The Audio interface is one of the most important components of the modern recording environment, be that a fully fledged studio, your spare bedroom or “play room”. Its main job is to route audio, and sometimes MIDI signals into and out of a computer. Modern audio interfaces are packed with features including volume controls for your main monitor speakers, headphone outputs and all manner of different I/O in many and varying digital and analogue formats.
In this article, we take a look at our pick of the most popular audio interfaces you can buy today, all of which are designed to live and function on your desktop and not be rack mounted. The desktop form-factor may or may not appeal to you but there is something to be said for just being able to reach out to the unit in front of you to tweak the gain on a mic channel or the monitor volume level.
The Audient iD Range: iD4, iD14, iD22 & iD44
Back in 2013 the team at Audient launched their first small form-factor audio interface the iD22. Since then, Audient’s small team have grown the iD family to include the single channel iD4, the solid yet ultra portable iD14 and the desktop master that is the iD44.
The iD range really does have something to suit every recording need and budget. Audient have worked very hard to make sure that no matter which interface and feature set you choose, you always get the best possible audio quality from their ASP mic preamps as found in their full size consoles. After all, why design and produce lots of different preamp circuits for different units when one really good one will cover all the bases?
All four iD units are built to last like solid little tanks, even the little iD4 with a single mic preamp and JFET DI (which is also common to all the iD interfaces) is built for the road, or more likely thrown into your laptop back to work on the go. James admits, his has taken a beating but other than the odd scuff and ding it’s sounding as good as it ever did.
Audient only provide USB as the PC or Mac connection format. In 99% of cases USB (1, 2 or C) are fast enough for audio, so no need to bulk up the feature set, and price with other connectivity options.
Over the years we have reviewed all the Audient interfaces. Check out the video links below.
Also check out our full review of the recently launched Audient iD44.
Prices for the Audient range start from around just £99 for the iD4, £159 for the iD14, £299 for the iD22 and £453 for the iD44. You can find out more about the iD range at the Audient website and check out your local pro audio dealer for a test drive and availability.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin & Arrow
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin is the baby of the Apollo family. However, for those just wanting to dip their DSP toe into the UAD-2 plug-in world, there is now the new Arrow Thunderbolt 3 bus powered interface. Both units feature 2 stunning sounding mic preamps and have line/instrument inputs as well as having a fantastic sounding high impedance input on the front for guitars and bass. These are particularly useful when you team up the Arrow or Twin to some of UA’s guitar amp emulations.
The built-in headphone amp is nice and loud and the layout of both units is clean, clear and easy to use. The Twin also has the added advantage of being able to take control of larger UA Apollo systems as it can be used as both the monitoring controller and talkback mic.
We have talked a great deal about the UA Apollo and Arrow range on the Expert sites over the years. Below are some of the more recent videos featuring the Arrow and the Apollo Twin Mk2.
The Universal Audio Arrow with a single DSP chip starts from around £399, while the Twin Duo (with 2 DSP chips) is £729 and the Twin Quad (with 4 chips) starts around £957.
You can find out more about the Universal Audio Arrow and Twin range at the Universal Audio website.
Antelope Audio Zen Tour
If you measure your interface by its connectivity count then the Antelope Audio Zen Tour has to be somewhere near, if not at the top of your list. This thing packs a lot in but it’s not just about the I/O count. This is a well designed and well built little interface ready for studio or stage. It sounds and looks great but if you are on the move a lot then the Zen Tour could be a little bit much for your needs. However, if you are planning to record the band at your next gig the Zen Tour could well be the way forward.
4 x Mic / Line Instrument inputs on XLR combo jacks on the back
4 x Hiz / Line inputs on TRS on the front
8 x Lines on 1 x DB25 (8 channels)
2 x Stereo Monitor outputs on TRS (4 channels, only 1 active at a time)
2 x Stereo Headphone out on TRS (4 channels)
2 x ReAmp outs on TRS (2 channels)
2 x ADAT Optical I/O (up to 16CH)
1 x S/PDIF
USB 2.0 - 24 channels I/O, Type B
1 x Thunderbolt - 32 channels I/O
The Antelope Audio Zen Tour start from around £1475. You can find out more at the Antelope Audio website.
RME Babyface Pro
RME have always been known for their fantastic sounding and super-stable interfaces and the latest version of the Babyface range, the Babyface Pro, is no exception. This is a solid little workhorse of an interface that is at home in the studio or on the road. Bring this well built hardware unit together with RME’s TotalMix FX control routing and processing software and you have a very powerful studio in your backpack. It has a simple layout and is easy to use but don’t let that fool you. The Babyface Pro sounds every bit as good as its bigger brothers in the RME interface range but in a small portable package.
4 x Analog Inputs (Mic, Line, Instrument)
4 x Analog Outputs (2 x XLR, 2 x Phones)
1 x ADAT I/O or 1 x SPDIF I/O optical
1 x MIDI I/O
1 x USB 2.0 (USB 3 compatible)
Separate outputs for high and low impedance headphones
TotalMix FX (with EQ, Reverb, Echo)
Merging Technologies Anubis
You might at first look at the new Merging Technologies Anubis and say, that’s not an audio interface, it’s just a controller for RAVENNA the Audio Over I/P format, and while it is true that the Anubis is connected to your network (or PC or Mac directly) via the RAVENNA protocol and can be powered over I/P, it is so much more than just another node in your network. Anubis has been designed with many different roles or “missions”, as Merging call them, in mind.
The concept of software based Missions allows for designing very versatile and dedicated applications, upgradable in time, and targeting the requirements of professional users. The Monitor Mission is the central node of all Music and Recording Studios, its extremely high sound quality meets the essential requirement of all Mastering Studios. The large number of supported surround formats will please all Film and TV Post Studios and its AoIP standards support makes it the perfect choice for Broadcast Studios, OB Vans or Editing Rooms. The compact form factor of Anubis and its robustness makes it the ideal choice for Location Recording and Live Events monitoring.
Pricing for Anubis start at £1250 + VAT and units are shipping now. You can find out more about Anubis at the Merging Technologies website. We hope to have one to play with very soon.
Tascam MiNi Studio Creator
The Tascam MiniStudio Creator and its little brother the MiniStudio Personal are like no other audio interfaces we have used or reviewed because they are aimed firmly and squarely at the home or project studio broadcast market, and by that we mean podcasters or those doing live streaming or video production for applications like YouTube. There are lots of features to make this workflow a little bit more fun and less heavy on the audio knowledge for those who might not consider themselves to be “audio pros”. OK, we agree these are not top end units when compared to the Babyface or any of the other units in this list but they deserve their place in this list due to the fact that they fill a role that none of the others cover quite so neatly or compactly. Oh and did we mention they were fun to use. Watch the video below to find just how much fun James had.
2 HDDA (High Definition Discrete Architecture) mic preamps
XLR/TRS input jacks support balanced input and can provide +48V phantom power
Mini jack mic input (MIC 1) Supports connection of 4-pole earphone with mic
Stereo mini jack AUX input Built-in omnidirectional condenser mic
Stereo analog RCA output jacks suitable for connection to powered monitors
Stereo mini jack headphone output
1/4” headphone output
The Tascam MiniStudio Creator is available starting at around £120 and just £59 for the single channel MiniStudio Personal. To find out more check out the link to the Tascam website.
Focusrite Pro Rednet X2P
Much like the Merging Anubis before it the Focusrite Rednet X2P might not at first be considered an audio interface as it does not connect directly to your Mac or PC by USB or Thunderbolt, but this little box is a fully paid up member of the desktop interface club as it features two of Focusrite’s Red Evolution mic preamps, dedicated line output and a powerful headphone amp. If you are running an Dante network and you need more ins or outs in remote locations this is the unit you should look at.
James recently redesigned his studio headphones monitoring system around a pair of X2P units and a pair of its little brother the AM2. Check out his article Artist's Headphone Mixes Can Be A Studio Nightmare - We Create A Powerful Dante And HDX Studio Monitoring Solution for the full lowdown on what he created and how it is configured.
Stereo 2x2 audio interface for Dante Audio-over-IP networks
Two Red Evolution mic preamps for mic, line or instrument level inputs
Up to 24-bit, 96kHz sampling rates
Robust steel and aluminium chassis
Local input mix to allow ‘more-me’ style monitoring for easy foldback control
Powerful headphone output even with high-impedance headphones
Up to 24dBu line output levels
Independent level control of headphone and line outputs
Mute switch for line output
Mic stand mount
Integrated network switch allowing daisy-chaining of network devices
In our article, you can also check out how James records live using the Focusrite Rednet X2P as his main monitoring controller and headphones feed.
The Focusrite Rednet X2P is available now from around £809 and for more information check out the Focusrite website.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Perhaps the least expensive interface in our list but don’t write it off because of it’s price. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is one of the best value audio interfaces on the market right now. It offers 2 Focusrite channels giving a great sound and includes a veritable bundle of software from both Focusrite and Softube making it a steal at a street price of around £100.
The Scarlett 2nd generation interfaces, including the 2i2, now also ship with Avid Pro Tools First as part of the Focusrite Creative Pack, which features the free version of Pro Tools software, together with 12 additional plug-ins, including the Eleven Lite for guitar amp emulations and Tape Echo to bring the sound of classic analog delays to mixes. Ableton Live Lite, Softube's Time and Tone bundle, the Focusrite Red Plug-In Suite, 2GB of Loopmasters samples are also all included in the bundle. All of this make the 2i2 a great ‘starter’ interface.
You can learn more about the Focusrite 2i2 as it was featured in a 3 way review of a series of Focusrite interfaces…
When Apogee first launched the Quartet and it’s little bother the Duet, they were criticised for only having drivers for Mac OS. Apogee have since played catch up and written very stable drivers for the Windows platform too. Of all the interfaces in this article, the Apogee Quartet could be considered the most stylish. It’s got a very sleek look. The touch sensitive pads and nice weighty main encoder are really lovely to look at and use. Sonically the Quartet is every bit an Apogee. It sounds nice and bright with plenty of crystal clear top end. The feature set is good and while you might at some point you might miss the second set of ADAT I/O when recording at higher sample rates it’s not a deal breaker. The Quartet is a very solid looking and feeling little unit that would look great on your desktop. But Quartet is more than just looks, it can talk the talk and also walk the walk.
USB 2.0 connection to Mac or PC
4 x Analog Inputs over XLR/Line combo jacks
8 x Channels of Digital I/O over ADAT SMUX optical connection
MIDI I/O via USB-A type connector
8x Analog Outputs 6 Balanced line outputs l1 Independent 1/4” stereo headphone output
Word clock output on BNC connector
2 top panel high-resolution OLED displays
The Apogee Quartet is available now starting around £1038 and the smaller two channel Duet (version 2) is available from £465. For more information check out the Apogee website.
Don’t forget the Apogee Duet.
Apogee Duet has been designed for the musician, producer and engineer who wants the sound quality and simplicity, The Duet features Apogee AD/DA conversion, 2 Apogee microphone preamps, USB MIDI I/O and ESS Sabre32 DAC technology.
The Duet’s 2 combo inputs mean you can connect microphones, guitars, keyboards or line level devices such as external mic preamps or a mixing board to your Apogee interface, which also includes 4 analog outputs – 2 1/4” balanced outputs for connection to speakers or outboard equipment and a separate, independently controlled 1/4” stereo headphone output.
Arturia Audiofuse Range
There is no hiding the fact that we had to wait a long time for the Audiofuse by Arturia to hit the shelves. The unit was announced at NAMM in January 2015 and we finally got a unit for review in August 2017, but in our opinion it was well worth the wait. This is a stacked little box, with more I/O packed into this very small unit that any other we can think of.
2 x DiscretePRO microphone preamps
2 x RIAA phono preamps
4 x analog inputs 2x Mic/Instrument/Line (XLR / 1/4" TRS)2x Phono/Line (RCA / 1/4" TRS)
4 x analog outputs (1/4" TRS)
2 x analog inserts (1/4" TRS)
Word clock in/out
Talkback with dedicated built-in microphone (up to 96 kHz Sample Rate)
A/B speaker switching
2 independent headphone outputs
Separate master and monitor mix channels
USB interface with PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Linux compatibility
3-port USB hub
It’s all packed into a very small unit, which means when you are working your Audiofuse hard it can get a little on the toasty side but it’s not like you sit your audio interface on your lap is it? I love the fact that it even comes is three colour configurations Deep Black, Space Grey or Classic Silver so you can choose your interface to suit your mood.
Prices for Audiofuse start at £413 and If you would like more information check out the Arturia website.
Mackie Big Knob Studio & Studio +
I think it’s fair to say most of remember a time when no home or project studio was complete without a Mackie Big Knob monitor controller. Well now Mackie have taken that concept a stage further with Big Knob Studio and Studio +. First and foremost these are still high quality monitor controllers allowing you to switch between different sets of studio monitors but with the addition of 2x2 channel (or 2x4 channel in the case of the Studio +) USB audio interface. As you can see from the image below the connectivity of these units is very comprehensive and being Mackie the Studio series are built to last be it in the studio or on the road.
Remember that the Big Knob Studio and Studio + are still full featured monitor controllers with all the normal speaker switching facilities as well as Mono, Dim and Mute controls you just get the added bonus of being able to route 2 channels at a time to a DAW for recording at up to 192KHz 24 bit. This could be a very useful feature for an online content creator who needs to not only be able to record or work on a PC or Mac, but also make a recording of doing the recording, if you see where we are going with this? The almost mixer-like functionality of the Big Knob could be a very easy and cost effective way of working.
The Mackie Big Knob Studio starts at around £163 which means you get a lot of quality bang for your buck while the Studio + starts at £239. Knowing Mackie as we do, having owned plenty of Mackie gear over the years, these units are going to be practically bomb proof and will sound great. You can find out more about the Mackie Big Knob Studio range at the Mackie website.
The Spire Studio from iZotope may seem a little left-field to be included in this article but it is an interface for iOS, and Android devices as well as being a standalone recorder. With Spire Studio, songwriters and musicians can capture, edit and mix music, using both the device and the custom-designed Spire app.
Production Expert’s Dan Cooper tried out the iZotope Spire Studio and said “I initially thought this is odd looking little hockey puck device but looking closer I realised that it could well be a smart little recording system that many songwriters could find extremely useful”.
In this video we show you everything you need to know about the iZotope Spire Studio. We get you up close and personal with the Spire Studio & Spire App and walk you through how to track your first song using the Spire.
As you can see from our video, Spire Studio has been designed so you can start recording right out of the box. Just turn it on and hit record to get going. It has a high-quality built-in microphone and is battery-operated with hours of recording memory.
It has two XLR/quarter-inch combo jacks with phantom power to plug in external mics and other instruments. there are also two stereo mini-jack headphone outputs making it easier for two people to work together.
Under the hood, Spire Studio has mic pre-amps designed by Grace Design. On the surface, the LED display is touch-sensitive so you can quickly adjust headphone volume and select and mute tracks.
For deeper editing and to control onboard effects, you can open the free Spire iOS or Android app which integrates with Spire Studio over Wi-Fi.
iZotope Spire Studio Main Features
$349/£349 - Currently available in America and Europe.
2-in/2-out, 24-bit/48kHz interface
Integrated Wi-Fi access between phone/tablet and Spire
Record anywhere - 4 hour rechargeable battery
Built-in omnidirectional microphone
2 Grace Design preamps with phantom power
Soundcheck feature automatically sets input recording levels within seconds
Records up to a maximum of 8 tracks
Record 2 simultaneously
Apply reverbs, delays, amp models and more (pre-recording)
Control the project from the onboard LED touchscreen or remotely with the Spire app
Edit & mix your tracks with the app or export the multitrack stems to your DAW
Collaboration made easy - Send tracks and projects to your bandmates and co-writers
You can find out more the amazing iZotope Spire at the iZotope website.
Rode RodeCaster Pro
Picking up where the Tascam MiniStudio Creator left off the RodeCaster Pro from Rode is a full podcast studio in a single unit. With this unit, you can do all your level management, recording and processing from inside this RodeCaster Pro standalone as it also has a slot for a MicroSD card enabling you to quickly and easily record a stereo or multi-track file without the use of a PC or Mac. However if you hook the RodeCaster up to your computer you can access a host of really useful editing and production features.
The RodeCaster is also all you need to record audio into your production from a phone or communication app like Skype or Source-Connect.
For the full feature list check out the Rode website but this thing is stacked. 4 mic preamps, 4 independently controllers headphone outputs, USB, TRRS jack (for phones) and Bluetooth connectivity as well as sound effects controllers, monitor outputs and vocal processing from Aphex. This thing looks great, sounds great and after writing this we really want to get our hands on one.
The RodeCaster Pro is available now starting at a price of £568 and for more information on the Rode website.
This list is our pick of the best desktop audio interfaces available today. and we hope you have found this article useful. If you have had any experience with any desktop audio interfaces then please do share them in the comments below.