There are many solid options for entry-level audio interfaces, but when you're ready to trade up for a more professional sound, the options can quickly become bewildering. Where's the line between a great buy for a home or project studio and features that are really only necessary in a commercial facility? After all, you don't want to overspend on options you won't get use from, but you also don't want to skimp only to find that your latest investment doesn't meet your needs.
To determine the best audio interface for you, take a deep dive into your workflow and specific needs—as you browse the market with spec sheets in hand, here are four factors to keep in mind.
1. Inputs and Outputs
Your choice of interface largely depends on how many simultaneous inputs you need. Too many inputs are better than too few—that way, you have room to grow. Type of input is also a factor. How many analog inputs will you need? What about hi-Z inputs for recording DI guitar or bass? How about other I/O connection types, like ADAT or Dante® for higher input counts? Try to cover your bases for every recording situation you're likely to be involved in. Then, calculate the minimum and maximum inputs you'll need to handle your projects.
Will you work with multichannel formats like surround sound or Dolby Atmos®? You'll need an advanced interface able to route audio in and out in a number of channel configurations and easily switch between monitoring formats. Some interfaces can fold multichannel mixes down into various monitor profiles. For true multichannel monitoring such as 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos, your interface should be able to output directly to an appropriate monitoring setup. Commercial facilities may have a case for adding a multichannel interface in the main control room and stereo capable interfaces for musical projects in other rooms, but in a home or project studio, you only have to plan for the specific channel configurations you'll work with.
Look for an interface with the highest-quality AD/DA converters possible. Almost all interfaces can handle sample rates up to 96 kHz—but consider whether you want or need to record at higher rates like 192 kHz. While facilities are more likely to require higher sample rate capabilities, certain projects can demand the same from a home studio. Higher sample rates can place a considerable strain on a computer's CPU, so you'll want to be confident your audio interface can handle the load.
Some interfaces' only role is to route and process audio in and out—the computer does the heavy lifting of recording audio and native plugin processing. But really large sessions can cause issues with processing power and recording latency, even for powerful computers.
This might not be a deal breaker if you have the time to use workarounds like freezing or bouncing tracks. But the less you jump between writing, tracking and mixing, and dealing with technical engineering issues, the smoother your workflow—which can make all the difference if you're taking on clients and have to work in a limited timeframe.
Audio interfaces with DSP acceleration offer extra processing power. They lean on DSP chips to process the DSP-coded plugins rather than relying on your computer's CPU to process your DAW's native plugins. You can set and forget customized DSP plugin chains for tracking and concentrate on your performance—and then mix much larger and more complex sessions by leveraging the DSP processing power. Some interfaces also let you seamlessly switch between native and DSP plugins, which comes in handy when your project collaborator has a different setup than yours.
Your audio interface should offer the flexibility to scale projects and record where needed. Some systems come as modular bundles with an interface and PCIe cards that are installed directly into a host computer. Others are housed in an external Thunderbolt chassis. Some interfaces come with DSP chips inside the interface itself. Depending on your environment and typical projects, you may appreciate an all-in-one interface, or you may lean toward a modular audio interface with the flexibility to expand DSP and I/O; if you're planning on growing your studio as a business, you may prefer the option to scale up as needed, for instance.
Most desktop audio interfaces are portable, and you can rack mount many other 1RU space interfaces for transportation and protection. PCIe cards installed into desktop computers are best suited to studios where the recording and mixing setup will stay put. For mobile recording, pair external enclosures with DSP-powered PCIe cards with a flight cased interface and a laptops. The extra DSP power will help the laptop cope with demanding sessions.
Budget is always a factor, particularly if you're setting up your home music studio to write and record your own music. Your studio budget needs to cover musical instruments, a computer, audio interface, DAW, and various other hardware and software. If you can find an interface that combines pristine preamps, powerful DSP chips, headphone amps, and easy monitor control all in one, you'll save money by not shelling out for separate devices.
If your home studio is a money-making venture, budget is a slightly different (but still important) proposition. Even in a less formal environment, you're responsible for providing clients with a seamless, stable experience that inspires. You'll probably need to allocate a higher budget to your interface than a hobbyist would, but that can keep your business running at peak efficiency. Clients paying for a professional service expect the best—the last thing you need is limitations or workflow roadblocks in the middle of a session. If you can outfit your business with a powerful computer and rock-solid interface featuring the highest quality converters possible, your investment will be backed by the capability to handle any project.
As you explore the audio interfaces out there, tailor your options to match your workflow and plans. Take stock of your projects, both current and future, before diving down the research rabbit hole. Your audio interface should create a simple and reliable recording environment. With enough power and flexibility, it will pivot to match whichever direction your next project takes you.