Audio interfaces are the central hub of any studio, but does an audio interface improve sound quality? If so, how much? Does a more expensive audio interface improve things even more?
These are all valid questions. Finding the answers to them will not only help you understand audio interfaces better, but it will also help you make the right decision on your next investment.
Audio interfaces come in all shapes and sizes, from simple, single-input devices to complex, multi-channel units. And while they all serve the same basic purpose, there can be big differences in audio quality between different models.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how audio interfaces can improve sound quality in your studio. Rest assured that we’ll answer all of your burning questions about these powerful little devices.
First, let’s start with the basics.
Audio Interface 101: The Basics
An audio interface is a device that connects your musical instruments and other audio gear to your computer so they can then be edited, mixed, and recorded using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
All of this is done by the means of signal conversion.
An audio interface converts the analog signal from an external device into a digital signal (ADC) that can be processed by the computer. The audio interface also converts the digital signal from the computer into an analog signal (DAC) that can be sent to speakers or other audio devices.
If you’re looking for even more information about audio interfaces, then head over to this article next.
Why Are Audio Interfaces So Important?
Audio interfaces are important because they provide a high-quality connection between audio equipment and a computer. This allows the computer to accurately record and process the audio signals it receives.
Audio interfaces can also be used to route audio signals to different locations. For example, an interface can be used to send the signal from a microphone to a computer for recording, and then send the signal from the computer to a set of speakers for playback.
Do You Absolutely Need An Audio Interface?
If you’re a podcaster, music producer, sound engineer, content creator or a streamer, then yes, you need an audio interface. If you want to record high-quality audio of any sort, then you need a device that can handle the task. Your computer’s sound card will simply not be powerful enough on its own.
That said, the true answer to this question really depends on a variety of factors, including what type of audio equipment you are using, what type of music you are recording, and what your budget is.
If you are using basic, entry-level audio equipment, then you may not need an audio interface and can get by with just a computer and a microphone for a little while.
However, if you are using more sophisticated audio equipment, then you will likely need an interface to connect all of your equipment to your computer.
The type of music you are recording also plays a role in whether or not you need an audio interface.
If you are recording music that requires a higher number of total instruments, then you will likely need an interface or a more complex mixing console to get the best audio quality.
Finally, your budget is also a consideration. Audio interfaces can range in price from around $100 to $1,000 or more. If you are on a tight budget, then you may want to consider a less expensive option.
That said, if you have the money to spend, then you can get a high-quality interface that will provide you with the best recording and playback quality.
Does An Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?
Yes, an audio interface is specifically designed to improve sound quality by providing a higher-quality signal path between a sound source and a computer.
By using higher-quality ADC and DAC converters, an audio interface can improve sound quality by providing a cleaner and more accurate signal. Additionally, it improves audio quality by providing better isolation between different audio signals, which can help to reduce noise and interference.
The sound quality of an audio interface also depends on its mic preamps as well as its sample rate and bit depth.
Let’s break each of those factors down a bit more.
Mic Preamps: How To Get The Most Out Of Your Microphone
A mic preamp is used to boost the signal from a microphone to line-level so it can be processed by an audio interface or any other audio device.
They improve sound quality by providing a clean, strong signal to your DAW. This results in less noise and hiss in the recordings, and overall better audio quality.
Some mic preamps also provide phantom power, which plays a huge role in the recording quality of condenser microphones.
Phantom power is a direct current (DC) voltage that is applied to microphones that have condenser-type elements. The voltage is used to provide the power needed for the microphone’s internal circuitry, and it is typically supplied by the mixing console or audio interface that the microphone is connected to.
The most common voltage used for phantom power is 48 volts, but other voltages can be used as well.
To summarize, if you’re using a condenser microphone, you need an interface that’s equipped with mic preamps that offer 48v phantom power.
Sample Rate: What Is It & Does It Actually Affect Sound Quality?
Sample rate is the number of samples per second taken from a continuous signal to create a discrete signal. The higher the sample rate, the more information is captured and the better the sound quality.
The standard sample rate for CDs (I know, old school, right?l) or streaming platforms (like Spotify) is 44.1 kHz, which is the minimum sample rate that can accurately reproduce the full range of human hearing.
Higher sample rates, such as 48 kHz, 96 kHz, and 192 kHz, are often used in professional audio applications because they can provide a higher level of detail and clarity.
Nowadays, the baseline sample rate found on a good audio interface is 192 kHz.
The jury is still out on exactly how much of an impact this has on the sound quality of an interface. This is especially true when you consider the fact that music is converted down to 44.1 kHz on Spotify anyway.
This leads us to the next point: bit depth.
Bit Depth: The True Measurement For High Resolution Audio
Bit depth is one of the most important specifications of an audio interface, as it determines the maximum resolution of the digital audio signal.
The bit depth is the number of bits used to represent the amplitude of a digital audio signal. The higher the bit depth, the higher the resolution of the digital audio signal, and the better the quality of the audio.
The most common bit depth for audio interfaces is 24-bit, although most streaming platforms only support 16-bit audio.
24-bit audio has a resolution of approximately 144dB, which is more than enough for most applications. That said, some high-end audio interfaces offer 32-bit resolution, which provides even higher quality audio.
Despite the fact that streaming services convert music back down to 16-bit resolution, it’s still worthwhile to record your audio at 24-bits or higher with an audio interface.
As streaming platforms evolve, they’ll start to support higher audio resolutions. Tidal is paving the way for this very thing. They claim to deliver 24-bit audio resolution in their highest-tier plan, which is a step in the right direction at the very least.
With that, plan for the future and invest in a high resolution interface.
How Does Latency Affect Sound Quality?
Latency is the amount of time it takes for a signal to travel from the input of an audio interface to the output. The higher the latency, the longer it takes for the signal to reach the output, and the more likely it is to be distorted.
Latency can be caused by a number of factors, including the type of interface, the quality of your cables, the distance the signal has to travel, and the speed of your computer.
A sure-fire way to limit latency in a signal flow is by using a more reliable form of connectivity. Nowadays, Thunderbolt is the standard in that regard.
Thunderbolt audio interfaces are usually pretty pricey, but you get very high data transfer speeds (~40 Gbps) and a more dependable form of connectivity for the price.
Standard USB audio interfaces are still good too, but their data transfer speeds are much slower than their Thunderbolt counterparts.
Check out my USB vs Thunderbolt audio interfaces guide to learn more about the differences between these two types of recording devices.
That point begs another question though.
Does A More Expensive Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?
The simple answer is yes, a more expensive interface will generally produce better sound quality than a less expensive one.
However, there are many factors that affect audio quality, so it’s not always a cut-and-dry issue.
A more expensive device may have better converters, which can result in improved sound quality. Or, it may simply have more features, which may or may not improve sound quality depending on your needs.
In general, though, you can expect to get better sound quality from an audio interface with a higher price-tag.
Other Factors That Can Affect Sound Quality In A Signal Flow
Your audio interface isn’t the only thing to blame for bad audio quality. There are a number of other factors that can have a negative effect on your signal flow, and thus, the overall audio quality in your studio.
Some factors that contribute to bad sound quality in a signal flow include:
- Loose connections
- Interference from other electronic devices
- Bad power supply
- Poorly designed or implemented signal software
- Slow or outdated computer hardware
- Low-quality studio equipment (microphones, studio monitors, etc.)
Those are just a few examples, but it gives you an idea of what to keep an eye on.
Now, you’re probably wondering how you can avoid these hurdles and further improve your sound quality outside of investing in a better audio interface.
How To Further Improve Sound Quality In Your Studio Setup
There are a number of ways to improve the overall sound quality in your recording studio:
- Compliment your audio interface with a high-quality microphone. This will ensure that your recordings are capturing the best possible sound.
- Use a DAW with high-quality VST plugins. This will give you more control over the sound of your recordings and allow you to add professional-sounding effects.
- Use high-quality studio monitors. This will help you hear your recordings more accurately and make it easier to identify problems with the sound.
- Invest in better cables for everything! Get the best XLR cables for your mics. Drop some cash on high-quality line-level cables for your monitors. Cables will make or break any studio setup, so don’t skimp in this area.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I Need An Expensive Audio Interface?
No, you do not need an expensive audio interface. You can use a simple USB microphone and audio interface for a basic podcast setup or simple music creations. However, if you want to record multiple vocalists or instruments at once, or if you need high-quality audio for professional purposes, you will need a more premium device.
Why Are Some Audio Interfaces Better Than Others?
Different audio interfaces offer different features that can be better or worse for different people. Some audio interfaces have more input and output options, while others might have better sound resolutions and better mic preamps. It really depends on what you need and want from an audio interface as to whether it is better or worse than another.
Conclusion – Does An Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?
It’s no secret that an audio interface can help you achieve professional sounding recordings by providing a higher-quality signal path and conversion than your computer’s built-in audio hardware.
In addition, an audio interface can offer a higher degree of control over the recording process, giving you more options for shaping your sound through your DAW or other external hardware.
Keep in mind that you don’t need the world’s best audio interface from the get go. Even a cheap device will be better than your computer’s sound card. That said, you can always upgrade to a more powerful interface as you level up your studio.
With the knowledge you’ve gained from this article, you are now ready to get in the studio and let those creative juices flow.