If you’re performing live, you have very specific requirements from your setup. While you might prioritize pristine sound quality in your home studio audio interface, live performance demands low latency. To help you find the right interface for live gigs, we put together this guide to the best audio interface for live performance in 2020.
Performing live isn’t easy.
Stage fright and hostile audiences aside, you need very different gear for performing live than you would in a studio setting. You have the luxury of plugging in/out instruments and recording them over multiple tracks at home. You would also prioritize sound quality above all else in a home studio.
But in a live performance, removing instruments or tolerating high latency isn’t an option. If your audio interface doesn’t have latency below 14ms, your performance will suffer.
You also need an audio interface that can accommodate all your instruments. This will vary greatly depending on the kind of music you want to play.
I haven’t even talked about the great debate between audio interfaces and mixers for live performance.
So to answer all your questions and help you find the best equipment for your gigs, here’s our detailed guide to buying the best audio interface for live performance.
The first thing I would ask you is:
Why do you want to buy an audio interface for live performance?
This isn’t a rhetorical question – using an audio interface isn’t necessarily the right path for many situations. You’re generally better served by a mixer that you can plug all your gear into.
So let’s backtrack.
When you’re performing live, your setup will most likely look like this:
This is the traditional live performance I/O map. This has three components:
- Sound production/capturing equipment, such as microphones, guitar, synths, etc. that plug into a mixer
- Sound mixer that captures all these signals, “mixes” them, and sends them to a desired output
- Speakers and monitors that plug into the mixer and produce sound. Usually one channel is for the audience (the PA system) and one for the musicians (in-ear monitors)
With this traditional system, the mixer does the heavy duty job of mixing all the signals together. You plug in your guitar into an effects unit, which goes into a mixer. The mixer takes another signal from a microphone, mixes the two together, and sends them to a pair of speakers.
Mixers work great in live settings since they have low latency and tons of I/O ports. You can often plug 16+ inputs into a single mixer, which is enough for most live bands.
But a traditional setup isn’t right in every situation, especially if you already plan on using your computer as an effects box.
In this case, you can use the computer as a mixer and use it to capture and reproduce audio signals.
And to capture audio signals, you’ll obviously need an audio interface.
With an audio interface system, your live performance setup might look like this:
In this case, your guitar and microphone would plug straight into the audio interface (you can also plug the guitar into an effects box before). The audio interface would plug into your DAW which can act as an effects box as well as a digital mixer. Once the signal is processed, the DAW would send it back to the audio interface from where you can output it to a pair of speakers and in-ear monitors.
If you’re a home producer, you are likely much more familiar with this setup. Which is why it has become much more popular recently.
Why Choose an Audio Interface (Instead of a Mixer)?
This brings up the obvious question – why would you want to buy an audio interface and not an audio mixer?
Three reasons why:
- An audio interface can do double duty in a home studio as well as be useful in a live gig – a major positive for cash-strapped artists
- Audio interfaces usually have better analog-to-digital (A/D) converters and hence, offer better audio quality
- Using the audio interface + DAW system makes it possible to use a huge array of effects and plugins
- New audio interfaces have a large number of I/O options
- Needs less equipment since the DAW can act as an effects box
Recently, I performed live at a bar and needed a guitar + mic. I brought my trust RME Babyface to the stage, plugged my guitar and microphone into it, and plugged the Babyface into my computer. I used Guitar Rig Pro to create effects for my guitar, and turned my laptop into a digital mixer. Altogether, I needed no new equipment and could essentially reboot my home studio setup on stage.
Of course, it’s not all roses and rainbows – there are some situations where you might not want to use an audio interface:
- Most audio interfaces don’t have enough I/O ports for a large live band
- Since audio interfaces focus on signal quality, their latency is typically higher
- Good quality audio interfaces with lots of I/O ports are more expensive than equivalent mixers
This is a horses for courses situation. I can’t say that a mixer is definitely better than an audio interface, or vice versa. You’ll have to factor in your own requirements, how you play, and what kind of I/O options you need.
On that note, here are a few things to keep in mind when buying the best audio interface for live performance:
1. Keep a close eye on the latency
Poor latency can break your entire live performance setup. While most audio interfaces do a good enough job of managing latency in a home studio setting, you’ll likely have multiple instruments connected to it at the same time. Moreover, if you’re using the DAW as a digital mixer, you’ll have several effects on it as well.
Does the audio interface perform as well in such constraints? Does it give you “instant” latency (usually under 25ms though 10-14ms is ideal)?
Also note that in some situations, you might plug the audio signal from an audio interface into a mixer again, especially if you have multiple audio interfaces to accommodate multiple computers or instruments. In such settings, the latency will drop even further.
2. Audio quality can take a backseat
Noise and interference can destroy your studio recordings.
But in a live setting, these matter far less. Your audience is unlikely to hear the minor interference that can otherwise tarnish a great recording.
So prioritize – latency > audio quality.
3. Number of input.output options is crucial
Lastly, the number of I/O options at your disposal when buying the best audio interface for live performance.
Most audio interfaces really struggle in this regard, especially if you have mic’ed up all your drums (which alone can take 5-6 channels). Even the most common rackmounted audio interfaces such as Scarlett 18i20 have only 8 inputs. This means that if you want to plug in more than 8 instruments at a time, you’ll have to find some workarounds.
4. Consider studio performance as well
I’ve almost never met a musician who bought an audio interface just for live performance. In most cases, they buy the interface for their home studios, then bring it over to a live gig.
Thus, an audio interface that performs great in live gigs but fails miserably in studio settings isn’t an interface I can recommend. Even if you perform live a lot, studio performance should still be the first yardstick to evaluate any audio interface.
Keep this in mind when you make your shortlist. Live performance is fine and all, but an audio interface that doesn’t pass muster in the studio is an automatic reject.
5. Reliability trumps everything
Live setups are inherently more complicated than studio runs. You know exactly what equipment you’ll work with in a home studio. But in a live setting, you can never be sure what equipment that particular gig will have.
Maybe their PA system uses a different type of port. Or maybe you have to borrow a laptop. Or maybe you forgot to pack in your chosen cable.
In all these instances, you want reliable performance. Standard ports, inter-operability, reliable latency across devices and platforms is key for choosing the best audio interface for live performance
6. Build quality is important
Touring is never good on your gear. Airlines mishandle instruments, roadies keep them where they shouldn’t be kept, and the normal day-to-day of live performance takes a toll on hardware.
Make sure that whatever audio interface you buy has the build quality to endure the harshness of touring. You don’t want to arrive at a stage show just to find that the volume control knob is broken or a key port doesn’t work anymore.
On the whole, buying the best audio interface for live performance should be an option only if you:
- Don’t have an audio mixer and preamp
- Want to use your computer as an effects box or digital mixer
- Want to record a limited number of instruments
On that note, let’s look at the best audio interfaces for live performance you can buy right now.
Low latency, plenty of I/O options, good studio performance – these are some of our top criterion for picking the best audio interfaces for live gigs.
Based on these factors, here are our top picks in this category:
The best audio interface for live performance helps you get sound in and out of the computer. If you are a musician, then you need an audio interface so that you can record your guitar, keyboard, drum or any other sound. You can do all that from a computer alone. However, with an audio interface such as RME Babyface Pro, you will make professional-quality recording. This audio interface will help you mix and then master your recording for presentation.
If you are a sound nerd, the first thing that you will love about this RME baby is the versatility that it comes with. They have included 4 analog inputs from the previous model’s two. The clarity of the preamp will convince you that you did the right thing to get this audio interface. With the room to connect up to 12 inputs, this interface gives you more versatility. Remember, there is the mic preamp that is compatible with ADAT.
Away from the technical jargon, the sound quality that you will get from this audio interface is stunning, whether you are recording through the mic preamps or listening to the playback. The TotalMIX FX software is provided free of charge. It has a learning curve but once you figure out how to use it, you will become a sound master yourself.
The drivers are quite good and whether you use this audio interface on Windows or Mac, they do not affect how your computer operates.
What we don’t like:
There is not a lot to dislike in the RME Babyface Pro except perhaps the complicated software. We feel that the learning curve should be shorter especially for beginners.
Best Budget Pick: M-Audio M-Track 8X4M
- 24-bit 192kHz resolution
- 4 crystal preamps
- MIDI input-outboard gear
- A/D converters
- Bass and guitar direct 1/4 –inch input
- USB-C port is quite fast, also compatible with USB 2.0
- Compatible with Mac 10.11 and later and Windows 7 and later
- Comprehensive software suite with Ableton live, ProTools and others
If you are looking for a small audio interface that is both externally powered and USB powered, you can get this M-Audio M-Track 8X4M. It comes with a comprehensive software suite with Ableton Live Lite, Strike, Expand!2, Pro Tools and Mini Grand. With so many versatile features, this audio interface will turn you from amateur to a pro.
For studio-grade recording, the M-Audio M-Track 8X4M is going to exceed your expectations. The 24-bit/192kHz resolution, combined with the four XLR and ¼ TRS inputs, two ¼-inch line inputs, two ¼-inch instrument inputs and two ¼-inch headphone outputs enables you to capture any sound. You can connect anything that you need to mix your sounds.
You should also not forget the large metal knob that is located at the middle of this audio interface. Its work is to dial in the volume of the studio monitor. For flexibility, the headphone outputs have their own volume controls.
What I don’t like
I wish they would supply this unit with a longer USB cable. Honestly, that is the only complaint that I can find about this audio interface.
Best I/O: PreSonus Studio 1810c 18×8
- Audio quality is 24-bit/192kHz
- 4 microphone preamps
- 4 ¼-inch jacks
- 8 TRS balanced ¼-inch outputs
- Compatible with Mac and Windows
- Headphone control
- 6 ladder LED for monitoring
The PreSonus Studio 1810c 18×8 is a sound producer dreams come true. The sound output is incredibly warm and clear. One other thing that you will love about the 1810c is that it is easy to set up
This audio interface comes with one of the best music production software – PreSonus Studio One Artist. This versatile software is designed to work with almost all Windows and Mac operating systems. This interface can record a maximum of 18 inputs simultaneously and this includes S/PDIF and ADAT.
With the line output/DC-coupled, PreSonus XMAX microphone preamps and the MIDI input/output, you can see this is a comprehensive home or studio music-recording outfit. The sound is indeed supreme with the excellent converters that in combination with the XMAX preamp mics, will give you incredible lows and silk-smooth highs all the time.
What I don’t like
This is an awesome audio interface but the only thing that I do not like about is the position of the microphone jack, which is at the back. This is not very accessible especially as we have to plug and unplug the mic all the time.
Best I/O (Budget): Tascam US-16×08
- Has 16 mic inputs
- 8 mic preamps with ultra-HDDA quality
- Direct guitar and bass recording through two of the 8 line inputs
- Low latency built-in DSP mixer
- Stable drivers for Mac and Windows
- Headphones and line outputs have their own volume controls
- Sleek style for easy transport and storage
The Tascam US-16×08 is one of the most powerful, best audio interface for live performance that you can buy. It is sleek in style and design and is therefore quite appealing, both in performance and aesthetically. The all-metal case ensures durability and protection in case it drops, or something falls on it. For all of your home of studio recording needs, the 8 microphones, 8 line inputs and outputs should be enough for you.
The mark of quality for any audio interface is the sound quality and it does not come any better than this one. It is crystal clear and quiet. The highs may sound a bit overstated, but they are really good. In overdrive, there will be some distortion so it is best that you do not go there.
Latency is low, but when you need to raise the ASIO buffer size, the latency may increase. Generally, at 24-bit/96kHz, this is considered great because latency is almost non-existent. If you would like to record your electric or acoustic guitar or bass, just use the Amp Simulator Software to switch up the first two channels. There are no guitar plug-ins, so you will have to buy them separately.
To enhance the performance of the Tascam US-16×08, you get the High Definition Discrete Architecture – Ultra-HDDA, a high quality preamp mic design that has a high sound to noise ratio of 100 dB. With this kind of ratio, you can be sure that noise will practically be non-existent.
What I don’t like
You cannot use this audio interface with more than 8 microphones because the mic preamps are only 8, with the other 8 being line inputs. Thus, if you need to mix sound with more than 8 mics, you will miss out or you may even find the need to get a bigger mixer.
Best for Latency: Roland OctaCapture USB 2.0
- Low latency thanks to the stable STREAMING VS driver
- Four direct mixers that are controlled differently from the software
- 8 XLR ¼ -inch mic preamps
- Compatible with all of the DAW platforms on Mac and Windows
- The AUTO-SENS can set up the right input levels for every preamp
- Bundled software for music production
If you are looking for a programmable audio interface that can stick with you through the thick and thin of your music production journey, this is it for you. You will get low latency audio input and output thanks to the 24-bit/192kHz resolution. But that is nothing new since it is what we get with most audio interfaces today. So what is it that really puts the Roland OctaCapture USB 2.0 in a class of its own? Find out in the performance section coming up below.
To test your Roland OctaCapture, just plug in your mic and start to track sound from different sources and soon after, you will start to feel the tonal quality that OctaCapture brings. Layered compositions especially perform excellently on this audio interface, something that saves you from having to plug and unplug microphones all the time.
Because of the premium components in the analog circuitry, you will find that the OctaCapture does not require all those switches and knobs as you may have seen in other interfaces. Thanks to the AUTO-SENS feature, you can just select the channels that you need and then the DSP is going to automatically find the optimal input level that is suitable for every channel.
What I don’t like
It is a bit hard to create a multi-channel recording from a single place because of the lack of input level meters on the AUTO-SENS software interface.
Best for Studio + Live Use: Focusrite Clarett 4Pre
- Supports Mac OS 10.11 and later and Windows 7 and later
- Air feature for modeling the sound of the Clarett 4Pre
- 4 ¼-inch line outputs, S/PDIF output/digital
- MIDI output-5 pin
- 2 outputs for stereo headphones
- 4 ¼ -inch line inputs, 5 pin MIDI input
- ADAT to expand by 8 extra inputs
- FocusRite Control Software
With MIDI inputs and outputs, 4 microphone preamps, desktop microphone stand, Rockville PRO M50 headphones, and so many other features make the FocusRite Clarett 4Pre a professional-grade audio interface.
The software is one of the outstanding features of this audio interface. Once you learn how to work with it, you will enjoy low latency all the time. One of the ways to do this is by routing the inputs direct to the outputs. This eliminates the need for the input signal to go via your computer so that it can get to the output.
You will also find this interface very versatile. It is compatible with USB type 2.0, 3.0, 3.1 ports and Thunderbolt 3 port. Thus, you do not have to upgrade your computer just so you can use it with this interface. The Air effect is an awesome addition as it is going to boost the mids and the highs giving high quality sounds especially for the guitars and the vocals.
What I don’t like
There is no onboard processing, something that makes it hard to execute some functions such as making a high pass since it must need the DAW intervention. Also, even with the inclusion of Ableton Lite Live, Softube, XLN Audio and others, the price is still a bit high.
Over to You
Picking the best audio interface for live performance can be tough. You have to balance the durability and reliability of touring gear with the audio quality of a studio performer. Something that can do double duty in the studio as well as the stage can be incredibly challenging.
Hopefully, this article would have helped you choose the perfect audio interface for live gigs.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Check out our guide to the best USB audio interfaces for overall picks
- Building a home studio? Then read this guide to our best home studio audio interfaces
- Running Ableton? You’ll want to see our top picks for Ableton audio interfaces
- For more gear buying advice, see our Gear page