Having the right gear for your home studio is an absolute necessity.
Music production is computer based nowadays which makes it important to understand software as much as hardware.
In this article you’ll learn:
- what an audio interface is
- types of audio interfaces
- why you need an audio interface (even for a home studio)
- and some of the benefits that come with an audio interface.
With that said, is an audio interface necessary for a home studio?
An audio interface is necessary for a home studio, without it; you have to rely on your computers built-in sound card.
The downside is; built-in sound cards are notorious for high latency and average audio quality.
With an audio interface you get; higher bit depth, better DAC conversion, more input options and direct monitoring.
These are some of the reasons why most audiophiles will advise you to get an audio interface, even for a simple home studio.
You can record vocals, mix and master them without an audio interface but the quality you would end up with would fall short compared to the quality you’d get using an audio interface.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a device whose role is to convert analog signals to digital signals and convert digital signals back to analog signals.
In simple terms, what an audio interface does is: it records analog signals like vocals and then converts them to a digital signal that your computer is able to understand and interpret through the use of a Digital Audio Workstation.
When you playback the audio using your computer, the sound you hear through your speakers is an analog signal which is a result of the audio interface converting the digital signal back to analog on playback.
Types of Audio Interfaces
USB Audio Interface
The USB audio interface is the most common type of audio interface because it is the easiest to use and is designed for home and project studios.
It is the more affordable choice and connects to a computers USB port.
Thunderbolt Audio Interface
The thunderbolt audio interface is one you’ll find in most high end professional recording studios because it is faster and more power than the USB audio interface, allowing for more channels and lower latency.
Firewire Audio Interface
Firewire Audio Interfaces are similar to thunderbolt audio interfaces, however, not as common as them. They are still used in some older equipment and are known for their stability and low latency.
Audio Interface Necessity In a Home Studio
The things that make an audio interface necessary for a home studio are what you should consider when buying one.
These things include; the sound quality of the audio interface, input/output options, latency, compatibility and versatility.
Lets look at each one of these in detail.
Better Sound Quality
An audio interface serves as the bridge between your analog equipment (such as microphones, guitars and keyboards etc.) and your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
A DAW can be used without an audio interface, in which case you have to rely on your inbuilt sound card.
But you must remember that; audio interfaces are manufactured with high audio quality input and output in mind.
As a result they’re equipped with high quality Analog-to-Digital converters (ADC’s) and Digital-to-Analog converters (DAC’s) that convert the electrical signals produced by your analog gear into a digital signals that can be processed by your computer.
Therefore, with an audio interface you get intentional high quality sound characterized by clarity, less noise and distortion.
Additionally, Your computer’s built-in sound card has poor clocking and jitter reduction.
Jitter is simply the time distortion of recording/playback of a digital audio signal.
It is usually heard as an unpleasant distortion or audio artifact in the sound such as clicking.
Audio interfaces are way better at synchronizing the incoming analog signals with your DAW’s clock, reducing the amount of timing errors and jitter in recordings.
Further more, the internal components of audio interfaces are often designed to provide a more detailed and accurate representation of audio. This results in more natural sounding recordings.
To sum up, audio interfaces have better signal-to-noise ratio compared to built in sound cards.
Therefore some audio interfaces are more expensive because they have a better signal-to-noise ratio and better converters which results in better sound quality.
Its worth determining whether you need an expensive audio interface or not.
More Input/Output Options
Audio interfaces provide more input options which allows you to use different equipment. Some of these inputs are:
XLR inputs are commonly used for connecting microphones which require phantom power to operate.
1/4- Inch Instrument Inputs
These are inputs used for connecting instruments like electric guitars, basses, and other instruments.
RCA Inputs are used for connecting consumer-level audio equipment like CD Players or turntables.
These inputs are used for midi equipment like keyboards or midi controllers.
These are inputs specially designed for digital audio sources like ADAT ( Alesis Digital Audio Tape) sometimes simply called Tape and S/PDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface)
Compatibility and Versatility
Audio interfaces are designed to work with popular DAWs such as Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools.
This makes it easier to integrate your audio interface into your home studio setup and get up and running quickly.
Most audio interfaces come with drivers and software that you can easily install on your computer to ensure compatibility with your computer.
In addition to software compatibility, audio interfaces come in different shapes and sizes, from small, portable units that can be easily carried in a backpack to larger rack mounted units with multiple channels.
This means you can choose an audio interface that best suits your needs and budget, whether you’re a singer-songwriter or a full band.
If you have no idea how much you need to spend on an audio interface, a good starting point is $50 to $200. You can see some audio interface recommendations here and you can also look into what you should consider when buying an audio interface.
In audio processing, latency is a time delay usually in milliseconds that occurs when an audio signal is sent into your computer system and when it emerges as audible sound.
An audio interface accompanied with good audio drivers, the right settings and converters on your computer will reduce latency to a degree.
However, this may vary case by case depending on things like, analog to digital/digital to analog conversion, digital signal processing, buffering, transmission time and the audio speed in the transmission medium.
Some audio interface manufacturers make interfaces that have what is called Direct Monitoring or Zero Latency Monitoring.
Essentially, Direct Monitoring or Zero Latency Monitoring is the ability to monitor an input signal directly from the audio interface before it goes to your DAW.
Direct monitoring allows you to hear the input signal immediately with almost zero latency which is great if you are performing live or playing an instrument.
Most DAWs have embraced and implemented Direct Monitoring technology into their software which makes it more convenient to use an audio interface as opposed to a built-in sound card.
Some interfaces may not have Zero Latency monitoring, so it is important that you check the product specifications of the interface before you consider purchasing it.
If it should so happen that you have an audio interface that doesn’t come with Zero Latency already, you can use these tips to try and minimize latency:
- Reduce the buffer size in your DAW
- Raise the sample rate, the higher the sample rates the lower the latency. Keep in mind that increasing the sample rate will also mean additional stress on the CPU
- Disable the Audio Input device if you’re not recording from external sources.
- Use ASIO or ASIO4ALL audio drivers on Windows
- Turn off and don’t use your Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, because streaming audio wirelessly will increase the latency value.
Provides Phantom Power
In the context of music production, phantom power is the electric power transmitted through microphone cables that is required in order to operate a microphone.
Most studio condenser microphones require a power source to work hence it is this power that is referred to as phantom power.
It is called phantom power because it works by transmitting power using the same cable that is carrying the audio signal into the system.
Most studio microphones run on 48 volts of phantom power. Usually an audio interface will come with enough voltage of phantom power to supply to a microphone.
The most common audio interfaces will typically supply voltage within the range of 11 to 52 volts and will be present on a balanced XLR Connector.
However some microphones only require 9 volts of power while most professional recording microphones require more than that.
It is wise to check the product specifications, voltage to be exact, of a microphone before directly hooking it into an audio interface in order ensure that your phantom power supply is compatible.
There are microphones available on the market that have internal batteries and some that don’t, it is advisable to remove these batteries if you want to connect the microphone to an audio interface for phantom power.
You may wonder if phantom is going to affect the quality of the sound since the cable delivering the voltage is also carrying the audio signal.
Well the answer is no, phantom power will not affect sound.
However keep in mind that only a microphone compatible with phantom power should be hooked into an audio interface XLR connector supplying DC power to a microphone to avoid any incompatibility issues.
Mixer Vs. Audio Interface
There’s a huge debate about which is more appropriate to get for a home studio; Audio Interface or Mixer?
Mixers and Audio Interfaces are both used to connect analog equipment to a computer based recording setup.
However mixers are different because they allow you to combine and control multiple audio signals.
As a result they usually have multiple channels with a variety of effects such as EQ, panning etc.
In terms of functionality, an audio interface is more suited to recording and playback tasks, while a mixer is more suited to live sound reinforcement and analog mixing tasks.
If you already have a mixer there’s no need to buy an audio interface. Unless you need the simplicity and portability that comes with an audio interface.