Depending on what kind of music you want to make, you can write, record, and release an album using nothing but your computer. That said, with your computer alone, you’ll be somewhat limited.
If you want to add real-world instruments or voices to your computer recordings, you’ll need an audio interface to record them. USB audio interfaces can cost a pretty penny, but depending on your needs, they can be quite affordable as well.
The Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB is a successor to the original, Thunderbolt-only 4Pre. This model can work with USB-C or Thunderbolt ports as well as older-style USB 3.0 ports, which makes it a great option if you need flexibility for over which computer you’re using.
This model features Focusrite’s Air-enabled mic preamps for extra high-end presence when you need it. Aside from the four on-board preamps, you also get four more line-in jacks, plus optional ADAT and S/PDIF I/O for a total of 18 inputs and eight outputs.
Putting the terms solo and twin in the same product name seems confusing, so we’ll clear it up for you. The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Solo is aimed at singer/songwriters but features two mic/line preamps. This leaves you one input for your voice and another for your instrument of choice.
You also get a bundle of plugins to make the package even sweeter sounding. There are UAD classic hardware emulations like the LA-2A, 1176LN, Pultec EQP-1A, plus a handful of Softube plugins like Amp Room Essentials. This model even comes with remarkable features like a built-in talkback mic; great for starting a home studio.
Combining the features of an audio interface with the look of a compact mixer, the M-Audio M-Track 8X4M offers plenty of inputs for the money. You get four combined XLR and 1/4-inch TRS inputs, two instrument inputs, and two line-level inputs.
Unlike some other entries on this list, you even get Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software included. The package ships with compatibility for Ableton Live Lite, Eleven Lite, and Pro-Tools First M-Audio Edition, plus a collection of plugins and sounds.
If you’re just getting started, you may not need all the features and inputs of some of the other interfaces on this list. In that case, the two-input PreSonus Studio 24c 2×2 is enough to get you off the ground without immediately becoming a limitation when you get more ambitious.
This model includes both USB-A and USB-C cables, making it ultra-compatible. It even features MIDI I/O, letting you use MIDI-capable hardware to control the electronic aspects of your music without needing to spring for a separate USB MIDI controller.
5. AXE I/O
So far, the interfaces on this list have been aimed at general recording. This is great if you record a little bit of everything, but if your main focus is the guitar, the AXE I/O may be all you need.
The device has a combination XLR and 1/4-inch TRS input, in addition to four line outs. It also supports some guitar software, with a couple of options included in the package. If you want to record now and figure out your sound later, it even supports signal re-amping.
So far, even the interfaces with higher input counts have been aimed at smaller projects. What about if you want to record your entire band but don’t have the budget for a studio? In that case, the Tascam US-16×08 may be just what you’re looking for.
The device comes equipped with eight XLR microphone inputs on the front, plus eight TRS line inputs on the back. That’s enough to record live concerts and more, provided you have the mics and other equipment to feed it. The first two channels even support running instruments directly for use with amp simulator software.
On the surface, the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 Mk2 seems similar to the other interfaces on this list. Looking just at the hardware, that’s true. However, taking into account the included software, this is aimed more at DJs and electronic musicians.
It’s also great for performance since it is entirely bus-powered. No bulky power supply means all you need is this and your laptop and you’re ready to write, record, and perform anywhere you happen to be.
The Audient iD4 USB gets you started with the bare essentials. You get a single class A mic preamp and a JFET Digital Interface (DI) input for plugging instruments directly in.
Looking at the outputs, it’s similarly simple. You get a 1/4-inch headphone jack and a 1/8-inch headphone jack. It may seem spartan, but this focus on providing just a few features works due to the audio quality of the mic preamp and the DI.
The second appearance from Focusrite on this list is a much more stripped-down affair. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo offers a single XLR microphone preamp and a 1/4-inch TRS input that can work either for a line in or for plugging instruments directly in.
When it comes to outputs, you get a 1/4-inch headphone jack on the front. You’ll also find a set of stereo RCA jacks on the back. These are great for plugging into powered speakers or a stereo. This unit is bus-powered, but still provides phantom power to work with condenser microphones. It also works well as a headphone amp, though more power-hungry headphones may struggle.
Are You Buying an Interface for Podcasting?
If you’re buying an interface for recording music, chances are good you’ve already got some songs. They’re not just for recording musical instruments and voices though. If you’re looking to get started podcasting, you’ll need an audio interface as well. This is true unless you use a USB microphone, which uses its own built-in interface.
When it comes to podcasting, the format can make or break you. If you want your podcast to grow, you’ll want to think about this from the beginning. Not sure where to start? Take a look at our comparison of popular podcast formats to see which might work best for you.