If you’re an aspiring musician or storyteller, there’s never been a better time to begin your journey into audio. The internet has not only made it easier to distribute your work, but there are apps that make it easy to create everything from podcasts to hit records. You can basically download everything you need to get started, but there are still some things that are necessary if you want to take your quality up to the next level. One vital piece of hardware that you’ll need is an audio interface. Which one should you get?
Editor’s note: this list was updated on Aug. 11, 2021, to answer a FAQ on digitizing vinyl records with a USB audio interface, and to address the value to price proposition of the Behringer U-Phoria UMC22.
The best audio interface for most beginners and intermediates is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd gen)
If you’re a novice or just someone who wants a simple interface, go with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It’s an internet classic; no, it’s not the best interface ever made, but it offers more than enough to get you started. It features two inputs on the front so you can plug in two microphones or instruments, each with its own preamp and gain controls. Two line outputs sit on the backplate, so you can connect it to a pair of monitors, and there’s USB 2.0 to connect the Scarlett 2i2 to a computer. Bonus: it even has USB-C compatibility to hook up to your iPad Pro.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
The interface box also houses a 1/4″ headphone jack and a 3.5mm adapter if you don’t have speakers and just want to plug in a pair of headphones. As far as specs go the Scarlett 2i2 can convert 24-bit/192kHz samples, so you can record plenty of detail coming from the mics or instruments. You also get a button for 48V phantom power if you have a mic that needs some DC to get it going.
If you want to save yourself a little bit of money, and you’re unwilling to sacrifice much, you can still find the Scarlett 2i2 (2nd gen) for a bit less than the newest model. You don’t lose much in features, but you won’t have the buttons on the front—instead, you’ll have a few switches to control your inputs.
What is an audio interface, and how does it work?
Have you ever wondered how people are able to connect instruments to computers? It’s not like laptops have a 1/4″ connector next to the USB input so you can directly plug in your electric guitar. The way this is accomplished is via an audio interface, which is a peripheral that converts analog signals made by microphones and other instruments into digital ones that can be recorded into a computer. Audio interfaces act like a middleman that can maintain the sound quality of your instrument way better than your computer can, depending on the quality of its preamps.
Usually, they have two XLR inputs so that you can plug your instrument or mic cables into it. Then there’s usually also a single USB cable that you can plug into the USB port on your computer. It’s worth noting that audio interfaces vary in terms of how they connect with your computer (USB, thunderbolt, etc).
If you’re always on the go, pick up the Zoom H4n Pro
If you’re going to be out and about playing gigs or recording at a friends’ house, then you might want something that’s a little more portable like the Zoom H4n Pro. It’s small enough to easily toss in a backpack (or some large pockets) and gives you 2-inputs wherever you go. It can even run on AA batteries if you’re nowhere near a computer.
Zoom H4n Pro
The H4n Pro can handle instrument cables or XLR cables for microphones. It also has a nifty locking mechanism that prevents the cables from getting pulled out during a recording. The Zoom H4n Pro is first and foremost a 4-track recorder, but it’s also a fine USB interface, so let’s get into some specifics.
The H4n Pro has two mic preamps that make this a great option for podcasters since all you have to do is plug in the mics and hit record. The flexibility of the H4n Pro means you can mount it on a camera hotshoe and capture high-quality audio which you can sync to video. It can convert 24-bit/96kHz audio as well, so although it isn’t technically isn’t as impressive as some of the other options on this list, we figured its size and versatility earned it a place here. Especially since this little guy has phantom power of +24V or +48V too.
Are you recording a full band? Get the Focusrite Clarett 8Pre
If you need to record eight different tracks at once and can spare $869 USD, then you want the Focusrite Clarett 8Pre interface. The Clarett series’ preamps are of a more professional quality than the Scarlett series. It features 8 analog inputs with +48V phantom power. The two inputs on the front are high impedance, so you can use them as direct inputs for instruments. It has 10 line outputs, two of which are specifically for monitoring, and two independent headphone outputs.
Focusrite Clarett 8Pre
The Focusrite Clarett 8Pre can convert up to 24-bit/192kHz recording and connects to your computer via USB (the Clarett 8PreX is similar but with Thunderbolt) for extremely low latency recording. It comes with a software package that can be used to more easily control the device’s functions. You can also use the Clarett 8Pre with MIDI instruments as it has a MIDI I/O on the back.
Professionals should grab the Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB
Every list needs one absurdly priced product to put everything in perspective, so we called on the Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB interface. Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way, this thing is expensive. While the Apollo Twin doesn’t have a bunch of inputs, it does have some great processing to make sure that everything has that nice analog sound everyone loves.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB
You’ll get two inputs on the Mac with Unison-enabled mic preamps and a guitar input on the front along with an output for headphones. The main appeal of the Apollo Twin USB is access to Universal Audio’s world-class effects library which, unlike other software-based options that can drag your computer’s processing power down, the Apollo Twin USB has its own built-in processor to alleviate your RAM and CPU. This reduces latency, so you don’t have to add effects in post-production, rather you can hear how the audio is going to sound with effects while tracking.
It’s also fairly small so you can transport it with little effort. Again, this shouldn’t be your first (or even your second) interface, but if you’re looking to upgrade your setup to something that’s just about as pro as you can go this is worth checking out.
Looking to save some cash? Check out the Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
If you need something that will get your audio onto a computer for cheap, go with the Behringer U-Phoria UMC22. At well under $100 USD, this is one of the better values you can find out there. It houses two inputs right on the front (one for a microphone and one for an instrument), along with phantom power to give the right amount of juice to your mic as well.
Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
The back has two outputs so you can connect a pair of monitors, and like the Scarlett 2i2, you can always plug in a pair of headphones in the front. Again, there aren’t any cool bells and whistles here, but if you want a USB interface that won’t break the bank you need look no further.
Best USB interfaces: notable mentions
- PreSonus Audiobox USB: The PreSonus Audiobox is another solid option for under $100 that features 24-bit/96kHz recording and dual-combo inputs for microphones or instruments. This is about the cheapest entryway into the Pro-Tools universe, if that’s your preferred DAW.
- Roland USB Audio Interface: Roland is a name that brings a certain level of trust to people in audio, and their entry-level USB interface is a solid option that gets the job done. It has two inputs and was designed to minimize noise at all volumes.
- Antelope Zen Synergy Core Go: A relatively new competitor in the USB interface world, Antelope goes head-to-head with Universal Audio at the surprising price of $499 USD. Like the Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB, the Antelope Zen Synergy Core Go (quite a long name there, folks) has two high-quality XLR inputs and a large effects modeling library that comes with the interface. It runs on a USB-C connection and is thoughtfully laid out for a desktop studio with pleasing visual sound monitoring aids.
- Behringer U-PHORIA UMC1820: If you absolutely need 8 inputs because you’re recording a band in a live setting, but you can’t afford the Focusrite Clarett 8Pre, Behringer has you covered with this budget-friendly option, packed with a surprising amount of features such as 8 XLR inputs and S/PDIF and A/DAT expandability. Just be gentle with it, build-quality might not be as rigorously engineered as high-end options.
Why you should get an audio interface
An audio interface is an easy way to improve audio quality
There are a few different reasons why an audio interface is useful. The quality of a mic that’s plugged into an interface via XLR is going to be better than one that’s recorded with a standard USB mic. Although USB mics are definitely useful and have their place, an XLR mic is hard to beat. Especially because there are so many kinds of mics to choose from and although some of the more popular ones like the Blue Yeti X might not require an interface, others do. Why limit yourself?
When you use an audio interface you can ensure fidelity of your instrument’s sound from start to finish. Interfaces do this by amplifying low-level audio signals through a preamp. Initial input from a microphone is usually too low for optimal recording levels, so an interface’s preamp provides a louder signal that makes better use of the analogue to digital converter’s range.
You get multiple inputs
If you’re going to be podcasting with guests or recording a band, it can be cumbersome (if not impossible) to record them one at a time. Imagine trying to interview someone and needing to keep handing the mic back and forth, or asking a band to play the piece one at a time. Is it doable? Of course, but it can also be time-consuming.
Some interfaces only come with one or two XLR inputs, but several more 1/4″ line inputs. These are great if you happen to have other outboard gear already, like standalone hardware preamps (or if you’re feeling industrious and have an older mixing board already in a pinch). This way you can add additional balanced inputs without necessitating buying an interface with more XLR inputs.
One feature to consider if you suspect down the line you’ll need more inputs, but you’re trying to maximize on a budget is looking for a S/PDIF or A/DAT connection which allows you to link a second interface (also with S/PDIF or A/DAT) in a master/slave configuration. Say you’ve got an interface you like with only two XLR inputs, but a S/PDIF connection, then you can use it as a master and link a second interface with a compatible S/PDIF connection, thus expanding your possible simultaneous XLR inputs without having to get rid of your original interface.
This is helpful if you only occasionally need additional inputs, if you’ve got a friend with a second interface, or if you see a sale on a Behringer UMC1820 with 8 inputs. If this is appealing to you, make sure to check carefully prior to purchase, because many budget-friendly USB interfaces scrap this feature to save money. This brings us to our next common question.
Do you need an audio interface to record?
If you have a fairly recent computer or smartphone, you don’t need an audio interface to record anything. Now there are apps like Anchor that make the barrier to entry for podcasting extremely low since you need nothing more than the built-in microphone on your phone. Plus, there are some great apps for making music as well (Garageband and Samplr on iPad). There are even Grammy-nominated artists that produce entire songs with nothing more than an iPhone.
So no, you don’t need an audio interface to make great art. But if you want to record high-quality audio straight into a program on your computer so that you can tweak or edit it, then yes, you will need an interface to accomplish this.
What is a DAW?
The letters DAW stand for Digital Audio Workstation, which is a fancy way of referring to a specific kind of audio program. You may have heard of programs like Audacity, Garageband, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. The list goes on and on. These are all DAWs, and you’ll need one if you want to record the sounds coming through your brand new audio interface. Just plugging an interface into your computer isn’t going to do much. You also need a program that’s going to recognize that interface and record the information that it’s sending through.
Some of these programs can get pretty expensive and might not be worth it for anyone just starting out, but many audio interfaces come with a trial or “lite” version of a DAW so you can at least get a feel for what you like without buying anything extra initially. You’d be better off taking that money and investing in a good microphone to start, especially since there are so many free programs that are surprisingly powerful. One of our favorites here at SoundGuys is Audacity, which we even use ourselves for testing purposes.
What is phantom power?
If you look around at some of these specs long enough you’ll see one term is thrown around over and over again: phantom power. Unfortunately, this isn’t the energy of a ghost or spirit. It’s just an admittedly cool name for providing extra power to a device that needs it (like some microphones). Some microphones generate a signal by themselves, but others need external power to work properly (think: condenser microphones).
All phantom power means is that the interface is providing DC power through pins 2 and 3 of XLR cables, required by some microphones to even work. It’s a good feature to have even if you don’t “need” it, because you may end up getting a microphone that does someday. Additionally, if you have trouble getting the gain you need with your dynamic mic, phantom power is a necessary feature to use the most common accessory to add juice.
Have a dynamic mic? Get a CL-1 Cloudlifter
Dynamic microphones are great all-around microphones and are used for basically everything. However, some popular models aren’t super sensitive. This could result in your recording sounding abnormally low when you listen to it back, meaning you’ll have to bump up the gain and potentially introduce excess noise just to get a usable level. If that’s happening to you, then you might need to invest in this little gadget called the CL-1 Cloudlifter.
Basically what it does is takes the phantom power coming from your interface, and through the magic of engineering, adds 25dB of gain to the signal. It does this without sending the phantom power all the way to the microphone. Obviously, you don’t need one of these for your microphone to work, but if you don’t want to deal with extra noise in your recording: this little device will definitely help.
What else should you know about audio interfaces?
Sure, you can use the built-in mic on your computer or the one that came with your favorite pair of headphones, and don’t get me wrong that can be a style all on its own. There’s no right way to be creative. But if you want to get some crispy clean audio and are ready to upgrade from a USB mic (as good as they can be), then a decent USB audio interface is the way to go. There are a few things you should know and some questions that need to be answered. Let’s start with a fairly basic one: What is a USB interface?
Why are we even writing this?
If you’re reading this with a full understanding of how audio production works, it might seem pretty basic. But think back to when you first started working with sound. Unless you had someone to show you the way, figuring this out was hard work.
I remember hearing Be (Intro) by Common when I was 13 and thinking that all I needed to make a layered beat like that was my Yamaha keyboard and a mixer. About a month of chores and some odd jobs later, I bought my first mixer at Guitar Center. Needless to say, a mixer isn’t what I needed considering I didn’t even have any computer at the time. And only after I explained what I wanted to accomplish to the employee did I understand what I needed. So why write? I’m trying to save some 13-year-old a month of hard work and callused hands.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
In addition to the fact that this site is all of our day jobs, the writers at SoundGuys have several years of reviewing consumer audio products under their belts. We also use microphones on a near-daily basis for podcasting, YouTube work, and other applications, so we know how to produce high-quality recordings on a budget. We operate on a strict ethics policy. We never use ads or sponsored content on the website at a time when doing so is the norm. SoundGuys’ survival depends solely on readers enjoying their purchases. We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts, while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
So the quick answer is try something like the Behringer U-Phono UFO202 Audiophile USB/Audio Interface, which has RCA inputs, a headphone out for monitoring, and some other useful features like a preamp for the turntable. Seeing as you have a Mac, you can hook it up to Garageband. Audacity will work for PC owners as well. If, however, you already have a phono preamp, you can basically use any USB interface that has RCA inputs, and you don't necessarily need a separate device. With that said, if you have no interest in recording your own music or podcasts, the Behringer will do the job of digitizing your vinyl, tapes, reel-to-reel, or any other physical media for like $19 USD.
When looking for the audio quality on these devices, you'll want to pay attention to the sample rate and bit-depth. The sample rate is the number of points of data recorded in a file per second, typically measured in kHz. The greater the sample rate, the greater the resolution of the recording. Bit-depth is the number of bits saved per audio sample, and a higher-resolution file will have a higher bit-depth. The bit-depth is more important than sample rate, though. So, while the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 can record audio at 192kHz/24-bit audio and the Zoom H4n can record 96kHz/24-bit audio, their bit-depth is the same, so there won't be a noticeable difference in quality.
Though most audio mixing is done digitally through your DAW, some advantages of having a mixing board include the multiple inputs and outputs included as well as the tactile sensation of mixing, which some people simply prefer. If you're choosing between an interface and a mixing board, it may just come down to cost. They afford the same basic functions of converting an analog signal into a digital one, but if you're willing to pay a bit more for the ability to mix your tracks on the board, then you'll want to get a mixer. However, if you're just recording music from home and not planning to build a full studio, a simple USB interface will serve you perfectly.
All our top five picks here can be found on Amazon, but you can sometimes get discounts on items through Sweetwater. However, if you're looking for some in-person guidance on what to buy, we recommend heading to your local music store or a Guitar Center to buy your audio interface.
An XLR mic will typically produce superior sound quality because of the difference between the inner mechanisms of its output versus a USB microphone's output. In a USB mic, the electrical currents that exit the microphone share a single channel with the currents that enter it, which can result in in distorted sound. XLR microphones, on the other hand, have two channels for the incoming and outgoing currents (which is why it is called balanced), and they cancel out unwanted noise. Though it's a little more complex than this, it's easy to think of it like a roadway: if you’re driving up a very narrow road and a car coming the opposite direction is trying to pass you, it’s likely you’ll scrape against each other. However, on a highway, the oncoming traffic is separated from your lane by a median, so there’s no danger of collision.