For those entering the world of digital audio, and more specifically the world of MainStage, the decision of which audio interface to purchase can be overwhelming. You could spend anywhere from $100 to several thousand dollars and there are a plethora of choices. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the best audio interfaces for MainStage in three different price ranges.
When using MainStage in a live setting, an audio interface is absolutely critical. While it may be tempting to use the headphone jack on your MacBook Pro, you’ll never achieve a quality sound. Also, headphone jacks are prone to wear and tear which will eventually fail you at an inconvenient time. Another huge advantage to using an audio interface is the ability to transmit MIDI via a standard MIDI jack, which in my experience is always more reliable than using the USB port on your computer.
Criteria for Evaluating Audio Interfaces
I selected the audio interfaces based on several factors. First, each had to fit within the specified price range. Second, they had to offer MIDI In/Out. Third, the mid and high end interfaces had to offer at least 4 independent outputs. Fourth, they had to sound great.
Best Budget Audio Interface For MainStage Under $200 – Focusrite Scarlett 2i4
For a solid entry level audio interface for MainStage, look no further than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 (2nd Generation). At a $179 retail price, this unit offers a ton of bang for the buck.The Scarlett 2i4 offers four analogue outputs and MIDI I/O, which is enough for most live performance situations. Setting up the unit is extremely easy and sound quality is quite good for this price range. The unit feels solid in the hands and seems to be quite well constructed. In order words, it feels like a much more expensive unit (and sounds like it too).
The Focusrite Scarlett comes with Ableton Live Lite, Pro Tools First Focusrite Creative Pack, and several other pieces of entry level software. This makes it easy to get up and running right away, especially for someone new to the DAW scene. It’s a great opportunity to try out new software to see what feels like a comfortable workflow. And of course, MainStage is just a $29 download from the Mac App store!
One major drawback to the unit is that is doesn’t come with rack ears, thought that may not be a major issue for some, especially for an under $200 audio interface. Also, there are many workarounds that one could use to mount such a unit in a rack, though such solutions may lack some elegance. For the sound quality, reliability, and features, you can’t go wrong with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 audio interface.
Best Mid-range Audio Interface Under $600 – MOTU UltraLite mk4
I’ve been a fan of MOTU audio interfaces for quite some time. I find they offer a fantastic compromise between price and sound, and their MIDI functionality is rock solid. At just a little bit under $600, the MOTU UltraLite mk4 offers many useful features such as MIDI In/Out, 8 analog outputs, MOTU’s matrix audio routing software, and wireless control via smart device or computer.
I’ve used the MOTU UltraLite mk4 audio interface on several Broadway productions, national tours, and Off-Broadway shows. It sounds great in the house, is extremely reliable, offers plenty of outputs for MainStage keyboard programming, and even enough outputs for a basic Ableton rig provided you don’t need to run too many tracks.
The only drawback is the half-rack form factor, though if running multiple units it’s very easy to mount two MOTU UltraLite mk4 units into a single rack space.
Best High End Audio Interface Over $1,000 – RME FireFace UC
The RME FireFace UC sounds fantastic and has some very useful features for MainStage, though its $1,349 price tag can be a bit off-putting for many folks. That said, if the price isn’t a turnoff for you, the RME FireFace UC is a top notch audio interface.
The RME FireFace UC features a USB connection, 6 TRS outputs, MIDI In/Out, and an incredibly flexible matrix view in the software for audio routing in just about any configuration you can imagine.
The unit sounds absolutely stunning, though you may not notice it within the context of a theatrical production given that there are so many other factors to affect one’s perception of the sound out in the house.
One feature I really love about the RME FireFace UC audio interface is the breakout cable containing two MIDI inputs and two MIDI outputs. I’ve found this to be incredibly helpful and flexible. For example, on the Broadway production of Disney’s Aladdin, I use one MIDI input for the Yamaha Silent Piano and the other MIDI input for an M-Audio controller which we use for easy navigation to various patches in the programming. Various keys on the M-Audio can trigger the top of the show, the Line Check patch, or even MIDI panic.
One issue I’ve encountered with the RME FireFace UC is MIDI reliability. For reasons I’ve never been able to sort out, some models of Apple computers will fall victim to stuck MIDI notes when using the unit and it will be necessary to instead use an independent MIDI interface. This has nothing to do with the specific model of computer, year of production, or which USB port is used. I’ve had extensive communication with Apple and RME and have never received a satisfactory explanation. As it’s impossible to know anything about the specific hardware used for the USB busses with any iteration of Apple computers, there’s no way to predict when or if this will happen. I’ve used RME interfaces with Windows computers and have never had an issue. Also, I’ve used them on multiple productions using Apple computers which have never had any issues either. But when issues do arise, they’re unsolvable except with the aforementioned independent MIDI interface route. That said, I’ve never had any issues when using this interface on the Broadway production of Disney’s Aladdin or the National Tour of Disney’s Newsies.
Which Audio Interface is Best for MainStage?
Which interface you use will ultimately come down to budget and which features you need. If you’re on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4. Even if you graduate to something more higher end down the road, the Focusrite can still serve you well as part of your portable travel rig.
If choosing between the MOTU UltraLite mk4 or the RME FireFace UC, it will depend upon whether you’ll be using the interface exclusively for MainStage or if it will alternate between your MainStage rig and your home studio. For studio use, you’d probably be better served by the superior convertors in the RME, but if you’re only using it for your MainStage rig, I’d go with the MOTU UltraLite mk4. In my opinion, it offers the best cost to value ratio and provides a lot of bang for the buck.
Regardless, all three of these audio interfaces are excellent options for MainStage or recording in your home studio.
These audio interfaces are available on Amazon:
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