- Looking to get started with music production?
- We compare a range of the best audio interfaces for beginners in 2020.
- New to audio? Read our guide on why you need an audio interface.
6 Best Budget Soundcards For Beginners
Choosing your first audio interface can be a daunting task, you need to think about how many preamps you need, whether you’re recording live, recording in the studio, or recording at home – you want to make sure you pick the interface that’s right for you.
Our decision to include these 6 audio interfaces were based on how well they performed in these 4 areas:
- Bundled Software & Extras
Recommended for you: 5 Home Recording Studio Bundles That Save You $$$
1. Focusrite ‘Scarlett 2i2’
The Scarlett 2i2 could almost be considered a modern classic, exhibiting the bright signature red (scarlet) color of the Focusrite and seamlessly integrating beautiful design and intuitive functionality.
Additionally, the Solo Studio and 2i2 Studio bundles also include the CM25 MkIII condenser microphone, an XLR cable, and the HP60 MkIII closed-back headphones, albeit the headphones and mic are to free and the bundles will be priced accordingly).
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- USB-C connectivity
- Generation 3 Focusrite Scarlett preamps.
- ‘Air’ function (classic ISA preamp emulation) available.
- +48v phantom power.
The Gen-3 model features a function switch next to the mic/line switch labeled ‘Air’ which (in the words of the manufacturer) “…makes your guitars and vocals sound instantly brighter and more spacious, giving them a lustrous sheen that can make all the difference in the mix…”
- Ableton® Live Lite™
Pro Tools® First
- Focusrite Creative Pack
- Softube’s Time and Tone Bundle
- Focusrite’s Red Plug-in Suite
- A choice of one of four of XLN Audio’s Addictive Keys virtual keyboard instruments.
✔ Durable, rugged metal housing.
✔ Intuitive design and front plate.
✔ Bundled software and plugins are unrivaled.
✘ Visual LEDs are a little hard to read.
- Two of the best performing mic preamps the Scarlett range has ever seen, now with switchable air Mode to give your...
- High-performance converters enable you to record and mix at up to 24-bit/ 192kHz.
- Quick start tool to get up and running easier than ever.
- Includes Pro Tools | First Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite’s Red...
- LIMITED TIME OFFER: FREE Black Rooster Magnetite upon registration and download.
The Rubix22 is Roland’s entry into the budget audio interface market, weighing in as one of the main contenders for producers looking to find an affordable and useable sound card on a budget.
With a sturdy, tough housing and a ridiculously cheap price point; this might be at the top of your beginner’s list. 2 inputs, 2 outputs.
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- USB 2.0 & USB 3.0 connectivity, lacking in USB-C.
- Would not recommend for newer computers/laptops that only sport USB-C connections.
Preamps are high quality, low-noise mic preamps, and support for audio resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. Includes easy access to Hi-Z and phantom power controls, right next to the preamps on the front of the device for ease of use. +48v phantom power included.
As opposed to the Roland Duo Capture (Roland’s previous entry into the budget portable interface range), the Rubix22 boasts a few new key features. The soundcard has a much cleaner and better-designed housing, mono/stereo/direct monitoring, as well as the option to power the unit via 5V DC power or directly through USB.
There is also a ground/lift switch, allowing for people with noisy setups or unbalanced power to be able to work through it and ‘overcome the buzz’.
Also has a highly visible channel/signal indicators – allowing the user to easily and clearly manage levels and prevent overloading the preamp(s). Functions well with iPads using the appropriate softwares. This device also has MIDI input and output, making it useful for those producing music with hardware/MIDI synths and devices.
- Ableton Live Lite.
✔ Great sounding preamps.
✔ Ground switches.
✘ Lacking in free bundled software.
- 2-in/2-out USB audio interface
- 2 low-noise mic preamps with XLR combo jacks
- Hi-Z input for guitar and other high impedance sources
- MIDI In/Out ports
- Extensively shielded, low-noise design
3. UAD ‘Arrow’
The Arrow is UAD’s latest entry into the world of portable audio interfaces. Puffing its chest up with some extremely impressive features ‘under-the-hood’ and a stunningly simple external all-metal design, the Arrow is currently considered to be the most opulent device in its class. 2 inputs 2 outputs.
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- Thunderbolt-3 connectivity rules out older computer models as a viable option
- Would require a more recent PC or Mac device with a Thunderbolt-3 port to be able to connect.
This device uses patented Unison preamps, proprietary technology owned by UAD themselves.
Unison is an exclusive analog/digital integration system that gives the user continuous, realtime, bi-directional control, and interplay between Apollo’s physical hardware and UAD software mic preamp models.
With Unison, the Apollo mic preamp’s analog impedance, gain stage sweet spots, and component-level circuit behaviors are adjusted in real-time prior to analog-to-digital conversion to accurately emulate the target mic preamp model.
This means that the device is basically a real-time emulator of a selection of preamps that can be found in desks such as Neve’s and SSL’s, potentially giving you an enormous edge over any other preamp on this list. +48v phantom power.
The extremely intuitive ‘face-forward’ design of the Arrow, allows for ease of use and almost guides the user with its functionality.
Everything stems from the click wheel on this device, you can select, deselect, and control the volume of monitors, headphone sends, preamps, and more using just a couple of clicks. Streamlined functionality is invaluable as it reduces time spent on setup, recording, rehearsal, etc by being quick and easy to use.
The interface has a UAD-2 solo core processor built into the unit to help with the onboard DSP (digital signal processing) that is taken care of by the device, this technology allows for near-zero latency when recording/playing back, regardless of your computer’s buffering abilities or processing power.
This device comes with a HUGE selection of extremely high-quality UAD plugins, processed within the external sound card itself, these plugins are modeled on some of the best channel strips, processors and effects hardware of all time, the list includes:
- UA 610‐B
- Marshall Plexi Classic Amplifier
- Teletronix LA‐2A Legacy
- UA 1176LN Legacy
- UA 1176SE Legacy
- Pultec EQP‐1A Legacy
- Pultec Pro Legacy
- Ampeg® SVT-VR Classic Bass Amp
- Precision Channel Strip
- Precision Reflection Engine
- Precision Delay Modulation
- Precision Delay Modulation L
- Raw Distortion
✔ Some of the best sounding plugins in the world.
✔ World-class preamps and components.
✘ Not cheap.
✘ Those without Thunderbolt-C ports are out of luck.
- Desktop 2x4 Thunderbolt 3-powered audio interface with class-leading 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion
- Unison mic preamp and guitar amp emulations from Neve , API , Manley , Marshall, Fender , and more.
- Real-time UAD processing allows near-zero latency tracking with classic UAD plug-in effects, regardless of software...
- Includes Real-time Analog Classics Plug-In Bundle, featuring the UA 610-B, Marshall Plexi, Pultec EQ's, the UA LA-2A,...
- Bus-powered Thunderbolt 3 connection to Mac and Windows systems for easy portability and reduced cable clutter....
4. Audient ‘ID4’
The Audient ID4 is a basic audio interface from Audient, they have done well to be able to fit so much into this tiny package, potentially the most portable in terms of size, this interface is a hard-hitting contender for anyone looking to record on a serious budget without sacrificing quality.
The hand-finished aluminum pots/knobs add a touch of class to an otherwise quite rugged interface. 2 inputs, 2 outputs.
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- Standard USB 2.0
Burr-Brown AD/DA processors allow the preamps of the ID4 to really shine to their truest potential. The preamps themselves were designed by David Dearden over 20 years ago and are still used to this day, due to their transparency and have a very impressive list of features and abilities, making them one of the best preamps in this list, in terms of value for money.
The pre’s on the ID4 can reach 70db gain, have a low noise floor, 30,000x quieter than the incoming signal, and are transformer-less, therefore making them immune to RF interference. +48v phantom power.
These preamps can actually be found in the famous ASP8024 console that is worth around $42,000.
ScrollControl is a new feature that ‘with the click of a button’ turns your interface into a scroll-wheel, letting you scroll through anything that your computers mouse pointer is on, whether its the tracks in your DAW or the tracks in your iTunes playlist or even a website.
The D.I input uses a Junction Gate Field Effect transistor – a.k.a, JFET. This is basically a Hi-Z manipulation, allowing the user to plug in high impedance instruments like keys or guitars without overloading the preamp or the need for any real gain staging.
Easy panning of inputs to monitor sources, meaning you can pan one input Left and the other input Right, to create a monitor mix that you know is going to sound good from the get-go. This device also supports iOS 10 as well as windows and MacOS.
- The Audient ID4 comes with a pretty impressive selection of free software from a wide array of software device companies, such as:
- The TwoNotes Audio Engineering Wall-Of-Sound plugin, built for guitars and able to emulate MesaBoogie®, Fender® and Ampeg® amplifiers
- Steinberg Retrologue 2 Virtual Analogue Synthesizer
- “Produce Like a Pro” online course/lesson program
- Steinberg Cubase LE (DAW) & Cubasis LE 2 (iPad DAW)
- 10x Masters and 10x Distribution Credits from LANDR online mastering
- Waldorf PPG 2.2v synth
- Waldorf Attack Drum Machine and Waldorf D-Pole Filter,
- + Over 1GB of samples from Loopmasters Loopcloud service, thats access to 5 million samples + 500 loop cloud credits.
✔ World-class preamps.
✔ Highly portable.
✘ None for the price.
- USB 2.0 Audio Interface with 1 Class A Mic Preamp
- 2 Headphone Outputs - Mac/PC/iOS
- 1 JFET DI
5. Mackie ‘ONYX Producer 2.2’
Mackie has been a long term player in the budget audio realm, and have built up a solid reputation for a company that can keep costs down without skimping on quality.
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- Standard USB 2.0 connectivity, suitable for all types of computer.
This device uses patented ONYX mic preamps, and imbues a pleasant warmth across vocals, keys, and guitars. +48v phantom power, Hi-Z switches on preamps.
Zero-latency direct monitoring, “Built-Like-A-Tank” technology to be able to handle day to day “abuse” (although this writer suggests you always take care of your gear), Dedicated monitor outputs.
This device comes with a hefty bunch of software that’s of extreme value to the budding producer; including DAW “Waveform OEM” by Tracktion – which comes as a full version, NOT a ‘lite’ version.
This DAW gives the user unlimited track count, saves, recording functionality and also comes with 16 individual audio processing plugins; EQ, Compressor, Reverber8, Delay studio, stereo delay, tape delay, crossover, Limiter, Gate/Expander, Ducker, Flanger, Crusher, Chorus, Bus compressor, phaser AND last but not least, Auto filter.
✔ Cheaper price, great selection of 16 plugins plus a free FULL version of WaveformOEM.
✘ USB 2.0 connectivity allows for a slower data transfer rate than USB 3.0.
- Two boutique-quality onyx mic preamps with class-leading fidelity and dynamic range XLR/TRS combo inputs accept mic,...
- High-resolution 2 in x 2 Out 24-bit/192kHz recording plus MIDI I/O zero-latency direct monitoring of Analog inputs...
- Bus-powered for easy mobile recording with no power adapter needed USB 2. 0 connectivity for fast transfer speed and low...
- Traction music production software included
6. NI ‘Komplete Audio 2’
Native Instruments enters the fray with their new Komplete Audio 2 interface. widely renowned for its signature mix of style and functionality, Native Instruments is a solid company that builds solid interfaces.
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- USB 2.0
Amphenol preamps — combiXLR/Jack inputs allow for TRS or XLR to be plugged into the same port, mic/line switches for Hi-Z sources and +48v phantom power.
This device has LED signal meters and lights to show the user whether or not they have phantom power or USB connectivity enabled.
- Ableton Live 10 Lite
- MASCHINE Essentials
- SOLID BUS COMP
- KOMPLETE START
✔ Solid selection of software and plugins.
✔ Small form factor makes for good portability.
✘ Not much of a visual display.
- Easily record audio into your computer
- Choose from two flavors – same pristine audio quality, different ways to plug in and play back
- The full package for creating – All the software you need to record and build tracks, plus synths, effects, and more
- Plug in a pair of mics together using the two combi-xlr/jack inputs
- Connect to studio monitors, or plug in on stage with dual Jack outputs
Keep in mind that a lot of these products can come with a pretty hefty selection of free software, depending on what you’re looking to create; that could be the biggest selling point, but if it’s sound quality and basic functionality then you might find yourself more than happy with just the device.
I personally have used a variety of plugins for years that I received for free with my very first soundcard purchase (which was a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface in 2013).
This list will hopefully help some of you new producers on your hunt for a decent audio interface in 2020.
Last update on 2020-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API