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Focusrite is one of those companies that you just can’t help but be a little proud of. The British company was relatively obscure in the music production world, manufacturing outboard gear such as preamplifiers and channel strips. But over the past decade, they have emerged as the industry leader in USB audio interfaces for amateur and semi-pro musicians. The Focusrite Scarlett series is practically synonymous with audio interfaces at this point.
An audio interface is one of the least sexy parts of music production, but it’s the fundamental link between music and the computer. If you’re not familiar, its role is simple. Audio interfaces take mic, instrument, and/or MIDI cables as inputs, and output to a computer or laptop via USB cable. Formerly, music recording involved recording to tape machines. A USB audio interface can be thought of as a tape machine that writes to your hard drive instead of tape. Tape machines are large, expensive, and very mechanically complex, so once computers became powerful enough, the transition to digital was inevitable.
At this point, the vast majority of the world’s music involves an audio interface of some kind, and a computer. Many musicians still use analog gear such as tape machines during the recording process, but the music is pretty much always recorded to a computer at some point or another. If you want to use a metaphor, a USB interface is kind of like a sink. It’s one of the most overlooked fixtures in the kitchen. But if you tried cooking without a sink, you wouldn’t get far.
For the record, you may have come across USB microphones, which do not need an audio interface. I have never encountered one I would recommend. These have built-in mini interfaces by definition. The mics themselves, and built-in interfaces, are not great quality.
Focusrite Scarlett Series
When you are choosing a USB interface, the Focusrite Scarlett series is truly a great choice. It’s priced fairly, built well, and performs solidly. Furthermore, since they are so popular, there is lots of online support.
Setting up any kind of new technology can involve very frustrating troubleshooting for the customer. This translates to googling your problem and reading through forum posts by other people with similar issues. Since the Focusrites are so common, there is naturally extensive information online solving different issues. And since it is generally marketed as an introductory interface, many people have made tutorials to help beginners get started.
That said, a person shopping for audio interfaces has many great options. One might wonder about the best alternatives to the seemingly ubiquitous Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. Maybe you want something more inexpensive. On the other hand, you might wonder about your premium options. You might need more or less features than the 2i2 provides. Or you may just want to know what else is out there.
Making an Informed Choice
First, some more information about audio interfaces, so a person can make a more informed choice. Audio interfaces have two main components: pre-amps, and A/D converters. Pre-amps are necessary to raise the volume of the instrument or mic input. They are always used when recording from a mic, or recording direct-in using a guitar or bass. A/D converters convert the analog signal to digital.
Until a few years ago, A/D converters varied in quality. Technology has advanced to the point that they are all essentially interchangeable. Anecdotally, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anybody comparing the merits of different converters.
On the other hand, pre-amps are hotly debated. Think about guitar amplifiers. They all play the same basic function, but everyone knows how important amp choice is to guitar tone. Pre-amps are similar. Audio interfaces aim to have “transparent” pre-amps, meaning they don’t add any particular character to the sound. But there is a difference in quality between the pre-amps in an inexpensive vs expensive interface.
Many producers, myself included, bypass the pre-amps in their interface using outboard pre-amps. Some pre-amps are known for being extremely clean, others impart a desirable character. Some mics are known to sound great in conjunction with certain classic pre-amps. To put it simply: A/D converters shouldn’t factor into audio interface choice, but pre-amps should.
For the record, Focusrite was founded by Rupert Neve, and made professional pre-amps for years before releasing their first interface. Translation: Scarlett’s pre-amps are as good as any in their price range.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Alternatives
So read on for a comparison of different interfaces. This guide will focus on interfaces with two mic/instrument inputs. This is a common setup, because it is very flexible for most individual musicians’ needs. It gives the capability to record two tracks simultaneously- singing while playing an instrument, or stereo recording. You may only need one input, or you may need more (to record more musicians at once, or to record a drum set with lots of tracks at once). If so, most interfaces in this list belong to product lines that also include interfaces with more or less inputs. The price usually scales accordingly.
Comparable: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2
The Scarlett 2i2 is a great option for a 2-input audio interface. If that’s what you’re looking for, check out the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2. While Native Instruments is known mostly for Kontakt, the industry standard software that hosts sample and instrument libraries, they make hardware too. Anecdotally, I had a Native Instruments interface for a few years when I was starting out, and I was always really impressed with its build quality. This new interface from NI is priced slightly lower than the Scarlett 2i2, with the same feature set. It has an attractive minimalist look.
One feature that edges it above the 2i2 is the physical VU (volume input) meters. The Scarlett 2i2, and most interfaces, simply has an indicator light that flashes red when the audio is clipping. Generally users monitor their actual input level on their DAW. The Komplete Audio 2 lets you see your level at a glance. This could be very useful in live settings, where visibility is lower and you don’t want to waste time fiddling.
As I mentioned before though, this interface is new, and the Scarlett 2i2 has been the popular choice for years. This means there is less troubleshooting support for the Komplete Audio 2. Someone who is not confident in their tech skills should keep this in mind. This interface also may have driver issues since it is new. These are teething problems, and overall the Komplete Audio 2 is a great comparable choice.
Best Budget Option: Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD
Behringer has made a solid name for themselves as “the one option that costs ⅔ what everyone else’s does for some reason.” A few years back, buying a Behringer product was like gambling. Their prices were always the best, but the customer reviews always shook out the same way. 70% were ecstatic, 30% reported “it was a dud” or “it stopped working.”
That said, Behringer has clearly been aware of their reputation, and working hard to improve it. These days, they’ve managed to keep their costs low, but the reviews have shifted in a positive direction. Behringer’s products are still on the low end of manufacturing quality, and they are never at the forefront of innovation. But now, I can confidently recommend that they make a decent product for a great price.
How about this particular interface? The U-Phoria UMC202HD has essentially the same feature set, with one of the lowest price points in its class. It comes with a pad button for each channel, unlike most alternatives. This isn’t much of a selling point in my opinion though. This button simply lowers the input signal by a set amount, useful if you are recording something loud. But 24 bit, 192 kHz interfaces like this one have massive volume headroom by design, meaning you could simply turn the input volume down and get the same effect.
You Get What You Pay For
There are potential issues, as you might expect at this price. Some reviews report a short lifespan before the product breaks. Most audio interfaces come with proprietary drivers, but the U-Phoria does not. That could mean compatibility issues, or difficulty navigating the software. Finally, this interface has unbalanced outputs, a baffling choice that I can only assume was a cost-cutting measure. This difference is undetectable for most users, but if your house is old, your monitors may be very noisy as a result.
Conclusion: this interface will do what the others will, for the lowest price around. But you may run into strange issues that you would likely avoid with a different choice.
Best Portable Option: Izotope Spire Studio
If your biggest concern is finding a super-portable, intuitive, musician-friendly audio interface, consider the new Izotope Spire Studio. This interface is about twice the price of the Scarlett 2i2, but it’s riding a brand new wave: audio interfaces for phones and tablets. (I discussed some other options in another article. But the Spire Studio is the only one that realistically competes as a general audio interface so far.)
The Spire Studio is battery-powered, and has an on-board omnidirectional condenser mic, as well as two XLR or instrument inputs. It uses WiFi to connect to a compatible iPad, iPhone, or Android phone (check that your device is supported before investing.) It comes bundled with proprietary recording software. A simple, immediate philosophy permeates the hardware and software design.
This interface is not going to take the place of a traditional interface in a pro’s studio. But if you are starting out with producing, or you need something with extreme portability, consider this route. With its feature set, the only limit to the quality of recordings will be the environment you are recording in!
Best Interface, Price Be Damned: Universal Audio Apollo Twin
This interface costs more than four times what the Scarlett 2i2 does. The fact that pros buy it at all should tell you what you need to know. First of all, in terms of pure sound quality, the is second to none. The pre-amps are first in class, praised as pristine. Second, this interface comes with fabulous bundled plugins. UA Apollo Twin
Most of the interfaces on this list come with bundled software, but there’s a reason I have not bothered to mention it until now. Let me put it this way. The bundled VSTs with the other interfaces will not be making it to any “best-of” lists, and are probably no better than the stock plugins on any modern DAW. They are a selling point only if you haven’t bought a DAW; they are a fun starting point. By comparison, UA is an industry leader in plugins, and its bundled VSTs are worth owning even if you don’t use the interface. If the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the Toyota Camry of interfaces- simple, dependable, common- the UA Apollo Twin is the Rolls Royce. Understood to be the best money can buy.
And there you have it! A guide to help you choose to buy, or not buy, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. If you are new to producing and trying to push your skills further, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services– you’d be surprised how affordable they can be, and by how much you can learn from hearing a pro’s treatment of your song. Happy producing, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.