Getting hooked into the exciting world of computer-based home recording can be the adventure of a lifetime. No, really, it can take a lifetime. I remember my initial foray into this extensive hobby. It all started when I was 14, and my parents bought me a cassette-based Tascam 4-track recording unit. I was completely blown away with it--I mean, I could layer myself up to four times! That was insane! I produced many a terrible demo before I realized that my audio-quality was significantly lacking. A friend of mine was pumping out (equally terrible) demos, but his audio quality was practically crystal clear. He let me in on his little secret: he did it on a computer.
"What!" I thought to myself, "on a computer, he says!" Upon hearing this, I downloaded a free DAW and started recording directly from my computer's 1/8" audio input using a basic $20 Radioshack microphone. It sounded a little better than my dingy Tascam, but not by much, and I was immediately discouraged. I experimented with it--tried different microphone placements, changed volume controls, tried to perform better (!), but none of these techniques were working at all. It still sounded empty and full of weird, digital static. A few years and hundreds of awful songs later, I finally discovered the secret to effective home-recording: dedicated hardware interfaces.
So Many Choices...
Finding a recording interface was not difficult for me in the early 2000s, and it's even easier today. They're available practically everywhere--from the biggest big box stores all the way down to the tiniest little music shops. Pricing is also a variety game, and recording-interfaces cost anywhere from the dirt cheap (slightly above the $50 mark) to the ridiculously spendy (think refinance your home expensive). This little guide is designed to appeal to the more frugal-minded bunch amongst us, since home recording really shouldn't be a luxury out of our reach.
Cheap is Good...But What Are the Drawbacks?
Alas, submitting to budget recording hardware will shed light on several limitations, and you're always going to "get what you pay for." With that, though, as with any electronics purchase, it all boils down to your needs and expectations. If you're looking for a way to record a 20-piece orchestra, then these budget interfaces probably won't cut it. If you need to capture your six piece progressive rock outfit in all its intricate glory, then some of these may work for you, but you're going to need additional hardware (mixers, talent, etc) to get these to work. If you're looking to record yourself with a few single instruments, then buddy, you're in luck, 'cause any one of these babies will make you sound like a star!
Perhaps we are getting a little ahead of ourselves with all of this "star" talk, but truth be told, these budget interfaces are going to work best with a one-person jack-of-all-trades type situation. Here are a few limitations that can be generalized from most sub $100 offerings:
- Amount of simultaneously recordable tracks. Again, if you're looking for a quick and easy way to record a large ensemble, then you're probably better off simply renting out studio space. Most of these units are only capable of recording one to two tracks at a time. You can always layer tracks with your favorite DAW, but get comfy playing over yourself. It's a reality that home-recording hobbyists must face.
- Build Quality. You know the difference between an American-made Fender Telecaster and Chinese made Squire Telecaster? Well, there are a lot of differences, but a major one is build quality. Compromises must be made in order to make these units affordable for you and profitabel for the manufacturer. This isn't to suggest that your new recording unit is going to fall apart a week after you buy it, but always be kind to your budget hardware. A loose connection or a broken knob can render the equipment useless, unless, of course, you're handy with a soldering iron.
- Number of Inputs/Type of Inputs. Consider how you wish to use your hardware. If you like recording your guitar/keyboard direct, then a 1/4" input is necessary. If you're a microphone kind of person, then you'll need an XLR input. If you want to record two microphones at the same time, you'll need two XLR inputs. If you wish to record guitar direct while simultaneously singing into a microphone, you'll need a 1/4" input and an XLR input. You get the idea. The number/type of inputs isn't necessarily a deal-breaker--you could always invest in an external mixer and solve that issue for another $50-$100--but consider your budget. If you find a cheap hardware interface that does everything you need it to, then spending more money is not necessary.
- System Compatibility and Latency Issues. Latency is the worst--the worst--issue plaguing home recording set-ups. That awful gap between the musician and the computer can be impossible to work around, and solo artists who wish to layer themselves with several tracks must do their research before purchasing any type of recording hardware. Most units are designed to not provide this terrible sonic gap, but always make sure that it is fully compatible with your existing computer hardware before venturing any further. If an interface provides minimum hardware requirements from you, always make sure you can meet them, or better yet--exceed them. Seriously, folks, it can really get that bad.
- Phantom Power (Or Lack Thereof). An absence of phantom power is relatively common amongst budget recording interfaces. This will only effect those who wish to use condenser microphones, and there are several external work-arounds (again--mixer), but if a condenser mic is what you use, then always consider phantom power an important feature.
- USB vs. Firewire. This isn't really a drawback, but it doesn't fit anywhere else in this article, so here we go. Most budget interfaces are designed to use USB 2.0, and it works relatively well for most home-recording rigs. In many cases, though, Firewire may be the better option, since it sends data to your computer at much higher speeds. Even though USB 3.0 and the (supposed) rise of Thunderbolt inputs all but render Firewire dead-in-the-water, these inputs are not universally standard just yet. If you have a computer that supports Firewire and find a great deal on a Firewire-based recording unit, you probably won't have any issues with latency.
Let's Get On With It, Dude
All right, one more--important--thing before we dive into these five pieces of hardware. These descriptions are in no way comprehensive reviews of the units, and should not be considered as so. They are simply designed to provide information for curious minds. You should always look into user reviews and identifying your recording needs before making a purchase.
There are many other options out there, and if you wish on spending more that the allotted $150 budget set for this article, then by all means, go for it. Still, $150 is a lot of money for some of us, and sometimes the Top Ramen budget means that we need to preserve as much money as reasonably possible. So without further delay, here are five all-in-one computer-recording hardware interfaces under $150.
Inputs: 1 XLR, 1 1/4", stereo 1/4" line-in
Phantom Power: No
Lexicon Alpha Desktop Recording Studio
The Lexicon Alpha is the cheapest all-in-one hardware recording solution presented within this article, and you get a lot of bang for your buck with this purchase. It features one XLR input, one 1/4" instrument jack, two 1/4" options for line in and line out, a red/white RCA line out, USB connectivity, zero-latency monitoring and a ridiculously low $60 price tag.
It's a tempting purchase, but hold on a second before you whip out that dusty old credit card. Let's consider its limitations: a single XLR input means one one recordable microphone at a time. Moot point if you only plan on tracking one mic at at a time or have a mixer, but still one worthy of your consideration. Phantom power is also absent, so you'll need external hardware to run that special little condenser mic of yours.
If these issues are non-issues for you, then the Lexicon Alpha is probably a great way to step into computer recording without hurting your checking account. User reviews are mostly positive, and the general consensus is that the Alpha is a fantastic beginners tool and a respectable entry within the crowded field of budget recording. It also comes with Cubase LE, a budget DAW that some love but many despise. The Lexicon Alpha will work fine with other DAWs as well.
Inputs: 1 XLR, 1 unbalanced 1/4" mic, 1 balanced 1/4" guitar/bass jack, stereo RCA line-in
Phantom Power: No
Tascam US-100 USB 2.0 Audio Interface
Tascam are no strangers to recording hardware, and they're known for pumping out high-quality pieces of gear for practically all price-points. The US-100 is one of their cheapest entries into computer hardware, but it's a solid little device considering the sub-$100 price. Buyers will get a single XLR input, a 1/4" input for guitar or bass, another 1/4" input for additional microphones, two red/white RCA options for line in and line out, USB 2.0 connectivity and zero-latency studio monitoring.
It contains fewer features than the Lexicon Alpha, but makes up for them with class-compliant drivers for computer installation. This will probably act as a godsend for beginners, since setting up audio drivers on a computer can be a real pain is butt. You're also paying a little extra for the name-branding, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Tascam know what they're doing, and buyers can rest easy with their overall high-quality consistency.
Tascam generously include Audacity for free along with the US-100. Can you sense the sarcasm in that last sentence? For those of you who didn't know it, Audacity is already an openly free bit of software, so its inclusion with the US-100 is curious at best. Still, it's on a CD rather than requiring you to download it, so at least you save a little on bandwidth, right?
Inputs: 1 XLR, 1 balanced 1/4" guitar/bass jack
Phantom Power: Yes
The M-Audio M-Track unit is pretty run-of-the-mill: two XLR inputs, two guitar 1/4" guitar jacks, headphone out...you know, the basics. One nice addition is phantom power, a feature unavailable on the preceding described units. The inclusion of phantom power means no additional hardware is needed to use a condenser mic, which is a pretty sweet deal for the extreme penny-pinchers among us.
On the topic of build quality, well, I used an M-Audio Firewire Solo for many years and it worked great. I never had any issues with it. The included M-Track unit is significantly cheaper than the Firewire Solo, though, so who knows, maybe they did cut some glaring corners with this device. User reviews for this product are mixed...some say it's great for the price, some say it's unusable. Use your best judgement with this one--$100 isn't anything to scoff at, but then again, the M-Track could be right up your alley.
Inputs: 1 XLR, 1 balanced 1/4" guitar/bass jack, stereo 1/4" line-in
Phantom Power: No
Line 6 POD Studio UX1
Line6 are known for their excellent guitar-modeling products, so it should come to nobody's surprise that their all-in-one recording solutions are dominantly guitar-centric. The POD Studio UX1 is their cheapest offering that includes an XLR input, and it's a little on the pricier side at $150. It shares many of the same features as the Lexicon Alpha and the Tascam US-100, and has no onboard phantom power.
It may not sound like the best deal for you, but it's an invaluable tool for guitarists. The inclusion of Line6's fantastic POD Farm software gives way to endless digital guitar modeling possibilities, and few (if any) other companies can claim to do it better than these guys. If you're down with the idea of implementing modeled guitar tracks into your music, then $150 is a steal. If the thought of recording your guitar in such a digital manner sickens you, then you're probably better off with something else.
Inputs: 2 XLR
Phantom Power: Yes
ART USB Dual Pre
While all the other devices featured in this article were limited to a single XLR input, the ART Dual Pre features two--an excellent addition if you wish to track two microphones at the same time. It doesn't have a dedicated guitar input, but this is a non-issue for guitarists who would rather mic their amplifiers over succumbing to digital modeling.
Though it is a fully functional USB recording interface, the Dual Pre lives up to its name and acts as a dedicated microphone pre-amplifier for non-recording purposes as well. It's powered via USB when acting as a digital interface, but it also runs off battery power for non-USB situations. To make matters better, it includes phantom power and latency-free monitoring. All for under $70. That, my friends, is a great deal.
Again, the Dual Pre has no guitar input, so if that's what you need, one of the other devices will serve you better. For all other purposes, though, it will probably work just fine for you, and who knows--maybe having a portable pre-amp may come in handy for you down the road.
CORRECTION: the Art Dual Pre does have a guitar input. My bad, folks. This little unit just sounds better and better, wouldn't you say?
random on July 21, 2012:
I have the art dual pre and didn't even know that about the combo jacks, made my day!! Thanks!!!!
Sam Islam (author) from Vancouver, WA on June 30, 2012:
Thanks for the info! I will fix this ASAP
GoOkU33 on June 30, 2012:
Sorry but you´re wrong about Art Dual Pre, it has 2 neutrix combo jacks, that means you have 2 mic/instrument inputs, so you can record 2 mics or 1 guitar and 1 vocal or 2 guitars.
Johnathan L Groom from Bristol, CT on June 14, 2012:
misspellings, yet bright!
Johnathan L Groom from Bristol, CT on June 14, 2012: