Audio interfaces are amazing inventions, they allow users to plug in microphones and instruments and record to one of the many digital audio workstation software packages available. Perhaps the idea of you recording some tracks that you’re written, or putting out some music with your band is quite scary because studios are quite expensive right?
The technology has advanced to a point where it has become incredibly easy for us to gain access to studio quality equipment that we can use in our own homes and get the same results.
If you are setting up a home studio an audio interface is an essential piece of gear. The audio interface is the brain of the operation and will convert your analog signals into digital information.
Audio interfaces are typically connected to a computer or laptop via a USB cable. You may also find some manufacturers offer a Firewire, Thunderbolt or PCI Card option. Firewire and Thunderbolt connections are not as common and PCI cards are only really recommended if you are leaving this set up all the time, for instance, in a commercial studio.
USB interfaces come in a range of sizes from 2 inputs to 24 inputs. The advantage to USB is that it is widely compatible with most computers/laptops and the smaller interfaces are very portable meaning you can take your studio anywhere in the world with you.
Let’s look at 10 great and affordable audio interfaces that you can use to start recording today.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Focusrite are one of the market leaders for USB interfaces and their Scarlett range offers incredible quality at a price that won’t break the bank. The 2i2 runs at 24bit/192kHz so is capable of full studio quality sound and it’s small enough to fit in the front pocket of a laptop bag.
Portable audio interfaces like this are small enough to fit into any bag and can be used to make music anywhere, anytime.
The unit has 2 combi ports on the front which double as XLR ports and ¼” jack ports, and it has 2 ¼” jack outputs on the rear for connecting to a set of studio monitors. It also has a headphone jack on the front for those late night mixing sessions on tour in the hotel room.
The unit is totally USB powered meaning you only need to carry it’s USB cable. It also has phantom power to power any condenser mics you might want to use, especially for tracking vocals.
The Scarlett preamps are very natural sounding with a lot of headroom and don’t colour the input signal so what you put in, comes straight back out.
Behringer Xenyx Q802USB
This Behringer unit is perfect for recording multiple sources at the same time. Perhaps you’re recording a podcast/radio show and you want to be able to record multiple mics at the same time, or perhaps you’re placing a few mics up around the room to record your bands live demo, this unit is a great choice.
It offers 2 XLR inputs as well as 4 addition ¼” inputs (which are controlled on 2 stereo channels). This unit also has a dedicated EQ for each channel as well as pan controls, volume, gain adjustment (for the XLR ins) and an FX send on each channel so you can connect this to an outboard effects unit.
The unit has a range of outputs including an FX send to send your signal to an external effects unit (This also has a stereo return so those stereo delays and modulation effects can be used to their full width), a ¼” headphone out and a pair of stereo outputs. One labeled Ctrl Room Out for sending to your DAW or a larger mixing desk and a Main Out for connecting to your studio monitors.
M-Audio M-Track 2×2
If you’re just getting into music technology and recording, M-Audio may be a company that you may not be familiar with, but they’ve been a big name in the business for many years.
This unit is Mac/PC compatible and has a dual mic/instrument preamp and a separate ¼” input running at 24bit/192kHz. The metal chassis of the unit will stand up to life on the road and looks great sat on any desk or studio table.
The M-Track also has a pair of outputs on the back for connecting to monitors and a headphone out on the front. The unit might be simple, but it packs a punch. The unit looks every bit the professional workhorse with the giant silver knob for controlling the volume.
48v Phantom Power is also available for powering condenser mics and the unit is totally USB powered so no external power source is needed. Couple that with a USB/Direct knob for balancing between the direct signal and the USB processed signal for zero latency monitoring when recording.
Each of the volume knows for the pair of inputs also has a 4 LED volume meter which has green, yellow and red lights so you can see when input signals are clipping.
PreSonus Studio 24c
For the home recording enthusiast who needs more connectivity, the Presonus Studio 24C should be a unit you consider. The front of the unit contains a pair of XLR/Jack combo inputs, an LED input/output meter and volume knobs for both inputs, usb/direct monitoring blend, headphone volume and master volume.
The unit also has 48v phantom power, there are a lot of features here and that is just the front panel.
On the reverse of the unit we also have a headphone output jack and a pair of outputs for connecting to monitors. The additional benefit of this unit is the MIDI section, with an input and output. This allows you to connect a range of MIDI based equipment such as MIDI keyboards and controllers to the interface.
PreSonus are so keen to help you get things started that they’ve even included a copy of PreSonus Studio One Artist, their world class DAW software. This allows you to start recording your ideas and building your sound straight out of the box.
If you are looking for a simple, no frills USB interface for recording, the U-24 from Zoom could be just what you’re looking for. This unit has a pair of top mounted XLR/Jack combo inputs, a pair of outputs for connecting monitors and a headphone out.
This unit is visually very simple with it’s sleek black design and would fit perfectly in any laptop bag or gig bag for recording on the go.
The unit has a MIDI in/out on the back for connecting any keyboards or controllers needed meaning you can make this tiny interface perform quite a big task.
The unit does contain phantom power, but in this case the phantom power is not USB drawn, a separate power adapter is required or the unit can also be run off a pair of AA batteries. The unit can be connected to iPhone/iPads and also has a switch on the side to allow the unit to draw power from tablets. This means, you can record anywhere, anytime with no power restrictions.
On top of the unit you’ll find a low profile volume control for each input as well as a master volume and headphone volume. Each of the input channels has a mute button for muting signals when not in use and a direct monitor blend control to allow you to obtain zero latency monitoring in the middle of a session.
Allen & Heath ZEDi 10
Allen & Heath are a big name in the mixing desk work and it’s no surprise to see them launch a range of mixing desk form audio interfaces. The great news is, these are very affordable and incredibly useful for the budding music producer.
The ZEDi 10 is a 4 in/4 out interface with a huge range of features. Each of the 4 main channel strips contains both an XLR and an Instrument Jack input while the first 2 channels have a button specifically for plugging guitars straight into the desk. Activating this feature increases the impedance of the input meaning you won’t need a DI box.
All four channels have a low cut button that will automatically roll off any unwanted low end as well as a dedicated 3 band EQ, AUX send level, FX send level and pan control. You also have the option of switching specific channels on and off in the headphone mix.
At the end of the 4 main channels there is also a pair of stereo inputs which can be used in conjunction with the FX Out to send and receive signals from external effects units.
The main out is a pair of male XLR ports which indicates as well as being a fantastic studio unit, this unit could also be used for live use. The master volume being on a fader gives the unit a real studio feed and allows you to easily adjust the volume.
A pair of LED meters will show you the output volume so you can make sure nothing is clipping and the unit is also able to power those 48v hungry condenser mics with it’s inbuilt phantom power.
Behringer UMC 404HD
Another entry from Behringer in the form of a multi input interface. This 4 in/4 out interface is a get unit for anyone needing to record multiple mic sources at the same time.
The unit has 4 XLR/Instrument Jack combination ports across the front, each one with Behringers famous Midas preamps and each input has a dedicated volume knob, pad switch and a line/instrument selector for changing impedance between XLR and jack inputs.
The unit also has the zero latency option for direct monitoring and headphones, but where this unit really stands out is it’s output section. The unit has the capability to run 2 separate sets of monitor speakers which are A/B switchable via the front panel, and there are outputs that can be used in conjunction with the 4 insert points on the back to link up external preamps or effects. This means you can link up to 4 external units with your device.
There is also a MIDI in/out for linking up any MIDI controller surfaces or keyboards.
Due to this unit having so many features, and 4 mic preamps with phantom power, the unit does require a power supply to be connected so it won’t run off USB alone. This is a minor compromise when you have this 4 in/4 out interface running high quality pre amps at 24bit/192kHz.
This is a fantastic option for any studio or musician on the go.
Some interfaces come with a range of options such as multiple pre-amps which are ideal for recording multiple sources at the same time.
Steinberg, the brains behind the industry giant software, Cubase, have teamed up with Yamaha to launch the UR22. This is a portable 2 in/2 out USB interface that runs at 24bit/192kHz with two class A D-Pre mic preamps which also double as standard instrument cable connections.
The UR22 also has MIDI In/Out to connect external MIDI equipment and switchable phantom power. You can even opt to run the unit form the USB as a power course, or it’s included power adapter.
Cubase has been one of the industry standard software packages for studios all around the world and this fantastic Steinberg branded unit even comes bundled with Cubase AI, a lite version of the studio ready program and Cubasis LE, the mobile/tablet compatible version so you can produce on the go.
Not a Cubase user? Not a problem. This unit is also compatible with all other major DAWs such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton and more. This will effortlessly fit into your studio setup.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2
Native Instruments took over the VST instrument world with Guitar Rig, Komplete, Kontakt and all their other fantastic studio instruments but here we have an audio interface designed by them.
The Komplete Audio 2 is a 2 in/2 out interface. It’s minimal, but it’s to the point. A pair of combo XLR/Jack inputs on the front with switchable phantom power and a pair of outputs on the back to connect to your monitors. This unit doesn’t have any MIDI or insert routing, but what you get is a powerful and reliable unit that does what it says on the tin.
NI have opted to place the master volume knob on the top of the unit as a large knob which is great for using quickly on a messy desk or if you are using the interface to record podcasts or interviews.
The Komplete Audio 2 also comes bundled with a range of NI’s top software packages such as Maschine Essentials (Drum sampling), Monark (Synth) and a copy of Ableton Live Lite to use as your DAW. With this bundle, you’ll be dropping beats in no time at all.
NI have also kindly included some studio grade plugins to use in the DAW to polish your recordings. You’ll get a powerful delay, phaser and compressor. They’ve even thrown in 2 months free access to their online sample library which can be integrated with the included copy of Maschine. Bundle this with the inbuilt effects in Ableton and you’ve got everything you need at your disposal to make amazing music.
If you are looking to record multiple sources in your home studio, or leave multiple things set up for recording at any time, the Lexicon Omega might be the one for you.
The unit has the ability to record 4 tracks at once from a combination of it’s 2 XLR posts and 4 ¼” jack inputs on the rear of the unit and it’s Hi-Z Instrument input on the front of the unit. The unit also contains a MIDI In/Out for using any of that external MIDI gear you may have in your studio.
This unit doesn’t have the same sample rate as previous units, only running at a maximum of 24bit/48kHz, but that shouldn’t detract from how solid and reliable this unit is.
If you are working with a minimal setup, a computer with low processing power or you generally just don’t need your recordings to sound overly polished, the Omega will give you everything you need.
To get you started, Lexicon even include a copy of Cubase LE and their own Pantheon reverb plugin, modelled on their hardware units seen in studios around the world.
How to Choose the Best Audio Interface
Buying your first audio interface can be a daunting task but just keep in mind that you can never go too far wrong. Most interfaces available across all budgets are fit for purpose. The biggest factor in choosing the right one for you is the purpose behind it.
For those who need to look into recording larger groups, some of the mixing desk style audio interfaces allow you to record multiple sources at once and also have the function of a mixing desk at the same time.
If you only need to record one or two sources at the same time, a small interface will be perfect. If you want to record a full band, you need to consider one with a range of inputs and perhaps as you get more serious about that, look at revisiting your budget.
The interfaces in this list were chosen for their ability to cover a wide range of purposes.