1. What Do You Need Your Audio Interface To Do?
It may seem an obvious question to ask but drawing up a list of requirements is the first thing you need to do. Ask yourself what you need this interface to do?
- How many inputs and outputs will you need?
- How will you connect your interface to your Pro Tools computer?
- Will you need it to have a monitoring section?
- Do I want to use it with Pro Tools HD hardware of not, or with both? Some interfaces like the Focusrite Red4 Pre can support the Avid DigiLink format as well as Thunderbolt for use with Pro Tools Native.
2. Is The Audio Interface Compatible With My DAW?
There is no point in buying an interface if it won't play nice with your DAW. If you are working with multiple DAWs then you will need to check for each DAW that you use.
Here in Pro Tools world, since Pro Tools 9, when Avid broke the link between the Avid Pro Tools software and the Avid hardware, for Pro Tools Native, in theory, most interfaces should work via Apple Core Audio, ASIO4All or specific Windows drivers, but we know that it isn't that simple.
Where Can I Check If My Audio Interface Is Compatible?
- Check our new database of tested audio interfaces.
- Check the audio interface manufacturer's website and see if they say it is Pro Tools compatible.
- Check the DUC for reports of whether your interface will work with Pro Tools or not.
3. How Many Inputs And Outputs Do I need?
Getting this right is important and you should think about future proofing it too, perhaps by making sure that it has an ADAT port so you can easily attach additional channels of I/O or mic preamps. Here are some things to think about....
- If you do very little tracking, then maybe an interface with just a couple of inputs will be fine.
- If you are going to be recording multiple sources simultaneously, then you are going to need a lot of inputs and probably a fair few outputs too. Remember that Pro Tools Native can only support up to 32 simultaneous channels of I/O, even if the audio interface has more I/O, Pro Tools Native and Pro tools HD Standalone software will only support 32 channels at any one time. If you need more channels of simultaneous I/O then you will need to go to a Pro Tools HD Native or HDX System.
- Will you want an interface with integral mic preamps or are you using external mic pre-amps?
- Do you need a lot of digital I/O because you are interfacing with a digital console, for example?
- Are you working in surround? If so with Pro Tools, you will need to have Pro Tools HD software as Pro Tools Native does not support surround track formats. Since Pro Tools 12.6, when Avid released the Pro Tools Standalone HD Software option, you no longer need to buy a full Pro Tools HD hardware and software system to get surround tracks.
- What about MADI? A Lot of audio equipment with plenty of I/O use MADI now. RME do a range of cost effective MADI-based interfaces, for example.
- Do you want Audio over IP? If so make sure your interface will support the AoIP formats you want to use, whether it be Dante, Ravenna, or AVB.
4. What Protocol Do I Need To Connect To My Computer?
There are a number of protocols that you can choose, but there is no point in buying a Thunderbolt interface if you have a Mac Pro Cheesegrater, for example, because the old Mac Pro machines don't have a Thunderbolt port and cannot support a Thunderbolt card either.
We would recommend going for the fastest format available to you so perhaps consider a USB3 interface even if your current Pro Tools computer only supports USB2, but do check it is backwards compatible. Then when you change your computer, you won't necessarily have to change your interface again. If your computer supports Thunderbolt, then do check out the Thunderbolt interfaces that are available, but be aware that not all Thunderbolt interfaces are supported on Windows-based Pro Tools computers. Perhaps consider the UAD Apollo interfaces now that they are now supported on the Windows platform.
5. Am I Using Pro Tools HD Cards?
If you want your interface to work with Pro Tools HD hardware then you will need to have an interface that supports the Avid DigiLink Protocol. You may need to pay the Avid DigiLink license if you are buying a new Pro Tools HD Native or HDX system with a 3rd party interface.
If you are not sure whether you will need to pay the DigiLink license, then check out our special Avid DigiLink License FAQ article. Focusrite has a promotion where if you buy a Red4 Pre or Red8 Pre then they will pay the Avid DigiLink license for you.
Since Avid unbundled the Pro Tools HD software from the HD hardware, you can, of course, buy the Pro Tools Standalone HD Software and use any interface that is supported for use with Pro Tools Native, but you will need to make sure it has enough channels of I/O to handle your preferred surround format. For example with 5.1, you will need at least 6 outputs, possibly 8 if you want to have a separate stereo output as well as the 5.1 output.
You may want to use the same interface on your portable Pro Tools Native system as you use for your studio based Pro Tools HD hardware based system. If so, then you will need to make sure it has at least another protocol as well as the Avid Avid DigiLink, either USB3 or Thunderbolt, for example.
What's Not Included In This Guide
We deliberately haven't covered the 'sound' of an interface, partly because it is so subjective but mainly because these days it matters much less, with the differences of the sound between interfaces being nowhere as marked as before, with more recent electronic component developments. If the sound matters to you then you are going to need to borrow, or rent an audio interface, or go to a dealer with known material, so you can listen and evaluate the sound for yourself.
What About You?
There are our 5 things to consider when buying a Pro Tools interface. We would love to hear from you what you consider to be important factors to consider when selecting the right interface for use with Pro Tools. Please do share your thoughts, observations and experience in the comments below.