Why you NEED an audio interface.

I'm kind of embarrassed to even admit this, but I guess that's part of the deal.  I started doing audio work (or play for me really) in live audio.  I would run church sound and do some simple small concerts...

Then I jumped into wanting to record my own stuff and some friends stuff.  I had a basic mixer setup already, so I grabbed a mic, plugged that and my guitar into the mixer, and plugged the mixer directly into the "mic in" port on my PC.  (Granted I did get an adapter earlier to plug a mic directly into the PC too.)  I recorded and thought "hey, that's not too bad."  Until I listened to it in the car and compared it to other recordings.

Instantly, I knew that something was wrong.  So the live sound guy came out in me.  Must be the mic!  So I researched an affordable recording mic and went and picked up an AKG Perception 200.  Not too bad of a mic (not great with my voice, but it worked).  I heard a bunch of background noise when using this thing though, so I knew I needed to go somewhere quiet.

My Dad has a place up in the mountains.  So I packed my stuff up and went up there to record.  And I did.  Let me tell you, that mic made a HUGE difference!  But then I compared my recordings to other recordings, and still....it just didn't even come close.

So I did the unthinkable...and I asked for help.

After referring to the pro audio section at my local music shop, I ended up getting a cheap, used, audio interface.  It was an old M-Box (and it was basically old when I got it).  But after hooking that up, the difference in sound was unmistakable!  Now I could only hook up two devices, which was all I was doing anyway, but the clarity of the sound was drastically better!  Why?

Well there's a lot of technical jargon that we could do here, but suffice to say that the internal sound card on your computer is not professional grade.

What is an Audio Interface?

Well, an audio interface is a device that connects your analog hardware (microphones, guitars, keyboards...) to your computer via either USB or Firewire.  So in essence, the sound card in your computer IS an audio interface, just not a very good one.  Sound cards have a tendency to add a lot of extra noise, and they tend to lose a bit of the signal as well (meaning a loss of clarity - which is bad).  Whereas an external audio interface does the conversion from analog sound to digital information on it's own, using recording grade equipment.  This not only makes things sound better because of the equipment in the interface, but it also takes the conversion process off the load that the computer is doing.  This gives the computer more resources to run the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and other programs, also making it sound better.

Audio interfaces also have direct hookups for your hardware.  There are several different kind of interfaces.  There's 1 channel interfaces, 2 channel, 6 channel, 8 channel, and there are even mixing boards that hook up directly to your computer with either firewire or usb.  The most common interfaces used in home studios are 2 channel interfaces.  Why?  Because a single person, maybe a singer songwriter, can only do 2 things at once really...play an instrument and sing.  Plus, in recording, you normally don't want too much cross over - which is when you get the same sound on two mics when you're only recording that source with one mic.  So if you're recording a guitar and singing, cross over is when you hear your guitar on your vocal track and your vocals on your guitar track.  So in a home studio environment, recording less things at a time is usually better.

So is an Audio Interface only helpful with getting sound into the computer?

No.  Most audio interfaces will have a few things on it that help out a lot with what you hear once you have recorded, and even while you're recording.  Audio interfaces have a full 1/4" stereo headphone jack and a volume control for it.  This allows you to hook up professional grade studio headphones without needing an adapter.  (Don't get scared by the term "professional grade" here.  Good studio headphones can be picked up for $40-$100).  Plus there are monitor out jacks.  These aren't computer monitors that help you see, but rather studio monitor outs that help you hear.  Now studio monitors are a bit more expensive than the headphones, but you can still pickup an inexpensive set for $200-400.  But if you're just getting started, go ahead and start with headphones; that's where basically everyone starts.  That being said, a good pair of flat response studio monitors will give you a much better representation of what you're mixing than the headphones.  But that comes with time.

Drew, do you used a 2 channel Audio Interface at DAB Studios?

Sometimes.  I have an 8 channel Focusrite audio interface that I primarily use.  However, there are times that I still pull out my trusty 2 channel usb interface and use it too.  Sometimes I need more than 8 channels at one time, and other times I'm going out to record and only need 2 channels.

What about the Preamps?

That's a fantastic question!  Different audio interfaces have different preamps.  What is a preamp you ask?  When you plug a microphone into a mixer, chances are you're plugging it into a preamp.  If there's a gain knob, there's a preamp.  A microphone is a device that converts sound pressure from sound waves into electrical signals.  Dynamic microphones transmit low levels of signals, enough to get there, but not enough to sound loud.  Condenser microphones require extra power to make this happen.  This is called Phantom power, or +48V (most preamps have a button for that).  A preamp is an amplifier that boosts the audio signal before getting any other processing (like EQ, compression...).

Different preamps sound different.  Some naturally have a darker sound.  Some have a warmer sound.  Some hive a brighter sound.  Some sound brittle.  Some sound fairly transparent.  The best advice I can give you on picking out an interface for it's preamp is to read the reviews.  You can even find out what preamp a certain interface uses and research those particular preamps.

But honestly, if you're just getting started, or you're looking to record other people, getting a good general interface is probably a good idea.  With that, just read the reviews on that interface through a few different websites and forums go from there.

Remember, music is subjective - so make something you love.