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Your Audio interface

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This may perhaps be the most important component of your studio outside of the computer itself. A good interface is priceless and will be the backbone of your whole rig. These powerful little boxes serve a few different purposes. First and foremost, they are sound cards. What is a Soundcard? They allow your computer to send and receive audio data from the outside world. They act as mediators between the analog (outside) and digital (computer) worlds. A good interface should have 3 things:

  • A/D converters, which takes the analog electrical input signal and converts it into a digital form that your computer can grasp.
  • Microphone preamps, to take the weak microphone signal and boost it to a higher level.
  • Phantom Power, to provide your condenser microphone with enough power supply required to function. Condenser mic vs. Dynamic mic.

If you want to hook up a synthesizer or MIDI keyboard, there are some interface models that have those inputs as well. (I will cover the topic of MIDI a little more in-depth later.) Most nowadays come equipped with USB/Firewire capability and are a breeze to set up. They will be packaged with software and an instruction manual. Just pop in the CD, complete the steps, and you are good to go! What is MIDI?


Let me digress for a second…

Out with the old, in with the new.

A lot of people when they are first starting out, also like to be able to physically turn knobs and adjust faders and stuff. I have never

been that guy, but if I had to recommend something, I would go with a control surface. It gives you all the functionality of a mixer, without actually being a mixer. The nanoKONTROL 2 is perfect for this scenario. Why do you ask? It’s affordable, has great reviews, and I absolutely love Korg products. They are durable, easy to use, and won’t break the bank. I still have my padKONTROL from 2007, (I have the white one as pictured above in my studio) and it STILL outshines nearly everything in its class.

Check out my comparison review of 2 cheap midi keyboard drumpads, the padKONTROL & MPD18!

Here’s the new pad in matte black!

I had a white one from 2007 that lasted until 2015. It still worked but the knob got damaged on an intercontinental flight.


When it comes down to actually choosing the right interface for you, there are a few factors to consider: How many microphone preamp inputs do you need? Meaning, how many tracks do you want to record at one time? If you are an emcee looking to lay down some vocals on a sick ass beat, you really only need a couple (most come with 2). If you want to record yourself playing guitar, again only 1 or 2. In my case, I needed 2 line outputs to power my studio monitors and a couple of mic inputs just in case I get the urge to record some vocals. What are Studio Monitors? I ended up going with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 after much research, and I’ve never been happier. This little man is an absolute BEAST! The build construction is rock solid, it’s a breeze to set up, and it looks amazing in my studio.

Check out my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 review!

Chillin’ in studio

Let’s say you wanted to hook up a MIDI keyboard or a synthesizer to your rig. What is MIDI? It’s understandable, sometimes you just gotta bang out that sick piano riff. Go with the Scarlett 2i4, as it has MIDI inputs on the back. Just remember though, you will need TWO midi cables to power one keyboard or synth. Two wires must run from the back of your synth to the back of your interface.

 A quick note about direct boxes…

For recording guitar sounds as mentioned above, an alternative to actually having expensive AMPS and miking them would be to buy a direct box. The concept is simple: You run a 1/4″ instrument cable from your guitar (or bass) to the input of the direct box. Then, you would use an XLR cable from the output of the box into the microphone preamp input on the front of your audio interface.

In a nutshell though, your direct box provides a more accurate signal transfer by electrically mimicking the input circuit from a standard guitar amplifier. In other words, it boosts the quality of your sound and takes the microphone out of the equation.


To finish the discussion on audio interfaces, there are a few more options you may want to consider. Let’s face it, at the end of the day we are still consumers. Our mouths water at the prospect of incorporating a new toy into our studio space.

The Bottom Line..

Know exactly what your requirements are before buying. These units are all under $300, come equipped with what you need (A/D converters, Mic preamps, and Phantom power), and all have MIDI capability (exception being the 2i2), as well as balanced line output.  Also a word of advice: Make sure you aren’t trying to use a brand new unit with old technology. This cannot be understated. You will be in for a world of headache when dealing with all the driver and connectivity issues. Take it from a person (me) who has been there before. It’s super important to make sure that you have a good core (your computer) before buying a ton of gear.

Continue to your recording software>

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10 comments

middleWave May 22, 2016 - 3:20 pm

on your headphone amps page, you linked to this page, suggesting that a soundcard would suffice as a headphone amp. is this true? i am looking at getting the 880s and the Focusrite 6i6. thanks!

Reply
Stu May 23, 2016 - 3:07 am

Hey man!

The 6i6 sounds best driving headphones with 32-45 Ohms. It can safely drive 75-100 Ohms, but anything beyond that and you will have to invest in a headphone amp. I recommend the Magni/Modi combo. But also keep in mind the DT880’s come in 3 different impedance levels: 32 Ohm, 250 Ohm, and 600 Ohm. So yeah if you bought the 32 Ohm version, you could get away with just using the 6i6. But if you ever plan on having higher impedance cans, you will need an amp.

Can you refer me to specifically what article I mentioned that? I’m reading How to choose a headphone amp and don’t see anything.. Please let me know. I would say that there are times when a soundcard suffices as a headphone amp. In the case of my Audio Technica ATH M50’s, my 2i2 works because it can handle the impedance level (38 Ohms), but when you get into higher impedances, I would steer clear of using an interface/soundcard as an amp solution.

Hope to hear back from you!
-Stu

Reply
Ben May 16, 2017 - 6:29 am

Hi Stu. Your comments remind me of a good friend of mine. Thanks for the help you provided. I want to get in touch with you. I have a couple of questions but I will like to ask them directly to you, Stu. What is your email address? I neither have Facebook nor Twitter. Only Gmail and WhatsApp. Please allow me to reach you. Thanks.

Reply
Stu May 17, 2017 - 2:33 am

Hey Benn, thanks for stopping by! You can Contact me here. Looking forward to talking with you.
-Stu

Reply
Chriss October 26, 2017 - 6:37 pm

I only need an interface to plug my yamaha hs7 monitors in, no mic or midi. I just want to have the most out of the speakers in terms of digital to analog conversion. Should I go for the focurite solo?(An additional question: Can an interface can improve export quality?) Thanks in advance?!

Reply
Stuart Charles Black October 27, 2017 - 3:14 pm

Hey Chris!

I went with the 2i2 as it has balanced line outputs on the back as opposed to the Solo which has RCA. I personally prefer TRS but that’s just me. As for your question, no. The quality of your file depends entirely on RAM, your software, your CPU, etc. For example, I could mix down a track on my laptop + the built in soundcard and it will come out the same way as if I used a separate interface or soundcard. Now, the mix may not be as good, but that’s a separate issue, and is why we use interfaces. 😛 The interface just basically allows you to hear the mix better as you’re working.

Any other questions let me know!!

Blessings
-Stu

Reply
Dubadub April 29, 2019 - 6:57 pm

Hi Stu,

Thank you for all the work you are doing for us. Appreciated!

Say, almost everyone recommends “the red or the blue” as a starting audio interface. After I checked these in store I wasn’t impressed — they are lightweight and get bus power only. (on a very reputable mic manufacturer site, they recommend for phantom power plugging the interface in the wall socket.)

My needs are to power a condenser mic (or two, dammit) and to be able to use soft synths and effects with an usb controller and then, some listening and mixing.

After a lot of research in the $0 — $300 range, I’m thinking about getting Audient iD4 or Zoom 24. The other options would be Roland Rubix, SteinBerg (those are heavy) and NI Komplete 6 (this one is also bus powered only). Many people complain about bad drivers and I am running Win 7.

So, what are your thoughts?

Does S/PDIF do the same job as ADAT (powering more mics) or not? Thinking about the difference between Audient iD14 and Komplete Audio 6.

What is the trick that Focusrite exploits to make it so popular? It is annoying somehow.

Greetz, D.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black May 1, 2019 - 2:35 pm

Hey man!

Thanks for the love!

From my understanding S/PDIF does carry 2 channels of audio while ADAT can support up to 8! So I think an interface with ADAT would be extremely valuable as you could add channels as need be. I don’t know if you even need all that. I certainly don’t, lol. I have the Scarlett 2i2 and even that’s overkill with the 2 combo inputs on the front (TRS/XLR). It does afford me some flexibility though as I can plug an instrument via TS cable or my mic via XLR which is what I normally use it for in addition to powering my studio monitors.

If you just need to power a mic or 2, then the 2i2 is great for that. The Audient id14 will also work for that as well.

Let me know if you have any other questions. I hope I’ve helped out in some way.

-Stu

Reply
Dubadub June 7, 2019 - 5:08 pm

Hey Stu, thank you for the quick reply! Yep, you helped a lot. I decided on zoom u-22 for several reasons: small form factor, power and connection flexibility. It’s not perfect though, it has noticeable hiss with a condenser mic. But I expected that (hence the price) and I am happy to have it and to work with it, rather than still lurking around. It’s a great little device (or a backup one) for traveling and I can practice with an electric guitar (bass) and just my headphones, no wall socket required.
Thanks again for all the useful info on this blog!

Reply
Stuart Charles Black June 10, 2019 - 6:55 pm

Thanks so much for following up. 🙂 Glad you’re liking the device! Please let me know if you ever need help in the future. Would you mind if I added you to my email list? It’s mostly content updates and giveaways. Let me know!

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