If a friend—or bandmate—were to call me today and ask about a USB audio interface for beginners looking to branch out into DIY recording, I would recommend the Tascam US-2×2. After spending 30 hours researching the category, discussing key features with audio pros, and recording instrument and vocal samples on five models for evaluation by a panel of trained listeners, we chose the US-2×2 as our favorite. We found it to be the easiest model to work with, and setup in most cases is plug and play. It’s also one of the more affordable two-channel USB audio interfaces on the market, making it even easier to recommend.
During comparative listening evaluations, our panel found that the Tascam US-2×2 delivered the most consistently warm-sounding, highly detailed recordings. And it is powerful and sensitive enough to work with most microphones, so you can use it to record whatever instrument you need. Compared with the other models we looked at, the US-2×2’s rugged build quality makes it a superior option for portable recording. And iOS support benefits musicians on the move who want to leave their laptop behind. The US-2×2 also has onboard MIDI support so you can plug in electronic instruments such as keyboards or drum machines without additional hardware.
If you’re just looking to record vocals for a podcast or another voice-only project, you can get away with a simpler, all-in-one USB microphone, but anyone wanting to record instruments will greatly appreciate the added flexibility of a USB audio interface like the US-2×2.
Audio interface manufacturers typically include software with hardware, and that selection can help to sway a decision in favor of one box over another. If you don’t already have recording software you like, the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo also offers onboard MIDI and iOS device support and great audio quality, but adds a full-featured version of its well-regarded Studio One digital audio workstation (DAW) software (a $100 value). It also includes the company’s iOS recording app called Capture Duo, but anyone can download that for free on the App Store. We think the Tascam device is better overall because it’s more rugged and easier to use, and a lot of people would be fine using GarageBand or another free program, but the PreSonus is a close second.
If you’re recording a band rehearsal and find that a pair of microphone inputs isn’t enough, the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 is an upgrade we can easily recommend. Featuring the same high-quality mic preamps and 192/24-capable DACs as the Scarlett 2i2 we checked out in our tests, the Scarlett 6i6 can be relied upon to capture great-sounding recordings, but adds the onboard MIDI and iOS device support its two-channel brother lacks.
If you’re into podcasting, or just want to record vocals and not an electric guitar or keyboard, a basic XLR-to-USB interface can simplify your setup and save you money. The Blue Microphones Icicle is a no-frills interface that lets you plug in a standard microphone of your choosing and then converts analog signals to a digital format for transfer to a computer over a USB connection. Despite being smaller, it still provides the 48-volt phantom power output that’s needed to attach condenser mics. One downside: You can’t connect the Icicle to an iPad using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, so you’ll still have to use a laptop.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- Who should get this
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- If you need to record more than two sources
- An affordable option for vocals and acoustic instruments
- The competition
Why you should trust us
I have two decades of experience reviewing A/V products, and currently am a contributing technical editor at Sound & Vision magazine and a regular contributor to the SoundStage! network of websites. I’m also a musician (drummer) who has logged countless hours recording rehearsals and demos for various bands I’ve played in. As a longtime dabbler in electronic music production, I have extensive familiarity with the tools of the trade, including recording interfaces, MIDI controllers, and the other gear used in desktop studio environments. But it’s not just me: Jenece Gerber, the artist we collaborated with for our recording tests, is a professional musician, vocalist, and composer. And the participants in our listening panel included: Michael Berk, an electronic musician and executive editor at The Wirecutter; Adam Kendall, a jazz and electronic musician with extensive studio recording experience; Phil Metzler, a multi-instrumentalist member of LA-based indie rock band Just Off Turner; and Jack Smith, an avid audiophile and producer at The Wirecutter.
Who should get this
Musicians wanting to record songs without a big upfront hardware investment have long relied on their computer’s basic audio capabilities to capture and digitize tracks. Apple’s GarageBand, for example, is a popular low- or no-cost audio-editing application that packs an impressive range of features, including a huge library of royalty-free recorded loops and software synths that emulate a wide range of instruments. It also has an easy-to-use interface that lets you record live instruments and vocals via inexpensive USB microphones that plug directly into your computer.
While some newbie producers might be satisfied with their laptop’s recording capabilities, those serious about boosting the quality of their setup will soon realize the shortcomings of built-in hardware. Recordings can be noisy, and you are typically limited to capturing only one instrument or vocal track at a time. Relying on USB to connect a microphone also restricts your selection to mics with a USB output. While mics in that category are fine for basic recording applications like podcasting, the options aren’t anywhere near as extensive as regular models that output analog audio over an XLR or ¼-inch jack—especially when it comes to specialized mics for recording musical instruments.
For all these reasons and more, a USB audio interface will benefit musicians looking to expand their recording capabilities. USB audio interfaces support Windows, Mac, and other platforms, are available in configurations that permit recording up to 16 or more inputs simultaneously, and typically come bundled with a free “Lite” version of sophisticated DAW software. Many also provide onboard MIDI capability, which minimizes the hardware footprint on your desktop by using the same interface to route data from external MIDI controllers such as a keyboard or drum pad through to the recording software.
How we picked
To narrow down the choices for musicians and others doing basic recording, we scoured sites including Amazon, Sweetwater, and Musician’s Friend and looked for products that satisfied a select list of criteria:
- A Hi-Z input or plugging in an electric guitar or keyboard without additional hardware.
- Zero-latency hardware direct monitoring so that you can hear what you’re recording on your headphones directly from the input, without the computer’s processing adding any delay to the signal.
- A pair of inputs. We focused on 2×2 interfaces, which provide dual inputs and outputs for recording and monitoring. That’s because a musician creating a solo masterpiece at home would need to record only two tracks at a time at most. These entry-level units are also the most affordable, with the bulk priced in the $100 to $150 range.
- Built-in MIDI I/O is also important because someone new to recording would want to minimize complexity. Without this, you would need to depend on an external MIDI interface.
- iOS compatibility is a big bonus as iPads have become a popular tool for amateur and professional musicians to capture performances without having to lug along a laptop.
- Some kind of DAW software should be included in the box. At the very least, we looked for a “lite” version of some recording package, but gave bonus points to those that came with fully featured software.
- Rugged construction is important in case your device gets knocked around or dropped in transit—very likely for something that you’ll throw in a backpack or instrument case.
- Both the control buttons and gain adjustment knobs should be easy to locate and tweak for on-the-fly recording.
Along with these basic requirements, when we surveyed the field it became clear that models capable of capturing audio at 24-bit bit depth and a 96 kHz sampling rate have become the norm. While that high level of resolution can make sense for projects where archival quality is desired, it isn’t necessarily a requirement for most recordings. When we ran that idea by Peter Kirn, editor in chief of CDM (formerly known as Create Digital Music), he had this to say: “Bit depth and sample rate on an entry-level interface are mostly theoretical specs. All audio is delivered at 16-bit/44.1 kilohertz. The reason we use a rate of 44 to 48 kilohertz is that human adults are incapable of hearing higher frequencies.” So, while most of the units we opted to include met the 24-bit/96 kHz spec, not having that capability ultimately wasn’t a dealbreaker.
We eliminated products that had received complaints in user reviews about insufficient gain (input volume) when using phantom power with condenser microphones. In these cases, users even described having to connect outboard microphone preamps to achieve acceptable levels. If you’re just getting into recording, you’re not going to want to pursue such complicated workarounds—the hardware needs to be plug and play.
During our research, we came across models with identical features to the ones that made the cut, but that cost twice as much or more. The main advantage seemed to be a more attractive design, along with features like multicolor LED meters for monitoring signal input levels. While such amenities are nice, they don’t necessarily add up to a significant advantage over the lower-priced units. “For general production, simple meters are fine since they will indicate clipping before any damage is done,” said Adam Kendall, musician, programmer, and former proprietor of an independent recording studio. “Anyway, you will still be able to monitor levels in the software, which is where accurate metering really matters.”
One reason why you would spend more on a recording interface is higher input/output connectivity for scenarios that involve multiple microphones and instruments—when recording a full band with drums, for example.
How we tested
For this guide we tested the Tascam US-2×2, PreSonus AudioBox iTwo, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, Steinberg UR22mkII, Behringer U-Phoria UM2, and Blue Microphones Icicle. To evaluate their audio performance, design ergonomics, and ease of setup, I spent time with each model in my home studio, recording both vocal and electric guitar samples using GarageBand on my MacBook Pro, and Cubasis LE on my iPad.
I then recorded samples of vocals and acoustic instruments—in this case, harp. Here I enlisted the help of Jenece Gerber, a classically trained vocalist and musician with a PhD in music composition, using two popular and affordable condenser mics, a Blue Microphones Yeti Pro(using its analog output) for harp and an MXL V63M for vocals, to record her performances. After swapping out USB interfaces, I asked her to repeat each performance so I could capture samples with the various units at 24-bit/44.1 kHz resolution in GarageBand on my MacBook Pro. Mics were positioned in the same spot for each cycle, and input levels set during a dry run test to avoid clipping distortion.
Once the samples were edited, I normalized the volume for each track (to make sure listeners weren’t responding to minor differences in levels), exported them as AIFF files, and uploaded them in uncompressed format to Soundcloud. This enabled our bicoastal expert listening panel to evaluate them using their own headphones and USB DACs.
The Tascam US-2×2 is our pick for the best two-channel USB audio interface for amateur musicians and podcasters. It offers consistently excellent recording quality and a design that’s more user-friendly and rugged than the other models we tested. The US-2×2 is also packed with useful features such as iPad support and a MIDI interface to enable the playing of software instruments using an external controller.
The low noise and ample gain provided by the US-2×2’s dual microphone preamps allow for use with a wide range of microphones, including more exotic condenser models. Its ability to capture the nuances of both acoustic instruments and vocals pushed it past the other models under evaluation to score a top rating in our recording sound-quality tests.
Tascam’s design for the US-2×2 elevates the front panel and positions it at a slight angle. This arrangement allows for easy access to the unit’s control knobs, which, unlike those on some of the other units we checked out, are spaced comfortably apart and provide good resistance when making adjustments.
At 3.4 pounds, the Tascam has the most tanklike build quality of all the USB interfaces we looked at. Sturdy aluminum panels frame the US-2×2’s sides, providing extra weight to seat it on a desk as well as protect it when used for portable recording. Another feature that benefits portable applications is iOS device support, which allows you to leave your laptop at home and instead record using an iPad.
The Wirecutter isn’t alone in its admiration for the US-2×2. When Jono Buchanan of UK magazine Future Music reviewed the entry-level Tascam interface, he had this to say about it: “The key ingredients are certainly here, with high-quality preamps, warm, open signal conversion and immediate, plug-and-play operation, particularly if you’re working on a Mac.” In its thorough, hands-on test of the Tascam, review site Audiointerfaced.com stated, “Latency while recording was acceptable across a range of tests and we at no stage had any concerns with driver stability or the performance of the interface.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Apple’s Mac OS and iOS recognize the Tascam US-2×2’s interface as a core device so you can just plug and play with confidence. But Windows users will need to install separate drivers to get going. Some user reviews report that these drivers can cause everything from disconnects and lockups to full-out system crashes. But without knowing their specific setups, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about whether this is due to user error or some fault of Tascam’s. Your mileage my vary.
It’s also worth noting that as with all the models we tested, you’re going to need a separate AC adapter (not included) to use the Tascam US-2×2 with an iPad. When plugged into a computer, they draw all the power they need from the USB port.
While it costs more than our main pick, the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo is also well worth considering. The AudioBox iTwo received high marks from our listening panel for its sound quality, with comments citing its ability to capture the natural decay of acoustic instruments as well as maintain spaciousness and detail even during loud passages. The AudioBox iTwo’s iPad and MIDI support, along with the Studio One Artist software (a $100 value) that PreSonus bundles with the unit, also make it an appealing alternative for those looking to go beyond the confines of GarageBand and other free recording software.
The AudioBox iTwo’s main trade-off from the Tascam pick is a less convenient ergonomic design: Input gain adjustment knobs are placed near the bottom of the unit’s front panel, making them somewhat difficult to access. And it lacks the Tascam device’s convenient, upward tilt. Build quality is also flimsier than with the other units we evaluated, making it a less dependable option for portable use. On the other hand, click settings on the iTwo’s input gain knobs—useful for precisely dialing in adjustments—and a guitar graphic located next to the Mic/Instrument input select button were user-friendly touches that our main pick lacked.
If you need to record more than two sources
The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 features the same high-quality mic preamps and 192/24-capable DACs as the Scarlett 2i2 we evaluated for this guide, but adds features that the 2i2 lacks such as iPad connectivity and a 1×1 MIDI interface. Priced only $100 higher than the 2i2, it provides four additional ¼-inch inputs/outputs on the back beyond the twin XLR inputs on the front (for a total of six inputs). This lets you accommodate a wider range of recording scenarios, such as capturing the performance of a full band.
The 6i6 scored ergonomic points for its large, rubbery, easy-to-grip controls. The LED lights encircling its gain knobs, which glow green, orange, or red depending on input volume, also made tweaking levels easy compared with the other units, our main pick included.
Again, our testing was done on a 2i2 unit, but since it shares the same components as the 6i6, the findings carry over accurately. In the harp recording, I remarked on the “excellent detail and sense of air around the instrument.” And my vocal track comments praised its “low noise and graceful handling of peaks.” However, some other panelists had a few criticisms of the Scarlett’s sound, citing its rendering of the harp track as “stagnant and two-dimensional,” and as having a “a soundstage that feels smaller” than the other units. This is what kept it from being a top pick. But it’s still a fantastic value if you need six inputs.
An affordable option for vocals and acoustic instruments
The Blue Microphones Icicle is a great choice for those who don’t need to record guitars or keyboards and simply want to capture vocals or acoustic instruments. In contrast to the company’s Yeti, our pick for best all-in-one USB microphone, the Icicle is a basic audio interface that has an XLR input on one end for plugging in microphones, and a USB output on the other end to connect to a computer. It’s best thought of as an adapter to turn any XLR mic into a USB mic.
Sound quality is good, portability is great, and the price is right. On the other hand, there’s no clipping indicator LED. This is a helpful, if not necessary, feature found on all of the other units we looked at that warns you if the audio input level is overloading the microphone preamp, causing the signal to distort. It also doesn’t work with iPads since there’s no separate power input and Apple’s Camera Connection Kit doesn’t output enough power to operate the device. Both of these drawbacks combined could limit its utility for making recordings in the field. The Icicle’s recording resolution also maxes out at 16-bit/44.1 kHz (CD quality), which is plenty good enough, but below what the other interfaces are capable of.
While our panel found the sound quality of the Steinberg UR22mkII, which supports sampling rates up to 192 kHz, to be good overall, both the bunched-up control knobs on the unit’s face and a phantom power switch tucked away on the back panel made it more difficult to use than the other units.
Priced lower than $50, the Behringer U-Phoria UM2 seemed an almost-too-good-to-be-true budget option, providing both mic and instrument inputs. Our intuition was partially right: The sound quality of the U-Phoria UM2 proved to be unremarkable in our tests, and its build quality downright cheap. Compared with the other units we rounded up, however, the U-Phoria UM2 certainly offers plenty of bang for the buck.
There’s also a number of other popular options we didn’t bother to test because they lacked certain features. For example, the PreSonus AudioBox USB 2×2 Audio Interface’s typical street price is $50 lower than the AudioBox iTwo we tested, but that’s only because it’s an older product that doesn’t support 96 kHz sampling rates.
(Photos by Al Griffin.)
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