What Does An Audio Interface Do?

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If you are a seasoned musician, or are proficient with an instrument, and want to start recording your music, rather than playing through an amp for your own enjoyment, then you may have heard of an audio interface.

An audio interface is another tool for the modern artist, and is fairly inexpensive, which allows you to enter the digital world of music production and recording.

Audio hardware can often be a confusing topic if you don’t know the basics and you aren’t a sound engineer. It can be important to learn the mechanics and operation of a piece of hardware before you endeavour to purchase one for your own use.

Whether you are a sound engineer or making your start as a recording artist then an audio interface could be the next step in your musical career, so read on if you want to learn more about audio interfaces.

What Does An Audio Interface Do

What Is An Audio Interface?

In the past independent recording was basically impossible, you usually had to pay a lot of money to go to a recording studio to be recorded within a physical space.

Imagine how many artist’s careers have been quelled in the past by technology not keeping up with the imagination of the artist. Audio Interfaces are a product that grew from the digitisation of music back in the late 1980s and 1990s.

By the mid-1990s, the common household computer was now capable of recording multi-channel audio within 16 bits.

An audio interface is a piece of hardware, it converts the signal from an instrument or microphone into a signal that your computer recognises. This means you can record and listen to playback directly from your laptop.

The interface will usually connect your laptop with USB cables and you can plug your guitar cable straight into the audio interface  like you would an amp.

The most simple audio interface to comprehend is a microphone. If you plug a microphone into your computer and record audio, this functions exactly the same as an audio interface does.

But sometimes it’s not so simple to simply plug a microphone or instrument into your computer, and the audio interface solves this problem.

The now technologically advanced audio interface could potentially record a whole band with the help of multiple channels, with only one piece of hardware!

In comparison to a mixer, and while functionally overlapping, an audio interface differs somewhat. An audio interface is intended to communicate directly with a digital workstation where the interface digitises the sound that is inputted into it.

Conversely, a mixer will have physical controls for the equaliser and faders etc, whereas an audio interface simply converts the inputted sound into format where it can be edited on the host device.

In the modern age of digital technology there are some technological developments to be aware of. For instance, some of you may be aware that Apple’s devices don’t have usb ports; they instead have an alternate input system called ‘Thunderbolt’.

Rather than being difficult for difficulty’s sake, Apple are actually focused on the speed of their devices rather than simply being different. What is meant by this, is that the thunderbolt system is actually faster than your regular USB.

In terms of what this means for your audio interface is what is known as latency.

Latency is essentially the speed at which the sound wave created by your instrument can be input through the audio interface, in-built pre-amp, etc, and back out through your headphones or sound system.

Put simply, this means the milliseconds between you hitting a guitar string, for example, and you hearing it in your headphones are reduced.

While this is a tiny detail, it can be really important to some musicians and essentially rules out the chance of any lag between you playing a string and you hearing it back.

The Thunderbolt’s speed does actually make it preferable to a USB input, however Apple’s Thunderbolt system isn’t universal yet and many people still use USB ports.

But when you are purchasing an audio interface then it is well worth keeping in mind what inputs and outputs you use.

If audio latency is something that matters to you then consider Thunderbolt, if you use a Mac or Apple device then the Thunderbolt is your only option beyond buying a USB adapter.

What Does An Audio Interface Do?

As the audio interface converts the inputted sound into digital audio, this digital audio file can now be freely edited within an audio workstation such as ProTools or Ableton.

These audio workstations allow you to cut the audio file up, view the audio file within a beat grid, change the files BPM, apply effects and ultimately create a song with multiple audio files.

For example, in the digital age of music, the epoch of ‘autotune’ has loomed over the modern music industry since it became a mainstream tool for music producers. An audio interface is the hardware foundation of this process.

The audio inputted into the microphone is converted into a digital audio file. This digital audio file is then put through a processing or editing software on a digital workstation that manipulates the audio within the parameters of what is known as ‘autotune’.

This, now edited, audio file can then be played through the audio output with this effect now on it, allowing a performer to even sing live while having effects on their voice. 

If you didn’t have an audio interface you could record audio directly through the in built microphone on your laptop, but this won’t be of high quality.

In What Situation Do I Need An Audio Interface?

If you want to record high quality audio then you will likely need an audio interface, the other option is the in-built microphone on your device which is not of high quality.

In the same vein, you could record your guitar or bass directly through the in-built microphone on your device but this would also reduce the quality of the audio file greatly.

Similarly, if you are thinking about starting a podcast, then you will also need to think about purchasing an audio interface.

Obviously when it comes to podcasting you don’t really need to alter the audio file greatly, but an audio interface gives control over channels and also lets you record audio in high quality.

You may want a ghost channel for a producer; an audio interface allows the user to choose which channels are muted or being recorded.

Moreover, if you have multiple guests you may want audio playback through headphones so that you can hear each other clearly, this can be achieved with the right audio interface.

Ultimately, with the use of an audio interface, you will be able to record and edit the audio files on an audio workshop  creating a high quality audio file which you can upload. 

How Much Does An Audio Interface Cost?

When pimping out your home studio, it’s important to keep costs in mind, especially if you want high quality instruments to record on as well.

The price of an audio interface will change depending upon how many channels it has, and control over those channels, which ultimately depends on what purpose you are using an audio interface.

Ultimately, you should choose the interface that enables you the control you want, whether that’s having multiple channels and headphone controls, or you just simply want high quality audio for a 2 in 2 out system.

For instance, an audio interface for podcasting will need multiple channels and physical mixing tools for live editing, this will naturally cost more. The Rode RODEmaster Pro is a particularly sought after audio interface which is tailor made for podcasting.

This product costs around $600-$650, other products’ prices will vary based on their quality and features.This audio interface is perfect for both the professional and amateur podcaster.

Comparatively, your common audio interface which is purely for recording purposes can range from $50-$200 depending on what you want.

The Roland Rubrix 22 is a popular audio interface for recording with two inputs in and two inputs out, this comes in at around $150 at the higher end of the market. This is perfect for a home studio or simply for the bedroom DJ.

Final Thoughts

An audio interface is one of the most important technological developments within audio recording. It allows almost anyone to record audio easily and with the sound quality of a recording studio.

Audio interfaces have launched the career of many modern musicians and has made recording accessible to the masses.

One of the ripples of the creation of audio interfaces is the recent boom of podcasting, everyone has a podcast now from Z-list celebrities to your university and this has become so popular as podcasting has become streamlined with the simplification of the audio interface. 

Audio interfaces are accessible to all, for a reasonable price, as long as you have a computer or laptop and an instrument to plug in.