Whether you’re a musician, looking to upgrade your streaming rig, or starting a podcast, you need an audio interface. But what are they, what do they do, and what features should you be looking for when you buy one?
What Is an Audio Interface?
The term “audio interface” may sound technical and intimidating, but it’s essentially an extra powerful version of a computer sound card. It has two main functions: record audio signals into your computer and play audio from your computer. Okay, it gets slightly more complicated, but this is effectively all an audio interface is.
The vast majority of audio interfaces are external these days, connecting to your computer the same way you’d connect any other peripherals. Many audio interfaces connect via USB (most often USB-C), but you’ll also find interfaces that connect via Thunderbolt or Firewire.
While an audio interface is a single box, it contains multiple sections. Plug an XLR microphone into one of the XLR inputs and the signal heads to a built-in preamp. This is necessary because the level from a microphone is very quiet.
From the preamp, the signal from your microphone goes through an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to convert it into a format that your computer can understand. From here, you can record the signal into a digital audio workstation, or use it for voiceover on a Twitch stream.
That takes care of getting audio signals into the computer, but what about the other way around? It’s very similar to getting signals in, only in reverse. In this case, any audio coming from your computer goes through a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to convert it back into an analog electronic signal that you can send to speakers or headphones.
All you need to do is plug headphones in or plug speakers in, and you can hear everything you recorded coming back out of the computer.
Why Get an Audio Interface?
When it comes to audio interfaces, sound quality is paramount. This is largely determined by the quality of the preamps and the converters. That said, the sample rate and bit depth you’re recording at have plenty to do with it.
With bit depth, you typically see 24-bit used in most audio interfaces. This is higher than CD-quality audio, which is 16-bit. The sample rate is more complex, but basically, the higher the number, the higher the sound quality.
Most modern music projects typically use 24-bit / 96 kHz as the default sample rate and bit depth. Podcasts and videos typically stick with 48 kHz as the sample rate. Many audio interfaces feature all the way up to 24-bit / 192 kHz, but this is overkill in most cases.
Looking more at the features of an audio interface, controls and metering are a big part of it. Having dedicated controls for the level of each audio input and being able to make sure you’re not recording too loud or too quiet is useful. Most audio interfaces at least show you if you’re recording too loudly.
Many microphones don’t require any sort of power supply. That said, some microphones like condenser microphones, which are frequently used in recording music, require an external power source. Instead of needing to plug in a cable, these use phantom power, which sends a small amount of power from the interface over the XLR cable. Most modern audio interfaces support phantom power.
Even with a very fast computer, it’s tough to send a signal from a mic or instrument through the interface, into your computer, then back out to your speakers without a slight delay. This is known as latency.
Though not all audio interfaces have this feature, many let you listen to inputs directly, before they get sent into and out of the computer. Interface manufacturers typically refer to this as direct monitoring or zero-latency monitoring.
Finally, many interfaces include MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) to use software instruments and sequence external synthesizers, but that’s somewhat beyond the scope of this article.
Alternatives to an Audio Interface
If you’re working on any project from music to video where sound quality and flexibility are important, an audio interface is often your best bet. That said, it’s not your only option. In some cases, it may not even be your best option.
For example, if you stream to Twitch every now and then and just want a basic mic that is slightly better than your headset mic, you don’t need an expensive mic and audio interface. For this basic use case, a like the JBL Quantum STREAM is often a better choice than an XLR microphone and interface.
JBL Quantum Stream
This microphone is a great option for streamers. It has excellent quality in cardioid mode and features handy mounts and attractive LED lighting.
If you’re frequently making recordings on the go, you may find a computer and audio interface too bulky to carry. For this type of use case, a quality portable recorder.
What Should You Look For in an Audio Interface?
The most important thing to consider when you’re shopping for an audio interface is how you’re going to connect it to your computer, because this may limit your choices. For example, you’ll have much more choice when looking at USB interfaces than looking at Thunderbolt interfaces.
After that, you need to think about the bit depth and sample rate you’ll be using, though if you’re not sure, just make sure it’s at least 16-bit / 96 kHz. Then, you need to think about how many mic inputs use need and whether you want instrument inputs, MIDI connectivity, and other options.
If you’re thinking about podcasting specifically, you can now get interfaces just for that purpose. Interfaces like Focusrite’s Vocaster One and Vocaster Two are tailored specifically to podcasting production, complete with inputs labeled “host” and “guest.”
Focusrite Vocaster Two
The Focusrite Vocaster Two puts easy to use controls front and center, which is just a part of what makes this great for podcasting. The flexible input routing goes a long way toward making relatively complex productions easy.
Finally, if you think you may scale up down the road, don’t buy simply what you need now. You may only have two hosts on your podcast, but if you want to have a few guests or do interviews, some extra microphone inputs will be nice to have.
If you really want to future-proof, or you’re looking to record live musicians, you’ll want more inputs. The Universal Audio Volt 476P features four inputs, vintage preamp modeling, and even built-in compression to make your recordings sound great right out of the box.