The Essential Audio Interface Guide (or how my interface broke and I went shopping…)

Universal Audio Apollo

I had the unfortunate experience of my interface dying on me the other day.

I had a really nice Apogee Duet which now functions as a really nice paperweight for all the papers I don’t have…

So I used the “opportunity” and went hunting for a new interface. I was wanting something different anyway so it was a good excuse to spend some money.

How I Choose Audio Interfaces (Or any gear for that matter…)

With the massive amount of different interfaces out there the question always becomes, which one?

I mean, so many of them are similar so it’s hard to choose.

Here’s how I find almost anything online, whether it’s a new interface or a blender.

  1. Find your retailer – In most cases I use Amazon.com as the first stop for all my purchases. I don’t always end up buying through Amazon but I use their shopping filters to get closer to what I want.
  2. Filter – No, I’m not talking about filtering the guitar at 100 Hz. It’s all about narrowing your choices down so you can shop more efficiently. I always start by filtering by reviews. 3-4 stars and up are the only things that make the cut. Then I filter by price range and then finally by the characteristics I’m looking for.
  3. Read Reviews – From there it’s a matter of reading the reviews, the features it has and if there’s anything else that comes included. I always look at the one-star reviews first because some one-star reviews can be from dumb people making stupid mistakes. So if I can disregard all the bad reviews as non-applicable I’ll check out the rest of them.
  4. Compare – After I’ve exhausted Amazon I’ll look at other music retailers to find the best price. Sometimes retailers have different bundles with extra goodies thrown in so it’s always a good idea to do some comparison shopping.

In my hunt for an interface the characteristics were pretty flexible. I could always get another Duet because I liked my old one. But I also wanted something that had more mic inputs for tracking drums or bringing it along for on-location recording.

The Duet is great at what it does, but you’re pretty much stuck with your two inputs and great A/D converters.

I was ready for something more.

Here are some of the audio interfaces I found on my quest.

2 Input Interfaces

If you’re just starting out or don’t need more than two inputs, then the following are great options.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2focusrite

The Scarlett is a great starter interface or for somebody that’s on the move.

It’s cheap and small but still has great preamps.

Focusrite is a great brand and you see from the reviews that everyone is really happy with it.

However, it has limitations because you can’t expand or slave it to another interface through ADAT or S/PDIF. Overall it’s still a great choice if you’re starting out or like working out of your backpack.

Apogee Duet interfaceApogee Duet

I loved my Duet.

It was great for minimal recording work with the two mic inputs and their A/D converters sound amazing.

I actually did an A/B test where I bounced the same mix through the Duet and then again through the MacBook.

The difference was incredible.

The highs sounded harsher through the computer sound card and there was a noticeable lack of depth.

So if you’re looking for a great interface for mixing work then this is a great bet.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin DUO

Universal Audio Apollo

The Apollo was called a game-changer when it first game out. To some that just sounds like great marketing hype but to others it’s just great branding.

I would fall into the second category. I think UAD products are great. I’ve used both their hardware and software products.

I’ve used the original Apollo, their 6176 channel strip as well as the 4-710d preamps with great results. If you want an example listen to this song that I recorded using the UAD products I mentioned above and their plug-ins.

Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording InterfaceMackie Onyx Blackjack

This Mackie kept popping up in my search and for good reason.

I really like the design of it. It has knobs within easy reach and is “built like a tank.” I wasn’t a huge fan of the digital knobs on the Duet because I like turning knobs and clicking buttons.

It has two mic preamps as well as dedicated DI switches if you need to plug your instruments straight “into the board.”

It gets great reviews and is would be a good choice for anybody that wants a sturdy desktop interface with low latency and high headroom. Not as portable as the Scarlett but in the same price range so it mostly comes down to aesthetics.

4  – 8 Inputs or More

Like I said before, I was looking for something that had more than two mic inputs because I really like tracking drums. Even though two mics on the drum-kit is certainly possible I wanted more flexibility for that.

Besides, having 4-8 inputs would give me more options for recording my band more often.

Apogee Quartet Audio Interface for iPad & Mac Apogee Quartet

I debated buying the Quartet for a long time.

It has four inputs and an optical out so I could slave more interfaces to it if I needed extra mic inputs.

It also connects to your iPhone or iPad which can be great for some people although I didn’t see an immediate use for it.

I already knew it had great preamps as well as some of the best A/D conversion at that price point. However, it was just a little bit out of my price range so I passed on it.

1 PRESONUS FireStudio Project Recording Interface + Presonus HP4 Headphone Amp + 2 x Samson CH700 HeadphonesPresonus FireStudio

This bundle intrigued me a great deal because not only would I get an eight-input interface but also a headphone amplifier and a couple headphones.

Perfect for on-location recording or tracking a live band in their rehearsal studio.

The preamps sound nice enough and are definitely comparable to almost anything on this list. To be honest, I think mic placement is a much bigger factor in the quality of your recordings than an interface that’s $100 more expensive.

They’re all very comparable and you should be able to get great tracks out of any interface on this list. If you can’t you should look at your mic placement, instrument quality and performance before you blame the interface.

Lexicon IONIX U82S 8-InputLexicon Ionix

I’ve always been a big fan of Lexicon. It might because one of my first interfaces was a Lexicon Lambda and I used to work with only Harman products when I worked in live sound.

If you didn’t know, the Harman group owns Lexicon, JBL, DBX, AKG and BBE so those products all work really well together.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s stocked with DBX preamps as well as a plug-in bundle with some legendary Lexicon reverbs.

So if you’re looking for a cool looking 8 input interface with nice preamps and some nice reverbs the Lexicon is a great choice. Also, if Cubase is your DAW of choice then you’re all set with the Steinberg Cubase LE4 that comes bundled with it.

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20Focusrite

This is the bigger brother of the Scarlett 2i2 with eight inputs and room for 10 more through ADAT and S/PDIF.

I was seriously considering this one because we just tracked drums with the Focusrite Saffire and it came out really well. The Saffire is a firewire interface so I didn’t include it in the list because my MacBook doesn’t support it.

My thinking was that if the Saffire sounded so nice the Scarlett must be just as good, if not better.

The Winner?

I looked at a lot of audio interfaces and the ones above are just the top picks. Ultimately I think anything on this list is great if it fits your needs.

In the end I went with…..

Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo

Why you ask?

  • Small – I wanted a small desktop interface that would look good on my desk and didn’t need to be put in a rack.
  • Expandable – The Twin has ADAT so if I need more inputs I can just hook another interface to it for the preamps. I could technically get a slave for much cheaper on Ebay if I only wanted it for the mic inputs. Even a second-hand Saffire would be great because it wouldn’t need to be plugged in to the computer.
  • DSP – I like it has built-in DSP for the UAD plug-ins. I’m a big fan of their plug-ins so I’m looking forward to using them more in my mixes.
  • Great Sound – I’ve used their products before and I can trust the sound quality.
  • Thunderbolt – Not only is Thunderbolt super fast but it also frees up my USB ports for everything else.
  • Great price – I’m a sucker for a deal so when I found a 20% off discount code because of Black Friday I knew I had to jump on it. Thank you ProAudioStar!

So that sums up this year’s Essential Audio Interface Guide.

Do you have any of these interfaces? Anything I forgot or should have mentioned?

Let me know what you’re using in the comments!

  • Laura Skrobarczyk

    Looking to maybe replace my Steinberg UR44. It has served me well with Cubase, however…it hcauses me grief trying to use it with my new Pro Tools 11. What Daw or Daws are you using?

  • mark

    Hey, glad you got the device you wanted. I messed about spending an eternity researching 8 input devices to record my drums. I eventually got the Motu 8pre which i have been using for the past few years. i love it, plus to date it still has the best features I need for recording drums (eg individual pad, and phantom power switches on each channel). Hope you enjoy your Apollo Duo. i’d be interested in hearing the results of the A/B test differences you found with comparing the sound quality of the apogee and macbook if you could post anything.

  • Jason Moss

    Great info Björgvin — thanks for taking us through your thought process! And great choice too =) I love the UAD stuff — I have a Quad Satellite, but have been wanting an Apollo for some time…

    Thanks for sharing!
    J