The audio interface is effectively the heart of any computer based home recording studio and so it’s vitally important to make the correct selection so you get the best results since a wrong choice will limit you in what you want to achieve with your music.
Aside from budget limitations there are a few other things to ask yourself before you plonk down your hard earned cash to fulfil that ambition to get some music recorded.
1 Do you want an internal sound card or an external audio interface unit in a box?
My first recording set up consisted of an internal sound card installed in a purpose built computer to match the specifications of the card. As far as budget goes this can be a cost effective option as you are not paying for a case and controls but you will be limited in inputs and outputs since a sound card is not particularly big. Also a little installation knowledge is essential and you may need to get under the hood to tweak a few things before your interface card shows up in your computer control settings. This type of unit is usually restricted to computer towers which also limits you somewhat in portability.
An outboard interface on the other hand is typically easier to install and get running. You will have to pay more since you are getting a case and knobs, connection cable etc and some kind of indication the device is running displayed on a front panel. The other advantage is the easy removal and connection to a laptop which is becoming much more commonplace as CPU speeds have increased.
2 Ask yourself what are you intending to record?
Obviously what you are trying to record will have a big impact on your final choice of interface. For example if you simply want to plug in a guitar and record a vocal afterwards for creating a demo without any other tracks you could very well get away with a single channel USB audio interface (or internal sound card) with some basic light recording software (which will usually be bundled with your device) and that should work fine.
On the other hand if you were capturing an entire band all with separate microphones for the vocals, drums and inputs for keyboard, guitar and bass for example (and you wanted to feed these into your computer so you could apply effects and do some editing on some of the singers, then you are looking at a multi channel interface with 8, 16 or possibly more sound sources plugging into it.
If you are a solo artist then a 16 channel audio interface would be overkill and you would probably get by just fine with a 2 or 4 channel device which would allow you to do everything you needed (you would just have to plug and unplug as you changed instruments to microphones).
3 Will you be wanting to work with midi in the future?
Another point to consider is if you are intending to work with midi in which case you would choose an interface that includes that as an input and output as it would be cheaper to purchase one device with audio and midi combined than two boxes of tricks to hook up and arrange on your desk.
4 Are you wanting to travel and record on the go?
Then consider a portable unit that is rugged and quick to set up. There are a few manufacturers that produce audio interfaces that simply run via USB or firewire and just plug in to a laptop and operate without the need of an external power supply meaning you could literally record in the middle of the desert if you wanted to (but that’s another story).
5 What operating system are you going to be working with?
Are you a Mac user? Windows or Linux? Many interfaces will work on both Apple and Windows systems and a small handful will play nice with Linux though you will have to check out the Linux communities to find out which will operate OK.
USB 2.0 is pretty much a commonplace connector for many of the smaller interfaces and it works reasonably well. Firewire is reliable but more Mac friendly than windows since not all firewire cards installed in windows machines operate without a problem.
6 What recording software are you intending to run?
You can usually get a pretty good deal with the bundled software that comes with the hardware as most devices offer something quite decent these days. Most interfaces will cooperate with any of the major DAW programs that are out there. Consider this if you have a specific one in mind and find out if the interface you are interested in will support it.
Selecting the right audio interface to suit your recording needs will save you time and frustration since you will be able to get started quickly and the technical issues setting up will be solved before you begin. Do take the time to do a little research (review sites are a good place to start) before you purchase and your buying choice will prove to be a good one.
Mark Spivey is a musician composer from Australia who also introduces newbies to the fantastic world of creating, recording and promoting their own music.
Mark also reviews home recording equipment to help newcomers select the right gear. You can read more at his website [http://www.soundrecordinggear.com]