What is an Audio Interface? (Do You Need One?)

Read about what an audio interface is and how it can help you when recording music. Discover how it works and the different types.

Image of a red audio interface on a desk. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels

If you’re in the music industry or simply want to improve your audio output quality, you need an audio interface. It’s essential for any music producer, sound engineer, or musician. But what is an audio interface?

This article covers what an audio interface is and what it can do for your musical production. So if you’re looking to start recording music or are just curious about this device, this post is for you!

What is an audio interface? An audio interface is a device that will allow you to record any instrument or vocals into your computer, laptop, or mobile device. You may use it to record directly into your phone using the mic on your headphones. 

What is an audio interface?

An audio interface is a device for recording. With this device, you can connect a microphone, guitar, or keyboard to a computer. Picture it as a matchmaker for analog and digital signals. It can convert digital impulses back into analog ones and vice versa.

Image of a red audio interface on a desk. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels
Image of a red audio interface on a desk. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels

If you need an audio interface, you may choose from various options. Firewire, USB, and PCI ports are incorporated into some of them. As with other types of hardware, audio interfaces may vary in size, price, and quality.

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Image of a red audio interface on a desk. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

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My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

How does an audio interface work?

Audio interfaces are useful for many things, but one of their main jobs is to make conversion easier. Years ago, when all recordings were made on analog equipment, sounds were routed via a mixing desk before being recorded. With audio recording in the modern digital age, everything is done as a sequence of signals.

An audio interface is a simple device that translates digital and analog signals (from instruments like guitars, microphones, MIDI keyboards, etc.) into a format that your computer can understand and then back into analog so that you may listen to the results via your headphones or speakers. Your digital audio workstation or another digital sequencer can further process the signal.

Most interfaces can convert signals in both directions, from analog to digital (ADC) and digital to analog (DAC). Most audio interfaces have channels for each of these conversions, and the interface takes care of them automatically.

If you already have an interface like the iD14 (MKII), you might not need to buy a high-impedance headphone amplifier. As a whole, an audio interface converts signals at each input and output. In addition, certain signals are also experiencing “gain amplification.” These wonderful signal converters allow you to capture and play back studio-quality audio.

What are the different types of audio interfaces?

There are several types of audio interfaces available in the market that cater to different needs and use cases. Here are some of the different types of audio interfaces:

  1. USB Interfaces: These are the most common and affordable types of audio interfaces available today. They are compatible with most computers and offer a simple plug-and-play setup. USB interfaces typically have two to four inputs and outputs and are suitable for home recording setups.
  2. Thunderbolt Interfaces: Thunderbolt interfaces offer faster data transfer rates than USB interfaces and are suitable for more demanding recording applications. They are compatible with Mac computers and require a Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt interfaces are more expensive than USB interfaces but offer better performance and lower latency.
  3. FireWire Interfaces: FireWire interfaces are similar to Thunderbolt interfaces in terms of performance but are not as widely used. They require a FireWire port on the computer and offer low latency and high data transfer rates. Professional musicians and audio engineers typically use FireWire interfaces.
  4. PCIe Interfaces: PCIe interfaces are internal audio interfaces that are installed in a computer’s PCIe slot. They offer the lowest latency and highest performance of any audio interface but require a desktop computer. PCIe interfaces are typically used by professional studios and audio engineers.
  5. Rackmount Interfaces: Rackmount interfaces are designed to be mounted in a rack and are typically used in professional studios. They offer multiple inputs and outputs and are suitable for recording and mixing large projects. Rackmount interfaces can be connected to a computer via USB, Thunderbolt, or PCIe.
  6. Portable Interfaces: Portable interfaces are small and compact audio interfaces that can be used on the go. They are typically powered by USB and offer a limited number of inputs and outputs. Portable interfaces are suitable for recording demos, podcasts, and interviews.

These are some of the different types of audio interfaces available in the market. The type of audio interface you choose depends on your needs and budget. It is important to research and compare different options before making a purchase.

Important features of an audio interface

There are essential features built into every audio interface that make life easier in the studio. If you want your interface to be as powerful as possible, you need all of the functionality.

1. Microphone inputs

Microphones with a 3-pin XLR plug should be connected here. You can use your condenser microphone with them because they have +48V phantom power. At the very least, you’ll need an audio interface that supports two microphones. You can record two instruments or voices simultaneously with two high-quality inputs.

In general, the more costly interfaces will include more mic inputs. The additional mic preamps that must be included in the interface are the main cause of the price increase. But if you want to record a drum kit, for example, you’ll need at least eight mic inputs on the interface, so you’ll want to check out the bigger versions available.

2. Line inputs

Guitars, keyboards, studio monitors, mixing desks, and many other studio recording instruments all need 1/4″ jacks to connect.

On a 2-input audio interface, the jack connections are usually in the same ports as the mic inputs. You’ll be limited to recording from a pair of inputs at most. Things to consider here include:

  • 2 microphones
  • 1 microphone and 1 jack
  • 2 jacks

A single mic and an I-jack input are often used to record electric guitar. In addition, a microphone and a direct guitar signal (through a DI box) may be plugged into the XLR and jack inputs.

Combining the mic’d guitar amp with the direct guitar signal is a common way for studios worldwide to record guitar. The amp will give you power, and the direct signal will make your playing clearer and more nuanced.

These days, an external audio interface that doesn’t provide phantom power is the exception rather than the rule.

3. Monitor outputs

Plug in your recording studio’s stereo speakers here. It’s possible to listen to the music you’ve recorded and composed, which is crucial throughout the mixing process. You may find different monitor connections depending on how the interface is set up. The larger the interface, the greater the variety of connections that may be made.

Monitor outputs on 2-input interfaces of a smaller form factor are typically TRS jacks. There will be no chance of electrical interference from other studio equipment because of the balanced nature of these wires. While recording or mixing, interference is your worst enemy.

4. Headphones output

Sound is monitored via headphones while the track is laid down. You can’t have anything playing on the studio monitors while recording with a microphone. Otherwise, the sound will leak into the recording and destroy it. Therefore, headphones are required for the instrumentalist or singer.

Due to their direct connection to the interface, the headphones make it easy to hear the sound recorded in the interface. This means there is no time lag or latency, and the recording will improve.

5. Phantom power

A condenser microphone requires a +48V charge to function. Most interfaces today have a “phantom power” button that can be used. The signal goes through the XLR line to the microphone to power it.

These days, an external audio interface that doesn’t provide phantom power is the exception rather than the rule. However, it would help if you double-checked in advance since your condenser mics won’t record anything without it.

6. Mic preamps

A microphone’s electrical signal is very faint when it records sound. So, the signal must be amplified before it can be sent to other studio equipment to be processed further. A preamp’s function is to do just that.

The mic preamp for each mic input is a separate part of an audio interface. The preamps of an interface usually set it apart from a bad one.

7. AD/DA Converters

In the real world, sound waves are seen as analog signals, but computers work in the digital world. So what can be done to facilitate communication between these two universes, which now lack a direct line of contact?

For a computer to process the signal from a microphone, the signal must first be changed from analog to digital (AD) by the converter inside the interface. When a computer plays a sound, the digital signal must be transformed back to analog before being played. The internal DA converter takes care of the conversion from digital to analog.

If you’re looking for a studio audio interface, be sure it offers high-quality AD/DA converters. The AD/DA converters, like the preamps, may significantly impact the final sound. Even entry-level interfaces from well-known manufacturers like Focusrite and PreSonus provide high-quality converters.

8. Direct monitoring and latency

You must hear the signal in your headphones to play your part in time with the recording. This is made possible through direct monitoring, which feeds the signal from your inputs back to you via your headphones or monitors.

Without it, the signal would have to go into the interface, via the computer in the studio, and back out again. As a result, there will be a lag between what you play and what you hear. So-called “zero-latency monitoring” is another name for direct observation.

Problems with timing may result in even a few milliseconds of delay. As a result, the recording’s quality will suffer, and things will soon deteriorate. That’s why recording with zero-latency monitoring is crucial in today’s home studio.

9. High-speed connection

To process audio signals, a lot of data must be sent quickly. Therefore, a fast connection between the interface and the studio computer is essential. Aside from a few high-end ports that employ FireWire 800 or Thunderbolt, most connections will be USB 2.0 or FireWire 400.

Check the interface’s connection type before deciding to purchase it. Then, make sure that your computer can use the same sort of connection.

The benefits of using an audio interface

An audio interface is a piece of hardware that allows you to hook your studio monitors and other audio equipment to your computer. In most cases, it takes analog signals and transforms them into digital audio data that your computer can understand.

Your laptop receives the digital audio through USB, FireWire, or another connection method. The audio interface also functions identically when installed backward. So, it can grab digital audio data from your computer and change it into an analog signal that your studio’s monitors and headphones can understand.

Such a simple add-on greatly enhances a computer’s audio capabilities. Most of them let you produce a high-quality audio recording by connecting professional studio monitors, recording microphones, and other devices to a personal computer.

…it would help if you had an audio interface when making music on a computer because it shows sounds more accurately each time new music is played through the audio system.

Multiple signals may be sent out through the audio interface. Increasing the number of inputs and outputs isn’t the only thing audio interfaces do; they may also significantly improve the quality of your recording’s audio.

Audio recording is a great way to test different sound cards and interfaces because it is easy and the quality is good. Also, the audio interface can now take in more kinds of inputs, is easier to use, and is bigger.

The system is easy to connect to a wide range of professional recording gear, and its sound quality is usually better than that of generic onboard sound cards. However, it would help if you had an audio interface when making music on a computer because it shows sounds more accurately each time new music is played through the audio system.

Image of a table with a black audio interface, a headphone, and other musical instruments. Source: tstudio, pexels
Image of a table with a black audio interface, headphones, and other musical instruments. Source: tstudio, pexels

Tips on using an audio interface for recording music

If you’re new to using an audio interface for recording music, here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Assign your interface channel to the right tracks in your DAW: Always make sure to assign the channels on your audio interface to the correct tracks in your digital audio workstation (DAW). This will ensure that your recordings are coming from the right source and being recorded to the correct track in your DAW.
  2. Choose the correct input type: When connecting your audio source to your interface, make sure to choose the correct input type. This will depend on the type of equipment you’re using. For example, a microphone will require an XLR input, while an electric guitar will require a 1/4″ TS input.
  3. Use balanced audio cables: To connect your interface to studio monitors, it’s recommended to use balanced (XLR or TRS) audio cables. These cables reduce noise and interference and ensure a cleaner signal.
  4. Adjust your input levels: Before recording, make sure to adjust your input levels to prevent clipping and distortion. Use the gain knobs on your interface to adjust the levels of each input source.
  5. Set up your sound settings: In your computer’s sound settings, make sure to select your audio interface as the input and output device. This will ensure that your computer is receiving and sending audio through the interface.

By following these tips, you’ll be able to effectively use your audio interface for recording music. Remember to always consult the manufacturer’s instructions and user manual for specific guidance on your particular interface.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “What is an Audio Interface — Do I Need One?” from the Sweetwater YouTube channel.

A video called “What is an Audio Interface — Do I Need One?” from the Sweetwater YouTube channel.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions about an audio interface? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions.

Do you need an audio interface?

If you wish to plug in microphones, a guitar, or a keyboard to your computer and record audio, you will need an audio interface. You’ll also need an audio interface to hook your computer to your studio monitor speakers.

Does an audio interface make a difference?

When an audio interface is used, there is a clear improvement in sound quality. However, if you want the final sound to stay true to the analog waveform, you need good converters. Several workarounds can be used to improve the audio quality, but there is no way to get around using a converter of sufficient quality.

Do I need an audio interface if I have a mixer?

You can record audio without a mixer and an audio interface. However, using a digital-to-analog audio interface is mandatory for any hybrid setup. In other words, that’s just the beginning.

Should I get an audio interface or a mixer?

It would help if you simultaneously used an interface to record high-quality sound from more than one source. Most of a mixer’s job is in radio, television, and live performance. They provide a way to “mix” or blend sounds from several sources.

Conclusion

A good audio interface can help you get a professional sound for your songs. So if you are a beginner or an avid music enthusiast, we recommend investing in one such device to boost your creativity!

So, are you using an audio interface for better recording? And did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below (I read and reply to every comment). If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on music production. Thanks for reading, and never stop making music.

Key takeaways

This article covered what an audio interface is. Here are some key takeaways:

  • A microphone, guitar, or keyboard may connect to a computer using an audio interface.
  • While audio interfaces serve many useful purposes, one of their primary roles is facilitating conversion.
  • There is a wide variety of audio interfaces on the market today.
  • There are essential features built into every audio interface that make life easier in the studio.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

Nick eggert.
Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

Nick is our staff editor and co-founder. He has a passion for writing, editing, and website development. His expertise lies in shaping content with precision and managing digital spaces with a keen eye for detail.

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