PxPixel
Hooking Up: A Musician's Guide to Audio Interfaces - EMusician

Hooking Up

We break down the audio interface options for any studio setup
Author:
Publish date:
020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

With so many brands, price levels, and specs to contemplate, shopping for an audio interface can be a dizzying experience. This month, we look at more than two dozen of the top models, representing a wide range of sizes, features, and connectivity options.

THUNDERBOLT OR USB?

These days, most interfaces connect to your computer using Thunderbolt, USB, or both. Thunderbolt (and the more recent Thunderbolt 2) transfers data faster than USB and therefore gives you lower latency when recording. The latency for Thunderbolt interfaces is typically small enough that you can record directly into your DAW without any perceptible delay.

USB interfaces (2.0 and 3.0) can’t make that claim, and their latency varies a lot based on the quality of the drivers written for them. Most USB units counter the latency problem by offering direct hardware monitoring (e.g., “zero-latency monitoring”), which lets you listen to your input before it goes through your computer’s processing, thus avoiding any delay. The only downside to direct monitoring is that, because you’re hearing the input signal before it hits the computer, you can’t hear any effects from your DAW on it, such as reverb on a vocal, or an amp simulator on a DI guitar track. Many interfaces have built-in DSP that makes it possible to add effects such as reverb, delay, and compression to your directly monitored signal, and most let you print those effects to the track, if needed.

Although USB 3.0 offers higher bandwidth than USB 2.0, it does not offer appreciably lower latency. Moreover, USB 2.0 has ample bandwidth to handle the data being sent back and forth in most recording situations. Thunderbolt 2 is faster than Thunderbolt 1, but both offer excellent performance.

THE INS AND OUTS

We’ve organized the interfaces into three categories based on the number of microphone preamps they include—two, four or eight. Within each category, we arranged the products by MAP price, from low to high. The heading below the model includes the total I/O count, connectivity format, and price.

Some manufacturers count their headphone outputs as part of their I/O specs (e.g., one stereo headphone port counted as two analog outputs) while others do not, making direct comparisons confusing. In order to compare apples to apples, we’ve separated the headphone output from the rest of the I/O in the header for each item. For example, 8x8x1 means eight inputs, eight outputs, and one headphone jack. We did not include mixers that have interfaces onboard.

Another thing to remember about interface I/O specs is that the number of potential inputs and outputs available from an ADAT optical port drops by 50 percent when you record at sampling rates above 48 kHz, and halves again above 96 kHz. Also, when you see an interface’s total I/O count, bear in mind that, unlike the analog inputs that you can plug a mic, line or instrument source directly into, digital I/O requires another device of some sort (such as a mic preamp unit with digital outs) if you want to connect additional sources into your session. Nearly every interface covered here supports 192 kHz recording and playback, so we’ll only mention that spec it if a unit’s maximum sampling rate falls below it.

OS AND IOS

The majority of interfaces here support both Mac and Windows OS: Those that don’t are noted. And although the USB interfaces here are compatible with Apple iOS devices, few offer direct connection to an iPad or iPhone. Most require an Apple Camera Connection Kit adapter, which converts USB to Apple’s Lightning format.

When we put “iOS” below the model name, the unit connects directly to iOS. If you see “iOS*,” a Camera Connection Kit is required.

SMALL STUDIO: TWO MIC INPUTS

Whether you’re a singer-songwriter or a solo electronica producer, if you mainly record by yourself, you’ll probably do fine with an interface with only two mic inputs.

017_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

Steinberg UR22mkII
2x2x1; USB; iOS*; $149

The UR22mkII is an intriguing unit that offers both quality and a low price. It has two front-panel mic/line combo inputs with Yamaha Class A D-Pre preamps. You can connect a guitar and other high-impedance sources to Input 2 using the Hi-Z switch. A Mix knob controls the Direct Monitoring feature, and you also get one Input gain control per channel, an Output knob and a front-panel headphone jack. The rear panel includes MIDI In and Out, a pair of 1/4" line outputs and a global switch for phantom power. The UR-22mkII is bus-powered, but you’ll need a USB mobile battery or power adapter—along with an Apple Camera Connection Kit adapter—to use it with an iPad. Podcasters will appreciate that the UR22mkII supports loopback-recording. This allows you to mix live input with output from your recording software, which is combined and then recorded back into another track. Cubase AI is bundled with the interface.

018_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

Focusrite Scarlett 2i4
2x4x1; USB; $179

If you want Focusrite audio quality without spending a bundle, you’ll appreciate this front-facing desktop interface, which is now in its second generation. Its two mic/line combo inputs can be switched to instrument level, and you also get pad switches for each channel. The input gain controls feature Focusrite’s Halo indicators, which surround the knob and glow green for signal present and red for clipping. The unit implements direct monitoring using a knob that controls the ratio of input to playback signal that you hear. You can switch monitoring between stereo or mono. The outputs are a pair of 1/4" jacks and four unbalanced RCA jacks. The software bundle includes Focusrite and Softube plug-ins, Pro Tools First Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite and two virtual instruments—Novation Bass Station and XLN Addictive Keys.

018_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

PreSonus Studio 2|6 USB
2x4x1; USB; $199

The bus-powered Studio 2|6 USB is PreSonus’s most compact interface to date and features the company’s XMAX preamps, which they use on their larger models. The 2|6 has two mic/line/instrument combo inputs on the front panel and four analog outputs on the back. Pushing the Mon button sends a 50/50 blend of the direct input signal and the main output to the headphone output for low-latency monitoring. The Cue Mix A/B feature lets you switch the 1/4" headphone output between two different mixes by pressing a front-panel button. DJs can use this feature to preview the next song, and recordists to switch between the main and monitor mixes. You get globally switchable 48V phantom power, MIDI In and Out ports, front-panel LED metering and a large software bundle that includes Studio One Artist and plug-ins from Brainworx and Arturia, among others.

018_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo
2x2x1; USB; iOS/Android; $199

If you’re looking for an ultra-portable interface that can be used virtually anywhere, iRig Pro Duo should be high on your list. Small enough to fit in your hand, it supports Mac and Windows, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. (In fact, it’s the only interface covered here that supports audio on Android.) The iRig Pro Duo can run on two AA batteries when used with iOS devices, with bus power on laptops and Android devices, or from the optional AC adaptor. The unit includes two mic/line/instrument combo jacks, two gain controls, LED indicators, a 3.5mm headphone out, a pair of balanced 1/4" outputs, a direct monitoring switch, and MIDI I/O through the included breakout cable. You also get cables for connecting the unit’s mini-DIN jack to Lightning (iOS), Micro-USB-OTG (Android) and USB (Mac/Win). The top sampling rate supported is 48 kHz. Three Mac/Win plug-ins are included—Amplitube Metal, T-RackS Classic, and SampleTank 3 SE.

019_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

Roland Rubix24
2x4x1; USB; iPad*; $199

Part of Roland’s new Rubix line, it has features not found in other interfaces at this price—a built-in compressor/limiter for keeping levels under control when recording, a shielded metal chassis, and a rear-panel ground-lift switch to mitigate hum. Its inputs are front-panel, mic/line combo jacks, one of which is switchable to high-impedance mode for instruments. The rear panel has four 1/4" balanced analog outputs, allowing you to send out a separate headphone mix in recording situations, and you can also configure the unit for direct monitoring. Other features include MIDI I/O and a loopback-recording feature. The Rubix24 runs on USB bus power or an AC adaptor (not included), and it’s bundled with Ableton Live Lite software.

Zoom UAC-2
2x2x1; USB; iOS*; $249

A bus-powered, compact USB 3.0 desktop unit, the UAC-2 gives you extended functionality when you control it from your computer using Zoom’s free MixEfx software. Access low-cut filters and phase switches for each channel, more detailed metering than on the hardware, reverb for monitoring, loopback recording, and more. From the front panel you can adjust input gain, select high-impedance input for the two mic/line jacks, engage phantom power, and control the output level. The rear panel has MIDI I/O and two balanced 1/4" TRS outputs. The three-way Direct Monitoring switch provides Off, Mono and Stereo. Switching to Class Compliant mode lets you connect to an iOS device (using a CCK adapter).

019_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

Audient ID14
10x2x1; USB; iOS*; $299

The ID14, like other Audient interfaces, has the same mic preamps the company uses on its analog consoles. The bus-powered ID14, which you control from its top panel, sports two mic/line combo jacks on its back panel, as well as a pair of 1/4" outputs. A 1/4" DI input for high-impedance sources is on the front panel, as is the 1/4" headphone jack. On the top, you’ll find a large scroll wheel, three function switches, an 8-step LED meter, input gain knobs and per-channel phantom power switches. You can access additional functionality through Audient’s ID software, which lets you to set up cue mixes, switch between mixes, and configure the programmable ID button as a mono switch, talkback control, or dim switch among other options. The ADAT port can be used to expand your input count by connecting ADAT-compatible mic preamps and other interfaces. Purchasing the ID14 entitles you to Steinberg Cubase LE and Cubasis LE2 (iPad), and Eventide UltraChannel and UltraReverb plug-ins. The unit supports sampling rates up to 96 kHz.

019_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

Tascam UH-7000
2x2x1; USB; iOS*; $399.99

Tascam designed this 2-channel, half-rack unit to deliver high-quality audio, equipping it with premium preamps and converters, a pair of XLR mic inputs, two 1/4" line inputs, a front-panel 1/4" headphone jack, and XLR outputs. There is no high-impedance input onboard. You get separate gain controls for each channel, a headphone level knob, a button to activate the built-in DSP mixer, and a switch that lets you control the main output volume from the headphone-level knob. You control the mixer from your computer screen, where you can access effects (Reverb, Compressor, De-Esser, citer, EQ, and Limiter/Low Cut). The UH-7000 also has digital I/O that support AES/EBU or S/PDIF.

Apogee Duet
2x2x1; USB; Mac (Windows support pending), iOS, $595

The Duet brings you Apogee sound quality in an ultra-compact desktop unit powered by a DC adapter. It features a multi-function OLED display, a large volume knob and two programmable Touchpads that you assign using the accompanying Maestro 2 software to control features such as direct monitoring. The headphone jack is on the front. One unique aspect of the Duet is that most of its I/O is on a breakout cable, which has two mic/line/instrument combo jacks and two 1/4" balanced line outputs. You can connect MIDI keyboards and other devices through Duet’s MIDI-over-USB jack on the main unit and directly connect an iPad (cable not included), without the need for an Apple Camera Connection Kit. Duet has long been Mac only, but according to Apogee, it should have Windows support by the time you read this.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

MOTU UltraLite-mk4
18x20x1; USB; $595

The latest in the UltraLite series, MOTU’s half-rack-sized USB interface offers considerably more input options than its two front-panel mic/line/instrument combo jacks: Six additional analog 1/4" line-level inputs on the back accept external mic preamps, keyboards, and so forth. Further increasing the unit’s versatility are eight 1/4" analog outputs, two main outputs, ADAT Lightpipe I/O and coaxial S/PDIF ports. The front panel has a 1/4" headphone jack, gain controls for the mic preamps and a large LCD that offers detailed metering. The UltraLitemk4’ s built-in DSP allows for flexible and powerful low-latency headphone mixing and provides effects for monitoring that you can also use on input. MOTU offers free apps that let you control the interface remotely from a laptop or a mobile device.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII
10x4x1; Thunderbolt; Solo $699, Duo $899, Quad $1,299

The latest version of this popular Thunderbolt 2 desktop interface features two mic/line combo inputs and a Hi-Z instrument input that feed the company’s Unison-enabled preamps, which allow you to track through various preamp and amplifier emulation plug-ins (the UA 610-B Tube Preamp is included; others require separate purchase). The mic-line inputs are on the back—along with two monitor outs and two line-level outs—and the instrument input and 1/4" headphone output are on the front. The interface offers extensive metering for a unit this size, as well as function and selection buttons, and a large gain control. You can expand your I/O using the ADAT Lightpipe I/O. There is no MIDI I/O.

The unit also houses DSP for running Universal Audio’s acclaimed UAD Powered Plug-ins, which consist mainly of analog hardware emulations. The Realtime Analog Classics plug-in bundle is included: Other plug-ins are available separately or in a variety of bundles. The Solo, Duo and Quad designations on the different models refer to how many DSP processors are in the unit, and therefore how many UAD plug-ins you can run simultaneously. Should you wish to expand the I/O further, you can cascade up to four Apollo Twins.

SMALL GROUP: FOUR MIC INPUTS

An interface with four mic inputs gives you the option of recording several musicians at once, not to mention basic drum tracks.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

Tascam US-4x4
4x4x2; USB; iOS*; $199

This affordable desktop unit eschews the usual combo-jack design. Instead, you get both an XLR and balanced 1/4" input for each channel, as well as a pair of headphone jacks, all on the front panel. Phantom power is globally switchable, and line inputs 1 and 2 can accommodate high-impedance instruments. Each channel has a gain control and separate signal-present and peak lights. The rear panel offers four balanced 1/4" line outs and MIDI I/O. The US-4x4 supports sampling rates up to 96 kHz.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-4

Roland Rubix44
4x4x1; USB; iPad*; $299

The Rubix44 provides four channels of mic/line combo inputs—two of which can be switched to Hi-Z operation. (The Rubix24, above, has two inputs, one of which is switchable to Hi-Z.) Otherwise, it has the same feature set as the smaller model, including a shielded metal chassis, ground-lift switch, built-in compressor/limiter, MIDI I/O, loopback recording, bus or AC powering, and a headphone-source switch that toggles the output between two different mixes. Ableton Live Lite software is included.

Steinberg UR44
6x4x2; USB; iPad*; $299

Similar in many ways to the UR22mkII (described earlier), the six-in, four-out UR44 is impressive from a price-performance standpoint. Equipped with Yamaha D-Pre preamps, it offers four front-panel combo jacks, as well as two mic/line and two mic/instrument inputs. Phantom power is switchable for channel pairs 1-2 and 3-4. On the front are gain controls for each channel, two headphone jacks and a master output control. Around back is an additional pair of 1/4" line inputs, four 1/4" line outputs, the main 1/4" outputs, and MIDI I/O. The UR44 has built-in DSP that provides low-latency monitoring with effects. Steinberg offers a generous software bundle, including Cubase AI and the Steinberg Basic FX Suite VST 3 plug-ins.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-5

Focusrite Clarett 4Pre
18x6x2, Thunderbolt; $599

The Clarett 4Pre offers Thunderbolt performance and Focusrite sound at an affordable price. In addition to four mic/line/instrument combo inputs on the front, it includes four independent 1/4" line inputs on the back. Focusrite’s free Control software provides additional functionality, such as switching inputs between line and instrument level, loopback recording, and more. The mic preamps offer a feature called Focusrite Air, which, when switched on, models the company’s transformer-based ISA preamps. Output-wise, you get four 1/4" analog outputs and a pair of 1/4" headphone jacks. The 4Pre’s input count is expandable using ADAT Lightpipe and S/PDIF ports. MIDI I/O is also onboard. A generous software bundle is included: Ableton Live Lite; Focusrite Red 2 and Red 3 Plug-in Suite (modeled EQ and compressor); Softube TSAR-1R Reverb, Tube Delay, Saturation Knob and Drawmer S73; XLN Addictive Keys, and more.

020_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-6

PreSonus Quantum 2
22x22x1; Thunderbolt; $699

PreSonus says its Thunderbolt 2-equipped Quantum series has the lowest latency of any of its interfaces. The Quantum 2 comes with two front-panel mic/instrument combo inputs and two rear-panel mic/line combo inputs, all feeding PreSonus XMAX preamps. Four balanced 1/4" line outputs are on the back, and the 1/4" headphone jack is on the front. Digital I/O includes two sets of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, providing 16 additional inputs and outputs, plus two more digital channels via coaxial S/PDIF connectors. You can expand the system by connecting up to three more units. The Quantum 2 includes UC Surface software for controlling the interface and signal routing, the Studio One Artist DAW, and plug-ins from a variety of developers including SPL, Maag Audio, Lexicon, Arturia, Brainworx, and Eventide.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

Antelope Audio Discrete 4
14x14x4; Thunderbolt/USB; starting at $899

Antelope’s Discrete series is the company’s most affordable interfaces to date. The Discrete 4 provides two mic/instrument combo inputs on the front and two mic/line inputs on the back. If you record multiple musicians simultaneously, you’ll appreciate that there are four separate headphone outputs, each with its own amp. The Discrete 4 also has both ADAT and S/PDIF digital I/O. You also get access to more than 40 of Antelope’s FPGA FX plug-ins, including models of vintage mic preamps, processors, and guitar amps among them, which can be used on input or when mixing. The Discrete 4 is available in a number of packages based on how many channels of FPGA FX are included. The basic one provides two channels, but you can spend more for more channels. The unit is also available bundled with Antelope’s new Verge and Edge modeling mics, which work in conjunction with the FPGA effects.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

Apogee Quartet
12x6x1; USB; Mac (Windows support pending); iOS; $1,395

The Quartet costs more than many of the other four-input interfaces covered here, but what you’re paying for is high-quality components, such as Apogee’s renowned mic preamps and converters. This model comes from the same product line as the Duet (described earlier), but is larger and has a completely different form factor, featuring an angled top panel with two sizable OLED meters and a large, multifunction control knob. The Quartet gives you four mic/line/instrument combo jacks on the back, along with six 1/4" line outputs and a side-panel headphone out. Two ADAT Lightpipe inputs allow you to connect other digital units up to a total of eight. A MIDI-over-USB port lets you connect external controllers. You get native iOS support through a Lightning connector and an iOS version of the company’s Maestro control software is available.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

MOTU 1248
32x30x2; Thunderbolt, USB; $1,495

If flexibility is important to you, the 1248 has a lot to offer. In addition to four XLR mic inputs, it provides eight 1/4" TRS inputs, two 1/4" Hi-Z inputs, and two banks of ADAT Lightpipe and S/PDIF ports for a total 32 in and 34 out. On the front panel, you’ll find a nice-sized LCD, two headphone outputs, and individual gain controls, pad switches, and phantom power switches for each of the mic inputs. Built-in DSP allows for mixing and routing and provides effects such as compression, EQ, and reverb. The unit also offers MOTU’s AVB Ethernet networking, making the expansion options even greater.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-4

Antelope Audio Zen Tour
26x32x2; Thunderbolt, USB; $1,595

This handy, high-quality desktop interface is well-suited for both studio and mobile work and offers a lot of versatility for the money. The four rear-panel mic inputs accept line-level signals, plus four instrument/line inputs on front. There are two pairs of balanced 1/4" monitor outputs, 8 line outs via DSub connector, two reamp outputs, and a pair of headphone jacks. You also get two sets of ADAT ports and S/PDIF I/O. A built-in talkback mic, large touch-screen display and chunky volume control complete the scene. And, of course, it includes the company’s FPGA technology and near-zero latency specs.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-5

Universal Audio Apollo 8
18x20x2; Thunderbolt 2; Duo, $1,999; Quad $2,499

The Apollo 8’s analog I/O includes four mic/line combo jacks, as well as two 1/4" line inputs on the back and two 1/4" instrument inputs on the front. The preamps support Universal Audio’s Unison technology, letting you track live through Unison-enabled plug-ins (the UA 610-B is included). You also get eight 1/4" line outputs, two 1/4" monitor outputs, and a pair of 1/4" headphone jacks on the front. Digital I/O is available on two sets of ADAT Lightpipe and coaxial S/PDIF ports. The Apollo 8 is available in Duo and Quad versions and includes the Real-Time Analog Classics Plus bundle of eight UAD Powered Plug-ins.

MEDIUM-SIZED GROUP OR DRUM RECORDING: EIGHT MIC INPUTS

These models provide eight onboard mic inputs and various expansion options—perfect for tracking a group of musicians simultaneously or for recording drums with a more complex multiple-mic setup.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-6

Tascam Celesonic US-20x20
20x18x2; USB; iOS*; $499

You get a lot of flexibility and bang for the buck from this rackmountable USB 3.0 unit. It can function as an audio interface, an eight-channel mic pre, and as a mixer that you control from your computer or iOS device. Its front panel features eight combo inputs—six mic/line and two mic/instrument. To the right are Gain knobs for the inputs and volume controls for the line out and two headphone jacks. Two additional line inputs are located on the back and can be switched between -10 dBV and +4 dBu. Its I/O count is increased thanks to ADAT and S/PDIF I/O. The unit has built-in DSP for mixing and effects, which include compression, EQ, and reverb.

022_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-7

Zoom UAC-8
18x18x2; USB; Mac; $599

Depending on your studio setup, having mic inputs on the rear of a rack unit can be inconvenient, as you have to go to the back of the rack to make connections. The USB 3.0 UAC-8 avoids that by situating all eight mic/line combo connectors on the front. Channels 1 and 2 accept instrument-level inputs. Each input has its own gain control, and an LED that indicates signal present and clipping. A large recessed knob controls the output level. Phantom power is not individually switchable per channel; you turn it on in two blocks: channels 1-4 or 4-8. The rear panel sports 10 1/4" outputs—eight line and two main. ADAT and S/PDIF I/O provide digital connectivity. Zoom’s free UAC-8 MixEfx application adds functionality and lets you add reverb or delay to the input or output. You also get Cubase LE8. Zoom makes a Mac-only, Thunderbolt version of this interface called the Tac-8 ($649), as well.

PreSonus Studio 192
26x28x2; USB; iOS* $899

This USB 3.0 interface combines plentiful connectivity options with built-in DSP. You get two mic/instrument combo inputs on the front and six mic/line inputs on the back. The line inputs bypass the XMAX mic preamps and go directly to the converters. You can save and recall preamp settings using the included UC Surface control software, which also gives you access to routing, monitor mixing and built-in effects.

In addition to eight 1/4" line outs, you get a separate pair for the main output. Digital I/O comprises both S/PDIF and 16 channels of ADAT. Useful front-panel features include LED meters for each input and the main L/R output, and a handy center control area where you can select any input for gain control and phantom power. The Studio 192 has buttons for console monitor functions including talkback (through a built-in omni mic), Dim, and Mono. Bundled software includes Studio One Artist and the Studio Magic Plug-In Suite.

Steinberg UR824
24x24x2; USB; iOS*; $799

This unit offers the largest array of I/O of any of Steinberg’s interfaces. It combines eight analog channels featuring Yamaha D-Pre preamps and 16 channels of ADAT Lightpipe. Two mic/line/instrument combo inputs are on the front, along with gain controls and pad switches for all eight analog inputs, a pair of headphone jacks and a large output knob. The rest of the analog and digital I/O is on the back. Thanks to the built-in DSP you get dynamics and EQ for each analog input channel, as well as zero-latency hardware monitoring controlled by Steinberg’s dspMixFx mixer software. Also included are two native VST plugins—Rev-X reverb and the Sweet Spot Morphing Channel Strip—plus Cubase AI.

024_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

Focusrite Clarett 8PreX
26x28; Thunderbolt; $1099

The flagship of the Clarett line, the 2-rackunit 8PreX contains eight mic preamps featuring Focusrite Air transformer-modeling circuitry, and ten analog outputs. Except for two 1/4" instrument inputs and a pair of headphone outs, most of the I/O is on the back. Why? Because the front provides buttons and knobs to control the preamp inputs—a gain control for each input, physical switches for phantom power, a high-pass filter and a phase reversal, all with indicator LEDs. Six-step LED meters for each of the inputs—which can be switched to show the ADAT and S/PDIF channels—give you useful front-panel metering. You get even more control with Focusrite’s free Control software, and there’s an iOS app for controlling the unit from a mobile device. The software bundle includes Ableton Live Lite, plug-ins from Focusrite and Softube, samples from Loopmasters, and XLN Addictive Keys.

024_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

Antelope Discrete 8
26x30x2; Thunderbolt, USB; $1,299

Before the advent of the Discrete 8, you couldn’t find an eight-input Antelope interface at anywhere near this low of a price. Like the Discrete 4 (described earlier), this unit provides mic-preamp modeling on input along with access to all of Antelope’s FPGA FX effects. You also get eight transistor-discrete preamps—two on the front and six on the back. You can access more inputs and outputs through two sets of ADAT optical I/O and one of S/PDIF.

Antelope put the analog outputs on a DB25 connector, so budget for an additional cable. The Discrete 8 has three word-clock outputs, allowing you to set it as the master for other digital devices in your studio (thanks to the company’s Acoustically Focused Clocking jitter-management technology). Another feature is a pair of reamp outputs for sending DI guitar tracks to an amp for miking.

025_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-1

MOTU 8M
24x24x1; Thunderbolt, USB; iOS*; $1,495

The 8M provides a lot of flexibility by offering both Thunderbolt, USB 2.0 connections and iOS compatibility along with AVB Ethernet networking. The rackmount unit features eight rear-panel mic/line/instrument combo jacks and eight 1/4" analog outputs. MOTU designed the mic preamps for transparency, and the V-Limit feature provides 9 dB of headroom, helping avoid digital clipping. Two sets of ADAT I/O brings the total channel count to 24-in and 24-out. You also get MIDI in and out jacks.

On the front, you get a headphone jack and, most notably, individual phantom power and pad switches for each of the eight analog input channels. A large LCD, which takes up almost half of the front panel, provides you with detailed metering. Thanks to built-in DSP, you get a 48-input DSP mixer, as well as EQ, compression, gating, and reverb.

025_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-2

Apogee Element 88
16x12x2; Thunderbolt; Mac; $1,495

Apogee’s Element series gives you access to Apogee mic preamps, conversion and clocking at a lower price-per-channel than ever before. As the largest of the three Element-series interfaces, the Element 88 has a front panel with four mic/instrument combo jacks, four mic/line XLR jacks and two headphone jacks (without volume controls), and that’s pretty much it. Virtually all the control is done through software, using either Apogee Control for Mac or Apogee Control Mobile for iOS. It’s also compatible with the remote hardware controller Apogee Control (not included). On the back of the interface, you’ll find two XLR main outs, two 1/4" Alt outs, and ADAT and S/PDIF digital I/O. Like other Apogee interfaces, it offers additional functionality when used with Logic Pro, but is compatible with all Mac DAWs.

025_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-3

Slate Digital VRS8
8x8x2; Thunderbolt; $1,999

The hub of Slate’s Virtual Recording Studio, the VRS8 is an 8-in/8-out interface that features the same “blank slate” (no pun intended) mic preamps as used in the company’s Virtual Microphone System. This allows you to take advantage of Slate’s software emulations of classic mics and preamps on input. According to Slate, any mic gets good results with its modeling, although the system is optimized for Slate ML-Series Ultra Linear modeling mics. Most of the I/O on this rackmount unit is situated on the rear panel and includes eight mic/line combo jacks, eight 1/4" line outputs, proprietary Mix Link jacks for cascading multiple VRS8s, and MIDI I/O. On the front are two 1/4" line/instrument inputs and a pair of headphone outputs.

025_elm0118_Roundup_AudioInterfaces-4

Universal Audio Apollo 8p
16x16x2; Thunderbolt; $2,999

This Thunderbolt 2 interface gives you all the features of the Apollo 8 (described earlier), but with eight rear-panel Unison preamps instead of four. It also comes standard with a Quad UAD processor, giving you the DSP bandwidth to have a large number of UAD plug-ins open. Add in six 1/4" line outputs, two monitor outs and two sets of ADAT I/O. Like with the Apollo 8, your purchase includes the Real Time Analog Classics Plus plug-in bundle, which features emulations of the UA 1176LN, Pultec EQP-1A, Teletronix LA-2A and Fairchild 670.