The Best Audio Interfaces For Music Production – March 2019
In the not-so-distant past, there were very few options available if you wanted to be a recording artist. You either had to build a massive following through extensive live performing, or take your chances on a record industry executive stumbling across your demo in a pile of unsolicited and probably underwhelming submissions.
Thankfully those times have changed. Due to a rise in increasingly powerful and affordable personal audio interfaces, virtually anyone can create anything from a single track to a full-fledged album in the comfort of their own home with a pair of headphones.
Whether you’re interested in recording real instruments or creating the next big dubstep hit, personal recording systems have completely revolutionized and democratized music recording, and these small systems have actually been behind some of the biggest hits of the past five years.
The only downside to the home recording revolution is that there’s a seemingly limitless number of audio interfaces to choose from, and each one brings a variety of unique features to the table that may or may not suit your specific needs.
Another frustrating variable is that these interfaces tend to fluctuate dramatically in price—depending on a variety of things such as input functionality, sonic quality, processing speed, and much more.
With these frustrations in mind, we’ve assembled a list of some of the best and most price-worthy audio interfaces money can buy. Enjoy.
For those of you who don’t know, the primary purpose of an audio interface that’s used for music production is to act as a sonic and digital middleman between your instruments and your computer. Plugging a guitar or microphone directly into your computer’s microphone input (if it even has one in the first place) simply doesn’t do the trick for two reasons: First, your computer’s input volume is likely too low to be used for recording; and second, the inherent quality of your computer’s soundboard isn’t likely very good.
An external interface therefore acts somewhat as a multifaceted external audio card, which can be used to add both depth and color to everything from guitars and bases to microphones and keyboards.
If you’re just starting out, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more convenient and well-priced audio interface than this Focusrite unit, which produces an incredibly transparent sound along with just enough features to track a pro-level recordings in the comfort of your own living room.
It comes loaded with two Scarlett mic preamps with plenty of gain that can be used with low-gain instruments and microphones, two instrument inputs, 1/4-inch balanced jack outputs to connect professional studio monitors, and a headphone output with a designated gain control.
One of the most important factors when considering which audio interface to buy is its conversion rate, and this unit features class-leading conversion and sample rates of up to 192kHz at 24 bits—meaning you won’t have to worry about latency issues or skips during both recording and playback.
It connects to your computer via USB, and although this connection isn’t as fast as some of the newer Thunderbolt interfaces, it provides plenty of speed for most recording projects.
An added perk is that you also get the famed Pro Tools software with your purchase. As the leading music production software in the world, Pro Tools lies at the heart of pretty much every major radio hit of the past two decades, and you’ll be able to harness all of its power right out of the box.
You’ll also have unlimited access to Ableton Live Lite, along with a series of in-the-box plugins and 2GB of Loop masters samples that will help you polish and craft your productions.
When we said that personal audio interfaces tend to fluctuate dramatically when it comes to cost and quality, we weren’t lying. Although you can get plenty of professional-grade functionality out of less expensive units like the Focusrite at our number-one spot, if you’re looking to go truly pro in terms of sonics and conversion power, there are some units that are blatantly superior.
This Universal Audio Apollo Twin is one such unit. Anyone who’s even remotely serious about recording and music production has doubtlessly heard of Universal Audio, which has been crafting some of the world’s most popular audio equipment and gadgets for decades. It’s safe to say that any professional recording studio you manage to stumble into will have at least some UA gear, and more and more home studios are able to snag this gear thanks to smaller enclosures and lower price points.
The Apollo Twin is a true marvel of engineering, since it packs most of the processing and conversion power of its larger brethren into a much smaller and far more portable package.
You get a 2×6 Thunderbolt interface that works with both Mac and Windows and offers world-class 24-bit/192 kHZ audio conversion, along with truly transparent and pro-level analog audio quality.
The quality of the enclosure is a step up from the previous iteration of the Twin (which was relatively flimsy), and you’ll enjoy real-time UAD processing power for tracking through vintage compressors, EQs, tape machines, mic preamps, and guitar amp plug-ins with near-zero (sub-2ms) latency.
This is a big deal for anyone who likes to use a lot of plugins on a track, since it takes the burden of the processing power off of your computer’s CPU and places it entirely on the Twin—meaning your computer’s processors will be free to focus on other tasks, and you’ll be far less likely to experience drags while you record and during playback.
You get two premium mic/line preamps, two line outputs, a front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphone output, two digitally controlled analog monitor outputs, and eight channels of digital input via Optical connection in case you need to expand.
You’ll also have full access to a variety of award-winning UA plugins that have been used on countless hit records, along with an integrated console feature that allows you to control everything from the input volume of your instruments and microphones to your plugin selections and output controls.
It’s safe to say that you could use the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Quad to make a truly pro-level recording in your bedroom, and the only reason why this incredible piece of gear didn’t claim that number-one spot on our list is because it’s so annoying expensive.
Now that we’ve gotten the most and least expensive pieces of gear out of the way, it’s time to explore some of the middle ground. This PreSonus interface offers much of the same quality and functionality of the Focusrite at our number-one spot, but also comes with a few accessories that may make it more appealing for those who are looking to build a small home studio from scratch.
The interface itself sounds great. It’s clean, transparent, and just warm enough to add some color to the mix without altering the inherent sound quality of what you’re recording.
Your order comes with the interface itself along with a MIDI cable for recording external devices like keyboards, a pair of HD7 studio headphones that offer a surprising about of low-end clarity for a pair of relatively inexpensive headphones, an M7 studio condenser microphone, and a Studio Magic Plugin Suite that offers a slew of helpful tools to help build and polish a mix.
You also get the Studio One Artists recording and production software, which offers a straightforward recording experience that isn’t likely to overwhelm first-time producers in the same way that Pro Tools might.
For a budget interface, we were impressed with the pro-level 24-bit, 96 kHz converters that this unit has to offer, although the microphone was somewhat understandably lacking in low-end response and high-end clarity. Although perfectly suitable for scratch vocals and perhaps the occasional acoustic guitar session, this mic probably won’t satisfy the needs of more seasoned producers who want more clarity in their mix.
Still, for an entire package priced under $200, it would be hard to go wrong with this tiny-yet-mighty studio package if you’re an aspiring or first-time producer.
Next up we have a slightly more expensive but surprisingly powerful and versatile audio interface crafted by Native Instruments—hands-down one of the most respected and relied-upon brands in the recording and production industry.
Known for their incredibly realistic digital instruments and wide-ranging plugins, Native Instruments has branched out into the realm of external hardware and audio interfaces, which beautifully integrate with their on-board software.
This little box is no exception, thanks to an incredibly low-latency performance that’s perfect for virtual instruments and effects. You get two high-quality preamps with individual gain controls that can be used for tracking everything from guitars and keyboards to vocals and basses, along with direct monitoring features for live sessions.
There’s a mono input switch that comes in handy when you’re tracking mono sources or want to test how your mix would sound coming through smaller speakers, and 48V of phantom power means that you’ll be able to use condenser mics and active DI boxes without issue.
But perhaps the greatest part of this interface is that it comes packed with Cubase LE 6, Traktor LE 2 and Komplete Elements, which together form a creative suite of tools that make it easy to create truly polished and pro-level records on a budget.
The price tag on the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Quad at our runner-up spot is understandably a bit terrifying, and the truth is that unless you’re working in a decked-out studio with a slew of other powerful recording gear by your side, you probably won’t need that much processing power to begin with.
This scaled-down UA box is ideal for those who want to get in on the ground floor when it comes to top-notch audio conversion without breaking the bank. In fact, many of the features on this significantly less-expensive interface are quite similar to those on its more expensive sibling.
You get a Thunderbolt 3 connection that provides lighting-fast transfer speeds, leading-class audio conversion, two Unison mic preamps that deliver an incredibly balanced yet warm tone regardless of what you’re recording, and a trove of renowned onboard UAD plug-ins that will give you album-quality sonic results with minimal hassle.
The famed SOLO Core processor that drives this interface is also exceedingly fast, and you’ll be able to record through classic audio tools like the 610 Tube Preamp and an LA-2A compressor.