Audio interfaces are a necessary tool for any producer looking to create studio-quality sound. Whether you're just starting out or you're an established pro, it is important to know the interface's capabilities and limitations.
This blog post will cover the basics of what makes up an audio interface, what their common features are, and how they can help take your production skills to the next level.
Do You Need An Audio Interface? What Does It Do?
As for the question of whether or not you do need an audio interface, it really depends on what kind of music you're making. There are several things to consider when deciding if you need one.
If you do use a microphone, do you do most of your recording while connected to the computer by USB? If so, then you may not actually need an audio interface. Most built-in soundcards will do a decent job at recording.
You may fall into buying an audio interface in two main ways:
- You won't be able to record multiple channels simultaneously via a single USB, so if your computer has one soundcard with connection port restriction you won't be able to do much recording at all.
- Build-in soundcard probably not going to have physical knobs on them as a separate interface would. They are bad and you need a lot of professional corrections.
In the end, if you do most of your work only require a USB port then it's probably not worth getting an audio interface at all. If you do not and want to record multiple channels at once - such as live recording, live stream - or do your processing externally with plugins then you probably do need an interface.
What Exactly Does An Audio Interface Do?
Whether you're working on your first song or tenth, you'll need to know what an audio interface is and do for your production. An audio interface (also known as audio I/O) gives you the ability to record and playback sound with whatever software instruments or soft synths you use.
Audio interfaces are very diverse. They can do almost everything from simply capturing a signal to providing you with an array of effects and plugins that will make your recordings sound professional out-of-the-box, right on your computer.
The convenient point I always repeat is that it can connect many channels of audio signals such as microphones, guitars, and musical instruments through MIDI.
An audio interface works by converting the analog signals from your instruments or microphone into digital signals that can be interpreted by computers, and vice versa. When you record using an audio interface, your computer essentially records a digital copy of what you do as an audio file. When you play back with an interface, it converts the audio files back into analog signals to be played through your monitors or headphones.
The same is true for MIDI instruments, which receive instructions as digital signals that inform them how to do their job and output their movements back to you as audible tones.
The difference when using a set of audio interfaces is the way in which the audio is treated. The most significant difference is that you do all of your processing externally instead of what's done inside the computer's software. You do this by connecting a physical set of inputs (from your sources) to one or more physical outputs (into your monitors, headphones, and other processing equipment).
Other than that, the only other differences are in the various ways you control your individual audio outputs such as monitoring, EQ, effects, and level.
The sound you hear out of your monitors or headphones will be exactly what goes into your recording, with no difference. This is called a "transparent" interface and is commonly found in high-end interfaces like those from Focusrite and Apogee, which make the sound they process better.
Another common feature among audio interfaces is a physical gain knob/control knob, which allows you to do fine-tuning on the volume of your tracks as well as making sure the levels coming in are at an optimal level for recording. This control system is especially useful because it gives you much more control than your computer's volume mixer.
And most audio interfaces are equipped with phantom power and its benefits are not small for recording.
How Many Types Of Audio Interfaces Are There?
There are four main types of audio interfaces today: Thunderbolt, USB, Firewire, and PCIe. Each has its own benefits and does the same basic job, but does not act the same. First of all, we will summarize them:
USB - Not a strange interface for high-speed transfers between devices, there are many types of peripherals for computers that can utilize the USB format. You can operate USB devices pretty easily. It only takes a few minutes to get your audio interface up and running when you connect it to an available port on your computer. The most convenient audio interface for most producers is USB. Consider getting an audio interface with USB 3.0. Nowadays, you can find shops offering cheap 2.0 audio interfaces in order to get rid of their old stock. You should make sure that your device has the fastest USB connection available since USB 3.0 is much faster than USB 2.0.
Thunderbolt - Thunderbolt is a fairly new interface that gives you very fast transfer speeds as well as peer-to-peer connections (connections between two devices). Its main benefit is its speed, especially when transferring large amounts of data. Arguably the best type of audio interface standard, The thunderbolt audio interface is said to almost eliminate the concept of latency.
Firewire - As a result of Firewire's smaller bandwidth and lower latency, it is a better choice for streaming audio data than USB. Adding more units to a Firewire audio interface increases its inputs and outputs as well. It is also prudent to use Firewire audio interfaces with a little care. Firewire cables should only be connected after the computer has been powered up. If you hot-plug an audio interface with Firewire, the interface may be damaged. Computers, however, are less likely to use this connection. Therefore, you'll need to make sure the audio interface you choose is compatible with the ports your computer accepts. Firewire 800 and Firewire 400 are the two types of Firewire.
PCIe - PCIe audio interfaces do not require that you install a driver on your computer to operate. Audio interfaces of this type do not connect via USB or Firewire; instead, they are connected directly from the data bus in your computer. With the development of technology they quickly become obsolete.
Thunderbolt Vs USB Audio Interface
Thunderbolt and USB interfaces differ purely in terms of technology. In essence, they do the same job. In reality, Thunderbolt has higher bandwidth and lower latency than USB 3.0. The difference can be up to 8 times compared to the USB audio interface.
The only weakness of the Thunderbolt audio interface lies in its overall cost. The lowest version we know of costs around $500 and for the higher end, they go up to $5000.
The audio interface is the first and foremost piece of equipment you need to produce high-quality sound.
We hope that this article has given you a better understanding of how they work, as well as some insights into what features are available in different interfaces and why it's important for producers to know their capabilities and limitations.
Be sure to check out our list of top picks if you want more information on specific models or brands!