Building out the Home Studio, Part 3 - The Audio Interface
The next piece you'll need for a solid home recording setup is a solid audio interface. These are basically more advanced versions of the sound card found in your computer, but specifically designed for audio work and MIDI instrument inputs. They serve as the hub of your home studio, connecting any mics, instruments, or other inputs to the DAW software on your computer.
The e-Home Recording Studio blog has a good breakdown of essential things to know when picking your DAW.
I wanted one that was small enough to fit on my desk - and I didn't have a lot to spend on it. Fortunately you can pick up a halfway decent one for about $150 - or opt for a few more inputs like I did and spend around $300, gaining a little quality and speed along the way.
Both Presonus and Focusrite make a great series of home studio audio interfaces. I opted for the USB 2.0 Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 because it claimed incredibly low latency, had enough inputs for me to grow with, and because it was red. Yup. I'm partial to red and even on a little electronic box, if I can have it be red, so much the better!
The low latency was especially important to me because I needed to increase the speed of response for my keyboard. Latency is measured in milliseconds and measures the time from when you press a key on the MIDI controller to when you'd hear a note back through your speakers. If this is too high, it can make it very challenging to play notes in time, or correctly hear yourself and record along side a previously recorded track. Not good, and if you're a modest piano player like me - very distracting! Without a good interface, you can't get this response time very low because standard sound cards will start to introduce play back errors when you try to push their response time lower. This can be just as problematic as hearing the note too late. Without the interface, the best (fastest) time I could get from when I pressed a note to hearing it was about 30ms. With the interface hooked up, I now have this down to about 6ms - for me, as long as it is under 10ms it seems that you are playing in "real time" - higher than that and I really struggled to lay down the notes I wanted when I wanted them.
The Focusrite also had a decent headphone amp in it, and because I was starting in my living room, I needed this so I didn't bug the neighbors and the wife.
The Scarlett 6i6 has worked great for me - I'd recommend the Scarlett series for anyone starting out and needing a better than built in soundcard for their studio.