Buying a high-quality sound card is one of the best investments you can make as a music producer.
An audio interface helps in processing incoming and outgoing audio signals, connects the band or DJ into the software world, and gives an ability to use professional quality studio monitors and high-quality sound for live performances.
Our selection of best sound card for music production includes the best for various applications such as professional use, mobile and DJ use as well as beginner use, offering the best value for the money.
Best Audio Interface For Music Producers
1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Best Overall Sound Card
If you are already experienced in the music production industry, then you know about the Focusrite brand by now.
The Scarlett 2i2 is a prime example of the superior quality offered by Focusrite hardware – providing an external sound card that doubles as an audio interface.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 gives you a range of essential features without being overwhelming. This makes it an ideal choice for beginners.
At the same time, the powerful functions and hardware in this sound card are great for professionals too.
The Easy Start Tool that comes with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 makes it easy to set up and use this audio interface. There are two instrument inputs, which helps you connect a bass or guitar directly to your sound card.
Built-in converters provide a variety of effects while recording. The sound card features a built-in preamp, which helps to improve the volume of input channels, which can be either instruments or vocals.
The compact size of the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 provides a travel-friendly option for an audio interface. Multiple connectors mean you have more versatility while using the dedicated sound card.
The 3rd generation microphone preamp also provides a more natural-sounding recording. This allows for more versatility when editing vocals following the recording session.
2. Apogee Duet
Professional Sound Card
When flexibility in the studio is a key factor in your recording and music production sessions, then the Apogee Duet is an ideal option.
The sound card is compatible with both Microsoft Windows and MacOS operating systems. It can also be used with iOS-powered devices, which makes it a mobile solution.
On-the-go recording, editing, and music production become easy. The Apogee Duet has a small form factor, further adding to its mobile use.
There are two input channels on the Apogee Duet, along with four output channels. Built-in AD/DA conversion technology with two analog inputs offer superior sounding recordings.
A 48v Phantom Power source is used on this audio interface, which ensures it obtains enough power to offer a professional performance.
The Apogee Duet offers full software control over most of the hardware parameters. Easily switch between multiple inputs without touching the sound card.
Low latency monitoring is also available in the DAW of your choice, thanks to the driver configuration of the Apogee Duet.
3. Apogee One
Portable Sound Card
For less demanding studio environments, the Apogee One offers a portable solution that can be used in your home studio or on the road.
This sound card is made to provide a universal solution for both MacOS and Windows OS computers. It is custom-designed by experts in California and built within the US.
A lighting connector can be attached to the sound card, which allows you to connect it directly to an iPhone or iPad.
The Apogee One features only the most essential channels needed when recording, producing, mixing, and monitoring. This includes a total of two inputs and two outputs.
With the minimal interface, it is an easier choice for beginners too.
The Apogee One uses a USB 2.0 interface, ensuring you get compatibility with any computer you already own. A unique factor about this audio interface is the fact that it comes with a built-in microphone.
The omnidirectional technology used provides superior vocal recordings without the need for an external mic.
Built-in AD/DA conversion, along with preamp technology in the mic input port, provides studio-quality recordings without the high price tag.
RELATED: Apogee One vs. Apogee Duet Review
4. Behringer U-Phoria UMC 404 HD
Best Budget Sound Card
Behringer needs no introduction, as the brand is known for producing some of the very best music and studio equipment.
The Behringer U-Phoria UMC 404 HD is no different, providing all the qualities you would expect from a top brand. This is a more professional audio interface with multiple input and output channels.
The Behringer U-Phoria UMC 404 HD uses a USB 2.0 interface to connect to your computer. You can use this device with any computer, including laptops running macOS.
The interface supports frequencies up to 192kHz, with 24-bit audio support.
The Behringer U-Phoria UMC 404 HD comes with four input channels, as well as four output channels. It also has a built-in MIDI I/O interface.
The device runs on Phantom power, which makes it powerful enough for studio-quality recordings. There are four built-in preamps that help to enhance sound quality and volume.
Combo input provided by the audio interface allows multiple channels to be recorded at the same time. The device is also compatible with a range of outboard processors.
Headphones and RCA output ports give you multiple options for monitoring audio.
5. Novation AudioHub 2×4
Best Sound Card for DJs
The Novation AudioHub 2×4 features 2 RCA line inputs with selectable gain switch, 2 TRS balanced jack outputs, and 4 unbalanced RCA outputs.
Separate headphone socket features an output select switch and you will find 3 USB type A sockets for connecting USB devices.
The top panel has 2 volume controllers for outputs 1&2 and 3&4, a separate headphone volume control as well as indicator LED’s showing input and output activity as well as USB ports in use.
Portability and the ultra-low latency performance is where AudioBus 2×4 shines. 24-bit 96kHz capable converters are provided by Focusrite, which means the sound quality is spot on.
The build quality is also rugged enough for the unit to be thrown into a backpack and to the road. The unit features surprisingly loud outputs and the RCA input accepts phono for connecting a LP player.
The built-in USB hub is a welcome addition, especially when connecting with USB keyboards, other controllers and even an iPad (although not supporting charging through the port).
The unit can be USB bus-powered using type B cable, which connects AudioHub 2×4 to your computer or using a separate power supply, which comes included in the package.
There are no additional MIDI DIN ports on the AudioHub 2×4, which is a minor drawback, but not really a limitation as any USB-MIDI adapter can be easily used.
If you wish to connect a microphone or require anything other than unbalanced inputs, you’re out of luck.
Novation AudioHub 2×4 is an excellent budget option for anyone who values simplicity and portability. AudioHub 2×4 ships with Lite edition of Ableton Live 9.
6. Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd Gen
Best Sound Card for Recording
The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 features 2 Scarlett mic preamp equipped mic/line/instrument inputs at front and 2 balanced TRS line level inputs at the back of the unit.
There are further 4 balanced TRS outputs and separate S/PDIF in/out connectors for digital connectivity as well as MIDI din connectors at the back and two dedicated headphone connectors at the front.
Mic preamps are phantom-powered using a separate switch and there are level controls for both as well as main out, and both headphone outputs.
The red and green colored led rings, as well as LED’s, provide visual feedback for the two main inputs as well as MIDI and USB port status.
Focusrite has clearly thought out the playability of the product providing two separate headphone mixes and very low latency: the second generation Scarlett unit can reach an impressive below 3 ms latency, which enables seamless playback experience.
Microphone preamps are open and clear sounding while offering a wide gain range, making it easy to use it with both low and high input devices.
The instrument inputs sound great with guitars and basses. The converters in this unit are 24-bit 192kHz capable and solid Focusrite quality.
The unit is too small to put in a studio rack but at the same time remains small and rugged enough to be portable, which is great news for taking it on band rehearsals.
Provided MixControl software is easy and intuitive to use and the bundled Focusrite Creative Pack is an impressive addition, offering both ProTools First and Ableton Live Lite 9 DAW software as well as a mouth-watering collection of great plugins provided by Focusrite, Softube, and XLN Audio.
The “gain halo” LED indicator rings are beautiful and helpful but should provide a safe gain zone indication before reaching 0dBFS.
Scarlett 6i6 connects to the computer via a USB 2.0 port and requires an external PSU, which is included in the package.
Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd Gen is an impressive budget sound card offering solid performance, a well-thought-out selection of inputs and outputs as well as a great software to get started, making it an excellent choice for small bands and project studios.
7. Antelope Audio Discrete 8
Best Sound Card for Professionals
Antelope Audio interfaces are targeted at high-end recording studios and alike, and their Discrete 8 offers discrete console-grade Class A mic pres, hardware-level microphone preamp modeling, FPGA effects and Antelope Audio’s clocking technology.
The front panel includes 2 analog combo-inputs and two headphone connectors, while there are 6 further mic/instrument/line inputs, 16 channels of ADAT optical in/outs, S/PDIF coaxial in/out connectors, monitor and reamp line connectors.
There’s also an 8-channel line-out bracket connector, a single word clock input, and 3 output connectors. Lastly, there’s a footswitch connector at the back.
Dedicated controls at front handle gain for 8 analog inputs, main output as well as headphone levels, while a three-button operated color display provides visual feedback.
There is also a separate talk-back button at the front of the interface. Antelope Audio Discrete 8 is oozing of quality.
The fully discrete mic/line preamps have a very good noise performance of -128 DBU (A-weighted) offering a 121dB dynamic range.
Needless to say, the preamps are very clean and offer solid sonic performance.
But the real catch of the Discrete 8 becomes in the form of FPGA FX, or chip-based zero-latency 3D microphone preamp modeling provided by Accusonic, which is designed to work extremely well with Antelope Audio’s Verge and Edge condenser microphones (not included).
At the time this was written, at least, the modeling is limited to 10 classic amps, 19 modeled EQ’s, speaker/amp emulations, classic valve and FET compressors, and reverb.
The collection will surely still be growing in the future though.
The unit offers sample rates up to 24-bit 192kHz. The clocking options are spot on with sample rate options from 32 kHz all the way to 192kHz.
The provided ConnectAFX plugin can access all of the unit’s settings from inside the DAW.
The line outputs are a little on the light side, providing only +20dBu maximum output and it’s said that the early driver versions were experiencing latency issues in use for a limited number of users.
Unlike many other products, Discrete 8 doesn’t come bundled with additional software.
The unit can be connected to the computer via Thunderbolt or USB type B connector and an external PSU is provided for powering the device.
Antelope Audio Discrete 8 is a product that leaves little to desire. It packs genuine innovation and user-friendliness in an astonishing package, that keeps on giving.
A dedicated sound card for music production can sound like a big investment, but it’s important to understand that quality is a sum of all components used in the process.
While the built-in sound driver in your motherboard might allow you to watch movies and listen to music, it is unable to provide the processing needed for studio-quality sound.
Recording with the default sound driver in your computer can lead to excess noise and poor quality vocals or instrumentals.
A dedicated sound card gives you additional audio ports, making it possible to record and playback to multiple channels at the same time. You also get a wider range of channels, with support for up to 7.1 channels in some dedicated sound cards for music production.
This yields enhanced surround sound effects. It also lets helps when monitoring your tracks, ensuring there are a perfect balance and positioning of vocals, instruments, loops, and other elements that make up the track.
Apart from these benefits, the dedicated sound cards we reviewed in this post give you better directional audio. You also get enhanced accuracy with bass – allowing you to experience the track as your listeners will.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is an excellent option when you need something basic that still satisfies the needs of a home studio.
For a more professional experience with a greater variety of channels to utilize, the Antelope Audio Discrete 8 is another great option to consider.
Best Sound Card For Music Production: Buyers Guide 2021
Before talking about how the sound ends up inside the computer, we must first understand what sound is in the first place: sound is vibration or oscillation that a sound source creates in the physical medium that surrounds it – in our case this medium is air.
Oscillation creates small changes the surrounding air pressure and these changes can be measured using a microphone, which reacts to the incoming sound and interprets the air pressure changes into changes in electric current.
At this point the boring acoustic band becomes electroacoustic, the sound guy kicks in, amplifies and modifies these signals in his mixer, feeds the summed signal to speakers, which transforms the electric current back to sound pressure – and the crowd goes bonkers.
Hooray! The computer world adds yet another step to this process.
Sound is then digitized by special hardware in a process called sampling, where the incoming electric signal is translated into digital information, which can be then saved and manipulated using a computer.
This special hardware can be called a sound card or sound chip and it can be integrated into a motherboard inside a computer, installed as an expansion sound card, or attached to the computer as an external hardware unit.
In all simplicity – sound card handles the analog-to-digital digital-to-analog conversion processes and offers connectivity required for bringing sound in and out of the computer.
Additionally, a sound card can include preamps for microphone use, optical or coaxial digital connections, and MIDI-connectivity.
Some solutions can also include word clock connections, DSP-based mixing, and effects, as well as dedicated hardware controls.
It’s All About The Components
AD-DA conversion is the single most important function of the sound card, and this is handled by a special converter.
Technically this means that if the conversion is bad, the sound quality deteriorates and although these changes can be minute, they might become audible after processing and summing takes place inside the computer software.
This is especially true if the signal is sampled at a low sample rate or if there is some amount of noise included in the signal.
This is why instead of just looking at the microphone and cable quality, it’s important to have a specialized sound card that can manage these tasks reliably.
The Good, Bad, and The Ugly Features
So what exactly makes a good sound card beyond AD-DA conversion? This question has multiple equally good answers, depending on what is required from the sound card.
Let us explain:
Good, clean inputs are required if you’re recording a lot of external signals, such as hardware synths or acoustic instruments. An excellent signal-to-noise ratio ensures you are able to mix multiple audio tracks without adding a lot of noise to the summed signal.
It’s easy to imagine this when recording drums since even the minimal microphone setup typically involves using at least 4 microphones.
Multiple high-quality preamps would be essential in various other situations too, such as recording a choir, multi-channel ambiance, or any other recording task that requires using multiple condenser microphones.
A lot of users require portability these days. A simple and easy-to-carry USB-powered box with couple of ins and outs as well as dedicated headphone connection would be essential for both DJs and gigging musicians.
Some products specialize in offering low latency audio as well as zero-latency for monitoring, which enable the musician to integrate computers into their live performances.
Low latency features are widely adopted these days but it’s good to keep this in mind, when looking for a sound card specifically for playing live.
Last (but not least) is the sample rate that the sound card is able to capture and playback audio.
Although most of the best sound cards for music production are able to handle at least 24-bit 48kHz conversions, there are some applications that require using much higher sample rates, such as high-resolution audio offered in Blu-ray, which can go up to 24-bit 192kHz.
A high sample rate would be desirable when recording material for these kinds of specific purposes.
READ MORE: The Complete Studio Gear Guide for Producers
August 3, 2022 – updated images
May 30, 2022 – added 1 new internal link
May 27, 2022 – updated internal links
April 19, 2022 – updated links, minor content edits