Sound Card? Mixing Board? Firewire? USB? What is an audio interface?

Plainly speaking, an audio interface is any device that gets audio into and out of your computer.

Audio interfaces can be PCI cards that you install inside your computer. They can be outboard devices that you connect to your computer via USB or Firewire, or they can be some combination of both.

Every computer comes with a built-in “sound card,” or audio interface. These are fine for playing email sounds or YouTube videos, but they’re hardly suitable for recording and playback.

For this reason, home studio owners buy an audio interface.

First Things First

Before you can start comparing this interface to that one, you need to know which type of interface your computer will accept. Take a minute to note what connections your computer has. This will be helpful when determining which direction you want to go. (Hint: PC users – You may have firewire and not know it. It will be labeled on your computer as “1394.” You can check it out here.)

The two easiest systems to use will be firewire or USB (and now Thunderbolt). The other option is a PCI card-based system. This will only work (of course) with desktop computers.

The Ultimate Question

While this may sound ridiculously simple. The main question you need to ask yourself when picking out an interface is “How many inputs and outputs do I need?”

Keep in mind that you don’t want to have to re-buy anything in two years, so think about future expandability as well. Don’t just jump into a little interface with only two microphone inputs if you are seriously thinking about recording a full drum kit in six months.

With this in mind, start perusing your options. There are a lot of reputable brands out there that make great interfaces.

While there are no hard and fast rules as to which interfaces you should pick, I’ve come up with some “quick picks.”

For Sonar on a PC:
•Anything from MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn)
•For a higher-end option, check out RME

For Cubase on a PC:
•Anything from PreSonus (Jars of Clay actually went on the road with one of Sweetwater’s Creation Station PCs, a PreSonus Firestudio, and Cubase recording the entire tour. Worked flawlessly.)
MOTU or RME would work well, too.

For Logic Studio on a Mac
Apogee – Some of the best-sounding interfaces out there (in my opinion)

For Digital Performer and Cubase on a Mac
•Pretty much all of the interfaces mentioned above.

*I’ve had good experiences with Edirol (especially on a PC) and Focusrite as well.

I Need More Inputs

You may have noticed that most interfaces max out and 8 microphone inputs. What if you want to put 12 mics on a drum kit?

Herein lies the beauty of expandability. You’ll notice a lot of interfaces have what’s called an ADAT optical input. This can be used to bring in eight more channels of audio. So if you have something like a PreSonus Firestudio, which has two ADAT inputs on the back, you can pump in an additional 16-channels into your existing system! This is done by using standalone 8-channel preamps with ADAT outputs on them. One of the most popular is the PreSonus DigimaxFS.

As I mentioned earlier, this is what Jars of Clay did on tour. They had one PreSonus Firestudio (8 mic inputs) and two DigimaxFS preamps (16 mic inputs) for a total of 24 microphone inputs running into Cubase!

Off to the Races…

You may be wanting someone to just say “get Product X,” but I don’t want to do that. For one thing, “Product X” may not be around in six months. My goal is to give you some tips for what to look for when buying an audio interface.

The market will change every six months, but the basic principles still apply.

  • Choose an interface with enough inputs and outputs to handle your present and future needs.
  • Find out which interfaces has a history of “playing nicely” with your DAW software and your computer platform (Mac or PC). I’ve listed some suggestions above for that.
  • Buy it and make some music!!
  • Fr

    Hi, i want to record my drum it has 12 channel, I work with sonar and I have laptop, my qustio is with usb2 on audio interface can I record 12 channel drum recording without any issue ?

    • There are lots of variables at play, but yes, people record 12 tracks all the time.

  • Baki Korg

    Hello everyone im from Macedonia and sorry about my english i dont know very much. So i want to buy one Sound Card For Studio Recording and i want a nice quality i think about Steinberg UR242 , UR44 and Roland Quad Capture 55 so who ist best from this sound card’s ? I need help …. Thank’s

    • Hi Baki,

      I recommend contacting Sweetwater.com They sell these things and can help you figure out what’s best for you.
      Good luck!

      joe

  • Simon Cosham

    Hi. I want to record my Roland Fantom 8 through my Saffire Pro 24 Dsp and into my PC. Is this easy to route/configure? Cheers

    • Yup. Just run a couple cables from the fantom to the interface.

  • Nicky De Korte

    Hello, I hope you can help me.
    I want to record my drum and was planning to buy a fame mic set. with 5 mics and 2 overheads.

    NOTE: In dont have unlimited money… i want to make it low budget.

    I am looking for an audio interface and see so many different ones… i just dont know where to start…
    Do you know a cheap audio interface with maybe 4 inputs? i dont mind sharing some mics on the inputs.

    Thanks a lot 😀

    • Check out Presonus. They several different options. Highly recommended.

      Joe

  • dan

    Hi,i want to record my electric guitar and vocal in good quality,is the tascam us144mkii good for this goal?

    • J van Steijn

      Take a look at the audient ID22, direct input for bass or guitar and high class pre-amps.

  • Ivan

    how can i use the M-TRUCK external sound card and connect it to the Keyboard using MIDI Cables and the mixer using Logic Software?

  • Disqusid123

    Joe,
    Thanks for the great articles. Help me with your quick-pick pairings above (DAWs and interfaces). I don’t see any for your preferred DAWS:
    Studio One (PreSonus)
    Pro Tools (Avid)
    Are these DAWs so closely intergrated with their manufacturer’s interfaces that using any other would make no sense? And if that’s the case, is the hardware good enough to support a decision based on the DAW?
    Looking for the right combo,
    Thanks,
    David

    • Y’know, when I first wrote this years ago, things were a bit different. Now, you could literally use almost any interface with any software.

      • Disqusid123

        Okay. That actually makes sense. Thanks for the quick reply. I notice you are very diligent to respnd to mosts posts/questions. That’s rare on sites like this. Your info and input is appreciated.
        Thanks,
        David

        • Thanks David. I’ve not always been so great at responding, but if you’re taking the time to read the site and leave a comment, I don’t wanna leave ya hangin.

  • Yasir Al-Alusi

    first i won’t to say thank for all information , and i won’t to apologise if i repeat the question, my Q. is i can use a mixer with audio interface instead of using one interface with multy input.
    Is that butter ….? & give me a multiple choice, option, for input
    Thank you …..

    • A mixer really doesn’t help all that much. It just means extra cables, and sometimes extra noise. I tend to like simple solutions, so I like to plug mics directly into audio interfaces, directly into the computer.

  • Phil

    Is the M-Audio AudioBuddy a Dual Mic Preamp/Direct Box a audio interface? And what cable would I need to connect it to a MacBook Pro?

    • I think it’s just a preamp. You still need an audio interface.

  • Mike

    the last pic at the end looks like you are saying the closing prayer. Anyway, your site has been a blessing for me.

    Mike

  • TheNewNoob

    Would I need a Audio Interface if I were to use Ableton Live 9 ?
    The MIDI keyboard that I’m using is Akai MPK49. I have AMD High Definition Audio Device and Realtek High Definition Audio. I’m planning on making hardstyle tracks so yeah.

    • I’m not sure I understand your question. I dont’ know what AMD High Definition Audio is.

      • Ben

        AMD High Definition Audio is the built-in sound on a Windows machine that has an AMD processor.
        At the very least TheNewNoob should try a free driver for his built-in sound card called ASIO4All. If it works, great. If not, then it’s time to look at an interface.

  • swilkerson

    I have both Nuendo 1.5 and Presonus Studio One Programs in my Windows Xp Desktop PC and I’m having the same problem with both programs. When I’m doing playback my CPU is normal but my Disc meter will slowly climb all the way up to red and music will drop out. I just rebuilt the entire computer with all new parts but I did not replace my M-Audio Delta 1010 Interface & PCI Sound Card. Studio is completely unoperatable at this point. Any suggestions on my crisis? swilkerson4@yahoo.com

    • Are you using a dedicated hard drive for recording? If you’re recording to your computer’s hard drive, you’ll run into that problem.

  • Logan

    Ok so I got a toshiba laptop and a presonus interface but it will not work. I mean that it won’t show any sound being recorded. I have checked all the control panel stuff bit it won’t work. Any ideas?

    • I’d call tech support. Could be any number of things. Good luck!

  • Zach Estela

    Hi Joe,

    I’m thinking about an interface and I have narrowed it down to the MOTU 4pre ($450) or the Presonus Audiobox 44VSL($300). I want the flexibility of 4 inputs to be able to record drums somewhat adequately. Also, Ive been recording on shitty gear for years and want something that really sounds quite pro- I’ve heard the MOTU is more high end as far as latency, ADA, etc.
    Do you think the difference of $150 is worth the supposed difference in quality between the motu and the audiobox 44? (Also – i am happy with using Ableton live on my macbook pro with 16gb ram so I couldnt care less about any bundled recording software.)

    Thanks a million!

    Zach

    http://www.soundcloud.com/flowersinspace

  • LOVEES

    hey bro i want to make smaalllll home studio with Focusrite Saffire 6 Award Winning USB Audio Interface , Rode Microphones NT1A Condenser Microphone Bundle
    , pc , shure headphones ,any to make more comfrt as biganner and is FOCUSRITE SAFFIRE 6 is use in fl studio

  • gira

    Hi! I’m planning on buying a Shure SM57 and an audio interface. So far I’ve got REAPER as DAW, Windows 7, desktop computer, valve amp. WHat’s the best Audio Interface I can get for a budget price?

    • I really like the Presonus stuff. You can get one of their smaller AudioBox’s for around $200, and it comes with their Studio One recording software, which normally sells for $100-200 I think.

  • Edrich Swart

    Hi I’m still new to the basic setup of have a home recording studio that I want to use for my own needs. Is it possible for me to connect my roland duo capture interface with my proel m500usb mixer so I can have more channels to record on pro tools 9?

    • Sorry, I don’t know those specific pieces of gear.

  • Krazeboi10

     would the MOTU Audio Express work as agood interface I only use one mic

    • Never used it.

      • Krazeboi10

        2 questions, Do you have any that you reccomend, and if I have an interface do i still need a mixer?

        • I love Presonus interfaces. That’s what I use.

          No you don’t need a mixer.

  • Great article! Thanks! I was never too sure what the S/PDIF was for. Interestingly, I have the RCA-type and optical, both say S/PDIF in/out. A quick internet search just confirmed it is indeed optical S/PDIF (E-MU 0404 USB interface).

    I really appreciate the write up … now I have to buy some more pre-amps!

  • Henry

    hi, i want to buy a usb audio interface which has at least 1 adat input what should i get. btw i use cubase

  • What is the studio standard for recording in audio interface.For example my motu has 96 kHz recording and I look up the RME has 192 kHz sample rate?
    Which one is better for bedroom producer and CD releases?

    • Neither. I record everything at 44.1 kHz.

  • jahblesser

    the articles are great,ty very much…i’ve learned alot..but what about ableton with mac interface?..?hope you’ll answer me

    • Great option. Did you have a specific question about it? I’ve not used Abelton, but it’s a great piece of software. Go for it!

    • motu,rme or focusrite for ableton on mac.

  • usb2.0 or firewire 400/800 better and why?

  • Nick B

    I wanted to use the Octopre MkII in combination with the Saffire Pro 40 for 16 simultaneous tracks.

    Would I be able to expand further an additional 8 tracks with another Saffire Pro 40 via ADAT?

    if not, what piece of gear would I need to achieve 24 simultaneous tracks?

    • I *think the SaffirePro40 will allow for 24 simultaneous inputs, but I’m not entirely sure. If it has two sets of ADAT inputs, then the answer is likely yes.

      • Nick B

        I ended up emailing focusrite and they cleared it up with this response.. In case anyone else wondered too.. Here it is:

        As the Pro 40 only has one adat port you wouldn’t be able to connect another Pro 40 via adat. You could however use another Pro 40 connected via firewire through the first pro 40, and so use the units in dual unit mode. You could then connect the octopre to either of the Pro 40’s via adat to achieve 24 analogue inputs.

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  • Rob

    Does anyone have an opinion on M-Audio? I’m using the Firewire 410 that I bought about 5 years ago. I heard that it makes the sound stuffy, and I feel like all of my work has that nasty characteristic.

    I’m using Protools M-Powered, so I’d have to upgrade my DAW if I got a new interface. That’s not a problem, I’d be willing to go with and LE or HD system if I got good value out of the upgrade.

  • Arthur

    Thanks for you answer. Last question 🙂 What is better, the Onyx 1640 (16ch) with protools M powered or digi003+protools software (not the M powered) and aditional analogs preamps (like API, etc) Also, does digi003 have preamp? if yes,is it better than the Onyx 1640? I am sorry for so many questions, but since there is very few differences between the two softwares (protools and protools M Powered)I was wondering if one would be better off having a non digi003 interface, like Onyx 1640 where you have 16 ch + its own preamp + EQ. But I could be missing something too. Thanks,
    Arthur

  • Arthur

    Is it possible to connect the Onyx1640 to a digi 003 via firewire and have the 16 ch from Onyx sent to the digi so I woul get 8 ch from digi + 16 from Onyx? If not what is better to have, the Onyx 1640 and the Pro tools M-powered or the Digi003 + and 8 adat channels, so I could have 16 total? Thanks,

    • Nope, you can’t add anything to the 003 to increase inputs, aside from maxing out your digital inputs (optical and S/PDIF). It maxes out at 8 analog inputs, 8 inputs via ADAT, and 2 inputs via S/PDIF.

  • Preshan

    Probably a dumb question, but if you hook up an 8-channel pre like a Digimax to an ADAT port on an interface, will the inputs into it record as separate tracks in your DAW? E.g. if I'm recording 4 XLR ins on my interface and 8 XLR ins from the Digimax simultaneously, will I get 12 separate tracks running into the DAW?

    • That's exactly right. (and not a dumb question at all!)

  • Lauvring

    If you buy a Digidesign Digi 003 Rack, would it be possible to use it with other DAWs than Pro Tools? Also, how does Pro Tools work with their audio interface latency-wise? Would it be possible to use Pro Tools and the interface as an digital mixer so a band of five people could mic up their instruments, run them into Pro Tools, do a little mixing and then send a different mix out to individual headphones without notable latency?

    • Yes, you can use the 003 with other DAW software. No, it won't work as
      a standalone mixer, but you COULD use it with Pro Tools as a pseudo-
      live mixer.

  • Hey Joe:
    Have you had a chance to check out the Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP? I’m debating that vs the Apogee Duet- for $100 less the new Saffire has the DSP that can be used on the way into the DAW plus has ADAT in which would let me use my MOTU 8pre ins…

    Any secrets to getting a big discount from my Sweetwater guy (Bob Mondok) 😉

    Tom

    • I’ve not used the Saffire PRO, but it seems like you can’t really compare that to a Duet. They’re not really that similar. The Ensemble would be a more fair comparison.

      As far as discounts go, I don’t know why anybody would want a discount from Sweetwater, especially a nice guy like Bob. They offer SO MUCH MORE than you would EVER get from any other music retailer. All that great service costs money. That money is called “full price.” 🙂

      • Yeah- for my budget the Ensembles’s not a player- just wondering if the ‘cheaper’ Focusrite unit with more ‘features’ would be a bad choice when for $100 I could have the ‘style’ of the Duet on my desk- any comparison on the preamps?

        Discounts. We don’t need no stinkin’ discounts… actually you’re exactly right- Sweetwater service is the reason I didn’t redeem a 20% coupon from musicians friend last month… would have saved $80 on the Focusrite unit, but I’m better off buying from Bob!

  • James Dunne

    I would like to attest to the reliability and usability of the EDIROL UA-1000 interface on the PC side. It is by far the best investment I’ve made in my make-shift home studio. I’ve never had any issues with it in the 3 years or so I’ve had it. I cannot compare it to any other high-quality interfaces since it’s been the only one I’ve had experience with outside the consumer-level Sound Blaster and its ilk. However, I do have this lurking feeling in the back of my mind that it may be holding back my recording quality from reaching that final plateau. It’s still very reliable, flexible, powerful, usable, and sounds great (or good enough) to me.

    • Yup. I’ve always found Edirol to be rock solid.

  • I’d also like to mention the Mackie Onyx Satellite firewire interface (http://www.mackie.com/products/satellite/index.html). The two superb preamps (http://www.mackie.com/technology/preamps.html) alone would cost more than the Satellite itself, (it’s only $200), and it has a base station that allows 5.1 output. The input section pops out (don’t ever do that when it’s on – that should be written all over the box, lol, you can brick it that way) for mobile recording, offering two ins and outs. I can’t say enough how much the Satellite has improved the sound coming into my computer…a definite major upgrade from the Behringer FCA 202 I used previously. This also saves you the trouble of buying good preamps or line boxes to get the sound up while still sounding great. I have a buddy who I talked into getting one and he only uses Garage Band and gets a really top notch level of clarity and power in his guitar and vocal recordings.

  • Alex

    Thanks for the info, just wondering also would these be eligible for adding extra microphones and if so are these controlled by the pre amps on the 003 or if you’re using a different interface the pre amps on that.

    • Ah…sorry, forgot about that. You would most likely get something like the Digimax D8 or Digimax FS from PreSonus. These are 8-channel preamps with ADAT outputs. You wouldn’t control the preamps from the 003, but they would feed into Pro Tools via the 003.

  • Alex

    Hi i was reading this and i saw that you mentioned that it was possible to increase the number of inputs available by means of using an ADAT, i was just wondering whether you could do this in pro tools as well and how one would go about doing this any help would be much appreciated.

    • Hi Alex. You can get extra inputs into Pro Tools with ADAT. It really doesn’t matter what software you’re using. It depends on the interface. For example, I have a Digidesign 003, which has one set of ADAT ports on it. This allows me to get 8 additional channels of inputs and outputs.

  • Jesse Alday

    first off, thank you so much for posting this, i am very interested in starting my own studio and i have had a ton of questions that you have answered for me.
    but i do have one that you didnt mention……as far as the audio interface is concerned, when it comes to micing a drum kit, is it possible to plug a kit into a board (10-15 mics) and then plug the board into the interface (with one cord i am assuming?)? i am very unsure about all of this.

    thanks.

    • Hi Jesse. You “can” record a drum kit that way, but you really would be missing the whole point (and beauty) of multi-track recording. If you record the entire drum kit through a mixer, then whatever mix you have on the mixer will get recorded, and you won’t be able to make any changes to each individual element of the drum kit. For example, you couldn’t turn up the snare or EQ the kick, since they weren’t each recorded to their own track. Ideally you’ll have an interface that can accommodate 8-16 inputs, then go from there.

  • Abraham

    Aw man…. I want an apogee so bad.
    I got a firebox back when it was $600. i was thinking about selling it for and apogee, but alas, I will lose too much money, and the firebox works so well

    • The Firebox is a pretty solid unit, I must agree.

      • Jewel Rana

        How is M-Audio fast track pro and PreSonus firestudio project..?????