Most music producers you see online have a full-blown home audio setup at their disposal. It can be intimidating if you’re just a simple singer-songwriter with some lyrics on a notepad. But do you really need all that equipment just to make music?
Today, I want to discuss a piece of production equipment called an audio interface. This is a hardware device that connects to your computer; you plug your instruments and/or microphones into the audio interface so you can record those audio signals to your computer. The big question of this article is: do you need one of those interfaces just to make some music?
- Do I Really Need an Audio Interface to Record Music?
- Benefits of an Audio Interface
- Reasons Against Using an Audio Interface
- How Do I Record without An Audio Interface?
- Other Articles to Consider
Do I Really Need an Audio Interface to Record Music?
No, you do not need an audio interface for basic recording music, but using an audio interface will give you far better audio quality.
It will also allow for more detailed editing and mixing. But, if all you want to do is record some vocals and a simple accompaniment, there are several other methods to record yourself that don’t requite an audio interface. And some of those alternatives will be more portable, too (we’ll get to that in a bit).
Benefits of an Audio Interface
Although an audio interface is not necessary for music production, there’s a reason why most musicians still use them. The most important advantages include:
- Better audio quality
- Higher bit depth
- Less electrical interference
- Lower latency
- Onboard preamp
Most modern computers come with subpar sound cards that were never designed for the demands of music production. As a result, recordings done without an interface will suffer frequently from latency issues, unwanted noise levels, and weak signals.
Higher Bit Depth
Cheap sound cards will have lower bitrates. Sometimes they can only handle 16 bits—which is insufficient for production quality music; you need at least 24 bit audio for time-stretch editing and applying effects or your music will get degraded and distorted. A basic audio interface can handle 24 bit audio with no problem, even 32 bit audio is possible.
An audio interface is a self-contained unit that is housed outside of your computer. This is very important because all those internal computer components (like your motherboard, CPU, etc.) create electrical impulses that, in turn, make noise. If you record with your computer’s built-in sound card, it will pick up and amplify those noises and cause unwanted buzzing and humming in your audio tracks.
Latency is the speed in which a sound goes through your electronics and gets to your ear for playback. Audio interfaces are capable of much lower latency—that means the sound gets to your ears faster. A high latency device will sound like it’s lagging; if you are trying to record your voice along with a backing track, your voice will sound like it’s coming in slightly late in your headphones.
An audio interface should have a built-in preamp. This is essentially just a component that boosts the incoming audio signal so it’s loud enough to work with in your computer software. The audio components built into your computer probably doesn’t have a preamp, so the audio levels will sound much quieter. If you take that quieter track and try to boost the volume with compression, it’s going to make all the background hum and electrical noise even more noticeable.
Reasons Against Using an Audio Interface
Despite all of these benefits, there will be times when an audio interface is not an option for you.
You might be traveling or don’t have access to a computer. Or maybe you just can’t justify spending more money on equipment right now; after all, an interface still needs a microphone to work. And that mic will also need a stand and cables. The cost of a home studio can add up and it may not be in your budget if your just a hobbyist musician.
Lastly, if you are only interested in recording basic demos or simple YouTube cover songs, you probably don’t need a dedicated home studio setup to get your foot in the door. You can accomplish either of those without an audio interface. This is obviously relevant to acoustic guitar singer-songwriters, but even electric players can circumvent the need for studio recording hardware: if you have an amp, you can treat it’s output as an acoustic signal the way you would an acoustic guitar…just record the sound coming from the amp face. No need to plug the guitar or the amp directly into an interface.
Whatever the cause, you shouldn’t let a lack of equipment stop you from recording music. There are a number of alternatives available to you. These alternatives won’t provide audio at as high of a quality, but they can get the job done in a pinch.
How Do I Record without An Audio Interface?
Here are 3 viable methods to record audio without an audio interface. You don’t even need access to a computer for all of these options, so they may be ideal if you are often mobile. They are:
- Your phone
- A USB microphone
- A handheld recorder
1. Your Phone
Every modern phone can record audio. Way before phones got “smart”, they’re literal only job was to capture and transmit audio. There were bands back in the 80s and 90s that actually recorded songs by playing them into the phone and leaving them as messages on an old tape message machine (the bands I’m talking about are Modest Mouse and They Might Be Giants, for those of you who want to know).
Most phones have a recorder app built in. If yours doesn’t, you can download one from the app store. Test out your phone’s capabilities before moving onto the next options. You may find that, for just capturing a demo track or singing along with a backing track, the quality of your phone will suffice. It may not pass the quality check of a digital distributor, but it will definitely work for posting on social media.
2. A USB Microphone
A USB Microphone is a mic that plugs directly into your USB port (I bet you never could have guessed that by the name, right?). There is no need for dedicated phantom power or an interface to convert the signal. You don’t need extra cables, and the most popular USB mics have a desktop stand built right into them. All of this means you need less equipment to turn your songs into audio files. If you have some budget for making music, a USB mic will be a cheaper investment than everything required for an audio interface setup.
Again, the sound quality won’t be as good as a dedicated interface and your microphone options will be limited. But it is a definite step up from a phone. I’ve seen a lot of YouTubers start out with this setup.
The most popular pick is the Blue Yeti USB microphone. This mic can only handle 16-bits but, if you don’t plan on adding a lot of effects anyway, this is a sufficient bit depth for digital distribution.
3. A Handheld Recorder
A handheld recorder is…surprise, surprise…an audio recorder that can fit in your hand. These are often called 4-track recorders or field recorders (because they are used for recording foley sounds and interviews out “in the field” as reporters say). All you have to do is power on the device, press record, and get to playing your music. They don’t require a computer connection to use and they run on batteries.
While handheld recorders can get pricey, they also circumvent the need for a full setup (like we saw with the previous entry). And unlike USB microphones, recorders have added value and greater portability. Recorders can house higher quality sound components than a USB microphone. Some handheld recorders have additional input jacks so you can plug in a standard microphone and expand the tonal capabilities of the device.
However, the quality of these recorders still won’t rival that of a good quality standalone interface. I find that the audio from my DR-40x has a bit more noise than I would like for a studio recording. But it does offer 24-bit wave files. For lo-fi tracks, demos, or covers meant for social media; a field recorder can pull double-duty as a portable mic and an interface.
I hope this article helped you to move forward with your music-making goals. While an audio interface is the best possible option for professional-sounding home production, there are several options available if you don’t have one. Don’t let a lack of equipment impede your musical dreams. If you need to use what you’ve got or scrounge a bit to get your songs made, then go for it. In my opinion, it’s always better to get something done imperfectly now than to finish nothing because you were holding out for the perfect conditions.
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