Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
Every few weeks, we answer reader queries about gear, production, and promotion. This week, we’re answering your questions about the best audio interface for Ableton and what you should look for when buying one. Reach out to us on this page to get answers to your own gear and production-related queries.
It’s no secret that Ableton has absolutely blown up in the last five years. What used to be a distant competitor to Cubase/Nuendo, Logic and Pro Tools is now pretty much the first DAW beginners turn to when they start their production journey. It’s also my default DAW. Even though I use Pro Tools for mixing/mastering, I’ve found that Ableton’s ease of use and sessions workflow is far more suited to my production style.
So when I received this question from a reader about the best audio interface for Ableton, I wasn’t surprised. There are tons of new producers looking for advice and an audio interface is usually the first place they start considering its importance in any bedroom studio setup. And while we’ve talked about audio interfaces in the past, we haven’t tackled any that focus exclusively on Ableton.
That’s not to say that Ableton requires any special audio interfaces. Anything that works on Pro Tools, FL, Reason, Reaper, Logic and other DAWs, will work on Ableton as well. You can blindly pick any from our list of the best audio interfaces, plug it into Ableton and be happy.
Nonetheless, since this question has been asked, I figured I’d share my list of the best audio interfaces for Ableton.
But before that, there are a few things you should know about how audio interfaces and how Ableton works with them.
Quick Buying Guide to Audio Interfaces
Before we look at the best audio interface for Ableton, there are a few things you should know about this product category.
You Don’t Really Need an Audio Interface
Blasphemy! How could a music production blog even advocate making music without an audio interface?
While I would never recommend any one to make music without an audio interface plugged into Ableton, objectively, you don’t need one. Ableton works perfectly well with your computer’s built-in audio drivers. In fact, if I pop into my Ableton right now, I can easily switch between the built-in audio driver (MME) or the external audio interface (ASIO).[img]
Of course, the performance of the built-in audio driver (especially on Windows) is almost always horrible. The latency is completely out of sync and you will see a very noticeable delay between pressing a note and hearing it back. This makes built-in drivers redundant for any serious music making.
But there have been times when I’ve been on the road and wanted to make some changes to a track and didn’t have my Focusrite with me. At such times, I’ve plugged in my earphones (not even studio headphones!) directly into the laptop headphone port.
It’s not ideal, but do remember that it is possible. If you’re on an absolutely tiny budget and can afford either the DAW or an audio interface, I’d say buy the DAW first. You can still make music without an audio interface.
Why Audio Interfaces are Important
This brings us to the more important question: why should you even bother with an audio interface?
In any studio, an audio interface fulfils three roles:
- Audio quality: Your computer’s on-board sound quality is typically mediocre at best. Even if your laptop boasts a fancy sound card like Creative Sound Blaster, it will never be able to compete with the audio quality offered by a dedicated external audio interface. If you’re producing music, being able to hear and export audio at the highest possible quality level is crucial.
- Latency: This is the biggest reason to buy an audio interface: latency! For those unaware, latency defines the time it takes for a signal to move from the computer to an external device (and vice-versa). An input latency of 13 milliseconds, for instance, means that it takes 13ms for an input signal to reach the computer and be rendered into sound. The lower the latency, the more instantaneous the output and the smoother the experience. Built-in sound cards almost never offer decent latency, while an external audio interface will typically offer a low enough latency that audio production feels friction-free.
- Connectivity: If you’re going to produce music, you’ll have to plug in external instruments into your DAW. You’ll need XLR, TS (line) inputs and line/RCA output. You can’t get that from your built-in sound card. To get all these connectivity options, you’ll need an external audio interface.
In simpler words: you can’t make serious music without an audio interface. Your onboard sound card might be enough for playing around, but it’s never going to be enough for anything more serious than a nursery rhyme.
The Latency vs Price Debate
As you go up the audio interface value chain, you’ll find two things occurring more and more:
- The number of ports offered tends to increase with price (though not always)
- The latency offered keeps getting lower with price (almost always)
As a producer, it is tempting to keep throwing money until you get an audio interface with the tiniest possible latency. It can even be a bragging right to say that you have <2ms latency.
But the truth is that beyond a certain point, lower latency won’t really make a big difference to your production capabilities. It is physically impossible for humans to detect latencies lower than 8ms. In fact, if you can get to even 25ms, you won’t be able to detect it.
Most entry-level interfaces will offer latencies as low as 13ms. That’s good enough for majority of applications. Splurge a bit more and you can get latencies as low as 9-10ms. That’s more than enough for virtually any producer.
(Do keep in mind that your latency also depends on your computer setup. Often, it’s better to upgrade your computer than to upgrade your audio interface for latency gains.)
The Port Question
The last thing you should know is the number of connections or ports.
After all, one of the key reasons to buy an audio interface is to increase the number of instruments you can connect simultaneously to your computer.
Most audio interfaces will offer the following input options:
- Mic input (XLR)
- Line input (TS/TRS)
As for output, you’ll usually have:
- RCA output for connecting monitors
- Headphone output for headphones
- Line output for connecting monitors
Do keep in mind that you can use adapters to connect different ports. For instance, if your audio interface has only XLR input and no MIDI port, you can use an XLR to MIDI cable to connect the two.
I encourage you to evaluate your own production style and needs. If you’re a singer-songwriter, it’s better to get an audio interface like Scarlett Solo that has separate inputs for a mic + guitar. If, however, you want to record two mics simultaneously, something like Scarlett 2i2 with two XLR inputs will be better suited for your needs.
Look for more than 2 inputs only if you’re really going to use them (such as recording a band). For the vast majority of bedroom producers, 2 inputs is more than enough.
USB vs Thunderbolt
Until a few years ago, the connectivity question was easy to answer: just buy a USB audio interface. After all, every computer came equipped with one.
The problem is that more and more modern computers are ditching the standard USB port in favor of USB-C or Thunderbolt. My Macbook Air, for instance, just has two Thunderbolt 3 ports. This means that if I want to attach any USB audio interface to it, I have to first invest in a Thunderbolt to USB-A adapter.
Manufacturers have responded to this change by bringing out Thunderbolt interfaces. Focusrite, for instance, has a Thunderbolt-only line called ‘Clarett’.
But the product selection for Thunderbolt interfaces is still limited. More importantly, Thunderbolt interfaces are considerably more expensive. Focusrite’s Clarett line, for instance, costs almost four times its Scarlett line.
Sure, there is a considerable difference in performance as well, but for most beginners and intermediate level musicians, the difference is immaterial. Shaving a few milliseconds off the latency isn’t going to transform you into a better musician.
My opinion: if your computer has only Thunderbolt ports, buy a standard USB interface then connect via an adapter. You will have access to a wider range of products this way and won’t burn that deep hole in your pocket.
On that note, let’s answer the original question: what’s the best audio interface for Ableton?
The Best Audio Interface for Ableton: Top 4 Picks
The truth is that you can use virtually any modern audio interface with Ableton. The popularity of this DAW means that manufacturers can’t afford to not support it.
But if you want specific recommendations, here are our top five picks for the best audio interfaces for Ableton:
Best Overall: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen)
Pop into any home studio and you’ll likely see this little red box sitting on the desk. Focusrite absolutely dominates the entry-level USB audio interface market, and rightly so. It’s affordable, easy to set up, and offers great performance right out of the box.
What makes the Scarlett 2i2 such a hit is its versatility and ease of use. You don’t need an external power source for this interface; it draws its power via USB. Simply plug it into your computer (the 3rd gen 2i2 comes with a USB-C cable) and you can start recording right away. Ableton recognizes it instantly as well.
The Scarlett 2i2 features two line/XLR inputs. You can plug in your mics and line-level instrument (such as an electric guitar) simultaneously. The 3rd generation variant also has an ‘Air’ mode that gives your vocal recordings a roomier, brighter tone.
Because of its ease of use and great price-performance ratio, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is our most recommended audio interface for Ableton.
Buy from: Amazon
Best Thunderbolt Interface: Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Solo
If you’re in the market for a Thunderbolt interface, be prepared to splurge – this segment, by default, is 3-4x more expensive than equivalent USB interfaces. This is partly because of the higher performance Thunderbolt affords you, and partly because the people buying Thunderbolt audio interfaces tend to be pros who don’t mind dropping $500+ on studio equipment.
For a home studio Thunderbolt interface, you can’t go wrong with the much loved Apollo Twin MK2. This beautiful little box with its green lights graces studio desks the world over and is widely praised for its exceptional audio quality.
While you get tons of I/O options and features – mic/line preamps, line inputs/outputs, HiZ input, talk button, etc. – the highlight of the Apollo Twin is its pre-amp. The quality of the signal is effortlessly balanced and drastically better than an entry-level Scarlett. When used along with the included plugins (which feed directly off the interface’s computer, not your DAW – saving you vital processing power), it’s as good of a studio setup you can get at home without spending thousands of dollars.
It’s not cheap, but the difference in audio quality is clear. If you have the money for it, this is easily the best Thunderbolt audio interface you can get in any home studio.
Buy from: Amazon
Best Entry-Level: Behringer UM2
The Behringer UM2 doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as performance goes. The sampling rate at just 48kHz is far from ideal. The built-in drivers have some balance and power issues. And with just one mic and one line input, your setup is severely constrained.
What the UM2 does have going in its favor, however, is the price. This is as cheap as audio interfaces can get. For a beginner just building his first studio, it’s hard to overlook the massive affordability factor.
This price might not fetch you great sounding, pro-grade drivers, but it will get you decently low latency. Hook up your MIDI keyboard to it and the playback will be near instantaneous. Plug in your mic and you’ll cut down the buzz drastically compared to your computer’s built-in microphone.
Buy this if you’re on a tiny budget and need something to connect your instruments at a low enough latency. It’s dirt cheap and at the very least, fulfils the basic functions of an audio interface.
Buy from: Amazon
Best for Pros: RME Babyface
There will come a point in your music production career when low-end audio interfaces won’t cut it anymore. Maybe they don’t have the power to delivery those thick vocals you want. Or maybe the limited clarity leaves a distracting buzz in your guitar recordings.
When that happens, you’ll want to turn to the RME Babyface.
The Babyface is a mainstay of studios because of its extremely low latency, well-balanced AD/DA drivers and analog I/O options. Plug in a keyboard into the device and the result is crystal clear, instantaneous sound. Add an SR58 and you’ll find that the vocals are fatter, clearer and crisper than anything a low-end audio interface can ever get you.
Sure, this performance comes at a price, but if you’re a pro who needs clarity, balance, and crispness, this is the best audio interface for Ableton you can buy. It has a small form factor, a useful built-in screen monitor, and a hugely useful volume dial right on top. Add it to your kit and it will transform your studio experience.
Buy from: Amazon
Over to You
Ableton remains my favorite DAW, simply because of its ease of use and widespread support. There are few brands that can afford to ignore this massively popular software (AutoTune is the only one I can think of). Consequently, you can pick up virtually any audio interface, plug it into Ableton, and get crystal clear performance.
For specific recommendations, choose from our list of the best audio interfaces for Ableton above. I’ve covered a range of prices and capabilities so you can find something that fits your needs perfectly.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.