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Audio Interface Buying Guide

Audio Interface Buying Guide: What to Know Before You Buy

In the home studio, your audio interface is the heart of your recording setup. Audio interfaces capture sound sources (like microphones and guitars), convert them into digital data, and send them to your computer over USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt or PCIe card for recording in your DAW software. Because your interface's microphone preamps and analog-to-digital converters can have a huge impact on the sound quality of your recordings, it's smart to invest in the best interface you can afford.

Scroll down for 9 Questions to Ask Before Buying an Audio Interface »

Some interfaces process just one or two channels (tracks) at a time, and some process dozens of simultaneous inputs. Interfaces are often described in terms of their total I/O (input/output) channel count: an interface with 2 inputs and 4 outputs is "2-in/4-out" or "2x4." Choose an interface with enough mic preamp channels for each microphone you want to record simultaneously.

In this buying guide, we've sorted interfaces by number of mic preamps -- one, two, four, or eight.

Audio Interfaces with 1 Mic Preamp
More inputs isn't always better! For recording one microphone at a time, an interface with one mic preamp is all you need. Want to record to your iPad? The iTrack Solo and Apogee One each come with a 30-pin Apple dock cable, and the IK Multimedia iRig Pro includes both Lightning and 30-pin connectors.

See More Audio Interfaces with 1 Mic Preamp »

  Lexicon Alpha Desktop Recording Studio
Play as You Pay on orders $249+
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  Focusrite iTrack Solo USB and iPad Audio Interface
Like New
$134.95
Save 32%
Play as You Pay on orders $249+
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  IK Multimedia iRig Pro iOS and PC Audio MIDI Interface
Like New
$132.95
Save 11%
Play as You Pay on orders $249+
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  Apogee One Audio Interface for iPad and Mac
or 4 payments of $87.25
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See More Audio Interfaces with 1 Mic Preamp »
Audio Interfaces with 2 Mic Preamps
Interfaces with 2 mic preamps give you the flexibility to record two mic channels simultaneously -- like a mic on guitar and vocal, or a stereo pair of mics in front of a group. Many 2-channel interfaces are designed as "desktop" interfaces, and feature a large ergonomic knob for controlling volume and other settings.

See More Audio Interfaces with 2 Mic Preamps »

  PreSonus AudioBox USB Recording Interface
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$89.95
Save 50%
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  Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface
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  Zoom TAC-2 Thunderbolt Audio Interface
Like New
$359.95
Save 28%
or 4 payments of $100.00
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  Apogee Duet Audio Interface for iPad and Mac
Like New
$579.95
Save 2%
or 4 payments of $148.75
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  RME Babyface USB 2.0 Audio Interface
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$679.95
Save 14%
or 4 payments of $187.25
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  Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo Audio Interface
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$822.95
Save 27%
or 4 payments of $224.75
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See More Audio Interfaces with 2 Mic Preamps »
Audio Interfaces with 4 Mic Preamps
If you're planning on recording multiple musicians, it's nice to have 4 mic preamp channels at your disposal. These larger interfaces typically also give you more output channels -- useful for incorporating outboard gear into your setup, or for setting up multiple headphone sends. However, unlike smaller interfaces, they are typically not able to be bus-powered via USB or FireWire.

See More Audio Interfaces with 4 Mic Preamps »

  Steinberg UR44 USB and iOS Audio Interface
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$276.95
Save 30%
or 4 payments of $75.00
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  PreSonus AudioBox 44VSL USB Audio Interface
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$234.95
Save 38%
or 4 payments of $74.99
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  Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 USB 2.0 Audio Interface
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$317.95
Save 29%
or 4 payments of $87.49
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Audio Interfaces with 8 (or More) Mic Preamps
For recording a full band playing live -- or a fully miked-up drum kit -- you'll probably need at least 8 mic preamps. These audio interfaces are a cost-effective way to get 8 (or more) microphone channels into your computer. Plus, these large interfaces typically offer a full complement of digital inputs and outputs. zZounds customers love these models because they offer serious flexibility and bang-for-the-buck.

See More Audio Interfaces with 8 Mic Preamps »



  Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 FireWire Audio Interface
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$449.95
Save 25%
or 4 payments of $124.99
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  Mackie Onyx Blackbird FireWire Recording Interface
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$447.95
Save 28%
or 4 payments of $125.00
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  PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL USB Audio Interface
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$394.95
Save 37%
or 4 payments of $124.99
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See More Audio Interfaces with 8 Mic Preamps »
9 Questions to Ask Before Buying an Audio Interface

1. How will the interface connect to my computer? USB or FireWire? PCIe or Thunderbolt?

- USB interfaces are the most popular choice, since USB 2.0 ports are found on nearly every Mac or PC.
- FireWire interfaces mainly use the FireWire 400 standard, which is comparable to USB 2.0 in speed. FireWire can be slightly more reliable when recording multiple simultaneous tracks.
- Thunderbolt interfaces take advantage of the high-speed Thunderbolt ports found on newer Macs. These interfaces are becoming more common in pro recording studios. They're a convenient alternative to PCIe (PCI Express) card interfaces, since they can reliably handle high track counts without requiring users to install PCIe cards in their computers.
- Apple 30-pin and Lightning connectors are found on iPads -- and on audio interfaces that are made for iOS recording.

2. How many mic preamps/analog inputs do I need?

- You'll need XLR mic preamp channels for each microphone you're recording simultaneously. If you're planning to use condenser microphones, make sure the preamps can provide +48V phantom power -- a standard feature on most interfaces.
- You'll need an instrument-level (Hi-Z) input channels to plug a guitar or bass directly into your interface. You can plug into one of these high-impedance channels with a regular 1/4" instrument cable -- there's no need to use a separate DI box.
- You'll need analog line inputs to record the outputs from any analog outboard gear you may happen to have.

3. How many analog outputs do I need?

- At minimum, you'll want one headphone output. Some interfaces offer two headphone outputs with their own volume knobs.
- You'll need a pair of monitor outputs to feed your left and right stereo monitor speakers. If you're setting up a 5.1 surround monitoring system, you'll need at least 6 outputs to feed your 6 speakers.
- Got analog gear you want to "insert" on your tracks? You'll need a few analog line outputs to feed your outboard gear.

4. Do I need digital I/O?

An interface with digital inputs and outputs can make your studio much more flexible. If you have outboard gear with digital I/O -- think high-end standalone preamps, hardware mastering processors, or dedicated A/D converter boxes -- you'll want an interface that can accept those digital sources. Check the back of your gear to see what kind of digital connection you'll need: S/PDIF coaxial stereo audio uses RCA-style cables, while S/PDIF optical stereo and ADAT 8-channel optical need TosLink fiber-optic "lightpipe" cables. Shop digital audio cables »

5. What about MIDI I/O?

Built-in MIDI I/O can help streamline your setup. If you use gear with 5-pin DIN MIDI ports -- whether it's a keyboard controller, synth, sound module, or lighting gear -- you may want an audio interface that has MIDI In and Out ports. If your audio interface doesn't have MIDI I/O, you'll need to use a standalone MIDI interface (and use up another USB port on your computer). Either way, you'll need some MIDI cables.

6. Does the interface have on-board DSP?

DSP stands for digital signal processing -- and in an audio interface, it means a specialized hardware chip dedicated to audio tasks. Higher-end interfaces typically come with a DSP mixer -- RME interfaces have TotalMix; PreSonus interfaces have Virtual StudioLive (VSL); MOTU interfaces have CueMix FX. Once they're set up with control-panel software on your host computer screen, these DSP mixers can meter levels, route signals, adjust monitor mixes, or even add real-time effects like delay, reverb and compression.

7. What software is included with the interface?

These days, almost every interface comes with some kind of recording software to get you up and running out of the box. Sometimes, the bundled software is the main attraction. For example, Line 6 POD Studio interfaces include POD Farm plug-ins. Avid Mbox interfaces come with Pro Tools software. And Universal Audio's Apollo series gives you access to the UAD-2 plug-in library.

8. What's the interface's maximum sample rate and bit depth?

When it comes to audio resolution, higher is better. Look for an interface capable of recording at a minimum of 48 kilohertz. For detailed classical/jazz/acoustic recording, film sound design, or anything archive-worthy, look for 96 kHz or even 192 kHz. As far as bit depth, don't even think about recording with less than 24 bits -- it's the professional standard.

9. What is jitter? Do I need an external clock?

Digital recording works by sampling an analog audio signal thousands of times per second, at precise, regularly repeating intervals. The digital audio clock within your audio interface measures these intervals, and its accuracy is critical to audio quality. These timing variations can add distortion known as "jitter." So, will an external master clock device improve your audio quality? The jury is still out on this issue. But higher-end audio interfaces generally offer more accurate internal clocking and lower jitter -- just another reason to invest in the best audio interface you can afford for the heart of your home studio.

Looking for a DJ audio interface? Check out our Digital DJ Buying Guide »

Shop all Audio Interfaces on zZounds »
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Need it now but short of cash? All we need is the first payment up front and the rest in easy monthly payments!

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We approve everyone, with very few exceptions, as long as we can verify your identity.
No interest. Ever.
It's just as if you paid the whole amount up front!
No paperwork. Nothing to track.
No application to mail or fax, no bills to pay. We automatically charge the payments to your credit card.

We'll wait on your money so you don't have to wait for your gear!

When you checkout, just click the Play as you Pay checkbox to indicate which installment plan you wish to use.

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on most orders $29+

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smaller orders

Really heavy stuff might cost you a
little more

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