Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional looking for a portable rig, choosing the best audio interface you can afford is incredibly important.
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Budget is often a factor when choosing music gear – no matter how much we don’t want it to be!
In this post I’ll cover what you want to look for in audio interfaces, explain some jargon and run through the best options available today!
What to look for in a Budget Audio Interface
If you’re reading this, I’m presuming you already know what and audio interface is and why you need one.
If not, read this resource and come back.
When picking out the best interface for your money you’ll want to consider the following three points:
- I/O Count
- Sound quality
When choosing an interface you need to start here.
I/O is short for inputs/outputs and should be your first consideration. What you’re planning to record will guide this.
For singer-songwriters wanting to record guitar and vocals through two mics, an interface with two balanced XLR inputs will be ideal.
I’d always recommend 4 inputs if you’re looking to record guitar and vocals together in stereo. Also, if you’re using condenser mics you’ll need a mic input with phantom power too.
For electric guitar / bass / keyboard you’ll want to connect directly to the the interface rather than record through a mic.
Look for interfaces with Hi-Z inputs. These are high impedance inputs perfect for recording these instruments without altering their sound.
For drum machines / samplers you’ll simply need standard ‘line level’ inputs and outputs.
It’s best to make a list of every piece of kit you want to record and then see which interface stacks up best in the comparison table in this article.
Connectivity: USB / Thunderbolt / Firewire
USB: 2.0 & 3.0
USB is the most common connection you’ll encounter, it’s on EVERY PC and laptop built in the past 20 years.
There are two main players here, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0.
You can find out which type your computer has using these links for Windows and Mac.
The majority of USB audio interfaces draw power from the computer which makes them a great choice for portable recording setups. Most iOS compatible interfaces will connect via USB.
USB 2.0 or 3.0?
Although USB 3.0 offers greater bandwidth than USB 2.0, it will deliver no round trip latency benefits over USB 2.0. USB 2.0 provides more than enough bandwidth for delivering 18 channels of audio inputs and 20 channels of audio outputs simultaneously.
So it likely won’t make a difference at our price point.
Developed fairly recently by Intel it is a format designed to work with Apple gear, although more Windows PCs are beginning to adopt the standard too. It’s a spiritual successor of Firewire (found on older Macs) offering low latency and high bandwidth connections.
As I just mentioned, this is the predecessor of Thunderbolt with Firewire also primarily being found on Macs and featuring the same low latency, high speed transfer rates needed for home recording.
When it comes to sound quality you want to consider two main things: bit depth and sample rate.
Digital recordings are converted analogue signals. Sounds waves become bit and bytes. A higher bit depth means you can capture a higher fidelity recording.
This essentially means how well you can capture the sound while eliminating noise. As a benchmark, audio CDs use a 16-bit standard that delivers a dynamic range of 96dB. With this bit depth, you’ll still get noise during quieter sections of your recording.
24-bit is the pro-audio standard used today, delivering 144dB of dynamic range. You’ll eliminate almost all noise here. This is the choice for home studios.
Sample rates can be confusing. The best way to think about it is in terms of pictures. A CD uses 44.1kHz sample rate… so think of for every second, there are 44,100 pictures taken.
That would give you a pretty clear picture right? But imagine if you had 48k, 98k or even 192k pictures taken every second, you’d be able to capture so much more detail right?
There’s evidence that higher sampling rates provides a higher fidelity recording – essentially go for the highest sampling rate you can afford!
I recommend the following levels of fidelity in these scenarios:
- Recording demos to share with friends & family: 16-bit / 44.1kHz
- Commercial quality releases: 24-bit / 96kHz
Best USB Audio Interfaces under $200
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen)
Focusrite are one of the most popular names out there in the audio interface world and for good reason. Their Scarlett range of interfaces are renowned for being ideal for home studios and enthusiasts.
With the 2i2 being USB 2.0 compliant it works flawlessly with Macs and Linux without needing additional drivers.
The handy LED rings around the control knobs give you a visual clue if the levels you’re recording are too loud and causing clipping.
Priced at around the $150 dollar mark, the 2i2 gives you everything you need to record vocals and electric guitars. Perfect for small bands and solo artists.
It also comes with a copy of Protools thrown in!
What others are saying:
Verified Amazon Purchaser – Overall, an excellent entry level choice for any Mac or Linux user wanting to connect a musical instrument, or for use as a general purpose high quality audio interface.
Focusrite do versions with more inputs and outputs but these are more than $200! If you can stretch further, I recommend looking at the Focusrite 6i6*.
Shure MVi Digital Audio Interface
Designed specifically for singer-songwriters with only one input, the Shure MVi is a small but mighty audio interface.
If you can get away with recording only one thing at a time through the combined XLR and jack port, this is a great choice for you.
Slightly cheaper than the Focusrite 2i2 it’s killer feature is that it’s compatible with all iOS devices, perfect for home producers on-the-go using iPads and iPhones.
Despite it’s small size, its rugged all-metal construction makes it quite heavy, so that’s one to keep in mind!
What others are saying:
Verified Amazon Purchaser – As someone who works as an audio engineer, I have consistently found Shure products to be one of the most durable and highest quality of audio products out there and the MVi continues the tradition. Easy to connect… easy to operate… quality of sound is decent when you consider the application of the intended interface.
M-Audio M-Track 2X2 C-Series
The M-Audio 2×2 C series is the one for you if you need a USB-C ready audio interface.
This is incredibly useful for those of you looking for audio interfaces that work seamlessly with Apple’s All USB-C Macbook Pro.
Featuring 1 XLR/TRS combo input and one Hi-Z 1/4″ input it’s great alternative to the the Focusrite 2i2.
I think the main thing that sets the M-Track 2×2 apart is it’s industrial design. Sure, it’s not the most important part but it looks ace while providing you the studio quality 192 kHz /24 bit fidelity and zero-latency recording you’d expect.
What others are saying:
Verified Amazon Buyer – Little fidgety connecting at first, but now it runs really smooth. Sound quality is great, and nice quiet pre-amps. Also love the big knob design and sleek look. Worth the buy…
Steinberg are big names when it comes to pro-audio and for good reason!
The UR22 is one in a line of audio interfaces – featuring the classic 2 in 2 out combination we see at the under $200 price point.
Ultra stable drivers mean that this interface is at home with either Windows or Mac and comes with Steinberg’s own Cubase software.
Incredibly similar to the M-Audio above… apart from one thing. The UR22 features iPad compatibility.
On-top of all these great features, the UR22 has super quiet pre-amps – making sure you don’t get noise in your recordings.
What others are saying:
Verified Amazon Purchaser – This thing is great. It has worked for me flawlessly for the past 6 or so months. Originally bought it because my laptop headphone jack broke and as a musician it’s needed greatly. Purchased a desktop a couple months ago and use it on it now and man it looks great on the desk and performs even better.