Your audio interface is the key to your digital music production workflow.

It’s the centerpiece of your home studio where you connect your gear and hear your tracks back from your DAW.

But getting started with an audio interface can be intimidating if you’re just getting started.

Luckily, almost all audio interfaces work in a similar way and share the same key features.

In this article I’ll explain everything you need to know about how to use an audio interface.

Let’s get started.

What is an audio interface?

An audio interface is a piece of gear that plays several important roles in a home studio. It’s primarily used to convert incoming audio signals from microphones or instruments into digital audio you can use in your DAW.

Audio interfaces usually include microphone preamps and line level inputs as well as outputs that are suitable for headphones and studio monitors.

That makes them the main tool for managing your home studio’s connectivity. In addition to that, an audio interface might also include onboard software for zero-latency monitoring or other features like input limiting, effects, networked audio or MIDI I/O.

Why use an audio interface?

You might be wondering why you can’t just use your computer’s headphone jack or built-in microphone to make music.

The truth is that you can…but there are some big trade-offs in quality if you do.

Audio interfaces offer superior analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion and features built with music production in mind.

I’m talking about essentials like proper headphone amplifiers and phantom power. You’ll need these to work with pro audio gear like studio monitors or recording microphones.

Setting up your audio interface

With the background out of the way, here’s how to get your interface set up.

1. Choose the right interface

To start off, it helps to have the right interface for your workflow.

You may need to install software from the interface’s manufacturer or drivers to communicate with your operating system.

That means you’ll need to choose an interface with all the right features for your production style.

If you need a refresher, check out our roundup of the best brands and units and our guide to choosing the right one.

2. Connect to your computer

The next step is to connect your interface to your computer. Depending on the type you chose in step one, your interface will connect via a digital cable like USB or Thunderbolt.

Some interfaces require additional power supplies to run so make sure you’ve connected everything that came with your unit.

3. Set it up in your DAW

With your interface connected and powered you’ll need your DAW to recognize it.

You may need to install software from the interface’s manufacturer or drivers to communicate with your operating system.

And if you want to hear your computer’s system sound through the interface, you’ll need to select it as the audio output in your system preferences or control panel.

You’ll need to do the same in your DAW to record audio and listen back to your work.

Hot tip: In some DAWs like Ableton Live, you may need to enable hardware I/O or route signals manually in an I/O preference panel.

4. Use the onboard software

To get the most from your interface you’ll have to understand the software you use to control it.

This is the device control panel where you can change key parameters like sample rate, input type, polarity and phantom power.

This type of software sometimes features an onboard mixer for zero-latency monitoring. This is helpful for easing the load on your computer and hearing the sound you record in real time.=

5. Connect your studio gear

With your interface up and running you can connect microphones, instruments, studio monitors and headphones.

To get the most from your interface you’ll have to understand the software you use to control it.

XLR inputs and combi-jacks are typically used for inputs that feature microphone preamps. You’ll need these to amplify the weak signals from mics you use for recording.

¼” inputs can be used for line level gear like synths, samplers or drum machines. You can also connect instrument level gear like electric guitars and basses if your interface has an onboard DI box or instrument input.

Finally, connect your headphones to the dedicated headphone output and choose a pair of line-level outputs to connect your studio monitors.

Making music with an interface

Once you’re familiar with how to set up and connect your interface, using it to make music should be simple.

Even so, here are some pointers to help you get the most from your interface:

  • Always assign your interface channel to the right tracks in your DAW
  • Make sure to choose the correct input type to connect the source you’re recording
  • Use balanced (XLR or TRS) audio cables to connect your interface to studio monitors
  • Take advantage of software features like zero-latency monitoring

Musical interface

An audio interface sounds like a complicated piece of technical hardware.

But in reality it’s a practical tool you need to learn to use in modern music production.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start for setting up your interface and using it to make music.