In home music production, you often see people using Audio Interfaces, but what about USB mixers? Can they also be used? Is there any benefit to using Mixers over USB Audio Interfaces? Do you need both?
In this article, I will answer all of these questions and more.
So, without any further ado, let’s get started!
Can a USB Mixer be used as an Audio Interface?
USB Mixers come with a built-in Audio Interface and can be used to record music onto a computer. However, depending on the mixer it may be able to record each individual track to a separate track on the DAW (Multi-track recording), or only the sum of all the channels as a stereo track.
This distinction is essential since it can lead to confusion and you spending money on a device you don’t actually need.
USB Mixers may not be able to record Multi-tracks
Most “Cheap” USB mixers, say in the $150 range, can only record the stereo out to your DAW, meaning that all of the tracks will be summed up to a single stereo track.
What does this mean for you?
If you recorded four separate tracks and they were all summed to a single stereo file, you won’t be able to process them properly as you would if you had those four tracks recorded individually.
On the other hand, Multi-track USB mixers do just that: They record each individual track to the DAW which allows them to be processed individually down the line.
How to tell if a Mixer can Record Multi-Tracks
If the mixer has already been labeled as a Multi-track mixer, then it can, or should, be able to record tracks individually.
However, if it’s just being labeled as a USB mixer and you want to find out whether or not it can record multi-tracks, then you need to check its specifications, generally in the “Computer Connectivity” or “Audio Interface” section.
Here’s an example:
This is the Specifications sheet of the Soundcraft Signature MTK 22, which is a large USB Mixer capable of recording Multi-tracks.
The way you can tell this is because in the Computer Connectivity section it says 24×22: This means that it can output 22 tracks separately through the Audio Interface to your computer.
Here’s an example of a mixer than can only record the Stereo Out:
This is the specifications sheet of the Behringer Xenyx 1204USB Mixer, which features a total of 8 channels.
However, when looking at the Computer Connectivity section it says 2×2, which means that it can only record two channels (the stereo out) onto the Computer.
In short, how to tell if a mixer can record Multi-Tracks:
If the mixer features a high number of inputs but only two outs, 14×2, for example, then it can’t record multi-tracks, whereas if it said 14×12 or 14×14, then this means that it can record 12 or 14 tracks separately to the computer.
Cost difference between an Audio Interface and a USB Mixer
Mixers are generally more expensive if they feature the same channel count since they come with some additional controls to affect the sound: The Scarlett 2i2 audio interface features two inputs and a USB mixer with two inputs and just the stereo out will generally cost a little more since it does everything the Scarlett while providing some extended functionality.
Generally speaking, you can expect to pay between 10% to 30% more for a mixer with the same channel count as an Audio Interface.
Important Note: Here I’m comparing budget mixers that more often than not can only record the stereo out (left and right channels) and which could be compared to regular 2-channel audio interfaces.
As far as Multi-track USB mixers go, these are vastly more expensive since they are designed to record dozens of tracks individually and they also come with a lot of built-in features, such as recording to an SD card, WiFi connectivity, built-in amp simulation, and some of them even work as control surfaces for our DAW.
USB Multitrack Mixers generally cost about $800 and up.
Is a USB Audio Interface better for Home Recording than a USB Mixer, then?
It all depends on your needs and budget:
Audio Interfaces are more affordable, lightweight, and portable, and they offer great bang for your buck.
Mixers have the advantage of being useful for home recording as well as for live performances, plus they generally feature more inputs and outputs (especially if you get one with Multi-track capabilities), allowing you to record full bands without issues.
For most home-recording enthusiasts, however, I would recommend going with an Audio Interface most of the time since you generally record on your own, meaning that you only need to record a couple of inputs simultaneously and not like 20+.
Also, when recording at home, or in a studio for that matter, you generally don’t process the audio on the way in, which is something that you can do on a mixer, so you would be wasting money on all of the additional features a mixer offers since you wouldn’t be really using them.
I would only recommend going for a mixer, especially one that can record multi-tracks, if you want to record many inputs at once and also have the option to mix live and record those live performances.
Consider Audio Interfaces with ADAT connectivity
Some Audio Interfaces, as well as some mixers, have a type of port on the back which is called Optical or ADAT, and this allows you to connect external preamps to the interface to increase its channel count by 8, generally.
There are multiple Audio Interfaces out there that come with ADAT inputs, such as the Apollo Twin interfaces, the Adient iD14, and others, and you can increase their channel count from 2 to 10 in total by hooking up an external preamp.
It’s worth noting that these preamps with ADAT connectivity vary drastically in price since you can get them from about $200 to $1000+ per unit.
USB Mixers definitely have their place, especially the ones that can record multi-tracks since the ones that can’t aren’t really all that appealing for home recording, but Audio Interfaces generally win when it comes to producing music at home since they are cheaper, smaller, lighter, and offer everything you need in a small package.
For most people, go with an audio interface that offers the number of inputs you need, and if you feel that you may need more inputs at some point, then consider Audio Interfaces with ADAT connectivity which allows you to expand the channel count.
Multi-track mixers are really good if you want to record full bands in your studio and also have the option to play live and record those performances, but they can be really expensive.