What is an Audio Interface?

17.01.2020 0 Matt Jackson
What is an Audio Interface?

Did you know that an audio interface is necessary if you want a high quality recording of yourself speaking or playing an instrument? If you are considering purchasing an audio interface or you just want to know what an audio interface is and what it does just keep reading and you will learn everything you need to know about audio interfaces.

Here are the basics. If you are interested in enhancing the sound capabilities of your computer, you need a device called an audio interface. For people that are interested in creating podcasts, voice-overs for videos, recording and mixing any kind of music, an audio interface is necessary. 

To make the purpose of an audio interface simple to understand, think of it this way: an audio interface is simply what you need in order to get good quality sound in and out of your computer. High quality recordings of your voice, instruments, sound effects are only possible with an audio interface. 

Nowadays, computers, laptops, phones and tablets all come with built in sound cards, so it is technically possible to create a basic recording without an audio interface. It is even perhaps possible to enhance the quality of the recording with a better microphone. However, to make anything close to a professional sounding recording, you will need to take the time to shop around for the right audio interface.

Do I need an audio interface for my USB mic?

When most people picture an audio interface, they think of those boxes singers and bands always have -with a variety of input and output plugins. These large audio interfaces are perfect for hooking up your microphones, speakers, headphones or any other instruments you may use. What some people are not aware of is that there are several smaller devices that fit into the category of audio interface.

Not many people realise that essentially a USB microphone is an audio interface- as it always contains an audio interface. If you plug the microphone into a USB port you don’t actually need anything else to get sound into your computer. If you would like a complete input and output setup you can simply add a headphone output. 

If your USB audio adapter does not require any other equipment, it can be considered an audio interface. There are guitar -USB’s, XLR-USB’s, line out to USB and several others. 

Are Sounds Cards the same as an Audio Interface?

This is a common question and one that has a lot of people confused. To answer this question in very simple terms, an audio interface and a sound card do the same thing. They are both hardware that is used to get sound into and out of your computer, phone, laptop, tablet, mac or pc.

Dj using audio interface

In the past, the only way to improve the sound on your home recordings was to buy a new and improved sound card for your technology and fit it inside the machine. With an audio interface, you can improve the sound of any device with an external sound card. This external sound card is known as an audio interface. 

Obviously, many people will record sounds on their devices without purchasing an audio interface. However, if you want your recordings to sound professional, an audio interface is essential. Every excellent home-recording studio has an audio interface as it’s cornerstone.

Why do I need an audio interface?

Why not just use the built in sound card? Well, the audio interfaces are larger, making them easier to use. They provide the recorder with many options that would not otherwise be available. For example, you may be interested in recording a guitar – and your audio interface can include ¼ inch jack guitar inputs. Or you may be needing a full XLR microphone, an audio interface can provide the input for this. Many audio interfaces also allow the user to connect a keyboard. The final and perhaps most important reason to buy an audio interface is to increase the quality of the sound of your recording.

You can shop our full range of audio interfaces online here.

How do I connect an audio interface to my computer?

Do you have an available USB port or USB adapter? If you answered yes to this question you are in business! All you need to do is check that your audio interface and USB port or USB adapter is compatible. Although USB audio interfaces are the most popular, you are still able to buy both thunderbolt and firewire audio interfaces. These both work more quickly but of course they are also more expensive. Most people that have home recording studios find that the faster USB audio interfaces work just fine. 

How many inputs do I really need with my audio interface?

There are several different types of audio interfaces available. Some of them can record hundreds of channels, while others may only have the capacity for two. It is very possible that you may only need two inputs. This is dependent on the type of sound you are trying to achieve and how many voices or instruments are involved in your sound mix. 

What is the best external soundcard/audio interface for use in music production?

There is not a clear and direct answer to determine which audio interface will be the best for your needs. The best way to decide is to first determine exactly what types of recording you would like to do and go from there. 

two channel audio interface

If you are playing a single instrument such as a guitar, piano or ukulele and you simply want to add vocals to the mix, you will find that a basic audio interface with 2 microphone inputs and two outputs will suffice. If you have this kind of set up, you will be able to record your instrument and vocals on two separate tracks and produce a good quality sound.

For those people that are looking to start up a podcast, you really only need one mic input, unless you are considering doing interviews - then two would probably work better for you. 

If you think about how many instruments you may have in a band or orchestra, you will realise that in this situation it would probably be best to have an audio interface with several inputs. If a sound mixer wanted to have the option of editing each instrument in the band or orchestra as well as the singer, you can imagine how many inputs you would need to have.  

Generally, a laptop or computer DJ likes to have more than one output. This gives the DJ a lot more flexibility with their ability to send out different mixes to the main speakers. A DJ may want to have at least two outputs. 

After determining the type of audio interface you need, you will have one more important decision to make. The final choice will come down to USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. Look at all three of these choices carefully before coming to a final decision.

Technical Specifications

Technical terms that you may see when looking for an audio interface:

Latency: Latency is defined as the time it takes before a transfer of data begins or how much delay is apparent when one piece of data is transported from one place to another - so if you have ever tried talking to someone over skype and you had to wait for a second before you could hear them - that would be latency. This can be very annoying for people trying to make a good quality recording. In the olden days there was some latency with every recording, and even today, some built in sound cards make latency a very frustrating experience. Fortunately, the right high quality audio interface can fix the issue of latency.

single channel audio interface

Zero Latency Monitoring (or Direct Monitoring): This means that when recording something there is no delay at all. You will hear your recording instantaneously in your headphones. If you are looking at purchasing an audio interface this is one of the features you may want to put on your ‘must have’ list. 

Drivers: There are a few ways to reduce latency and a driver is another one. If you have a driver you really won’t notice any latency at all. 

Pre-Amps: Generally a microphone has a tiny signal that is not very good for high quality recording purposes. However, if your audio interface has a pre-amp the signal from the microphone will be intensified until it becomes suitable for recording purposes. This is another item that you will want to look for when buying your audio interface. 

48V phantom power: You can get away from needing the 48V phantom power fairly easily, just ensure that you have a dynamic microphone. If, however, you do need to use a microphone that requires phantom power it is important to take a look at your audio interface and make sure that there is a phantom power switch. 

MIDI: MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. At one time it was essential to have MIDI on your audio interface so that all of your instruments from different manufacturers could communicate with one another. In more recent years most MIDI controllers work with USB so it has become less important to have on an audio interfaces.

Sample Rate: This is a somewhat confusing term for people that are new to the world of recording, but basically you need to know that a higher sampling rate improves the quality of the sound. When you are choosing an audio interface you should recognize that an average sample rate is 44.1kHz. This sample rate can record and process sounds higher than the human ear can hear- which is usually good enough for high quality sound. However, if you are looking for an even higher quality sound you should really look at audio interfaces with a sampling size of around 88.2 - 96. Surprisingly, this super high sampling rate (significantly higher than a human can hear) will further increase your sound quality. 

Balanced/Unbalanced: One more thing to look for when you are out shopping for your audio interface is whether it has balanced or unbalanced outputs and inputs. Generally speaking, an audio interface with unbalanced outputs and inputs will be cheaper. Of course, this may come with problems, as an unbalanced interface may experience some interference (ground loop problems). If you go for the more expensive (balanced) option, all of the interference you may experience is picked up equally and cancelled out. If you are doing simple podcasts or one instrument recordings, you should have no problems with an unbalanced interface, but if you are looking into more complicated recordings you may want to ensure your audio interface has balanced inputs and outputs.

Final Thoughts

If you are still unsure about what type of audio interface to buy you can post your questions in the comments box below. We will do our best to answer you. We want you to understand what an audio interface is and what it does. We will do our very best to help you!

At Saramonic UK, we sell a range of external microphones and audio adapters to help you record better content.