My home studio is almost finished. I own some great microphones and the room is acoustically perfect. What I need now is a digital audio interface that will make my recordings sound professional.
It’s time to study up about Thunderbolt and USB-C Audio Interface. This guide will get you up to speed. Fast.
Table of Contents
8 Thunderbolt & USB-C Audio Interfaces We Recommend
Zoom Tac-2R Thunderbolt Audio Interface
What’s good: Compact and easy to use, this will provide great Thunderbolt speed and quality sound.
Not so good: Light on features, so you will need to already own your high-quality pre-amps and effects.
The Zoom Tac-2R (full review) is a basic interface with great features at an affordable price. You will not get the pre-amps and plug-in effects of the more complete interfaces here. If you already own all of your pre-amps and processors, the balanced inputs can handle the job.
The Hi-Z switches will allow you to plug directly in with your electric guitar or bass. The Zoom is small and ruggedly built. It could be used to make your live sound have the best quality or enhance your home audio and headphones. You have the quality and speed for MIDI and flexible routing options.
It is not ideal for huge recording projects, but laying down tracks with super high quality and real-time effects monitoring will work. The Tac2 Mix Efx will give you a nice range of effects and a user-friendly interface for mixing. If you just want to plug in and make great recordings? This device will get you there.
PreSonus Quantum – Thunderbolt 2
What’s good: Rack-mountable design with a plethora of inputs make this interface fit right into your recording studio setup.
Not so good: Quantum 2 does not have DSP. So, if you plan on layering in a lot of different effects, this is a big limitation.
When Presonus built this upgrade to their excellent Studio 192 interface, they had one thing in mind. Speed. The Quantum (as explained in the full review) promises to deliver that fastest speed anywhere, but with Thunderbolt 2, you may be able to reach that limit.
Still, it has 22 inputs and 24 outs which you can expand upon by stacking up to 4 of them and getting 80 in and out. This device has the versatility and power to route all of your vintage or boutique gear in and back out again without losing any sound quality.
Low frills design means all of the control will happen on your DAW architecture.
The basics are more than covered thanks to upgrades to instrument inputs and the headphone outputs. For your MIDI interface, the BNC word clock for the in and out means no jitters and tight sync.
The Quantum may not be ideal for heavy effects layering, but it has everything else covered.
Resident Audio T4
What’s good: Everything you need to plug in and play on 4 channels in a simple, affordable, great-sounding unit.
Not so good: Problems with installing and using it with various recording software.
Resident Audio T4 is a solid audio interface for your live performances or everyday recording. Have no doubt, this pared-down unit has the same near-zero latency and stable MIDI clock to give you top-notch sound.
You have all the control to mix with the manual knobs when you are only using the first two channels. This includes the ability to mix your computer output signal manually, which allows for a quick tweak onstage. When you plug into the 3rd or 4th channels, the device automatically goes into Multi-channel Mode in which all the mixing will happen on your computer. This gives some decent versatility for a 4-channel interface.
When you get ready to start making studio-quality recordings, the T4 hits the wall. No pre-amps or emulators means that you can’t get top of the line studio sound from this interface alone. Still, it is a sturdy build and nice and compact. This interface is designed to fit in the gig bag while delivering the latest technology.
Apogee Element 24
What’s good: Simple to use. Especially if you already use Logic Pro X.
Not so good: No way to expand to more channels. Runs on AC power.
If only a top of the line company like Apogee would take the best features and put it into a device that any home studio user can afford. Wish Granted! That is enough of a reason to buy this unit right now.
The 2 line-level inputs boast the Apogee Mic Pre-amps, which are the very likely the best in the world. The converters are extremely detailed and accurate, and the Thunderbolt assures very low latency.
High-quality analog to digital conversions is possible with great quality and no noise. Digital to the analog conversion will make the best possible use of your virtual instruments and effects.
The total inputs are 10 in and 12 out, which will work for most recording projects. The software interface is compatible with any Mac core. Although the controls are all in the software console, you can buy a hardware remote for tweaks on the fly. Element 24 (review) may be a simple and limited device, but what it does, it does extremely well.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII USB-C
What’s good: Warm intimate sound and access to plugins for vintage amp sounds.
Not so good: Console design takes mixing back to the stone age.
If you still hold a place in your heart for the days of analog this may be the interface for you. This is true whether your definition of analog is the warm intimate sounds of a singer with an acoustic guitar or a telecaster roaring on a vintage tube amp. Universal Audio has the sound you are looking for.
This interface will give you real-time tracking of your vintage effects pedals, compressors, E.Q’s, or even a tape machine. UAD offers plugins for all the old school sounds. Many are included, and you have access to buy from an ever-expanding catalog.
You can scroll through the sounds of classic Marshall or Ampeg amps. Like a great old tube amp, you will find sweet spots in the impedance and gain.
The software is cool too. It looks like a manual console with knobs and dials. All your console setups can be saved and available for years and even on other UA devices. This device brings intimate sessions to life and make your everyday recording sound very professional. This device runs on USB-C.
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2
What’s good: Enough inputs for the most complex recording projects plus 2 ports for expanding the system to insane levels of complexity.
Not so good: This is the most expensive, and it will only work with the latest Mac OS.
This is the audio interface for the professional studio. Supercharge your existing set up with an endless amount of versatility, speed, and expandability.
Apogee already owned this niche with the Element 88, which had 8 mic pre-amps. The Ensemble has 20 Apogee mic pre-amps. These might be the best on the market, and the plugins will give you the sound effects you need. The sound on this device is the best.
It also boasts a revolutionary feature called Direct Memory Access which maximizes the hardware/software interface. Utilizing a 32-bit pathway from the output from the software architecture, DMA reads directly from your Mac’s memory. This removes the burden from the Mac and allows real-time data to flow at the 32-bit format. The Apogee only works with the newest Mac OS, so be sure it is compatible with your computer.
If you have the studio work lined up to justify the investment, the Ensemble will bring you the returns you are looking for.
Focusrite Clarette 2Pre USB-C unit
What’s good: Clarette sound has a strong signal with plenty of gains.
Not so good: Doesn’t have the low latency of a Thunderbolt interface.
If you are accustomed to rockin’ your studio so hard that you have to step outside now and then to see if its day or night, then Focusrite Clarette 2Pre might be your audio interface.
Instrument inputs that allow you to plug in straight have so much headroom that they will not clip no matter how hot your pickup might be. It will allow you to monitor and mix your amp and guitar effects in real-time.
Still, the Clarette is best at just delivering a strong and clean signal into your DAW, where all the mixing work can be done.
It may not have the precision of some of the best converters or the low latency of a Thunderbolt interface, but the hardware has MIDI I/O, 8 ADAT inputs, and some plugins that will get you enough versatility for most projects.
It is bus-powered and adapts to Mac or PC. You are stuck with the mixer software, so it won’t adapt directly to your existing architecture.
Universal Audio Arrow Thunderbolt 3
What’s good: Easy to configure with a great software interface.
Not so good: Access to plugins is very expensive.
If your recording needs are limited to laying down a few tracks of guitar, bass, and vocals, this interface will make you sound like a professional sound engineer. It is compact and built sturdy enough to take it on the road.
Like the Apollo Twin, the Universal Audio Arrow comes with a bundle of plugins and emulations featuring classic sounds. You have a Pultec EQ, precision Delay, and the sound of a classic Marshall amp all at your fingertips. This gives you access to the very same plug-in sounds that today’s top recording artists are using.
Run it through Mac or PC system and lose the cable clutter of all those pedals. With the Thunderbolt 3, there is ultra-low latency so all those effects will sound great. These features make this interface a powerhouse on stage.
For desktop recording, you can get album quality results. In today’s recording industry, not all of us will experience 40 track recording projects. If you just want a guitar and mic to sound top-notch, the Arrow is a powerhouse.
And the Winner Is…
The best value audio interface is the Apogee Element 24. There is no substitution for quality, and the Apogee sound will blow away everything else. Great plugins and the best pre-amps you can find anywhere, this interface will take the sound from your mic or instrument and deliver it in the best possible condition to your digital mixing board. Plug it in and play, and listeners will assume you went all-in on professional studio time.
While some of the other audio interfaces are bigger or have more bells and whistles, the Element has what we all really want. Quality.
What is a Thunderbolt Interface?
Thunderbolt is the top of the line hardware interface that connects peripheral devices to your computer. It is capable of moving an incredible amount of data and bandwidth at the same time that it provides power. To put it into perspective, you could download a full-length HD movie in 30 seconds. That’s fast.
How does Thunderbolt help musicians?
Whether a Midi effect or just a delay plugin, we always used to encounter a big problem. Latency. That is the jittery or mistimed sound that happens when a computer is trying to keep up. Now, you can just apply all the effects you want and mix or monitor them in real-time with very close to zero latency. This improves sound quality. A lot.
What is the difference between Thunderbolt 3 & USB-C?
Speed. USB-C is a big improvement over previous USB cords but still maxes out at 10 Gbps. Thunderbolt is 4 times that fast. With USB-C, when you are running a lot of effects and channels, there will be a certain amount of latency. Latency manifests itself in the form of jitters or fuzziness and can decrease the strength of the signal.
With Thunderbolt, latency is described as near zero, or 1 or 2 milliseconds.
To sum it up; latency is a big sound quality problem. With Thunderbolt, the problem is gone. Better sound.
The good news is that the ports are compatible, so you can still plug in USB- C devices into Thunderbolt ports.
How do I know which device is right for me?
It depends on what you plan to use it for. Many audio interfaces are set up for dozens or hundreds of channels. Others have only a few. If you are not running a professional sound studio, you will be more than satisfied with any of these 2 or 4-channel devices.
You can still have a lot of channels on your computer that run through one input in your interface. A 2 channel Thunderbird audio interface could handle a virtually endless amount of plugins or effects.
Another important feature is the pre-amp. Good quality mic pre-amps bring the sound to life and are a must for top quality recordings. Many of the audio interfaces here have incredible quality. That includes small and more affordable.
These devices are the highest technology out there, and so it is amazing that we can get such great quality and versatility regardless of budget.