A Guide to Budget Friendly Audio Interfaces

If you want to record your own music from home, you are going to need an audio interface. But, if you are only just starting out a budget audio interface is the best placeto get started, but it’s difficult to know what you really need, and what represents good value for money.

In the following article we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of budget audio interfaces and explain why you really can’t do without one if you hope to record high-quality audio. We’ll also discuss how to choose the right audio interface for your home studio setup based on the kind of music you plan on recording and list some quality, budget interfaces you should be aware of. But if you are short on time, the summary below will help you get started:

Key Points: All home studios need an audio interface to produce high quality audio. Relying solely on your computer will cause problems with regard to latency and connectivity. When choosing a budget interface consider as a priority the number of inputs available and how this will suit the types of recordings you plan on doing e.g. singer-songwriter or recording a full band with acoustic drums. With regard to sound quality, almost all entry level devices offer the same bit-depth and sample rates and quality of preamps and converters. So if considering a new interface the number of inputs, and to a less extent outputs should be your main concern.

What is an audio interface?

If you haven’t read our article on ‘how digital recording works’ it describes the process of taking an analogue signal such as the sound of an acoustic guitar recorded directly into a microphone and replicating the signal digitally.

This occurs so the music you are recording can be brought into the computer and edited and mixed, before being converted back to analogue where it can be heard during playback through speakers or headphones.

In short your audio interface connects your instrument or microphone to the computer and is central to this entire process. Without one, you would need to rely solely on your computer which will likely result in a bunch of problems including:

  • Latency
    Any delay between input (the performance being recorded) and output (playback of the performance and any tracks previously recorded) is known as latency and makes it difficult impossible to play in time to pre-recorded tracks including drums, which is a major issue. A latency of more than 10 – 15 ms is detectable by the human ear.
  • A weak signal
    Particularly when recording with a microphone the signal is often less than what is required by your DAW (digital audio workstation) and requires a preamp to boost the signal to line level. While you can increase the volume (keeping in mind gain and volume are not the same thing) inside your DAW this will also increase the volume of any noise captured on your microphone.
  • Connection issues
    An audio interface typically provides XLR and instrument cable (hi-z) jacks, unlike a computer which typically has a 3.5mm input jack and is not built for professional microphones or instruments. The input jacks are also more difficult to access, whereas an audio interface can sit on the desk in front of you.
  • Electrical interference
    The internal sound card of your computer is more prone to internal grounding issues resulting in electrical interference, causing audible hum to be captured on your recordings. While less of an issue than it once may have been, sound cards may have insufficient shielding to protect against interference from components within your computer such as the power supply. This is even more of an issue with laptops where the components are generally closer together.

So while you could technically record without an audio interface as your computer’s sound card is in itself a type of audio interface and includes both an ADC (analogue to digital converter) and DAC (digital to analogue converter) as you can see from the list above you are bound to run into problems that make it practically impossible to record a quality demo.

It’s true, you could also use a USB microphone if recording vocals and acoustic instruments but you are then limited to that particular microphone and many USB microphones are well over half the price of an entry level audio interface anyway. This might be sufficient if you have one input source e.g. recording a podcast but if recording high-quality audio an interface is a much better option.

So, now we have established why you need an audio interface, the next step is working out which option is best for your requirements.

How to Choose an Audio Interface

So what is the best audio interface for the price?

This is perhaps the wrong question to be asking as the best interface for you depends on how you plan on using it and this largely comes down to your budget and the number of inputs and to a lesser degree outputs available.

I/O (inputs and outputs)

Inputs

The number of, and type of inputs should be the single biggest consideration when choosing a new interface, as this dictates the types of instruments you can record and how many inputs you can record simultaneously. Most people I know who have upgraded their interface rarely do so from a sound quality perspective, in most cases it is because they require more inputs.

If for instance you plan on recording acoustic drums you are likely going to require more mic inputs than a singer/songwriter who may require a single microphone and instrument level (HI-Z) input to record guitars and vocals.

On the other hand you may like to record guitars using two microphones at once, in which case you will need at least two microphone inputs. How you plan on using the device should dictate the number and type of inputs you require.

What types of inputs do interfaces come with?

Combination Input
An audio interface will usually contain at least one mic level input in the form of an XLR input jack, along with an instrument level input, referred to as HI-Z and a line level input.  In some cases these will be combination jacks, and allow you to plug in a microphone or instrument cable or line level cable, directly into the same jack as per the example below.

Midi

Depending on your choice of interface you may also see midi inputs and outputs on the rear of your device which, as the name implies allow you to plug in a mid controller e.g. midi keyboard for recording midi. Most midi controllers also utilize USB connectivity, meaning you can connect directly to the computer so unless you plan on using more than one midi controller this will be less of a concern for most.

What is the difference between Mic and instrument level?
Microphones tend to produce a weak signal and require a preamp to boost the signal to line level. Instrument level refers to the output of a typical instrument e.g. guitar, bass and while stronger than mic level also requires a preamp to boost the signal to line level. Line level inputs are used for connecting audio equipment such as mixing consoles and external effects units.
What is line level?

Line level refers to the level of signal (volume) used to send analogue audio signals between devices. This is the signal level the mic or instrument signal is boosted to before it hits your DAW. There are two types of line level, consumer and professional. Consumer refers to consumer products e.g. CD players are rated at -10dBV. Professional, as you may have guessed, refers to professional audio equipment e.g. mixing desks and of course preamps and is rated at +4dBU.

Outputs

Outputs should also be a consideration, although how important they are to you will depend on the type of recording you plan on doing. For instance, while you can expect to see two speaker outputs for stereo, if you need to connect components such as external preamps, a mixing console or just need an additional output for a headphone mix for the person performing you will need additional outputs.

Headphones outputs

Most entry to mid-level interfaces will have just the one headphone out, which is sufficient for most users. However, if you plan on recording other performers you may want to consider additional headphone jacks.

Another consideration with regard to headphones is where the headphone jack is located e.g. if not on the front panel of the device this can become annoying.

Direct Monitoring

Most audio interfaces offer direct monitoring. This means the input signal being recorded bypasses the computer and is sent directly to the DAC (digital to analogue converter). This allows the performer to hear what they are playing without the potential for latency.

Phantom Power

If you record vocals and record using a condenser mic you are going to require phantom power e.g. 48v power source to power the microphone. While external phantom power outlets are also available it’s far more convenient if this is included on your interface.

You can check this as the device will mention 48v somewhere on the interface and will feature a switch or button that initiates phantom power.

Connectivity

How the interface connects to your computer is also a consideration and the different options offer different transfer rates which have a bearing on latency.

Most entry to mid-level interfaces utilize USB (universal serial bus) to connect the interface to the computer as all computers have USB ports and this also sends power to the device (bus powered), meaning an external power source isn’t required. The technology is also backwards compatible e.g. USB 3.0 is readable by USB 2.0 and USB 1.1 ports, however the transfer speed will be based on the port speed rather than the USB cable.

USB is fine for the novice home studio, and all entry to mid-range interfaces will usually utilize USB connectivity. However, some devices utilize a Firewire connection (also known as IEEE 1394 High Performance Serial Bus) which is a very stable connection, and not reliant on a computer, is faster than USB 3 transfer rates of 480mbp/s, coming in at 800mbp/s and is also self powered.

High end interfaces tend to use Thunderbolt which is incredibly fast, in fact some interfaces now offer up to 40gbs transfer rates making them about 5-6 times faster than USB 3 but this type of device requires a power source as Thunderbolt is unable to an electrical current.

Mac or PC?

While this was once more of a concern, most interfaces are now compatible with both major operating systems. It’s still worth checking, especially if you are considering something a little more obscure than Focusrite or another commonly used brand, but in most cases regardless of Mac or PC your interface should work on either platform.

What about Sound Quality?

Hang on, we haven’t discussed sound quality. Shouldn’t this be the first consideration?

While it may seem strange, interestingly your choice of interface isn’t quite as important with regard to the quality of sound being recorded than the number of inputs your device has, your choice of microphone, the acoustics of the room, the quality of the performance and secondly the computer handling the recording and editing.

This is mostly due to the growing popularity of home recording and the sheer number of affordable interfaces with comparable options with regard to available bit-depth and sample rate. (If you are unsure what this means, be sure to read here: https://recordbetterdemos.com/how-digital-recording-works/#Hertz_so_good)

The preamps and converters included the device uses can color the sound being recorded to some extent and there are differences in preamps with regard to the amount of noise some add to your mix.

Like anything, you do get what you pay for, but if you are comparing options with a specific price range most of the time there will be no discernible difference in sound quality and you will be better served focusing on improving the quality of the audio being recorded with regard to acoustics and microphone selection and placement.

Recommended Audio Interface

As we’re talking budget audio interfaces I’ve left out larger 8+ input/output devices as these wouldn’t normally be considered a ‘budget’ option and most people new to home recording won’t be recording full bands or acoustic drums which typically require a number of microphones and therefore inputs to record simulteneously.

Steinberg UR22

I tend to only offer opinions on devices I have used personally and after using several different interfaces over the years the Steinberg UR22 is the interface I now use and recommend.

If you are a solo performer and just getting started in the home studio, the Steinberg UR22 is a solid offering, featuring all-steel construction, midi, direct monitoring and phantom power.

Unlike other options within this price range the UR22 also offers switchable 5v DC power for connecting to a smart device, in case you want to record your music on your iPad.

OS: Mac, PC, and IOS 6
Connectivity USB 2.0 or 5V DC
Simultaneous Inputs 2 x 2
MAx. sample rate and bit-depth 24-bit/ 192kHz
Mic Inputs (XLR combination inputs): 1 (Yamaha Class-A D-PRE mic preamp)
Instrument Inputs (HI-Z) 1
Line Inputs: 1
Outputs: 1 x Stereo, Headphones and Midi
Midi Yes
Phantom Power Yes
Direct Monitoring Yes

The Steinberg UR22 also comes with Cubase A1, a compact version of the full featured Steinberg Cubase featuring a full compliment of recording, editing, and mixing tools.

Coda

If you are new to home recording, get confused when reading audio engineering forums and just want to know what audio interface you should get the information above should help you make a decision based on your specific requirements. Remember the most important factor almost always is the number of inputs you require. Secondly consider the outputs available including headphone jacks and additional features including direct monitoring and phantom power.

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