I've just bought an iMac and need a simple audio interface that I can connect via a Firewire cable. I want something simple and good quality to give me some decent guitar and vocal recordings, but only have around $230 to spend. Do you have any recommendations, and should I be looking on the second‑hand market?
Chris Lyons, via email
SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: Your question raises a few issues that need unpacking before making specific recommendations. Firstly, you don't need to think in terms of a Mac or PC interface, as most 'serious' budget interfaces will run on Mac or PC (Apogee and Metric Halo are the only companies I'm aware of that make their interfaces specifically for Mac but not for PC, and they come in above your budget). You've specified Firewire, but the fact that you're using an iMac means that you could consider either Firewire or USB interfaces. For the purposes you describe, either would be fine, unless you have other particularly bandwidth‑hungry devices running via the USB ports. The only other limiting factor, in terms of what will work with your computer, is going to be the version of Mac OS X you're using, and whether a given audio interface has drivers that support it.
You also ask whether you should consider purchasing a second‑hand interface, presumably with the intention of getting more bang for your buck. Personally, I'd happily go second‑hand, but the usual caveats apply: make sure it's a legitimate seller, check things out before you buy and so on. More importantly, some older interfaces won't be supported by OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), and that's worth bearing in mind even if you're running 10.5.x, as you may need to update at some point in the future. In other words, you can find a bargain, but you need to find out what your money's paying for!
If you're recording guitar, it makes a difference whether you plan to record acoustic or electric guitar with a mic, or electric guitar or bass via DI. The former requires two mic inputs to record guitar and vocals simultaneously, whereas the latter requires only one mic input and a separate instrument input.
With this in mind, let's consider some specific interfaces. Some come with a bundled DAW of some sort, but as you'll already have GarageBand with your Mac, you may or may not think that important:
That covers the basics, and all the above offer better audio quality than is built into your iMac. But before you jump in head‑first, I'd recommend that you read the in‑depth article on the subject that appeared in SOS September 2008