All too often, I hear about people using the headphone jack of their MacBook to run audio out of their computer when using MainStage in live performance. When this happens on an online forum, this is usually followed by a chorus of voices reminding the poor user of the fault of their ways. We then hear the usual arguments about sound quality, reliability, etc.
While not everyone has $1,500 available to purchase a shiny new RME audio interface, there are now many choices for budget audio interfaces below $100 which will work perfectly well. They may not have the same sound quality as higher end interfaces and they may lack certain features such as number or outputs, a physical MIDI connection, or higher sample rates, they’ll work perfectly fine for a user on a budget. Additionally, once one has the means to purchase a higher end interface, these budget audio interfaces can serve extremely well for use in a portable rig for travel.
In this post, I’ve selected four different budget audio interfaces under $100 to highlight. Technically, one of them is a bit over $100, but I think it’s worth spending the extra $10 to be able to use it. I’ll list the various key features and highlight a few pros and cons of each model.
Behringer U-Phoria UM22 Audio Interface
At $68.00, the BEHRINGER Audio Interface UMC22 is a great deal if you’re looking for an entry level interface. It offers the following features:
- USB Type B connection
- Bus powered
- 2 x 1/4″ analog outputs
- 1 x 1/4″ headphone jack
- Supports sample rates up to 48kHz
Some downsides to the Behringer U-Phoria UM22 are that it lacks a physical MIDI I/O, which means that you’ll need either a separate MIDI interface or you’ll need to connect your controller to your computer via USB. In my experience, using USB for MIDI is less reliable and offers fewer options for customizing your rig. However, at $68.00, it’s easy to ignore the lack of such a feature. Another downside is that I’ve had less than stellar experience with the durability of Behringer equipment. It’s fine in a pinch when you need something that works within a specific budget, but it’s not something that’s built to last. But again, at $68.00, I’d still take the chance with this unit.
Mackie Onyx Artist 1-2 Audio Interface
The Mackie Onyx Artist 1-2 Audio Interface offers a bit more durability and a few more features than the Behringer U-Phoria. For $99.00, it’s still a great deal. Like many of the other sub-$100 interfaces, it offers 2×2 audio I/O capability. Unlike the Behringer, the Mackie Onyx Artist offers a slightly higher sample rate of up to 24-bit/96kHz. While this may be helpful when recording, it won’t make much of a difference when using MainStage as there’s rarely a need to run MainStage at a sample rate any higher than 44.1 or 48 kHz. Anything higher than that can’t be discerned in the house in a theatre situation.
The Mackie Onyx Series also offers USB bus powered connectivity and lacks a physical MIDI connection. However, my experience with Mackie products is that they’re virtually indestructible. I’ve been using the same Mackie 1202 mixer for about 15 years now!
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2×2 USB Audio Interface
With the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2×2 USB Audio Interface, things start to get a bit interesting. At $99.95, this audio interface has the capability to be a real workhorse and can serve a user well for many years. It features 2×2 analog I/O, 24-bit/96kHz, a bus powered USB connection, and MIDI I/O.
For my taste, this unit sounds a bit thin when compared to higher end units, but for $99.95 it’s a compromise I could live with. In the early days of using software solutions for keyboard programming on Broadway shows, I’ve even seen some major touring and sit-down productions use this unit and it sounded perfectly fine from the house. I’m just being a bit nit-picky about the sound. For someone on a budget or for someone looking to build a portable rig, this unit is an excellent choice.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface
At $109.99, the Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface does cost a bit more than $100, but I think it’s well worth the extra expense. Like the other units, it offers 2×2 audio I/O, but it also offers sample rates of up to 24-bit/192kHz. Again, not essential when using MainStage, but it may come in handy for recording. This unit also comes with some bundled software which includes Ableton Live Lite and Pro Tools First. Neither are very powerful, but they can be a great way to get an intro to digital audio or to simply try out a new piece of software.
The Focusrite Scarlett series is widely known to have pretty decent sound quality and durability, so even with the absence of a physical MIDI I/O, it may be worth compromising in favor of the better sound quality.
In a sub-$100 audio interface, it will always be necessary to accept some compromises, but these four models offer enough features at such an attractive price that there’s no reason to use MainStage without an audio interface. All of these units will serve a user well until budget allows for a unit with more features. And all of these units are solid enough choices that they can easily be repurposed later for use in a travel rig.
All of these audio interfaces are available on Amazon:
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