There comes a time in every home recording artist’s journey when they find they can’t get a high enough track count with the equipment they have. It’s time to upgrade.
Sure that means you get to experiment with new things and have more options open to you while recording. But it also means pulling out the checkbook and spending an amount that’s larger than you’d like.
I’ve scoured through countless audio interfaces, from 1-channel interfaces for hobbyists ready to take their first stab with home recording to 24 and even 32+ channel interfaces that are made for professional use.
And while 12 channels costs more than many of your 2 and 4 channel devices, you can get some serious bang for your buck in this range.
How I’m Defining “12 Channel”
Before I go any further I just want to make sure we’re on the same page for what is meant by “12 channel.”
Some interfaces will claim to be 12 channels if they have 6 inputs and 6 outputs, but to me, that would be a 6 channel interface.
So I’m defining 12-channel as any interface that is capable of recording 12 separate channels at the same time (i.e. 12 simultaneous inputs).
Going Beyond 8 Audio Channels
Most higher end audio interfaces come with 8 analog inputs (usually each input accepts either an XLR cable or a 1/4 inch instrument line). But they often claim to be capable of recording far more than 8 channels. In some cases, interfaces with only 8 inputs may be capable of 32 channels or more.
In order to actually record more than 8 channels, you have to make use of digital inputs as well.
In fact, you often don’t even need to utilize the built-in analog inputs to get up to 12 channels (though it’s more convenient, cheaper, and often just as good of a recording to use them).
Most high channel audio interfaces today come with an ADAT connection, which allows you to pass digital audio data directly into the interface. One ADAT is capable of carrying up to 8 distinct audio recordings at one time. So two ADAT connections equates to 16 channels.
But how do you get digital audio data?
Getting Digital Audio with a AD/DA Converter
Well you always start with analog audio, so you need special gear to convert that analog to digital audio. And this piece of gear is usually called an AD/DA converter (that analog to digital and digital to analog).
Audio interfaces with analog inputs (that’s pretty much all of them) do analog to digital conversion for those inputs.
But they are limited by the number of analog inputs.
So you need an extra converter outside of your interface to do the A/D conversion for those extra channels. Then an ADAT cable comes out of the converter with digital audio data. And that cable can be plugged into your interface to be sent to the computer.
Side Note: It is important for all A/D converters (including your interface) to be taking their audio samples at the same time. This requires them to be connected with an additional cable to keep their sampling in sync.
You can do this multiple times across multiple AD/DA converters as long as your audio interface has the connections to be able to support it.
When 12 Channels are Needed
If you’re a home recording artist like me, and you mostly record your own stuff, then you likely won’t need 12 channels of simultaneous audio.
But there are several scenarios where up to 12 channels would be needed.
- Live recordings of full bands
- Live recordings of larger groups with many microphones
- Acoustic drum kit recordings where more than 8 mics are wanted
- Any other recording set where you have many microphones recording simultaneously
Usually, you need more mics either when you are recording many audio parts at the same time (live recordings) or when you need many microphones to record a single instrument (acoustic drum kit).
But you may have a completely different situation that calls for 12 channels.
With all that information sorted out, let’s get on with my list of the best 12-channel audio interfaces available today.
Affordable Option – Behringer X Air XR18
- Capable of up to 18 simultaneous channels
- 16 of those channels are built-in to the interface
- Made primarily for live sound
- Built-in mixer, controlled from tablet (not included)
This Behringer X Air XR18 is a little different than a lot of the interfaces I recommend in that it serves as both a mixer and an audio interface. It’s at its best when used for recording live sound.
Typically, when you record at home you do all the mixing after your audio comes into you audio editing software. You would use an EQ plugin and manipulate the various frequencies of the audio signal with extreme precision.
Also, as mentioned previously, you typically achieve high track counts (anything above 8 channels) with digital audio sent directly to your interface.
But with the XR18 you have 16 built-in analog inputs, each with their own dedicated preamp that has adjustable gain. And you don’t have the opportunity for higher track counts because there is no digital connection (no ADAT).
You can get up to 18 channels with help of two additional 1/4 inch analog instrument lines (without preamps).
The recording quality of this interface is on par with other mid tier audio interfaces, and should work great for either live sound or for amateur home recording artists.
Overall, The Behringer X Air XR18 is one of the most affordable interfaces for tracking 12 channels simultaneously.
Best Overall Interface – RME Fireface UFX+
- Capable of up to 94 simultaneous channels
- Premium parts, professional quality
- 12 built-in analog inputs
- MADI connection which allows for massive track counts
- Also accepts ADAT, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, XLR, and 1/4 line
The RME Fireface UFX+ is currently on my wish list for my next audio interface. Keep in mind I don’t often record with 12 simultaneous channels (In fact 12 is the most I’ve ever needed), but for me this interface has everything.
I use MIDI extensively and the Fireface has 2 MIDI in/outs. It accepts ADAT, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, XLR, 1/4 line and the MADI connection which on its own provides up to 64 simultaneous channels.
RME is known for making the highest quality recording gear available, and the Fireface comes with pretty much every feature a sound engineer could want as well.
Bit depth maxes out at 24 and sample rate at 192 kHz, and while you won’t get those numbers with the channels maxed out, you can get it with 12 channels.
This 12 plus channel audio interface connects via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0. The latency you’ll experience, especially with lower channel counts is well within the requirements for human ears.
Another plus: RME drivers just work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complaint of RME drivers regarding compatibility with any system
Overall, the RME Fireface UFX+ is among the highest quality audio interfaces on planet Earth, and is more than capable of handling 12 simultaneous channels. It’s likely more than you need (and more than you want to spend), but you won’t be disappointed with the Fireface.
Best Value – RME Babyface Pro FS
- Capable of up to 12 simultaneous channels
- Premium parts, professional quality
- Only 2 built-in analog inputs
- One ADAT input and one MIDI input
- Small, portable interface with studio quality results
Again, RME is known for making the highest quality recording gear, and the Babyface Pro FS is no exception. This device is very small, built like a 2 channel audio interface, but it also comes with an ADAT connection for 8 additional digital audio channels and a MIDI input.
The two analog inputs that are built-in to the Babyface accept XLR or 1/4 inch analog line. This device has the “SteadyClock FS circuit as RME’s reference-quality ADI-2 Pro AD/DA converter” which makes it’s recording quality on par with the Fireface, but it’s less than half the price.
If you want a more affordable path into professional quality recording, this is it right here.
Just like the Fireface, the Babyface is capable of bit depths of up to 24-bits and sample rates of up to 192 kHz.
There is, however, a meaningful difference between the two. The Babyface uses a USB 2.0 connection, which simply isn’t capable of the same data transfer speeds and can lead to latency issues in your recordings (depending on track count). With higher track counts you are almost guaranteed to run into noticeable latency when recording.
For the price (which is considerably lower than the Fireface), you’d be hard pressed to find a 12-channel audio interface that is capable of producing better audio recordings.
All three 12-channel audio interfaces that I’ve highlighted today have their pros and cons. Whether it’s a top of the line interface with all the bells and whistles (Fireface UFX+) that comes with a high price tag, or an incredibly affordable mixer/interface (Air XR18) that is best suited for live recording and doesn’t get the same professional quality recordings, you should be able to find an interface that works for your needs.
Hopefully, my picks have given you the confidence you need to take the next step with your recording process.