There are a lot of ways to record podcast audio: you could just use the built-in mic in your computer, or plug in a budget USB microphone. But when you’re ready to step up to a high-quality dynamic or condenser mic and get professional quality sound, you’re probably going to need a digital audio interface. Here’s why.
What Is the Best Audio Interface for Recording a Podcast
What is an audio interface for podcasts?
An audio interface is a physical device that transforms analog audio signals from a microphone or an instrument input into digital signals that can be processed by a computer. A podcast audio interface is no different than a digital audio interface you would use for recording any kind of audio.
A quality audio interface typically includes the following components:
- Inputs. Most audio interfaces include ports for 3-prong XLR inputs as well as ports for 1/4-inch cables. Some may offer inputs for 1/8-inch plugs as well, but that’s less common. XLR is the gold standard for mic inputs because it has a balanced signal that cuts out background noise and hiss.
- Gain knobs. Next to each mic input, you should see a knob that controls the amount of gain you add to an audio signal. This can be great for boosting mics with high impedance, meaning they need an external source of power to produce a strong audio signal. (Some of the best microphones for podcasts, like the Shure SM7B, have high impedance and have to be driven by a powerful preamp to boost their volume and capture the full range of audio frequencies.)
- PAD. A passive attenuation device (known by the acronym PAD though usually spelled in lower-case letters as “pad”) is a mechanism that limits the signal coming through a microphone and into your audio interface. If you have an overly loud signal coming through your microphone, it will cause distortion and clip the high frequencies. To fix that, you can cut a certain number of decibels by flipping on the pad. This can improve overall podcast sound quality on ultra-high gain audio inputs.
- Phantom power. A condenser microphone requires external power to maintain a flow of electrical current. Most audio interfaces can provide this current, which flows from a power source (like your computer) through the interface and into the microphone using an XLR cable. This kind of current might be labeled as phantom power on your interface, or it might be labeled +48v. In both cases, you activate this current by pushing a button or flipping a switch.
- Digital outputs. Most digital audio interfaces are USB interfaces, which means they connect to a computer using a USB cable. There are also audio interfaces specifically designed for the Apple iPhone and iPad. Because they use a proprietary Lightning port, USB audio interfaces don’t natively connect to these devices. Fortunately, companies like Apogee make iPhone-specific digital audio interfaces, and these work with Lightning ports.
- Analog audio outputs. If you want to directly monitor your audio recordings without involving your computer’s sound card, you can use the analog audio outputs on your audio interface. This comes in handy when you want to plug in big, powerful monitor speakers instead of using small computer speakers. These output ports are usually 1/4-inch, but some audio interfaces use RCA cables or even XLR cables.
- Headphone output. Last but not least on the inputs/outputs list is a headphone output for privately monitoring podcast sound quality. Headphone outputs have their own volume control that won’t affect other outputs, whether those are USB, XLR, or 1/4 inch.
Why is an audio interface a must for podcasters?
A digital audio interface is the link between your podcast microphone and your audio recorder. In most cases that audio recorder will be a computer running digital recording software.
Digital audio interfaces translate analog audio, like your spoken voice, into the digital language of computing. Without it, you have no way to get high-quality sound onto your computer for editing. Technically you can avoid buying a digital audio interface if you have a microphone with a USB output, which can plug directly into a computer, or a Lightning output, which can plug directly into an iPhone or iPad. Most of the best-quality microphones use XLR outputs, however, and these won’t plug directly into a computer; you need an interface to use them.
Top 10 audio interfaces for podcasters
Los Angeles-based producer, composer, and recording engineer Dave McKeever has used countless audio interfaces over his 25 years in the recording business. Here are some models he recommends, interspersed with other models that are popular within the industry.
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. There are many iterations of this distinctive red audio interface, but the 2i2 stereo interface is a classic. The Focusrite Scarlett line is pretty affordable, its units are mostly bus powered (which means the USB cable provides the power), and its built-in preamps are solid. This may be the best “bang for your buck” digital audio interface on the market — you can expect to pay about $180 for the 2i2. While Dave owns multiple audio interfaces, he uses his Focusrite Scarlett the most.
- Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2. This Mackie unit is about 40% cheaper than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but it offers very similar functionality. This includes two inputs for XLR or 1/4-inch cables, gain knobs, 1/4-inch outputs, a USB digital output, a headphone jack, and phantom power. “Mackie is a really well-known brand with a long history in the audio industry,” Dave says, “so it has a lot of loyal fans.”
- Tascam US-2×2. Tascam was an industry leader when recordings took place on multi-track tape. While doesn’t have quite same level of industry dominance in the digital arena, Tascam still puts out great products. If you like the features of the Scarlett or the Blackjack but you’re drawn to Tascam’s legacy, the US-2x2 may be your best bet. One thing to note, though: it’s a bit more expensive than those models, clocking in at around $250.
- Apogee One. Apogee has long been a leading brand in professional-grade audio, and the Apogee One is among its most affordable offerings. It has a built-in omnidirectional condenser microphone and a breakout cable for taking 1/4-inch inputs (common among instruments) or XLR inputs (common among microphones). It can handle a total of two analog inputs at a time. Dave recommends the One to podcasters who want to try out the Apogee ecosystem but have limited budgets.
- Apogee Duet. The Duet is the next step up from Apogee. It uses a docking module to provide additional XLR and 1/4-inch inputs. It can also connect simultaneously to two separate devices using USB-C. This would be helpful if you want to record on two computers simultaneously. Apogee is known for its vast library of digital plugins, and a number of these come bundled with the Duet. “A lot of people swear by Apogee plugins like reverb and compression,” Dave says, “but it’s always a matter of personal taste.”
- Universal Audio Apollo Twin X. Universal Audio has built its name by making professional-grade recording equipment that appeals to the broader consumer market. The Twin X is the latest update to its most popular model. Feature-wise, it’s more of an all-in-one unit than its Apogee competitors because it doesn’t require any breakout cables or docks. Universal Audio has its own set of custom audio plugins. You’ll have to experiment to decide whether you prefer UA’s plugins, Apogee’s plugins, or those of a different manufacturer. “UA and Apogee are both great,” Dave says. “If possible, check out their various plugins before you commit to buying.”
- Sound Devices MixPre 6. Running at a little over $1000, this is a pretty pricey option — but it has features that work better for a home podcaster than the brand’s other offerings. “Unlike more expensive Sound Devices models, it can plug into USB on your computer,” Dave says. He personally keeps one in his studio for high-end audio demands like recording film scores or miking featured lead vocalists.
- Universal Audio Apollo x16. If you’re running a commercial podcast studio and have money to spare, you may find yourself drooling over the UA Apollo x16. This device features 16 channels of analog audio, multiple USB-C connectors using the Thunderbolt 3 standard, and the heft to handle 7.1 Surround Sound mixing. While it’s not for those on a tight budget, this device comes brimming with power. “This power will come in handy if you’re recording an entire live band all at once,” Dave says, “but if you’re tracking one instrument at a time, you don’t actually need all those inputs.”
- M-Audio M-Track Solo. For a hyper-affordable recording option, check out the M-Audio M-Track Solo, which usually retails for around $50. This device has one single input, but it can support XLR and provide phantom power. It can also output audio through a 1/4-inch cable or send a digital signal via USB (but you can only choose one at a time). It’s a super affordable interface from a reliable brand.
- Blue Yeti. This final recommendation from Dave isn’t an interface — instead, it’s a single microphone that plugs directly into the USB port on your computer. Very popular and very easy to use, this is a great budget pick for podcasters who just need to record their own voice and nothing else.
Things to look out for before buying an audio interface
Here are producer and engineer Dave McKeever’s top 5 criteria to consider when shopping for an audio interface.
- Connectivity. Make sure your audio interface can connect to all your digital devices. USB is the standard, but some audio interfaces connect to Apple’s proprietary Lightning plug for iPhone and iPad.
- Number of inputs. Depending on your recording needs, you might only need one single input. Dave suggests you future-proof by picking a device with at least two inputs — you never know when your solo podcast will need a cohost.
- Power needs. Can you power your interface using bus power and a USB cable? Or do you need to plug it into a wall socket, which will provide more gain but also make the device less portable?
- Sample rates. “Higher sampling rates equal better resolution,” Dave says. “As long as your interface does 48k, you’re probably pretty good. Recording in 48k is the industry standard. You can get into higher sampling rates, but your file size increases.”
- Bit depth. “Higher bit depth gives you more flexibility down the line,” Dave says. “Bit depth means that you have a little more ability to turn up the volume later and not add a bunch of noise and distortion. 24 bit is the industry standard and all new audio interfaces will record at this level.”
7 accessories to complete your podcast setup
Here’s a gear checklist to consult as you build your podcast recording setup.
- Microphone. Whether you choose a dynamic microphone or a condenser microphone, pick a unit that does well with the human voice. The other components of your podcast won’t matter if your audio isn’t clear, articulate, and free from unwanted distortion.
- Microphone stand. A good mic stand frees up your hands and keeps the mic steady throughout the recording, which reduces unwanted noise.
- Microphone cable. A mic cable (typically an XLR cable) connects the microphone to the audio interface.
- Pop filter. A pop filter is a thin membrane of fabric that sits in front of the microphone and prevents plosives (like the letter “p”) from creating popping sounds in the recording.
- Audio interface. Choose an audio interface based on the criteria we’ve laid out above.
- Headphones and speakers. Headphones and speakers let you monitor your recordings while they happen. You’ll also use them to listen back as you edit the recording.
- Computer with your choice of DAW. Last, but certainly not least, you need a place to edit your recorded audio. For nearly all podcasters, that will be a computer running a digital audio workstation (DAW). Popular DAW brands include ProTools, Adobe Audition, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and, of course, Descript.
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