Recording music at home has never been easier, all you need are a couple of simple components that you plug into your pc and you are ready to go.
But this doesn´t mean that any hardware you use will get the job done effectively.
It all comes down to the needs and preferences that you may have.
In this post I will talk about the difference between Audio Interfaces and Mixers, to try and give you a better understanding of which one might be best for you, as well as tell you why using your PC’s built-in sound card might not be a good idea.
Let´s start by asking;
What is the difference between an Audio Interface and a Mixer?
An audio Interface works as the translator between a microphone, instruments, etc. and the computer.
It takes the analog signal coming from the microphone and converts it into a Digital Signal that your computer can then record.
A Mixer, on the other hand, mixes multiple signals that are being sent through it, with the ability to add effects such as Reverb or Delay.
If that information is enough for you, awesome! If not, then you are going to want to keep reading!
What exactly is an Audio Interface and what does it do?
I already covered this topic quite extensively in my post on what audio interfaces are, which you should definitely check out, but here’s a shorter answer:
An Audio Interface connects to your PC via either a USB-, Thunderbolt- or a Fire-Wire cable and takes the analog signal that´s coming from the microphone and accurately converts it into a digital one, so that the computer can “understand it” and record it.
One thing you will notice when looking at the descriptions of the Interfaces is the number of inputs that they have;
This means, the number of analog inputs that can be sent via USB or Fire-Wire to the PC as separate tracks.
These would be the Mic or XLR, Line (low impedance) and Instrument (high impedance) inputs.
The Instrument Input is designed for electric guitar or bass and has a preamp to get the signal up to line level.
The Line-in Input is designed for instruments such as keyboards, amps and other electronic instruments which already provide an “amplified” signal (line level).
One would assume that if the manufacturer claims that his product has 16 channels that this means that the interface has 16 analogue inputs…
But they also count digital inputs such as SP/DIF in the channel count, even though these would need another piece of equipment to to be used.
So, if you see an audio interface with 24 channels, it may only be able to handle 8 analog inputs.
Audio Interfaces can have few inputs, like the Behringer U-PHORIA UM2, which just features one XLR and one Instrument input, or they can even have 16 inputs like the Tascam US-16×08 (8 XLR and 8 line)
The XLR inputs, or Mic Inputs, have a preamp which amplifies the signal of the microphones since they tend to have a low output capacity.
Also, they provide phantom power, should you decide to use a condenser microphone.
The preamps are important, not only to amplify the signal or to send phantom power to the condenser microphones, but also to keep the noise to a minimum and to achieve the highest audio quality possible…
Cheaper interfaces don’t usually come with the best preamps, however interfaces like the Apollo Twin MKII and the Audient iD14, even though they are much more expensive, have some of the best ones out there.
Some of the cheaper Audio Interfaces, like the Behringer UM2, tend to have headroom issues, and even when the signal is not clipping the audio starts to sound distorted.
This is why, if possible, you should get interfaces with good preamps.
Related: I Wrote a couple of posts about the best Audio Interfaces both for beginners and experienced users;
- Best Audio Interfaces under $300
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 vs Behringer UMC204HD (most affordable ones)
- Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 vs Behringer UMC404HD (also affordable and provide more inputs)
Pros of an Audio Interface
- Portability: Most of them are actually quite small and fit into almost any bag. This is great if you have to move around a lot.
- Great audio quality.
Cons of an Audio Interface
- No Equalizers or other effects built in.
- Less Control than with a Mixer.
- Can´t be used for live performances.
What is a Mixer and what does it do?
Also known as Mixing Board, Mixing Console, or Sound Board, a mixer is a very versatile component which can be used from live shows to studio recordings.
At its very core, a mixer takes audio signals and mixes them together sending them to one or more Output channels, making them, if done correctly, sound as intended.
Imagine you were watching an orchestra conductor who is managing all the instruments and directing the simultaneous performance of several musicians…
This is sort of what you achieve while using a mixer.
The audio comes in through different input channels where you can adjust the volume, equalize, add different effects and create monitor feed to be able to end up with a harmonious product.
At first a Mixer might appear intimidating and confusing, because it has a lot of knobs and faders.
But the good news is that they are divided into simple groups of controls that are quite easy to understand.
The reason for all these knobs is that every channel has a complete set of controls to itself, which is called a channel strip.
If you know what the controls for one channel do, then you know how the controls for every other channel work.
If you want to use a mixer for live performances, then you won´t need one with a USB, Fire-Wire, Thunderbolt, etc. output since it will mix everything to one stereo track which will then be sent to the main speakers, meant for the audience.
Also, for live events, they are great for sending audio to the musicians through the AUX SENDs, for monitoring.
A Mixer can also work as an Audio Interface, if it has one built into it…
This just means that you can record straight to the recording software/DAW on your PC onto separate tracks and not just the stereo mix, like with most regular mixers.
This is especially useful for recording lots of tracks; like a whole band.
Now, let´s say you wanted to record eight channels from a mixer into a separate Audio Interface, you could do that but you would need eight cables going from the Mixer to the Interface, which is just a hassle and something I would’t recommend.
So, getting a mixer with a built in Audio Interface, though more expensive, might be a great investment.
Take the Mackie ProFX8v2 8-Channel Effects Mixer with USB, for example;
This one is a pretty simple yet affordable mixer which you can use for live shows…
It comes with a built in USB interface but it can only record the Stereo Mix to your PC, meaning that while it can record, it’s best suited for live performances.
On the other hand, the Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK, while a bit pricier, can record up to 12 different tracks simultaneously to your PC while also serving as a regular Mixer for live performances, should you need it to.
Or Maybe 12 channels is too much for you? Or the price is too high? Then another good alternative is the Allen & Heath ZEDi-10 which is a mixer with a 4-in/4-out interface at a fraction of the price.
Both of these mixers that I just mentioned are part of another post I wrote about the best home studio mixers currently available, and I definitely recommend you check it out!
Do I need a Mixer for Home Recording?
I think I made it clear that you don’t NEED a mixer for a home studio, but there are several benefits to having one, especially if it’s got a built-in audio interface that lets you record multitracks.
First of all, you will be able to record a lot more tracks simultaneously to your DAW, and this can really come in handy when recording your band.
Additionally, some modern mixers allow you to record multitracks directly to an SD card, which is something no Audio Interface can do.
Consoles let you set up different headphone mixes for every musician as well, which just makes the recording experience better.
One feature that I think is extremely important to mention is that most digital mixers feature a DAW control mode, which means that you can use the mixer itself to control the mix inside of your DAW, giving you a more “hands-on” approach to mixing since you’re moving faders and knobs instead of clicking.
However, mixers with multitrack recording capabilities, DAW control, and other high-end features, are definitely not affordable.
This is why I believe that for most beginners a simple audio interface is the way to go.
Pros of a Mixer
- More Control
- Can add effects
- Can be used for live performances.
- Some can be used to control the DAW.
Cons of a Mixer
- Big and Heavy
- Not as simple to use as an Audio Interface.
I assume that whoever is reading this is probably a beginner when it comes to recording gear, which means that in most cases you are going to be needing an Audio Interface and not a Mixer.
I wrote an Article about two Audio Interfaces which I consider to be excellent for beginners because of how little they cost, their overall sound quality, and the number of ins/outs they provide.
Now, here’s a very reasonable question that I used to ask myself when I was just starting out…
What’s the difference between an Audio Interface and a Sound Card?
An Audio Interface is essentially a sound card.
However, the built-in sound card in your computer has minimal I/O, which makes it less than ideal for recording, plus the overall sound quality of a sound card is worse.
For home recording purposes, an audio interface is definitely recommended.
I wrote a whole post addressing the question of whether or not you need a sound card for music production, which you can read here.
Why not connect directly to the 3.5mm microphone jack on the Sound Card?
Like I just mentioned, the on-board sound card on a PC is also an Audio Interface which does the exact same thing as any other audio interface does…
So, why not just use that one and connect to the 3.5mm microphone jack?
Well you can do that but you can only record one track at a time.
The sound Quality will definitely suffer and there may be Latency Issues, and so on.
If you are just starting out and want to know if this recording thing might be fun for you, sure start that way, but as soon as possible upgrade to a better option!
Which one is right for you?
If you are planning on simply recording some music at home and don’t need an extreme number of inputs, then an Audio Interface will suit your needs best.
On the other hand, if you want to be able to mix music for live shows while also having the option to record a high number of inputs, then the mixer is a much better choice.
Why choose an Audio Interface over a USB Mixer that can do multi track recordings, is a very valid question.
But you have to take Portability into account.
Even the smallest mixers are heavy and use up a lot of space, while an Audio Interface can be actually quite small and compact.
Plus all the features included in most Mixers you won´t really need if you are using it for Recording, since all recording programs have volume control, equalizers, reverb, delay, compression, etc. built-in.
If you are new to the whole recording scene, go with a simple audio interface.
If you need to record multiple tracks, say a whole band, get a bigger Audio Interface or a Mixer that will allow Multi-track recording.
I hope this information was useful to you! See you on the next one!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a mixer the same as an audio interface?
An audio mixer takes multiple audio signals, combines them together, and creates one or more output signals.
An Audio Interface, on the other hand, works as a translator between your Inputs (microphone, guitar, etc.) and transforms that analog signal into a digital one so that your PC can “understand it”.
Do you really need an audio interface?
Even though your PC, Smart Phone and Tablet also have built-in audio interfaces, these are not up to par with the external ones you can buy.
They all do the same thing which is Analog to Digital conversion, however the quality of the sound you can achieve with an external interface will be much better, and the output signal will also be of a much greater quality.
Can you use a USB mixer as an audio interface?
If the mixer has a built-in Audio Interface then absolutely.
Now, some mixers can’t do multitrack recording which means that they will mix all of the tracks onto a single stereo file, which will then be recorded onto your DAW.
Difference between Sound Card and Audio Interface
Both work the same way, converting an analog signal to digital, and vice versa.
However, sound cards have minimal inputs and outputs and the sound quality is significantly inferior to the one of a dedicated audio interface.
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