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Differences Between an Audio Interface and a Preamp

If you’re new to home recording or music recording in general, you’ll need to know about the differences between an audio interface and a preamp.

So what’s the difference? Here’s a short answer for you:

An audio interface may include a preamp, but it also includes other functionalities. An audio interface’s main function is to convert real-world sounds to digital audio signals and vice versa, while a preamp amplifies low-level audio signals when recording. If the audio interface does not have a built-in preamp, you will need to have both an audio interface and a preamp to record.

With that said, let’s explore the differences between an audio interface and a preamp in more detail!

Differences between an audio interface and a preamp

Main differences

The main difference between an audio interface and a preamp is that an audio interface may include a preamp, but it also has other functionalities.

Typically, an audio interface may include the following:

  • Analog to Digital Converter (ADC): This allows us to record real-world audio and it will transform the analog signal into a digital signal that the computer can understand.
  • Digital to Analog Converter (DAC): This allows us to playback audio from the computer.
  • Preamp: This amplifies low-level audio signals when recording.
  • Phantom power: Supplies electricity to active microphones that need power.
  • MIDI: This allows us to record and playback MIDI if connected to a keyboard or instrument with MIDI capabilities.

As you can see, an audio interface is sort of like a hub for recording and playing back audio.


As for the prices, dedicated preamps are usually more expensive to buy, if you look at all the functions you get in an audio interface. This is because usually if you need a separate preamp module, you’re expanding your current setup or you need super high-quality preamps.

Either way, you’re probably in the more advanced category and so the manufacturers are aiming to charge more for selling higher quality dedicated preamps.


Connectivity is also very different between an audio interface and a dedicated preamp module. You see, an audio interface is usually designed with a plug-and-play mindset, with it being a simple-too-use hub for recording and playback purposes. Hence, you can get an audio interface with USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, PCIe connections. Most of the time, you simply plug in 1 cable to your computer, install the driver software, and voila! You’re ready to go.

But when it comes to a standalone preamp, typically we will need to not only connect it to an audio interface or mixer but also connect it to a power supply. The connector type is usually ADAT or S/PDIF, which transfers audio data using fiber optic cables. Yes, it sounds more complicated than using an audio interface, and it is more complicated in use too. So in general, go for an audio interface if you’re just starting out.

Should you get an audio interface or a preamp?

Generally, if you currently don’t have an audio interface and you need to record or produce music, getting an audio interface is a must. Once you get an audio interface, which typically includes a preamp built-in, you are basically ready to make music from scratch to finish.

However, a good quality preamp can help you if you have the following problems:

  • The audio interface has no preamp built-in
  • Need more preamp inputs to record with more microphones and instruments simultaneously
  • Need to add more color and warmth to the recording
  • Need to work with separate analog recording gear

Note that usually in the circumstances above, either you’re experienced or you’re working in an advanced recording studio. Getting a dedicated preamp is usually a good idea if you want to customize your own recording experience.

Most of the time though, you won’t need to get a separate preamp. And if you’re starting out, it’s almost a no-brainer to choose an audio interface over a standalone preamp, as it will save you a lot of time and effort.

Mixer: An alternative to the audio interface

If you’re more into live recording, you can get a mixer instead. Similar to an audio interface, a mixer usually includes preamps built-in and has other functionalities.

Note that a mixer typically is built for live recording use, so for the same price, you’ll be able to get a better quality audio interface for your recording studio. A mixer generally also have many more inputs than an audio interface, since you cannot record tracks one after another in a live setting. Instead, everything happens simultaneously.

Not sure if you should get a mixer instead? Here’s a simpler choice for you: Are you working in a studio or a live venue? If you’re working in a studio, get an audio interface, and if you’re working at a live venue, get a mixer.

Recording without an audio interface or a preamp?

Wondering if you can record audio without buying an audio interface or a preamp? Well, technically you can, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Although computers, laptops, and phones typically come with recording and playback capabilities, the audio quality and noise level will give you a lot of headaches if you plan on working with good quality music. This is because the Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) and Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) built-in are generally cheap. Your computers and phones aren’t meant for producing high-quality audio, but rather providing you with an extremely basic set of audio functionalities.

Also, the preamps in your computer and phone aren’t of high quality when you compare with the preamps you get in an audio interface. And if you’re comparing them with those in a dedicated preamp module, the dedicated preamps will blow them out of the water.

You’ll likely run into problems involving the recorded audio being too quiet, and the background noise is too loud. These are extremely common when recording without a good preamp. Some tricks you can do include increasing the volume using software and use noise suppressor software to reduce noise. But trust me, I’ve tried recording without an audio interface or a preamp when I was just starting out, and it was not worth the hassle.

If you’re planning on producing music and recording good quality audio, just get an audio interface. The low noise level, high-quality audio, high-quality preamps, phantom power, MIDI capabilities, multiple outputs, volume knobs, and other functionalities you get in an audio interface will make the whole music production workflow much, much smoother.

You don’t have to get an expensive one. With today’s technology, getting an audio interface that costs $150 will be more than enough when starting out. You can always upgrade to a more expensive one later down the road when you need it.

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