The Year’s Best Professional Audio Interfaces
When you’re looking to connect entire bands or a studio’s worth of synthesizers to your computer then you’re going to need more than a 2 x 2 USB audio interface. Pro Audio Interfaces should provide you with a range of inputs and outputs, at the highest possible quality and be able to rack up with the rest of your gear. In this roundup, we’re looking for the best multi-channel, rackable audio interfaces that can provide the hardware connectivity for a working recording studio. Or if you are looking to upgrade your project studio then this is the place to start. Also, check out our roundup of the best desktop audio interfaces if you need the quality but are not so interested in the raw number of connections.
Our 2017 Picks
RME Fireface UFX+
Street Price: $2,799 (at time of writing)
Renowned for their no-nonsense approach to audio, German interface makers RME have quietly produced some of the most reliable audio interfaces on the planet. They don’t go in for impressive marketing or advertising campaigns, they simply make top-class interfaces. Their current flagship is the Fireface UFX+.
The connectivity packed into this 1U 19″ rack unit is impressive. There are 188 channels of audio in total, 94 inputs and 94 outputs. The connections include 12 analog inputs with 4 mic preamps, 2 ADAT ports (16 channels), 1 MADI in/out supporting 64 channels and digital in/out on AES/EBU. So that’s plenty. Additionally, there are two independent headphone outputs which can be controlled by the TotalMix FX software or by the front panel controls. Included on the front panel is a high- resolution display showing the monitoring levels for all channels of audio going through the interface.
One nice ability of the UFX+ is it can run completely stand-alone, without a connection to a computer. On the front, there’s a USB socket into which you can plug a USB thumb drive. You can record up to 76 channels of audio directly to this drive. So, you could leave it recording during your session and then walk away with a mix of every idea that went through the studio.
When connected to your computer, the UFX+ gives some of the lowest latency and highest performance of any interface on the market, whether connected on Thunderbolt or USB 3.0. The RME TotalMix FX software gives a high level of control over the entire routing and monitoring matrix of the interface. You can create unlimited submixes and apply the included EQ, dynamics, reverb or delay effects to any channel. It’s a totally latency-free virtual mixing console. There’s even an iPad app to give you remote and touch control. Or, if you want something a bit more physical, then the ARC USB remote controller puts all sorts of operations into your hands in a compact desktop unit.
There is a range of RME audio interfaces, all of which follow the same high level of build quality and performance. The UFX+ is the cream of a very capable crop.
Link to Website: www.rme-audio.de/en/
Street Price: $1,495 (at time of writing)
“Mark of the Unicorn” is the remarkable name of a company who have been building audio interfaces for a very long time. Their current technological direction is in the realms of AVB networking. This is an audio network protocol designed to allow for easy expansion. So, although the basic connection to the computer is via Thunderbolt or USB, you can add more I/O via a network connection streaming hundreds of channels through the system.
They have a range of interfaces covering all sorts of I/O configurations but it’s the 1248 which seems to offer the best all-round selection. It manages to squeeze in 66 audio channels into the single 1U rack space. These include 4 microphone pre-amps, 2 dedicated hi-Z guitar inputs, 8 in and 12 out balanced analog connections, 16 channels of ADAT optical and RCA S/PDIF. On the front panel, you’ll find volume knobs, 2 headphone sockets along with the guitar inputs, and a 324 pixel wide LCD display showing level meters for all inputs and outputs.
You have to consider your requirements, the connectivity, you need and the way you like to work when buying a serious audio interface.
The Thunderbolt and USB 2.0 connection promise very low latency and high performance. MOTU can run up to 256 channels of audio through the one Thunderbolt connection. This can be a combination of physical connections to the 1248, virtual channels in software or audio streams over the AVB network. If you don’t have Thunderbolt yet, then the USB 2.0 connection is more than enough to cope with the physical interface.
Internally the 1248 is equipped with a 48-channel digital mixer, designed and laid out like a mixing console. It includes analog EQ and compression modeled from renowned British analog consoles. The software also includes a patchbay letting you connect up any input and output and route them in any way imaginable.
Combined with the ability to add any of the other interfaces from the MOTU range, these features make this a very versatile and expandable system to base your studio upon.
Link to Website: motu.com/
Street Price: $999.95 (at time of writing)
With the Quantum audio interface, PreSonus have gone for precision engineering and high fidelity. They give the impression these are things no one has ever considered before, but what we do get is a well-specified audio interface with fabulous features at an alarmingly good price.
Boasting a modest 26 inputs and 32 outputs, the Quantum connects over a Thunderbolt 2 interface. Amongst the connections, you get 2 combination microphone/line/instrument inputs along with 6 mic/line inputs. Then there are 16 channels of ADAT and stereo S/PDIF. Add on a couple more outputs in the shape of headphone sockets and you’re done. No MADI connection or network streaming but you can chain up to 4 Quantum interfaces to bump up your I/O count.
The front panel is not quite as impressive as other interfaces, opting for the more traditional segment LEDs for input metering and a nice fat volume knob. One cool feature is the “Talkback” mic built into the front. It can be routed to any mix, letting you talk to the musicians in the live room from the comfort of the control room. Another feature not often mentioned in audio interfaces is the ability of the outputs to handle DC voltages. This means they can pass control voltage signals from software into external modular and analog controlled equipment.
On the software side, it has perfect integration with PreSonus’ own Studio One DAW but will work happily with any other production software. There’s also a very handy remote-control app for wireless control over the mixing and functionality of the interface from the comfort of an iPad or Android device.
Although it struggles a little to lose that “Project Studio” vibe, the features and quality on offer are top notch and make for a decently affordable alternative to some of the more professionally priced interfaces.
Link to Website: www.presonus.com/
Focusrite Clarett 8PreX
Street Price: $1,099 (at time of writing)
The only audio interface in this roundup that goes for a 2U enclosure, Focusrite have added a lot more hands-on control to the front panel. This enables you to see at a glance the status of all your inputs and their settings without having to mouse dive into software and menus. It may seem remarkably old-fashioned but helpful controls and up-front information never go out of style.
Coming in at only 26 inputs and 28 outputs the 8PreX is clearly focused on those 8 microphone pre-amped inputs the name suggests. In the front, there are also two instrument inputs. 16 channels of the obligatory ADAT optical and RCA S/PDIF complete the connectivity. Focusrite has their own Clarett Octopre ADAT interface which allows you to add further microphone channels with the same quality and features as the 8PreX, making it easily expandable.
With the Apollo 8p, UA have produced hardware that can match up to the big guns on this list in terms of quality.
The front panel is where the action is. Each mic input has its own gain control along with buttons for +48V phantom powering, Hi-pass filter and Phase reverse. There are some indicator lights showing the type of input being used and whether “Air” is enabled. These are all selectable in the Focusrite software, which is the only thing slightly odd about this otherwise very hands-on device. The “Air” indicator refers to some special emulation the Clarett range of interfaces can do. It modifies the frequency response of the input stage to model classic, transformer-based Focusrite ISA mic preamps. It’s the sort of thing that should always be on. Rounding off the front are twin headphones, monitor volume knob and a segment LED input metering.
The mixer software does an OK job of creating submixes and routing but it does come with an attractive bundle of plug-ins to add to your collection.
Link to Website: uk.focusrite.com
Universal Audio Apollo 8pe
Street Price: $2,999 (at time of writing)
There was a time when Universal Audio only built DSP cards that went inside computers. Any UAD equipped computer could benefit from the amazingly realistic emulations of classic analog gear their plug-ins supplied. However, in more recent times, UA has been building their DSP chips into complete recording solutions and they’ve gotten quite good at it. The Apollo 8p brings in their most “premium” interface to date.
The advantage in building their own hardware is they can integrate the software plug-ins directly into the signal chain of the hardware. So, the mic pre-amps can benefit from Neve, API and Manley emulations at the point of input rather than being applied as plug-ins afterward. That’s quite a unique feature.
With the Apollo 8p, UA has produced hardware that can match up to the big guns on this list in terms of quality. It sports 8 mic/line inputs plus the familiar 16 channels of ADAT and S/PDIF. Input monitoring on the front panel, hi-Z inputs and a handful of controls keep a very neat looking system — a system that runs on Thunderbolt and can be expanded with up to 4 Apollo 8s or Apollo 16s plus a further 6 UAD-2 external DSP boxes. It’s the plug-in quality that’s at the heart of any UA system but with the Apollo 8p they really do have the hardware to get the best out of it.
Link to Website: www.uaudio.com
There are always levels to these things. What one person considers a professional solution would be looked down upon by another with more complex requirements and a much bigger budget. With this roundup, I’ve tried to bring together interfaces with their own unique strengths that would have no trouble running a working studio. You have to consider your requirements, the connectivity, you need and the way you like to work when buying a serious audio interface. And the only other decision is how many to put you down for.
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