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?
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:
- Line 6 UX1: I've seen this online for under $150, and not only does it offer an XLR mic input, it also features a dedicated high‑impedance (Hi‑Z) guitar input and Line 6's rather good Pod Farm amp and effects modelling software. Their UX2 is similar, although it offers more inputs, so you could record in stereo if you wished to. The 'street' price of the latter is at the top of your budget if you buy it new, but obviously will come within budget if you go second‑hand.
- M‑Audio Fast Track USB: Although Pro Tools 9 now works with any audio interface, most M‑Audio interfaces still come bundled with a 'lite' version of Pro Tools 8, which makes them a good way to get into Pro Tools on a budget if you're keen to do so. At the time of going to press, you could get this interface bundled with Pro Tools M‑Powered Essential v8) for around $100 (street price).
- PreSonus Audiobox USB: This interface offers two mic/line/instrument inputs, and can be found for under $150. It comes bundled with PreSonus' Studio One DAW software, which works on both Mac and PC.
- ESI U46XL: The U46XL generally sells for under $200 and includes two stereo line inputs, as well as the mic and high‑impedance inputs you require. You also get a bundled copy of Steinberg's Cubase LE DAW.
- Novation Nio 2/4 USB: This includes effects software, much of which is aimed at guitarists. It's available for around $199. As well as the two mic/instrument inputs, there are two stereo outputs, presented on both RCA phono and headphone jacks, which makes this interface rather more flexible than the others in the list when it comes to monitoring.
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 (/sos/sep08/articles/audiointerfaces.htm).