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Recommended Audio Interfaces

Last Updated: Apr 21, 2017 09:36AM CDT

To play or sing music using the free Mac or Windows JamKazam application, you'll need to get your instrumental or vocal audio (which is technically "analog" audio) captured and converted into "digital" audio that your computer can understand and process. The device that performs this audio capture and conversion is called an "audio interface". An audio interface can be the audio gear that is built into your computer, or it can be an external piece of hardware that connects to your computer, for example using a USB cable. The goal is to use an audio interface and associated audio gear that will give you high-quality audio, while processing the audio super fast (so that you don't have "latency" or lag issues when playing together), and doing these two things within your budget.

If you already own an audio interface that you use for home recording, then it's highly likely your interface will work with our free JamKazam application. 
If you do not already own an audio interface, then figuring out which interface to use can be complicated and very overwhelming for anyone who is not deeply experienced in this area. We have found that even musicians who have used audio interfaces for years often don't understand the precise performance/latency of their gear. JamKazam has spent a great deal of time working with a wide variety of these products and evaluating their performance in great detail. In this help article, we make some recommendations about the products that we have found will give you the best performance and value at different levels of budget. We hope you find this information helpful. 

 

Built-In Microphone & Headphone Jack (Free)

Most computers today have a built-in microphone and 3.5mm headphone jack. The cheapest and easiest way to get started is simply to use what you already have built into your computer. You can use headphones or earbuds plugged into the headphone jack, and use the built-in microphone to capture your instrumental or vocal audio. Note that you'll definitely need to use headphones vs. the speakers built into your computer. If you don't use headphones, you'll get a really nasty screeching feedback loop because JamKazam doesn't use echo cancellation technology like Skype. This is one of many differences that enable JamKazam to process audio much faster than voice chat apps like Skype.

The big advantage of this option is the price. It's free. There are two disadvantages. One disadvantage is audio quality, as the built-in microphone won't do as good a job capturing your instrumental or vocal audio as a better audio interface and microphone would. The other disadvantage is that your built-in sound gear will typically process the audio more slowly than a dedicated audio interface, which will create more latency in your online session, making it more challenging to play together live in sync. 

In our testing, we've found that using a built-in mic and headphone jack on Windows 7 and Windows 8 will typically result in about 19 milliseconds of audio processing latency. Windows 10 performs better using built-in audio gear, yielding about 11 milliseconds of audio processing latency. And Mac OS X is somewhere in the middle, typically around 16 milliseconds of latency.

All of this said, this is a decent way to get started easily and free, and you can always upgrade to something that costs money when you decide it's worth the investment to do so.

 

Cheap External Microphone & Headphone Jack ($12)

If your computer does not have a built-in microphone (often the case with desktop computers vs. laptops), then you can buy an inexpensive microphone with a 3.5mm jack (a "mini jack"), and plug the mic into the mini jack audio input port on your computer (example pictured below). This is a small circular port (same size as the small headphone port) that accepts an audio input source (like a microphone).



For this approach, we recommend the Audio-Technica ATR-1100 Unidirectional Dynamic Vocal/Instrument Microphone (pictured below).



This is a cheap mic. Your audio quality will be about the same as using a built-in mic on a laptop, which is to say it will be not great, but decent, and again an almost free way to get started.

So with this approach, you would play an instrument or sing into this microphone, which is plugged into the audio input minijack on your computer, and use headphones plugged into the headphone port on your computer to hear session audio of you and other musicians. Audio processing latency with this configuration is the same as above using the built-in microphone and built-in headphone jack.

 

Newer Guitar Cable & Headphone Jack ($10)

If you play electric guitar or bass guitar (or an acoustic guitar with a pickup built into it that accepts a 1/4" jack), and if you are not going to sing, then your cheapest option to get up and running is the Neewer Guitar Bass To USB Link Cable Adapter for PC/MAC Recording (pictured below). 



This cable costs just $10. It has a 1/4" jack on one end, and a USB jack on the other end. To use it, you simply plug the 1/4" jack into your guitar and plug the USB jack into a USB port on your computer. There is no driver software to install. It's a plug-and-play device on both Windows and Mac computers. This cable converts the analog audio from your guitar into digital audio and passes the digital audio into your computer through a USB port.

When using this cable as your guitar input, you plug headphones or earbuds into the headphone mini jack port on your computer to hear the audio. And you use the built-in microphone on your computer for voice chat - i.e. to talk with other musicians in your online sessions to communicate about what you're doing.

This guitar cable will give you a simple "clean" guitar sound. If you want to apply effects, like distortion, wah, and other popular electric guitar sounds, you can do this using a product like AmpliTube by IK Multimedia. There is a free version of the AmpliTube software application that you can download and install on Windows and Mac systems. This software is an example of a class of software called VST or AU plugin effects, and the JamKazam application supports the use of these kinds of plugins. This software applies effects to the clean guitar audio signal, much like a guitar player would do with an amplifier and a pedal board of different effects. For more information on AmpliTube, please use this help article on using VST and AU plugin effects in the JamKazam app.

In our testing, we've found that using this guitar cable as the guitar audio input and using the built-in headphone jack for audio output results in about 8 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Mac OS X systems, and about 12 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Windows systems.

 

MIDI Keyboard Controller or Electronic Drum Kit with USB Connector (Free)

If you play keyboards using a MIDI keyboard controller, or drums using an electronic drum kit, and if your electronic instrument can output MIDI through a USB cable that connects directly to your computer, you can actually avoid having to buy or use an audio interface. The JamKazam application supports MIDI instruments natively, which means that you can set up an audio track in the JamKazam application that is driven by the MIDI signals from your MIDI instrument, and the assign a VST or AU software instrument to that track to turn those MIDI signals into audio - e.g. keyboard or drum sounds.

If your MIDI instrument cannot pass MIDI signals directly to your computer via a USB cable, then as long as you have a MIDI interface that works with your computer to accept MIDI out from your instrument, you can do the same thing described above, and not use an audio interface.

Additional instructions on how to set up and use MIDI instruments can be found in this MIDI help article.


 

Behringer UM2 ($29.99)

The Behringer UM2 (pictured below) delivers a pretty amazing combination of low price, high audio quality, good feature set, and fast audio processing performance.



At just $29.99, you get an audio interface that connects to your computer via a USB cable and gives you 1 combination XLR-1/4" input port, plus a 1/4" input port, headphone jack, and optional phantom power. 

If you sing or play an acoustic instrument like a violin, saxophone, or trumpet, you can plug a good microphone into the XLR input port, and use this microphone to capture your instrumental and/or vocal audio with very high quality, and you can also chat with other musicians in your session through this microphone. 

If you play an electronic instrument like an electric guitar, bass guitar, or keyboard, you can plug a 1/4" jack from your guitar or keyboard into the 1/4" input port, and then plug a microphone into the XLR port to sing and/or chat with other musicians in your online sessions.

Phantom power is available for certain condenser microphones that require this power feature.


In our testing, we've found that using the Behringer UM2 for audio processing results in about 8 milliseconds of audio processing latency on both Mac OS X and Windows computer systems.

We see this interface regularly available for $29.99 at certain Internet storefronts. To find this pricing, we'd recommend simply searching "Behringer UM2" on Google, and checking the Google Shopping results, as pricing on this interface is much more variable than the other products listed in this article. 


 

Behringer UCG102 ($39.99)

The BEHRINGER GUITAR LINK UCG102 (pictured below) delivers a very good combination of low price, high audio quality, and fast audio processing performance for musicians who play a single electronic instrument (e.g. guitar, bass, or keyboard) and do not sing.



This interface provides a single 1/4" input port and a headphone jack and connects to your computer via a USB cable. You can plug a 1/4" jack from your guitar or keyboard into the 1/4" input port, and then connect a set of headphones to the 1/4" (not 3.5mm mini jack) headphone jack on the interface. With this interface, you'll need to use the built-in microphone on your computer to chat with other musicians in your online sessions.


In our testing, we've found that using the Behringer UCG102 for audio processing results in about 10.5 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Mac OS X systems, and about 8.5 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Windows systems.

 

Samson Meteorite ($39.99) or Audio-Technica ATR2500 ($59.99) USB Microphones

If you sing, or if you play an acoustic instrument like a violin, saxophone, or trumpet, or if you use an amplifier or powered monitor with an electronic instrument, then you can plug a USB microphone into your computer to capture your instrumental or vocal audio, and to chat with other musicians in your online sessions.

The distinction between this approach and using an audio interface is that with a USB microphone, you just have a single piece of hardware - the microphone - that you attach to your computer using a USB cable. So it's very simple. If you use an external audio interface, you'll typically have that interface device, plus an XLR cable, plus a microphone. In our experience, the trade-off is that the USB microphone will be a little cheaper because you only need to buy the microphone itself, and it's a bit more portable and easy to keep track of, as it's just one device. Using an external audio interface plus the microphone and mic cable, you have three pieces of gear, and it costs a little bit more, but you can get better audio quality.

Our favorite two USB microphones are the Samson Meteorite USB Condenser Microphone and the Audio-Technica ATR2500-USB Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone (both pictured below).
 
                        

The Meteorite costs $39.99, and it is super compact, really tiny, and highly portable. The ATR2500 is larger and a bit more typical as a microphone, and costs $59.99.

In our testing, we've found that using the Samson Meteorite for audio processing results in about 8 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Mac OS X systems, and about 19 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Windows systems. Using the Audio-Technica ATR2500
for audio processing results in about 16 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Mac OS X systems, and about 12 milliseconds of audio processing latency on Windows systems.

 

Presonus Audiobox USB ($99.99)

The PreSonus AudioBox USB 2x2 Audio Interface - Includes Studio One (pictured below) is as much as most musicians will need, and delivers a value price, high audio quality, good feature set, and fast audio processing performance.



At just $99.99, you get an audio interface that connects to your computer via a USB cable and gives you 2 combination XLR-1/4" input ports, headphone jack, output jacks for powered monitors or speakers, and optional phantom power. 

If you need two microphones to capture your instrumental or vocal audio, then this interface can deliver what you need. For example, if you play drums and need to use one microphone to capture the audio from your drum kit, plus a second microphone close to your face to capture either singing or just voice chat that isn't drowned out by the volume of your kit, this is a good option. Or if you prefer to mic your guitar amp (rather than running a 1/4" cable from your amp or pedal board), and also want to mic your voice for singing.


In our testing, we've found that using the Presonus Audiobox USB for audio processing results in about 8 milliseconds of audio processing latency on both Mac OS X and Windows computer systems.
 


What About Multi-Instrumentalists?

If you play a bunch of different instruments, and you don't want to have to plug and unplug them to/from a 2-input audio interface, we'd recommend using a simple analog mixer like the BEHRINGER XENYX 1002B (pictured below).


For $99.99, you can grab this mixer and plug up to 10 different instruments and microphones into it, and then simply connect the audio outputs from the mixer to the audio input ports of the audio interface you are using.


 

Audio Interfaces to Avoid

If you already own an audio interface, by all means, try using it with the JamKazam application. We are trying very hard to support all third party interfaces. That said, there are known issues with the following interfaces:
 
  • Tascam US-144MKII - The I/O variance on this interface is too high, and we've found it to be a super flaky interface in general on top of that.
  • M-Audio Fast Track - This is an old audio interface, and its drivers are out of date, and will not perform reliably on Windows systems. We have found this interface works on Mac computers, but not on Windows computers.

There are likely other interfaces that won't work well with JamKazam. There are many, many audio interfaces out there, and we can't acquire and test all of them. But we will add other interfaces to this list if we discover others that won't work with the JamKazam app.
 

 

General Tip on Audio Interfaces for Windows

Finally, a word on using audio interfaces for Windows. We STRONGLY recommend that for Windows computers (this advice does not apply to Macs) you only buy and use audio interfaces that come with a native ASIO driver built specifically for that interface by the maker of that interface. This invariably gives you the best reliability and latency on Windows systems.

The way you can tell if a native driver exists is to run a Google search for the vendor and model number of the audio interface, plus the word "driver". For example, you could search for "Steinberg CI1 driver". Look through the search results, and navigate to the driver download page for the audio interface you're researching. If you find a Windows driver that was built by the interface vendor that is available for download, and has been certified for the version of Windows you are running, that will be an ASIO driver, and there is a good chance this interface will perform well on Windows.

If, on the driver download page for the audio interface, you find that the vendor says it is a plug-and-play device that "just works" when you plug it into your Windows computer, what that means is that the vendor did not invest in building a native driver to control and optimize the performance/operation of that audio interface. When this happens, the interface will rely on generic Windows kernel streaming technology, which will have higher audio processing latency, and will also tend to deliver less reliably high-quality audio. Please also note that if the interface vendor recommends using an ASIO4ALL driver, this means the same thing - i.e. that there is no native ASIO driver for the device. 


 
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