Which USB audio interfaces are best?
With the advent of the USB audio interface, a professional-sounding home studio is more accessible than ever before. These devices can be plugged directly into your computer’s USB port, providing multiple inputs, built-in preamps, effects and more.
There are many USB audio interfaces to choose from, and selecting the right one for your home studio can be a challenging prospect. If you want a device that’s affordable, durable and loaded with features, the Mackie Onyx Producer is hard to beat.
What to know before you buy a USB audio interface
What is the purpose of a USB audio interface?
While USB and 3.5mm microphones have grown in popularity over the last few years, these rely on your computer’s built-in audio inputs to produce recordings. These kinds of processors can’t handle high-definition audio and usually result in too quiet or full of static recordings. USB audio interfaces, on the other hand, act as an intermediary for your studio equipment. Using professional-quality inputs, these devices transfer the captured audio signal from your instrument and deliver it to your computer in the form of a digital sound file. For more information, check out the complete USB audio interface buying guide from BestReviews.
Inputs and outputs
The number of inputs found on an interface will determine the number of instruments that it can record at one time. Two to three inputs are sufficient for most solo artists, but you’ll need more if you plan to record a full band live. XLR inputs are typically meant for microphones, while people primarily use ¼-inch inputs for instruments, such as guitars and keyboards. Many interfaces boast dual-purpose inputs that are compatible with both cable types. Additionally, USB audio interfaces typically include a headphone jack and L/R ¼-inch outputs. You can use these to play recorded audio on stereo speakers.
An interface’s recording quality is measured by its sample rate. The standard sample rate found in USB audio interfaces is 192kHz, also known as 24-bit. Anything less than 24-bit will result in poor audio quality.
What to look for in a quality USB audio interface
Digital audio workstations
A digital audio workstation refers to software that you can use to edit and save your recordings. These programs allow you to layer tracks, apply EQ and mix everything on your computer screen. If you don’t have a preferred DAW in mind, look for an audio interface that’s bundled with a complete software download or free trial offer.
Every USB audio interface will include volume (or gain) knobs, but some high-end models also include equalization knobs that you can use to adjust the levels of your recordings. This amount of control can produce complex, professional-sounding audio that you can otherwise only achieve via an external DAW.
You can use MIDI cables for connecting electronic instruments like keyboards and drum machines. If you plan to use MIDI instruments, look for an interface that features a MIDI input and output.
How much you can expect to spend on a USB audio interface
Very simple USB audio interfaces can be purchased for around $60, whereas professional-quality interfaces often exceed $250. For a reliable, mid-range interface, expect to pay $100-$200.
USB audio interface FAQ
What is phantom power?
A. Phantom power is a term used to define the DC electrical current required by most condenser microphones. Unlike dynamic microphones, condenser mics produce crystal clear audio and you typically use them for vocal tracking. If you plan to use a condenser mic, look for an interface that supports phantom power.
What else does my home studio need?
A. The gear needed for your home studio will depend on the type of music you wish to create. Singer-songwriters can make it work with just an instrument, a microphone and an interface, while full bands may require additional equipment like multiple microphones and sound-proofing. The internet is an excellent resource for the at-home producer looking for a dream setup. Research discussion forums and watch video tutorials to discover other home studio must-haves.
What’s the best USB audio interface to buy?
Top USB audio interface
What you need to know: This powerful interface boasts sturdy construction and a ton of features.
What you’ll love: The Mackie Producer uses 48V phantom power, two Onyx mic preamps and 24-bit recording to produce professional-sounding audio. The interface includes a free download of Tracktion, a digital audio workstation.
What you should consider: Some users felt that the mic preamp was too quiet.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top USB audio interface for the money
What you need to know: This no-frills interface is a simple way to connect your computer to a sound system.
What you’ll love: While this interface technically isn’t meant for recording, this play-back device uses dual XLR outputs, transformer isolation and a stereo-mono switch to deliver accurate sound quality from your speakers, making it a helpful interface for play-back mixing.
What you should consider: This device doesn’t record audio, meaning you’ll need to purchase an additional interface before your home studio is complete. You have to purchase the USB cable separately.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: This versatile audio interface is particularly well-suited for portable iPad recording.
What you’ll love: The Presonus AudioBox iTwo features two dual-purpose inputs, Class A preamps and 48 volts of phantom power. The bundle also includes a free download of Studio One DAW software and over 6GB of beats and samples.
What you should consider: Some users report a bit of a learning curve when using this interface, while others noted a fair amount of latency.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Patrick Farmer writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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