Once again, cheap interfaces can work at speeds well above 44.1 kHz / 16 bit, but the question is, how well? If you record a drummer, vocalist and guitarist at the same time using eight microphones and record at 44.1 kHz / 16 bit, that means 352,800 snapshots are taken per second, each with 65,536 possible values. This is a staggering amount of calculations, and cheaper equipment may possibly buzz the results a bit. Add to that, it’s pretty common today to record at 48k / 24 bit (it’s 224!) or higher. And unlike the vintage tape machines and tube preamplifiers coveted by sound engineers, inaccuracies in the digital world offer no “heat” or “mojo”.
The quality of the conversion must therefore be taken into account when purchasing an interface. “Nothing is more important for digital audio than data conversion,” writes Dennis Bohn of professional audio company Rane. But there are other features to consider: how many inputs and outputs? A singer-songwriter or an electronic producer who mostly works in the box may only need two of each, while a budding engineer will choose more. Portability is also an issue for some. Does it have microphone preamplifiers, and are they good? What about other types of built-in sound processing? And does it send and receive MIDI? Finally, is it “good enough?” Sound specifications have a way of causing dizziness, highlighting microscopic impurities in the sound that may not even be noticeable. No converter can ruin a solid performance of a knowledgeable arrangement of a well-written song, but an interface nonetheless remains the only port through which all your recorded sounds must pass. Sometimes the $ 150 unit is all you need, sometimes only the top-of-the-line will do. With that in mind, here are some of the best sound interfaces on the market today.
The budding home recorder lives in a time of unprecedented access: FocusRite’s 2i2 is not only a high-quality 2-in / 2-out interface, but it comes with free introductory software from Ableton and ProTools as well as FocusRite’s own plug-in suite. Although limited, this is all you need if you only plan to track one or two sounds at a time. The preamps are solid, it has an “Air” button to add some top-end gloss, and it can handle 24 bit resolution at a sampling frequency of 192kHz. Best of all, the Focusrites are largely plug-and-play, and they’re now even compatible with the iPad Pros. It’s no mystery why Scarlett – affordable, portable, practical and easy to use – is as popular as it is.
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In a world of professional audio, SSL is one of the names that commands instant respect. The company’s consoles have been fixtures in studios since the 80s, honored for their sound, workflow and compression. So when they offered an interface for $ 299.99, some were suspicious: Was this a safe or a legitimate addition to their legendary line? Fortunately, it’s the right item, with two microphone inputs, stereo outputs (plus two headphone outputs), MIDI compatibility and an enticing “4K legacy” button, which gives a nice high-end frequency boost. There is also some bundled software and competitive conversion specifications. It may not quite bring the console feel into your bedroom, but it’s a well-built, inexpensive chip the size of the old block.
Universal Audio’s pedigree is undisputed in the field of sound: the preamplifiers and compressors they developed in the 1960s are some of the most sought after and imitated today. But at the turn of the millennium, the company returned to the market with classic gear software models, followed by their famous Apollo interface series. At first glance, the Apollo Twin does not look so different from SSL or Focusrite – a pair of microphone / line inputs on the back, an additional instrument input on the front and a small supplement of outputs. So why does it cost almost four times as much? Well, the quality of the preamps and converters is pretty high, but it’s mostly about the plug-in package: UAD plugins are some of the best in the game, bringing a compelling vintage warmth and power to your home recordings. The catch is that you can not just buy them alone; you need UAD hardware to run them. But the advantage is that the interface will handle the CPU load of these plug-ins instead of your tired laptop. And you can record through them and print sound like through a real Neve console with a Pultec tucked in. Their Unison software optimizes your signal chain for the two built-in microphone / line inputs – but there is also the much talked about “10- in / 6-out” function: it turns out that you can also freely patch up to eight extra preamplifiers via the optical input on the back.If you have dreamed of traveling the world with a world-class console in your backpack, the Apollo Twin is about as close as you can get.
More input, more options
Despite its quirky name (an acronym for Mark of the Unicorn), the MOTU is the digital sound workhorse. The company’s simple units have been the favorite among countless bedroom manufacturers and small studios, offering a lot of connectivity options and excellent conversion at a competitive price. If you want to multitrack an ensemble but still need to rent, the UltraLite mk5 gives you eight channels of crystal clear sound with 10 outputs for outboard motor processing or multi-channel mixing. Like the Apollo Twin, it can accommodate additional inputs that allow up to 18 in and 22 out simultaneously, and it comes with built-in DSP (digital signal processing): EQs, reverberation, compressors. It even sends and receives MIDI. MOTU does not have the same salivation factor as some of the competitors, but there is a reason why you see it as much out in the field as you do. These devices are intuitive enough for beginners, powerful enough for professionals and versatile enough for almost any application.
If you’re looking for a mixer / interface combination, Soundcraft has a series – ranging from ten inputs to twenty-two – that allow you to track through the familiar channel strips directly into your computer. The dual functionality of these devices is quite tempting: if you need a mixer for a concert, you’re ready to go. Meanwhile, if you prefer to track through analog preamplifiers and EQs instead of carefully plugging in, you can close your eyes and turn the knob until it sounds right. Although the sampling rates are not as high as some of its counterparts – it goes “only” up to 48k, which, let’s be honest, is more than enough for most applications – the ease of use and workflow can inspire you to make better music.
On the surface, the RME Fireface does not seem to offer much more than the MOTU. So why does it cost almost $ 1,000 more? Enjoy all these digital connectivity options: USB 2.0, MIDI in and out, ADAT in and out, AES / EBU, SPDIF and RME’s signature DURec (which allows you to record audio directly to a USB stick, without a computer) – Fireface surpasses its peers with a total of 20 simultaneous inputs and outputs. But it’s also worth noting how good the device’s built-in microphone amplifiers are. Clean, transparent and built to last, Fireface has attracted a devoted following. If you have the money to spend, it will give you peace of mind that if your recording stinks, it is not the fault of your interface.
Aurora (n) from Lynx has a way of making even the smartest of her peers seem picky. This is because it only does one thing, but it does it extraordinarily well. Note that Lynx does not even call it an interface, it is an “AD / DA converter.” This box takes whatever you feed it and converts it with about as much accuracy and transparency as you can hope for. It has no microphone inputs – you have to connect your own mixer. It does not send MIDI clock to your instruments. There is no free software. Only 16 inputs and 16 outputs of pure conversion that you can absolutely trust. For many, it can be excessive. But when you’ve already been obsessed with your guitar pickups, amplifier settings, drum tuning, preamplifiers, acoustic treatment of the room, microphone placement and the acoustic treatment of the room, it might be time for a Lynx.
$ 6,000 for eight inputs and eight outputs may seem like a lot, but when you consider Burl’s impeccable Class A specifications and transistors on each input, it makes sense. Burl products all seek to match the power and warmth of classic studios, with immaculate Neve consoles running into perfectly calibrated Studer tape machines. In a deviation from their peers, the Mothership sends your sound through an analog signal path, which changes character as your signal level rises. Like the Lynx, this box only acts as a converter, but while the Lynx guarantees spotless clarity, the Burl promises beauty.
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