Thanks to some huge advancements over the last decade, there has never been a better time to record your guitar in a home studio – as this guide to the best guitar audio interfaces attests. The capabilities of audio interfaces and digital audio workstations (DAWS) these days means it is incredibly easy and cost-effective to produce great sounding guitar tones in your own home.
In fact, music tech brands are now producing guitar-specific audio interfaces – a far cry from the early days of these devices.
In a nutshell, an audio interface is designed to get audio in and out of your computer, and to connect instruments (such as your guitar) and essential studio gear when you record.
While there is one option that we think truly stands as the best audio interface for guitar, needs and budgets can vary widely, so we’ve compiled a list of items that can help capture and shape your sound as a player from every price point, and whatever recording projects you have in mind.
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Best guitar audio interfaces: what you need to know
The main thing you need to consider when it comes to choosing the best guitar audio interface for you is what input/output configuration (I/O) you will need. These configurations can vary from one analog instrument (such as, y’know, a guitar) and microphone input like you’ll find on the Audient iD4, right up to the M-Audio Air 192|14 which has eight inputs and is much better equipped for live recording. The number and type of inputs and outputs you need depend on what you’re planning to record.
If you’re simply looking to record yourself playing guitar direct, or to mic up your cabinet or acoustic guitar, then you will really only need one pair of inputs, i.e an instrument (¼” jack) input, and a microphone (XLR) input. Many interfaces on this list actually come equipped with XLR combo inputs, which can take either instrument or microphone. If you are looking to record several instruments and singers at the same time, you will need something with more options. The ratio of microphone to instrument inputs you need also depends on whether you are mainly looking to record things direct or through microphones.
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When it comes to recording your guitar directly into an audio interface, it’s important that you are using instrument-level or hi-Z inputs. While all the guitar audio interfaces on this list have hi-Z inputs, some will also have line-level inputs, which are used for outboard processors and will not process an amplified instrument well. For microphone recording, if you are using condenser mics, it’s important to ensure your interface has phantom power as these mics will need a power source. Fortunately, almost all interfaces with microphone inputs these days have this feature. Secondly, if you are looking to do a lot of microphone-based recording, finding something with a great sounding pre-amp is a must.
When it comes to outputs, there are seven main types to look out for. Headphone, monitor, MIDI, line (balanced and unbalanced), SPDIF, Word Clock, ADAT/Lightpipe/TOS Link. Most interfaces will come with at least monitor, line and headphone outputs, as that’s what most people need to effectively record and mix. However, you may want to conduct some further research into all the output uses to decide if you need anything further.
Other things to consider
Sample rate and bit rate
While sample and bit rate are important, ultimately most modern guitar interfaces will be able to record at the industry standard of 44.1kHz. Outside of this, the frequencies aren’t really heard by the human ear. Bit rate goes hand in hand with sample rate and represents the amount of information, or detail, that is stored per unit of time of a recording. The industry standard for digital recording these days is 24 bit and most interfaces allow for at least 48.
The majority of audio interfaces out there are USB connected, which is a safe bet as most digital devices are USB compatible. One thing worth considering is that while common, USB 2.0 does not offer the fastest connection (aka low latency). Thankfully many new interface models are compatible with USB 3.0 and users would be wise to invest in a 3.0 cable and port.
Having said that, a number of the best audio interfaces have Thunderbolt connections. This is the fastest port out there – eight times faster than USB 3.0 – so it does mean improved performance. However, the one downside is that this connection was developed by Apple, so if you’re using an older Mac or a Windows PC you may have to install a thunderbolt port in your device.
Ease of use
How important this is will depend on your level of expertise. If you are new to recording at home, and just want to get going then we would direct you straight to the Focusrite’s Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen, the Audient iD4 or the Behringer U-Control UCA222.
While MIDI instruments do offer a range of options when it comes to producing music, whether it is necessary comes down to your preferences. If you are a guitarist who’s just looking to grip and rip, then you could probably forgo this feature. However, if you are looking to introduce a MIDI set-up like drum pads or synthesisers, then it could be worth looking at the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 or the SSL 2+ USB interfaces for their excellent MIDI compatibility.
The top picks in this best guitar audio interfaces guide cover all those bases extremely well, but in our opinion they also offer just a little more specifically for guitarists.
The best guitar audio interfaces right now
When it comes to getting DI guitars to sound good, nobody is better than IK Multimedia. IK has built a solid reputation for guitar amp and effects pedals modelling, so it’s little wonder they have built an interface with guitarists in mind.
The AXE I/O is a 2-in 5-out audio/MIDI interface with all the usual input and monitoring options, but the AXE I/O notably includes specialised guitar inputs. These can be set for passive or active pickups, and have variable input impedance that you can dial in with a knob to set how the unit interacts with your pickups. It also features an ‘Amp’ output, which can be connected to amplifiers and effects pedals before redirecting back into the DAW, which makes capturing your sound on record a very easy task. It also includes XLR combo inputs for those who want to record with mics.
Capable of up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution, as well as boasting MIDI inputs and outputs, the AXE I/O can do pretty well everything that the other interfaces on this list can, but is so much more geared towards capturing and enhancing the sound of the guitar directly than any other interface. It’s hands down the best guitar audio interface out there right now.
IK Multimedia has just launched the Axe I/O Solo, a more compact and affordable version of the original. We’re yet to test it, but you can be sure we’ll share the results here when we do.
Read the full IK Multimedia AXE I/O review
Easily one of the slickest looking interfaces around, the Komplete Audio 2 offers a simple yet powerful recording experience for guitarists. The 2-in-2-out interface notably features two XLR-¼” combo inputs to help keep the size of this device – which weighs a feather light 380g – to a minimum. With these inputs, users can move between mic and instrument through the use of individual selector switches, while phantom power can be engaged from a separate global switch.
With one big knob to control the main out level and a simple five-point level display, it is also very simple to use in terms of monitoring. One of the biggest downsides to this interface, however, is that direct monitoring – which allows the user to listen directly to the input signal of the interface – can not be done through the main output and can only be done via headphones.
It does, however, come with a decent package of bundled content that includes Ableton Live 10 Lite, Maschine 2 Essentials, Monark synth, Phasis phaser, Replika delay and Solid Bus Compressor. Factoring in the portability, design, usability and this software package, for just over $100, the Komplete Audio 2 represents great value for money for the guitarist looking to start their recording journey.
While it’s a truly well-built piece of equipment, one of the key selling points of the Audient iD4 is just how simple and easy it is to use. As many guitarists are only recording one track at a time, it doesn’t make sense to buy an interface with loads of inputs they are never going to use. The iD4 is a simple 2-in-2-out USB powered interface featuring instrument-level DI for your guitar or bass guitar, as well as a mic preamp with phantom power for using condenser mics.
By keeping the number of inputs to a minimum, Audient is also able to keep the price down without sacrificing quality. In fact, the mic preamp in this is the same design as those used in Audient’s top-line desks and it’s all-metal casing makes it feel anything but cheap. As well as the main speaker outputs, it also features dual headphone outputs so two people can monitor the sound at the same time. Ultimately, the iD4 is one of the best value for money audio interfaces on the market.
One of the most renowned companies in the recording industry, Solid State Logic has been a little bit slow off the mark when it comes to producing desktop interfaces. Thankfully, the SSL2+ makes up for lost time. Aiming to be an affordable version of the SSL consoles featured in some of the world’s premier studios, the SSL2+ has a lot to offer.
While it features two XLR combo inputs, as well as six outputs and a MIDI in/out, there is one main thing that sets the SSL2+ from other interfaces on this list. The 4K button (modelled on the 4000 E channel strip) which adds some extra presence and high-end emphasis to your direct sound and can really make you feel like a pro at home.
It also has great monitoring features, with monitor mix, monitor level and two independent headphone knobs, giving you a lot more control of your output.
The Focusrite Scarlett didn’t become the highest-selling interface in the world by chance. This interface has earned a reputation of reliability among podcasters, producers, and guitarists alike. And while its simple design has made it a great first choice for beginners, its emphasis on quality has meant that it continues to be favored by professionals as well.
One thing that separates this line from other audio interface developers is that while others will release a new version of their product every two or three years, Focusrite is updating every year. The latest 3rd Generation of the Scarlett has been tweaked to deliver better sonics with sample rates up to 192kHz, and lower latency.
In terms of inputs, it features two XLR-¼” combo inputs, as well as two ¼” line inputs; it's quite versatile despite its size. It also features a great sounding mic pre-amp which will definitely be valued by those looking to make use of their microphones. There is also a range of great plugins in the accompanying software package to inspire the DI guitarist as well.
While praised for its simple design and low-latency, one way Focusrite achieves that is through heavy reliance on their software. For example, there is no button to activate a hi-Z input and this must be done through the software, unlike other items on this list.
If you are chasing some authentic warm analogue tones, then the Audient Sono has you covered. Loaded with a 12AX7 valve, coupled with Two Notes Torpedo power amp modelling and cab simulation, playing through the Sono sounds and feels like playing through a real valve amp. As such, the Sono is able to capture authentic guitar tones right off the bat.
As it works essentially like an amp, it is also very pedal friendly, allowing you to make good use of the tools that shape your sound. And when it comes to the cab simulation package, the basic package includes 20 different models, so there is plenty of scope to hone your tone even further. It also includes some XLR inputs, which means guitarists looking to capture the sound of their acoustic, or their own cab can do so as well.
One of the only real downsides is that it can get very noisy when monitoring through headphones, which can hinder tracking performances. Otherwise it’s a well-made interface that’s clearly been designed with the guitarist in mind.
For guitarists looking for an interface with live recording in mind, the M-Audio Air 192|14 is a great option for you. This 8-in-4-out interface is one of the most versatile pieces on this list purely because – coupled with it’s MIDI compatibility – it has the most diverse I/O configuration.
As well as delivering great all-round sound capabilities with very clean preamps, the Air 192|14 is a great performer with zero latency recording capability through direct output monitoring. It also comes with a great introductory software package including Pro Tools First, Ableton Live Lite and Touch Loops.
However, as a result of the extra inputs, it is also one of the bulkiest items in this guide, so you may want to consider your priorities before committing to this one.
At a glance, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo MKII is a very simple looking piece of kit. A 2-in-6-out with one main control knob, it certainly looks chic, if maybe a bit minimal for something in this price range. However, there is certainly more than meets the eye with this one. The Apollo stands out because of its Unison technology, which creates a hybrid between the analogue front end and Unison-driven plugins through the UAD platform. These plugins model a range of mic preamps, guitar amps and stompboxes, pairing impedance switching and gain staging on the analogue front-end with component-level circuit modelling in software. Ultimately, it offers a range of studio-quality guitar tones at a fairly accessible price.
While compatible with all DAWS, it also comes with UAD’s very own LUNA workstation, so it could be a great option for those who haven’t settled on a DAW yet.
Many will be familiar with the Big Knob’s place as a studio monitor control, but things are ramped up a notch with the Big Knob Studio. This range sees the Big Knob become the true studio centrepiece as an audio interface as well as a monitor control.
This USB connected device delivers high audio resolution, including 24-bit/192-kHz recording and playback, and features two XLR combo inputs, as well a 1/8“ input for your phone. What really sets the Big Knob Studio apart is how user friendly it is when it comes to monitoring, which shouldn’t be surprising as this is Mackie’s bread and butter. As such, it’s one of the most ergonomic interfaces here; simple enough for beginners to get to grips with, and versatile enough for professionals. And while the Big Knob Studio might not have many unique guitar-centric features or add-ons, it is still a top-quality product that can truly become the nerve center of your home studio in a way that some of these other interfaces cannot.
While it is USB connected, it does still need an additional power source which means it may not be very transportable.
While all of these interfaces are great and offer a range of recording options, many of them will exceed some guitarists needs and budget. If you are looking for something simple you can just plug in and play without any fancy extras, this could be a good option for you. Easily one of the cheapest interfaces out there, it makes for a great starting point for players just looking to get their head around recording at home. Being relatively compact, it’s also very transportable and makes for a great on-the-go option.
Of course, being a budget device, you shouldn’t expect it to set the world on fire in terms of audio resolution. In fact, it does have by far the lowest sample rate of all interfaces on this list. It also lacks microphone inputs so you are limited to DI instrument recording with this one.