The Best Audio Interface For Beginners

There are many different audio interfaces on the market for those of us who are new to building a home studio. Your choice in an interface will ultimately depend on your needs, however, there are definitely options that are good for almost everyone to have. 

In fact, there are some models that I think everyone has owned at some point or another, case-in-point, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which you can find for a great price here on Amazon. With that in mind, out of all the great options out there, a lot of beginners wonder which audio interface is the best to get.

The best audio interface for beginners to recording and home studios is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 – a sturdy and well-built introduction to the world of audio interfaces that’s great for instruments like bass, electric guitar, synth, and vocals. It has a few other great features as well.

I currently own 3 different audio interfaces: a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, a Focusrite Sapphire 6USB, and an iRig HD 2 (which I’ve already written about in my guide). Focusrite has made a few big changes to the Scarlett 2i2 that may make it a contender for my new favorite. After years of using the iRig HD 2 and the Sapphire 6USB almost exclusively, I’ve found that the Scarlett 2i2 is now small and cool enough for me to use more regularly.

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Why the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the Best Audio Interface For Beginners

While there are probably many audio interfaces on the market that are better than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin Duo from ZZounds is just one of them), the Scarlett 2i2 is the most amount of value for the price, and more importantly, it’s well-built and sturdy. 

Put simply, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the type of product where you can’t go wrong with it if you’re a beginner to music and audio production. It’s rare that a beginner music producer or someone who is new to home recording will have any issues with it. 

Obviously, there are always critics, but the Scarlett 2i2 is going to do exactly what you need it to, including some of the more basic functions that the average beginner will need. And not only will it work for what you need, but it’s also going to do the job well. It’s worth mentioning that I have a personal bias, which is that I hate products that aren’t at least cased in some kind of metal, whether it’s aluminum or steel.

I’m a big fan of manufacturers who build their products in a way where they’re not susceptible to breaking as easily through cheap knobs, dials, and plastic casings. And Focusrite does a great job of achieving that because it seems like every product I’ve ever owned from them has an aluminum or steel case. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll appreciate what Focusrite has done here.

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 – What Comes In The Box 

  • USB-C to USB-A (also called Thunderbolt) Cable 
  • Pro Tools One, which comes with hundreds of different instruments and loops 
  • Ableton Live – This is a digital audio workstation that also includes effects, instruments, arpeggiators, and sequencers. Ableton Live is commonly used for live performances. 
  • Soft Tube – This is a set of plug-ins created by Focusrite, including things like distortion, delay, and reverb. 
  • Red Plug-in Suite – This is a batch of plug-ins that includes an equalizer and a compressor. 

Controls And Settings of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 

Gain Knobs 

The gain knobs are the dials that you use to control the amount of gain or volume you want. Whether you plug a guitar or a microphone into the audio interface, there is a certain amount of audio signal that will be expressed through your sound system. This audio signal is often referred to as the “input,” and the gain knobs control the amplitude of this signal.

Amplitude, or more simply called the volume, is controlled by turning the knobs left or right. The gain knobs aren’t to be confused with volume knobs, because there is actually a difference between the two. Volume knobs often control the total volume of the audio signal after processing, whereas a gain knob controls the input of the audio signal while it is being recorded.

Explained in another way, if your feeding too much signal into the audio interface, you’ll cause what’s called “clipping,” which means there is too much signal for the device to handle. In this case, you would just turn down the gain knob that way the signal isn’t too hot anymore. You wouldn’t, in this particular instance, turn down the monitoring button instead.

Additionally, there is a nice ring-light around the gain knobs that let you know when the signal is clipping or not. If it’s green, you’re good to go and you have the appropriate amount of signal, but if it flashes red, it means you’re clipping and you have to turn it down. Personally, I’ll usually set it so that it’s riding in the green for a majority of the time. However, during the loudest parts of the recording, it might turn orange for just a second.

Line and Instrument Level Switch 

The line and instrument level switch is for switching between instrument types. A microphone’s audio signal is commonly at the line level, whereas an instrument’s audio signal is at a different level. In this case, it’s referred to as instrument level. To switch to instrument level, you just hit the “Inst” button.

Focusrite-Scarlett-Instrument-Level-Switch-

I actually reached out to Focusrite for their answer on what the difference is between an instrument and line level, and here is what they said in their response:

Audio Interfaces Focusrite-Line-and-Instrument-Level-

From what I understand about the difference between line level and instrument level, line level tends to be a much stronger audio signal than an instrument-level signal. And it usually refers to the signal that flows into the recording system after it has been processed by the preamplifier. 

Monitoring Volume Dial 

The monitoring volume dial is different than the gain knobs. The monitoring volume dial is for controlling the volume of the audio signal after it has been processed by the audio interface and the computer. Like I touched on above, the monitoring dial isn’t to control the level of the signal that’s being fed into the audio interface.

This is controlled by the gain knobs. Explained another way, if the signal is clipping and it’s causing an audible distortion, you have to turn the signal down with the gain knobs rather than the monitoring button, because the monitoring button is going to adjust the total volume of the signal after it has been processed, rather than before.

What I like about the monitoring button on the Scarlett 2i2 is that it isn’t shaky or fragile at all. Like the gain knobs and the other switches on this device, it turns seamlessly and you can tell that the Scarlett 2i2 was manufactured with care. It doesn’t get stuck, it’s not rigid, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to wear out over time. 

Phantom Power Switch 

The phantom power switch controls whether or not your device is feeding phantom power into another device, usually a condenser microphone. In case you don’t know, a condenser microphone – like the AT2020 which I’ve reviewed before – is a type of microphone that needs power from an external source. 

In fact, this is one of the many reasons that people buy an audio interface in the first place. In the case of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, the phantom power button has a red light on it that flashes red continuously if it’s turned on, and there is no color if it’s turned off. 

Headphone Volume Knob 

The headphone volume knob is really quite self-explanatory. It’s just the knob that you use to control the volume after having plugged headphones into the Scarlett 2i2. For recording and producing music, whether you want to use headphones or not – (like my personal favorite, Etymotic’s ER3SE from Amazon) – is really up to you and your preferences.

Personally, I like producing with a bit of both. I might plug headphones directly into the audio interface at times. However, I would say that I usually use my iLoud Micro Monitors (from Amazon) the most because they’re plugged into the headphone jack of my laptop almost 100% of the time, and also just because they’re amazing speakers that I couldn’t recommend enough (more on that in my review/guide).

Air Button 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Air-Buttons-Scarlett-2i2.jpg

The Air button on the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a new introduction that just came out on some of the latest models of the Scarlett 2i2. I actually reached out to Focusrite for an explanation of what the Air button actually does. You can see what they had to say here: 

Audio-Interfaces-Garageband-Focusrite-Support

Truthfully, the way they’ve explained it is kind of confusing to people who don’t know what they’re talking about, or who don’t have the proper knowledge on the subject. In simple terms, the Air button boosts the mid and high-range frequencies before it hits the computer for processing in the DAW. They say the idea behind this is to imitate one of their “classic” pre-amps, and a lot of people say it has more of an analog-style vibe.

Analog is the classic way of recording music, which means that it records the signal directly from the source in a continuous wave format. Compare this to digital, where the audio signal is cut into samples and then converted into a language that a computer can understand. You can go ahead and turn the Air button on and off and see the effect that it has on your recording. 

Direct Monitor Button 

This is a new button that they just put onto the latest edition of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. What this does is that it gives you the ability to turn direct monitoring on or off, but what does that mean? The direct monitoring feature allows you to hear what the signal sounds like with hardly any latency.

It sends the signal to your headphones/speakers (and to the DAW at the same time) so you’re getting a chance to monitor it right at the source “directly.” You also have the ability to switch between off, stereo, and mono, just in case you’re using a stereo mic or some other instrument/microphone that uses stereo. 

Line Outputs 

On the back of the device, you have the line outputs, and these are for connecting the audio interface into a speaker system according to the left and right. I don’t use these simply because I have my iLoud Micro Monitors plugged in, however, if you wanted to use something like the KRK RP5’s, you would want to connect them to the back of this interface.

Thunderbolt Input 

The Thunderbolt (USB-C) input is for connecting the device to your computer. Depending on the type of computer you have, you may need an adaptor for it to work with the newest Macs. You can grab a USB to USB-C adaptor from Amazon here for a cheap price. 

Best Features of the Scarlett 2i2 

1) It’s Very Sturdy 

One of the things I hate the most about buying audio gear and other products is when they’re made out of plastic. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, on the other hand, is housed in an aluminum casing and the knobs are securely set in place. When twisting and turning the knobs, at no point will you think to yourself that they’re going to break off, and the same thing can be said for the buttons on it, which are tactile and solid.

If you’re anything like me, there is something satisfying about pressing a button that clicks on and off whenever you press on it. The buttons are solid and there is no risk of breaking them unless you drop it repeatedly or do something weird to it. 

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 also includes rubber mats on the bottom of the casing, that way it doesn’t roll around on the table or wherever you have it sitting. Personally, I find this is one of the greatest aspects of Focusrite products. It seems like nearly everything they manufacture is built in a sturdy, reliable, well-built kind of way, and I really appreciate that about the company. 

2) 2 Inputs For Vocals And Guitar 

As I mentioned already above, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has two different inputs on the machine, and the inputs on it are both capable of handling XLR cables and regular 1/4″ input jacks. In case you don’t know, an XLR cable is typically the type of cable that’s employed by the most common microphones on the market.

A regular input jack, on the other hand, is almost always used by other instruments such as bass and guitar, among others. Put simply, you can use this audio interface for both guitars and vocals, and if you need to, you can record them simultaneously as well. This is something that other more portable audio interfaces aren’t capable of doing, including the iRig HD 2, which I commonly recommend to musicians who have no interest in recording vocals. 

3) Air Button 

The Air button is a new feature that wasn’t on the older models. Like I described above, the air button is a set of circuitry that’s meant to imitate some of Focusrite’s higher-end preamps. Put simply, a preamp is circuitry that increases the gain to an appropriate level for recordings. This is a cool little feature that tends to make your recording sound a little warmer and brighter at the same time.

4) It’s Beautiful and Small 

You may say this is kind of ancillary, and it is, but I find the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 to be an incredibly beautiful audio interface. It’s a nice red color and all of the dials, controls, and knobs light up in a way that’s really satisfying. The black background behind all of the knobs and buttons make it a solid device to look at as well, 

In terms of its size, this is a big upgrade from some of the earlier models. From what I understand, the previous versions of the Scarlett 2i2 were a bit bigger and they took up more space on your desk or recording space. Thankfully, they’ve made it smaller and it just looks a lot better than the older ones. 

5) The Cable Inputs Are Solid 

A common complaint when it comes to audio recording gear is that when you plug your instrument or microphone into it, there is a certain amount of wobbliness to it, which can honestly be quite annoying. Truthfully, there will always be a bit of wobble to it, but in the case of the Scarlett 2i2, there isn’t so much that it’s annoying or worrisome in any way. 

Criticism of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Free Software?

I was going to say that the free software was a nice feature of the Scarlett 2i2 but I chose not to, simply because I don’t care that much about it. While I certainly appreciate the software bundle that comes with the Scarlett 2i2, I typically don’t bother with free plugins and other products included with the purchase of equipment like this, simply because they’re usually just introductory software.

And by that, I mean that they’re just free trials that aren’t terribly useful. This is an issue with the iRig HD 2, as well, which is supposed to come with Amplitube 4, IK Multimedia says, but really it just comes with a very stripped down version of it with no amplifiers (you can get the full version of the latest edition on Plugin Fox). Maybe you’ll wind up liking them, so it’s at least worth a shot. I have a brief guide on how to download the plug-ins below.

How to Create an Account with Focusrite

To create an account with Focusrite so you can access all of the software, you just have to click this link, and then follow the instructions there for making an account. After selecting “Let’s Get You Started,” you just have to scroll down and hit the button, “I Want To Register My Scarlett.”

How to Get the Included Software With the Scarlett 2i2

To get the included software that comes with a purchase of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, you just have to go to this link here, after creating an account with Focusrite. It will take you to a page that looks a lot like what you can see down below. From there you just have to click the drop-down menu for each one and there will be a specific set of instructions for all of the plugins.

Important Things to Note About the Scarlett 2i2

1) Sample Rate Can Be Adjusted With Focusrite Control

If you want to control the actual sample rate of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, you can do it with the Focusrite Control, which is what you can download after getting to the “Let’s Get You Started” page. However, if you want to go straight to that page, you can hit this link here.

YouTube Video Tutorial

The Best Audio Interface for Beginners

Conclusion

I’ve already said this before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again that there are a lot of audio interfaces on the market for people who are beginners to music production and home recording. However, I think the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is probably one of the best audio interfaces for beginners simply because it appears to be a lot tougher and more rigid than other audio interfaces in the same price range.