Audio Interface Shopping List MY SHOPPING GUIDE FOR INTERFACES Word Document File
There is a lot of choices
Most important is to make out a list of your requirements first then start shopping. .
Here is a basic outline of hat you will be comparing:
What kind of connectivity do you require? and how many of each.
These are some of the options:
XLR, 1/4" TS, 1/4"TRS, Combi jacks, RCA, ¼” line level, ¼” Instrument level,
MIDI, SPDIF, ADAT, MADI , Word Clock.
How many ins and outs do you think you'll need now and in the future
Are they accessible? Front or rear panel or both?
Are the ¼” jacks Balanced?
Is there a true stereo pair? Some don’t have a matched set of inputs which rules out using a pair of mikes on an Acoustic guitar, drum overheads or recording a stereo source like a hardware synth.
Most interfaces have at least 2 matched combi jacks on the front which is my preference. They can handle just about anything including XLR and guitar cables. I also think 4 inputs is minimum as it's great not to have to always swap out cables. The extra 2 can be back panel TRS. If like me you play a few different instruments then having a dedicated input for each is the way to go. If you don't plan on recording bands and your only going to be recording 2 or 3 tracks at once then a 4 channel interface is all you need. You can always add more dedicated inputs buy purchasing a small mixer. If you are going to record a group or band, then 8 XLR inputs will be minimum.
Pre Amps are very important and choosing the quality of your needs will take a bit of research. The “you get what you pay for” rule applies here, but check out the reviews and keep in mind that if you have those back panel TRS jacks you can always add a hardware pre amp latter. If pre amps are high on your list then look at the $400 plus range.
Having SPDIF is a nice option as a lot of powered monitors now have digital inputs. Only down side is the monitor control knob on the front panel probably won't control your room level.
On my 2 interfaces SPDIF input does not have direct monitoring either.
If you have other gear that supports the various multi channel digital formats like MADI or ADAT then you'll defiantly be requiring those options as in/outs.
Old school MIDI ports are now often replaced with MIDI over USB but if you plan on using any older midi equipment make sure you have this option.
I like to have 4 outputs. Main 1/2 to monitors, 3/4 I run to a small mixer I use for monitoring. If your thinking about recording a group of musicians then you will need more outputs or headphone mixes. Most multi output interfaces come with GUI based mixing software that facilitates complicated cue mixes. There are also many complaints about the learning curve for using this software so pay attention to reviews.
A/D convertors are generally good these days. There would seem to be a diminished return formula at play as the ones that claim highest quality are $$$$$. How much better those will make your recordings is anyone's guess. Myself convertors are low on my list of concerns.
Are there peak level meters or just a little LED for each input? I hate little lights, but that's seems to be standard.
Are there channel Insert jacks? This is a must if you desire a hardware compressor or EQ. You can also tap into this to run the signal to a monitor/ headphone mixer.
Are there separate controls for Monitor level and headphone level? This is super important. People who miss this end up having to fork over an extra $100 for a "Big Knob"
Is there a blend control on the front panel for mixing Source with Computer ( DAW) ? Sometimes this is Software based only. This might be important to you to balance the input signal with the playback. I use my small mixer.
How many Headphone jacks? A level for each?
Are the input pads or line / Instrument toggle switches on the front, back or software controlled?
Is it a metal box or cheap plastic? Is it light and portable or large and bulky, Rack mountable? Size matters. I like the Tascam interfaces as example, but compared to most others they are way to bulky to pack in a laptop bag.
Does it have an on / off switch? Nice to not have to unplug the wall wart.
Does it use Buss power or a power supply? Buss power can have issues with noise and Phantom power. I myself would avoid any interface that does not have an optional A/C power supply.
Does it have DSP effects built in? Certainly a worthwhile option if you plan on using the interface as a live mixer. My next interface I'm looking at is a Motu that serves double duty as a live digital mixer.
Does it use a GUI mixer? Having a software (GUI) mixer adds more options. And once again with brands like the Motu you now have Tablet / iPad remote mixing capabilities which for live sound in ears and studio headphone mixes is pretty slick.
Can it be used as stand alone? Some interfaces are also handy as a small mixer.
What are the Round Trip Latency (RTL) specs? Do you need low RTL for real time processing?
Low RTL is going to be at a higher price point. A $200 interface will have hidden buffers etc and score higher latency. If you wish to use Guitar Sims your going to want to spend more money and get your RTL down to below at least 5ms. Best performers are brand like Motu and RME.
Zero Latency monitoring is not the same as RTL. All interfaces have some latency.
Zero latency is just marketing hype for monitoring directly from the interface.
And most important of all, Does it have top notch drivers for your OS.
What is the word on support from the company?
Does it come with free software, An LE version of a DAW you would like to try? Free plug ins?
Everyone will recommend the interface they have chosen, that doesn't mean it is the right one for you.
Sit down and make a list of your desires and then go on web sites like Sweetwater and read reviews and specs. Also a good idea to visit the web sites of the major brands and see what's new. Careful of outdated gear.