Converters, soundcards, interfaces, ADCs and DACs. For many
it’s not the most exciting purchase for your studio compared to a thumping set
of monitors or luscious vari-mu EQ, however for the majority of us who work
exclusively on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) it is the only way to get in and
out of your workstation.

When you consider that the interface connects to all of your
analogue kit, from microphones and outboard to your monitoring, it’s important
to choose the right converter for both your workflow (software features, driver
stability and I/O) and is also on par with the quality of the equipment in your

Prism Sound Titan


Unlike the early days of conversion digital technology has moved
on leaps and bounds; what was only possible with a staggering amount of chips
and components back in the early 90s can now be achieved on a single
off-the-shelf processor for pocket change. Consequently we don’t even have to
break into three figures to get a Mac and Windows compatible, suitable audio

Shop for soundcards under £500

However with all kit you get what you pay for. More so for
interfaces than other audio gear this usually translates into the sound quality
and engineering of the hardware rather than purely the features – for under
£400 you can get a 18in, 24out converter including mic pres, software routing
and DSP mixers as well as software plug-ins. On the other end of the scale you
could expect to pay upwards of £6,000 on a mastering quality 2-channel digital
to analogue converter, no AD conversion, no clever routing software or
plug-ins! Some products focus on basic conversion but with many added features
and are great value, whilst the high-end products take time to engineer the
very best converter possible with no flashy extras.

The decision on your budget for a converter should be
justified by your applications and your studio – how much I/O do you need? What
interfacing do you require (USB, Thunderbolt, Pro Tools HDX, etc)? Are you only
connecting to a pair of speakers or do you have some outboard you want to
insert? Does the interfaces need to be portable, bus powered and would inclusive
mic pres be useful? And so on.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2


Generally all converter designs are aiming for one objective
– to sound as neutral and flat as possible. There are interfaces with controls
for optional character and of course plug-ins are becoming a standard with many
soundcards, however the job of the converter is to convert analogue to digital
and vice-versa without affecting the tone. So with so many converter solutions
available how do you choose which one is ‘flattest’? Technical specs are a good
starting point but do not tell you the whole story, great dynamic range doesn’t
mean the best converter for example.

The truth is there is no way to determine the best sounding
interface other than to listen it. Whether we would admit it or not many of us
could not tell a big difference between sousound cards, we are more interested in
making sure the inputs and outputs meet our needs, the software mixing is
flexible and easy to use, and the drivers are reliable.

Interface sound quality should always be a priority, but it
certainly becomes a crucial factor when you are in a large multi-track
situation and in high-end facilities where you have the room and monitoring to
hear subtle differences, like professional mastering. In the multi-track
recording and mixing situation you would demand a converter with low noise so when
you are working with 50+ discrete tracks you are not getting cumulative effect
of the noise from those 50+ interface channels.

Shop for Pro Tools Interfaces

Or if you are mixing and want to use a lot of outboard you
would be using your interface inputs and outputs as inserts and may need to
make several passes in and out of the analogue and digital domains. That’s a
lot of converting and manipulating of the audio. Think of each time you convert
audio you’re changing the number 3 to 1, you are going to lose information, but
depending on the quality of the converter you can retain a lot of (or at least
compensate for) that loss of information.

Universal Audio Apollo

The final word

Don’t underestimate the need for good conversion. Do you really
want to drive your £5,000 monitors with a £200 interface? Yes the differences
can be subtle but a bit of research into the real quality and engineering of a
brand’s products can result in an investment that will last you a lifetime and
more than pays for itself.