A Beginners Guide To Audio Interfaces
Interfaces, sound cards, little red lighty-up boxes? There are some truths behind all of those names when talking about Audio Interfaces – especially if you’re using a Focusrite – but today I’m going to give you a beginner’s guide to understanding them. If you’ve been recording using an audio interface for a while now, this article probably isn’t for you. However, if you’re a fresh-faced home recorder then keep on reading.
What does an Audio Interface do?
So let’s start at the very beginning; what actually is an audio interface, and what does it do? An audio interface is an external unit with an input and an output that you can plug an instrument or microphone into so you can record onto a device like a computer. You might hear people refer to audio interfaces as sound cards, which is not technically true since sound cards only deal with audio playback as opposed to everything an interface does.
The audio interface turns an analog signal from your instrument or microphone into a digital signal that the computer understands. An audio interface is designed for the specific purpose of home recording, with much better quality analog to digital converters so this results in much better sound quality than plugging directly into your computer.
What else do you need to start using an audio interface?
Alongside an audio interface, you will need something to record onto – a computer, laptop or even a tablet will do the trick! You will also need to download a programme on your computer for recording onto, these are known as Digital Audio Workstations or “DAWs” for short.
Choosing the right DAW for you can be a bit of a minefield. Since this is a beginner’s guide I will primarily keep to the free ones. If you are using Windows, Audacity or the free version of Reaper are both good options. There aren’t as many features on the free versions as you would expect on the paid versions but they are good programmes to help you find your feet and are fairly intuitive.
If you are using an Apple device, the best free DAW is GarageBand. GarageBand is essentially a lite version of the more professional and costly Logic Pro. GarageBand is perhaps the easiest DAW to get started with as the user interface is super easy to navigate.
What Audio Interface should I buy?
Great, so your computer is at the ready and you have decided on the DAW you are going to use! The next question you may be asking is what interface should I take the plunge on? I’ll give 3 options that I think are good choices.
Starting my list is the PreSonus AudioBox iOne. As you’ve probably guessed by the Apple-ish name of this interface, the iOne can be used with iPads and other tablets. This interface has two inputs, a standard XLR input for microphones and a ¼-inch jack input for instruments.
There is also a phantom power button for microphones that need to be powered. Condenser microphones are primarily the ones that need this feature. The PreSonus AudioBox iOne is currently retailing at £99, so they are priced very reasonably.
The next audio interface is the new RCF TRK Pro 2. If you’re after a few extra features, then this interface might be the one for you. The TRK Pro 2 comes with 2 combination jack inputs, which will allow you to use 2 XLR cables at once, or 2 jack cables, or a combination of both. This is ideal if you are likely to use 2 microphones at once; acoustic singer-songwriters out there, I’m looking at you!
The RCF TRK Pro 2 has better quality converters than the iOne, resulting in very good recording audio quality. RCF claim that there is zero-latency monitoring, which means there is no annoying delay between hitting the note and hearing it back through your speakers.
The Yamaha AG06 is a little different. It looks different from the previous two, but I wanted to throw it in the mix as an interesting alternative. the AG06 is actually a Multipurpose 6 channel mixer with an audio interface built-in. Although it looks like something a sound engineer would use at a live gig, this Yamaha mixer will work exactly the same way as your standard audio interface, with a few extra features.
Unlike other mixers, the AG06 is small and compact. There is an easy to use compression and effects button on channel one, a nice touch. On Channel 2 you also have an amp simulator button that allows for some amp modelling. There is a RCA and a stereo jack input on the mixer so the potential of using multiple microphones and instruments is a lot greater than the iOne and RCF TRK Pro 2.
Yamaha also gives you a download code for Cubase AI. Which is a free Digital Audio Workstation. You can connect the AG06 to both Mac and Widow computers and tablets. The onboard compression can be a handy tool for those wanting to record podcasts or online streaming. Reducing the dynamic range between various microphones will result in a much more consistent recording. Very helpful if you are trying to record different guests whilst using different microphones.
Practice makes perfect.
Now I want to put it out there, recording at home and using DAWs is super fun and inspiring. There is, however, quite a steep learning curve. Navigating a new programme and software will take a bit of time to get used to, but like learning an instrument, perseverance pays off! So keep at it, watch plenty of YouTube tutorials and try not to throw your laptop at the wall.