The audio interface is an essential piece to many music studios. But if you’re just starting out, or you don’t need all the bells and whistles, is it still a good idea to purchase an audio interface?
Well, I’ve made a simple online tool below for you! In addition to that, I will go over each step in determining if you need an audio interface in more detail.
But before that, here’s a short answer for you:
You need an audio interface at home if you’ll be recording with microphones, guitars, keyboards, and MIDI controllers. Also, if you want higher quality audio for music production, you will definitely need an audio interface.
Now, here’s the simple tool for you to determine if you need an audio interface at home:
Do you need an audio interface at home?
Although most computer and laptops these days come with microphone and headphone jacks, they are not of high quality. They are designed to be cheap and simple to use. You may find that the noise to be very loud, and/or the voice recording to be muffled. The reason behind this is that the Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) and Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) used inside the sound cards of the computer and laptops aren’t of high enough quality for serious audio users.
If you need high recording and/or playback quality, the best way is to just get an audio interface. Not only will you get professional quality ADCs and DACs but also other essential functionalities for a home music studio workflow, which we will discuss in greater detail below.
If you need to record vocals for your song, or voice for your podcast, you’ll need to have a microphone. Typically, there are 2 choices on the market right now for you to choose from USB microphones and XLR microphones.
The main advantage of getting a USB microphone is price and convenience. However, I personally find it very limited and you will very quickly outgrow it.
Let me give you an example: You can start recording by connecting the USB cable from the microphone to your computer in under 10 minutes, but if you want to listen to your voice while recording (direct monitoring) you’re out of luck. This is because when your voice travels through your computer and gets processed, there will be a delay (latency) before you can hear your voice through the headphones.
If all you need is to record your voice on the computer and nothing else, then getting a USB microphone is a good choice. That means that you don’t need high-quality playback, no direct monitoring needed and you’ll only be recording with 1 USB microphone at any one time. In that case, you probably won’t need an audio interface.
The solution to this is to get an XLR microphone and an audio interface. You’ll find that most music studios, big and small, use XLR microphones and an audio interface to get their vocal recording done. There are several advantages to using this combination:
- Balanced XLR cables eliminate electronic interference.
- XLR connectors are safe and secure, due to the design of the 3 pins.
- The audio interface can provide phantom power (+48V) to power XLR condenser microphones.
- Convenient volume control knobs.
- Direct monitoring for listening to your voice/instrument while recording.
- Professional audio quality, both recording, and playback.
- Microphone preamp for boosting microphone signal.
Recording external instruments
Do you need to record external instruments? That includes guitars, synthesizers, keyboards, and so on. If you do, you should get an audio interface.
By having an audio interface, you won’t need to worry about getting adapters for the connection as audio interfaces’ inputs are designed for connecting instruments directly, for the mic, line, and instrument signals. For example, if you want to record your electric guitar, you can simply plug the guitar cable straight into one of the inputs of your audio interface, and voila! You can now start recording.
One exception is if you’re only using MIDI instruments and/or controllers, you can technically get by without using an audio interface. Whether your MIDI device uses a USB connector to connect directly to the computer, or you can get a MIDI to USB adapter to connect them.
But if you see yourself recording more instruments in the future, you should get an audio interface, as it will save you money and time. This advice comes from personal experience. Before I got an audio interface when I was just getting started, I figured I could just get a MIDI to USB adapter to record my MIDI keyboard. But later turns out that I need to record guitars… So I basically bought a MIDI to USB adapter that was only used for like 5 times.
Headphones and studio monitors
Getting good quality headphones and studio monitors are crucial for music production in a home studio. If you have or will be getting them, you should definitely get an audio interface.
If you try to plug the headphones or studio monitors straight into a computer, you’ll find that not only do the connectors generally don’t match but the audio quality you get isn’t up to your expectations. Let’s look at it this way: If the audio that comes from the computer is of low quality, how can your headphones or studio monitor playback high-quality audio? Well, they can’t.
On another note, without an audio interface, you’ll be limited to 1 microphone input and 1 headphone output. This may cause serious problems when you need to record multiple sources simultaneously, or you have more than a pair of headphones/speakers.
For example, if you’d like to record your vocal and guitar at the same time, you won’t be able to do so without an audio interface. Also, if you want to connect both headphones and speakers to your computer without constantly plugging and unplugging to switch between them, you’ll need an audio interface.
Therefore, if you’re choosing an audio interface, I would recommend choosing one with at least 2 mono microphone/instrument inputs, and 2 stereo outputs. Audio interfaces usually come with a separate headphone jack in addition to the stereo outputs for studio monitors.
Digital audio workstation (DAW)
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a piece of software for music and audio editing. DAWs have many uses, but the most common uses are:
- Recording and playback audio
- Cut, copy and paste audio clips
- Layering and mixing audio
- Add effects and processing
- Audio summing and mastering
If you’re interested in using a DAW, which can basically record and manipulate audio in any way you can think of, then you may want to look into bundle deals. Many digital audio workstations (DAW) come bundled with an audio interface, so you can actually save money by going this route. However, the software that comes bundled with the audio interface is often not the full version. This is great for you to get started, but you may need to upgrade it later down the road for more functionalities.
In other words, if you’re going to use a DAW, I personally recommend getting an audio interface.