If you can’t decide between the versatility of a digital realm and the authenticity of analog equipment, we can help you. In this article, we will try to answer the question, “Which is better for you – an amplifier or an audio interface?”
If you are reading this post, you are probably a beginning guitarist who is puzzled about the best way to practice. On the one hand, you know there’s nothing like the natural feel of guitar equipment. But on the other hand, you’re not ruling out the possibility that you’ll be recording your parts and hearing about an incredible number of plugins that will give you the freedom to find your sound and a field for experimentation. Don’t worry. We’ll help you figure out which option will be most suitable for you.
So what would be better for me: an amp or an audio interface?
The answer to this question lies in the goal you are pursuing. An audio interface is a good solution if you want to record guitar parts and experiment with various tones. If you wish to practice at home or get equipment for rehearsal space – then an amplifier is a better choice.
The truth is that there are some pitfalls. For example, you need a more powerful computer for the audio interface to avoid latency. Also, the vital question is, what kind of guitar amplifier do you need, a room amplifier or a more powerful one? Another nuance is that some modern amplifiers have USB outputs to connect to the computer and thus kill two birds with one stone. But let’s talk about this topic more substantially and break down all possible scenarios.
Amp vs Audio Interface: How To Choose?
To give yourself the answer to this question, you have to understand what you need. Try it for yourself before you make your choice. For example, if you have friends with amplifiers and audio interfaces, ask them to let you try it so you can feel the difference and see what you need.
Figure out if you’ll need to record guitar parts in the future. If so, you should choose the audio interface. Also, decide whether you need a lot of room for experimentation. If only one or a few guitar tones are enough for you, you can buy a guitar amplifier safely.
Also, a crucial factor is volume. Of course, many guitar amplifiers have headphone outputs. But if you don’t need to play your guitar with speakers at all, then an audio interface would be your option.
But still, if in your heart you feel more inclined towards analog equipment – we advise you to use a real guitar amplifier. Remember that high volume may not be a hindrance. Even if you decide to get a head with a cabinet, you can use an attenuator and practice at room volume.
Also, if your attenuator has the loadbox feature, you can use this to route the signal from the guitar head to the audio interface without a cabinet and thus record the sound of the amplifier. So, in some cases, even having two things – an amp and an audio interface – can be a plus.
Even if you make a choice that seems wrong to you, it’s not the end of the world. Remember that you can always sell gear and buy what you need.
Can I choose something in the middle?
Yes, you have that option, too. The fact is that many modern guitar amps have the possibility of a USB connection, for example, the Boss Katana. It means that you can plug it into your computer and receive the signal without an audio interface.
Note that there are also modulators. These are sort of like guitar processors, with which you can get almost any possible guitar tone. They can provide both the amp and cabinet emulation. And the good news is that they have USB outputs, too. But there is a nuance that they are pretty expensive. We’re talking about options like the Axe FX, Quad Cortex, and others.
From $50 to $500 and above
From $50 to $200 and above
Room models only
Can be quite loud
Usually not loud
Ability to Record
Depending on a software
Pros And Cons of Using Guitar Amps
Although guitar amps can be top-of-the-line equipment, as with anything, there are some drawbacks in addition to the advantages. For example, they can be pretty loud and cause trouble between you, your housemates, and neighbors. Keep this in mind before you decide to buy such gear. But let’s talk about it all in order.
Guitar Amps Pros
- Authentic Sound
Natural, authentic sound is what everyone loves real guitar amps for. They give you overtones and harmonics that are quite pleasing to the ear and give you the most beautiful experience with the instrument, especially if we’re talking about the more expensive tube amps.
- Variety of Types
There are various guitar amps, both in type and sound. By immersing yourself in this world, you can look for just the right tone for you. Over time, with the necessary sonic experience, you will create your unique sound.
- Be Loud or Quiet
Since there are tons of guitar amps out there, you can find one that suits your volume needs. For example, if you need to practice in your bedroom, you can get a quieter 15-watt amp. If you want a concert or rehearsal amp, you might want to consider a higher wattage combo or a head with a cab.
Guitar Amps Cons
- It May Be Too Loud
If you are a bedroom guitar player, there is no reason to buy powerful guitar gear. It applies to heads and cabs. They are usually very loud. However, you can still use them at room level if you get an attenuator. In that case, you will be rocking the amplifier fully but with a quieter sound.
- Large Size
A guitar rig can be pretty large in size and heavy in weight. Of course, this does not apply to small room combos. Still, if you need some mobility, heads, cabinets, and pretty powerful combos are not the way to go.
- Pretty Expensive Pleasure
If we are talking about hi-end guitar amplifiers, they cost accordingly. Of course, you can always find used options at somewhat democratic prices, but still. Get ready that quality gear will cost in the area of $1000, if not more.
As you can see, you need to weigh several factors to know if you need a guitar amp. But now, let’s take a look at the alternative you can get thanks to the audio interface and plugins.
Pros And Cons of Using Audio Interface
So, thanks to amp sim plugins, you can practice guitar with an audio interface. And you can do it both quietly on your headphones and loudly through your speakers. Let’s now try to look at the different pros and cons of this in more detail.
Pros of Audio Interface
You can connect your guitar to an audio interface and get almost any tone you want. Whether it’s a light crunch or a heavy high-gain distortion, there are plenty of plugins that will get you there.
- Affordable Price
There are plenty of affordable audio interfaces. We are talking about devices that have one or two inputs. You can easily get one of these for about $200. On top of that, you don’t have to rob the bank to get yourself an excellent nice amp sim plugin.
Most of the available audio interfaces are not too big. That means you can take this with your guitar and laptop and practice almost anywhere – hotel, airplane, park, car – you name it.
- Won’t Annoy The Neighbors
Thanks to the audio interface, you can practice quietly with headphones. It is ideal if you don’t want to annoy anyone with the sound of your guitar.
- Ability To Record
You can practice on your guitar and record your music at ease. Just do it in your DAW. You will also have the freedom to choose takes, as it will be much easier than in analog times.
Cons of Audio Interface
- Lack of Analog Experience
Some people argue that the digital realm does not give you the analog experience and feel of actual gear. But hey. Progress has gotten to the point where the sound of some amp sims is complicated to confuse with an actual rig, so it’s a very debatable thing. But it is really up to you to decide.
- You Might Need a Pretty Powerful Computer
If your computer is relatively weak, you may encounter such a problem as latency when playing through the audio interface. It can also be challenging to mix songs later if you record them. So, keep in mind that you need a pretty powerful machine.
Using the audio interface has a lot of positives. It’s much cheaper, more convenient, and versatile. Unless, deep down, you’re a connoisseur of the experience that actual analog equipment provides. Also, keep in mind that you may need a pretty powerful computer to play without latency.
What does the audio interface have to do with the guitar?
Most (even inexpensive) audio interfaces have built-in preamps that help to record guitar or vocal from the microphone. It means that you can plug your instrument into it and get the sound immediately. But it’s worth noting that it will just be a DI signal, that is, the sound of your strings taken off the pickups.
The problem is that this “naked” sound would be boring. There will be no overdrive or distortion, just your strings. And it would be good if they were new strings, because their sonic tone would be the best part of the sound.
But how do you make that sound a little more interesting, or even the way we’re used to hearing it with guitar equipment? Fortunately, this is where amp sims come into the arena.
Amp Sims And Everything About its Usage
Amp sim is software that emulates the sound of a real guitar amplifier in the digital realm. They come in plugins that you can use both in DAW and standalone form. For example, a single amp sim can include the amplifier’s sound and in combination with speakers. As a result, you get a ready tone that you can use for demo, final production, or just for fun.
Amp sims have been around for decades. In the past gays, they could never quite match the sound of actual guitar equipment. Fortunately, in recent years, the industry has developed very strongly. Now you can get high-quality software, which sounds very difficult to distinguish from the actual guitar gear.
The variety of available amp sims is fantastic. We can find both emulations of well-known equipment and individual unique models. This market offers everything from vintage amplifiers to modern high-gain gear. And the best thing here is that it all costs much less than the actual gear. For example, you can get a pretty good amp sim for about $100 on average. On top of that, there are plenty of totally free options.
If you have trouble asking which plugin to use, we’ve got you covered. There are many reviews on our site where we have collected the best amp sims for different genres. You can find one of the articles here.
What Is a Guitar Amp?
A guitar amp is a device that amplifies the sound of your guitar. In simple terms, it is equipment that takes the sound of the strings from the pickups and makes them loud. You can use it to make your electric guitar sound audible, whether for practice or live performances. In general, guitar amplifiers can be categorized into several types:
- Amp Heads
It is equipment that involves only an amplifier. It means that to hear the guitar sound, you have to connect a head to a cabinet with speakers. Most of the time, these types of amps are the most powerful. Remember that you should never turn on a tube guitar head without a cabinet. The cabinet acts as resistance so that the amplifier can burn out without it.
- Combo Amps
Combo amps involve combining the amplifier with the speakers as a single unit. So all you have to do is plug your guitar into the amp, and you’ll hear the sound. This type of amplifier includes both high-power and room-level amps.
An example of different guitar amps / Photo by Thomas Litangen on Unsplash
Both heads and combo amps can be divided into different types: tube, solid-state, hybrid, modeling, and others. It indicates the technology they are built and the specifics of their operation.
Actual guitar amplifiers are valuable in the music world because of their analog, authentic sound. What can we say if this is how the top albums were recorded – producers and engineers picked up the sound with microphones from the speakers. This method is one of the best to this day. But let’s take a closer look at the disadvantages and advantages of using guitar amplifiers, especially if you’re a beginner.
What Is An Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a piece of equipment that converts an analog signal into a digital one and plays it back to headphones or speakers. In simple words, it is a device that allows you to record audio into your computer. While it used to be a more professional device, audio interfaces have become very common, thanks to many affordable options.
Example of an affordable audio interface
Audio interfaces have greatly influenced the development of home music recording. Their sound quality has gotten better every year. Now we’ve reached the point where you can get a good-sounding device like this for about $200. After that, all you need is a DAW (digital audio workstation), and you can safely record guitar parts.
We live in a beautiful time when we have just a ton of opportunities related to music and creativity. Do you want to have a lot of emulations of top-of-the-line guitar equipment? No problem. Use an audio interface with a plugin that will provide that. Want to practice on a real amp in your room? Buy a small, reasonably priced combo or an attenuator and rock a big guitar rig at a relatively quiet volume.
Always choose what you think is most relevant to you. Even if your opinion changes, you have passed a particular way of development and are more experienced and know what you need now.
I bought a budget audio interface a couple of years ago and didn’t regret it. It eventually led me to mixing and mastering, which I now love most in my life. So don’t be afraid to take risks, experiment, and get what’s best for you. Good luck!
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Ilarion Ivanenko is a remote mixing and mastering engineer from Ukraine, a musician with more than 15 years of experience. Specializes in rock, metal, progressive and the other genres. He can’t imagine his life without music, as it is the biggest passion in his life