If you’ve outgrown your audio interface and want to replace it with something more flexible, you’ll need to look beyond the number of inputs and outputs on offer. To help you choose the best audio interface for your needs, we’ve put together a list of five things to consider.
1: You’ll need more than eight inputs
How many inputs do you need? This isn’t as simple as counting your audio sources and making sure you have enough inputs:
- Many musicians consider an eight-input interface to be sufficient. But this is actually the minimum number of channels needed for recording a live rock band: four mics for your drum kit plus guitar, bass, vocals and a mono keyboard.
- If you want to record with maximum clarity and control, a drum kit could easily require eight inputs. So it’s much better to have the extra inputs if you can afford them, so you can expand when you need to (and that point always comes sooner rather than later).
- Remember that although some recording audio interfaces advertise a lot of inputs, they often only include two preamps. If you want to record with microphones you’ll need as many preamps as you have microphone sources – leading to additional cost, cables and connection headaches
- Check the phantom power situation. Many interfaces have a ‘global’ phantom power switch that either applies to all channels at once or applies to groups of four. Ideally, individual phantom-power for each channel gives you more flexibility, so you can use different mixes of condenser mics, ribbon mics, etc. without accidentally torching a ribbon microphone with phantom power
2: Multiple outputs: can you send sound to different parts of the room?
The ability to hear your mix on different speakers (or monitors) is one of the most common reasons for having multiple outputs, but there are many other uses too:
- If you’re recording a band, you’ll need to route a click track to a pair of headphones, while playing the music out of your main monitors
- Most interfaces with two outputs also feature a headphone output, but the headphones will usually receive the same signal that goes to your speakers. If you send the click track to headphones only, you’ll need an interface that can route independent channels to the headphones
- For live work, you may want to route the music to a number of different PA speakers, some angled towards the crowd and others used for on-stage monitors so the band can hear their playing
- To sum up, if you use more than two speakers, you’ll need an interface with more outputs
3: Portable audio interfaces are far more practical
If you’re recording or live mixing a band, you’ll need an audio interface that is easy to carry and easy to use once the session begins.
Many multi-input interfaces are designed to fit into a 1U rack – not particularly easy to carry to a gig or put down on a table once you get there. Audio interfaces which are more compact, such as Roland’s Studio Capture, have a smaller footprint so can be carried around easily and are far quicker to set up.
You should also choose an audio interface with level meters, so you can see the level of incoming audio signals and prevent clipping.
4: Flexible monitoring gives your band members their own monitor mix
Separate monitor mixes are essential for studio and live recording. Imagine having different cue mixes for different musicians – more vocals for the vocalist, more bass for the bass player or different monitoring for wedges or in-ear monitors.
Some audio interfaces can even send the sound coming from your DAW or instruments to as many as four separate mixes, which can in turn be sent on to any pair of outputs. This handy feature essentially means you have four separate mixers built into your audio interface.
5: Build quality matters – the cheaper option can be more expensive
If you’ll take your interface on the road, it’ll inevitably get knocked about.
Make sure you look for an interface that is well built – cheap plastic casing smashes easily when dropped.
Likewise, poor quality knobs and switches are unlikely to cope with life on the road, so it’s worth paying a little extra for a quality audio interface that is built to last.
Finally, remember that an audio interface will be constantly hooked up to all manner of different input sources. The housings supporting the various inputs and outputs need to be robust and sturdy, and they also need to facilitate high-quality, low-noise signal transfer, ensuring that the audio is of premium quality – which is what it’s all about.