Five Good, Cheap USB Audio Interfaces for 2016
What's the Best Inexpensive USB Audio Interface For the Home Musician?
As a musician, I love to write my own songs, and it's a lot of fun to record my own music and mixes. Fortunately, recent technology has made this easier than ever to do. Finding the best cheap audio interface is essential to start recording music of your own. As this article will prove, you don't need thousands of dollars to produce your own music any longer.
In recent years, a handful of great companies have started producing excellent quality, cheap usb audio interfaces for home recording purposes, as well as some good software to pair it with. These allow you to hook up your instrument using microphones or direct input, and they convert the audio signals to a convenient digital format. Once you've got the song down, you are limited only by your imagination, and you can cut and mix to your heart's content.
This article is focused on showcasing a few of the best inexpensive USB audio interfaces on the market today. We'll look at five of my favorites, outlining the pros and cons of each item, and whether or not you should consider each one, depending on your needs and budget. I'll try to show products in a range of price points so you'll have options no matter how much you have to spend. But before we get to looking at USB audio interfaces themselves, we'll talk about common features and what's essential.
Features: What a good USB audio interface can do
There are a few common features to be found in good quality USB audio interfaces, but they're not all made the same. Some come with certain abilities that others don't have. Obviously you get what you pay for, but by the same logic there's no sense in paying for something you won't use. Here are some capabilities you might want to narrow in on if they're important to you.
- Multiple / Multi-Use Inputs:
Obviously, most inexpensive USB audio interfaces will possess at least one input. However, you can typically find between two and four inputs even in base models. Generally speaking more is better, but it also depends on how many signals you'll want to record at once. If you're wanting several instruments or vocals recorded in tandem, you'll want at least two. If you're recording drums, four is probably a minimum. Many of the best inexpensive audio interfaces will also feature combination jacks, which allow for the standard XLR cable or a 1/4" jack as found on a guitar.
- MIDI Capability:
Whether you buy into it or not, MIDI instruments are popular and likely here to stay. Personally I love MIDI, it's so flexible, easy to edit and use, and they're great if you want to fill out a recording mix with some extra elements. A lot of great computer based audio interfaces will have a MIDI in and out. You can hook up your keyboard (or any MIDI controller for that matter) and play around, it's a nice feature to have.
- Mixing Board / Equalizer:
Depending on your budget, you can get a limited or full-featured mixing board on a relatively cheap USB audio interface. Again, this is a feature that may appeal to you depending on how you play and record. Equalization and gain control are nice things, especially if your music volume is dynamic and you tend to peak. You can always mix after the fact, but there's something to be said for getting the signal just right before it's set in stone.
- Mic Preamps:
If you're running mics of any kind, a preamp is essential. Luckily many of these less expensive USB audio interfaces have pretty nice preamp setups, and most of them also provide phantom power for running condensor microphones as well as dynamic mics.
Tascam US-322: Small, Fast, Powerful Computer Audio Interface Package
Talk about a small footprint! The Tascam US-322 is one of the best inexpensive audio interfaces with USB, and it has a couple of added bonuses: namely that it's very well priced and it's tiny, which is a huge bonus for anyone with limited desk space.
Don't let the small package fool you, this is a deceptively powerful device that will make most home recorders pretty happy.
It has two inputs and four outputs. Both of the inputs include XLR and 1/4 inch style jacks, meaning you can use either type of cable which is great for a singer / songwriter type recorder.
You can even plug your guitar directly into the audio interface with no amp needed. Both of the inputs include preamps and phantom power for your microphones. There's a direct monitor option, and of course there's a MIDI in and out for your controller or keyboard.
With Cubase LE5 software, this is an inexpensive USB computer audio interface that's simple, lightweight and ready to use.
Alesis MultiMix: A Flexible, Digital, USB Interface / Audio Mixer
The Alesis MultiMix is a wonderful option for any recording artist or hobby musician who needs a great yet inexpensive audio interface with USB capability, and also a mixer for ensembles, drums or multiple vocals.
It performs double duty in this realm, functioning as an 8-channel audio mixer with plenty of input options for many instruments or mics, and providing a good, clean signal without excess noise or distortion, making it a recording artist's best friend. As a brand Alesis is great and I've had a good experience with their products.
To get down to the brass tacks, there are 4 XLR inputs, and the unit offers 48v phantom power for running condensor microphones. There is a 3 band EQ on the first four channels, and a 2 band EQ on the remaining ones.
It's easy to connect to a traditional recording setup, a PA or a computer, and it even includes Cubase LE, which is a basic audio recording software that'll get you started on the right foot. If you've got multiple instruments or mics, this is a great and cheap USB audio interface that I'd encourage you to consider.
Steinberg CI2: An Affordable Computer Audio Interface from Cubase Creators
An affordable computer audio interface from the makers of Cubase
You might recognize the name Steinberg if you've been doing any research into recording software. The company produces the Cubase series of audio recording software and they really know their stuff.
The CI2 is no exception. It's probably among the best USB audio interfaces for the beginner user, simply because it comes with just about everything you'll want to get rolling.
As for technical details, this device has two combination inputs with XLR and 1/4" capability, and both inputs include preamps with 48v phantom power.
It doesn't have full mixing capabilities, but Steinberg has conquered that limitation with the intuitive control knob. In combination with any Cubase software, you can use the knob along with point and click to manage levels by hand of almost any type. You can use the included software or it's compatible with other versions of Cubase, or most other major software brands. It's built for the musician, not the techie, which is why I consider it among the top cheap audio interfaces around.
Focusrite Scarlett: Sleek, Intuitive USB Interface for Home Studios
A sleek and intuitive computer audio interface
This is a great example of combining form and function. The Focusrite Scarlett is a gorgeous and well crafted product, and it's surprisingly easy to use. Music is such a creative craft and you don't want technical stuff getting in the way of laying down a great track.
The quality hardware also ensures that sound fidelity is perfect and noise and signal degradation is minimized, resulting in clear and deep tones. It's housed in a sleek, beautiful anodized aluminum casing, which looks sharp on any desktop.
The '2i2' in the name comes from the two audio inputs, and two audio outputs. Despite all this capability, it all runs on the power of a single USB connector, so cabling is minimized and no additional power source is necessary.
It comes with a handy digital direct monitoring feature, which allows you to hear the output without going through your computer software, avoiding annoying latency issues.
It has preamps and phantom power, and it's Windows or Mac compatible. Read the reviews and you'll find others who agree with me, this is one of the best USB audio interfaces you'll find, not to be missed.
Behringer: The Best Audio Interface for Those With Gear Already
What if you already have a mixer and other gear ready to go, is it really worth investing in an audio interface that effectively does what you already have? Fortunately for you, Behringer produces an excellent and simple USB audio interface that's cheap and ready to use.
Essentially, it connects with its dual mono inputs and outputs, and converts with high resolution, letting your true tones shine through. It also has an optical output that can convert directly from analog to digital source.
It's so small it's hard to believe, and the whole thing runs directly on USB power so you won't be tripping over cables. It's a plug in and go situation, though it doesn't come with the fancy goodies like preamps and phantom power that the more expensive interfaces have.
If you don't have any gear already, I highly encourage you to consider an 'all-in-one' inexpensive audio interface like the ones reviewed above. However, with the basics and its included audio engine software, you'll be surprised by the mileage this tiny interface will get you.
Setting Up a Studio?
If you're putting together some gear for a home studio setup, please be sure to check out a few of my other articles, as I've written a number of pieces detailing what you're going to need.
The interface is definitely the first thing you're going to need, so decide on one of those first and then build outward from there. Be sure to also put some thought towards the software you'll be using in conjunction with your interface!
Good luck, and thanks for reading!