How to Choose an Audio Interface

How to Choose an Audio Interface

Answer these three questions to find the perfect audio interface for your needs.

There’s a lot to consider when choosing an audio interface. While it may seem like a big list of things to keep straight, it isn’t. Here are three questions to help identify the perfect interface for your needs.

1. What Type of Producer Are You?

Do you track and mix full bands, or just record alone at home? Maybe you're a singer/songwriter looking to deliver polished demos to a backing band, or a professional producer who needs a full arsenal of inputs and outputs for large mixes. Let’s hone in on the features you should be most aware of based on your production needs.

Audio interfaces like Apollo x4 combine portability, pro audio conversion, and expanded inputs/outputs — perfect for electronic producers or remote recording. Image credit: @austinwcannon

Bedroom Producer, Guitarist, Singer-Songwriter

Until recently, there simply wasn’t a way to record and mix professional‑sounding audio without spending thousands of dollars on bulky analog equipment, microphones, and high‑end monitors. Today, Grammy‑winning records can be made in a bedroom. So if you plan to record just your voice and a guitar or keyboard, or your process involves layering (overdubbing) live or virtual instruments — consider a basic two or four channel interface with quality audio conversion, and allocate any leftover cash to better microphones and acoustic treatment.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo Solo, Apollo Twin

Project Studio, Electronic Producer

As your mic collection and plug‑in library grows, you may find yourself moving from the category of “bedroom producer” to project studio owner. With this comes the need for expanded inputs and outputs.

Consider a rackmount or desktop interface that can comfortably accommodate the analog I/O needed to handle multiple microphones and audio signals simultaneously. Typically, you’ll need a minimum of four mic pres for tracking, and multiple outputs for routing signals to headphones, monitors, or hardware processors.

At this stage, a single interface might simply be too limited for your needs. So consider investing in computer systems and recording platforms that allow features like daisy-chaining between interfaces so you can better scale and expand as your studio grows.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo x4, Apollo Twin

Pro Producer, Band, Film Composer

You’ve reached the stage in your recording journey where you require more than a handful of inputs. Or perhaps you’ve saved up enough money to produce your band’s next record.

If you record more than eight live sound sources at a time, or mix songs with dozens of tracks and plug‑ins, your interface should have the highest quality audio conversion and routing capabilities. Apollo rackmount interfaces deliver not only stellar sound, but built‑in DSP for near‑zero latency processing when recording with plug‑ins.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo x8p, Apollo x16

2. Desktop or Rackmount?

In the early stages of building out a studio, space is a serious commodity. Rack equipment, while visually appealing and professional looking, can be both expensive and cumbersome. On the other hand, desktop interfaces don’t always meet the preamp count and I/O requirements needed to record a live band. Let’s expand on the pros and cons of desktop vs. rackmount.

Desktop

The ultimate goal of any interface is the same: pass audio signals to and from your computer. The best audio interfaces offer high quality A/D and D/A audio converters, additional inputs and outputs, and added monitoring options — but these premium features aren’t just reserved for more expensive rackmount interfaces.

Many desktop audio interfaces deliver the same sonic benefits as their rackmount counterparts, with a streamlined workflow and easier access to monitoring options, talkback, and headphone outputs. Plus, their smaller form factor means they can be stashed in a backpack or laptop bag for on‑the‑go tracking and mixing.

Ultimately, if you require only a small handful of analog ins/outs and aren’t tracking and mixing large‑scale commercial projects, a quality desktop audio interface is a great solution.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo x4, Apollo Twin, Apollo Solo

For many of us, budgeting for time in a commercial recording studio is impracticable. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice sound quality if you record at home. Image credit: @ricardomirandaproductions

Rackmount

Rackmount audio interfaces can free up your desk space and give your studio a bit more "professional" look. But more importantly, you'll get the benefits of added I/O and premium features like surround sound support. These are obvious advantages if you plan to record and mix full bands or multi‑source instruments like drums.

Most rackmount audio interfaces feature a multitude of analog and digital ins and outs. These can include balanced line connections, MIDI, S/PDIF, and the all‑important mic preamps. An interface like Apollo x8p prioritizes preamp inputs with eight Unison‑enabled mic pres — an excellent choice for fully in‑the‑box studios — while the mighty Apollo x16 delivers 16 channels of analog I/O via DB‑25 connections for console‑based/hybrid studios.

Tip: The number of dedicated preamps is a spec that you should be acutely aware of when shopping around. Many rackmount offerings include both the number of preamps and line/digital inputs when tallying I/O. Always check to see specifically how many preamps an interface offers.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo x6, Apollo x8, Apollo x8p, Apollo x16

Hybrid studios utilize both analog and digital equipment, and require an interface with dozens of inputs and outputs for signal routing. Image credit: @red_barn_studio

3. What type of connections does your computer have?

For many of us, a computer and basic DAW is the starting point for recording and mixing our own music. Whether you’re running a Mac or Windows operating system, consider your computer’s built‑in connections when deciding which audio interface to purchase. Let’s focus on the big three.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is the current reigning champion of data transfer. With throughput speeds up to 40Gbps, it’s far faster than other existing connections and is widely available and compatible with newer Mac and PC systems.

Thunderbolt tends to be the primary format on higher-end interfaces such as the Apollo X desktop and rackmount line. It’s backwards compatible with older versions, and more importantly, it supports the ability to daisy chain between devices. This means you can connect additional interfaces or other Thunderbolt hardware for added inputs and outputs as your studio grows, all while saving those precious connection ports on your computer.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo Solo, Apollo Twin X, Apollo X Rackmount

Thunderbolt 3 and USB C connectors look the same, but the formats are not always cross-compatible. Be sure to know which of them your gear requires and supports.

USB

Of all current data-transfer formats, USB wins for longevity. The different iterations of USB prove that it’s a perfectly viable option across a wide range of equipment. USB interfaces are available for both Mac and PC, however Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin USB and Apollo Solo USB models are designed specifically for Windows users.

While it appears that USB has the staying power for now, thanks to its adequate transfer speeds and backwards connectivity with older versions, it’s important to note that while all current Thunderbolt ports can accept USB‑C, not all USB‑C ports accept Thunderbolt. Lacking cross‑connectivity and the ability to daisy chain devices, along with inferior read/write speeds compared to Thunderbolt, systems relying solely on USB are less scalable and adaptable to future connection types.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo Twin USB, Apollo Solo USB

While USB-C is speedier and more versatile, many consumer devices still rely on USB‑A connectors.

FireWire

The days of low‑bandwidth audio connections are behind us, and each type of connection discussed here can push plenty of digital data for working with basic audio tracks. However, of the three mentioned, FireWire seems closest to being phased out in favor of both speedier (Thunderbolt), and more widely compatible (USB) offerings.

At the time of writing, there are still a handful of audio interfaces that continue to support FireWire. However, there are no new computers that support this connection type. Despite having similar data transfer speed to USB, FireWire has simply aged out.

Recommended interfaces: Apollo FireWire

Final Tips for Choosing an Audio Interface

For many of us, recording is a life-long passion and career. But at the earliest stages, choosing an interface can be a big decision. Here are some final thoughts when deciding which audio interface is best for you.

  • Think ahead. A new audio interface should meet your current needs, but also fulfill you down the road as the scope of your interest and passion for recording grows.
  • Think realistically. Just because a wall of rack equipment looks professional doesn’t mean it is the most practical option for your studio or budget.
  • Choose your own path. Make conscious purchase decisions that are informed by your creative needs, workflow, and budget — not others.

If you’ve been considering a new interface and are curious about Universal Audio’s line of Apollos, click the link below to learn more about the features that distinguish Apollo from other interfaces.

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— Paul Kobylensky, McCoy Tyler

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