High-quality, portable audio interfaces are a dream come true for today's producers and podcasters. The world of mobile recording is continuously growing, with many people conducting on-location recordings where the regular iPhone or video camera audio input falls short.
One of my favorite activities during my free time is recording sounds of nature and random foley from unexpected sources. I visit junkyards, mechanic shops, boxing gyms, or any place out of the ordinary where I can capture interesting sounds for sound design purposes.
I have used all three of these audio interfaces for this purpose, with varying results. I do have a favorite, but I will reveal it later. For now, let's dive in and explore the excellent features these portable interfaces have to offer.
A Quick Look at the 3 Budget Audio Interfaces
1. Scarlett Solo
The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is a super popular and user-friendly interface that delivers amazing sound quality. Focusrite has a solid rep for making awesome British consoles, as well as their famous vintage “Red” line of compressors and EQs. They're all about that high fidelity.
Scarlett interfaces are one of the most popular types of interfaces on the market. I know so many musicians who swear by them, largely thanks to their simple layouts and easy-to-use designs.
The Scarlett Solo really stands out when it comes to both specs and sound quality. One cool thing is the "Air" button, which adds a nice high-end sparkle and a touch of that analog warmth, like those tube interfaces from Manley and Avalon.
The layout of the interface is top-notch, with clear and clean controls. The two gain knobs are easy to see, and there's a special switch for Hi-Z instrument inputs. It's simple to access the phantom power for condenser mics as well.
I like the fact that the microphone XLR input is in the back, while the headphone output is in the front. It makes sense since XLR cables are usually bulkier.
One downside is that there's only one mic preamp with phantom power. Hence the name.
The outputs are quarter-inch TRS, which are balanced. I would’ve preferred XLR outputs, but don't worry, you can still use high-quality cables with these outputs.
I absolutely love that such a small interface supports sample rates up to 192kHz. That's usually something you find in bigger rack-mounted interfaces.
And weighing in at less than 1 pound, the Scarlett Solo is one of the most portable interfaces out there.
2. Scarlett 2i2
The Scarlett 2i2, now in its fourth generation, is the larger sibling of the Scarlett, although not by much since it weighs just a little over a pound.
However, they improved the preamp situation and added two instrument preamps with Hi-Z as well. I mostly use these portable interfaces either to record on location, do podcasts and interviews in remote places, or maybe just demo out quick songs with an electric guitar and one microphone.
Still, it's nice to have two microphone inputs and two mic preamps because you might want to be able to sing while playing an acoustic guitar, or you might want to insert a stereo instrument like an old vintage keyboard and get a nice, full sound.
Just like its little sibling, the 2i2 goes up to 192K, which is fantastic resolution for such a small interface, and it's able to do it because of its RedNet-derived ADC converter. I'll get into more of that in the next section. But having top-notch digital-to-analog converters is an absolute must these days.
One new addition that the 2i2 has, which the Scarlett Solo does not have, is the Clip Safe Auto Gain. It’s really helpful if you're recording an interview outdoors or a podcast and suddenly a loud sound or maybe an emotional guest happens to go over and is about to distort or clip your sound.
It's essentially a brick wall limiter that stops the sound from going into the red and distorting.
I had both this one and the Scarlett Solo in my possession for a while and funny enough, I used them both equally for different things. The Solo is good for outdoors, but this is a more robust and complete interface. I think it's obviously designed a bit more for studio-level stereo recording.
I went overseas to record some demos with a band in England, and I brought this along. Not only did it sound crisp and very modern with the Air option, but the Clip Safe and the high-resolution converters definitely came in handy.
I recorded the band at 192K and then transferred it to Pro Tools HD, and I was surprised that the gain and the headroom were very professional. I ended up sending a few of these demos to the label, and some of the demo recording parts made it onto the final record.
3. MOTU M2
The MOTU M2 is the most advanced interface among the three options. When I say advanced, I mean it's like a top-notch studio-level interface with two inputs and microphone preamps.
The cool thing is that it has super-detailed metering. While the other two interfaces have circular color-style meters.
MOTU has always been known for its awesome converters. Ever since their old 828 interface could compete with some of the Digidesign and Avid Pro Tools interfaces back in the day, they have evolved to be among the best.
I'll get into this topic later, but one of the main reasons their stuff is so top-notch is that MOTU knows how to reduce jitter in digital conversion.
Another great feature of MOTU interfaces is that, except for the Pro Tools HD system, they have the lowest latency out of any audio interface, just 2.5 ms. Latency is all about how long it takes for audio to go through the interface.
In some interfaces, there can be a little delay between when you sing or play an instrument and when you actually hear the sound. This delay is irritating to vocalists because it's hard to sing when you hear yourself late.
Now, let's talk about how I use the M2. I absolutely love it for recording vocalists in different studios, cities, or even hotel rooms. It's my go-to portable vocal interface.
I've used it to record a few Grammy-winning vocalists and even a superstar, and they were all seriously impressed with the sound quality.
One of the reasons for this is the microphone preamps. Even though they're digital without any analog circuits like the Air feature in the Scarlett interfaces, they still give off a clean high-end sound.
It's almost like running your mic through a nice solid-state preamp. Actually, for many vocal demos, we ended up keeping the M2 vocals and using them on the final record.
Another reason why I'm a huge fan of the MOTU M2 is because I use a lot of hardware synths, and it has proper full-size MIDI ins and outs. This lets me connect my vintage MPC and old Roland gear without any hassles.
Budget Audio Interfaces - Choosing the Best!
Alright, so here's the deal - personally, I'm all about the M2. I think it's a complete recording studio package packed into a lightweight and well-laid-out interface.
But, it's not flawless. There are certain things about the Scarlett that I wish the M2 had. I mean, the Scarlett just has this analog and pleasant sound that gives off some serious vintage vibes.
Having said that, we're talking about portable interfaces here, so it all boils down to what you need to capture. It's a whole different story if you're recording a podcast or vocalist compared to venturing into the wilderness to capture nature's sounds.
Now, if you're trying to pick just one of these interfaces, here are some factors to consider.
The most important thing about any audio interface that's gonna be used for recording onto a DAW is the quality of the conversion. Now all of these go up to 192, so the actual sample rate isn't gonna be a dealbreaker.
I think what's important is to check the latency and how much of your buffer size you're gonna have to lower in order to record at 192K. The lower the buffer size, the more you'll use up your CPU.
And when you're using higher sample rates in your sessions, like at 192K, you're gonna either have crashes or your audio will stutter and have static. MOTU is definitely the winner in this category since it can go down to 32 samples and still work at its highest resolution on laptops.
I also think the clocking in the M2 converters is higher quality than the RedNet in the Scarlett. A better clock delivers less jitter. Simply put, the cleanest purest digital capture comes from a jitter-free clocked converter. That’s why companies like Black Lion Audio modify and sell standalone clocks like the Micro Clock.
Inputs and Preamps
The Scarlett Solo is the most limited with only a single mic pre. The other interfaces both have stereo inputs and mic preamps. Therefore, if you are planning to record a podcast with more than one guest you have only 2 choices.
In general, the quality of the preamps was very similar, although the Scarlett 2i2 stood out as the sonic winner due to its lovely Air button feature in stereo.
Metering may not be the most crucial feature if you're simply doing casual portable recording at moderate gain levels. However, when working with vocalists, it becomes a completely different story.
While you can view the metering on your channel in your DAW, there are instances when you're setting up the microphone away from your computer, and it's convenient to have a large decibel meter. The M2 takes the crown in this department.
In terms of sound quality, I have personally used all three without any issues. However, I find that the converters on the MOTU have a bit more depth and control, likely due to its superior clocking system.
The specs indicate that all three digital converters deliver 120 dB of dynamic range, but I perceive that the MOTU M2 has a slightly stronger low-end, whereas the Scarletts have a bit more high-frequency sizzle. Both are good, but for my specific music, the low-end is more important.
If you plan on mixing through these interfaces and then outputting the mix to external hardware, such as a mastering compressor or bus compressor, the output quality is also a significant factor to consider.
Lastly, we can't ignore the price differences between them, no matter how small it might seem to you.
The Solo is cheaper than the 2i2 and the M2 (these two cost about the same). Since it has fewer inputs and no direct headphone monitoring, it comes at a more affordable price. There’s about a $50 difference between the two interfaces, so the price range isn’t that big.
However, $50 can easily be used to buy other gear to be used in your small studio setup. I can see the price difference being something that clearly defines someone’s choice between the two interfaces.
If you’re okay with spending more money, the M2 and the 2i2 are higher-quality options as they give you more to work with. If you’re on a tight budget, the Solo will still serve you very well. If you plan on recording multiple instruments at once, it would be worth spending more for the bigger ones.
Ultimately, when it comes to the Scarlett Solo vs 2i2 vs MOTU M2 battle, the choice ultimately depends on your specific needs.
These interfaces are compact and intended to be used in small studio setups. They’re not the types of interfaces you can use to run a full studio. Rather, they’re made for musicians who want to build a recording setup for themselves at a desk or practice space.
You should get either the 2i2 or the M2 if you want an interface with the most versatility and room for larger recordings.
If you’re just wanting something to record yourself and an instrument, the Solo is a perfectly good option. I know a few people who use the Scarlett Solo to lay down demo guitar tracks. They don’t need anything bigger for that. It’s also the cheapest option of the three!
As you can see, each of the three options has its own advantages and disadvantages, but in my opinion, the MOTU is the most well-rounded choice.