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36 Audio Interfaces Under $1000

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Most home studios today are centered around a personal computer. (And yes - despite what the ad says, a Mac is a personal computer too.) An audio interface is the audio gateway from the outside world into your computer.

Most computers come with a sound card with line and mic inputs, and many people use these when starting out with audio recording. But if you are serious about the quality of your work, you should avoid them. They have inferior audio to digital converters, and often produce a good deal of noise. You need to choose a professional audio interface that allows you to plug in your mics and instruments, and connects to your computer through a USB, Firewire, PCI or PCMCIA interface.

Most of the links in this article are to Amazon’s online store, which gives you access to pricing, features and specifications, and user reviews for most products. You can support Audiotuts by making a purchase using one of these links. Here are the links to the manufacturer’s audio interface page for the major brands:

When choosing your audio interface, there are several things you need to keep in mind:

How Much Can You Spend?

The first question that normally comes up when buying something new is how much you are willing or able to spend. With audio equipment, the upper limit is always higher than you can afford. In this article we’ll try to keep the price below USD$1000, and cover the more expensive options in a future article. Setting the bottom limit can be tricky - there is always cheap gear out there that isn’t worth buying.

I’m in the market for an inexpensive audio interface at the moment. The advice I’ve received from everyone I’ve spoken to is to avoid the bottom range of interfaces entirely - they sacrifice quality to save you money. However, if you are after something supremely portable, or you have severely limited cash, you might want to consider them. The cheap units tend to be very small and portable, and they are certainly much better than your computer’s built-in sound card.

If you’ve decided to ignore conventional wisdom and get one of these units, Behringer, M-Audio and Edirol have small and cheap audio interfaces:

Edirol UA-1EX USB Audio Interface

Are You Sacrificing Sound Quality?

If you do buy a cheaper audio interface, you are likely to be sacrificing sound quality. It is worth finding out exactly what you are compromising on before you make your final decision.

  • Bit depth affects the dynamic range you are able to record. Be aware that some of the cheaper audio interfaces only operate at 16-bit resolution, while most professionals see 24-bit resolution as a must. If you care about quality, don’t compromise here.
  • Sample rate determines the accuracy of the audio. At 96 kHz, the device is measuring the audio 96000 times a second. 96 kHz is often recommended as a minimum, and many audio interfaces go much higher. Some cheaper interfaces are only 44.1 kHz.
  • Good preamps cost money, and are often sacrificed in the budget interfaces. If you are recording from a good mic and hoping for crystal clear results, you may want to buy a more expensive interface with a good brand name.

Sweetwater sums it up for you:

“If your only expectation is to produce demo-quality CDs to hand out to friends and family, or maybe sell at a local show, 16-bit/44.1 kHz (commonly known as “CD quality”) will be fine. Conversely, if your objective is to record string quartets, an audio interface that is capable of doing 24-bit/96kHz or even 192kHz is desirable. With DVD video and audio capable of utilizing 24-bit/96kHz audio, today’s market is full of devices capable of reproducing high-resolution audio.”

So do some homework, and find out the specs of the unit before you pay for it. For example, the Behringer interface mentioned above samples at only 48 kHz.

Which Operating System Do You Use?

Most audio interfaces are compatible with both Windows and Mac, but you should double check before you part with your cash. It should be written clearly on the box.

Many audio interfaces come with software - for example a digital audio workstation - and this may not be compatible with all operating systems. If you are hoping to save money on software by getting it with your audio interface, make sure you check the system requirements.

If you are a Linux user, you probably already know to make sure the interface is compatible. You won’t find out much from the manufacturer, but you may find Linuxaudio and Linuxhardware helpful. Many audio interfaces work fine, and are recognized automatically.

How Will You Connect It to Your Computer?

There are least four different ways that audio interfaces can connect to your computer:

  • USB is probably the most common. They are convenient because USB ports are so common, and all you need to do to install the device is plug in a USB lead. But USB is a shared bus, so every USB device you plug in is taking resources away from your audio interface.
  • Firewire has the advantage over USB of being faster and asynchronous. Because Firewire is not a shared bus, and in any case is used by less devices, many people find it a more reliable option.
  • Some interfaces are on dedicated PCI cards which slot into the inside of your PC. Some of these have an external device to plug your leads into, while others make the back of your PC look like an octopus. The PCI interface gives the best performance, but is the least convenient.
  • PCMCIA card interfaces are also available if you have a Windows laptop. These are around the same speed as PCI cards on desktop computers, but seem to be becoming less common now.

The interface I am looking for needs to be portable, and work on a variety of computers, including a laptop. A USB interface would be most suitable.

Here are some examples of each type:





What Number of Inputs and Outputs Do You Need?

If you record one part at a time on your own in your studio, then you probably only need a couple of inputs - perhaps for mic and guitar. But if you want to record a band or mic up a drum kit and record each part in separate tracks, then you’ll need a lot more.

Extra outputs can be used for submixes, including foldback and headphone mixes. Some models don’t let you independently submix to all outputs, so check before buying.

The number of inputs and outputs is a significant factor in increasing the cost of an audio interface. It’s also a decision that is essential to get right, and will heavily influence your buying decision. And make sure you think of your needs in the future - you don’t want to invest in a device that limits you.

If you are looking for a device with lots of inputs, here are some audio interfaces to consider:

6-8 inputs:

10-12 inputs:

16-20 inputs:

24-26 inputs:

M-Audio ProFire 2626 High-Definition 26-in/26-out FireWire Audio Interface with Octane Preamp Technology

Do You Want Extra Knobs and Features?

The design of most audio interfaces is very minimalistic. They tend to have a knob or two, and a series of phono and XLR jacks. They are designed this way with the expectation that most people will do their tweaking and editing using computer software and/or MIDI control surface interfaces.

But you might not be like most people. There are a number of audio interfaces that include mixers and other features. Here is a sample:

Yamaha also have a range of audio interfaces with built-in mixers, including the MW USB Mixing Studio Series.

Alesis MultiMix 16USB 2.0

Do You Intend to Use Pro Tools?

Pro Tools is different to the other software DAWs in that it only works with hardware designed for it. That comes down to Digidesign and M-Audio interfaces. M-Audio now belongs to Digidesign, and is the much cheaper model, but doesn’t include the Pro Tools M-Powered software in the price - so when comparing prices, add around $300 to the M-Audio products if you want to allow for the software. Here are some examples:



There are many audio interfaces out there, and this article doesn’t cover them all. Which interface did you choose and why? Let us know in the comments.

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