Audio Interfaces: The Definitive Guide (2021)

In this guide, you are going to learn exactly what an audio interface is, everything about it and how you can use it to make your recordings amazing.

With the information that you will learn here, you will be able to translate this to any audio interface in any studio around the world!

So if you love music and you want to better your craft, you will LOVE this guide.

Let’s dive right in!

Part 1 – What is an audio interface?

An audio interface is a device that allows you to connect microphones and other gear to your computer to listen or record.

It takes an analog signal (for example, a vocal recording through a microphone) and converts it into a digital recording that is stored on your computer via a DAW – digital audio workstation.

Any sound that you want to play from your computer, passes from the audio interface on to your studio monitors (or headphones) that is connected to the audio interface.

The audio interface is essentially the heart of any recording studio. No audio interface, no recordings.

What can an audio interface do?

To go into detail of what was said in the previous section, an audio interface can…

  • Record audio via a microphone and convert it into a digital sound recording
  • Record any instrument connected TRS cable or a similar cable
  • Record any instrument via MIDI
  • Record multiple devices at once via multiple outputs
  • Connect to another audio interface (advanced stuff & depends on the interface itself)
  • Playback sounds on one or more studio monitors and headphones at the same time

Do I need an audio interface?

If you want to take your recordings seriously, then you would need an audio interface.

Let me tell you a story…

I have an artist friend who was and still is serious about music.

When he was starting out, he thought that he could get a way with just recording on to a cheap sound program that he downloaded for for mac.

What’s worse is he ACTUALLY recorded into his laptop via a very cheap USB microphone with zero quality. Yikes.

Not only was his recordings not good, but no one took him seriously as an artist because he didn’t know what he was doing.

You can’t fake the funk… The only way to efficiently record audio from your voice to your computer is through an audio interface.

Your recordings and future songs will thank you later!

Sound card vs Audio Interface… whats the difference?

The sound card is the built-in audio that comes with your laptop or computer. Although built-in sound cards have definitely stepped up in quality over the years, there are some limitations with sound cards.

For example, most sound cards offer very little customization or configuration. Because of this, you may run into latency issues.

What is Latency in audio?

Latency is a delay in the the time it takes for your recording to be converted into a digital signal through your audio interface and then back out to your speakers or headphones for you to listen to.

When we record sounds or MIDI, we want to make sure there is little to no delay when recording. If there is too much delay, then this can throw off our performance.

The latency on some sound cards are definitely higher than an audio interface. This can create problems when recording professionally because now a lot of delay will be introduced which will affect our performance.

Because of these reasons and many more not listed, its always better to go with an audio interface every time.

An audio interface has excellent latency.

This allows you to record vocals or an instrument via regular recording or MIDI efficiently and fast. The latency is also customizable as well allowing you to get almost no latency when recording.

If you can imagine how that must feel like, just picture you playing a piano in real life. Notice how there is no delay… yeah audio interfaces can be that good.

Why is latency on an audio interface adjustable?

The reason why latency on an audio interface is adjustable is because of how CPU heavy working with audio is.

When you are mixing and/or recording audio, your CPU takes a hit. Now when you add on a lot of plugins to a group of vocals, your CPU starts to slow down because its processing all of this information in real time.

To remedy this, modern DAW’s allow you to adjust the buffer size (latency) of the audio interface.

You are probably asking “what is buffer size?”.

Buffer size is the amount of time needed for processing audio. It’s basically how we adjust the Latency from recording to computer and back out to our ears.

Let’s look at some good and bad of higher and lower buffer sizes:

A higher buffer size:

  • GOOD: Allows the CPU to take a break in processing audio as fast as possible.
  • GOOD: Allows you to add way more processing to various tracks.
  • BAD: recording audio or midi will introduce a lot of latency.
  • BAD: playback can be delayed in the beginning.

A higher buffer size is ideal for mixing and playback.

A lower buffer size

  • GOOD: Allows you to record midi and audio in real time.
  • BAD: Large CPU hit since the DAW is processing the audio as fast as possible.

A low buffer size is ideal for all kinds of recording applications.

Now that we have a good understanding of audio interfaces, let’s look into connecting things to it!

Part 2 – Connecting things an Audio Interface

Plugging into an audio interface

How to connect an audio interface to a computer

For the most part, in 2021 and beyond, you will be connecting your audio interface to your computer via these two common ways… Thunderbolt or USB.

Thunderbolt or USB?

If you are wondering, “whats faster? Thunderbolt or USB for audio interfaces” the answer is always Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt allows more data to come in which means that you can record more at a time without overloading. The good news is, USB is just fine enough to take care of your basic recording and it can still handle a lot.

Now lets begin connecting…

Let’s connect to our computer!

Let's connect to our audio interface to a computer

For this short tutorial, I assume you are using USB to connect to your computer.

All you will need to do is make sure the appropriate ends of the USB wire are connected to both the computer (or laptop) and the audio interface.

Most audio interfaces are plug and play, so if you load up your DAW and go to your audio settings, you should be able to see it there.

If you don’t see it, restart your DAW and/or computer. If you still don’t see it after doing this, then there may be software that you need to install. It should say it on the manual or on the box of the audio interface.

Now that you see the audio interface in your computer, select it and test it out by playing something at a low volume. Pro tip: Playing things at low volume is essential in the beginning so that you wont be started with any unforeseeable pops and clicks if there is an issue with your audio interface.

If you hear audio then you are good to go! Crank it up and celebrate!

If you aren’t hearing audio then that means that something went wrong. Consult the manual or help desk of the audio interface and you should be on your way in no time.

How do I connect a microphone to an Audio interface?

Connecting a microphone to an audio interface is super simple. All you will need is your microphone, an XLR cable and the audio interface its self.

connect a microphone to a audio interface - XLR Cable

Plug in the male side of the XLR cable into your microphone and then plug the other side into an available input slot on your audio interface. If your microphone requires it, turn on Phantom Power, load up your DAW, create a new audio track and you are done!

What about Guitar? How do I connect a guitar to an audio interface?

Connecting a guitar to an audio interface

Connecting a guitar or other similar instrument to an audio interface is similar to how you connect a microphone to an audio interface.

The only difference would be in the connection type.

Most guitars use a 1/4 inch (“Quarter Inch”) cable that connects from the guitar to an interface. Luckily, your interface will most likely support this connection.

Take a look at the inputs on your audio interface. If you look closely at the input where you connected your XLR cable, there should be a big hole in the middle. That is where your 1/4 inch cable goes!

Connect it, load up your DAW, create a new instrument track and test it out. Do you hear audio? If so, congrats! You successfully connected a guitar to your audio interface!

If you are having issues, consult the interface’s manual or help desk for help.

Do I need an audio interface if I have a USB mic?

No you don’t need an audio interface if you have a USB microphone but you may want to consider getting one anyways.

With a USB microphone you get everything thats in an audio interface inside a compact solution that only uses one wire – the USB end. Another good thing about USB microphones is that they are relatively cheaper than a regular microphone with an XLR input.

This may be appealing to a lot of beginning musicians and to be honest, it’s hard to beat that convenience.

RELATED: Best Microphones for Singing

The only problem with USB microphones is it’s lack of upgradability and flexibility. You are probably asking your self… “What does this mean?”. Let me explain…

The USB microphone you get is the one that you will be stuck with. Since most USB models have the USB wire stuck to the microphone, this means that if a cord rips or gets worn out you have to replace the whole USB microphone. Ouch. A regular condenser mic with an XLR wire just requires you to replace the wire itself if its damaged. Not the entire microphone.

Another problem is that the build quality of USB microphones are usually on the cheaper side. Replacing broken parts can be counter productive and quite frankly a nightmare if you don’t know what you are doing.

You will also suffer in the audio quality department as well. Regular condenser microphones (with the XLR connection type) are for the most part always better than a USB microphone. The professionals don’t use USB microphones.

The last problem is, as you probably already realized, is that you can not connect a USB microphone to an audio interface.

An audio interface with a separate condenser microphone is your best bet towards full flexibility and a professional sound. This combination can not be beat.

What are some good audio interfaces?

This isn’t an extensive list but right off the bat, we can touch on 3 interfaces that are excellent.

1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB Audio

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface is truly amazing for its price point and it gets the job done in an elegant way. Here are some quick features on it:

  • “Two of the best performing mic preamps the Scarlett range has ever seen, now with switchable air Mode to give your recordings a brighter and more open sound.”
  • “Two high-headroom instrument inputs to plug in your guitar or bass. Two balanced line inputs, suitable for connecting line-level sources”
  • “High-performance converters enable you to record and mix at up to 24-bit/ 192kHz”
  • “Quick start tool to get up and running easier than ever”

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2. Universal Audio Apollo Twin

The UAD Apollo Twin is an industry standard. Used in both home studios and professional settings, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, gets the job done. It’s truly a powerhouse and it features its own DSP. This means that it will take load off your computer and process audio through its own interface. Amazing.

Here are some other features:

  • “Desktop 2×6 Thunderbolt audio interface with world-class 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion”
  • “Real time UAD Processing for tracking through vintage Compressors, EQs, Tape Machines, Mic Preamps, and Guitar Amp plug-ins with near-zero (sub-2ms) latency”
  • “Unison technology offers stunning models of classic tube and transformer-based mic preamps”
  • “Runs UAD Powered Plug-Ins via Audio Units, VST, RTAS & AAX 64 in all major DAWs”

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Now It’s Time to Hear From You

We covered a lot today!

I hope that you gained some value from Audio Interfaces: The Definitive guide.

What interface will you be going with?

What was the most important thing you learned and how will this information improve your recordings?

USB microphone or condenser microphone?

Let me know by leaving a quick comment!

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