5 Guitar-Friendly Interfaces for Under $200
These easy-plug-and-play boxes from Focusrite, PreSonus, IK Multimedia, TASCAM, and Audient offer a lot of recording power—and a variety of options—at affordable prices.
From a guitarist’s perspective, an audio interface is the box that lets you easily record studio-like tones on your laptop or desktop computer. Essentially, interfaces provide the inputs and outputs you need to do this efficiently, help you record at a higher bit rate to achieve a richer sound, and allow you to adjust gain to achieve the tones you desire.
There are a lot of guitar-friendly audio interfaces out there, so let’s take a look at five of the friendliest and most affordable. All offer high-quality preamps and come with software that includes recording and mixing capabilities. They all sound good, but a few have special sauce—more flexibility, more functions, a more solid build. They’re all easy to set up, have headphone outs, and are bus-powered, which means they get juice from the USB port they’re plugged into—although a power adapter may be required when using an iPad. All of these interfaces provide easy, album-quality recording ability for low dough.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 4th Generation.
This fourth generation version of the company’s tried and true interface has been beefed up for guitar, with Auto Gain to optimize recording levels, and Clip Safe, which adjusts gain levels (the overall gain range is a whopping 69 dB) in danger of clipping, plus dynamic gain halos that make it easy to see if you’re overloading the signal. Otherwise, this popular, low-latency device in an anodized aluminum enclosure still has two inputs and outputs, and two mic preamps. It also comes with a free expansion bundle that provides amp plugins (including a killer Silver Jubilee), a reverb plugin modeled on the Hit Factory’s ’verb, plus compression, a synth, a console, and other handy virtual devices. But my favorite feature is the new Air button. Without the Air feature engaged, the preamps sound clean and clear, with loads of headroom. Push the Air button once and you get more high frequencies—it sounds like recording through a high-fidelity console. Push the Air button again and the midrange frequencies are boosted for thick, muscular electric guitar sounds. The 2i2 bundle also includes a three-month Pro Tools Artist subscription and Ableton Live Lite, to get you started.
$199 street, focusrite.com
PreSonus AudioBox USB96 25th Anniversary.
The latest iteration of the company’s popular AudioBox interface has two ins and outs, and mic preamps—with a 35 dB range—that have an excellent reputation for delivering pristine audio signal. Low latency means you can listen without a hitch as you layer over tracks you’ve already recorded. The steel-chassis box comes with Studio One DAW software, used by a lot of pro recording engineers. The software bundle also includes an extensive collection of plugins, along with the Capture Duo iPad App, which allows easier recording and mixing on an iPad.
$99 street, presonus.com
IK Multimedia iRig HD X.
If you’re looking for extreme portability, the pocket-sized HD X might be your jam. It has the same 24-bit/96kHz A/D conversion rate as all these units, and seems designed for quick-and-dirty tracking with an iPhone or iPad. The preamp is instrument-only—no microphones—and it’s got amp and headphone outs, all mono-only. AmpliTube 5SE is included for amp emulations, and TONEX SE, with lots of outboard-gear-modeling options, is also part of the package. Plus, the Loopback+ virtual effects loop brings even more value to this tiny titan.
$129 street, ikmultimedia.com
The big difference with this two-in/two-out interface is its MIDI ins and outs for studio controllers. And while it has a solid build and sturdy controls for gain, ins, and outs, it also comes with Steinberg’s Cubase SE to get you up and tracking, plus the SampleTrack sound and groove workstation.
$129 street, tascam.com
Audient iD4 MkII.
This device uses the same discrete class-A preamp that’s in the company’s recording consoles on its channel 1—good for any mics. A separate JFET input handles guitars and other high impedance instruments. The all-metal box has quarter-inch and eighth-inch headphone outs, and you can pan playback and recording tracks, to better hear what you’re cutting. The software bundle is the ARC suite, which provides virtual instruments, cab sims, plugin effects, and Steinberg’s Cubase/Cubasis LE3 for desktop and mobile DAWs.
$199 street, audient.com