When you’re sitting in your potential home studio surrounded by microphones, instruments, and a computer, tablet, or smartphone that’s up to the task, all that’s standing between you and your musical dreams is an audio interface, a translator between analog sound waves and digital audio.
If you’re just starting out, or bumping up a step from your entry-level, this is the list for you. We’ll go over some of the questions that go into choosing an interface before reviewing our Best Interface candidates.
We’ve chosen to list interfaces divided into three applications:
Stereo XLR/instrument interfaces: the bread and butter of the basic home studio
Multichannel interfaces: when two simultaneous inputs are not enough
Specialty products: including dedicated interfaces for guitar, DJs, and podcasters
With some exceptions, the USB interface field is a “get what you pay for” situation. Go for the best quality you can afford, and your work along the way will be easier.
However, if the choice is between a sub-$100 interface and not recording at all, get the interface. Consider that the average computer with an inexpensive interface has capabilities beyond those that The Beatles had through their halcyon days.
You’re living in a great time for DIY recording. Get out there and get at it.
There’s no “industry standard” design for the 2-in/2-out, analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog USB interface, but sometimes you might wonder, given the number of products that fit in boxes of about the same size with similar layouts. The biggest differences are often the color choices.
That’s not universally true, but the stereo USB interface is simple enough that it’s easy to skip the hybrid level of interfaces and begin with this class of device. They’re versatile, able to handle microphones, guitars, and line-level sound sources without additional equipment. They come at all price points and levels of quality.
For the best of the best here, we’ve selected budget and intermediate contenders, as well as honorable mention for two recording bundles that come in under the $500 limit, and provide you with virtually everything you need on the front end of a home recording setup.
At a shade over $100 street price, your stereo USB interface budget option might be the easiest good decision you ever make. The first time you recognize a superior preamp, it’s immediately obvious that your best mic sounds better or your guitar has life it’s never had before.
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Of course, if the Scarlett Solo is your first interface, you may not know this experience for a while. However, if you’ve tried to make computer sound cards do the job for you, you’ll be in for a big surprise.
The Focusrite preamps used for all its Scarlett interface line are simply heads and tails above their price point competitors. This may be the one case where you get more than what you paid for, when you compare with other $100 USB interfaces.
The Solo is the “baby” of the Scarlett line, targeted to the singer-songwriter, with one XLR input and one ¼” instrument input.
The scarlet and black enclosure is sleek and stately, a serious piece of gear that you’ll feel you paid more for.
Connections are simple. There’s a USB connection, of course, and right and left outputs for powered monitors on the back, with the aforementioned inputs and a headphone jack on the front. Each input has its own gain control, circled by an LED-lit ring, called a “halo indicator” by the company.
Green is good, amber is uh-oh, and red is clipping. It’s an easy and intuitive way to set input gain, without giving up panel space for more conventional level indicators.
The XLR input has switchable +48V phantom power, and a curious button called “Air.” Applying an equalization curve that makes most mics sound brighter and open, it’s often all you need to score a professional vocal sound.
The Focusrite bundled software package is serious. With entry-level versions of both Pro Tools and Ableton Live, you’re ready to go out of the box with all the applications you need. That’s only the beginning of the content and plug-ins to which you’ll have access.
• Best sounding preamps in its class
• Standard USB 2-in/2-out capability
• Very little latency added by the interface
• Best value for the dollar
• The single XLR input may be limiting for some users
After the preamp quality seen in the Focusrite Solo, it’s tough to follow, but in the $300 price range the Audient iD14 meets and surpasses the Scarlett. Officially, the iD14 earns its number as a 10-input/4-output interface.
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However, that’s not what it’s capable of out of the box. The big numbers come from its digital expandability, with 8 inputs of ADAT digital and 2 extra S/PDIF channels, all delivered through an optical cable. While that’s some very impressive expandability, it requires more gear. This is a 2-in/2-out interface as is. But… what an as-is!
If it were just a matter of putting preamps up against each other, it would likely be a dead heat, with each brand having its own fans with plenty of undecided in the middle.
But an interface is converting analog to digital, remember, not just amplifying mics. Combine Audient’s preamps with Burr-Brown digital converters and you’ll hear how important each aspect is for achieving great sound. Burr-Brown is one of those names that’s often heard in hushed reverence, synonymous with excellence in its chosen field.
So, sonically, this box is there. It then takes it over the top with its ScrollControl mode. The big scroll wheel on the right of the device works as a parameter controller for some of your DAW software parameters. Combined, that makes the iD14 an easy choice at its price point.
• Excellent preamps combined with superior digital conversion
• The device works more like a studio hub than just an interface
• Future expandability
• Some users had issues with operation under Windows in the past; however, there are no recent complaints
When you want bang for the buck in the early stages of your recording adventures, both PreSonus and Focusrite get it.
Each offers a quality stereo USB interface with a large diaphragm condenser microphone, the design that gives big, pro studio vocal sounds, and a set of headphones to enable monitoring. Each bundle includes a mic cable, so all you need is a mic stand and a computer.
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The Scarlett 2i2 is one step up from the Solo, the top budget stereo interface, and shares its features and benefits, and adding a second XLR input and combi jacks on both inputs, so you can record two microphones or stereo guitar effects and keyboards, capabilities a bit beyond the Solo.
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The AudioBox 96 follows the 2i2 in both features and functions. Your decision could come down to your preference of blue and white over black and red, and you’ll make a solid choice no matter which way you go.
If all you aspire to do with your recording is one track at a time, then the two-in/two-out interfaces we’ve already reviewed are all you’ll need. However, the more you do, the more you want in some cases, and as you learn signal routing, you’ll come up with more complex ways to achieve the sounds that live in your head.
For example, recording a singer-guitarist is certainly easy enough with one mic on the voice and one on the guitar. You could even do it with a single mic and careful positioning. However, imagine that voice in the middle of a stereo image of the guitar, wrapping gently around it, giving the illusion of a live performance in an actual space.
A stereo mic array on an acoustic guitar can be a delicious, spacious sound but it needs two discrete channels for itself. That’s still within the scope of a stereo device, but when you want a mic on the singer’s voice also, you’ll need to overdub, and sometimes that interferes with the integrity of the performance.
Then you think of the cello player you know, and how good that instrument would sound. Yes, there’s still overdubs, but when you feel the magic of players making eye contact in the same room as they play, you’re also likely to catch nuances of performance that isn’t easily matched building track by track.
For our last three under-$500 USB interfaces, we will look at simultaneous inputs of 4, 6, 8 tracks, for when simple stereo isn’t enough. To qualify here, the interface must offer its inputs out of the box, no matter what its expansion capability is.
At first view, the U-Phoria UMC404 seems a bit more complex than typical stereo interfaces. However, its busier front face is simply one channel times 4. Each of its inputs uses a combi jack accepting both XLR and ¼” connections, and every input has its own control section to the right.
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For a compact multitrack unit, moving controls away from the jacks is smart since you’re not trying to adjust around the cable connections.
Each input has a rotary gain control, selector for Line or Instrument level, a pad button for taming hot signals, and LEDs to indicate both that an audio signal is present and when that signal causes clipping. The output section features a headphone jack and its volume control, a Main Out level control for monitors and a Mix blend knob for choosing amounts of input and playback signals.
Extra touches include the Stereo/Mono button which permits easy checking of phase relationships and two more LEDs marked In and Out, reflecting the presence of MIDI data. Yes, the U-Phoria features MIDI routing as well, through 5-pin DIN style jacks on the back.
The back is just as loaded as the front. Phantom power is switched back there, and you have 8 playback connections, two for each channel using your choice of ¼” or RCA connectors. Stereo outputs use ¼” and XLR jacks to connect to monitors, and another extra touch, each input channel has a line insert ¼” jack.
Line inserts are most used to break out a signal for secondary recording, or for incorporating dynamics processing like limiters or compressors at the start of the signal chain.
In a device that’s somewhat south of $200, there’s a lot in store here. While Behringer is somewhat notorious for fluctuations of quality across their product line, the UMC404 is on the mark. The Midas preamps won’t have the Scarlett or Audient worried about the competition, but they are competent. In terms of features to dollars, the U-Phoria makes a very enticing way to record four tracks simultaneously.
• The most cost-effective multitrack USB interface
• Loaded with extras like line inserts and MIDI routing
• Well-built with plenty of positive user reviews
• Not the best preamps available, but neither are they problematic
• Behringer’s software bundle never causes much excitement
Perhaps the Steinberg UR44 should come with half an asterisk as a 6-input interface, because it has 4 XLR/combi jacks and two ¼” line level inputs. When you consider, though, that six simultaneous inputs is in sort of a utilitarian no-man’s land, those two line inputs make sense.
Six tracks are about the lowest comfortable track count with which to record a band, if you consider the drum kit having its own mixer. Those two inputs can accept the stereo signal from the drum mixer, leaving you with the four combi jack tracks for the rest of the band. It’s tight, but you still have stereo drums.
The UR44 is an interface that I’d trust with that task. The front face is a bit more streamlined, yet a bit more versatile, than the U-Phoria, so kudos to Steinberg’s designers. Channels 1 and 2 are dedicated to mics and high impedance instruments (i.e. guitars and basses), while 3 and 4 combine mics and line level inputs.
Each channel has a peak signal LED, and each pair of channels has switchable phantom power and phantom power on LEDs. There are gain controls for each of the front panel inputs.
Two, count ‘em two, headphone jacks, each with its own volume, grace the right side along with the Output control. The UR44 also supports MIDI routing on the back panel, along with the inputs for channels 5 and 6, four line outputs and the Left and Right main outputs, all using exclusively ¼” jacks.
Simple, and coupled with Steinberg’s reputation for solid performance, the UR44 delivers six simultaneous inputs with a street price a little over $300. When you need an elevated track count with a mid-level budget, the Steinberg UR44 won’t steer you wrong.
• 6 simultaneous inputs with MIDI routing
• Software bundle includes Steinberg’s Cubase AI
• Slick, streamlined layout covering all the essentials
• The software interface is somewhat featureless
If the $500 price point isn’t a terrible strain on your budget and you want future expandability by the bucketload, run, don’t walk, and hunt down a Scarlett 18i20. This is a collection of eight Scarlett preamps, the same design featured in the Scarlett Solo, reviewed above.
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These are Nice Preamps. It can’t be stated enough. Yes, there are better preamps on higher-priced equipment, but the “better” beyond the Scarlett level, is incremental. You’ll pay a lot of money to get better results, and it may take your ears some time to realize the differences.
The 18i20 gives you, officially, 18 inputs and 20 outputs. However, 10 of those ins and outs are digital, so they don’t count under the rules of our review here. However #2, you can do one heck of a lot with the 8 out-of-the-box ins and outs.
On the front panel of this 1U rack mount form factor, you’ve got channels 1 and 2, which are combi jacked mic/high impedance inputs. Front face is nice to keep a guitar and bass plugged in and easily switchable if you do put the 18i20 into a rack. There are six more combi jacks on the back for the remainder of the analog inputs.
To the right of the front inputs are two phantom power switches, toggling channels 1 to 4 and channels 5 to 8. Following those are 8 gain controls. The first two have switches for both pad and instrument levels, while the remainder have just the pad function.
Starting the output section is a monitoring matrix, 8 columns of 5 LEDs each, representing the levels of the input channels. These make it easy to watch for hot or low signals on the way in. Generation 3 adds an integrated talkback microphone, handy for studio communications, and an alternate monitor control for easy switching between two sets of monitors.
There’s Dim and Mute buttons for lowering or killing monitor levels in a hurry, and two front-face headphone jacks each with a volume control.
Around back is where the future potential of the 18i20 lives. Of course, there are the 10 analog outputs and the Scarlett also supports MIDI routing.
The optical and S/PDIF connectors present the growth potential. I won’t dwell on these, but Focusrite makes a device called the Octopre, which uses the ADAT optical port to add an additional 8 XLR/line inputs for the 18i20, giving you 16 tracks of analog inputs delivered to your computer through USB. Multitrack heaven.
• A serious option for a serious home studio
• Great-sounding preamps and plenty of them
• Focusrite’s amazing software bundle including Pro Tools and Ableton Live
• Future expandability to 16 tracks and beyond
So, what’s a hybrid interface anyway? It’s not a formal term, but rather what I call devices that have specific applications, but that also perform audio interface functions. For example, there are plenty of guitar multi-effects pedals with USB connections for programming, but which also act as interfaces for recording or play-along purposes.
Sometimes, you only need a microphone that’s a step above a cheap 3.5mm-equipped device that plugs into a computer sound card. The most obvious application would be recording a podcast with a decent microphone that imparts “radio announcer” quality to your voice. Almost invariably, that mic will be equipped with an XLR connector.
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The Pyle XLR-to-USB signal adapter lets you use most higher-quality microphones directly with your computer. It couldn’t be much easier. This interface plugs directly into the microphone, with a connection for both the USB cable and headphones, so you can hear back what you’ve recorded.
The Pyle also provides +48 volts for use with condenser mics, a design that often provides a larger than life quality to voices. Without this supply, called phantom power, condenser mics are useless, since they need to have one plate of their diaphragm charged with this voltage. For a $50 device, that’s a nice touch.
Other controls include a Mute button, Mix dial and Headphone volume. The Mute conveniently gives you a way to shut off the microphone without disconnecting it. While it’s not a feature you think about at the purchase stage, it’s one that you’ll likely end up using a lot.
The Mix blend and Headphone volume are about the minimum of controls an audio interface can have. Mix lets you vary the amount of microphone signal with computer playback, essential if you’re going to record your voice over pre-recorded music or other audio.
If you don’t need content from your computer, turn the Mix fully counterclockwise, so you’ll get mic audio only through your headphones. If you’re done recording, rotating Mix fully clockwise gives you only computer playback.
• A convenient and affordable way to connect a quality microphone with your computer
• Essentially converts any XLR microphone to a USB microphone
• Provides +48V phantom power for condenser mic support
• The preamp adds limited gain, and it’s noisy if you need to boost the mic signal aggressively
• There’s no way to use this with non-XLR equipment
If you’re a guitar-oriented type who doesn’t even sing in the shower, then the UCG102 may be more your speed. In the same price range as the Pyle adapter, the UCG102 provides similar features, only supporting guitar rather than microphones.
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There are two ¼” jacks, clearly marked with icons for headphones and guitar. One LED indicates when a USB connection is active and the other flashes when your guitar signal is too hot and starting to distort. On the left, there’s a rotary control for headphone volume while the right side has a Level selector with Hi and Lo settings.
There’s a permanently connected cable opposite the inputs that connects to a USB port. USB provides power to the unit. It’s possible to find the UCG102 in packages that includes headphones and a guitar cable, providing everything you need to start recording, except, of course, for the computer.
There’s some low-level public domain software included with the package, but the only piece worth a look is Native Instruments Guitar Combos. If you haven’t worked with a virtual guitar processor before, this is a good place to start. It’s an entry level version of the company’s Guitar Rig software, a collection of amplifier and guitar effects emulators.
• Dedicated to guitar use, very affordable
• Works with active and passive pickup guitars
• Headphone output can drive powered monitor speakers
• The bundled software package isn’t earthshaking
• Not suitable for microphones
When it comes to urban and electronic music, the audio needs of the contemporary DJ/creator are somewhat different than the standard “recording studio at home” paradigm. Perhaps the most obvious needs are inputs dedicated to vinyl turntables as well as a convenient crossfade between primary sound sources. Oh, and if you could throw a mic or two in there for the occasional rap over the beats, so much the better.
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The VMX1000USB is precisely this beast. As a USB interface, it’s seamless, supporting both PC or Mac with plug-and-play connectivity. This reflects the design philosophy behind this mixer, which is to provide a hardware front end for digital manipulation of music as created by DJs.
Seven channels start with two XLR equipped mic channels each with one-button talkover selection so you can schmooze while your tunes continue to churn. Three more inputs switch between Phono and Line input, important for level matching to your Technics SL-1200 classic scratching turntable.
The last two channels switch between Line and CD level, not as critical a setting as Line and Phono, but a nice touch for mixing and matching sound sources. The flexibility extends when you consider the connectivity on the back of the VMX1000USB. There are pro-level USB outputs for club systems, including a dedicated subwoofer output.
As befitting a DJ mixer, inputs use RCA connectors. Somewhat less appropriate is the RCA connectors for the FX send and return. These should probably be ¼” to save you from additional adapters, however, it’s not a fatal flaw. In all, there’s likely not a more affordable way to get into the DJ game while staying computer-connected with one box. The VMX1000USB is a powerful entry-level tool.
• Seven inputs including support for two XLR mics
• A reasonable and large software bundle available through the manufacturer
• All the essential tools for professional DJ effects
• Very touchy faders with little movement resistance
• Entry level pricing reflected in build quality
When recording was tape-based, there was essentially a single conversion between sound and recording medium. Acoustic energy in the air – the waves we perceive as sound – pushed microphone diaphragms in tiny ways that created an equally tiny electrical signal.
This electrical signal was boosted by preamplifiers and amplifiers until it reached what we call line level, then it was directed to a recorder using magnetic tape to capture and hold the signal. Small electrical coils generated magnetic fields that arranged oxides on the tape in a certain way so that, when played back, those oxides caused a playback head to generate its own tiny electrical signal that reversed the process, only now the electrical signal got amplified and directed toward speakers or headphones.
Arguably, there’s an additional conversion from electrical to magnetic energy. However, these all exist within the electrical analog realm. Acoustic energy, either interacting with microphones or emerging from speakers, is a completely different ball game.
With digital, the signal path to the recording medium progresses more or less the same way (with some exceptions we’ll get to shortly) as with tape-based systems, right up until the point where the signal arrives at the tape recorder.
Now, instead of an electrical signal becoming a magnetic signal, it’s being converted into binary digital information. Ones and zeros. Millions of little on or off signals. Digital audio. This conversion, between the analog and digital realms, requires a specialized device called an interface. Its primary function is turning electrical signals into digital data.
In closing, I’ll once again point out that budget should never interfere with your desire to record. Some of the great music of the rock and roll generation came out of primitive conditions with slapdash equipment.
If buying a $50 device gets you in the game, but it’s not all you want it to be, well, it’s $50 and you’re learning. Do nothing until you can afford the $500 gear and you may lose the fire in your belly in the meantime. Find your device and start recording. And welcome to the club!