If you’re an aspiring musician or story-teller, there’s never been a better time to begin your journey into audio. The internet has not only made it easier to distribute your work, but there are apps that make it easy to create everything from podcasts to hit records. You can basically download everything you need to get started, but there are still some things that are necessary if you want to take your quality up to the next level. One vital piece of hardware that you’ll need is a USB interface. We’ll get into exactly what a USB interface is and what it does, along with a bunch of other useful information. But first, let’s talk about what you came here for. Which interface should you get?
Editor’s note: this list was updated on July 21, 2020, to address an FAQ about the differences between a USB and XLR mic.
For most people (beginner/intermediate), go with the Scarlett 2i2 (3rd generation)
No surprises here, if you’re starting from nothing and want to know which USB interface to get go with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It’s basically an internet classic at this point and not because it’s the best interface ever made, but it offers more than enough to get you off the ground running. It features two inputs on the front so you can plug in both microphones or instruments, each with their own preamp and gain controls. On the back are two line outputs so you can connect it to a pair of monitors if you have some, and a USB 2.0 output for connecting to the computer.
If you want to save yourself a little bit of money, and you’re unwilling to sacrifice much, you can still find the 2nd generation of the Scarlett 2i2 for $10-$20 off online. You don’t lose much in features, but you won’t have the buttons on the front—instead you’ll have a few switches to control your inputs.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Of course, you’ll also get a ¼” jack and a 3.5mm adapter if you don’t have speakers and just want to plug in a pair of headphones. As far as specs go the Scarlett 2i2 can convert samples up to 192kHz at 24-bits, which means you can record plenty of detail coming from the mics or instruments. You also get a button for 48V phantom power if you have a mic that needs a little more juice to get it going.
If you’re always on the go, pick up the Zoom H4n Pro
If you’re going to be out and about playing gigs or recording at a friends’ house, then you might want something that’s a little more portable and easier to carry. For that, you should check out the Zoom H4n Pro. It’s small enough to easily toss in a backpack (or some large pockets) and gives you 2-inputs wherever you go. So whether you’re plugging in instrument cables or XLR cables for microphones you shouldn’t have a problem. It also has a nifty locking mechanism so that the cables don’t get accidentally pulled out while recording. It’s worth mentioning that the H4n Pro is first and foremost a 4-track recorder and a good one at that. So if you ever find yourself just needing to record an idea you had somewhere and don’t have a computer, this has your back. That said, this can also act a USB interface, so let’s get into some specifics.
Zoom H4n Pro
The H4n Pro has two mic preamps which make this a great option for podcasters since all you have to do is plug in the mics and hit record. It can convert 24bit/96kHz audio as well, so although it isn’t technically isn’t as impressive as some of the other options on this list, we figured it’s size and versatility earned it a place here. Especially since this little guy has phantom power of +24 or +48 as well.
Are you a beginner? Go with the Tascam US-1×2
If you don’t care about any fancy processing (or don’t need to record ten different instruments at once) then you want the Tascam US 1×2 USB interface. Nothing fancy here, just a solid little chunk of metal that will allow you to get your audio into a computer with as little friction as possible. It has a single XLR input for a microphone (with +48V phantom power) and a line-in for an instrument, but that’s it.
It can convert up to 24bit/96kHz recording and connects to your computer via USB 2.0. There’s also an optional AC adapter so you can use it with your iPad if you prefer it. It isn’t the fanciest interface around, but the Tascam US1x2 is a cheap option with impressive results that are great for beginners.
Oh, so you’re a professional? Then get the Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB
Every list needs one absurdly priced product to put everything in perspective, and on this list, that job is done by the Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB interface. Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way, this thing is expensive. At a little under $1,000, you don’t want this to be the first USB interface you buy (unless you’re rich, then have at it). And while the Apollo Twin doesn’t have a bunch of inputs, it does have some great processing to make sure that everything has that nice analog sound everyone loves.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB
You’ll get two inputs on the mac with Unison-enabled mic preamps and a guitar input on the front along with another input for headphones. It’s also fairly small so transporting it shouldn’t be too difficult, and the sleek design doesn’t look half bad on a desk either. Again, this shouldn’t be your first (or even your second) interface, but if you’re looking to upgrade your setup to something that’s just about as pro as you can go this is worth checking out.
Looking to save some cash? Check out the Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
If you need something that will get your audio onto a computer for cheap, go with the Behringer U-Phoria UMC22. At around $50, this is one of the better values you can find out there. You’ll get two inputs right on the front (one for a microphone and one for an instrument), along with phantom power to give the right amount of juice to your mic as well.
Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
The back as two outputs so you can connect up a pair of monitors if you got them, but like the Scarlett 2i2 we mentioned above you could always just plug in a pair of headphones in the front. Again, there aren’t any cool bells and whistles here, but if you want a USB interface that won’t break the bank you need look no further.
- PreSonus Audiobox USB: The PreSonus Audiobox is another solid option for under $100 that features 96kHz/24-bit recording and dual-combo inputs for microphones or instruments.
- Roland USB Audio Interface: Roland is a name that brings a certain level of trust to people in audio, and their entry-level USB interface is a solid option that gets the job done. It has two inputs and was designed to minimize noise at all volumes.
What else should you know?
Sure, you can use the built-in mic on your computer or the one that came with your favorite pair of headphones, and don’t get me wrong that can be a style all on its own. There’s no right way to be creative. But if you want to get some crispy clean audio and are ready to upgrade from a USB mic (as good as they can be), then a decent USB audio interface is the way to go. There are a few things you should know and some questions that need to be answered. Let’s start with a fairly basic one: What is a USB interface?
What does a USB interface mean? How does it work?
Have you ever wondered how people are able to connect instruments to computers? It’s not like laptops have a ¼” connector next to the USB input so you can directly plug in your electric guitar. The way this is accomplished is via an audio interface, which is a separate machine that converts analog signals made by microphones and other instruments into digital ones that can be recorded into a computer. Audio interfaces act like a middleman that can maintain the sound quality of your instrument way better than your computer can, depending on the quality of its preamps.
Usually, they’ll have at least one or two XLR inputs so that you can plug your instrument or mic cables into it. Then there’s usually also a single USB cable that you can plug into the USB input on your computer. It’s worth noting that audio interfaces vary in terms of how they connect with your computer (firewire, USB, etc.) but we’re only going to be talking about USB interfaces here because they’re the most common.
How is an audio interface useful?
There are a few different reasons why an audio interface is useful. For one, the quality of a mic that’s plugged into an interface via XLR is going to be better than one that’s recorded with a standard USB mic. Although USB mics are definitely useful and have their place, an XLR mic is hard to beat. Especially because there are so many kinds of mics to choose from and although some of the more popular ones like the Blue Yeti might not require an interface, others do. Why limit yourself?
Additionally, using an audio interface can ensure the fidelity of your instrument’s sound from start to finish. Interfaces do this by amplifying low-level audio signals through a preamp. Initial input from a microphone is usually too low for optimal recording levels, so an interface’s preamp results in a louder sound without introducing noise, which happens when just a master-gain switch is increased. The amount you need to turn up the output volume on your recording with the unwanted noise attached is then minimized, allowing the result to sound crystal clear.
If you’re going to be podcasting with guests or recording a band, it can be cumbersome (if not impossible) to record them one at a time. Imagine trying to interview someone and needing to keep handing the mic back and forth, or asking a band to play the piece one at a time. Is it doable? Of course it is, but it can also be time-consuming. Investing a little more now in a USB interface with multiple inputs can save you a lot of time later down the road. Instead of only plugging in one instrument, you can plug in a few and record them all simultaneously. Which brings us to our next common question.
Do you need an audio interface to record?
If you have a fairly recent computer or smartphone, the answer is no. At the risk of sounding like a grandpa, technology has come a long way. Now there are apps like Anchor that make the barrier to entry for podcasting extremely low since you need nothing more than the built-in microphone on your phone. Plus, there are some great apps for making music as well (my personal favorites are Garageband and Samplr on iPad). There are even Grammy-nominated artists that produce entire songs with nothing more than an iPhone. So no, you don’t need an audio interface to make great art. But if you want to record high-quality audio straight into a program on your computer so that you can tweak or edit it, then yes, you will need an interface to accomplish this.
What is a DAW?
The letters DAW stand for Digital Audio Workstation, which is a fancy way of referring to a specific kind of audio program. You may have heard of programs like Audacity, Garageband, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. The list goes on and on. These are all DAWs, and you’ll need one if you want to record the sounds coming through your brand new USB interface. Just plugging an interface into your computer isn’t going to do anything. You also need a program that’s going to recognize that interface and record the information that it’s sending through.
Some of these programs can get pretty expensive and might not be worth it for anyone just starting out. You’d be better off taking that money and investing a good microphone to start, especially since there are so many free programs that are surprisingly powerful. One of our favorites here at SoundGuys is Audacity, which we even use ourselves for testing purposes.
What is phantom power?
If you look around at some of these specs long enough you’ll see one term is thrown around over and over again: phantom power. But what is phantom power? Unfortunately, it isn’t the energy of a ghost or spirit. It’s just an admittedly cool name for the providing extra power to a device that needs it (like some microphones). Some microphones generate a signal with their components, but others need power to work properly (think: condenser microphones).
All phantom power means is that the interface is providing extra DC power through pins 2 and 3 of XLR cables, required by some microphones to even work. It’s a good feature to have even if you don’t “need” it, because you may end up getting a microphone that does someday. Additionally, if you have trouble getting the gain you need with your dynamic mic, phantom power is a necessary feature to use the most common accessory to add juice.
Have a dynamic mic? Get a CL-1 Cloudlifter
Dynamic microphones are great all-around microphones and are used for basically everything because they’re unidirectional (meaning they only pick up what’s directly in front of them). They’re usually fairly tough too, so if you drop one it isn’t the end of the world. The problem is that USB interfaces that are drawing power from the USB port on your computer don’t have enough power left over to siphon to the microphone. This could result in your recording sounding abnormally low when you listen to it back, meaning you’ll have to bump up the gain and introduce excess noise just to get it to sound passable. If that’s happening to you, then you might need to invest in this little gadget called the CL-1 Cloudlifter.
Basically what it does is takes the phantom power coming from your interface, and through the magic of engineering, adds 25dB to the signal. It does this without sending the phantom power all the way to the microphone, so you get that +25dB boost without the excess noise that we spoke about earlier. Obviously, you don’t need one of these for your microphone to work, but if you don’t want to deal with extra noise in your recording: this little device will definitely help.
Why are we even writing this?
If you’re reading this with a full understanding of how audio production works, it might seem pretty basic. But think back to when you first started working with sound. Unless you had someone to show you the way, figuring this out was hard work.
I remember hearing Be (Intro) by Common when I was 13 and thinking that all I needed to make a layered beat like that was my Yamaha keyboard and a mixer. About a month of chores and some odd jobs later, I bought my first mixer at Guitar Center. Needless to say, a mixer isn’t what I needed considering I didn’t even have any computer at the time. And only after explaining to the employee what it was I was trying to accomplish did I understand what I needed. So why write? I’m trying to save some 13-year old a month of hard work and callused hands. I know, I’m a hero.
Why should you trust us?
In addition to the fact that this site is all of our day jobs, the writers at SoundGuys have several years of reviewing consumer audio products under their belts. We also use microphones on a near-daily basis for podcasting, YouTube work, and other applications, so we know how to produce high quality recordings on a budget. We operate on a strict ethics policy. We never use ads or sponsored content on the website at a time when doing so is the norm. SoundGuys’ survival depends solely on readers enjoying their purchases. We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts, while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
An XLR mic will typically produce superior sound quality because of the difference between the inner mechanisms of its output versus a USB microphone's output. In a USB mic, the electrical currents that exit the microphone share a single channel with the currents that enter it, which can result in in distorted sound. XLR microphones, on the other hand, have two channels for the incoming and outgoing currents (which is why it is called balanced), and they cancel out unwanted noise. Though it's a little more complex than this, it's easy to think of it like a roadway: if you’re driving up a very narrow road and a car coming the opposite direction is trying to pass you, it’s likely you’ll scrape against each other. However, on a highway, the oncoming traffic is separated from your lane by a median, so there’s no danger of collision.