At one point in the not-so-distant past, you either needed a decked-out analog studio or a painfully expensive digital audio workstation to attain the type of sound deemed to be at the professional level. Much to the collective rejoicing of songwriters, producers, musicians, audio engineers, and content creators literally everywhere, that can be filed away as a memory of the olden times. Thanks to clever tech and manufacturing by brands such as Universal Audio, Antelope, Apogee, and more, there are powerful audio interfaces that contain high-quality circuitry and onboard DSP (digital signal processing) in a desktop form factor taking less space than a lunch plate. They may not dish out tasty BLTs, but they sure can help you get polished and impactful audio without slowing down your computer’s CPU.
Shure MOTIV MVi
One of the smallest and simplest of the interfaces in this article is Shure’s MOTIV MVi. This single-input gem is perfect for knocking out one track at a time to a Mac/Windows computer (through the supplied cables for USB Type-C or USB Type-A ports) or to an iPhone or iPad (Lightning cable available separately). You’re also in luck if you have an Android mobile device that supports USB Audio Class 2.0 and micro-USB OTG (On-The-Go) connectivity. The MVi’s single input is an XLR-1/4" combo jack mated to a discrete JFET Class-A buffered preamp, allowing you to record a mic or an electric instrument; 48V phantom power for condenser mics is available when the MVi is connected to a computer. A quick tap of the touch panel lets you select any of the five DSP modes, which feature limiting, compression, and EQ pre-configured for vocals, acoustic instruments, and more. Those processes can also be tweaked through the ShurePlus MOTIV companion app.
Apogee Electronics Duet 3
Designed to be the audiophile-quality centerpiece of a mobile recording setup, the Apogee Electronics Duet 3 is a 2 x 4 USB Type-C audio interface bringing Apogee's legendary sonic performance and intuitive operability to an ultracompact, elegant, and durable form factor. While the low-profile exterior combines an aluminum base with a Gorilla Glass top to make it durable and attractive, the internals boast built-in hardware DSP to power the optional Symphony ECS Channel Strip plug-in for signal sculpting and polishing via a vintage-modeled 3-band EQ, a Bob-Clearmountain-tuned compressor, and analog saturation.
It features two world-class microphone preamps with phantom power and plenty of gain to ensure robust amplification even for low-output ribbons and classic dynamics such as the Shure SM7B. It can also accept line-level signals or direct connections from instruments such as electric guitar and bass. With two balanced analog 1/4" TRS line/monitor outputs and a stereo 3.5mm headphone output, the Duet 3 can feed a set of monitors and your favorite headphones at the same time. It comes with a breakout cable, or it can be used with the Duet Dock (available separately) to keep the Duet 3 at an ergonomic angle while circumventing the need for the breakout cable.
PreSonus Revelator io24
Another 2 x 4 USB Type-C interface is the Revelator io24 from PreSonus. Loaded with onboard DSP, loopback channels, and complete configuration for streaming at the click of a button, the Revelator io24 blends studio-quality sonic performance and refreshing ease of use, so podcasters, livestreamers, content creators, and musicians can get great sounds in a hurry. Plus, it comes with a powerful software package that includes two DAWs, a slew of virtual instruments, plug-in effects, loops, samples, and much more.
On the hardware side, the two XMAX-L preamps and 24-bit / 96 kHz converters deliver clarity and natural tonality for mics, instruments, or line-level sources. Whether you use the factory presets or create your own, the built-in Fat Channel processing offers pro-level impact without ever taxing your computer. Use the two loopback channels and integrated mixer to pipe in backing tracks or a call-in guest, and feed independent mixes to the main and headphone outputs. 5-pin MIDI I/O ports allow simple hookup of a MIDI controller, synthesizer, or groovebox, making the Revelator io24 advantageous for beatmakers, keyboardists, and electronic music producers, as well.
Antelope Zen Go Synergy Core
Take pro-grade conversion, clocking, and preamps anywhere you go with the Antelope Zen Go Synergy Core, a desktop 4 x 8 USB Type-C audio interface that puts premium sound quality in a convenient bus-powered format that's priced within reach of part-time artists and musicians. In addition to the revealing quality of its hardware, the Zen Go Synergy Core empowers you with 37 analog-modeled real-time effects, which are powered by the onboard DSP and FPGA chips to ensure ultra-low latency and no burden on your computer's CPU.
Each of the two Antelope Discrete mic/line/Hi-Z preamps has its own phantom power and up to 65 dB of gain, so the interface is primed and ready for recording all sorts of microphones, instruments, or even line-level signals from outboard gear. Equipped with two independently adjustable headphone outputs and mirrored balanced/unbalanced monitor outs, the Zen Go Synergy Core can act as your home studio's hub for multiple sets of headphones, mixes, and monitor feeds. Its S/PDIF digital I/O ports are perfect for expanding your setup with digital gear such as external converters, and a secondary USB Type-C is provided, so you can charge your smartphone or tablet.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin
Offered in four variants—the Twin USB with USB 3.0 connectivity for Windows computers, the Twin MKII DUO with Thunderbolt™ 2 connectivity for Mac/Windows, and the Twin X DUO and Twin X QUAD with Thunderbolt™ 3 connectivity for Mac/Windows—the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Heritage Edition desktop 10 x 6 audio interface combines the sound, feel, and flow of analog studio recording with robust DUO Core or QUAD Core real-time UAD processing and a hearty bundle of 25 stellar UAD plug-ins ranging from vintage compressor and EQ collections to virtual guitar/bass amps and time-based processors.
The interface features two XLR-1/4" mic/line combo inputs and a 1/4" Hi-Z input, all with Unison integration for precise UAD emulations of classic analog preamps—impart vintage character of your choosing on microphone and instrument recordings while bypassing the unpredictable nature of old equipment. Alongside the two analog input channels, you can record up to eight more channels by connecting external preamps with ADAT or S/PDIF optical outputs to the TOSLINK optical input port. In addition to the dedicated stereo monitor feed and front-panel headphone output, two 1/4" line outputs are available for connection to a second set of monitors. At any point, you can increase the power of the Apollo Twin through integration of qualified Universal Audio hardware.
With all this power at nearly every price point, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve the sonic performance previously only attainable by the upper echelon. Just combine your creativity with the right tools, and you’re on your way.
Let us know in the Comments section, below, which interface you like best and, while you’re at it, tell us about recording rigs you used years ago.