Quality for Every Level of Home Studios
Most producers, artists, and audio engineers get their start by recording themselves at home. And in their first few attempts it’s usually using some really terrible, cheap equipment. Eventually the realization is made that with a small investment in better quality gear, the sound quality can be improved greatly, and thus begins the snowball effect of always wanting more and better equipment for the studio.
So much of the music making process is centered around computer software. It makes that link between your software and hardware, your audio interface, one of the most important choices for your home studio. The interface is your main source for digital conversion. Converters, if you’re unfamiliar, refer to the part of the device that changes the sound in to digital words for the computer, as well as taking the digital output from the computer and translate that back in to analog so that you can listen to it. Converters have a big impact on how good (or bad) your recordings sound. Many times, your microphone preamp is built in to the interface as well. And there are many other features available that you may (or may not) want to have. But one thing is sure; the audio interface has a big impact on the quality of the sound you record.
If you are looking to upgrade your home studio, I’d like to recommend 5 of the best interfaces available for recording at home. Let me specify: when I say “5 best” this doesn’t mean I’m just going to list the 5 most expensive, audiophile approved interfaces on the market. I realize that not everyone is working with the same budget, or even skill level. So I am going to make a few recommendations for home studios of different levels.
(1) Focusrite Scarlett https://focusrite.com/scarlett
For my first choice in the list, I was looking for something that works well for an artist, producer, or musician who is still pretty new to recording, but ready to spend a little money to upgrade their setup. The Scarlett interfaces from Focusrite are some of the most popular interfaces being sold today. They have a low profile, and are designed to sit on top of your desk. So they can be set where they can easily be reached while recording. The controls are nice and straight forward, making the Scarlett a good choice for people who are still learning the nuances of how recording equipment works. Plus, the Scarlett series interfaces are a good choice for anyone who needs a portable recording setup as well.
There are 6 different interfaces in the Scarlett line, with the main difference between them being how many inputs and outputs each one can handle. The 3 smaller ones are powered via USB, making them ideal for a portable rig, whereas the 3 larger ones need to be plugged in to an outlet to power up. The smallest one, the Scarlett Solo, has a single mic preamp, and an instrument input for recording guitars, basses, and other electric instruments. The largest Scarlett, the 18i20, is a rack mount unit with 8 mic preamps, 2 instrument inputs, plus a bunch of digital connections as well: optical, S/PDIF, MIDI, and word clock. Additionally the 18i20 has all the control room features you need for a pro studio setup. It has the capability to connect multiple speakers and switch between them, and a talkback system for communicating through the headphone sends to your recording artists.
(2) Apogee Duet https://apogeedigital.com/products/duet
and Quartet https://apogeedigital.com/products/quartet
If you’re ready to step things up to higher quality converters then Apogee might be a good brand to look in to, as they are well known to make very good sounding converters. The Duet gives you 2 inputs (each input can be toggled between a microphone, instrument, or line level signal) and 4 outputs. In reality, it gives you a stereo output that you can use to connect to speakers and a single headphone output. All of these connections, except the headphone plug, use a breakout cable that connects to the back of the Duet. I’ve honestly never been a fan of the breakout cable system used by Apogee. It can put a lot of wear and tear on the connections if you disconnect and reconnect it a lot, or if the cables get pulled on. The breakout cable allows apogee to create smaller devices that are just as powerful as larger ones. This is because they don’t have to build the XLR and 1/4 inch plugs directly in to the hardware. And I suppose if you’re not messing with cable too much, then it doesn’t pose a real problem. But I have to say, that is my only complaint about this device. The most important aspect of an interface is how it sounds, and this thing sounds great!
Compared to the Scarlett, the Duet is a solid step up in sound quality, but it’s a little more complicated to use. Everything is controlled by a single knob on the top of the Duet. The knob also functions as a button, and it takes some getting used to if you’re not familiar with how it works.
Moreover, there are two additional features of the Duet that really make it stand out to me as a great addition to a home studio. One, in addition to being compatible with both Mac and PC, it also works with iOS devices. This means you can actually record some great sounding vocals, guitars, and other things directly to an iPad or iPhone! And two, it has a MIDI USB port built in to it for connecting all types of MIDI controllers. It seems like modern computers never give us enough USB ports to connect all of our stuff in the studio. I really like this feature from Apogee. Plus, if you are using the Duet with an iOs device, then you only have one single port to connect all of your gear with. This lets you have a MIDI keyboard connected while also using the Duet for recording sound.
Now if you need something more versatile than the Duet, and don’t mind spending a little more, then the Quartet from Apogee is like the bigger brother to it. It has all of the features that I mentioned above about the Duet, but with some additions. The Quartet gives you 4 analog inputs, plus an extra 8 digital optical inputs. It has word clock, and 6 analog outputs. The additional outputs mean that you can either connect up to 3 sets of stereo speakers, or work in 5.1 surround sound. And one of the other things I like is that the Quartet has all of these connections built in to the device. So there is no breakout cable to worry about.
(3) Universal Audio Apollo https://www.uaudio.com/audio-interfaces.html
I don’t recommend this one for beginners… but if you’re looking for an audio interface just packed full of features, then you might want to take a closer look at the Apollo series of interfaces. There are 10 different versions of the Apollo from Universal Audio. So, I’m only going to focus on 2 of them: the Apollo Twin MkII and the Apollo x8.
The Apollo Twin MkII is well suited for smaller home studios. It sits on top of your desk and has a pretty small footprint, and yet it basically has everything you need for a professional studio minus three things: a microphone, speakers, and a computer. There are 10 total inputs. 2 of them are analog (mic or line level, plus an instrument input) and the other 8 are digital optical inputs. There are controls for two different sets of speakers in the Twin, as well as a headphone plug too. Plus a talkback system is built in. It has most every function you would want from an audio interface, but then takes it further.
Apollo interfaces can simulate many of the famous pieces of hardware that have been used to record and produce professional music over the years. It has plugins built in to it, and you can use them during recording as well as in post-production, mixing, and mastering. But in order to use the Apollo interfaces to their maximum potential, you need a lot of experience working in sound. There is a software application that controls the hardware device, and you need to use it in order to really take advantage of what this system has to offer.
If you need more inputs and outputs then what the Twin has to offer, you should check out the Apollo x8 (or a similar model). It is a rack mounted unit that takes the features of the Apollo Twin and sets up the ability to expand your setup even more. You can do up to 7.1 channel surround sound. The x8 gives you more inputs as well, up to 26 total inputs. 8 of those are analog, and the others are digital inputs (via optical and S/PDIF connections). 4 mic preamps and 2 instrument inputs expand on what the Twin has available as well. Additionally, the x8 has more processing power (for its plugins) than the Twin has.
(4) Slate Digital VRS8 https://www.slatedigital.com/virtual-recording-studio/#vrs8
Slate Digital has created some of the most exciting advancements in recording technology as of late. If you’re not familiar with the “Virtual Recording Studio” system that they have developed, I highly recommend you visit the url link above and check it out. Essentially, they have developed special microphones, preamps, and software that can simulate some of the world’s most prestigious (and expensive) recording equipment at a fraction of the cost. And it’s pretty impressive how well it works.
If you’re already using Slate Digital plugins and microphones, then the VRS8 is a must-have piece for your studio. It features 8 analog inputs, all with Slate Digital’s VMS-ONE preamps. The first 2 channels have instrument inputs available on the front of the unit. The preamps are specifically designed to work within the “Virtual Recording Studio” system. So if you’re not ready to go all in with that, this may not be the best choice of interface for you. But if you’re already using the system and ready to jump all the way in… welcome home.
While there are no digital inputs available, you can chain multiple interfaces together to expand your inputs and outputs. And it has word clock connections for syncing your digital devices. Add on the MIDI connections and this piece has a lot of functionality to offer. On the output side of things, the VRS8 has 8 analog line outs plus 2 headphone outputs. You can use 4 of the line outs to connect 2 sets of stereo speakers and the VRS8 gives you control over level and speaker switching between them. The one thing I wish they had included is a built in talkback system. But nevertheless, the Slate Digital VRS8 is an impressive piece, and the perfect choice to take full advantage of their “Virtual Recording Studio” system.
(5) Avid HD Omni https://www.avid.com/products/pro-tools-hd-omni
If you’re looking to put together a home studio that’s on par with professional recording studios, then you really need to run a Pro Tools HD setup. There’s no way around the fact that Pro Tools is the standard for professional work in both music and film/TV. And a Pro Tools HD Native setup with the HD Omni interface is a great option for home studios doing professional work.
The Omni gives you 2 input channels with preamps that work with mic, line, or instrument level inputs. Plus an additional 2 line inputs without a preamp. And a ton of digital input and output options. There are 8 analog outputs, which allows for either a surround sound output up to 7.1 channels, or you can connect 2 sets of stereo speakers, with lots of options for headphone/cue sends (including a headphone plug on the front of the unit). Unfortunately, there is no talkback system built in.
Since this interface is built by the same company that makes Pro Tools it really lets you take full advantage of the options available in a Pro Tools HD rig. If you need more inputs or outputs for your studio, the Omni gives you many options for expanding your setup. In addition to the digital connections, you can chain the HD Omni with other interfaces made by Avid. The HD Native system allows for up to 64 channels of inputs and outputs with almost no latency (delay) when recording. Obviously, this is not something I would recommend for a beginner. It is definitely for the more experienced people out there.
To summarize, here is my TL;DR version of what was stated above:
The Focusrite Scarlett series is mostly good for beginners. Easy to use, and inexpensive. But the more expensive versions of the Scarlett have their place in professional use.
The Apogee Duet and Quartet are higher quality options, but a bit more complicated to use. Also more versatile than many other interfaces on the market.
The Apollo series from Universal Audio gives you a lot of bang for your buck. You can absolutely create professional quality recordings with these interfaces, but you need some experience and knowledge of recording equipment in order to use them to their potential. Not for beginners.
VRS8 from Slate Digital is good quality and pretty straight forward to use. But really needs the full “Virtual Recording Studio” system from Slate to really shine.
And finally, if you want to get in to a Pro Tools HD professional recording setup then the HD Omni from Avid is a great choice. This option really requires extensive knowledge of Pro Tools and previous recording experience, as well as a hefty investment in to your gear.
I hope this helps you narrow down your options. There are so many audio interfaces available that choosing the right one can be intimidating. Think about your budget as well as your experience level before choosing. How many inputs and outputs do you really need? What other features do you need it to do (talkback, connect to multiple speakers, etc)? That can really help to eliminate the options that don’t fit your needs.
-written by Matt Hayes for urmixd.com