Audio interfaces are capable of a lot. They’re an essential device in any recording studio, allowing you to connect microphones, instruments, external audio gear like headphones, studio monitors, and effects units.
Without one you wouldn’t be able to record music or route audio elsewhere. But does an audio interface improve sound quality? That’s an important question and one worth exploring. In this article I’m going to explain how they improve sound quality, without getting too technical.
Does an Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?
Yes, an audio interface can significantly improve sound quality. Especially with regards to recording. Audio interfaces allow you to record at a high sample rate and bit depth, which means you can record your music at a much higher resolution than normal. Audio interfaces also have physical components such as inputs, outputs, and preamps which also affect how well an audio signal is recorded and played back.
What Does an Audio Interface Do?
Besides being an in-between device so you can connect microphones, instruments, and audio gear, an audio interface is responsible for recording, processing, and playing back high-quality audio. You see an audio interface has two very important jobs to do.
The first job is ADC, which stands for Analog-to-Digital Conversion. This means an audio interface will convert an analog signal -for example, you singing or talking into a microphone- into a digital one, like an audio file.
The second job is DAC, which stands for Digital-to-Analog Conversion. In this instance an audio interface will convert a digital signal -for example, an audio file- into an analog one, like the sound coming out of your headphones or speakers. Now you can playback and listen to the audio you recorded.
Analog signals are measurable, continuous, and time-varying. For example, we could measure a singer’s voice with sound pressure, or electrical signals by voltage. Digital signals contain data, such as binary, a series of 1s and 0s.
Most computers these days can do to digital-to-analog conversion just as well as audio interfaces. However, when it comes to recording, audio interfaces are king. They can record at exceptionally high-quality sample rates and bit depths.
What is Sample Rate?
Remember what an analog signal is, right? It’s a measurable signal sent via a microphone or instrument. Sample rate refers to how many times an analog singal is sampled per second. Sound confusing? Don’t worry, it is!
You just need to know that the higher the number, the more samples are being collected, resulting in better sound quality. Common samples rates are 44.1kHz and 48kHz. For reference, CDs and streaming platforms like Spotify use 44.1kHz, whereas videos use 48kHz.
Some audio interfaces can even record as high as 192kHz. There is much debate though, whether higher sample rates really make a significant sonic improvement. Especially as music must be converted down to the standard of 44.1kHz for commercial release.
In my opinion it does, but I’m not going to go into this now though. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. However, depth on the other hand is agreed to have an impact on sound quality.
What is Bit Depth?
As if sample rates weren’t confusing enough… Bit depth refers to the number of bits of information recorded in each sample. Think of it like resolution. The higher the bit depth, the higher the audio resolution.
In fact, do you remember what the original retro video game music used to sound like? For example, the original Mario theme tune. Well, video game music from the 1980s used a resolution of 8-bit. That’s why all those video game theme tunes have that very distinctive grainy sound.
Of course, you wouldn’t really want to use 8-bit unless that’s the sound you’re going for. As reference, CDs and streaming platforms use 16 bit, but with an audio interface you can record with 24 bit.
How Else Do Audio Interfaces Improve Sound Quality?
Reputable brands manufacturer their audio interfaces to have well-made physical components, which also play an important role in recording and listening to audio.
This includes having reliable inputs for your microphones and instruments, plus well-constructed outputs, so that the audio you listen to through your speakers or headphones is well amplified.
Audio interfaces also have in-built preamps which amplify weak signals -like those going into a microphone or coming from an instrument- to the appropriate level for recording.
How Else Can You Improve Sound Quality?
Apart from buying a reliable audio interface, your choice of other audio gear is equally important. Cheaper microphones have limited frequency range, resulting in lower quality recordings. Also, trying to mix on poorly manufactured speakers or headphones will severely limit how well you produce music.
You should consider investing in at least one decent microphone, as well as a dedicated pair of professional studio monitors (speakers) or headphones. That way you can listen to your music accurately with precision, which is essential for mixing.
Audio Interfaces Work Magic
Now you know how audio interfaces work their magic to improve sound quality. There’s a lot going on those devices, and I only just scratched the surface. If you’re serious about music production or recording high-quality audio for other purposes, then you need to invest in a reliable audio interface.
If you need help deciding, I’ve put together a list of the Best Audio Interfaces in 2021 for Every Budget. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Please feel free to comment below if you have any other questions, I’m here to help