These are the best audio interfaces for musicians
Along with your instruments and a laptop, an audio interface is a must-have piece of equipment for any indie musician.
However, there are literally hundreds of options out there on the market. Some are better for beginners. Others are geared towards mobile recording. Then there are audio interfaces for PC, and audio interfaces for Macs. Unless you have some knowledge under your belt already, it can be tough to know which one is right for you.
That’s where we come in. We’ve rounded up a collection of the best audio interface options for indie musicians in 2020 — as well as some things to keep in mind when shopping around.
What is an audio interface?
An audio interface is essentially the middleman between you, your instruments, and a computer. It converts analog signals, like those coming from a microphone or a guitar, to a digital signal that can be read by a computer.
If you’re a musician with a DIY home studio, you absolutely need an audio interface as part of your setup. While all computers are equipped to convert digital signals to analog signals – which allow you to play digital audio files on a set of speakers or headphones – very few can do it the other way around. An audio interface addresses these missing hardware capabilities, so you can get high-quality sound going in and coming out of your computer.
Even if you’re not recording at home, an audio interface still comes in handy, particularly if you’re livestreaming your music.
Note: For more on how to get the best audio quality when livestreaming, check out our guide here.
Things to consider when buying an audio interface
Like laptops, different audio interfaces have different specs and features. Before jumping into the best audio interfaces out there, it’s a good idea to understand what to look out for.
Below, we’ve outlined a few key questions to ask yourself when buying an audio interface.
What type of connection do you want?
Audio interfaces can support a number of connections. The type of connection you use will depend on your computer and the transfer rate you’re looking for.
Interfaces with a fast transfer rate have low latency, which means recording happens almost instantaneously. However, if you have an audio interface with a high-latency connection, you might experience lag between when you play the music and when it’s recorded.
All audio interfaces will have at least one of these four connection options:
- USB. Almost every computer has a USB port, which is why USB audio interfaces are the most common on the market today. However, these options also offer the slowest transfer rate, and you might experience latency when recording.
- Firewire. Firewire is mainly found on older Macs, although some expensive studios might still support firewire. The transfer rate is faster and more consistent than USB cables, but these connections are quickly becoming obsolete. If you want to future-proof your purchase, give this one a miss.
- Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is quickly becoming the new standard for connecting audio interfaces. With incredibly high transfer speeds and low latency, Thunderbolt ports are likely the best option if you have a port on your computer (or have the option of adding one). Most high-end interfaces already support Thunderbolt, and this will probably extend to budget options in the future.
- PCIe. These are the standard connection for pro audio interfaces, as they offer additional processing power and lightning-fast data transfer. However, PCIe cards are plugged directly into the computer motherboard on desktop computers, which means this isn’t an option if you’re recording on a laptop or mobile device.
What inputs and outputs do you need?
I/O (input and output) counts are the most important feature to consider when buying your audio interface. The number and type of inputs and outputs you need depends entirely on what you want to record, both now and in the future.
Most audio interfaces include two or more microphone preamps as a standard. However, if you want to plug a guitar or keyboard straight into your interface, you also need instrument-level (also known as “hi-Z”) inputs. If you’re working with headphone amps, outboard processors, and studio monitors, it might be worth picking up an audio interface with line-level inputs and outputs.
What Digital Audio Workstation are you using?
Most audio interfaces are compatible with most digital audio workstations (DAWs). But, as with anything, there are some exceptions. Before committing to an audio interface, triple-check that it’s compatible with your DAW. The last thing you want to do is completely switch out your workstation or buy a new interface because the one you purchased wasn’t compatible.
What are you going to be using your audio interface for?
Are you going to be using it for mobile recording, tracking a full band, recording guitar/vocal overdubs, using virtual instruments, or making quick song demos?
You want to make sure whatever interface you buy is capable of doing what you need it to do; on the other hand, you don’t want to splash out thousands for an interface that does way more than you will ever need.
The best audio interfaces in 2020
Best for: musicians on a budget
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 and 2 are affordable 2 channel USB interfaces that are incredibly portable.
The Audio 1 is ideal for solo artists with its single microphone input and second input for a guitar or keyboard, and the RCA phono connectors make it easy to plug into high-quality speakers. Meanwhile, like the name suggests, the Audio 2 offers two channels that can be microphones, guitars or line level inputs for synths and keyboards—plus, the 1/4″ jack outputs are an upgrade to the Audio 1.
Both boxes have a single headphone output with volume control, gain control over the inputs, 5 segment LED monitoring, and that sweet big volume dial. The Komplete Audio 1 and Audio 2 also come with a bundle of virtual instruments, effects, Ableton Live Lite, and the Maschine groovebox sequencer.
Best for: musicians on the go
The IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo is one of the best options if you’re looking for a portable audio interface. One of the smallest interfaces around, the iRig comes with a USB-C, Lightning, and USB-A Cables, and is compatible with IOS, Android, PC, and Mac.
The interface comes with two analogue combo inputs so that you can connect and simultaneously record a combination of instruments and mics. These inputs also come with updated Class-A preamps, adjustable gain (increased for this model) and phantom power. On top of that, the iRig Pro Duo supports MIDI I/O, along with two balanced 1/4-inch outputs and a headphone output.
Best for: guitarists looking for a high-quality interface
If you’re recording guitars, the Zen Tour is definitely worth considering for its audio quality and sheer number of I/Os. The interface features two headphone outs, two re-amping outs and four line/Hi Z inputs, all on 1/4-inch jacks. In the rear, there are four dual XLR/1/4-inch inputs, two pairs of monitor outs on 1/4-inch jacks, eight analogue outs on a DB25, two RCA sockets for S/PDIF in and out, a power connector, and USB and Thunderbolt sockets. If that isn’t enough, there are also two pairs of ADAT ins and outs on the left-hand side. The interface also comes with a small touchscreen interface that allows you to adjust input gains, headphone levels, and talkback.
Antelope has a reputation for sound quality, and the Audio Zen Tour is no exception. This audio interface isn’t a budget option by any means, but it delivers excellent sound quality and is incredibly portable – especially when you consider how feature-rich it is.
Best for: a portable audio interface that’s compatible with iOS
The original Apogee Duet was a revolutionary device back in 2008. While the Duet 2 has much stiffer competition, it’s still a sleek and powerful audio interface that’s perfect for Mac and iOS users.
The Apogee Duet 2 offers 2-input/4-output design with 24-bit/192kHz Apogee converters in an OLED-equipped box that allows you to monitor input/output levels, input status, muting, phantom-power switching, and more. The Duet 2’s black front panel carries a large silver control knob that doubles as encoder and select switch, as well as two user-assignable touch-pads and a color OLED screen that communicates control information and meters audio.
With great audio quality and ultra-compact design, this one’s perfect for demanding sound engineers or musicians looking for high quality on the go.
Best for: a powerful interface under $200
Smart and deceptively powerful for its price, the Audient iD4 is a simple two-input/two-output interface with microphone preamp, phantom power for use with condenser mics, and an instrumental level input for use with a guitar or bass. The iD4 offers both monitor control functionality and ADAT-format digital expansion – plus, it’s set up to work with iPhones and iPads.
Best for: musicians looking for a plug-and-play interface
The entry-level interface in the AudioBox lineup, the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 features 2-channel 24-bit/96kHz recording in a compact and portable size. Its two mic inputs offer 60dB of gain, while doubling as 1/4″ inputs via combo jacks for the ultimate flexibility. The AudioBox also features stereo main outs and a headphone jack.
As its name suggests, the AudioBox USB 96 uses a USB 2.0 interface, which means you don’t need a power supply to use it – you just plug and play into any USB-compatible device, like your laptop. On top of being perfect for recording on the go, the PreSonus Audiobox USB 96 comes with Studio One 3 Artist DAW software and 6GB of bonus third-party content, including the Studio Magic Plug-in Suite.
Best for: Thunderbolt users
The UA Apollo Twin Mk II is a software/hardware hybrid capable of professional-quality production. This audio interface features two inputs and 6 outputs with 24-bit/192kHz capabilities on the front edge and back panel. It also features the same game-changing Unison preamps as the Apollo Twin Mk I, fed by the Mic/Line and Hi-Z ins.
The Apollo Twin Mk II connects to your Mac or PC via Thunderbolt (and unfortunately, there’s no cable in the box) for low latency transfers. There’s one catch though: It has to be powered from the wall, which means the Mk II’s portability is limited at best.
Best for: a high I/O count on a budget
You’d be hard pressed to find another audio interface with 18 inputs and 20 outputs that costs less than $500. Part of Focusrite’s second generation of audio interfaces, the Scarlett 18i20 carries over the best of the original version with upgraded 24-bit/192kHz resolution, improved drivers, and a software bundle. It features 8 combo XLR/TRS inputs with Focusrite’s popular mic preamps, a 2-channel S/PDIF input, and an optical ADAT input for expansion to a total of 18 channels.
This version of the Scarlett 18i20 also benefits from the collaboration between Focusrite and Pro Tools – resulting in improved software control, and the added bonus inclusion of the Pro Tools | First Focusrite Creative Pack bundle.
That’s a wrap!
And there you have it: the top audio interfaces out there for indie musicians. Of course, there are plenty of great audio interfaces out there – but if you’re looking to get started, you can’t go wrong with these picks.