A good quality audio interface is an important and necessary part of your set up. This is the way you get the signal from the microphone into your computer. Essentially, it’s a preamp and AD/DA converter in one box and is a necessary part of any podcasting setup.
As with many different aspects of podcasting and audio recording, there are so many different models on the market it’s a confusing matter to find the one to best fit your needs. So I’ve had a look around at what’s available at the end of 2020 and tried to pick out the best for podcasting.
So buckle up kiddos, this is going to be a wild ride.
OK, so I may have oversold it a bit there. But before I get into the ‘which is best’ part of this article, I want to set out a few caveats first.
The first one is that not all these interfaces will be compatible with your computer. Some are USB-2, and USB-C is becoming more popular, so some are now USB-C and require USB-3 in your computer. Some use FireWire, although that is considered an older technology now it’s still available and some use Thunderbolt.
Whilst Thunderbolt looks like USB-C, it isn’t the same. If you are looking at a Thunderbolt Interface, make sure your computer has a Thunderbolt port on it. So before you decide on anything, check. Whether going to a store or buying online, you don’t want to have to return something because the port you thought was Thunderbolt isn’t, or you don’t have USB-3 on your laptop.
Another main issue is the inputs and outputs they have for audio. It is important to note here that there is a lot of marketing jargon and input/output formats we simply aren’t going to need, so don’t get thrown by an interface that advertises 16 inputs or whatever – they probably won’t all be used for podcasting as many of these ports will be phono, or instrument inputs, or MIDI, ADAT etc… For all but the most specialized of podcasting (or by most home studios, to be honest) these are features that aren’t needed or wanted.
Another thing to think about is that most people use audio interfaces for making music, so the features of most, if not all interfaces on the market are geared towards making music. There are various features on these interfaces that are designed and made for music, and I’ve tried to ignore those where possible. Things like guitar inputs and MIDI capability are a good thing when making music, but less useful for most podcasts. Of course, everyone does things differently and if your podcast is about guitars, having a guitar input is probably quite helpful.
Like most guides on The Seasoned Podcaster, these recommendations are simply that; guidance and recommendations. The interfaces I mention in these different categories are fantastic and I’ve tried to point you in the direction of a range rather than a specific model. For that reason, I’m focusing on the quality and different features of a range and where the good ones for podcasting are within that range.
Table of Contents
Must-have Audio Interface Features for Podcasting
What you need as an individual for your setup is going to be as unique as the podcast you produce, but one thing I think we can say with certainty is that we need a microphone input with gain control, an option for ‘phantom power’ (usually 48V), headphone and speaker outputs, and a way of connecting digitally to the computer. How many mic inputs you need and how many headphone sockets you need is going to be a personal thing but if you need multiple headphones plugged in, expect to need a headphone amp as a separate purchase as most interfaces have only one headphone out, with some having two.
Nice-to-have Features for a Podcast Audio Interface
As mentioned earlier, most audio interfaces are designed for music and home recording studios, so features tend to be more attuned to musicians and the needs of making music rather than podcasting, but depending on what you do in your podcast, some form of DSP (Digital Signal Processing – various effects you can record with rather than adding them in after in the DAW) may be helpful to you. Extra speaker outs may be helpful as well if you have more than one room set up or want to hear what your podcast sounds like on different speakers.
I’ve thought long and hard as to whether this next feature is a necessity or nice to have, but being able to record at a higher sample rate and bit depth is a really good thing. I would say that 48Khz is a necessity, and 96 and 192 are ‘nice to have’. All at 24 Bit of course. If you’ve not tried to record at a higher sample rate before, give it a go – you get a lot more headroom, and less noise so you can record that little bit quieter and have more control in the DAW.
So enough of all that. Let’s get on with the best picks of audio interfaces for podcasting.
For this, I’ve gone with the Apollo Twin range. There are a few different versions of this; some for Mac only, some for Windows only, some Thunderbolt, some USB so there will be one that connects to your computer in the format you want.
The pick of the range here is the Twin Duo MkII. They are available in both Thunderbolt and USB and work with both Mac and Windows. The reason I’ve made this my top pick is the preamps are beautiful and clean and work well. There’s loads of headroom in them so as you get more and more animated and excited in your speech, the interface will allow for that and give you the freedom to get some emotion into your podcast.
|Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB High-Resolution USB Interface with Realtime UAD DUO Processing||View on Amazon|
Also, the built-in DSP chips (or chip depending on the exact model you go for) is a great addition. This allows you to use some of the Universal Audio plugins on the input without using up any of your computer’s resources. The plugins themselves are exceptional and you get a small range of exceedingly high-quality preamps and compressors (as well as plugins more at home with music production) along with the unit, and, of course, an entire library you can purchase should you wish. For podcasting, you are unlikely to need a large number of plugins, so the Duo will give you enough. There is a more expensive Quad model available, but this is overkill for podcasting I think.
There are two XLR/line combi jacks as well as a headphone out and speaker outs. You may well need a small headphone amp to go with this if you need one in your setup, but that is likely to be the case whatever interface you buy. The headphone amp built-in here though is remarkably clear and will drive even very high ohmage headphones to good levels. You also get a low cutoff switch to get rid of any floor rumbles, 48V phantom power, a 20 dB pad, phase inverter, and the ability to link more than one unit together as discrete switches.
The preamp gain and monitoring levels are controlled by one knob that switches between what it controls. You can also expand to add more preamps with ADAT on most of the models, so that’s a good thing for the future if your podcasting requires more inputs.
The only niggle here is that you need a power adaptor with all of the interfaces in the Twin range, but if that is a deal-breaker, have a serious look at the Apollo Solo Thunderbolt version. That one is bus-powered. The Solo range is a bit less expensive than the Twin, and named Solo because they have one DSP chip, but use the same preamps, and are best seen as a ‘budget Twin’. I have an Apollo USB Solo sitting on my desk right now and it’s the one I use the most.
Audient ID range, with the main recommendation here being the ID14. These things are great. I mean, really really great. Audient is a British company that has made its name making studio consoles. I’ve had the pleasure of using one and they are utterly superb. A few years ago they decided to enter the ‘home’ market and they made a lot of their competition sit up and listen.
They’ve used the same preamps and AD/DA converters they put in their top-end professional consoles in a sub $500 audio interface. And you can tell. The sound quality here is great and so is the build quality. Phantom power, 2 XLR combi jacks, headphone out and two speaker outs, as well as ADAT, should you need to add more inputs in the future. USB2 is used as well so will connect to pretty much anything. If you don’t need phantom power, you can bus-power it from the USB lead so if you are out and about with a dynamic mic, this, and a laptop, you are good to go.
There is also an ID22 model that adds some sends and returns and an extra couple of outs with the same preamps, so if you need a bit more connectivity, check this out. There is an ID44, with 4 XLR inputs and the same outs as the 22. As well as this there is an ID4, with one XLR input and a different preamp that is not quite as good as its siblings but is still a very good model. The 4 is aimed more as a ‘budget’ or ‘beginner’ model and is well suited for connecting to phones and tablets. If that’s in your ballpark, great, but otherwise, it isn’t the best.
Best Budget Audio Interface for Podcasting
This one has to be the humble Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen. Astonishing quality – for the price. This would be a better contender in the budget range than the ID4 because you are getting more and better features for a similar price. You keep the bus power but gain an XLR input and a comparable preamp and clarity of sound.
These are also compatible with the iPad, so if you want to go portable, this is a good call. The latest model is USB-C, bus-powered so no adaptor to worry about, and has a great and unique function they call ‘air’. This is a switch that actives a pre-set DSP algorithm to emulate the Focusrite ISA mic preamp at the Air studios. This gives a subtle but noticeable boost to the mid-high frequencies and is a really good addition for the voice. It helps create a bit of clarity and adds, well, ‘air’ into the sound.
For the price point, these things are really good and you have to jump a couple of hundred dollars to get better. In the budget range of audio interfaces, you have to go a very long way to get better than a Focusrite Scarlett. They are well worth checking out.
I use one quite happily along with an iPad and various mics as a ‘field recorder’. I’ve found the preamps better than my actual field recorder with a bit more headroom and a more natural sound. These things truly are great.
|Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First||View on Amazon|
Best Single XLR Audio Interface
If you only need one XLR input and hate the thought of one going to waste, then there are two options open to you; an Audient ID4 (previously mentioned) or a Focusrite Solo 3rd Gen. Go for the Focusrite. The features are the same as the Scarlet 2i2, but with a small difference – one XLR. Also, rather than it being a combi-jack, there is a separate instrument input. That’s pretty much it.
For my setup and use, should my Scarlett 2i2 take a tumble or go sleep with the fishes at any point soon, it will be replaced by one of these. I don’t need two XLRs for what I need it for, and I can save a few dollars in the process. So why not.
|Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First||View on Amazon|
Best Audio Interface with Two XLR Inputs
You’ve probably guessed by now that I have a lot of love for Audient, Focusrite, and Apollo. Of the interfaces I’ve used for podcasting, these are the best. Solid, no features we don’t want or need as podcasters, good and solid drivers or software and they work.
So, in this category, I’m putting up an Audient EVO 4. The EVO range uses the same preamps as the ID4, which, whilst not ‘the best’, are still good. The reason this is here is because of the ‘smart gain’ function.
Let’s say you are interviewing someone who isn’t used to using microphones and they are moving their hear around a lot, talking into their hands a bit, leaning forwards and backward now and again and getting animated and loud at times, almost screaming right into the microphone. Then, thirty seconds later leaning back in the chair and whispering at the ceiling. Annoying isn’t it? The gain knob feels like a bucking bronco and you are desperately trying to stay on top of it whilst joining in with the conversation and holding a natural-sounding conversation.
The EVO 4 laughs in the face of that situation by automatically adjusting the gain as is needed. It’s a clever little thing and, unlike the autogain on your smartphone mic, this one is a bit more intelligent. Added to a decent preamp (and a decent mic plugged in of course) and this is a sensible offering for podcasting that works well.
Whilst the initial design from Audient may well have been for musicians, the smart gain function works well for podcasters. Whether this is by design or happy accident I don’t know, but it’s a win I am happy to take.
Best Audio Interface with Four XLR Inputs
The Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB is my winner here, wi the Audient ID44 coming a close second. The main difference between the two here is the DSP on the Focusrite. Whilst it doesn’t have an air button, like the Scarlett, it has better. A software-controlled ISA preamp emulator lifts this as a built-in feature that the Audient doesn’t have. There are features here such as MIDI that, as a podcaster, you probably aren’t going to need but it’s a small thing that’s there.
The preamps on the Clarett are a step up from the Scarlett and you get a bit more dynamic range and slightly lower noise floor so clarity and quality is an improvement here.
|Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB 18-In/8-Out Audio Interface||View on Amazon|
So there they are. These are my pick of the many different interfaces out at the moment that are well suited to podcasting. There will be different criteria to look at for music and different features to emphasize, but for spoken word, these provide the best bang-for-buck with the fewest features added you probably aren’t going to use.