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The Best Audio Interfaces for PC Music Production and More in 2023

An audio interface is an essential piece of equipment for anyone looking to record, produce music, podcast, or livestream on their computer. The right interface can mean the difference between pristine, professional-grade audio and a glitchy, latency-laden mess.

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll cover everything you need to know about picking the best audio interface for your PC setup and use case.

What is an Audio Interface and Why Do You Need One?

An audio interface is an external piece of hardware that improves upon your computer‘s built-in sound card to provide superior audio quality. It converts the analog signals from microphones, instruments, and other gear into digital data that your computer can understand.

Here are some of the main benefits an interface provides:

  • Reduced Latency: The biggest advantage is vastly reduced latency, which is the delay between playing a note and hearing it back in your headphones. Too much latency makes recording and monitoring impossible.

  • Better Sound Quality: From the mic preamps to analog-to-digital conversion, interfaces provide far superior fidelity than a stock sound card.

  • More Connectivity: Many interfaces offer multiple XLR, 1/4" line, and other connections to hook up mics, instruments, monitors, and more.

  • Phantom Power: Almost all interfaces provide 48V phantom power, which is required for using professional condenser microphones.

Without an audio interface, recording and producing music on a PC or Mac would come with massive headaches. They are essential pieces of kit for guitarists, singer-songwriters, streamers, podcasters, and virtually anyone doing audio work on their computer.

Key Specs to Consider When Buying an Audio Interface

With the basics covered, let‘s look at the most important specifications and features to evaluate when choosing the right audio interface for your needs:

Number of Inputs and Outputs

This determines how many microphones, instruments, speakers, and headphones you can connect simultaneously. For simple home recording, 2 inputs and 2 outputs is plenty. Bigger projects require more I/O.

Sample Rate and Bit Depth

Higher sample rates (96-192 kHz) and bit depths (24-bit) capture more detail and dynamic range. However, for many users, 44.1 kHz / 16-bit is just fine.

Form Factor and Portability

If you want to easily move your interface between home and studio, smaller bus-powered boxes win out over rackmount units. But they tend to have fewer features.

Phantom Power

48-volt phantom power is required to use pro-level condenser mics. Make sure any interface has this covered.

Driver and Software Compatibility

Interfaces require ASIO drivers for optimal performance on Windows. Compatible DAWs and other software is also essential.

Understanding specifications is important, but it‘s features that really determine how easily an interface fits into your workflow. Up next are my top picks across various use cases, budgets, and needs.

Best Audio Interfaces for PC in 2023

Best Overall: Universal Audio Apollo Twin X

The Apollo Twin X represents the pinnacle of audio interface technology, melding UA‘s top-tier converters and preamps with their UAD DSP platform for recording and monitoring with complex analog emulations in real-time.

Key Features:

  • Elite-grade 24-bit / 192 kHz conversion
  • 2 Unison mic preamps with tube emulation
  • Realtime UAD plugin processing while tracking
  • 14 x 6 monitor mixer with talkback and more
  • Streamlined setup and control software

No other interface comes close to providing the comprehensive production environment of the Apollo Twin X. From the transparency of the signal path to the character of UA‘s emulations, it‘s unmatched.

The main tradeoff is the price. You pay a premium for such pro-level performance. However for serious producers, engineers, and composers, the Apollo Twin X is a justifiable investment.

Runner-Up: RME Babyface Pro FS

For an interface with similar conversion quality to the Apollo Twin X but without the UAD environment, the RME Babyface Pro FS is a top choice.

Key Features:

  • Over 50 dB of clean gain on mic pres
  • JetPLL jitter elimination technology
  • Extremely reliable, optimized drivers
  • Sturdy metal construction
  • Made in Germany build quality

RME has earned their reputation through rock-solid driver stability and interfaces built to last. Sonically it competes with units 2-3x the price.

While it doesn‘t include the realtime DSP of the Apollo series, RME‘s TotalMix software still provides low-latency monitoring with effects, routing flexibility, and talkback functions.

So if you want Apollonian quality without the platform lock-in, the Babyface Pro FS is arguably the best pure audio interface you can buy.

Best Budget Model: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

The Scarlett 2i2 has achieved legendary status as the go-to starter interface for producers, musicians, and podcasters. Even among more expensive models, it holds up.

Key Features:

  • Crystal clear preamps with plenty of gain
  • Direct Monitor knob for latency-free tracking
  • Up to 24-bit / 192 kHz conversion
  • Simple 2 x 2 I/O plus headphone output
  • Bundled software including Pro Tools | First

For around $150, the transparency, quality, and ease-of-use is unmatched. While more advanced users will want additional inputs and outputs eventually, the Scarlett 2i2 is hard to outgrow for beginners.

From bedroom productions to professional studios, the durable Scarlett 2i2 handles it all. No surprise it remains a ubiquitous sight on desks everywhere.

Best Portable Interface: Audient EVO 4

If your interface needs to move between the studio and gigging with your band, the bus-powered Audient EVO 4 is purpose-built for mobility and reliable performance.

Key Features:

  • Sturdy aluminum housing
  • 2 Audient console mic pres with tons of gain
  • Advanced Burr-Brown ADC converters
  • Mixer function for low-latency monitoring
  • No required external power

Despite its diminutive size, the EVO 4 contains the same Class A preamps and AD/DA conversion as Audient’s larger interfaces. It punches way above its weight sonically.

With professional features squeezed into a compact chassis plus the unique ability to save and recall interface settings for different applications, the Audient EVO 4 is the ultimate portable recording interface.

Best for Live Music Production: Universal Audio Volt 276

While UA specializes in studio gear, the Volt 276 marries their excellent preamps and conversion with a streamlined feature set perfect for musicians who perform live with backing tracks, VST instruments, or MIDI hardware.

Key Features:

  • Vintage Mode on mic preamp for tonal flexibility
  • Quad-core processor runs multiple plug-ins with near-zero latency
  • Dual headphone outs with independent mix control
  • Rugged construction and flexible form factor options
  • Seamless integration with UA iOS apps

For running pro-quality virtual instruments, effects, and amp sims in a live setting, nothing beats the Volt 276. It even packs in a healthy selection of UA‘s industry-standard UAD plugins.

If you want to incorporate backing tracks, sequenced synths, horns, strings, and more into your live performances without compromise, the Volt 276 gives you the tactile control and processing to do it right.

How To Select the Best Audio Interface for Your Needs

With so many options on the market, choosing the right audio interface can feel overwhelming. By asking yourself these questions, you can zero in on the perfect model for your needs and budget:

1. How Many Inputs and Outputs Do You Need?

If you only plan to record one vocalist or instrument at a time, a simple 2×2 interface like the Focusrite Scarlett will suffice. Larger bands or podcast setups demand more I/O. Write down your required channel counts before shopping.

2. What Kinds of Microphones and Gear Will You Use?

Condenser mics need phantom power to operate – ensure your interface supplies 48V. If you want to plug guitars and basses directly into your interface, integrated instrument DI inputs are extremely convenient.

3. What Computer OS Are You Using?

Most interfaces support Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android devices. But some work better with specific operating systems. Know your platform before buying.

4. Do You Care About Portability?

If you‘ll be travelling with your interface often, ensure it‘s bus powered without the need for external power bricks. Sturdy metal construction also helps interfaces withstand life on the road.

5. Does Your Software Support Your Interface?

It‘s critical to verify that the recording programs and plugins you use – like your DAW and amp sims – are compatible with the interface‘s drivers, bit rates, and latency performance before purchasing.

Asking these questions early on will prevent headaches down the road while directing you towards the best audio interface for your current and future needs.

Setting Up An Audio Interface on Windows PCs

Installing and configuring an interface properly ensures you get the lowest latency and best experience right off the bat. Here is a step-by-step guide to interfacing on a Windows machine:

  1. Download the Latest Drivers: Always use the newest drivers from the manufacturer‘s website, not those bundled with the interface or CDs. Update regularly.

  2. Connect Your Interface: Use good quality cables when hooking up mics, monitors, and instruments to avoid interference. Secure with cable ties.

  3. Select The Right Sample Rate: Record at 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, or 96 kHz. Higher requires more CPU resources. Monitor the load.

  4. Set the Buffer Size: Lower buffer sizes mean less latency but higher CPU usage. Find the sweet spot for your system – usually 128 or 256 samples.

  5. Use External Power if Available: Wall power reduces strain on USB ports for stability. However, not all interfaces require external power.

  6. Test Latency: Use DPC Latency Checker to measure system latency and ensure your drivers and buffers are configured correctly before recording.

Getting peak performance requires some tweaking but these steps create the foundation. Employee buffer size adjustments and disable unnecessary background processes for best results.

FAQ – Audio Interface Troubleshooting

Q: Why do I hear crackling noises and latency when recording?

A: This points to an issue with CPU usage, drivers, cables, or buffer sizes. Tackle problem areas methodically until the interface feels responsive.

Q: My microphone sounds distorted and noisy only when plugged into the interface. Why?

A: The likely culprit is a bad mic cable or incorrect gain staging. Engage the pad if supported, reduce gain levels, and try swapping XLR cables.

Q: Do I always need to use phantom power on condenser microphones?

A: Yes – all condenser mics require phantom power, usually 48V, to operate. Dynamic mics can optionally use phantom power without issues. Consult mic specs.

Q: Should I choose Thunderbolt or USB interfaces?

A: Thunderbolt guarantees lower latency on paper. But USB has largely caught up. Evaluate based on available ports and backward/forward compatibility needs.

The Sweet Sound of Audio Interfacing Success

As you can see, purchasing the right audio interface doesn‘t need to be frustrating or fatiguing.

By understanding your connectivity needs, converter quality preferences, software compatibility, form factor requirements, and other essential factors covered today, picking the perfect interface becomes much easier.

Everyone‘s use case differs slightly, which is why I aimed to suggest the leading options across performance tiers and categories. Pay close attention to details like mic preamp quality, conversion resolution, and software bundle value when comparing products.

To quickly recap, here were my top recommendations in various buckets:

  • Best Overall: Universal Audio Apollo Twin X
  • Best Premium Alternative: RME Babyface Pro FS
  • Best Budget Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
  • Best Portable Model: Audient EVO 4
  • Best for Live Production: Universal Audio Volt 276

I‘m confident that getting up and running with one of these fantastic interfaces will make recording, mixing, gaming, or otherwise producing audio on your PC significantly more satisfying thanks to reduced latency and high fidelity conversion.

Have you used any of the models featured today? Which interface did you end up going with for your studio? Let me know what solution worked best for your workflow in the comments below!