Best cheap audio interface / sound card for amp simulators

Best cheap audio interface / sound card for amp simulators

Many home recordists and especially guitar players friends asked me whats the best bang for the buck audio interface, which will not  cost us an arm and a leg!  🙂

I’m going to recommend a few interfaces, which are  Amp Simulation Plugins friendly and will give you acceptable results with a little effort !

I think we are living in an amazing times! I wish I had these 14 years ago, when I paid a bag with money for a Cream Ware Luna  card. The inputs of that card were just Line in ones and I had to get a pre amp and a DI Box at additional expenses…

The audio interface is  the first thing you’re going to need, to build your small studio setup around and using it with amp sims!

So, here are a few USB audio interfaces to choose from with good features and at the same time for a price of a guitar pedal.
Playing and recording at home couldn’t be much easier today.

A few facts first:

1.
Portability
They are small and easy to care and at the same time they are capable to get the job done!
You can use them with your Laptop on the road!

2.Connectivity
All of them have guitar/instrument input, microphone input and low latency drivers.

3. Powering
All of them are bus powered / USB port – powered/

4. Advantages
Enough options to start a small bedroom studio. Recording one instrument and a microphone.


Inputs:

  • Microphone  -input with  pre amplifier for using Microphone with or without phantom Power (+48v) to a studio condenser microphone via an XLR socket
  • Instrument  input – TS/TRS cable for guitar and other line signal sources . HI-Z input.
    I prefer Hi-Z instrument input with 1 MΩ impedance!
    In my experience this gives the best clarity and sound when using amp simulation software
  • MIDI – connecting midi keyboards , drum machines etc –

    Outputs

  • Headphones – monitoring the audio with Headphones
  • Monitors – outputs on back for Studio Monitors
  • USB Interface Cable  – connection to your computer

Low latency drivers.
Depends on your CPU power.  Really low latencies will increase CPU usage. You may experience audio artifacts “crackles” “pop’s”

But any of current modern CPU processors should be able to handle the audio stream.

I’m using i3 and i5 processors at the moment from the “third generation” of Intel Processors and they are powerful enough!



Important tips for better performance and low latency  using a Laptop!

Make sure you use USB 2.0 port!

Go to general power management of your computer:
Start > Control Panel > System and Security > Power Options.
Power Scheme to High Performance

Power Options :

Change advanced power settings:
Hard disc > Turn off hard disk after > Setting (Minutes) = Never
Sleep > Sleep after > Setting (Minutes) = Never
USB settings > USB selective suspend setting > Setting = Disabled

Processor power management > Minimum processor state > Setting = 100%
Processor power management > Maximum processor state > Setting = 100%


Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD price: $79.99 – NO ASIO! Works with ASIO4ALL

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https://www.amazon.com/Behringer-UMC204HD-BEHRINGER-U-PHORIA/dp/B00QHURLCW

PROS:
For the price it has an amazing list of
options. The input pads are here! If you use hot active pickups, this is a life saver!
Some of the other brands doesn’t include this functionality to lower hot levels.
Great pre amps , up to 192kHz

CONS:
Some users report the DI inputs do not sounds good.  But that’s subjective…
It depends on your guitar and pickups!

Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD USB 2.0 Audio Interface Features:

  • Quality 24-bit/192kHz 2-channel USB 2.0 recording interface for your Mac or Windows PC
  • Combo inputs with MIDAS preamp lets you plug in any mic-, line-, or instrument-level gear
  • +48V phantom power lets you use studio condenser microphones
  • Switchable input pads accommodate even extremely hot line-level signal
  • Tip-send/Ring-return 1/4″ insert points let you incorporate outboard processors
  • MIDI In and Out ports let you connect keyboard controllers and other MIDI gear
  • Stereo 1/4″, RCA, and headphone outputs with latency-free monitoring make tracking easy

Presonus AudioBox (USB connection) price: $99

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https://www.amazon.com/PreSonus-AudioBox-USB-Audio-Interface/dp/B00154KSA2

PROS:
Affordable, stable recording interface
.Plug and play!
Nice pre amps for direct recording guitars,

CONS:
The input impedance: 0.5 megohm is a little low for my liking
Be careful with active pickups!

Considering the price , its a nice interface for small home recording studio. It has many users since its first release.

Presonus AudioBox Features:

  • 2 dual-purpose front-panel input channels, each with high-quality mic preamplifiers
  • 2 combo mic/instrument inputs
  • Individual channel-trim controls with 0 to +35 dBu mic gain range
  • 48V phantom power for condenser microphones
  • Mixer control (blends the input signal with the computer playback stream for zero-latency monitoring)
  • Headphone jack with level control
  • Main-output level control
  • LED clip indicator for each channel

Input/Output

  • 1 USB 1.1 port
  • 2 combo XLR/¼” mic/instrument inputs
  • 2 balanced ¼” main (L/R) line outputs
  • 1 stereo ¼” headphone output
  • MIDI in/out
  • Microphone Preamp
    Type: XLR female balanced
    Frequency response (±3.0 dB): 14Hz to 70kHz
    Input impedance (balanced): 1200 ohms
    THD+N (unwtd, 1kHz at +4 dBu output, unity gain): < 0.008%
    EIN (A-weighted, 55dB Gain, 150 ohms Input, 20Hz to 22kHz): -115 dBu
    S/N ratio (Unity Gain, Ref. = +4 dBu, 20Hz to 22kHz): > 95 dB
    Common mode rejection ratio (1kHz, 55dB gain): > 45 dB
    Gain control range (±1dB): 0dB to 35dB
    Max input level (unity gain, 1 kHz at 0.5% THD+N): -3 dBu
    Phantom power (±2 VDC): +48 VDC
  • Instrument Input
    Type: 1/4″
    TRS female unbalanced input impedance: 0.5 megohm
  • Line Outputs
    Type: 1/4″ TRS
    Balanced output impedance: 51 megohms
  • Headphone Output
    Type: 1/4″ TRS active stereo
    Maximum output: 60 mW/Ch at 60 ohm load
    Frequency Response: (±1.0 dB): 20Hz ” 30kHz
  • MIDI I/O
    Type: Dual 5-pin female DIN
  • Digital Audio
    ADC dynamic range (Awtd, 48kHz sample rate): 102dB
    DAC dynamic range (Awtd, 48kHz sample rate): 110dB
    Bit depth: 24
    Reference level for 0dBFS: +4 dBu
    Internal sample frequency selections (kHz): 44.1, 48


Focusrite Scarlett Solo  (USB connection)price $99

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https://www.amazon.com/Focusrite-Scarlett-Solo

PROS:
On a tight budget this small box is amazing!
Good latency for live playing.

It comes with nice bundle of plugins:
Focusrite’s Scarlett plug-in suite, the Red 2 and Red 3 Plug-In Suite (AAX/AU/VST), and the Softube Time and Tone Bundle upon registration of interface.

CONS:
The input impedance is 500 kohms, it may sound a little dull, just a little!
Too limited on connectivity side!

Focusrite Scarlett Solo Features:

Type     USB 2.0
Converter     24-bit, internal clock
Sample Rates     44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz
Inputs     1 x XLR Microphone 1 x 1/4″ TRS Line/Instrument
Maximum Input Level     Microphone: +4 dBu
Instrument: +15 dBu
Line: +21 dBu
Gain Range     Microphone: -4 dB to +46 dB
Instrument: -16 dB to +34 dB
Line: -21 dB to +29 dB
Outputs     2 x RCA phono
1 x 1/4″ TRS Headphone
Maximum Output Level     Line: +10 dBu (no load)
Headphone: +10 dBu (no load)
Dynamic Range     Inputs and Outputs: 106 dB, A-weighted
Converter Chips: 114 dB
THD     Microphone: -97 dB
Instrument: -95 dB
Line Input: -93 dB
Line Output: -100 dB
Headphone: -100 dB
Frequency Response     Microphone: 20 Hz to 20 kHz, +/-0.3 dB
Instrument: 20 Hz to 20 kHz, +/-0.2 dB
Line Input: 20 Hz to 20 kHz, +/-0.2 dB
Noise     Microphone EIN: -125 dB
Instrument EIN: -109 dB
Line Input EIN: -98 dB
Line Output EON: -92 dB, noise = -97 dB (A-weighted)

 

Steinberg UR12 USB Audio Interface(USB connection) price; $74

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https://www.amazon.com/Steinberg-UR12-USB-Audio-Interface/

New interface from Steinberg with promising specs at amazing price!

PROS:
Hi-Z instrument input with 1 MΩ impedance!
Legendary D-PRE  microphone preamp from Yamaha.

CONS:
UR12’s gain needs to be adjusted up to 80% to get a good input without clipping! This could rise the noise floor!

It doesn’t have an independent knob for output and headset, which is troublesome.

Steinberg UR12 USB Features:

Two input, two output USB 2.0 class compliant audio interface
Single D-PRE microphone preamp
Up to 192 kHz sampling rates and 24-bit resolution
Latency-free hardware monitoring with an easy-to-use monitor source switch
Loopback function allows for streaming performances live to the Internet, with incoming audio signals merged to the playback signal from Cubase or other DAWs inside the computer
Connectivity with Apple’s iPad using Steinberg’s Cubasis music app or other iOS audio apps offers a portable production environment
Power port and source selector for connecting a 5 VDC power source for supplying power when the interface is connected to an iPad (requires optional Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit/Lightning to USB Camera Adapter, and an external 5 VDC adapter or an external battery pack), or for guaranteeing power stability
Compatible with all major audio editing, mastering, and music production software supporting ASIO, Core Audio or WDM standards

 

M-Audio M-Track (USB connection) price: $99

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https://www.amazon.com/M-Audio-M-Track-Two

Another great little box from M-Audio.

I was a long user of theirs old Firewire 410.  Made a few albums with 410.

Does not require any drivers.
It is plug and play for both Mac OSX and Windows.

There is a good  tutorial how to install and use M-Audio’sASIOdriver :
http://m-audio.com/kb/article/1665

Pros:
Small, light, simple, flexible, easy to use, inexpensive

Cons:
Pre-amp is too weak.  Needs a lot of  gain to get a decent level with condenser mics.

M-Audio M-Track Features:

  • 24-bit / 48 kHz digital audio processing
  • Zero-latency audio monitoring
  • 2 XLR mic inputs with selectable phantom power
  • 2 balanced 1/4″ line inputs with guitar-level switching
  • 2 TRS 1/4″ inserts; one per input channel
  • MIDI In and Out jacks
  • Balanced 1/4″ main outputs with level control
  • Headphone out with independent level control
  • Convenient single USB cable data and power connection
  • Includes Ignite by AIR and Ableton Live Lite

Specifications

  • XLR Inputs
    • Signal to Noise Ratio: 97 dB
    • THD+N: 0.005%
    • Freq. Response: ±0.35 dB
  • Balanced 1/4″ TRS Inputs
    • Signal to Noise Ratio: 96 dB
    • THD+N: 0.034%
    • Freq. Response: ±1.2 dB
  • Balanced 1/4″ TRS Outputs
    • Signal to Noise Ratio: 97 dB
    • THD+N: 0.005%
    • Freq. Response: ±0.35 dB

 Mackie Onyx Blackjack  (USB connection) price: $99

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https://www.amazon.com/Mackie-Onyx-Blackjack-Recording-Interface/dp/B003VZG550

Nice small and great looking  interface !
One of the big hookup:
Hi-Z input: 1 M balanced – better for direct guitar recording!

“Built-Like-A-Tank” desktop design!

 Mackie Onyx Blackjack Features:

Two boutique-quality Onyx mic preamps with
class-leading fidelity and dynamic range
High-headroom design with ultra-low noise and
distortion
Professional 24-bit recording/playback via 2×2 USB
High-end Cirrus Logic
®
AD/DA converters with
114 dB dynamic range (A-weighted)
True analog hardware monitoring of inputs, in mono or
stereo, for easy zero-latency recording
Built-in DI on each input for direct connection of
guitars,
basses,
etc.
48V phantom power for use with studio-quality
condenser microphones
USB bus-powered, eliminating need for separate
power cable
Separate studio monitor and headphone outs with
independent level control
Sleek, ergonomic “Built-Like-A-Tank” desktop design

 

Input and Output Impedance
Mic input: 3 k
balanced Line input: 18 k balanced
9 k unbalanced
Hi-Z input: 1 M balanced – better for direct guitar recording!
Phones output: 25
Monitor outputs: 300 balanced
150 unbalanced
Maximum Levels:
Mic input, gain at min (0 dB):
+10 dBu
Mic input, gain at max (60 dB):
–50 dBu
Line input, gain at min (–15 dB):
+25 dBu
Instrument input, gain at min (–15 dB):
+8 dBu
Monitor Output at unity/max:
+10 dBu
Phones at unity/max:
8mW into 600
(1% THD+N)
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