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!!