Best Audio Interfaces for Home Music Recording in 2021 - Careers in Music
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What is the best audio interface?

Our picks for 2021‘s best audio interfaces include:

  • MOTU M2 and M4
  • Audient EVO 4
  • M-Audio Duo
  • Audient Sono
  • IK Multimedia AXE I/O
  • Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII
  • Arturia AudioFuse Studio
  • Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB

An audio interface is the key piece of hardware that turns your computer into a recording studio. It provides you with the inputs you need for recording sound, the outputs for listening to your music and the quality you need to be taken seriously. While there is a dizzying amount of choice out there they all help you achieve the same thing – producing music. And we’re going to help you make the right choice.

For this article we’re talking about home recording. So it might be recording just your voice and guitar, or the output from a synthesizer or two. You might have a small band or a couple of voices and probably a modest budget. So, we’re going to avoid the high-end interfaces with a gazillion inputs and focus on the reality of recording at home and being able to produce decent music for a reasonable price.

In this list you’ll find a range of interfaces starting with the affordable and yet fully featured up to some impressive bits of hardware with more inputs, higher quality and professional extras. Consider what you want to plug in, check out your budget and lets get started.

First, some FAQs:

Audio Interfaces Q&A

Do you really need an audio interface?

Mario McNulty (David Bowie, Prince, Nine Inch Nails)

For most professional level recording, it is a good idea to have a quality audio interface. Recording directly into a phone or laptop is doable in a pinch, but I wouldn’t recommend it for competitive music production.

Does an audio interface improve sound quality?

Mario McNulty (David Bowie, Prince, Nine Inch Nails)

An audio interface can improve the sound quality, yes. However, the most important thing is getting a good source recorded in the first place. Having the best interface won’t fix a bad source.

What is the best audio interface for a home studio?

Mario McNulty (David Bowie, Prince, Nine Inch Nails)

There are lots of great options for the home studio, however, I am very pleased with the two that I own. I have an Avid HD I/O, and a Universal Audio Apollo Twin X. The Apollo might be better suited for most home studios due to its size and price.

Best Audio Interfaces Under $200

The best place to start. These interfaces are all you need to kick off your home studio.

MOTU M2 and M4

Usually known for their high-end audio interface, MOTU has pulled some of the key features and their expertise across to a pair of budget audio interfaces that raise the bar on what home studios should expect from their gear.

They are a good size, made of metal with the usual ins and outs you find on a 2 in/out and 4 in/out budget interface. But there are a few added features that make all the difference.

First of all, that display is gorgeous. On most interfaces, you’re lucky to get a clip light, whereas here you can actually see the level coming in and going out and use it to properly adjust the gain. Both mic preamps have individual +48v phantom power switches which are unusual on interfaces at this level. So you can power a condenser mic on one input and use an unpowered dynamic on the other.

They also have individual monitoring buttons so you can mix and match between direct and software monitoring — direct on your voice while your guitar goes through a software amplifier.

The sound quality, headroom, and dynamic range are excellent up to 192kHz. The latency is also very low and performs brilliantly. There’s an extra feature in the driver which creates a virtual loopback function where you can record the output of your software straight back in again. This is perfect for podcasters and video streaming. And to round it all off the outputs are DC coupled so you can route CV out to modular synthesizers.

The M2 and M4 are very capable interfaces with a great feature set that beats most other interfaces on the market. Although M4 goes just slightly over our $200 budget threshold, both are highly recommended.

Street Prices:
• MOTU M2 – $168
• MOTU M4 – $219
motu.com

Audient EVO 4

The EVO 4 is an unusual looking audio interface and probably the easiest one I’ve ever used. It has a big knob with a halo of LEDs, a couple of buttons and a handful of connections. What’s brilliant about it is that you can plug it in, plug in your mic and start recording in seconds with hardly any setup or messing about.

It has 2 in and 2 out. You can plug two microphones in the back and swap out one of those for a guitar input on the front where you’ll also find the headphone output. +48v phantom power is available for both inputs via a button on the top. The big knob provides level control over the output and monitors the inputs. It’s all very straightforward.

The secret weapon of the AVO 4 is the big green button. Pressing it activates “Smartgain” which is the most useful feature ever invented on an audio interface. With Smartgain activated you sing into your mic or play your guitar and over a period of about 10 seconds it analyses the audio and sets the perfect recording level. It’s like doing a tiny sound-check. You are then ready to record confident that you are not going to be too loud to cause distortion or too soft so you can’t be heard. Smartgain gets it right every time – it really does.

The EVO 4 also comes with some really good monitoring and mixing software which gives you full control over all the levels in and out plus the ability to loopback so you can combine the playback of software with your input for live streaming or recording into something else.

It’s an impressive and remarkably priced little plastic box. If you need a few more inputs there’s the larger EVO 8 that does everything the EVO 4 does just with more connections.

Street Prices:
EVO 4 – $129
EVO 8 – $199
audient.com

M-Audio M-Track Duo

The MOTU is the best, the EVO 4 is the easiest and now we have the M-Track Duo which is undoubtedly the cheapest audio interface I’ve come across that’s actually good enough to hold its own in this list of “Best audio interfaces”. There’s also a Solo which is even cheaper but for this sort of money it’s worth getting the slightly bigger Duo.

The M-Track Duo has very familiar features with a pair of mic preamps on the front that can also handle guitar or line level. There’s phantom power for the mics, a headphone socket and a direct monitoring option. On the top you get level control on the inputs and outputs. The knobs are slightly sunken into the box which offers them some protection from accidental knocking.

It’s a simple, straightforward audio interface with no hidden powers or special features but it works brilliantly. Usually interfaces around this price have poor drivers and poor audio performance with software but these are great. Good low latency, low CPU, decent quality sound. Bear in mind that the recording quality is only 16-bit and up to 48kHz but that’s good enough for a home studio.

The price does bring some compromises; it’s lightweight and made of plastic, the headphone output is a little weak and it doesn’t sound quite as good as the other interfaces on this list but for the price it’s awesome. Comes with a decent bundle of software including Pro Tools First so it’s all you need to start making music.

Street Prices:
M-Track Duo – $69
M-Track Solo – $49
m-audio.com

Best Audio Interfaces for Guitar

A slightly more niche audio interface has started to emerge that pays particular attention to the needs of the guitarist.

Audient Sono

The Sono is a 2 input, 4 output audio interface with award-winning Audient console preamp technology and a 12AX7 tube built right into the input stage. Inside the box is some DSP hardware that runs speaker cabinet simulations from Two Notes. This is combined with a 3-band tone control right there on the front panel, making the Sono essentially a tube drive amp and speaker combo for your guitar.

The tube is going to give your guitar a classic analog tone shaped by the analog EQ before routing through the Two Note technology which lets you emulate the sound of miking a guitar or bass cabinet in a professional recording studio. There are emulations of classic cabs from Marshall, Fender, Ampeg and many more, all accessible through the onscreen control software.

Once you’ve designed your guitar sound you can save up to 3 presets into Sono itself so you can take the sound out to a gig without needing to take the computer.

Meanwhile, it does all the mic recording and monitoring, has headphone outputs and a 5 segment LED monitor and all the controls arranged nicely on this desktop-style audio interface. And if you need more inputs for when the band turns up then it has an ADAT digital input so you could add an 8-channel mic-preamp box.

Along with the Two Note software you also get recording software from Steinberg, plugins from Waldorf and a load of loops.

Street Price: $449
audient.com

IK Multimedia AXE I/O

IK Multimedia has one of the most well-regarded software guitar amp systems available in AmpliTube. They have decided to combine that software technology with a new premium audio interface for guitar, packed full of guitarist-friendly features. It’s called the AXE I/O — well, of course, it is!

AXE I/O is a 2 input, 5 output audio interface in a ruggedized rack style box. On the input, there’s a “Z-Tone” impedance adapting circuit that matches up to your pickups and is switchable between passive and active. The fully discrete input circuit has a choice of Pure or Class A JFET and takes you from transparent to tube-like at the throw of a switch.

The unexpected 5th output is an “Amp Out” designed to go straight to a guitar amplifier so that you can process your recordings through external gear rather than committing them to your project.

All the guitar amp and cabinet modeling are done in the included AmpliTube 4 Deluxe, with over 140 ultra-accurate models of guitar and bass amps, cabs, pedals, mics and more. You can dial in what you need via the front preset knob. On the back are two pedal inputs for expressive control that can be mapped directly to the software. They’ve even integrated a guitar tuner directly on the front panel.

And, like the Sono, it will do all the microphone recording and monitoring, as well — but the AXE I/O also has a handy MIDI In and Out port for connecting keyboards or floorboard controllers.

Along with the full-blown version of AmpliTube 4 you also get Ableton Live Lite to get you started with recording. Priced at $349 it’s a super package for the recording guitarist.

Street Price: $349
ikmultimedia.com

Mid-range Interfaces

Increasing the quality, adding more connections and features while boosting the budget.

UAD Apollo Twin MkII and USB

UAD is all about their DSP hardware and proprietary plug-ins which are some of the best sounding audio processors around. But the audio interfaces that house their DSP engine are really quite exquisite. And with the potential of UAD’s Luna DAW that integrates perfectly with the whole system, the Apollo Twin is much more than just some I/O for your computer.

The dual preamps in the Apollo Twin are designed to be as transparent as possible because then you can choose which DSP based preamp emulation you’d like it to be. Do you want that Neve sound? Or maybe you prefer Manley preamps or Helios? You also have Hi-z inputs, and a headphone output, plus ADAT and S/PDIF for digital expansion and an additional 8 inputs.

You have great monitoring and control on the very nice looking desktop unit. It also has a Talkback function for communicating with your singer through their headphones. It’s a very classy unit.

The plugin power of the Apollo series is unmatched. There are so many great pieces of emulated gear in here from EQ to compressors, effects, and amplifiers, all of them classics that will add an outboard feel to your music. And lastly, there’s Luna, their forthcoming recording system (Mac only) that will integrate both the hardware and the plug-ins into a complete recording studio.

The Apollo Twin MKII is a Thunderbolt interface and you can cascade up to 4 Apollo units if you need more in/out or DSP power. The USB version offers the same functionality, better Windows compatibility but without the option to cascade.

Street Price: $899
uaudio.com

Arturia AudioFuse Studio

If you’d like something a bit more versatile on your desktop then check out the AudioFuse Studio from Arturia. Following on from their excellent AudioFuse audio interface, this pushes the I/O further and offers more hands-on control.

It has 4 world-class microphone preamps and a phono preamp for sampling vinyl. It has Bluetooth audio streaming to your monitors or into your DAW. It’s on USB-C connectivity and also has ADAT expandability along with MIDI I/O and Wordclock to give up to 18 inputs and 20 outputs.

There are two monitor outputs and a hardware button to switch between speakers. There’s a dedicated re-amping output so you can record your guitar and then tweak the sound through your amplifier later. There’s even a USB hub built in for your dongles or MIDI controllers.

The design is hand and finger-friendly and completely intuitive. There’s also a versatile software mixer that mirrors the hardware and lets you save configurations. It comes with a great bundle of software effects and virtual instruments. At $999, it’s at the higher end of the mid-range but it’s a very versatile device for a project studio.

Street Price: $999
arturia.com

Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB

Focusrite make a lot of audio interfaces but the Clarett range brings their A-Game to the table and the 4Pre offers their best combination of connections, price, quality and expandability. Initially only available on Thunderbolt the 4Pre USB opens it up to a wider range of systems.

You’ve got 4 professional quality mic preamps right on the front with hardware gain controls, halo LED monitoring and phantom power per pair. With Focusrite’s Air technology and impedance switching your mics will sound better than they ever have with breath-taking colour and high-end detail. On the back there are a further 4 line inputs which are perfect for bringing in hardware synthesizers and keys. There’s full control on the front with the nice big monitoring knob and two independent headphone outputs for when you’re working with someone.

The Clarett 4Pre USB is also expandable via optical ADAT connection to any ADAT preamp to give it a total of 18 inputs should you ever need it. You’ve also got a useful MIDI In and MIDI Out which should never be undervalued.

It comes with some useful monitoring and mixing software and a bundle of plugins, instruments and Ableton Live Lite to get you started.

The 4Pre is a fantastic sounding interface and would look magnificent in any home studio.

Street Prices:$699
focusrite.com

Conclusion

Do you need an expensive audio interface? That’s up to you. The truth is the best audio interface for your home studio will depend on your needs and the amount of money you’re free to spend.

For those of you on a budget, our picks for the best audio interface under $200 include a handful of excellent options: the top-notch MOTU M2 (and the just-over-budget M4), the easy-to-use Evo 4 and the ridiculously cheap M-Track Duo.

Our picks for the best audio interfaces for guitar include the versatile Audient Sono and the comprehensive IK Multimedia AXE I/O.

If you’ve got a bit more money to spend, we recommend the powerful UAD Apollo Twin, intuitive Arturia AudioFuse Studio or pro quailty Clarett 4Pre.

So, now it’s up to you to consider. Which audio interface best suits your needs?

Music Producer Mario McNulty
Mario McNulty

Based in New York City, Mario J. McNulty is a Grammy Award-winning Music Producer, Mixer, and Engineer who’s worked with David Bowie, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, Laurie Anderson, Harry Nilsson, Julian Lennon, Justin Tranter, Raveonettes and many other well-known artists.

At the 50th Grammy Awards ceremony, Mario J. McNulty won a Grammy in the Best Contemporary World Music category for Angelique Kidjo’s Djin Djin. Other Grammy-nominated albums include Homeland by Laurie Anderson and The Next Day by David Bowie.

Most recently, Mario mixed The Anchoress’ “The Art of Losing” single from her second album, The Art of Losing.

In 2018, Mario was asked to do something unprecedented. He completely re-produced, re-mixed and re-recorded David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down album, a project that David personally sought Mario to do. At New York’s Electric Lady Studios, Mario enlisted drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, guitarist David Torn and bassist Tim Lefebvre along with special guest Laurie Anderson to play on the new version.

Mario has also collaborated with Lou Reed, Earl Slick, Anti-Flag, The Raveonettes, Manic Street Preachers, Kashmir, Siddhartha, Alejandro Escovedo, and Cynthia Erivo.

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