Mainstage users have a unique set of needs when it comes to an audio interface, and I’ve bought and used a wide variety of interfaces in my quest to find one that does what I need. After about 10 years of experimentation and over 9 audio interfaces, I’ve selected my favorites:
1st choice: MOTU MicroBook II
Price: $249 street
Pros: tons of quality inputs and outputs in a tiny form factor, insanely flexible routing, CueMix software, bullet-proof construction, rock solid drivers, ad-hoc ability to create 2nd headphone output using line-out on back panel.
Cons: only one XLR input.
My thoughts: this is my current audio interface, and for good reason. It’s the most expensive of all the audio interfaces reviewed (it streets for $249), but it crams easily double the features for its price into this unassuming tiny metal box.
As a Mainstage user that mainly needs quality output options and flexible routing, this thing takes the cake. You can route any combination of any input to any output, meaning I can send a separate mix to my headphones and my mains at the same time.
This is invaluable feature if you’re using it as a personal monitor router onstage, which I regularly do by routing the monitor mix through my XLR input on the front of the unit, and sending it only to my in-ear monitors.
The other big advantage is by using the CueMix mixing software (it comes free with every new MicroBook) is I can route my hardware keys through the line inputs on the back of the unit, creating a single combined output for the engineer. I also don’t have to worry about software programs crashing live, since CueMix keeps routing audio even if a specific program crashes. Top that with amazingly clear preamps, easy-to-use volume knobs, and rock solid drivers, and this thing is a knock-out punch for Mainstage.
2nd choice: Presonus Audio Box VSL
Price: $199 street
Pros: tons of bang for your buck. Two XLR inputs, powerful mixing software. Remote controllable with iPad app.
Cons: occasional issues with audio drivers and pairing. Louder noise floor than the MOTU.
My thoughts: I love Presonus for the amazing, affordable products they offer musicians, and their audio interfaces are no exceptions. My first audio interface was a Presonus, and they’ve only continued to improve.
Any of the Audio Box VSL-series models have clean inputs and outputs, controlled by an extremely powerful software mixer, with EQ, limiting, compression, gate, and even reverb/delay options on each channel. There’s also a free iPad app to control it all, and I regularly use my AudioBox 1818VSL as a standalone mixer for small bands.
If you need options and inputs, this is your interface. Another great feature is midi integration: if you’re using a midi-only synth to control Mainstage, this box offers midi inputs and outputs on the back panel for quick routing.
Downsides? The entire interface’s routing could be a little quieter, and the drivers can be a bit finicky at times. That said, for just $199, this is a lot of bang for buck, and is a great option for musicians that are looking to not just use it live, but record in the studio, as well.
3rd choice: Focusrite Scarlet 2i2
Price: $149 street
Pros: nice mic preamps. Distinctive Focusrite sound. Great price.
Cons: limited signal routing options. Not built for life on the road.
I owned a Focusrite 2i2 for about 2 years, and I loved the way it sounded, did a great job sending my computer’s output live, and generally was stable and usable. I also appreciated the distinctive “Focusrite” sound that it added to everything I routed through it, and while not everyone might want an interface to color the output signal, I felt that it benefitted my live sound. It’s also a bargain-basement interface at just $149 street, making it easy to replace if needs be.
Now for the bad: it has almost no routing options for inputs, bundling everything you plug in into a single output. This might not be a big deal for some users, but it was a no-go feature for me. I like running a hybrid hardware/software rig live, and I had to haul along a separate mixer to route everything the way I needed.
Also, this box was never designed for life on the road. I had the front panel plastic buttons break on 3 separate occasions. To their credit, Focusrite replaced my unit for free, even covering shipping. Still, there’s nothing more irritating than having a button snaps off and rattles around inside your unit. In their defense, I am extremely rough on gear, hauling them in and out of venues in all kinds of weather, and I probably could have been more careful about protecting it by buying a case.
Any of the above audio interfaces have advantages and disadvantages, and all of them will do the most important thing live: be stable, give a good clean signal to FOH, and let you worry about what’s important: playing music.