An audio interface is the first studio gear that a budding music producer invests in, including time, effort and money. Audio interfaces come in all sizes varying from small and portable ones to huge ones that are not so portable and sit permanently in the studio.
But, what exactly is an audio interface? Is it a sound card?
Are all audio interfaces the same?
Is it really required?
And one of the most important questions,
what does an audio interface do?
In this Editor’s special article, you are going to get answers to the above questions and to a lot more.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a type of advanced sound card that has got independent features. As a user or a music producer, you have a lot more control over an audio interface as compared to a sound card. The sound card is fairly limited in terms of its capacity and things it can do.
Therefore, this leads us to safely conclude that it is completely a horrible idea to rely on the inbuilt sound card for music production.
What Does an Audio Interface Do?
The main purpose of the audio interface is to transmit high-quality audio, in and out, of the system. The system may be your laptop, desktop, or even an iPad.
It lays the foundation to get studio quality recordings at home!
We all know that sound travels in the form of analog waves. Firstly, the sounds waves are fed into the input of the audio interface. The information of the audio interface has an analog to digital converters. These converters pick these sound waves in the form of analog voltages and convert them into digital format.
These digital waves further travel through the interface in the highest quality possible. Next, the output port consists of digital to analog converters. Then, as the sound leaves the interface, the converters again convert the digital waves back to analog waves expelled out by studio monitors.
Let us understand with the help of an example. Suppose you sing something into your microphone connected to the audio interface, and the audio interface is further connected to the studio monitor. As you sing through your microphone, your sound waves are converted into digital format with the help of converters.
And the same sound waves that are in digital format are reversed back to analog sound waves by the other end of the interface. These analog waves are what the studio monitor expels out, and you listen to your voice again.
[Also check: Audio interface setup diagram to connect different studio gears]
Component or parts of an Audio Interface
There are mainly four outputs to an interface as discussed below.
1) Inputs & Outputs
The first thing that catches your attention is the number of inputs and outputs you have got. This also determines the cost as well as use cases. An interface with two inputs is far convenient for a solo artist or singer-songwriter than a whole band. Similarly, an interface having more than tens of inputs is what a band requires.
[Also check: Mic vs Line vs Instrument level inputs]
Therefore, inputs & outputs do become vital components in most cases. It is one of the main focus areas of any interface.
For a beginner music producer or composer, these stunning audio interfaces under $200 can cater to their needs perfectly. In contrast, a live performance may need huge audio interfaces to connect each artist effortlessly. A similar thing can be observed in the case of connecting each piece of a drum kit, which again depends on the size of the drum kit.
2) Mic Preamps
The Mic Preamps are another critical aspect of any interface. The preamp is a circuit that enhances or boosts the audio signal coming from a microphone. Since the preamps interact directly with the input signal, they act as a quality indicator for audio interfaces.
Some of the best high end audio interfaces contain very expensive preamps that emit a crystal clear audio quality. But that does not mean that budget audio interfaces are any less good.
Significant brands like Focusrite, PreSonus, etc., make very good budget preamps. They are obviously not as great as high-end preamps but can get anyone started.
One such example is Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.
However, If the preamp is not properly designed, it can introduce noise or hum, which can affect your studio sessions pretty badly. So, analyze those preamps!
3) Direct Monitoring
Direct Monitoring is another handy feature that lets you hear your voice on headphones when you are singing in a microphone or recording an instrument with zero or close to zero latency. It is another vital feature to have in modern interfaces.
Why is direct monitoring useful? Direct monitoring is helpful as it can be used to reference guitarists, vocalists, or other artists as to when they should start doing their thing. For example, Direct monitoring lets you hear
Most interfaces engage direct monitoring feature using a push-button. In contrast, others have a mixer knob that mixes the audio from your DAW and the audio from your microphones, like in PreSonus Studio 24c.
4) Audio Converters
I already talked about audio converters earlier in the post. They are just circuits responsible for handling audio coming in and going out of the interface.
It may be relevant to talk about sampling rate and sound resolution here.
Sound resolution means how precisely is the audio being recorded. Does it contain the depth and harmonic detail as the actual audio, or does it lose some of the frequencies in the process? That is why analog audio recorded on tapes is more valuable than digital recording.
Another aspect is the sampling rate. You may have seen numbers like 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz before. These are the sampling rates. Sampling rates refer to the rate at which samples are taken from an actual analog signal to convert the sound from analog form to digital form. In short, the higher the number, the better the audio.
Are all Audio Interfaces Same?
The base foundation of each audio interface is the same. It has got some inputs, outputs, gain metering, audio converters, sampling rates, and pristine sound as compared to regular sound cards.
But, they still differ in some way or the other. Let’s check it out!
How do audio interfaces differ?
There are three main areas in which an interface can differ from one another. These three principles act as guidelines to define user requirements when a unit is designed.
1) Size & Weight
The first one is the size! Size can play a dominant role in guessing where an interface is best suited. Is it well designed for tours, or is it the one that’ll only see the studio, and if so, what type of studio?
[You may also like: best audio interfaces for home studio that professionals use]
The weight can also play a massive role in guessing portability. An interface might be small in size but if it is heavy, discard the idea of carrying it on vacations. A portable audio interface on the other hand should be lightweight, good enough in recordings, and easy to use.
[You may also like: best budget portable audio interfaces that don’t suck]
The sound quality of an audio interface is determined by converters and mic preamps used in it. These are circuits inside an interface that interacts directly with the audio traveling through the interface. They remain active till the audio entering the interface leaves the interface.
However, the external or built quality of an interface also does matter. It is not fair for a great internal circuit to sit in a poor home. To an extent, the users also judge an interface by the way it looks.
Hence, it is relevant to say that if an interface does not look good, it may, in most cases, sound even worse.
The quantity refers to the ports and options you get on the audio interface. The basic ports on an interface are Audio interfaces under at low price offer low number of ports than those that are expensive.
- Mic ports,
- Line ports,
- Hi-Z ports
- headphone outputs,
- Monitor outputs,
- MIDI ports,
- and many more!
The idea here is that number of ports, be it input or output, does play a major factor in what an interface costs. That is why Scarlett 18i20 is way big and costlier than Scarlett 2i2.
[You may also like: These audio interfaces under $500 cater beginners as well as professionals.]
Is Audio Interface Necessary?
This is a topic that gets talked about a lot. Many people or those who are starting as producers have their own set of questions. One question that tops the list is should I be getting an audio interface.
The answer to this question is not straightforward. That is why we have an entire article on it. And that article tackles the dilemma of do you need an audio interface to make music.
You may also like: Do you really need an audio Interface for producing great music?
Short Answer: YES, but with a condition!
If you have some experience in music production, music theory, a DAW, and willing to spend on studio monitors also, getting an audio interface can open new ideas and opportunities, for you, as a music producer.
First of all, your production sessions may increase due to a proper setup. Secondly, your ears will be much more relaxed because now you can switch from headphones to studio monitors to hear audio. Third, your mixes will sound way better as the audio coming out of the studio monitor has a flat response, giving you an accurate idea of each independent track.
And lastly, you may even collaborate, record your samples, vocals, weird, funny sounds and many more. Heck, you can even sell your sound packs.
Now, I do think you have a pretty good idea if it will be worth it for you to get an audio interface.
[You may also like: Beginner friendly audio interfaces that are easy to set up and use]
Here we mark the end of our little article discussing audio interfaces. We saw what is an audio interface, its working principle, components of the interface, how is it relevant in the music industry, and a few more important aspects related to it.
Although, the post is not too detailed it can act as a great beginning point for further research.
For a music producer, professionalism starts with the audio interface. It is a little piece of equipment but it lays the foundation of what can be connected and included in your studio.