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Monday, March 16, 2009

Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound into Your Computer

This is Part 3 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Now that you've got a computer, it's entirely possible that you're now standing in front of it with your guitar or piano or whatever, your eyes slowly moving back and forth between the two objects in a confused manner, wondering how to get sound into machine. At least, that's what I did.

You see, computers don't normally come with a usable audio interface. Sure, you've got a sound card, and it probably has a tiny microphone jack, but you're not actually thinking of using that, are you? Are you??

So what is an audio interface? It's a box that hooks up to your computer, usually through FireWire (you did remember to get a computer that has FireWire capability, right?) On this box is a number of inputs, for taking in sound, and outputs for, uh, outputting sound. I've made a little diagram to show you how it all works. This is to give you an idea of roughly how your studio should be set up:
Click on the image to see it full-size.

Now here are the different components that you want to look for in an audio interface:

Mic inputs

What can I say? These are for your microphones. If you do any acoustic stuff (guitars, drums, vocals, sound effects etc.) your audio interfac e should have at least two of these inputs on it. If you're recording a whole band, you'll want as many mic inputs as possible.

1/4-inch Line inputs

These are for bass guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, turntables or anything electronic. If you've got a rack full of synths, you'll want more of these.

MIDI inputs

It's hard to find an audio interface that doesn't have MIDI inputs and outputs, but make sure yours has these anyway, especially if you're planning an all-software electronic setup.

With all this in mind, here are a few interfaces I found with a little digging on

PreSonus Inspire 1394 - This has two 1/4-inch inputs and two mic inputs for $200. No MIDI though.

Roland Edirol FA-66 - Now we're talkin'. 2 mic inputs, 4 1/4-inch inputs, RCA inputs (you know, those red-and-white cables on your DVD player?) MIDI in and out, this one looks pretty sweet. Not bad for $280.

Alesis iO|26 - If you've got a larger studio setup, or you just want to get fancy, this has more inputs than you'll ever need, plus you can use it to control your software. $430.

In my studio, I use an M-Audio FireWire 1814 , though these seem to be increasingly hard to find these days. It has eight 1/4-inch inputs, two mic inputs, MIDI and some other nice features. When it works, it works well, but it tends to crash a lot. Remember to do a lot of research before plunking down your cash for one of these devices. You can find reviews for just about any product by typing in the product name followed by the word 'review' on Google.

Hopefully, this can get you started with choosing an interface. What you get depends on your needs as a musician and recording artist. For example, I have more synths and workstations, so my interface has more 1/4-inch inputs. Some of you might have an all software setup, so you may only need midi inputs, in which case you'll be spending very little on hardware and spending more on software.

Speaking of software, that's our next issue to tackle. See you next week!

Go to Part 2: Get a Computer for Your Studio

>>> Go to Part 4: Audio Software

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