For software music makers, an audio interface is what turns a computer into a simple home studio set-up. Even a budget audio interface can completely open up your music making, allowing you to record instruments, monitor on headphones and play back your work on studio monitor speakers.
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For musicians taking their first steps in recording and production, an audio interface is likely to be one of their first purchases, at a point when affordability is likely to be a major factor. Fortunately, it’s possible to pick up a good quality, straightforward audio interface without having to flash too much cash. For this best budget audio interface guide, we’ve compiled the top options available at the very lowest end of the price spectrum.
What is the best budget audio interface?
Combining a sleek, smart design, flexible usability and a solid selection of bundled software, Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 1 is probably the best budget audio interface available for under $120/£100 right now. That said, Focusrite’s recently-updated Scarlett Solo offers excellent quality for its price, and just about beats NI’s offering on the flexibility front.
If price is your main consideration though, Behringer’s exceptionally affordable U-PHORIA UMC22 is a solid and well-equipped box that won’t even break the £40 mark. Build quality and long-term compatibility isn’t up there with the best in this round-up, but as a rock-bottom entry point you could do a lot worse.
All of this being said, there’s often very little difference between rival interfaces at this price point. Particularly in the upper half of the list below, there’s really not that much in it. If you see a good deal on one particular interface, there’s little to lose by going for it.
Best budget audio interface: buying advice
At the complete budget end of the audio interface market, realistically you’re not going to find a decent interface with more than two inputs and two outputs. Unless you’re planning to spend more, the most you’re going to be able to record is two mono or one stereo input/s, and outputs will be limited to – at most – a stereo pair of outputs for studio monitors and a separate headphone output.
What’s more important to consider is the type of ports offered. Audio interfaces will offer some variety of mic and instrument inputs, which operate at different levels and use different connection types to suit either a microphone lead or jack from a guitar, synth, drum machine, etc.
The most useful variety are ‘combo’ inputs, which can accept either lead type and will usually have a control for switching between mic and instrument levels. If you’re planning on using a mic with your interface, it’s worth checking if you need ‘phantom power’ – this is the 48v signal sent by interfaces and required by some mics.
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The options in this best budget audio interfaces guide can all be used with both Mac and PC setups. Many can also be used with Apple’s mobile iOS devices too. You will see lots of interfaces described as ‘class compliant’ which essentially means they are plug-and-pay with iPhone and iPad. Some come complete with the appropriate ‘Lightning’ connectors, while others will need Apple’s USB-to-Lightning Camera Connection Kit’ adapter.
Like many types of studio hardware, audio interfaces often come packaged with a variety of software to sweeten the deal. At this price, particularly if you’re just getting started, it’s worth paying attention to these bundles. Offerings range from lukewarm packages of ‘LE’ (often limited, entry level) versions of major applications to full versions of genuinely great synths and effects. If you’re yet to kit out your software studio, this could really help!
The best budget audio interfaces you can buy today
A stylish interface bundled with quality software
Launch price: £79/$96 | Inputs: 1x mic, 1x inst/line | Outputs: unbalanced RCA, headphone | Compatibility: PC, Mac | Max sample rate: 192 kHz | Max resolution: 24 bit | Bundled software: Monark, Replika, Phasis, Solid Bus Comp, Maschine Essentials, Ableton Live Lite 10, Komplete Start, $25 E-Voucher, Two month subscription to sounds.com
NI don’t have the audio interface pedigree of some of the brands in this list, with just three I/O boxes amongst their current line-up of products – including the slightly higher spec’d Komplete Audio 2. This is no sub-par imitator though. As with pretty much all recent NI gear, the Komplete Audio 1 is well designed and sturdily built, offering features ideal for bedroom producers.
It benefits from being part of NI’s Komplete ecosystem too as the free software that comes bundled here includes an excellent plugin synth and a trio of effects that are arguably worth the price of entry alone. For producers just getting started, this is an excellent value package.
Pro-level preamps in an affordable box
Launch price: £99/$99 | Inputs: 1x mic, 1x line/inst | Outputs: balanced TRS stereo pair, headphone | Compatibility: PC, Mac | Max sample rate: 192 kHz | Max resolution: 24 bit | Bundled software: Ableton Live Lite 10, Pro Tools First, Focusrite Red Plugin Suite, Softube Time & Tone Bundle, XLN Audio Addictive Keys, 3 month Splice sounds subscription
Focusrite are one of the best known names when it comes to audio interfaces, and the higher-end units in their Scarlett line are favourites of many intermediate and pro level producers. Their pre-amps are highly regarded, and having one in an interface at this price makes this a great option for those looking for high quality recording on a budget.
The Scarlett Solo does a stellar job of diluting the appeal of its bigger siblings into something smaller and more affordable; keeping the solid build, sharp looks and quality pre-amps but trimming the features down to the bare necessities.
3. Presonus Audiobox USB 96
Looks aside, this is an excellent all-round package
Launch price: £88/$106 | Inputs: 2x combo | Outputs: balanced TRS stereo pair, headphone | Compatibility: PC, Mac | Max sample rate: 96 kHz | Max resolution: 24-bit | Bundled software: Presonus Studio One Artist Software, Studio Magic Plugin Suite (Mäag Audio EQ2, Eventide H910, Eventide Stereo Room, Brainworx bx-opto, SPL Attacker Freeware, Lexicon MPX-i Reverb and Arturia Analog Lab Lite)
Another solid choice of interface from a well-regarded brand name. Looks-wise, the Audiobox isn’t as sleek and sharp as some of its rivals in this list, but other than that there’s little bad we could say about it.
The two combo inputs offer as much flexibility as you’re going to get at this price point. The bundled software package is nothing to scoff at either, with an entry-level version of Presonus’ excellent DAW Studio One, plus a tidy bundle of effects from some well-regarded names.
A rugged budget audio interface that’s built to last
Launch price: £88/$120 | Inputs: 1x mic, 1x inst | Outputs: Unbalanced RCA | Compatibility: PC, Mac, iOS | Max sample rate: 192 kHz | Max resolution: 24-bit | Bundled software: Cubase AI, Cubasis LE
The UR12 is one of the older interfaces in this guide but that’s no reason to overlook it. This compact 2-in/2-out interface is built into a rugged metal container, which makes it one of the most durable-feeling interfaces at this price point – although that does come at the cost of it being fairly weighty.
The fact that the main and headphone outputs share a single volume control is our only other real criticism here. On the software side of things, the UR12 comes with cut down versions of Steinberg’s Cubase DAW for both desktop and iOS. These are both thoroughly usable, although as a package it’s not as generous as NI or PreSonus’s offerings.
5. Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
A rock bottom audio interface
Launch price: £35/$42 | Inputs: 1x combo, 1x inst | Outputs: balanced TRS stereo pair, headphone | Compatibility: Mac, PC (requires ASIO4ALL) | Max sample rate: 48kHz | Max resolution: 16-bit | Bundled software: Traktion, UMC22 plugin bundle
We’ve placed takeaway orders that have cost us more than what Behringer’s UMC22 retails for, so it’s hard to quibble with this one on price. You do, of course, get what you pay for to some extent, and there are a number of areas where the UMC22 lags behind its pricier rivals.
For one thing, the max resolution here is 16-bit, which is still CD quality and will most likely be fine for most users, but is worth being aware of. The U-Phoria range doesn’t have its own designated driver either, and relies on the universal ASIO4ALL (although this is still a free download). Also, while build quality is in no way poor, we wouldn’t want to bet on the UMC22 outlasting the devices at the top of this list.
All that being said, there are no outright deal-breakers amongst these downsides and at this price, if you need something cheap to get going with, you could certainly do a lot worse.
6. BandLab Link Digital
A smart compact interface from a newcomer to the market
Launch price: £70/$85 | Inputs: 1x combo | Outputs: TRRS speaker out, headphone | Compatibility: PC, Mac, iOS, Android | Max sample rate: 44.1 kHz | Max resolution: 16-bit | Bundled software: None
Mainly known for their collaborative music software, BandLab are another brand without much history to lean on when it comes to interface design. Despite this, their first hardware unit is impressive.
This compact box manages to squeeze in a combo mic/instrument and gain control. The Link Digital’s main downside compared to more expensive options is its limited output ports. There’s both a headphone and main output, but the latter is a single stereo jack, rather than a standard pair of jacks or RCA output (although the interface does come with a splitter cable).
7. Mackie Onyx Artist 1.2
A great budget audio interface for build and price
Launch price: £89/$108 | Inputs: 1x mic, 1x line/inst | Outputs: balanced TRS stereo pair, headphone | Compatibility: Mac, PC | Max sample rate: 192 kHz | Max resolution: 24-bit | Bundled software: Tracktion Waveform OEM
To be honest, there’s not a lot to say about Mackie’s Onyx Artist 1.2 that can’t be gleaned from reading the specs. It’s a solid-enough, inoffensive-looking interface with both mic and instrument inputs, and a fairly standard range of controls.
In all there’s not much to make this interface stand out from its rivals, but there’s also very little we can say about it that’s negative. The price point is thoroughly reasonable too. It comes bundled with its own slightly stripped back version of Tracktion Waveform, which is an excellent piece of recording software, although it might not appeal to newcomers in the way that Ableton Live, Cubase or Maschine does.
The best budget audio interface for guitarists on the go
Launch price: £99 | Inputs: 1x inst | Outputs: headphone, amp | Compatibility: PC, Mac, iOS | Max sample rate: 96 kHz | Max resolution: 24-bit | Bundled software: AmpliTube (both desktop and iOS versions)
Italian brand IK make a whole host of mobile-compatible interfaces and peripherals, including this compact and budget-friendly interface. The iRig HD 2 is aim primarily at recording guitarists, but its instrument interface would work fine for any monophonic electronic instrument too.
The iRig HD works cross platform with PC, Mac and iOS, and comes with both USB and Lightning connector cables. Because it’s designed for mobile use, it’s ultra-compact too – small enough to tuck into your pocket and it even includes a mic stand clip.
The downside to this mobile design, however, is the lack of monitor outputs. You do get a headphone output through, as well as a monophonic jack output designed to be plugged into a guitar amp, which can either monitor the input or output from software on the computer/iOS device.
9. Alesis Core 1
A compact recording solution for both instruments and mics
Launch price: £49/$60 | Inputs: 1x combo | Outputs: none | Compatibility: PC, Mac, iOS | Max sample rate: 48 kHz | Max resolution: 24-bit | Bundled software: Cubase LE
The Core 1 is another audio interface aimed directly at mobile recording, meaning it’s designed with both on-the-go laptop use as well as iOS devices. Unfortunately, compared to IK’s iRig range, there’s no Lightning cable in the box, meaning you’ll need Apple’s Camera Connection kit to hook it up to an iPhone or iPad.
The Core 1 is a very compact and convenient interface that would be easy to take out and about. Again though, this convenience is traded for a lack of proper monitor outputs.