1. Computing

How To Select an Audio Recording Interface

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MBox 2 Mini

MBox 2 Mini

Courtesy Avid, Inc.
The heart of any good home recording studio is your choice of audio interface. This piece of equipment handles input and output of audio from your computer; it's a lot more than just a sound card.

One of the best parts about selecting a recording interface is the fact that there's so many available, and they all offer stellar recording quality for the price. The downside? Selecting one from the many is hard! With this quick guide, we'll go down the list of questions you should ask yourself before buying an interface.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: 5 Minutes or Less

Here's How:

  1. Do you need Pro Tools compatibility? Digidesign's Pro Tools is the industry-wide standard, but being compatible, even on the smallest offering, comes with a premium price. Digidesign's cheapest Pro Tools HD offering, the MBox 2 Mini, rings up at $329, offering only a single microphone input and two line inputs. From there, you can move up to the Digi 003, at around $1600 for 8 channels.

    From there, remember: if you don't need Pro Tools and plan on using another software program, you don't need Pro Tools hardware, and don't need to pay the premium. Remember, too, you can use Pro Tools HD with any interface.
  2. How Many Inputs Do You Need? What type of music will you be recording? Do you need more than one input? More than two? Some interfaces that are cheaper offer less inputs. You want, at very least, two microphone preamp inputs - that way you can do vocals and, say, guitar at once. If you plan on recording drums, you'll need at least four preamp inputs for kick, snare, and stereo overheads. Chances are you'll want much more for good drum sounds. But don't overdo it - you can get by with less if you don't need it.
  3. Are You Using Garage Band? If you use Apple's Garageband, you can get by with the internal soundcard and a special adapter for instruments. Another great option is the new Samson USB microphones; it's very simple to plug-n-play. Garage Band is very powerful and versatile for beginners, and products like Samson's USB microphone make it unbelievably easy. For better quality, you can find something like Apogee's ONE ($249) if you only need a one-channel interface. And don't underestimate Apple's built-in quality, either. You can use adapter cables to record directly in if you're using a Mac and Garage Band.
  4. Firewire or USB? Firewire interfaces, as a rule, are more expensive than USB. If you're only doing one or two channels at a time, high speed USB is a must, otherwise you're limited to using a Firewire interface. Original slow USB cannot safely support the large amount of bi-directional data. Larger, more professional interfaces have dedicated internal cards to interface with the computer.

Tips:

  1. Remember, the most expensive interface isn't always the best for your needs. Most interfaces on the market today are "future proof", meaning that they go far beyond the current 16-bit standards into 24-bit recording. Don't be talked into buying more than you need, especially if you're just a hobbyist. Large chain stores like Guitar Center may not always have the most knowledgeable staff; they're just looking to make a quick commission. Don't feel like you're "cheaping out" if the best option for you isn't the most expensive.
  2. No matter your needs, always assume on the high end when it comes to inputs. You'll be surprised at how your needs seem to mysteriously expand somewhere between when your return policy ends and the first credit card bill arrives. It's better to have extra inputs if you can afford them. As you get better at recording, you'll be ready for more inputs as you tackle multiple instruments at once.
  3. Most places will accept a return after 30 days, so don't be afraid to go back to the drawing board if your needs aren't met. Find a salesperson you trust, and don't be afraid to ask for help in picking out an interface. Like we said before, go for retailers with the most experienced salespeople -- you want to buy from a fellow engineer, too.
  4. If you need to buy your software package separately, please, don't pirate your software. Aside from technical support, by not buying your recording software, you're doing a huge disservice to those who make their living by making your software.

What You Need

  • Determine Your Software
  • Choose Audio Interface
  • Microphone & Cabling
  • Computer

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