Do You Need an Audio Interface for Studio Monitors?
No, you do not need an audio interface in order to use studio monitors. However, most modern (digital) recording setups include audio interfaces due to the improved sound quality that they provide. But studio monitors, which typically include in-built amplifiers, can work with a range of inputs with or without audio interfaces.
In this article we’ll look at:
- What are studio monitors?
- What is an audio interface?
- Using studio monitors without an audio interface
What are studio monitors?
Studio monitors are speakers that are designed to work in a recording studio or as part of a sound recording and playback setup.
Studio monitors are designed differently from regular speaker systems. This is because they need to reproduce sound accurately—with sonic accuracy—and not just in a way that sounds good for listening to recorded music.
Most studio monitors used in smaller setups have two-way loudspeakers, with a low-to-mid frequency driver and a high-frequency driver. This is a simple enough design for most home or small studio budgets while providing sufficient sonic accuracy.
One of the key features of studio monitors relates to whether they are active or passive—that is, whether they include an in-built amplifier or not.
Most studio monitors designed for home setups are active and include an in-built amplifier.
Active monitors are convenient, as you don’t need to use a separate amplifier or matching cables. They also usually include driver-overload protection and are designed to optimally match the in-built amplifier with the speaker drivers.
What is an audio interface?
An audio interface sits at the heart of any sound recording system that uses computer technology.
Audio interfaces can serve a range of purposes, such as bringing together several voice and instrument inputs, but their primary purpose is to convert analog audio signals to digital signals and vice-versa.
Analog-to-digital conversion (ADC) is what allows instrument and voice inputs (analog) to be transferred to computers (digital) for editing and processing. Similarly, digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) transfers information from a computer system (digital) to outputs that can be heard by human ears (analog).
Audio interfaces are not necessary for recording or playback if computer (digital) processing is not a part of the system. However, most modern systems include a computer processing stage—through the use of a digital audio workstation (DAW), for instance—and hence use an audio interface as a part of the workflow.
As it happens, most computers include an in-built sound card that can do ADC and DAC processing, so an audio interface isn’t strictly required if a computer sound card can be used.
(The “sound card” may simply be a “sound chip” built into the computer’s motherboard—we’ll refer to both possibilities as a sound card.)
But the processing power and quality of output of these sound cards are typically inferior to an audio interface, so audio interfaces are preferred for studio setups where sound quality is important.
Using studio monitors without an audio interface
We’ve seen that studio monitors and audio interfaces are separate pieces of equipment that can be used independently of each other. Let’s look at a few scenarios where you can use studio monitors without using audio interfaces.
1. Practicing an instrument
If you’re a musician who wishes to practice your guitar, for instance, you can simply plug your guitar into an active studio monitor (or a passive studio monitor with matching amplifier and cables) and hear yourself play.
You don’t need an audio interface in this case.
You may also choose to plug your guitar into a mixer or similar equipment, which in turn can be plugged into studio monitors. Again, for this setup, you don’t need an audio interface.
Keep in mind that studio monitors are not designed to be guitar amps, which tend to be more robust and have different frequency response profiles to studio monitors. So, although you can plug directly into an active studio monitor to practice your guitar, a proper guitar amp is perhaps a better approach for this purpose.
The point here, however, is to illustrate that studio monitors can be used directly without the need for an audio interface.
2. Analog recording setup
In a completely analog setup, audio interfaces are not required as a part of the audio workflow. This is because there’s no need to convert sound between analog and digital signals in a fully analog setup.
Studio monitors would serve the same role in an analog setup as they would in a combined analog-digital setup. And they would operate completely without the presence of any audio interfaces.
In fact, analog recording setups (including studio monitors) were the standard approach many years ago, before computer and digital technology became more available and affordable.
3. Using your computer’s sound card
As mentioned, most computers include an in-built sound card that can convert sound between analog and digital signals (ADC and DAC). But the quality of the output from sound cards is generally inferior to what an audio interface can produce.
If you’re on a tight budget, however, or if the quality of output from a sound card is acceptable for your purposes, you can avoid the use of an audio interface. You can simply plug an instrument or microphone directly into your computer via the computer’s microphone jack, for instance, using an adapter if necessary.
In this case, you can include studio monitors in your audio setup and they will work just as expected. You can simply pass the output audio signal from your computer to the studio monitors (using appropriate cables, and via any physical processing equipment that you may wish to use).
You do not need an audio interface in order to use studio monitors. They are separate pieces of equipment that work independently of each other.
Situations in which you can use studio monitors without an audio interface include practicing instruments directly through the monitors, using a completely analog audio setup, or using your computer’s in-built sound card as part of the audio workflow (replacing the need for an external audio interface).
Most modern recording setups include an audio interface, however. This is because modern recording setups tend to use computer processing technology and audio interfaces provide improved sound quality compared with a computer’s sound card.
Studio monitors are therefore typically associated with audio interfaces in modern recording and playback setups. But as we’ve discussed, they do not require audio interfaces to function properly and can work completely independently of audio interfaces.