Audio interfaces are hardware devices that allow computers to connect with audio sources and speakers, converting analog audio signals to digital for processing and vice versa for playback. They’re essential for recording, mixing, and producing audio on a computer. When searching for an audio interface to buy for music production, there are 5 factors to consider: compatibility, audio quality, latency, budget, and expandability. The best audio interface for you will be compatible with your computer, have great audio quality, have minimal latency, will be affordable, and will have expandability. The best audio interfaces are RME Fireface UFX+, Apogee Symphony, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, Steinberg UR series, and Motu M4.
Overview of the best audio interfaces for music producers
- RME Fireface UFX+: The RME Fireface UFX+ is a versatile audio interface that offers a variety of analog and digital I/O options, including MADI support. It is known for its reliability and features advanced digital signal processing capabilities.
- Apogee Symphony: The Apogee Symphony is a series of high-end audio interfaces primarily designed for professional studio use. They are recognized for their AD/DA conversion and offer a range of modular I/O options, adaptable to various studio needs.
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2: The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a compact, USB-powered audio interface with two combo XLR/instrument inputs. It is part of Focusrite’s Scarlett series and is popular among entry-level and home studio users due to its balance of affordability and performance.
- Steinberg UR series: The Steinberg UR series encompasses a range of audio interfaces varying in I/O configurations. These interfaces are integrated with Yamaha’s D-PRE preamps and are compatible with Steinberg’s Cubase software, among other DAWs.
- Motu M4: The Motu M4 is a 4-in/4-out USB-C audio interface known for its low latency and clear sound. It features built-in LCD meters for quick visual feedback and is suited for a variety of recording applications.
How to choose an audio interface?
To choose an audio interface for music production, there are 5 key factors to consider: compatibility, audio quality, latency, budget, and expandability.
- Compatibility: Ensure the audio interface is compatible with your computer’s operating system, hardware, and your preferred DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). This ensures seamless integration and workflow.
- Audio Quality: Prioritize interfaces with high-quality preamps, low noise levels, and adequate sample rates and bit depths. The quality of the audio signal is pivotal for professional recordings.
- Latency: Latency refers to the delay between inputting a sound and hearing its output. Lower latency ensures real-time monitoring without noticeable delay, which is crucial for recording and live performance.
- Budget: Set a budget based on your needs and what you’re willing to invest. While higher-priced interfaces often offer superior quality and features, many budget-friendly options deliver commendable performance.
- Expandability: If you anticipate the need for more inputs/outputs in the future, choose an interface that can be expanded, either by daisy-chaining or through options like ADAT inputs.
Top Picks for Best Audio Interfaces for Music Production
RME Fireface UFX+
The RME Fireface UFX+ stands as a formidable component in the realm of multitrack studios. This robust audio interface is designed to adeptly manage up to 94 channels I/O, providing users with an array of channels to handle different audio sources. Its key selling point includes its advanced compatibility features such as DURec (Direct USB Recording) and the recognized RME low latency hardware and driver design. This makes it an essential tool for those demanding seamless operations.
When you delve deeper into the Fireface UFX+, you’ll discover features that differentiate it from its predecessor. Among these are the inclusion of MADI I/O which offers a staggering 188 channels of I/O. This, coupled with a more potent DSP, USB 3.0 support, and Thunderbolt™ technology, certainly places the Fireface UFX+ in a league of its own. Moreover, for those looking for external control, the optional remote control is a welcome addition.
Diving into its connectivity portfolio, this device is a powerhouse. It’s loaded with:
- 12 Analog I/O channels
- 4 XLR/TRS Mic/Inst/Line inputs
- Dual phones outputs
- AES/EBU I/O
- Double ADAT I/O
- Word Clock I/O which can be toggled with MADI Coaxial
- MADI optical I/O
- MIDI I/O pairs
- Thunderbolt™ and USB 3.0 ports
Quality-wise, the UFX+ does not disappoint. Its new AD/DA converters coupled with optimized analog I/O circuits ensure a clear, high-fidelity audio experience. The interface also boasts a mic circuit that can handle demanding recording situations with ease, making it ideal for professionals. Its high-power headphone outputs cater to both high and low-impedance headphones, ensuring no compromise on sound quality.
For those venturing into the world of MADI, the UFX+ is a valuable companion. It’s flexible, allowing users to interface with various RME and third-party digital and analog solutions. This flexibility extends to RME’s in-built TotalMix FX, which provides an array of mixing and routing options.
TotalMix FX itself is a behemoth, offering a wide variety of DSP effects from EQ to Reverb, obviating the need for external mixers and minimizing latency-induced issues. There’s also an app version for the iPad, providing mobile control over the mixer and effects.
Adding to its versatility is the ARC USB Remote Control. This plug-and-play device, which connects via USB, interfaces directly with TotalMix FX. With 15 programmable buttons, an encoder wheel, and even a footswitch jack, it offers an intuitive way to control the UFX+.
The UFX+’s Direct USB Recording capability is noteworthy. Allowing recording directly to USB devices, it eliminates the dependency on a connected computer. This makes the UFX+ a standalone field recorder, ideal for live performances or jam sessions.
The Symphony I/O Mk II is an audio interface designed for use in various recording environments. Equipped to handle up to 32 channels I/O, this interface provides a good range of channels for different audio inputs. One of its features includes modular I/O configurations along with Apogee’s AD/DA conversion capability.
When looking into the Symphony I/O Mk II’s specifications, it offers four platform connectivity options: Thunderbolt™, Pro Tools® HD, Dante™ + Pro Tools® HD, and Waves SoundGrid network. It also has a noted latency performance, especially when used with Thunderbolt and Logic Pro X. Additionally, there is a touchscreen display for easier navigation and control.
In terms of connection options, the Symphony I/O Mk II provides:
- Up to 32 channels of modular analog I/O with mic preamps as an option.
- Advanced Monitor Workflows with Atmos configuration capabilities.
- Symphony Control software for enhanced I/O management.
- A front panel with a high-resolution TFT display.
Quality-wise, the Symphony I/O Mk II employs AD/DA conversion and circuit design techniques to provide clear audio output. There are options for 8×8 or 16×16 modules available, catering to different needs. The device also includes a headphone circuit with Apogee’s Constant Current Drive technology for versatile headphone compatibility.
For those looking for a modular audio interface, the Symphony I/O Mk II offers flexibility with its four platform connectivity options. Its compatibility is further complemented by the Symphony Control software, which facilitates mixing and routing operations. This software is also compatible with the Apogee Control hardware remote for added convenience.
A notable feature of the Symphony I/O Mk II is its ability to operate in standalone mode, allowing it to be used without the need for a connected computer. This versatility suggests its potential uses in various audio setups, be it for high-fidelity playback or as a dedicated AD/DA converter.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 presents a well-rounded suite of channels suitable for various audio inputs. One standout feature is its two 3rd Generation Scarlett mic preamps, which offer clarity and definition right from initiation. Another intriguing inclusion is the Air mode, which emulates the effects identified with Focusrite’s ISA mic preamps, bringing about a nuanced sparkle in vocals and guitars.
Examining the specifications of the Scarlett 2i2, it supports 24-bit/192 kHz conversion, which ensures detailed sound recording. The interface is crafted with high-impedance, high-headroom instrument inputs that are adept at capturing guitar or bass recordings without distortion. Furthermore, the visual appeal and utility of the Gain Halos make adjusting input levels a breeze.
When discussing connection avenues, the Scarlett 2i2 delivers:
- Two inputs that can seamlessly switch between line or Hi-Z instrument inputs.
- USB-C port compatibility spans across MacOS, Windows, and iPadOS.
- Direct Monitor, which affords immediate, latency-free monitoring, both in stereo and mono formats.
- Bundled software, comprising of Ableton Live Lite, three months of Pro Tools Artist, and the Hitmaker Expansion, equipped with plugins from brands like Antares and Softube.
Quality-wise, the Scarlett 2i2 employs advanced conversion techniques to furnish a clear audio output. The interface is designed for both newcomers and professionals, balancing ease of use with nuanced features that cater to refined audio needs.
For users desiring an intuitive yet professional-grade audio interface, the Scarlett 2i2 offers a harmonious blend of essential features. It is complemented by the bundled software, streamlining the mixing and routing operations. Notably, with a three-year warranty and a commitment to lifelong customer support, Focusrite underlines its dedication to user satisfaction.
The overarching design and feature set of the Scarlett 2i2 solidifies its place as a valuable tool for diverse audio applications, whether in home studios or more advanced setups. Its clarity, adaptability, and user-friendly nature make it a notable choice in the audio interface market.
Steinberg UR series
Steinberg’s UR series of audio interfaces is a comprehensive lineup that addresses diverse needs, ranging from the traveling musician to the established studio pro. Whether you’re looking for a mobile solution, a desktop production unit, or even a 19” rack-mounted studio powerhouse, the UR series offers options tailored to various requirements.
The different models in the series include:
- UR12: A beginner-friendly unit perfect for those taking their initial steps in the world of audio recording. Whether streaming online or capturing moments with family and friends, the UR12 stands as a reliable companion.
- UR22mkII: This interface, compatible with both laptops and iPads, is notable for its solid build and the inclusion of the renowned D-PRE preamps, making studio-quality recording achievable on the go.
- UR242: Apart from the standout D-PRE preamp, this model features integrated DSP-powered effects, catering to those who desire studio-grade recordings from their notebook or iPad.
- UR44: Striking a harmony between extensive connectivity options and portability, the UR44 is versatile, meeting the demands of varied recording and production scenarios.
- UR28M: This interface connects via USB 2.0 and promises high-resolution audio output. It’s a DSP-powered console that marries digital and analog I/O capabilities, bolstered by the D-Pre mic preamps.
- UR824: A unit that emphasizes clarity and quality, the UR824 blends high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity with a balanced assortment of analog and digital I/O formats.
Key features that span across the series include:
- High-Resolution Audio: The interfaces come with a 24-bit/192 kHz audio resolution, courtesy of premium converters.
- D-PRE Preamps: In collaboration with Yamaha, the UR series boasts Class-A D-PRE mic preamps, ensuring top-tier recording quality.
- Universal Compatibility: These interfaces are friendly with all major audio software supporting the ASIO, Core Audio standards.
- Latency-Free Monitoring: Certain models, like the UR242, offer zero-latency monitoring facilitated by built-in DSP effects.
- Loopback Function: This unique feature allows users to stream their live performances effortlessly.
- Robust Design: All UR models pride themselves on a robust metal casing, ensuring longevity even in challenging conditions.
- iOS Compatibility: By entering CC Mode, UR units can be paired with iOS audio applications, such as Steinberg’s Cubasis.
- Software Inclusions: Each interface comes bundled with Cubase AI, a compact version harnessing the core technologies of Cubase Pro. Additionally, there’s Cubasis LE, a streamlined version of Steinberg’s mobile multitouch sequencer.
In summary, Steinberg’s UR series is a versatile and robust collection of audio interfaces that cater to a broad spectrum of users. With an array of features and bundled software, the series establishes itself as a solid choice for both novices and seasoned audio professionals.
The MOTU M4 is an audio interface with features aimed at a range of audio production requirements. It utilizes the ESS Sabre32 Ultra™ DAC technology, common in some higher-tiered audio interfaces, which aims to provide a clear audio output. It also has a headphone output powered by ESS converters.
The M4’s specifications indicate support for sample rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz. The interface has combo jacks for mic/line/guitar inputs, analog inputs and outputs, MIDI I/O, and a USB-C port. The layout appears to prioritize versatility in recording settings. Additionally, it comes with a full-color LCD that provides level meters for all input and output channels.
Regarding connectivity and features, the M4 includes:
- Loopback functionality, which is useful for live streaming and podcasting as it allows the mixing of live inputs with host software.
- Compatibility with both Mac and Windows operating systems, accommodating various audio applications.
- Bundled software, consisting of the MOTU Performer Lite and Ableton Live 10 Lite, along with a selection of loops and sounds.
The MOTU M4 incorporates features like ultra-low latency USB drivers and clear metering. The design seems to accommodate both beginners and experienced users, aiming to offer a mix of simplicity and technical specifications.
The M4 comes with additional software to assist in audio mixing and routing. The construction of the device is metal, suggesting a focus on durability.
What are the best audio interface brands?
- Universal Audio (UAD): Known for its high-quality audio interfaces and onboard DSP (Digital Signal Processing) capabilities which allow users to run UAD plugins with low latency.
- Focusrite: They offer a wide range of audio interfaces, from the budget-friendly Scarlett series to the professional Clarett and Red ranges.
- Apogee: Renowned for their premium sound quality and Apple integration, with products ranging from compact audio interfaces to professional studio-grade ones.
- PreSonus: Their Studio series interfaces are well-regarded for their build and sound quality, and they come bundled with PreSonus’s own DAW, Studio One.
- MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn): With a long-standing reputation in the industry, their interfaces are known for robust build and reliability.
- RME: Known for their low-latency drivers and stable performance, they cater to both semi-pro and professional users.
- Steinberg: Makers of the Cubase DAW, their interfaces, like the UR series, are reliable with good preamps and are often used in home studios.
- Native Instruments: Their Komplete Audio series interfaces are popular among electronic music producers and come bundled with a selection of their software.
- Audient: They provide interfaces with high-quality preamps derived from their flagship mixing consoles.
- TASCAM: With a history in portable recorders, they have branched out into reliable and affordable interfaces for home studios.
How much does an audio interface cost?
Budget-friendly interfaces can start as low as $50 to $100, suitable for beginners or simple setups. Mid-range options, offering better preamps and more features, typically range from $150 to $500. Professional-grade interfaces, designed for advanced studio setups and offering the highest audio quality and expandability, can cost from $500 to several thousand dollars.
Do better audio interfaces improve sound quality?
Yes, better audio interfaces can improve sound quality. High-quality interfaces often have superior preamps, better analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, and lower noise levels. These elements collectively ensure a more transparent, detailed, and accurate capture and playback of audio. Investing in a premium interface can lead to noticeable improvements in recordings, especially in professional settings where every nuance matters.
Is an audio interface necessary for music production?
For music producers looking to record external instruments or vocals with high quality, achieve low-latency monitoring, or connect studio-grade monitors, an audio interface is essential. It bridges the gap between professional audio equipment and a computer, ensuring clear, high-fidelity sound capture and playback.
However, for those solely working with virtual instruments and digital audio within a computer, an audio interface won’t be a pressing necessity. Basic music production can often be achieved using the computer’s built-in sound card, especially when starting out.
What are the worst audio interfaces for music producers?
The worst audio interfaces for music producers will exhibit characteristics like poor audio quality with noticeable noise or interference, unreliable drivers leading to system crashes or dropouts, limited connectivity options restricting expandability, a complex or non-user-friendly design making setup and operation difficult, and weak customer support or infrequent firmware updates. These flaws can significantly disrupt the recording process, limit the quality of audio capture, and stifle the producer’s overall workflow. In an industry where clarity and reliability are paramount, interfaces with these shortcomings can compromise a producer’s work and hinder the attainment of professional standards.