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 mediator 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…
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 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 it’s class.
Check out my comparison review of 2 cheap midi keyboard drumpads, the padKONTROL & MPD18!
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!
Let’s say you wanted to hook up a MIDI keyboard or a synthesizer to your rig. 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.