passing the interface in a home studio isn’t digital, it’s analog, so you need a second tool.
A/D Converter: Typically when you’re dealing with microphones or instruments, you’re working with analog signals. To process those signals in the digital realm of computers, the signal must be first converted into a digital format. This isn’t actually required of an interface, but when you’re dealing with beginner interfaces, it’s almost exclusively part of the deal.
D/A Converter: So you have the digital mix finished, but you need to hear it right? And your monitors take analog signal right? Well the interface is also expected to convert the digital signal to an analog signal.
For low-end audio interfaces, that’s really the bare minimum you’re likely to find on a product. However most offer these additional features…
Preamps: A preamp (preamplifier) takes a signal and makes it louder. When dealing with microphones you’re working with a microphone level signal, which isn’t a strong enough signal to do much with. That’s why the next stage in an analog signal is almost always the preamp. The preamp takes the signal and brings it to line level, which is an appropriate level to process. Common features bundled with a preamp are phantom power, a polarity switch, and a pad.
Mixer: some of the smaller interfaces may not look like it, but they’re usually little mixers that take multiple signals, sum them, route them, etc. They may not include things people associate with mixers (EQ for one), but you’ll often need to route with your interface, so it’s something to pay attention to.
Extras: A lot of interfaces also provide perks such as MIDI in/out, S/PDIF, etc. As a beginner you probably won’t need a lot of the fancier stuff, but it’s good to be away that manufacturers count these as inputs and outputs. If you buy an interface that boasts ten outputs but only has a left and a right XLR, it’s probably because they’re counting any number of (possibly useless to you) digital protocols rather than purely analog outputs.
Isn’t that a sound card?
Yes, an audio interface is essentially a beefed up sound card. They both convert A/D, D/A, and feed that digital information to and from the computer. Built-in sound cards are often pretty shitty and are notorious for picking up interference from the computer. If you’re recording at home or performing with a computer, you should almost certainly get an external audio interface.
So which one should I get?
It probably doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that cheap interfaces are made with cheap, generic parts. To be honest, I’m convinced there’s a few companies overseas that just make whole generic audio interfaces and companies just rebrand them:
That’s the Alesis iO2 and the M-Audio M-Track. Do they look similar at all? The point of this isn’t to rag on cheap interfaces – I’ve recorded an album on the M-Track and have recorded some great songs on things that are a lot worse – the point is to inform you that the difference between one $100 interface and another $100 interface may not be anything at all.
Ehm…so which one should I get?
Get one that has the features that you need. Are you a singer/songwriter who wants to record some demos? Get one that has two preamps (vocals and guitar), that provides phantom power (+48), and a monitor output that mixes your direct inputs with your computer output. Recording a whole band? Go for eight or more preamps, preferably with each preamp providing independent pad and phantom. Do you have a cool 1970’s preamp that you found in the garage? Maybe you don’t need a built-in preamp at all. Are you DJing through a laptop? You might only need two outputs. Are you in a synth-pop band? You’ll probably need MIDI I/O at some point. If you’re performing non-mastered, multi-track songs from a computer, you’ll probably need at least eight separate analog outputs (I recommend a separate output for kick, snare, percussion L/R, bass, instruments L/R, and vocals; assuming you make that kind of music).
The point is, while manufacturers like to claim they’re the ultimate in $100 interfaces, it’s probably the same product in a different container that every other manufacturer sells. And they all will probably work fine for you.