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A beginner's guide to audio interfaces

Musicians who record at home to produce demos or professional quality recordings can build up a vast array of equipment to come up with their ideal sound. However, it is not just the instruments themselves that can determine how a recording turns out, as the engineering and production can potentially make or break a track.

This is why many people choose to invest in an audio interface, which connects microphones and other sound sources, such as a guitar amp, directly to a computer. As a result, musicians are free to manipulate their recordings and convert analogue to digital without losing any sonic integrity. And this is the key reason why they invest in audio interfaces.

Standard sound cards which are built into computers do not have high quality analogue to digital converters and can only support two channels of simultaneous audio. By contrast, a good audio interface will be able to cope with various frequencies, offering good dynamic range and signal to noise ratio.

However, the type of device a person chooses to buy is dependent on factors such as how technically advanced they wish to be, as a small box such as a Presonus Firebox or Novation Nio can handle just two channels at the same time. Meanwhile, top-end devices such as the Focusrite Pro 40 or MOTU Ultralite MKIII are tailored to handle eight or more channels and are very much catered for the high end user.

Indeed, the latter device includes features such as a 14-bus digital mixer, with features such as EQ, compression and reverb. As a result, users can connect a wide variety of studio gear, such as microphones, guitars, synths, keyboards, drum machines and effects processors and put it all down on numerous tracks in excellent sound quality.

Other issues to consider include whether the user has highly specific requirements. For example, the Behringer UMA25S U-Control MIDI Keyboard is an instrument in its own right which contains a built-in audio converter, which means that it is far more niche and specialised than many alternative converters on the market.

Similarly, the Vox JamVOX combines a mini-combo amp with Mac and PC software that can isolate guitar parts from other tracks, allowing guitarists to imitate the precise tone and record a version with them playing that particular section instead.

But most multi-purpose interfaces are compatible with both Mac and PC and various softwares, making them useful in a wide variety of recording scenarios. Devices such as the Steinberg MR816X are notable for offering particularly high levels of integration and the production quality has in fact been hailed by some as breathtaking, as it fully exploits the flexibility and power of its Cubase Music Production System. However, some musicians could enjoy using the stripped down versions of quality software on some cards, as the Presonus Firebox for instance contains Cubase LE.

Before investing in an audio interface, the issue of connectivity needs to be considered also, as musicians will regularly need to use their device in tandem with many other pieces of hardware, such as their computer and guitar amps. Fortunately, a USB 2.0 connection is widely supported on most computers and interfaces, which means that multi-channel audio signals can be easily exchanged between the two.

In addition, many soundcards support the Firewire programme, which can be found on the majority of modern interfaces, while another option is to use a PCI card, which offers a high speed bandwidth solution to external audio interfaces and can also be fitted to most PCs on the market.

But it is practical rather than technical factors which could sway the final views of prospective buyers, such as whether the interface is sufficiently mobile for their needs, and whether they need simultaneous or virtual inputs and outputs. Furthermore, a musician's home recording facilities tend to expand on a regular basis, and buyers may want to leave their options open to broaden their range of equipment at a future data, making a wide-ranging, flexible audio interface the most desirable option.

Posted on 26 Jun 2009 17:18 to category : Tips and advice

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