Are you confused about the difference between an audio interface and a mixer? You are not alone! Is your goal to find the best way to record audio on your computer? Or mobile device? Maybe you want to livestream with high quality. Perhaps even both.
Can you do it all with one bit of studio equipment or do you need multiple items? And what’s a USB mixer? Is a digital mixer different? These are very common questions.
The Heart of Your Audio Workflow
When you’re just starting out, it’s not uncommon to feel out of your depth. A big cause of confusion is just the sheer variety of options available. There are countless variations of interfaces and mixers. Some are for live work. Others are better for home recording studio.
This is a key decision. Because your audio interface and/or mixer is at the heart of your audio workflow, you want to get it right. So in this post we will get to the heart of the audio interface vs mixer debate. And hopefully you can then choose the right recording solution for your home studio.
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The Standalone Audio Interface
Here we will just take a basic look at what an audio interface can (and can’t) do. Then you can easily compare it with the mixer option.
A standalone audio interface is a recording device such as: the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2; the Universal Audio Apollo Twin; or the Audient EVO 4 . The interface will have various inputs to allow you to record your mics, instruments, and line level audio devices. It may also have digital inputs. An audio interface will also have outputs for you to connect studio speakers or studio headphones.
You connect the interface up to your computer – via USB, thunderbolt or similar – or to your mobile device via an adapter. Or you can purchase an interfaces such as the Shure MOTIV MVi or IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo to connect directly to mobile devices. Then you use the interface to record and playback, via your computer software or app.
Audio interfaces vary according to the number and type of inputs and outputs. For example you can buy a simple 2-channel interface like the Behringer U-Phoria. Or maybe upscale to the popular Focusrite 4i4 with 4 audio channels. The you can have multi-channel recording beasts such as the Focusrite 18i20 gives you 18 inputs and 20 outputs.
What Does An Audio Interface Do?
The standalone audio interface essentially does one thing really well. It gives you high quality audio inputs to allow you to record your analog sound sources on your computer. It will have built-in pre-amps on mic inputs, so it will offer level controls.
The interface then performs the Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC). So you can record pristine, unprocessed audio into your recording software or Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). And all this on separate tracks, simultaneously.
Furthermore, it will also take the digital sound on your computer and perform the Digital to Analog Conversion (DAC). So you will also have high quality outputs to monitor, edit and mix your recordings in glorious detail.
In a nutshell, when we’re talking about standalone audio interfaces, we’re referring to a recording device that offers audio inputs and outputs, level controls, and not much else hardware-wise.
The key thing about an audio interface is it is designed from the ground up to allow you to record on separate tracks. So the Scarlett 4i4 has 4 inputs, and you can set up your DAW to record each input separately.
That’s right. As an example you could easily record your vocals on one track. A guitar on another track. And a digital keyboard on yet another. At the same time.
You then use your DAW – or recording software – to apply effects such as EQ, reverb, compression, delay. With plugins you can do anything you want to the sound after you have recorded it. So the ‘mixing’ is done on your computer or mobile device in software or an app. Then you can export your finished masterpiece as a stereo audio file ready to share with the world.
The Standalone Mixing Console
Let’s turn our attention to the traditional analog mixing console. A standalone mixer will allow you to connect multiple microphones, instruments and other line level sources.
From the humble Yamaha MG06 which has 6 audio inputs to the mighty multi-channel mixing consoles made by Soundcraft and Mackie, the main function of these devices is to blend all your microphones, instruments, and other audio signals.
Each input will allow you to control the volume of that signal (just like the gain on an interface). In addition, and depending on the mixer, you will be able to control EQ and panning via hardware or digital controls. Many will also have built in effects such as reverb, compression and delay, that you can apply to each channel.
Finally, when you have adjusted each channel, you output the entire ‘mix’ to headphones, speakers, or PA system.
If you want to record your mix on your computer, with a pure standalone mixing console you will need to take the left and right outputs from the mixer and use the appropriate audio cables to connect them to line inputs on an audio interface. The audio interface will then output a digital signal suitable for recording in your DAW recording software or livestream.
Bear in mind you will be recording the stereo output of the combined signals from the mixer. So you will not be able to record on separate tracks simultaneously.
But you will be able to record multiple audio sources at once as one stereo file. And rather than just recording flat unprocessed audio, the tracks will already have had effects and EQ applied via the mixer.
The USB Mixer
Many mixing consoles available for sale now have some kind of built-in audio interface. They can function as a standalone mixer without connecting to a computer, so you can use them in the traditional way. But additionally they have a USB output so you can also connect them to a computer and record your mix in recording software or DAW.
A good example is the Behringer Xenyx X1204USB.
Welcome to the USB mixer! Does it solve all your recording problems? Well yes … and no.
A big benefit of working with a hardware mixer is the immediate, hands-on control. Something you don’t have with an audio interface. Need to turn up a channel in your headphone mix? Just reach out and turn up the corresponding headphone knob. Want to apply some instant EQ and compression to polish your sound on the way in? Again, you have dedicated, instantly accessible controls for those.
Compare this to your audio interface, where you do all this in software. Very few standalone audio interfaces offer you the ability to control all that on the interface. It is a completely different way of working in your studio.
BUT. USB mixers will allow you to connect lots of audio sources (depending on number of channels). And mix them. And apply effects, panning and so on. However, when you connect the mixer to your computer, via USB, you will only be able to record one stereo track.
Compare that with your audio interface you can easily record each audio source on a separate track – at the same time – within your software. The only way you can achieve the same thing with your stereo USB mixer that is to record each input separately.
So if you want your guitar and vocals on separate tracks with your basic USB mixer, you have to play the guitar first, then sing along with the recording. With even a basic audio interface, provided it has a separate input for guitar and mic, you can record your vocal track and guitar simultaneously on separate tracks.
So the important thing to keep in mind as you’re searching is that not all mixers with audio interfaces offer full multichannel audio recording.
Multichannel Audio Recording via a USB Mixer
If you genuinely want the best of both worlds – the hands on control of your audio sources and multitrack recording then this is certainly possible. For a price.
Look very carefully at the specs of, for example, the Soundcraft Signature 12MTK. This is what is says about itself: a high-performance 12-input small format analogue mixer with onboard effects and multi-track USB recording and playback with 14-In/12-out ultra-low latency USB playback and recording interface.
In other words, a fully functioning mixing console, with multiple inputs, the ability to mix onboard and output a stereo stream. But at the same time a multi-track interface that allows you to record each input on a separate track within your DAW.
Wow. A fantastic mixer and a multi-channel interface.
So it this the right device for you? Assuming it is within budget? Now we are coming to the crux of the matter.
The right kit for you is going to depend on what exactly you want to achieve. So before you focus too much on bells, whistles and product features, ask yourself a simple question that will help you decide what is the best recording gear for your studio.
What Do You Want to Achieve in YOUR Home Recording Studio?
Instead of spending hours reading the specs of dozens of different interfaces and trying to figure out how each would fit into your studio, start by really focusing on what you need to accomplish.
High Quality Recordings
Do you want to make simple, high quality recordings of yourself, then post-process the sound via software? Maybe vocals, and guitar. Or a digital keyboard and vocals? Or high quality voiceovers or a podcast. In this case, a good audio interface will do the job.
Would you prefer to have lots of hardware control over the sounds you are recording. So rather than applying reverb, panning and EQ after recording, you set your mixer up to get the sound you like then record that? Now the mixer sounds like the best option for you.
Multi-Track Vs Stereo
Is it essential that you get all your recordings on separate tracks? If so, then you may find the audio interface is the cheaper route, as multi-channel mixing consoles are much more expensive. But at least you can now make an informed decision about that.
Do you primarily want to livestream? If so, you may find the USB mixer is the better option. You can get everything sounding right on the mixer, then just stream the stereo output to Facebook, YouTube live, or wherever else.
Mixers with interfaces are especially useful for broadcast-style applications like podcasting and streaming. In these cases, you have enough to focus on without keeping track of another control panel on your computer. Worth bearing in mind! Livestreaming is stressful enough without worrying about the software aspects too.
What are you going to record?
Are you going to be mainly recording bands and solo musicians? If so, then the mixer will be best if you want to record a raw ‘live’ sound. The multi-channel mixer will allow you the best of both worlds. But if you want to apply lots of post processing to each separate track, then maybe the multi-channel interface will do the job on a tighter budget. Beware, in this case, the USB mixer that only has a stereo output.
How much space have you got? Standalone audio interfaces take up a lot less space than comparable mixers with built-in interfaces. While they can stay on your desktop, a standalone audio interface can just as easily be positioned out of sight or in an equipment rack.
This makes standalone audio interfaces the more portable option, as well. Something to consider if you plan to record outside of your studio and take your kit with you.
Is this your first purchase and you’re not sure? The most cost-effective and high-quality solution will probably be a good audio interface. Then, down the line, if you find you do want to mix audio inputs for a livestream or similar, you can purchase a small mixing console and record it through the interface.
More Things to Consider – and Some Technical Terms
If you want to be able to use any type of microphone (including condenser mics and active dynamic microphones), then you’ll need to make sure your interface or mixer has phantom power. It’s a common feature, but some interfaces may only offer phantom power on one or two inputs. Anticipate what types of mics you’ll be using and make sure you’ll have phantom power available for any that need it (external phantom-power supplies are available but are less convenient).
Stereo and mono channels
When you’re looking at the number of channels a mixer offers, it’s common for manufacturers to confuse you with the number of mono and stereo inputs. A 12-channel mixer may actually only offer two mono channels with microphone inputs and five more stereo channels with stereo line-level inputs for each. These inputs are useful for keyboards, drum machines, and media players but not for plugging in individual mics. Make sure there are enough mic inputs for the number of microphones you want to connect.
Number of Outputs
Beware of how manufacturers describe the number of outputs. As an example take the Zoom LiveTrak L-12 Digital Mixer & Multitrack Recorder. Beware of the specs. This device offers 14-track simultaneous recording, and 12-track playback. But note that the 14-track recording is to an SD card, not your computer. This device is a very well reviewed and exceptional piece of kit. And you will be able to copy those individual tracks to your computer. But beware that if you use it as an audio interface, it has 14 -in/4-out USB connectivity. In other words, you will not be able to record each input to a separate output in your DAW
Audio Cables and Types of Inputs
On audio interfaces and mixers, you’ll generally see professional XLR inputs for microphones, but line-level inputs and outputs can be on balanced TRS jacks, unbalanced TS jacks, or unbalanced RCA jacks. The outputs may be balanced or unbalanced. Or maybe both will be available. It is possible to use adapters, as long as you’re matching mic-level outputs to mic-level inputs and line-level outputs to line-level inputs. It is important to use balanced cables if you want to make balanced connections. Something else to consider. Think about what you want to record and what kind of outputs it has.
If you need true portability with your recording rig, then you may want to get an audio interface that can be bus powered via USB, eliminating the need to connect to wall power. Some audio interfaces that support bus power will also include a power supply, so you can use whichever makes sense at the time. Even if you’re not roaming the city and recording all day, you may appreciate the convenience if you need to shift your setup location on a regular basis. Conversely, if you want to use a USB mixer as a standalone mixer, make sure it is not USB-powered only!
Loopback audio for streaming
This mostly applies to streamers using Macs, as Windows has features to help set up loopback audio. “Loopback” simply means routing your computer’s audio back to your interface or mixer, combining it with your input sources like microphones, and then re-routing that mix back to your computer for your streaming software. It’s relatively simple to achieve with some creative cabling, but some mixers like the Yamaha AG06 offer built-in loopback capability to make this easy. Focusrite Audio Interfaces also have a loopback feature via Focusrite Control software. So, if you’re going to be live streaming, keep the need for loopback audio in mind.
A mixer with a built-in audio interface generally will not control any software functions, such as controlling faders in your DAW. That would fall in the category of a control surface with a built-in audio interface. If you want hardware control over your software via faders etc, then expand your search to include control surfaces as well.
Audio Interface Vs Mixer – Which Is Right for You?
So hopefully this article has covered the key differences between standalone audio interfaces and mixers with built-in interfaces. Which is right for you? Start with the main thing you want to achieve … and buy the best recording gear for that. There is no right answer.
Your Frequently Asked Questions about Audio Interfaces and Mixers
What is the basic difference between an audio interface and a mixer?
Basically, an audio interface is designed to record clean signals onto your computer on separate tracks. The mixer is designed to mix multiple audio sources into one stereo stream.
Do I need a mixer and an interface?
If you have a mixer with a built-in USB interface then no. If you already have standalone mixing console with no USB output and you want to record on your computer you will need an interface. Finally, if you have a 2-channel interface and want to record more than two audio sources then one way to achieve this would be to purchase a small mixing console.
Is a USB mixer the same as an audio interface?
A USB mixer will generally have more hardware controls than an audio interface. But usually you will only record a stereo stream from a USB mixer – which will be a mix of all your audio inputs. (Unless you buy a higher end USB mixer with multiple outputs).
What is the difference between an analog and USB mixer?
An analog mixer is a standalone device designed to mix multiple audio sources. Then output them to a PA or speaker system. A USB mixer will generally do the same thing, but will also have a built in interface. So you can connect it to your computer and record the mix in recording software.
I also have a USB mic and/or a USB MIDI keyboard. Where do they fit?
A USB mic is a microphone that contains its own audio interface. You can connect it directly to your computer or mobile device. Unless it has dual functionality – like the Samson Q2U, or the Blue Yeti Pro – with XLR as well as USB output, then you CANNOT connect it to your mixer or audio interface. On a mac you can create an aggregate device. Then you can choose to set up a track in your DAW to record either from your Audio Interface or your USB Mic. They will appear as two separate devices.
A USB MIDI Keyboard is a MIDI device – whereas audio interfaces and USB mixers are generally for recording audio streams.
Which is the best setup for home studio recording?
For pure recording on your computer, probably a good quality audio interface with the appropriate inputs for your recording needs.
Which is the best setup for livestreaming?
All other things being equal, you may find it easier to set up a USB mixer than an audio interface for livestreaming. Depends on what you want to stream!
Is a mixer the same as an audio interface?
Nope, the mixer generally has more hardware controls built in. The audio interface relies on software to apply effects etc.
Do I need a mixer if I have an audio interface?
If you discover you want to record more audio sources than you have inputs on your audio interface, then a mixer may be a useful additional purchase, as you can then record it through your interface.
Can a mixer replace an audio interface?
To a degree … but do be aware if you purchase a USB mixer with stereo output it will not do the same thing as a multichannel interface which will allow you to record multiple audio sources on separate tracks simultaneously.
Does a mixer improve sound quality?
If you have a mixer that applies good quality reverb, EQ and compression then yes. However, a lot of this can also be achieved in good recording software – as long as you have a decent interface to record your signal.
Where to next?
If you are in the US, then Sweetwater can give you detailed advice, based on your recording needs. And supply you will all the gear you need. In the UK, Gear4Music stock everything you need and offer fast next day shipping.