Today I review the best sound cards for music production and take a deep-dive into different use cases where you might choose one over the other. You’ll notice that some are ideal for complete beginners, others for experienced sound engineers, or a few perfect for producing SSL sound.
We’ve got a lot to cover!
At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best Sound Cards For Music Production
- Editor’s Choice: Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third Gen
- Best Premium: RME Babyface Pro FS
- Best Budget: PreSonus Audiobox USB 96
- Best for DJs: MOTU UltraLite MK3 Hybrid Firewire
- Best Compact: Audient iD4 MK II
- Best Sound Quality: SSL 2+ Audio Interface
- Best for Digital Music: Native Instruments Komplete 6
- Best with Accessories: Steinberg UR22 MK II RP
- Best for Traveling: IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo
- Best for Sound Engineers: Audient iD22 USB
- Best for Home Recording: Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo
- Best with Bluetooth: Arturia AudioFuse Studio
Recently, I had the privilege of testing 12 of the best sound cards for music production. After a period of putting them through their paces, I concluded that Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third Gen is heads-and-shoulders better than other sound cards for music production. It is unmatched in terms of craftsmanship. The perfect sound processing that it offers negates its high price, thus making this sound card an excellent value for money.
The sound cards reviewed here make my list based on many factors. All of these sound cards have features that make them stand out amongst the rest, come in at a good price point for their value, and offer everything you need for music production.
I always look for different ways of making my music production much simpler and more efficient. Sound cards help me here substantially, and these sound cards are a testament to that.
However, it’s essential for you to know what will meet your individual needs. Different sound cards serve different purposes. Yes, they all aid with music production, but they are ideal for different users. In this review, you will see that some are best for beginners and professionals, others at providing value for money, or a few perfect for producing SSL sound.
Let’s review 12 of the best sound cards for music production, including the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third-Gen, below.
Below, we will take a look at our top options to help you consider which will best suit your needs.
Best Overall – Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third Gen
The Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third Gen sound card stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Each of the four inputs and outputs supports simultaneous recording of synths, instruments, microphones, and drum machines without affecting audio quality, guaranteeing an array of possibilities.
Fitted with high-performance converters, this sound card guarantees you exceptionally professional quality of sound. Moreover, the switchable air mode makes the mic preamps amongst the best in the Focusrite series, offering a brighter and clearer sound when it comes to vocals.
- Perfect emulation of the stage through its air transformer
- Two superbly upgraded preamps
- Its control app keeps latency at ridiculously low levels
- Included software for recording
- Can’t function without power from the mains
- Its Windows drivers are laborious to install
- Only one feature for controlling the volume of the headphone and monitor separately
Best Premium Sound Card – RME Babyface Pro FS
I’m unable to find a sound card that I love more than the RME Babyface Pro FS. Although it costs quite a bit, it’s difficult to find a reason for not buying it over any other sound card.
First, I love its portability, as this allows me to produce or record anywhere, and the incredible build quality makes it sturdy and durable. Its real-time mixer also makes it much easier to not only record but to perform using equipment whenever necessary. The fact that it’s possible to use this sound card without installing drivers is a huge attraction too.
The spell-binding spectrum Digicheck analyzer has proved to be quite effective at testing, measuring, metering, and analyzing digital streams. Its TotalMix-FX feature supports constant loopback, so you can keep creating. In addition, Its mic preamps deliver a stunning signal-to-noise ratio and you can work with 24 total channels for the ultimate experience.
The ultra-stable technology in the form of SteadyClock FS provides jitter immunity for a clear and controlled sound, making this a great premium sound card to add to your deck.
- Fantastic digicheck spectral analyzer
- Has 12 analog inputs and outputs
- Much lower latency that guarantees high-quality sound
- Perfect for mono sounds such as guitars and vocals
- Quite costly
- TotalMix needs a bit of time to respond
Best for Tight Budget – PreSonus Audiobox USB 96
This sound card from PreSonus stands out on several fronts. First, it’s small and compact, thus quite convenient to use. Secondly, it’s perfect for budding music producers looking to find affordable and reliable products.
The solid steel chassis assures you of truly amazing build quality for a sound card in the less than $100 category. Moreover, the sound card comes with a MIDI connection, which you can use for connecting the MIDI keyboard.
The PreSonus comes with 2-combination inputs that offer Class-A preamps for improved sound quality, and headphones for monitoring low latency. The resolution of 24-bit 96Khz is awesome for professional recording, and the convenient mix control lets you adjust the level between the input signal and computer playback.
- Drivers not necessary during installation
- Costs less than $100 thus perfect for tight budgets
- Complete Studio One version
- Offers users a chance of buying only a package or the interface alone
- It costs more to get the headphone and microphone
- Only compatible with Windows and Mac, thus making it the wrong choice for recording on iPad
Best for DJs – MOTU UltraLite MK3 Hybrid Firewire
What makes the MOTU UltraLite MK3 sound card perfect for DJs? The presence of the Hybrid Firewire feature does exactly that. Through this feature, you can connect the device to your laptop while on the move.
In many ways, this tool would be a great addition to a DJ’s ammunition. Its rugged outlook augurs well for travel and touring. The range of inputs and outputs (10 and 14 respectively) allows you to connect it with various instruments too. The firewire and USB connectivity supports use on the move.
The mix of Classic Reverb features, 3-frequency shelves, and adjustable crossover points guarantees optimal performance for live sets. One of the best features for DJs is that the MOTU allows more space for adding additional interfaces, meaning you can fully customize your performance. In addition, it features the latest technology that boosts low latency, thus making it efficient in music production when you aren’t pumping up the crowds.
- Highly portable, which is perfect for those recording music on the go
- Highly durable; thus allows for heavy-duty use
- Supports MIDI interface
- Has superb headphone outputs and mic inputs
- A bit costly thus not pocket friendly
- Compatibility with Windows is a huge issue
- Lacks channel sharing
Best Compact Sound Card – Audient iD4 MK II
Are you not prepared to spend more than $200 on the best sound card for music production? In that case, the Audient iD4 MK II is for you. This compact sound card comes in at just 1.9 lbs and 5.2 x 4.72 x 1.57 inches, making it extremely portable for the punch that it packs.
You might consider it simple with the two inputs and outputs, but this sound card comes with an instrument input for users interested in plugging in a bass guitar or any traditional guitar. The complex nature of the sound card is clearly evident in the superb mic preamp and wonderful phantom power options, which are quite useful with condenser mics.
It comes with Apple’s connection kit, which makes it useful if you want to use it to record on an iPhone or iPad on the go. The impressive scroll control offers wide-ranging on-screen parameters to easily select your preferred settings anywhere you are.
- An efficient plug-and-play sound card
- The all-metal design makes it durable and sturdy
- Plug-and-play sound card thus easy to use
- Guarantees genuine Phantom Power
- Doesn’t come with enough cables, which could force you to buy more
Best Sound Quality – SSL 2+ Audio Interface
Do you have a vision of producing sleek sound and recordings? If you’re more focused on sound than features, your choice of sound card should start and end with SSL 2+ Audio Interface.
Although it’s quite similar to SSL 2, this one comes with two extra outputs, a headphone output, and MIDI input. The headphone output gives you more control for outstandingly authentic and flat monitoring of different mixes. Apart from this, I loved the 4k button on this sound card. This button enables the creation of perfectly recorded vocals.
The SSL 2+ features a vast array of high-quality components for producing beautiful sounds, such as an easy-to-use monitor mix control, and a fantastic mixture of preamps and signal paths. Because of the focus on sound, SSL sound tools have won countless awards over the last 40 years.
- A concrete suite of software
- Extra output flexibility
- Expanded I/O capability supports creativity between teams
- MIDI connections
- Not as durable because of the inclusion of several non-metal parts
- Lacks a power switch
- Headphone sockets, which are at the back, can be quite cumbersome to access
Best Sound Card for Production of Digital Music – Native Instruments Komplete 6
The popularity of digital music has increased substantially in recent times. It’s now possible to join the field with Native Instruments Komplete 6, which is one of the best sound cards for the production of digital music. With it, you no longer have to rush to the studio to record with original instruments.
This sound card has the perfect interface for anyone involved in music production. It delivers zero-latency, which is an important component of quality music production and recording. The Komplete 6 offers plenty of functions that allow the recording and production of music through software. Its software is capable of replicating the sound produced by original musical instruments.
With the Komplete 6, you can plug in multiple instruments such as mics, guitars, and synths. You can also create, send, and return loops with effects while controlling things like drum machines or synths.
- Powered via USB
- Full of customizable high-quality preamps
- Supports direct monitoring, which is crucial in live recording
- Presence of mono input switch supports the recording of multiple mono sources, which include guitars and vocals
- Not compatible with Traktor Scratch Pro
- Not powered through AC adapter
- Doesn’t come with other accessories
Best Sound Card Packed with Accessories – Steinberg UR22 MK II RP
Accessories are an important component of any set of music production equipment. No sound card ranks higher than Steinberg UR22 MK II RP based on the number of accessories on offer.
The accessories include an audio interface that guarantees professional audio quality. Its Class-A preamp mic delivers 48V phantom power, too. Moreover, the accessories make it easier to record and compose anywhere. These include ST-M01 studio condenser mic and SR-H01 studio monitor headphones.
If you’re looking for studio bundles, make sure to read my review of the best home recording studio packages
- Runs at extremely low latency
- Supports creation of fresh sounds through the mix of MIDI controllers, vintage drum machines, and synths courtesy of the onboard MIDI inputs and outputs
- Has a Class Compliant (CC) mode that allows connection with iPad
- Loopback feature allows users to stream live performances while recording
- Latency settings need a bit of adjusting to fix dropouts in audio quality
- Low-quality cables and higher gains can make the preamps quite noisy
Best Sound Card for Traveling – IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo
The biggest selling point of IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo, which makes it a worthwhile inclusion in the list of the best sound cards for music production, is its portability. Upon buying this product, you get two analog inputs, which are great for recording two instrumentalists or vocalists. All within the palm of your hand.
Apart from that, it offers phantom power that’s just perfect for any large condenser microphone. You only press its direct monitoring button once to listen to quality sound that’s devoid of any latency.
In addition, if you’re on the road and lacking a power supply, the IK Multimedia can optionally run off of 2 AA batteries (included), USB power, or optional PSU.
- Fitted with a converter cable
- Beautifully designed with a sleek and glossy back
- Compatible with iOS, Mac, Windows, and Android devices
- Offers the perfect mix of XLR inputs and portability
- Has no power lead
- Has no USB port, which interferes with its connectivity
Best Sound Card for Sound Engineers – Audient iD22 USB
When looking for the best sound card for music production, your choices should include those rich in features for sound engineering. In this regard, few sound cards can beat the Audient iD22 USB.
Audient is packed to the brim with amazing features that make sound engineering a breeze. It has plenty of customizable features as well as 10 input and 14 output ports. With these ports, you can connect as many instruments as possible.
After months of testing, Audient came out with the ID22 which has sharp stereo imaging, a quick low end, and a silky smooth top end, resulting in high-quality sound for any engineer. The input channels have a pad to soothe hot levels, and the Audient offers the ability to expand on your inputs.
- It has a wide array of monitor control features and functions
- Toggle switches ensure that phantom power remains under control
- Supports addition of outboard dynamics during production and recording
- Its software supports complete control of different functions such as configuration, signal routing, and monitoring
- Seemingly flimsy DIM and CUT buttons
- Lack of proper labeling on the toggle switches can be problematic to beginners
Best Sound Card for Home Recording – Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo
During these times, where the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc globally, it’s easy to understand why you might be interested in home recording. A good sound card, such as Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo, would be impossible to ignore here.
As long as you have a Mac device, you should have a relatively easier time recording your music at home with this sound card. You can use it in real-time to record, mix, and track, too, without worrying about latency, which is ridiculously low.
- Relies on UAD-powered plugins to record and monitor tracks in real-time
- Has a simple and minimalist interface too that makes it easy to use
- Supports fast mono checks during monitoring
- Comes with a built-in DSP
- Only one dial for controlling both the volume and input gain
Best Sound Card with Bluetooth – Arturia AudioFuse Studio
Arturia AudioFuse is the best sound card with Bluetooth. In terms of compatibility, you can use this sound card comfortably with any iOS or Windows device. It’s packed full of connectivity and tons of features such as MIDI controllers, monitors, and digital interfaces.
The Arturia’s first and second inputs are full of inserts for tracking through channel strips or compressors. The A/B switch allows users to switch between two sets of monitors for better clarity, while the built-in phono preamp performs vinyl sampling.
In addition, The low (EIN) allows you to record even the smallest details, and adversely, the 72 dB input gain offers enough gain to drive even the quietest of recorded sounds.
- Bluetooth connectivity makes it easier to use too
- Connects to computers via USB 2.0 by default
- It’s modern, looks good, and is quite useful
- Tons of input and output channels (18 and 20 respectively)
- A bit costly
- Budding producers might find it a bit daunting to use
Before purchasing the best sound card for music production, it’s essential to consider a few things.
Whether you’re a beginner or veteran producer, a good choice of sound cards remains mandatory. The first factor to consider when buying the cards is your need. To help you with this, you should ask questions such as:
- What do you need it for?
- Is it for personal or commercial use?
- Would you be traveling a lot or working strictly from home?
Other than those questions, you also need to consider the following factors.
Here, your options would revolve around 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit sound cards. The 16-bit card operates at 44.1kHz, the 24-bit at 96kHz, and the 32-bit model at 192kHz. You need the card that delivers top sound resolution, as it also guarantees exceptional quality.
Next, you need to consider connections. Your options would mostly be between USB-C, USB-3, and Thunderbolt. A quick connector performs better than the rest in transferring data. Thus far, the best cards run on USB-C connectors.
How much time does it take for sound to reach your ears? That’s what latency means. In the case of sound cards, latency should be as low as possible. Otherwise, you or the artist you’re recording might be confused by the delay.
Don’t ignore features either. A feature-laden sound card is worlds better than one with only a few outstanding features. Nevertheless, don’t forget to check if the features are easy to grasp before buying a sound card that would only leave you more confused.
Ease of Use
Usually, the best sound cards for music production are easy to use. Some are plug-and-play products that don’t require much customizing from your side. Nevertheless, be ready to spend a bit of time learning the ins and outs of any sound card you buy.
In this article, I’ve reviewed 12 of the best sound cards for music production. However, as I stated initially, the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 Third Gen remains the best of the lot in our opinion. It stands out on performance, cost, value for money, features, and much more.
Nevertheless, you would still be justified in buying any of the remaining 11. At the end of the day, you would have a sound card that does its job efficiently. More importantly, none of these cards are problem-laden or impossible to troubleshoot for solutions.