It’s difficult to describe just how passionate today’s DJs, musicians, and streaming content creators are about their audio quality. And it’s no coincidence either that the technology driving the audio quality these creators are searching for is evolving just as rapidly as the kinds of projects they’re creating.
The ease that analogue signalization can be transitioned to digital has been a big part of that evolution. It’s the key to how audio is recorded, stored, and played today. And make no mistake: we’d all still be listening to low-quality talkback radio instead of high-quality podcasts if the transition wasn’t possible.
And the transition itself wouldn’t be possible without the proper audio interfaces. Every aspect of a modern audio production, whether it’s an ambient guitar solo or a crystalline audio book narration, comes down to how smoothly an interface ties an audio source to the platform that’s going to do the processing.
Basic IN/OUT interfaces can’t offer the creative flexibility that a lot of projects deserve, though. Some interfaces are inherently more capabilities than others, and not surprisingly, those are also the ones that make audio production a lot easier too.
Interfaces make the difference
The analogue signals from input devices like microphones and musical instruments have to be converted to digital before they can be manipulated. For input devices that can’t be connected directly to a computer or require an external power source, a USB recording interface is the intermediary component that first does the conversion and then passes the signal to a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software program, or other device for further processing or playback.
It’s their ability to bridge the connectivity gap going from analogue to digital (… and then back to analogue if necessary) that makes them so important. Interfaces are the rallying point where all the audio components’ signals are funnelled down and converted into a single, workable format. Upgrading an interface can make a world of difference in any audio production.
The right choice
From a well-designed, late generation 2-input/2-output portable USB audio interface, to a studio-quality, 18-input/20-output rack-mounted model, the scope of production capabilities interfaces offer can stretch from basement solos all the way up to operatic proportions.
There’s a wealth of choices available to match any level of cost or creative inspiration, but the basis for choosing the right interface has to begin with the same question for newcomers to the studio and veterans alike: “What’s it going to be used for?”. A 4-input/4-output desktop USB interface is perfect for small productions that are going to appreciate having some extra connectivity, but a full music set with instruments, mics, mixers and monitors is going to need as much plug-in functionality as it can get.
It’s all about the usage, but as a minimum, all the best USB audio interfaces are going to share a handful of the same qualities:
- Lots of input and output connections
A good interface is going to support a wide range of analogue equipment inputs like XLR, RCA, ¼”, and ⅛”, along with standards for more controller options like MIDI and ADAT.
- DAW compatibility
Interfaces that are compatible with the broadest range of audio and recording software, like Pro Tools or FL Studio, are going to give the most flexibility when it’s time to transform all those audio inputs into a finalized product.
- Onboard DSP
Because audio processing is so resource intensive, Digital Signal Processing (DSP) allows a USB music interface to assume a portion of the digital mixing and effects that what would otherwise be a part of the computer’s workload.
The big connection
A producer could have the snazziest interface on the market, but it still has to reliably connect to a computer. Interface connections like FireWire and Thunderbolt are respected in audio production because of their speedy data transfer, but USB-enabled connections live up to the first part of their namesake by being truly “universal.”
USB interfaces are the most commonly used types of audio interfaces because:
- Their simple architecture makes them compatible with practically every operating system;
- Their universal acceptance means that they can be connected to practically any device; and,
- Their data transfer rates are more than sufficient for any type of audio processing.
In short, a USB audio interface walks the perfect balance between cost and performance, but there are differences between USB specs that revolve around data speeds that deserve to be mentioned too.
- USB 2.0
Boasting a data rate of 480Mbps and a rectangular-shaped Type-A plug, this is the most common USB standard currently in use, anywhere.
- USB 3.0
This standard uses a rectangular-shaped Type-C plug with rounded ends, and boasts an increased data transfer rate of 5Gbps.
- USB 3.1 and 3.2
These standards also use the round-ended Type-C plug, and enjoy even higher respective transfer speeds of 10Gbps and 20Gbps. What this selection of USB and plug specs all point to is audio latency. Latency is the milliseconds of delay between a sound passing through a device to the moment it becomes audible. If you think it’s annoying over a bad phone connection, then you can imagine how problematic it can be for audio recording.
There’s usually no simple remedy for latency problems, but it’s worth keeping in mind that assuming the computer with the DAW installed is USB 3 compatible, any portable or professional USB audio interface that accepts a Type-C plug is going to be capable of transferring data at much faster rates than even FireWire. It means that ultimately, going with a USB interface is going to make latency a non-issue.
The final word
At the end of the day, anyone who’s truly committed to their recording quality knows that for everything to turn out exactly the way they want it, having the right equipment is just as important as having the right vision.
With a USB recording interface at their fingertips, musicians, producers, and other practitioners of the sound arts have the ability to uniformly bring all their creative resources together in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do with any other single piece of studio equipment.
If you’re one of those creative souls who’s looking to considering stepping up their audio productions, just imagine what a new interface could do for you.