So You’re Just Getting Started Up Eh?
When first starting up, a lot of this information, hardware terminology, and the connections can be very overwhelming and confusing. (I have been there.. and many times still am! — Music production is an on-going learning process, but once you learn the basics, then the creativity sets in!).
So Just What is an Audio Interface?
Well, an audio interface makes accessing your connections and volume control very easy. Since most people have their audio interface on their desk, it’s usually just in arms reach.
An audio interface is just a sound card that is outside of your computer. (Other known as an external sound card).
You can buy sound cards for computers to give you better sound for gaming, such as those sound blaster cards, however, when it comes to audio recording, and turning up and down the volume on reference monitor speakers, you’d have to go in behind your computer each time to plug connections in, or go into your audio settings on your computer to turn the volume up and down. This is definitely a hassle. So, welcome to an audio interface!
Again, an audio interface is a sound card that is outside of your computer. It plugs in USB (some are firewire, which is another type of connection, but I would recommend USB, as it’s the easiest route to take while starting up). Simply install the drivers for your audio interface (off their website, not the CD! As CD drivers are usually old!), and you should be good to go! (Maybe you’ll have to go to your Operating System’s settings — Windows/Mac — and enable your audio interface as the primary driver if you’re getting no sound).
Not only does it allow for super easy connections of microphones/instruments to record, but the volume control for speakers is very easy to grab and turn up and down. (Same goes for the mic/instrument connection as well, very easy to just turn up or down your recording).
Higher Quality Audio — D/A Conversion,
Now, this is getting a bit more technical than what I want to get into on this post, however, it is something to touch on.
Simply put, there is high quality audio, and low quality audio. If you’re recording into your computers on-board sound card, you’re not going to get the results you could with an audio interface. When recording audio, your audio interface allows you to capture the audio at quite a high quality with it’s A to D conversion (Analog to Digital). Then when listening, allowing you to hear high quality as well with it’s D to A conversion.
So What Audio Interface Should You Get?
Well, in my time of producing, I’ve had two. An M-Audio Fast Track Pro, and as of late, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 (the image at the top of this page — You can actually see both the Scarlett 2i4 and the M-Audio Fast Track Pro in that picture!).
My thoughts on the M-Audio Fast Track Pro I’ll say was a learning curve. I had a very bad experience with it, however, it still taught me a lot, and got the job done. Also, I really liked how many inputs/connections the fast track pro had!
I am currently using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 (writing this Oct. 18, 2013), which has been a lot better, however, I’m not as happy when it comes to the amount of connections/inputs. I was looking at getting some hardware down the road (a higher quality preamp.. maybe an analog compressor just to dip into the hardware world), and realized, the Scarlett doesn’t have tons of connections like the fast track pro did.. So this is something to keep in mind.
However, on all of my albums, I have just used the audio interface’s pre-amp’s, and sometimes, the Behringer Tube Ultra Gain MIC200 to give it that tube sound, since the fast track pro’s pre-amps were very weak (this also gave me more control with volume, using a separate pre-amp. Watch the Fast Track Pro review.. and you’ll understand).
What are Pre-Amps?
This is a question I didn’t understand in the beginning. The pre-amps are what power your microphone’s audio signal to make it loud. That’s simply it! These pre-amps and D/A converters can get VERY pricey. So when buying an audio interface, just keep in mind, it will get the job done, and do it well, however, it’s still only entry level when looking at what the prices can get to!
So What’s this MIDI I Hear About?
Keep this in your head at all times when researching — USB is MIDI. USB has now taken over that old MIDI connection, however, I don’t think the old MIDI connection is going anywhere any time soon, since a lot of devices still include the old MIDI connection. But USB is MIDI, so no need to buy a special MIDI adapter or anything like that.
MIDI is a type of connection that allows your device to communicate with other devices. (For example, plug in your MIDI Keyboard for it to work with your computer).
Now, some of these audio interfaces come with MIDI connections that allow for older hardware to plug into the audio interface to interact with it. For example, the Mackie Control.
But with a MIDI Keyboard, such as an Axiom 49 (2nd Generation), it has both the old MIDI connections, and USB. So simply plug it straight into your computer with the USB cord it comes with, install the drivers, and you’re set :). (But for devices like that Mackie Control, I plug it into my audio interfaces’ MIDI inputs so that it can communicate back and forth with my music program, and take advantage of the motorized faders!).
Hope that helps!