More than a year ago, I was sitting in my studio (AKA my bedroom) working on a new song during a stormy night. Since it was raining too hard to go out, I decided to write some verses to a new instrumental that one of my friends produced over the weekend.
In the middle of the session, lightning struck, and I guess it hit an electric pole near my place because it knocked out the power for our whole street.
It came back several minutes later, and I turned the computer back on thinking that I was going start over where I left off.
Apparently, I thought wrong.
After my desktop computer restarted, I opened up Reaper (my beat making software at the time) and tried to go back to my session. I wondered why sound wasn’t coming out of my studio monitors.
That’s when I realized that my audio interface wasn’t even on. That’s weird, I thought to myself. It’s plugged in, but the lights won’t turn on…
That’s when I realized that somehow, the sudden electrical surge from the lightning must’ve fried the audio interface’s circuitry. I’ve never heard of that happening before, but apparently, it happens.
All hope was lost, and I had no other choice — I needed to buy a new audio interface to replace the one I just lost.
After making my decision and using the new interface for a few months, I decided to share my research and writing about what I think is the best audio interface for DIY musicians to help you make a decision on the heart of your home studio.
So Many Choices, So Little Budget… Narrow Your Options With These Criteria
Since I’ve had my audio interface for years, I forgot how easy it was to get lost in the mix with all the options available out there.
We all want to get the best quality for the least amount of dollars. But the truth is, as with every piece of studio equipment there’s only what’s best for you and your needs.
For example, the average musician doesn’t really need to spend thousands of dollars on a top of the line audio interface for home recording.
Why? Because more often than not, the difference in price between the various models is simply a matter of quantity of inputs and outputs, as well as the bundled software.
There’s no point in buying an audio interface that’s bundled with Pro Tools and has 16 mic inputs if you’re only going to record your vocals and a guitar and use Garageband.
So the first question you have to ask yourself is this: how many audio sources are you planning on recording at the same time? This will determine which models you need to be looking at and give you an idea about price points.
Many bedroom musicians and singer-songwriters only record their vocals and their instrument simultaneously, and most do it one at a time. If that’s the case, getting a home recording audio interface with more than 2 microphone inputs would be overkill.
Next is the actual quality of the audio interface. Most audio interfaces these days have built-in microphone preamps and phantom power. Some are noisy when you turn up the gain.
So you need to make sure that you’re investing in an interface that has high quality preamps inside it, and figure out just how much more you’re willing to pay for better recording quality.
With that criteria in mind, I went ahead and started looking for the audio interface that would fit my needs.
Ding, Ding, Ding… I Think We Have A Winner!
I did a lot of research on different models. I looked at Propellerhead’s Balance, Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, the Apogee One, the M-Audio Fast Track, the Presonus AudioBox, and more.
After a reading a bunch of reviews and testing out the units, I can say with confidence that the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the best audio interface for me. And if you’re like most home recording musicians who only record 1 or 2 things at a time, then the same conclusion most likely applies to you.
(I’ll talk about your alternatives later on in this article if you plan on recording drums and/or a whole band simultaneously.)
Firewire Audio Interface Vs. USB – Why Chose A USB Audio Interface?
One of the biggest debates in the recording world is whether you should choose Firewire over USB. While Firewire might have been the obvious choice several years ago, it’s 2013 now, and a lot has changed since then.
First of all, Firewire is known to have problems playing nicely with different computers. Unless your computer uses a Firewire chipset manufactured by Texas Instruments, FireWire interfaces are likely to act buggy.
For example, I’ve found out that they don’t call it FIREwire for nothing. Whenever the Firewire audio interface is plugged in, my Macbook Pro gets insanely hot even when it’s idle, going up to 80-85C at times.
I didn’t care that the laptop is too hot to touch. My problem was that the fans get so loud that it’s audible in the background while recording vocals. Like most DIY musicians out there, I record in my bedroom where I don’t have room for a vocal booth, so I can’t live with the noise.
After doing some research it turns out that this IS a common issue with Macbooks and Firewire devices.
Secondly, less and less computers have Firewire ports these days. USB, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
When it’s time to replace your computer several years from now, you wouldn’t want to be limited to choosing between models that only have a Firewire connection.
Lastly, there’s the issue of speed. Yes, it’s true that Firewire is faster than USB. But unless you’re recording more than 16 instruments at a time (not likely unless you’re building a pro studio), the difference in data transfer speeds are almost negligible.
For most home recording musicians, there are other factors that are far more important than the interface connection — your processor, RAM and hard drive speeds. Until this is fully optimized, there’s no need to worry about the type of connection your interface has.
How Many Inputs and Outputs Does It Have?
One of the interfaces I was thinking about buying was the Apogee One. It costs more than the Scarlett 2i2, but it has a built-in condenser mic that has amazingly pretty good quality. It appealed to me because I could use it whenever I’m traveling and not have to lug heavy equipment!
But while the Apogee One’s mic inside feature makes it really tempting, I decided against it because it only has a 1/8-inch unbalanced output. This means there’s no way to connect powered studio monitors to the interface without dumbing down the signal. Plus, 1/8-inch connectors just aren’t very sturdy in my opinion.
On the other hand, the Scarlett 2i2 has 2 balanced outputs for 1/4-inch connectors. Since balanced outputs give less noise and hum than unbalanced ones, I can connect my studio monitors to the interface without any dips in audio quality.
During my tests, I found that the Scarlett 2i2’s audio quality is crisp and pristine, and even brings out some traits of the song that I didn’t even know was there. And what good is an audio interface if the audio quality is crap?
Unlike the Focusrite Saffire 6 (their older audio interface) which is only capable of recording at 44.1 or 48 kHz, you can use the Scarlett 2i2 to record in 24-bit resolution and a sample rate of 96 kHz. I personally don’t bother because the difference in quality is negligible to me, but your tastes may be different so I thought it’d be worth mentioning.
Are The Microphone Preamps Really That Good?
The problem with most preamps in audio interfaces at this price point is that you get a little bit of hiss and noise when the gain is turned up. For example, this happened to me when I tested out the Presonus AudioBox USB audio interface.
Not quite with the Scarlett 2i2, and I’m not surprised. Focusrite has long been known in the industry to create some of the best microphone preamps out there.
Even when I set the gain all the way up to the maximum, the signal still remained quiet as a whisper while being able to pick up a pin drop.
The preamps used in the Scarlett 2i2 is the same one inside their main audio interface, the Liquid Saffire 56. Since this would cost you nearly a thousand dollars, I would say you’re getting a pretty good deal!
How Does It Perform?
It’s great how it runs perfectly with low buffer settings (almost as good as my Firewire interface) without being a CPU hog. Even at a buffer size of 77 samples, there were no cracks, pops or dropouts while playing a session from Logic.
The latency while monitoring is also amazingly low with the Scarlett 2i2. It comes down to about 6ms, so there’s no noticeable audible delay when recording a vocal and monitoring it through headphones.
If you’re really sensitive to latency, you’ll see that there’s a direct monitor switch on the interface. What this does is it will route the audio input directly to your headphones and speaker outputs without having to pass through your computer. Now THIS is true zero-latency monitoring, as you’re hearing the audio in real time.
I also like how the interface has halo signal indicators. While recording, the gain knob will light up. Green means you’re getting a good signal, and red means your recording is clipping (at which point you should reduce the gain). This is incredibly handy for soundchecking and monitoring your levels while recording.
But The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Isn’t Perfect…
It might sound like I’m singing high praises about the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, and to be perfectly honest, I am. I can’t lie, I really like this USB audio interface.
But it doesn’t come without its faults.
This interface is bus-powered, which means it’s being powered by your CPU through your USB port. If you’re running a lot of programs while using it, you might get some hiccups during recording. You might want to consider using a powered USB hub so the interface doesn’t hog CPU resources.
And unlike other interfaces, you don’t get MIDi input/output with this one. So if you have a hardware synthesizer that doesn’t have USB inputs, you won’t be able to use this interface to connect it to your computer. It’s not that big of a deal though since there’s less of these devices being released. Just something to keep in mind in case you already have one or thinking about buying one in the future.
The biggest “problem” with the Scarlett 2i2 is if you need to record from multiple audio sources at the same time.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the Scarlett 2i2 is the perfect audio interface for most home studio musicians. Contrary to popular belief, the fact that it’s a USB 2.0 connection isn’t a problem at all since you’re only recording 2 instruments at most anyway.
But because it only has 2 inputs, this interface isn’t for you if you plan on recording more than 2 microphones simultaneously. For most DIY musicians who read this site, however, this isn’t much of a problem at all.
NOTE: Personally, I don’t like recording multiple audio sources simultaneously, especially if using a microphone. It causes sound to bleed (when a sound from one instrument gets picked up by a mic for another instrument), and I like to get the cleanest takes possible to make it easy during the mastering stage.
But if you absolutely need to record multiple audio sources at the same time, you’ll need to invest in one of the following:
1.) if you’re recording multiple instruments at the same time (i.e. 1 vocal, 2 acoustic guitars, 1 bass guitar), you’ll need an audio interface with more inputs like the Focusrite Scarlett 8i6.
2.) if you’re recording drums and need extra microphone inputs, you’ll want to use either a multichannel preamp unit such as the Focusrite OctoPre MkII because 2 mics isn’t sufficient for drums.
FYI… No, I’m NOT being paid by Focusrite to do this review.. I just really, really like their products as their preamps are one of the best!
All in all, I really think that the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is probably the best audio interface for most musicians trying to setup a small studio in their homes. It’s also perfect for DJs who need a way to connect their laptops to a PA system.
Arguably, you don’t really need it if you just want to make your own beats, but many producers do end up recording one way or another (either for live samples, or recording their own or another artist’s raps).
It comes with Ableton Live Lite 8 in the box, just in case you don’t have a DAW to record in yet. It’s also bundled with Focusrite’s Scarlett plug-in suite — plugins for EQ, compression, gate and reverb. They’re decent enough plugins that you may or may not find yourself using.
It definitely holds its own against the competition in this price range in terms of features and quality. This audio interface is listed at $199, but you can find better deals for it online if you search around.
I personally got mine at Amazon.com for $123 — a whopping 40% discount. They had the best price out of all the music retailers, and they offer free shipping (and it’s quite fast, I received my interface about 7 or 8 days after I placed my order).
They offer bigger discounts every now and then, so click here to check today’s price and see if you can get an ever better deal.