Searching for a decent audio interface can be intimidating. How many inputs do you need? Outputs? USB? USB-C? Thunderbolt? Firewire? Can it record all tracks at once? Does it need drivers? How much will it cost? What will you be recording?How serious are you? How trustworthy are reviews from music sites? Are said sites honest and impartial or are they thinly veiled shills? What do the “real people” have to say on music discussion sites?
If you’re just starting out, all of this is enough to make you want to just give up. There is, however, a single unit out there which no one seems to talk about at all for some reason. And it’s damn near perfect.
Un peu d’histoire
Like pretty much everyone who has dabbled in digital audio production, I started out with very basic, inexpensive equipment. My first audio interface was an M-Audio Fast Track USB. I’ve had it for over ten years and I still use it today. Mostly it acts as an audio out for my MacBook when I’m playing live but it does come in handy when I need a quick mic input for recording jams.
My next unit was an FCA202 unit that was part of the Behringer Podcastudio Bundle. The bundle was pretty sweet, especially considering it came with a C-1 condenser mic. People love to give Behringer shit for being “cheap” but I find this completely unfounded. Holy hell, the C-1 is a very decent mic for the price. The FCA202 unit is good as well, but it’s only really useful when attached to a small mixer. There are no preamps on it and it’s simply a one channel unit (either stereo or mono). Still, I managed to do some neat things with the this interface and I still use it from time to time. I also have a couple of Behringer 802 Mixers (one from the Podcastudio bundle and another I picked up free from someone in the area who was looking to get rid of some basic recording equipment) which I’ll get to in a little bit.
Over time, I started getting more serious and recently engineered, and mixed a full EP of songs using rented equipment. I used a Presonus Firewire unit. It had 16 preamps, a super, kickass mixing interface and just enough bobs and whistles to confuse you. I had so much fun with this project that I decided that I wanted to buy a proper audio interface. Maybe even one like the Presonus; Firewire. Fancy. Everything needed in one unit.
However the time spent learning how to more properly record and mix music, and the research I put into audio interfaces allowed me to dispel a couple of myths I once thought were truths.
The first myth was that I believed you needed a Firewire, or Thunderbolt, interface in order to record multiple tracks at once. I don’t know why I believed this. I was under the impression that USB simply didn’t have the bandwidth to allow multitrack recording. Everything I read on the manufacturers websites (and online music store descriptions) seemed to say that USB was limited to a single channel input to the computer no matter how many channels were on the interface. Maybe they once were but, after talking to people at local music stores, and doing research online, it seems that this is no longer a thing. USB seems to be just fine bandwidth wise. I’ve yet to try USB-C but from what I’ve read it’s just as fine, if not more so. Some smaller units may have two preamps and only allow you to record to a single track, but for the most part, USB is fine for multi tracking when you start moving up the price ladder.
Second, I found that you don’t need a super combo interface like the StudioLive to do great recordings. With most mixing, outside of professional studios, being done in the box (that means it’s all done on a computer in a Digital Audio Workstation – DAW) there is little to no reason to own a super fancy digital mixing/recording unit. Besides that, these things are expensive and if something on the board breaks, say a volume fader, then you have to haul the entire thing in for repair.
Armed with this new knowledge, I started researching audio interfaces in what I’d consider to be a reasonable price range: $350-$600 CDN.
In that price range you have to be careful and really look at what the manufacturer descriptions are telling you. They say things like 18 inputs/20 outputs and you think “wow, that’s a lot!” … but is it? The 18 advertised inputs turns out to be 8 mic preamp/line in combos, an optical input and an SPDF input. In reality, the 8 combo inputs means you can run either 8 mics or 8 1/4″ lines in, or a combination of the two. But instead of saying “8 combo inputs” they say “16 inputs”. So if you want to run 8 mics on a drumset, and then run a guitar on a line in, you’re of out luck. Others will only give you 2 preamps with 2 preamp/line in combos with no other line in options. And so on and so forth. The outputs normally include the headphone jack, a couple of 1/4″ for monitors and the aforementioned optical and SPDF.
In other words, read the fine print, look at pictures of the front and back of the unit you’re considering, and count the actual physical inputs/outputs.
Looking for a good audio interface can be a super frustrating experience (and asking for advice on a music production board is downright masochistic). Like with anything digital, each option seemed to have a handful of really awesome features but then were lacking in other areas. I wished I could take the features off a few of them and mash them together into one, simple to use unit.
I was about to just bite the bullet and save some more cash to get something in the plus $600 range when I came across the Tascam US-16×08.
Perfection That No One Talks About
I can’t believe that there aren’t more people talking about this interface. Did I miss something? All I seem to hear about is Audient or Focusrite. When people ask “what interface should I get” the response is either the Audient ID44 or the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20. Not only are both of these units pricey, they also follow that ideal that lots of inputs/outputs in the name makes it good even if the actual number is not really relevant to most people. The Focusrite is what I was referencing above with its “18 inputs”. The Audient is no better; it states that it has 20 inputs but if you look at it, the only ones I can see as really useful are the 4 mic pre/line in combos.
Or maybe I’m just a crazy n00b who doesn’t know shit.
Crazy or not, here is what I do know:
- The Tascam US-16×08 has exactly what the name states: 16 individual inputs and 8 individual outputs
- There are 8 mic preamps and 8 Lines In. They are not combos, they are separate from each other.
- There are 8 outputs. You can connect your monitors, or send out to your outboard effects, etc. No muss no fuss, nothing super fancy.
- There is a headphone input, but it’s not included in the 8 outs so really, there are 9 outputs on this unit.
- The unit has separate phantom power switches for ins 1-4 and 5-8.
- The two 1/4″ lines In on the front can be flipped from instrument to line depending on what/how you’re recording.
- The front has gain knobs for inputs 1-10.
- The lines In on the back can be switched between −10 dBV or +4 dBu.
- The lines in on the back are straight up inputs with no gain control. Not a big worry as you can control the gain on whatever external preamp/mixer/whatever you happen to be using.
- There is a midi in/out.
- There are separate volume controls for headphone and main sound.
Most importantly, to me anyway, is there there are no bobs and whistles and “extras” on this unit. You get your ins and you get your outs and that, as they say, is that.
And it’s only $399 CDN.
Real World Use Case
Before I get into the details, I have one caveat: my experience is with a Mac. No it’s not a super fancy Mac, it’s an aging Mac mini I bought in mid 2013. Over the years I did upgrade the hard drive to an SSD and maxed the ram. While it is starting to show its age, it’s still chugging along and doing its thing. I have no experience with the Tascam US-16×08 on a Windows computer.
On the Mac you do not need to install the drivers and software. I mean you can if you want. I did try the software on the Mac, but it added so much latency that it made recording impossible. I uninstalled it and everything is fine. From what I know, you do need to use the software on a Windows computer and I’ve seen it recommended that you should also install ASIO4ALL.
This is where the Tascam unit shines. You plug it in, turn it on and away you go. The Tascam Ultra-HDDA mic preamps are clean and warm… nah, I’m just shitting you. I have no idea what clean and warm means, those are audiophile terms (and, in my opinion, total bullshit). To me they simply sound good. There is no noise or feedback unless you crank up the gain with a hot mic attached. The two 1/4″ inputs on the front do the job just fine for direct connection of instruments. I’ve recorded bass and guitar directly through them and they both sounded great.
For me, the best part of the US-16×08 are the 6 inputs on the back. The gold here is that you can hook up whatever outboard preamps, mixers, etc you want. And it works flawlessly. In short, you can use whatever mic preamps you have lying around, including your old audio units. I have both Behringer 802’s hooked into the Tascam as well as an old Berhinger Untragain MIC2000 I found on Kijiji. So my setup has a combination of various mic preamps allowing me to mix and match sounds and there is still enough room too hook up a couple of more preamps if I wanted. With the combo of inputs and outputs you can hook up whatever effects chain you want and it’ll just work.
Found a good deal on a nice tube preamp? No problem. No need to buy another interface. Just hook it up to a line in, select that input in your DAW, and and away you go.
Not aesthetically pleasing, but it does the job.
The only addition you may want to look into is a patch bay depending on how much gear you want to work with and how much you’ll be redirecting the sound through various outboard effects.
I use Reaper as my main DAW, GarageBand for quick demo recording, and have been experimenting with Harrison MixBus and I’ve run into no issues at all with any of them. As mentioned, the only problem I had was when I tried Tascam’s shitty drivers and software 1. I found the latency unbearable when the software was running. Once I removed it from my system, the latency became unnoticeable and I still have access to all 16 inputs in all three DAWs.
If you’re looking for a great audio interface, you cannot go wrong with the US-16×08. It has the advertised amount of inputs and outputs, it’s super easy to setup and use, offers great expandability, and it looks pretty great (if you like that clean, black aesthetic).
For $399 CDN, it’s an absolute no brainer.
1: To be honest, I fond that the software for any audio interface I’ve tried to be half baked and rather useless. A lot of it comes with EQ and compression that works half the time and just causes issues the other half. If you can, skip the included software. You have a plethora of plugins available to you in your DAW and that’s all you really need.