Learn about the best audio interfaces at various price points. Choose the right audio interface for your music studio.
An audio interface allows you to extend the audio recording and playback capabilities of your computer. You need an audio interface if you want to record vocals, guitar, bass, or drums. Using studio monitors requires the use of an audio interface as well. In this article, we’ll take a look at 4 of the best audio interfaces on the market.
Audio interfaces come with various sets of features at many different price points. It’s important to identify what you’re looking for in an audio interface before you buy one; this will ensure the audio interface you buy provides all the features you need. Knowing about features you don’t need is equally as important, and can potentially save you thousands of dollars. Check out our audio interface guide to learn about different types of inputs and outputs, preamps, converters, and additional features you may need access to.
For home recording enthusiasts, I recommend the Scarlett 2i2 by Focusrite. You see the Scarlett 2i2 in many home studios because it provides a handful of basic audio interface features at a very affordable price.
This interface includes two switchable line/mic/hi-Z inputs, two mic preamps with a switchable Air mode, 24-bit/192 kHz converters, balanced TRS L/R monitor outputs, and a single headphone output. The Scarlett 2i2 is also bus powered, making it a great portable option for recording on the road.
If you just need an audio interface that’s going to allow you to play back music through a pair of studio monitors and record no more than two mono sound sources, or a single stereo source, the Scarlett 2i2 is a solid option.
Truth be told, the midrange audio interface market is a bit of an odd space; you have to pick and choose between different features found in more expensive audio interfaces. The reason you may find yourself here is if you’re looking to start taking advantage of digital signal processing (DSP), or if a Scarlett 2i2 doesn’t provide you with enough inputs and outputs.
Priced at just under $500 is Universal Audio’s Apollo Arrow. The two biggest selling points are that it’s portable and allows you to use UAD plugins on the road. You gain access to Universal Audio’s highly coveted analog modelled plugin line. These plugins apply processing externally, which puts less strain on your computer. They’re also capable of baking processing into your recordings on the way into your DAW, which is very reminiscent of using hardware devices.
The Apollo Arrow contains two combo (mic/line) inputs, a single Hi-Z input, two mic preamps, one instrument preamp, 24-bit/192 kHz converters, two 1/4” outputs, and a single headphone output. This interface connects to your computer using Thunderbolt 3 and is Thunderbolt 3 bus powered.
If you’re trying to record a drum kit, or small band, you’ll need an audio interface with a significant number of inputs. To route audio from your DAW to external hardware, you’ll need a number of line outputs as well. The Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 provides many ins and outs, allowing you to record a number of audio sources, while integrating external hardware.
A substantial amount of software is included with the Scarlett 18i20. It comes with Avid Pro Tools’s First Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, three months of Splice Sounds Subscription, XLN Audio’s Addictive Keys, Softube’s Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite’s Red Plug-in Suite, access to Focusrite’s Plug-in Collective, and Focusrite Control. Focusrite Control allows you to route your audio and cue mix, as well as loopback and monitor mixes from your Mac, PC, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.
The Scarlett 18i20 includes eight mic preamps, eight balanced line inputs, two switchable Hi-Z inputs, 10 line outputs (4 of which are meant for monitors), ADAT optical I/O, S/PDIF I/O, MIDI I/O, and word clock out. Some additional features include onboard talkback functionality and two headphone outputs.
If you’re looking for an audio interface that does it all, and budget isn’t an issue, I recommend the Universal Audio Apollo x8p. This audio interface has pretty much everything you could ask for, and pairs with other Apollo interfaces via Thunderbolt 3 to provide increased DSP power, along with more inputs and outputs.
This audio interface contains eight Unison mic preamps, two instrument preamps, eight XLR 1/4” combo (mic/line) inputs, two 1/4” Hi-Z inputs, and one DB-25 line input. There are also two 1/4” monitor outputs, one DB-25 (alt/5.1 surround) output, two ADAT/SMUX I/Os, one word clock I/O, and two headphones outputs.
The Apollo x8p connects to your computer via Thunderbolt 3 and can also be controlled via Thunderbolt 3 with the Apollo Arrow. The x8p provides 6-core HEXA Core Processing, which allow you to run plenty of UAD plugins, elite-class 24-bit/192kHz converters, and dual crystal clocking that results in artifact-free recordings and solid stereo imaging.
There’s also selectable +24dBu operation that lets you to easily integrate with analog consoles. Additional features include talkback functionality, mono control, dim control, and 7.1 surround support.
Universal Audio throws in the Realtime Analog Classic Plugin Bundle when you purchase an Apollo x8p; this bundle includes 16 different UAD plugins. When you take into consideration the cost of the analog hardware equivalents of the plugins included in this bundle, the Apollo x8p’s price point of just under $3,299 doesn’t actually seem so soul crushing.
For example, a Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier, which is just one of the plugins included in the Realtime Analog Classic Plugin Bundle, can cost anywhere from $3,000-4,000+ used.
Make sure to check out the rest of the Apollo x lineup, which includes the Apollo x6, x8, x8p, and x16. Each one of these units provides a different number of top-tier features.