A very close friend of mine—who was setting up his home recording studio—asked me the other day about the audio interface’s importance in his setup. He also asked me whether he needs one in his setup. My answer, of course, is Perhaps you would need one. In fact, it may not be critical when you first download your DAW. Nevertheless, having one or buying one is a good investment if you want to level up your production quality.
However, it will be useful to consider purchasing an audio interface when gathering your professional music equipment for your setup at the onset. As a hardware piece, it can expand your computer’s sonic capabilities. It also provides you with added outputs and inputs in your setup, giving you enough headroom to work on in the future.
Having an audio interface at hand also lets you connect your mics and instruments to your computer, allowing you more versatility and flexibility in your music production. You can also use it for podcasting, video production, recording music, voice-overs, and sound designing. Yet, the query still remains as to whether audio interface enhances sound quality.
Does Audio Interface Enhance Sound Quality?
Well, the obvious answer is “yes, it can!” Besides expanding your setup’s inputs and outputs, it also significantly improves your audio signals’ overall quality. Let me explain this further.
For example, when you speak or sing on the mic, the mic produces a very low-level signal. Since the audio interface comes with a preamplifier, it gives this low-level signal a needed boost so that you can use the audio signal for recording. Hence, the sound that goes out of the audio interface comes with a broader range and is fuller.
This difference may not be evident at the onset. Yet, if you run the signal through an amplifier and cab sim, you will readily notice this difference. It even becomes apparent once you try to overdrive or distort the signal via an amp sim.
Nevertheless, this difference varies depending on which type of audio interface you are using. Cheaper audio interfaces will provide less quality enhancement as compared to high-end audio interfaces. High-end interfaces will indeed provide you with a faster and more transparent transient response and a broader dynamic range.
Can An Audio Interface Affect Sound Quality Negatively?
As mentioned above, audio interfaces come in different brands and models. They also come at different prices. Thus, if you got a budget issue, you might end up settling for a cheaper audio interface, which can be counterproductive to your desire to enhance audio quality.
A cheap audio interface may negatively impact the audio quality of your computer. It can lead to a lower dynamic range and a significant distortion, which you would not want to happen in your recording.
Determining Factors of the Audio Interface Sound Capturing Quality
Various factors may influence the capturing quality of an interface. It will be useful to learn about these factors before you engage in setting up your own recording rig:
One of the major determining factors of an audio interface’s sound capturing capability is the preamps’ quality. The audio interface has these built-in preamps that receive audio signals from your instrument or mic and amplify them up to line level for recording and DAW manipulation. As their primary purpose, the preamps have the amplification of signal sans adding unwanted noise or sounds to it.
The good thing is most preamps of entry-level audio interfaces at present are excellent enough to capture a transparent signal for precise recordings in the DAW. Moreover, if you have an external preamp, you can bypass some of these audio interfaces’ preamps.
Analog to Digital Converters (A/D)
Another factor that can determine the signals conveyed to your computer is the A/D converter. The A/D converter converts analog signals to digital signals and vice versa. It digitizes the signal and then quantizes it.
Nevertheless, as the converter quantizes the signal, it also creates unnecessary noise to the signal, like that of an irritating quiet hiss. You surely want to do away with this hissing sound without compromising the signal’s strength.
Digital Sound Quality and Representation (Bit Depth)
The sound quality and representation is referred to as the bit depth. The higher its bit depth, the higher the digital signal’s accuracy as interpreted from the analog signal. When it comes to bit depth, the standard is 24 bit, and most devices achieve this standard bit depth.
Nevertheless, some devices could record up to 32 bits, though this might be too much or maybe an overkill. It will be useful to note that there are older devices that record at 16 bit. Thus, it will help to note if the device you will buy supports 24 bit which is the standard for most sound cards.
The sample rate in audio production refers to how many times a sound is sampled every second. It is also the sampling frequency as used in any digital recording. The sample rate is rated in kilohertz (kHz). This measurement translates to the number of times of sampling of a digital signal.
The audio sample rate is comparable to the frames per second of a video. The higher the audio’s sample rate, the more audio signals or data are captured from the audio source. Recording at a very high sample rate lets sound engineers preserve the audio quality when mixing and editing.
What is the Significance of High Sample Rate to a Recording?
If you are a beginner in digital audio recording, you may think that a higher sample rate may signify that you can capture more audio data leading to a high audio quality capture. But this is not entirely true. The reason is that the human ear can only hear a specific range of frequencies.
This range is from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Moreover, as a person reaches 25 years of age, his hearing begins to degenerate, and more often, his hearing sensitivity diminishes. Thus, the threshold of frequency for adults goes down to around 15 kHz. So, it does not make a difference if you would record higher than 96 kHz.
For this reason, most CDs and MP3s were recorded at 44.1 kHz. This reason is due to the minimal effect on the results when recording at a higher kHz. The most common sample rates for recording include 20 kHz, which is the limit for most human adults to hear; 44.1kHz for mp3, CD, digital audio recording, and 48.1kHz for films and movies.
It will be good to note that you should consider the sample rate mentioned above when selecting any audio recording device for your home studio recording. It’s also useful to note here that some plugins will not function beyond 96 kHz. If not recommended otherwise, it will be advisable to avail of an audio interface with a bit depth minimum of 24 bit and a sample rate minimum of 44.1 kHz.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
To further get an in-depth understanding of the effects of the audio interface on the audio signals, it will be useful to be cognizant of the following frequently asked questions about this topic because they might also be the very questions playing in your mind right now:
Do More Expensive Audio Interfaces Provide Better Sound?
My answer to this query is a categorical “yes!” Since the more expensive audio interfaces come with better mic preamps and A/D converters, they would produce better sound. It will be useful to remember that both these components affect the audio signals that go in and out of your computer. More expensive audio interfaces cost more because they have better mic preamps and A/D converters.
As a newbie in digital audio recording, you may fail to tell the difference among the differently priced audio interfaces. But there is indeed a big difference in the price range of cheaper and high-end audio interfaces. Some high-end audio interfaces may perch at $2,000, while the cheap ones only cost $160. The mid-priced audio interfaces may cost around $900.
As a newbie, you may fail to differentiate between the cheap ones’ audio quality and the expensive audio interfaces. But if you have extensive experience in recording, you will surely figure out the difference.
Is it Advisable to Use an External Preamp?
The audio interfaces stock preamps of more advanced recording engineers and enthusiasts are not bad after all, but they often add an outboard preamp device to boost their setups. This addition of an outboard preamp device is due to the transparent and clean quality produced by their audio interfaces pres. They want something more because of this lack of character of the sound.
External preamps offer tonal character and sonic warmth that are crucial to contemporary digital recording. The use of this outboard preamp is tantamount to the use of the pedals and amps by a guitarist who wants to add color and character to his sound. The choice, of course, of using an external pres boils down to your personal preference.
There’s no doubt that your choice of an audio interface has a bearing on your digital recording’s sound quality. There are determining factors that make the capture of sound better, and these factors include A/D converters, preamps, digital sound representation, and sample rate. The better your audio interface in these categories, the better the sound quality it will produce.
Thus, if money isn’t a factor in your audio interface choice, it will be useful to buy a high end yet expensive audio interface with proven quality and great expert reviews. The better your audio interface’s hardware, the more accurate it can represent the sound you would like to capture.