by Metal Mastermind

August 30, 2020

cheap vs expensive audio interfaces

One of the most important pieces of studio is an audio interface. You simply can’t record without one.

But what’s the difference between a cheap, inexpensive interface and a higher quality expensive interface?

And are there certain audio interfaces that are better for recording metal music?

There are indeed some differences and we’re going to break all that down in this post.

We’re also going to dig deeper to assess what type of interface you truly need. So hang in here with us; we’re going to point you in the right direction so that you can record quality music at home!

NOTE: Ken and Jason both have a substantial amount of experience in recorded music that has been professionally released along with several music projects in their home studios.

They have a deep passion for helping other metal musicians progress. You can read more about their experience on the Metal Mastermind about page.

The Purpose of an Audio Interface

**If you’re a seasoned musician and already know you’re way around the studio, you can skip down to the next section.

If you’re new to recording music you may be wondering…

“Do I really need an audio interface for recording metal music?”

Yes, you do. Why? Because this is the way to get capture the best quality recording.

What an audio interface does is to provide the link between your instrument and your computer. You’ll then make sure that your DAW (digital audio workstation, aka recording software) is set to use that interface for audio input and output.

Here’s how it works:

  • You’ll connect your audio interface to your computer with a cable (usually a USB cable, or Thunderbolt if you’re getting one of the more advanced interfaces)
  • Connect your monitors or headphones to your audio interface
  • Plug your mic or instrument cable into your audio interface

Here’s a diagram that shows these details from the Abbey Road Beginner’s Studio Guide:

Major Differences Between Cheap and Expensive Interfaces

The first major difference between interfaces, in general, is the type of preamps and how many individual preamps the interface comes with. The preamp is going to be a core factor in the sound quality that’s being captured.

Preamps will affect things like:

  • Improves the overall sound quality
  • Boosts tonal color and depth
  • Giving you more or less warmth

The cheaper interfaces are going to provide you with more of the natural tone of your voice or instrument/amp. The more expensive interfaces are going to add more of what was described above…color, warmth, depth, etc.

Another major difference is the number of inputs and outputs the interface has. Most cheaper, simple interfaces give you two inputs for recording instruments, which will usually allow for both XLR and 1/4″ inputs. And two outputs for your studio monitors (this is typically for the left and right output monitors).

Interfaces that are more advanced (and expensive) will come with more outputs and other capabilities.

Lastly, there are also differences in things like…

  • Dynamic range
  • Frequency response
  • Whether it uses tubes or transformers
  • Quality of the converters

These features may not only vary between cheap and expensive interfaces but more so by the manufacturer.

For example, you’ll find that almost all of the newer Presonus interfaces have the same quality XMAX preamps. The options you’ll see on their more expensive interfaces are things like more inputs, outputs, and other features.

Cheap InterfaceExpensive Interface
Raw, ‘fixed’ toneEnhanced color and warmth
One to two preampsMultiple preamps
Good, but basic preampsHigher quality preamps
Minimal inputs and outputsMore inputs and outputs
Basic featuresMay include other features

The Sound on Sound website has a great guide that explains more in-depth how audio interfaces work and their features in their article ‘Choosing an Audio Interface.’

How to Determine the Type of Audio Interface You Need

Now that you know the major differences between cheap and expensive audio interfaces, it’s time to assess what type of interface you really need.

First, this is going to be determined by…

  • What style or subgenre of metal you’re recording
  • The types of instruments being recorded
  • If you’re recording everything individually or plan to record multiple instruments at one time as you would in a live setting
  • Do you need that added color and warmth to what you’re recording or are you looking to get the most organic sound from the instrument being recorded?

These are all questions you need to think about when choosing an audio interface for your studio. But let’s break this down even further. The below section will serve as an audio interface buying guide.

Who Can Get by with a Cheap Audio Interface

A cheaper interface may be a good enough option if…

  • It’s just you recording in your own home studio
  • You only record one instrument at a time (or two at the most)
  • You’re mainly using plugins for your tone where it’s just the direct signal that you need
  • You want to capture the purest sound from your amps if you’re miking instruments
  • You’re recording mainly instrumental metal music
  • You’re recording vocals but do not want to add any color or warmth (such as death metal vocals, or even thrash metal style vocals)

Who Needs a More Expensive Interface

An expensive interface will be something you need to consider if…

  • You have a larger studio and need more inputs and outputs
  • You’re recording multiple instruments and/or vocalists simultaneously
  • You want the convenience of having dedicated inputs for your different instruments and mics
  • You prefer the warmer and more colorful tones
  • You’re planning to use virtual instruments where latency could be an issue
  • If you’re recording live drums? (this is a big thing to consider!)
  • You plan to expand your studio in the near future

The Truth About Cheap VS Expensive Interfaces

Most audio interfaces are going to provide you with the ability to capture a quality sound. Even the cheapest of interfaces will do the trick.

However, you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into buying the cheapest interface only to have to turn around and upgrade to a more expensive one. Because that’s going to cost you more money in the long run.

You need to not only think about what you need right now, but how you plan to expand. For example, you may be looking to join or start a band. And you may be the one with the most recording experience, so it might make sense for you to lead the recording studio efforts.

Or you may be a guitarist or instrumentalist recording your own solo projects in which you hire out things like drums. You may only need a simple interface. Just make sure it’s a quality interface and from a reputable brand (do your research and read reviews).

Also, read about the external features that manufacturers offer with the purchase of their audio interfaces. Here are some additional things to see if the manufacturer offers:

  • Studio software (often it’s the ‘lite’ version of the software)
  • Studio plugins
  • Virtual instruments
  • Many offer bundle deals that include things like a microphone, headphones, monitors, etc.

**One thing to remember is that even the most expensive gear is not going to compensate for poor studio performance. So make sure you practice and can truly ail down your performances in the studio.

In fact, some of the greatest recordings were made with minimal gear. For more on how to get the best performance, check out our post: The Golden Rule of Recording

VIDEO: Cheap VS Expensive Audio Interface

In the video below, we tested a $99 against a $699 audio interface. We used the classic recording technique of recording guitars through a miked amp.

Here are the steps we took:

  • Miked the EVH 5150 III amp with a Shure SM57 mic
  • Recorded a short metal clip with two guitar tracks through this amp (and hard-panned each track)
  • Recorded the guitars through the cheaper interface, which was a Presonus AudioBox USB
  • Recorded another set of guitar tracks through the more expensive interface, which was a Presonus Quantum 2

To make things more realistic, we recorded these guitars both on their own and also tested this by combining these recordings in the full mix.

Can you hear any differences on these tracks? Does one sound better than the other?

Let us know by commenting on the YouTube video. You can open the video in another browser and comment.

**Also, make sure you subscribe to the Metal Mastermind YouTube channel while you’re there!

Just to recap the key points from this post:

  • Your performance is always going to be the most important when recording
  • Expensive studio gear isn’t always necessary
  • On the other hand, you need to make sure you’re getting a quality product that serves your needs in the studio

We hope you enjoyed this post and more importantly, we hope that we answered all of your audio interface questions.

Horns Up,

Ken & Jason
Metal Mastermind

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