Guide to Audio Interfaces

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Whether you’re starting a new home studio, or improving an existing one…

There’s no single purchase more confusing than the audio interface.

Because among the dozens of options…

Each one is designed to meet the demands of a specific “type” of studio.

For example…

At one extreme, a small $100 interface might be perfect in a simple bedroom studio…

If all you need is a single pair of outputs for your studio monitors.

At the opposite extreme, a pro studio that requires dozens of INs/OUTs might need several interfaces, each costing $4000 or more.

Needless to say, matching the right interface with the right studio is tricky even for the experienced.  And for beginners, its 10x worse.

Which is why for today’s post, I’ve created an in-depth guide to help you find the perfect option for your studio.

So let’s get started.  First off… 

The 5 Key Features to Look For

Because of the fact that audio interfaces have so many features, it’s difficult to know which ones matter, and which ones don’t.

So let’s talk about that now.  In particular, these are the 5 key specs to focus on:

  1. DAW Compatibility
  2. Interface Connectors
  3. Input/Output (I/O) Count
  4. Input Channel Types
  5. Form Factor

And here’s why:

1. DAW Compatibility

daw compatibility

In general, most DAW’s work with most interfaces…but not always.

If you don’t yet have a particular DAW that you are loyal to, then you need not worry here.

Because 90% of the top DAW’s will be compatible with any interface you choose.

However if you already have a DAW you want to continue using, be sure to verify compatibility on the company’s website.  And just to warn you, this info is often hard to find.

You would think they would just post DAW compatibility in the interface’s product description, right?  But it rarely happens.  Usually it’s buried somewhere within an FAQ page.

While it’s not clear why this is done, my best guess is that these companies prefer not to advertise their current DAW compatibility, because they have no guarantees of future compatibility.

A particular interface might be compatible with your DAW today, but it may not be in a future release.  And while that’s not likely to happen, it’s always possible.

Which is why personally, I prefer to use a DAW/interface combo made by the same company.  Later in this post I will give you some good examples of these.

However, since there are only a few companies that make both, the downside to this solution is that it severely limits your options.

Up next…

2. Interface Connectors

audio interface connectors

When connecting an audio interface to a computer…

There are 4 cable options commonly used:

  1. USB – which is typically seen on cheaper home studio interfaces, and offers the slowest data transfer rate.
  2. Firewire – which is used on more expensive home studio interfaces, and offers a significantly faster transfer rate (nowadays these are becoming less common).
  3. Thunderbolt – which has recently become popular with newer semi-pro interfaces, and is way faster than either USB or Firewire.
  4. PCIE – which has long been the standard connection for professional interfaces, because it offers additional processing power and extremely fast data-transfer.

While USB is by far the slowest of all 4 options, it is still more than fast enough to get the job done for the vast majority of home studios.

So if you’re on a budget, USB is what I recommend.

But whichever type you choose, remember to double-check that your computer has the appropriate connection.

3. Input/Output (I/O) Count

audio interface inputs and outputs

On a typical interface, I/O counts can range anywhere between:

  • 1-2 on a simple interface, to…
  • 20+ on a professional one.

And the number you need for your studio depends mainly on the number of tracks you plan to record/monitor at once.

For example:

  • Solo musicians – may need only 2-4.
  • Songwriting teams – who work in small groups, want at least 4-8.
  • Engineers who record bands – should have as many as possible (16 at least).

Also…electronic drum kits alone can sometimes require 8 inputs if they offer separate channels for each part of the kit.  So take that into consideration if you plan on using one.

4. Input Channel Types

input types

One thing recording newbies often fail to realize is…

When counting the input channels of an audio interface, manufacturers could be referring to any number of different input types.

However in almost all cases, it includes some combination of these 3:

  1. Mic Input – which allows you to connect a mic directly to the interface.
  2. Line Input – which requires the addition of an outboard mic preamp to be used as a mic channel.
  3. Optical Input – which is a type of “digital” input that requires the addition of BOTH an outboard mic preamp, and digital converter w/ “optical out” to be used as a mic channel.

Now here’s what this means for you:

If you want to use your interface “as-is” without adding a multi-channel mic preamp, you might have less available inputs than you think.

Because as you’ll notice, interfaces often have 16 or more total input channels, but only 2-8 mic inputs.

So without any additional gear, the “real” number of inputs on your audio interface is the mic preamp count, NOT the same as the  input count.

Now that you know…make sure you actually have enough channels for your purposes.  Otherwise you will be sorely disappointed.

NOTE: Two other input types that you should also look for are DI inputs (if you play guitar/bass), and MIDI inputs (if you use any type of keyboards/MIDI controllers).  

5. Form Factor

audio interface form factorA fancy jargon term used by computer geeks…

Form factor” simply refers to the physical size and shape interface.

The two form factor options are:

  1. Desktop Interfaces – which are smaller, and sit on your desk next to your computer.
  2. Rackmounted Interfaces – which are larger, and mount in a standard size rack unit.

For beginners, I recommend starting with a desktop interface, because they’re cheap, easy-to-use, and require no special mounting or peripheral devices.  You just plug them in and start recording.

With intermediate/advanced studios, rackmounted interfaces are typically better, as they tend to offer more I/O’s, as well as greater flexibility with signal routing and organization.

Now that you know what to look for, let’s check out some specific models.

Starting with…

Best Desktop Interfaces

For the vast majority of people reading this article, who only want a cheap interface that will allow them to record their music at home…

I recommend a 2-6 channel USB desktop interface, which normally costs between $100-$300 on the low-end, and $500-1500 on the high-end.

Currently, the top brands for these “types” of interfaces are PresonusFocusriteAvidUniversal Audio.

Here are the models I recommend from each brand:

Presonus AudioBox (USB connection)

audiobox usb(includes Presonus Studio One Artist DAW)

Who do I recommend these for?  – Beginner studios on a tight budget who want a bundled interface/DAW combo.

Focusrite Scarlett (USB connection)

focusrite scarlett

Who do I recommend these for?

Beginner studios on a tight budget who already have a 3rd party DAW they prefer.

Focusrite Clarett (Thunderbolt connection)

focusrite clarett

Who do I recommend these for?

Studios of ALL levels that don’t need a lot of I/O’s and can afford the price tag.

Apogee (USB connection)

apogee quartet

Who do I recommend these for?

Intermediate studios that don’t need a lot of I/O’s, or beginner studios that can afford the price tag.

Avid (USB connection)

avid quartet

(Bundled with Pro Tools 12 DAW)

Who do I recommend these for?

All Beginner/Intermediate studios who want to use the industry standard Pro Tools DAW.

NOTE: While the Apogee Duet and Quartet are “Mac Only” interfaces, the newer Pro Tools Duet and Quartet are compatible with both Mac and PC.

Universal Audio (Thunderbolt connection)

universal audio twin

Who do I recommend these for?

Intermediate/advanced studios who want pro studio quality, in a home-studio-sized package.

More Options?

If for some reason of the previous options aren’t to your liking…

Here are 2 more great budget desktop interfaces to check out:

And here is 1 more great high-end desktop option:

Up next…

Best Rackmounted Interfaces

For the purposes of this article, let’s define an “intermediate” studio as a home setup that requires a higher I/O count to meet the demands of some of the more complex recording tasks.

If that’s the type of studio you need, I recommend an 8+ channel rackmounted interface.

Again…the best interfaces in this category are made by PresonusFocusriteApogeeUniversal Audio, and Antelope Audio:

Here are the top models I recommend:


audiobox 1818vsl


scarlett 18i20


apogee ensemble

Universal Audio

apollo 8

Antelope Audio

antelope audio interface

And finally…

“Professional” Interfaces

Pro Tools HD Analog Interface

While any of the interfaces we’ve covered so far are more than capably of producing “professional” results…

There’s higher class of audio interfaces that we have yet to cover.

Normally only seen in high-end pro studios, these multi-thousand dollar interfaces typically connect to a separate PCIE card which can only be installed on a desktop computer.

The typical reason studios acquire this type of interface is to upgrade to Pro Tools HD, which is the standard system used by the majority of pro studios in the world.

In terms of performance, they offer many premium advantages, including:

  • Ultra-Low latency
  • High I/O counts
  • Premium Digital Conversion
  • Multiple Connection Options

And while these interfaces would almost certainly be overkill for the average home studio…

It’s still good to know about them, just in case the day comes when you decide your studio needs one.

Some examples of popular interfaces in this category are: