Last Updated on December 11, 2020.
Recording music at home has never been easier, all you need are a couple of simple components that you plug into your computer 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 converts the analog signal into a digital one so that it can be recorded by the Music Production Software.
A Mixer is designed to mix all the incoming signals together, adding effects and other processing and sending them to one or more Output channels, creating a “pleasant” mix.
There is definitely a lot more to it since mixers and even USB microphones can work as an audio interface.
So, let’s start by asking what an Audio Interface actually does.
What is an Audio Interface and what does it do?
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 to the DAW.
Inputs on an Audio Interface
The analog inputs on an Audio Interface are the ones that are sent to the PC via USB, Fire-Wire or Thunderbolt to the PC as separate tracks.
These would be the Mic or XLR, Line (low impedance) and Instrument (high impedance) inputs.
The Mic inputs are generally on the front and feature a “preamp”, which is designed to increase the level of the signal to a point where it can be recorded properly.
This is controlled with the Gain knob, which will allow you to set the overall recording level of that input.
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 Inputs are designed for instruments such as keyboards, amps and other electronic instruments that already provide an “amplified” signal (line level), and it’s set to a fixed level.
In general, mic- and instrument-level inputs are on the front, while line level inputs are on the back, but this depends on the interface itself.
Like I mentioned earlier, the preamps are responsible for increasing the signal to an appropriate recording level.
However, that’s not all they do;
They supply phantom power: Phantom Power is used to power condenser microphones since without it they aren’t capable of producing a loud enough signal.
Additionally, they keep the noise in the signal to a minimum to yield the best overall audio recording.
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 and the sound quality is amazing.
In fact, I own the Audient iD14 and it truly sounds fantastic.
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 when it shouldn’t be.
This is why, if possible, you should get an audio interface with good preamps, like the Audient iD14.
Channel Count vs Analog Inputs
One would assume that if the manufacturer claims that his product has 16 channels that this means that the interface has 16 analog inputs, right?
They also include digital inputs such as SP/DIF in the channel count, even though these would need another piece of equipment to to be used, in most cases.
So, if you see an audio interface with 24 channels, it may only be able to handle 16 analog inputs, which means that you would only be able to connect 16 microphones/instruments to it.
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).
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.
- Usually BUS powered.
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 that 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, creating a harmonious end-product.
The audio comes in through the different input channels where you can adjust the volume, apply EQ, add different effects and create a monitor feed for the band members, and then that entire mix gets sent to the speakers, or PC in some cases.
Note: Mixers also come with preamps, instrument- and line-level inputs, just like audio interfaces.
The Channel strip (Set of controls per channel)
At first a Mixer might appear intimidating and confusing because it has a lot of knobs and faders.
But the good news is that these controls are divided into simple groups that are quite easy to understand;
Every channel has a complete set of controls to itself, which is called a channel strip, like Gain, Compression, EQ, AUX Sends, Volume Faders, etc.
If you know what the controls for one channel do, then you know how the controls for every other channel work, and therefore learning to use one channel strip equates to learning how the entire board works.
Different Types of Mixers
The different mixer types are; Analog, Digital, and Powered, and these can come with- or without an audio interface.
If they don’t have a built-in audio interface, then this means that they can’t be used to record audio, at least not on their own since they would need to be connected to an audio interface.
On the other hand, mixers with an audio interface built in can be connected to a PC and will allow you to either record all of the tracks that they have available, or just the stereo output, depending on the type of audio interface they feature.
So, let’s dig in deeper!
Mixers with a built-in USB Audio Interface
Having a built-in audio interface means that you can record straight to the recording software/DAW on your PC using a mixer instead of needing a separate audio interface.
Important Note: Just because the mixer has a built-in audio interface doesn’t mean that it can record every input to a separate track in the DAW;
Most affordable mixers, say in the $200 range, will only let you record the stereo out to the PC.
This means that all the tracks coming into the mixer will be summed/mixed to one stereo file that will then be recorded, and in this case you won’t have any control over the individual tracks once they reach the PC.
On the other hand, Mixers that are capable of Multitrack recording will let you record every individual input to a separate track to the recording software.
Related: If you want to know what the best mixers are that are capable of recording multitracks over USB, then check out this article I wrote.
Mixers without a USB Audio Interface
These are the most affordable mixers on the market, but they are designed mainly with live performances in mind since they can’t record directly to a PC, pendrive, or SD card.
Now, let´s say you had a regular mixer at home, one with no multitrack capabilities, and wanted to record eight channels from it to your computer;
This would require not just the mixer, but an Audio Interface with enough inputs to record those eight tracks coming from the mixer.
While you could definitely do that, you would need eight cables going from the Mixer to the Interface, which is just a hassle and something I wouldn’t recommend.
So, getting a mixer with a built in Audio Interface, though more expensive, might be a great investment if you know how many inputs you need.
How can you tell if a Mixer can record Multi-tracks?
First, I’d highly recommend that you read the post I linked earlier about mixers that can record multi-tracks.
However, in the description of the mixer you need to look for the following things;
Some mixers are already labeled as being able to handle multitracks, like the Soundcraft Signature MTK 12, and this is a really easy way to tell.
But in most cases, you are going to need to look at the “USB Connectivity” or “Audio Interface” description of the mixer;
If it says 14-in/2-out, then this means that it will take those 14 inputs but only sum them to a stereo file.
If it says 14-in/12-out, or 14-in/14-out, then it means that it is able to record those inputs to separately.
Just as a reference, mixers under $300 usually are not capable of multitrack recording.
Now, this begs the question…
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, having a lot of guests on your Podcast, etc.
Additionally, some modern mixers allow you to record multitracks directly to an SD card, which is something no Audio Interface can do.
Mixers also let you set up different headphone mixes for every musician as well, which just makes the recording experience better, and you can add effects directly from the mixer without introducing any latency.
One feature that I think is extremely important to mention is that most digital mixers feature a DAW control mode;
This 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; $1000 and up in most cases.
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.
- Monitoring without latency.
Cons of a Mixer
- Big and Heavy
- Not as simple to use as an Audio Interface.
- More Expensive
Which one is right for Recording at Home?
Get an Audio Interface, hands down, and there are many reasons for this;
Audio interfaces are more affordable for the simple fact that they don’t come with all the features of a mixer, plus you generally record one track at a time when recording by yourself… maybe two.
Additionally, when you record audio, you usually want to get the cleanest- most unprocessed signal possible, which means that applying EQ, Compression, or any other processing on the way in doesn’t often make sense, since you want to be able to process the original audio track in the DAW.
So, I would say that in the vast majority of cases, go with an Audio Interface.
If you’re a podcaster, consider a Mixer over an Audio Interface
One huge advantage of a mixer over an Audio Interface is that it’s better for streaming audio, and the reason for this is that with an audio interface you would need to rely on software to mix the audio before streaming it.
As we all know, software can crash and if you are streaming a podcast to a live audience, I would definitely avoid relying on it.
With a mixer you can simply mix the audio right there on the board and THEN send it to the computer to be streamed.
This is a much better -and safer- way of doing things.
Now, this is a very reasonable question that many seem to ask, and it’s actually how I got started when I was in my teens:
Why not connect directly to the 3.5mm microphone jack on the Sound Card?
The on-board sound card on a PC is also an Audio Interface that does the exact same thing as any other audio interface does, which is convert the analog signal into a digital one and vice versa.
So, why not just use that one and connect to the 3.5mm microphone or line-in jacks on the back?
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 for you, sure start that way, but as soon as possible upgrade to a better option!
Read more about the differences between an Audio Interface and a regular sound card here.
Choosing the right equipment isn’t easy, especially considering that there are simply too many options to choose from.
Why choose an Audio Interface over a USB Mixer that can do multi-track recordings?
Well, the first and most important reason is price; Mixers that can record multi-tracks are expensive, very expensive, in fact.
I would only recommend you get one of those mixers if you are absolutely certain that you will be taking advantage of all of its functionality.
For anyone who is starting out, or who likes to record on their own in their home studio, a simple Audio Interface with 2 or 4 inputs should be enough.
If, however, you need to stream a podcast with lots of guests, mix music at live events, etc. then a mixer might be a better alternative.
But in most cases, go with an Audio Interface.
I hope this information was helpful!
Have a wonderful day!
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.