Audio interfaces play the most important of roles in any type of modern recording studio. Its main purposes are to route audio out of a computer for monitoring audio playback from within a DAW as well as routing audio in to a DAW for recording. Modern audio interfaces are quite the jack of all trades. Many provide more features than we typically need within an all-in-one package. Not only do modern audio interfaces handle the important job of digital conversion, many also provide multiple headphone outputs, flexible routing, metering, I/O expandability via ADAT and modern connectivity such as Thunderbolt or USB-C with a few products out there priced in the higher ends of the market offering DSP for plug-in processing.
In this article we take a look at several popular audio interfaces you can buy today, all of which share a couple of common threads being that these products provide a minimum of 8 analog inputs with mic preamps and are also housed within 1U chassis. We have listed the following interfaces in order of price from low to high. If you are in the market for a new 1U audio interface of this type then we hope this article helps you compare what is available in today’s market and that the information we have provided can help you decide on the best interface for your studio and budget.
The entry level into the 1U 8 mic pre interface category comes in from Tascam who are well known for developing solid recording gear at competitive prices. The US-16x08 feature set represents the barest of bones for audio interfaces of this type as only one headphone output with a level pot is provided and no ADAT is included for I/O expansion. That said, you may not need to worry about the absence of ADAT here as the US 16x08, as the names suggests, provides 16 analog inputs and 8 outputs.
On the front of the interface 8 XLR mic pres that are claimed to deliver “clean and quiet operation” with up to 56dB of gain along with 2 jack inputs are present with 10 gain pots. On the rear you’ll find balanced line level inputs 11 through to 16 with outputs 1 through 8 along with MIDI I/O. If you find that you require more than 8 mic pres then the extra inputs on the rear could easily be utilised with some outboard channel strips which would make this a great interface for full band recording applications.
This device also provides two options of mounting. Use either the rack ears for mounting in standard 19” racks or screw in the included legs into the side of the chassis for desktop placement.
The US 16x8 may look like it could be from the last decade as the design is a bit bland but it has some modern power under the hood as it includes DSP, though basic it is very useable. Each of the inputs can have a 4 band EQ and compressor applied in tracking. This is adjustable via the Tascam mixer application which also offers near-latency-free monitor mixing and flexible routing.
Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820
Behringer may have a big of chequered past when it comes to pro audio gear but don’t let that discourage you from considering the U-Phoria if you are in the market for a budget friendly 8 in 1U audio interface. These are super simple plug-and-play devices that don’t rely on fancy mixer software or DSP.
Behringer’s investment in R&D looks as though it has gone into sound quality and reliability as these devices are built like little tracking tanks and sound mighty decent as well. The front panel has 8 mic pres each with a pad switch totalling 18 inputs via ADAT. A basic but useful main monitor section provides dim and mute switches. Both of which are useful to have under one’s finger in stressful tracking sessions along with two headphone outs. These dual headphone outputs are sadly mirrored and can not be fed independent headphone feeds though each output has its own level control knob.
The mic pres are MIDAS design and sound very clear. These are the same pres you find in the mighty X32 live desk which has proven to be a firm favourite in the live sound scene. A basic direct monitoring dial makes it easy to blend the monitoring between DAW playback and input at the interface for zero latency monitoring. Only two of the 8 combi XLR jack inputs are on the front panel with the remaining 6 accessible on the rear. If you were to mount this in a rack you would need to get an XLR loom or snake to make plugging into these inputs easier, but that also applies to the following interfaces in this list as the Tascam is the only interface of this type to have most of it’s I/O on the front panel.
Like Tascam’s US 16x18, Behringer’s offering in the U-Phoria UMC1820 is all the interface you could very well need if budget is a factor.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
We can’t say for sure as we don’t have any sales figures to back up our following statement but we reckon Focusrite’s Scarlett range could very well be one of the best selling audio interface ranges ever. It seems nearly everybody we know has either used or owned at least one generation of Scarlett at some point in their career. Small wonder why, these things sound amazing, cause no problems in terms of connectivity and cost a lot less than you first think.
In terms of features the Scarlett 18i20 matches the Behringer in every sense offering up 18 inputs and 20 outputs except in two key areas. The Scarlett has a sexy metering section on the front and the entire device is configurable via the Focusrite Control App which makes it incredibly easy for storing and recalling routing options. The Focusrite Control App also enables users to make full use of the second headphone out as it’s own dedicated output separate from the main mix.
If 8 mic pres are not enough for you then you can easily expand this system via the built-in ADAT. You could buy any generic 8 mic pre extender on the market, but why would you? There’s already one in the Scarlett range called the Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic Mic Preamp which features a handy compressor knob on each input channel. Doesn’t it make good sense to extend the family if you are after more mic pres in a Scarlett studio?
PreSonus Studio 1824c
PreSonus’ Studio 1824c is the latest and greatest 1U audio interfaces on market featuring USB-C connectivity. Presonus have been developing interfaces of this type for years with the results of the Studio 1824c proving that PreSonus have indeed learnt a trick or two in the last decade producing great value audio interfaces.
In terms of price point and feature set PreSonus have clearly aimed this product neatly between Focusrite’s Scarlett and Clarett interfaces making this, the Studio 1824c, the most affordable route into USB-C audio interfaces.
Presonus interfaces are faultless, we should know as we’ve tested them all. Couple that ruggedness and reliability we’ve come to expect from Presonus gear with the 1824’s sonic perfection and this could very well be everything to every recording person.
Focusrite Clarett 8 Pre
The Clarett range of Focusite audio interfaces are a rather more grown up affair compared to the Scarletts. That’s not to say that the Scarletts aren’t any good, they are, it’s just the Claretts have a slightly different AIR about them… literally.
As you can probably tell by now this mid tier of audio interfaces all offer similar features in terms of I/O, dual headphone outs, front panel metering and modern connectivity. You have to dive into the finer details to find out what sets each of these units apart, besides price. Apart from the beautiful red finish and USB-C connectivity what makes the Clarett 8Pre unique?
Each of the 8 mic pres features an AIR mode. When this is enabled, which is engaged via the Focusrite Control App, the sound at the pre opens up in a stunning way. AIR is an analog model of Focusrite’s classic transformer based ISA mic pre. It’s sounds amazing on vocals, snare drums and acoustic guitars. Anything you need to pop out of a mix at the tracking stage will benefit from the AIR mode.
These Claretts are available in two models, one offering USB-C the other Thunderbolt. Please note that a thunderbolt cable is not included in the package and must be purchased separately.
Like the Focusrite Scarlett’s range of interfaces the Clarett family also has its own 8 mic pre extender called The Clarett OctoPre. Watch the video above to see these two devices recording a live multitrack drum session directly to an iPad Pro 2018 via USB-C.
PreSonus Quantum 26x32
The Quantum is the jewel in PreSonus’ interface crown which connects to your Mac OS or Windows PC via Thunderbolt 2. Quantum features 8 recallable XMAX channels of mic/line inputs, ADAT Optical I/O providing up to a massive 26 inputs and 32 outputs with extremely low latency. Quantum can record and playback at 24-bit, 192 kHz and has the ability to expand as your needs grow. You can stack up to 4 units together to offer 96 channels of I/O which we feel is more than enough I/O for even the most demanding of tracking sessions.
Slate Digital VRS-8
Over the last decade Slate Digital has been on a mission to reimagine and reinvent the concept of the traditional recording studio by giving us what they refer to as a “Virtual Recording Studio” experience. They have developed a huge catalog of analog modelled plug-ins, touch control surfaces, microphone modelling bundles and now this, their latest creation, the Virtual Recording Studio 8 named VRS-8.
This audio interface completes Slate’s virtual studio dreams. The VRS-8 has been in development for a number of years and was finally released earlier this year receiving positive reviews. By comparison the VRS-8 looks like it could be a step back in evolution compared against the slightly more affordable interfaces featured in the list as it doesn’t feature metering, high I/O counts or USB-C or DSP which Slate says isn’t an oversight. They chose to make sure the money that would had been spent on including such features were instead poured into the most important aspects of an interface, it’s mic pre quality and performance.
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt
Reviewed by us in 2014, we were so impressed we went ahead and purchased this unit.
30×34 Thunderbolt™ 2 Audio Interface for Mac
8 Mic preamps with up to 75 dB of gain and Advanced Stepped Gain circuit
Thunderbolt connectivity for ultra-low latency (1.1ms round trip with Logic Pro X)
Front panel Guitar I/O with Class A JFET inputs, dual mode re-amp outputs
Talkback functionality with built-in mic and control button
2 PurePower headphone outputs
10 separately assignable analog inputs
16 analog outputs of premium Apogee conversion
Core Audio optimized DMA engine frees up Mac CPU for plug-ins and software instruments
Since its release Apogee has continued to add value to the Ensemble with apps for iPhone and iPad and more recently they have added FX Rack DualPath DSP plugin support for their own range of plugins, giving those tracking the ability to use effects with low latency.
Our conclusion in the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt review was;
Have Apogee managed to put a little excitement back into the life of this old cynic? Does the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt deliver on the sound and ‘ultra low latency’ performance?
The simple answer is yes. Enough for me to have gone and purchased this unit, it’s not coming out of my rack any time soon. In the words of Victor Kiam “I liked it so much I bought the company.” Well not quite, but it is now my new interface, bought and paid for with my hard earned. When I first saw the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt I thought this unit was made just for me, now having used it I was right.
It’s not going to be everyone’s choice, especially if you are a PC user, but I think for those Mac users wanting a flexible, great sounding low latency audio interface this one has to be on your short list.
Universal Audio Apollo X8P
The Apollo X8P is the latest and greatest interface by Universal Audio offering a much more producer focused set of I/O including Hexa-core UAD-2 processing and surround mixing capabilities. The full Apollo X range is the third generation of Universal Audio’s Apollo interface series which raises the bar significantly in several key areas over the previous versions including better clocking, better A/D-D/A conversion and better mic preamp quality.
What sets the Apollo apart from all the other interfaces in this list is that it features a mammoth amount of DSP for UAD-2 plug-in processing (UAD plug-ins sold separately).
Antelope Audio Discrete 8
The Antelope Audio Discrete 8 shares many of the feature available on the other units in the current range of interfaces but where Discrete 8 stands out from the crowd is its 8 console grade mic preamps using discrete components. These are not off the shelf chipset based pres. You still get access to Antelope’s stunning sounding FPGA effects, but this time you have to opt for the Premium pack, which will cost you extra to take full advantage of this.
Preamp and monitor control is still available from either the front panel, your computer or iOS device and as has become the norm for Antelope units there is an amazing array of digital and analog connectivity.
As ever the review ends with a track recorded using only the Discrete 8 mic pres and instrument inputs. All the guitar amps and effects are recorded real time "to tape" from the ever-growing selection of Antelope FPGA effects. Other than some reverb there is no other processing on this recording so what you are hearing is great sounding instruments through great sounding pres.
Pricing starts at $1299 UDS for the Discrete 8 Basic package up to $3295 which includes Discrete 8 rack unit the Premium FX pack, which allows you to use 8 channel strips with 4 FX instances each and up to 16 channel strips using the AFX2DAW plug-in and all 50+ Antelope Audio real-time FPGA FX. You also get one of Antelope’s Edge Duo large diaphragm condenser modelling microphones and 6 of their Verge small pencil condenser mics as well as the full Mic Emulation Bundle.
Antelope Audio Orion Studio and Studio Rev 2017
The Antelope Audio Orion Studio fits Thunderbolt and USB connectivity as well as 12 mic fantastic sounding Class-A mic pres, a ton of analogue and digital I/O and Antelope’s signature clocking technology into a single rack space.
The original Orion Studio was given a facelift and a spec upgrade in 2017 to create the Orion Studio Rev 2017. At the same time the Orion Studio HD was launched giving users access to Pro Tool HD and HDX connectivity, but the HD version had no Thunderbolt it was HD and USB Only. All three units featured 12 mic pres so you can record your full band using just the onboard mic pres. Then if you really want to go to town expand your system via the ADAT ports.
Orion Studio works with any Windows or OS X DAW. The variety of digital and analog I/O combined with the flexible routing matrix make the device easily interconnectable to pretty much any studio outboard gear. Orion Studio offers two pairs of monitoring outputs, 16 analog outs, 2 re-amp outputs, plus 16 channels I/O via ADAT and 2 channels of I/O on S/PDIF.
MSRP: $2,995 USD
RME Fireface UFX II
The RME Fireface UFX II is a stunning solution to transfer analog and digital audio data directly to a computer from practically any source. Numerous unique features including a very well thought-out selection of configuration dialogs, mixing engine and multipurpose monitoring solution as well as professional DSP effects and class-leading analog circuits with some of the latest digital converters make the Fireface UFX II a serious powerhouse when it comes to computer based recording, mixing and mastering.
30 Input / 30 Output channels
12 x Analog I/O
4 x Mic/Instrument Preamp, digitally controlled
1 x AES/EBU I/O
2 x ADAT I/O (or 1 x ADAT I/O plus 1 x SPDIF I/O optical)
1 x Word Clock I/O
2 x MIDI I/O
1 x USB 2.0
TotalMix FX Control Software For Windows, Mac OS or iOS.
Optional: Advanced Remote Control USB
MSRP: $2150 USD
RME Fireface UFX+
The RME Fireface UFX + could be considered a perfect centrepiece for your multi-track recording, mixing or mastering studio as it can easily handle up to 94 channels of I/O. Fireface UFX+ features incredible flexibility and routing to outboard studio equipment as well as the availability of DURec (Direct Recording to USB) and super low latency I/O for which RME hardware and drivers are renowned.
With many features features that were not available on the predecessor the UFX+ has MADI I / O (188 I / O channels, 128 more than the Fireface UFX), an even more powerful DSP, compatibility with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt and a new optional remote control will make the RME Fireface UFX + the new reference for multi-track recordings, mixing and monitoring.
94 input / 94 output channels
12 x analog I / O
4 x Mic / Instrument Preamp, (digitally controllable)
1 x AES / EBU I / O
2 x ADAT I / O (or 1 x ADAT I / O plus 1 x SPDIF I / O optical)
1 x Word Clock I / O / MADI I / O Coaxial
1 x MADI I / O optical
2 x MIDI I / O
1 x Thunderbolt ™ connectivity
1 x USB 3.0
TotalMix FX Control Software For Windows, Mac OS or iOS.
Optional: Advanced Remote Control USB
MSRP: $2482 USD
Merging Technologies Hapi
Hapi, and its 2U big brother (technically father) the Horus from Merging Technologies are some of the most customisable interfaces available. A basic Hapi comes fitted with 8 channels of AES/EBU digital I/O. 8 channels of ADAT optical and stereo SPDIF as well as network connectivity over the RAVENNA AES67 protocol. There are then 2 custom slots in which you can install a range of different option cards depending on your I/O requirements. There is a mini-Digilink allowing Hapi to talk to Avid HDX systems. Mic preamps with direct output, line level I/O as well as MADI. They are very flexible systems and the quality if exceptional.
The I/O count of the Hapi and the Horus are hard to pin down as it depends on the option cards you fit. If you want analogue I/O Hapi is limited to 16 channels but add in RAVENNA and Optical I/O and this could be part of an ever growing system.
Take a look at the video below and Production Expert article where Production Expert Technical Editor, James Ivey and Paul Mortimer of Emerging UK test the Horus (a 2U version of Hapi) recording drums in James’ studio using a number of different connectivity and mic pre options.
8 AES/EBU I/O via D Sub
8 ADAT or 2 SPDIF I/O via TOSLINK
44.1kHz to 192kHz and beyond! (Premium cards up to DXD/DSD256)
Audio over IP with RAVENNA – AES67 Connectivity
ASIO and Core Audio Driver
Interface control over LAN
2 Slots for optional AKD8D/AKD8P, DA8/DA8P and MADI cards
Timecode and Sync – LTC/MTC/VideoRef/Wck
Dual stereo headphone outputs
Rotary encoder front panel control
Prices for Hapi start at £1,838 + taxes for a base unit with option cards starting around £438 for the Digilink option up to £1,313 for the 8 channel premium mic pre with direct out card.
Compare These Audio Interfaces
Below is a table to help you quickly compare each of these audio interfaces key features and price:
|Audio Interface||Price MSPR||Port||Mic Pres||Inputs||Outputs||ADAT||Front Panel XLR
|TASCAM US-16x08||$399||USB 2.0||8||16||8||No||8||1|
|Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820||$419||USB 2.0||8||18||20||Yes||2||2|
|Focusrite Scarlett 18i20||$439||USB 2.0||8||18||20||Yes||2||2|
|PreSonus Studio 1824c||$649||USB-C||8||18||24||Yes||2||2|
|Focusrite Clarett 8 Pre||$949||USB-Cor Thunderbolt||8||18||20||Yes||2||2|
|PreSonus Quantum 26x32||$1,099||Thunderbolt 2||8||26||32||Yes||2||2|
|Antelope Discrete 8||$1,299||Thunderbolt||8||8||6||Yes||2||2|
|Slate Digital VRS-8||$1,999||Thunderbolt Mac, PCIe Windows||8||8||8||No||0||2|
|RME Fireface UFX II||$2,299||USB 3.0||4||30||30||Yes||4||2|
|Apogee Ensemble||$2,499||Thunderbolt 2||8||30||34||Yes||0||2|
|RME Fireface UFX+||$2,799||Thunderbolt, USB 3.0
|Universal Audio Apollo x8p||$3,699||Thunderbolt 3||8||16||22||Yes||0||2|
Do you own any of the audio interfaces that we’ve featured in this list? Let us know why you chose the device you did and what the main selling points were that helped you decide on your audio interface.