As advanced as modern computers have become over recent years, your average computer or laptop is not up to the task of quality audio production and recording. Issues such as audio bandwidth and latency creep in as soon as you try to do anything remotely professional using your computer’s built-in hardware.
Fortunately, audio interfaces remove this hardware bottleneck, but they’re not always the easiest thing to get started for a beginner. In this post, we’re going to go over how to use/setup an audio interface—letting you get down to what matters; your audio production.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a device that provides a dedicated bridge between your audio sources (microphones, instruments, MIDI devices, etc.) and your computer or portable device.
Standard computer hardware is not built for latency-free audio production, and for the most part, it doesn’t need to be. A few 10s of milliseconds delay here and there isn’t going to be noticeable when you are watching YouTube or streaming music as you work. That’s not the case for audio production, however, especially if you are recording instruments along with other tracks and timing is crucial. That tiny bit of latency can cause significant headaches when attempting to create professional sounding music. The audio quality can also be an issue; audio interfaces can deliver sound at a much higher quality than average computer hardware offers. That higher quality is essential for anyone looking to get into the mixing and mastering business, where the master files need to be of the highest quality possible.
Another thing that audio interfaces provide that your standard computer will not is more inputs. Sure, you can plug a 1/8″ microphone jack into the back of your Windows PC, but other than USB microphones, that’s about it. Audio interfaces do not only provide you with more inputs (depending on the model of the interface, of course) but a more extensive range of higher-quality inputs. XLR, RCA, 1/4″ TRS, and sometimes even MIDI ports for connecting your MIDI controllers to.
Finding The Right Spot
Depending on the complexity of your setup, your audio interface could end up having a lot of cables connected to it. For this reason, it is essential to think about where your audio interface will be sitting. Granted, if your interface is a simple one channel, one input affair intended for use on the go with your iPad or Android device, you can probably skip this step.
For more elaborate interfaces with multiple channels, consider what will be connected to it and where it will go. Many interfaces have XLR ports on the front of the device. So, while putting it behind your keyboard may seem like a convenient location, to begin with, it may make things a little cluttered and awkward when you come to plug a microphone into one of those ports.
You will have to try and strike a balance. Somewhere between the ideal position for reaching the controls and ports of the interface, and being within reach of anything, it needs a connecting to. Remember, buying longer cables is always an option if you can’t quite get your interface where you need it.
Connecting to Your Computer
If you are using an iPhone, iPad, or Android compatible audio interface, there’s little more to this step than plugging it in. There may be an app to install, but other than that, you should be good to go.
Things can get a little more complicated for Windows and Mac computers. Firstly, if you’re reading this before you’ve purchased your audio interface, don’t make that purchase yet! While it’s true that whatever interface you are looking at will almost certainly connect via USB; some interfaces—particularly older ones—may connect via Firewire, which not all computers and laptops support.
For interfaces designed for use with iOS devices, they may have a Lightning connection. Similarly, some audio interfaces use USB 3.0. They should still work on a computer with no USB 3.0 ports to spare, but it is a little bit of a waste to pay for a USB 3.0 device if you’re not going to be able to take advantage of those increased speeds and bandwidth.
Setting Up Your Audio Interface
Again, if you are using a portable device, you probably won’t need this step. For those connecting to a Mac or Windows computer, there’s a little more to it than that. You will almost certainly have to install an ASIO driver if you are connecting an audio interface to your computer for the first time. There may be one included with your interface; however, it is more likely, you will be directed to the freeware “Asio4All” audio driver. Don’t let the lack of a price tag fool you; Asio4All a competent driver that does exactly what you need it to.
Once that is installed, there should be some drivers and software that is specific to your audio interface that will need installing. Sometimes the software will include a suite of tools and applications, other times, it will merely be a control panel application with which you can change the settings of your interface.
From this control panel, you will be able to alter settings like audio quality. Audio files can get pretty memory-hungry when recording at higher bitrate settings, so it’s often useful to turn the quality down if you don’t need it so high. It is also common on devices with multiple inputs to be able to switch between mono and stereo modes. For example, you could use an interface with four inputs as either a device with four mono channels or one with two stereo channels.
What is an ASIO driver?
As mentioned above, your average home computer is not designed for low latency audio transfer. Its default drivers (the software that allows your applications to talk to your audio hardware) is good enough for the purpose, but that purpose isn’t low-latency audio transfer. ASIO, or Audio Stream Input/Output, is a special protocol developed by Steinberg that bypasses any unnecessary layers that your audio signal may ordinarily pass through en route to your recording software. In doing so, ASIO drivers remove much of the latency in recording on a computer.
Using Your Audio Interface
Once you are all set up, and your interface is configured, using it should be as simple as plugging your instrument or microphone and pressing record in your DAW or recording software.
Many audio interfaces will have a monitoring facility on them, be it a simple variable LED light, an LED meter, or full VU meters. If your interface has such a thing, be sure to set it so that your audio is not clipping when you record. The interface is your audio’s first port of call when being recorded into your computer; if it gets distorted there, it will be distorted at every stage from that point on. To ensure this doesn’t happen, monitor the display and do whatever it is you intend to record, be it speaking, singing, playing the guitar, etc. Try to make it the loudest you are likely to get when recording and see if your audio interface clips. A red light almost always signals clipping on modern audio interfaces, though check your individual interface arrangement. You want to try and find a sweet spot where you are recording the loudest possible audio without clipping. It is easy to lower the volume of recorded sound, but not so easy to increase it.
Once you’re ready to record, you will need to select your audio interface in your DAW or recording software. Depending on your interface, you may have multiple inputs to choose from. If you’re not getting any sound, check to make sure you have the right input selected.
Other External Hardware
If your setup includes other external audio hardware, such as mixing boards or outboard effects processors, they will likely need to come before the interface on the path to your computer. Some audio interfaces have inserts and effects loops, in such cases you will need to consult your interface’s manual.
For mixing boards especially, they will need to come before your interface. The audio interface is purely intended as a dedicated device for transferring audio signals to your computer. If you attempt to insert anything after the interface, you lose the benefit of that low latency connection for whatever audio is coming from your outboard devices.
Setting up and using an audio interface may seem a little daunting at first, but hopefully, we’ve made this process seem a bit more approachable. Remember to do your research before buying, and make sure the device you get suits your specific needs.
- Decide placement of audio interface, ensuring it is in reach of anything that needs to be connected to it.
- Install ASIO drivers and any software for your audio interface.
- Set up the audio interface in software to suit your needs.
- Adjust input gain to get the loudest audio recording without clipping.
- Ensure any outboard devices channel into your interface.