So, you’re ready to pursue your creative ambitions and upgrade to a professional home studio. Unfortunately, there are so many options to choose from that it is hard to find a place to start. One of the most important questions you might find yourself asking is this: do you need an audio interface or mixer?
An audio interface is great for bringing audio from instruments and microphones onto your computer or mobile device in multiple tracks. A mixer is great for mixing multiple audio sources and output them to a speaker system, usually in stereo. A USB mixer is a combination of the two.
An audio interface is best for those creating digital music who prefer working with DAW software in real-time. On the other hand, audio mixers suit those who like working via analog connections or controlling their audio physically. If you’re still unsure, continue reading this article for more information.
This article will explore everything you need to know about audio interfaces compared to mixers, including the benefits of each. Read on to learn about audio interfaces, audio mixers, and how to choose the best tool for your studio.
Audio Interfaces: What You Should Know
In the past, analog mixing desks were the primary tool used to record music. However, digital music recording introduced the need for an audio interface.
An audio interface accomplishes three tasks:
- It transfers your playing to music software.
- It translates the analog signals from your instruments to digital for rendering in your DAW.
- It allows you to monitor your playing in real-time.
Since computers often have recording software and USB ports to support digital microphones and instruments, you might be wondering why you should invest in an audio interface?
While computers, tablets, and even smartphones have recording hardware and soundcards inside, that does not mean they meet professional quality standards. Their hardware lacks sound quality and connectivity.
An audio interface provides more convenience and functionality for recording instruments and transferring the audio data to your digital audio workstation. Furthermore, interfaces can provide phantom power for microphones, amplify audio signals via a pre-amp, and playback your sound for you via a monitor (speaker).
Here is a great video explaining audio interfaces:
Let’s take a closer look at what you can expect should you choose to purchase an audio interface.
Compared to mixers, audio interfaces are relatively cheap. Still, even on the low-budget end, these devices can provide high-quality recording capabilities.
When choosing an interface, the number of inputs you need will affect your choice the most. It is still best to apply the adage “you get what you pay for” to this purchase. However, there is no point in putting money into more inputs and features than you need.
Connecting an Audio Interface
Audio interfaces can connect to your computer in a variety of ways. Many interfaces connect via USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire.
Additionally, you can connect your interface to an iPad or iPhone with a USB 3.0 Camera Connector. It is vital to purchase version 3 or later since older models of this connector do not offer the additional lightning port. Without the available lightning port, keeping your Apple device charged while you work is impossible.
Connecting your instruments to an audio interface varies depending on the musical instrument. For example, condenser microphones connect via an XLR cable. However, when not a part of a combo with a mic, instruments like keyboards and guitars connect via ¼ in (0.64 cm) line jacks.
When working with MIDI instruments, your interface will need MIDI connections to accommodate. However, when using plugins from a DAW, MIDI connections can sometimes be unnecessary.
Speaker connections vary depending on what you’re using. Line outs from an audio interface are often ¼ in (0.64 cm) jacks. However, the speaker end may have a female XLR, a ¼ in (0.64 cm) jack, or both. It is best to research the speakers you plan to monitor and their needs in this case.
Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Audio Connector Types
You can also connect a mixer to your audio interface and record the combined audio channels in stereo
Audio interfaces can sport a multitude of inputs, but how many are necessary? This value is the question you have to ask yourself when investing in an audio interface. Part of the equation is the number of instruments you’re recording. The other consideration is how you’re recording.
If you plan to record multiple instruments simultaneously, it makes sense to invest in an interface with various inputs. However, suppose you’re using your interface to record voice overs or a vocal and acoustic guitar setup. In that case, your interface probably needs no more than a couple of inputs.
Furthermore, you may be recording multiple instruments, but not at the same time. Suppose you’re recording one instrument at a time and layering them into a multitrack mixdown. In that case, one input or two will suffice.
Another factor to consider is how your recording habits will change in the future. If you have a long-term career plan that fits the features of your current interface, you can get a longer life out of it. However, should you aspire to record full bands or to record with different setups daily, we recommend investing in enough inputs to anticipate this change of pace.
USB Microphones: Another Interface Option
Another option for you to consider is USB condenser microphones. While USB mics can run inconsistent in terms of quality, they are a great low-budget option.
Furthermore, USB microphones include a built-in audio interface so you can record directly to your computer. To reduce latency issues, we recommend investing in a USB microphone with a headphone monitor.
Since you’re working digitally, audio interfaces introduce the unique issue of latency. Latency is the delay between when a command gets entered and when the action occurs. In digital recording, the process of converting analog signals to digital causes latency.
Other issues can further cause latency, like your computer’s operating system and buffering capacity. If you hear a significantly delayed playback on your monitor after playing a note, the issue is latency.
Why does latency not occur with analog devices? In short, an analog connection is direct, with no signal conversions in between. This direct connection eliminates any possibility of latency.
What Causes Latency?
Two paths contribute to latency. First, the analog signal from your instrument travels to your computer and converts to a digital signal for your DAW. This signal returns to your monitor or headphones, converting back to analog from the digital signal. This latency is typical, but other factors can aggravate it, making the latency much more noticeable.
While there are multiple factors your computer may contribute to latency, the most significant is buffering. Buffers are the space required for computers to process information. On one end, smaller buffer sizes do not process as much information.
This reduced size can cut back latency but also introduces cracks and clicks to the audio. Larger buffer sizes provide more audio details but raise higher levels of latency.
When Is Latency an Issue?
So when does latency become a significant problem? Unfortunately, latency is virtually unavoidable in digital audio production. However, a 3ms delay is a professional standard since it is less noticeable.
A 3 ms delay is similar to what you would hear if you were standing six feet (1.82 m) away from your guitar amp. Latency interferes more at 10ms, which makes recordings sound out-of-sync as if one was lip-synching.
How To Reduce Latency
There are a couple of ways to reduce latency. First, it is best to find the right balance between your computer’s processing power and latency. At a certain point, the sample rate, or the number of details processed in a recording, becomes less noticeable. Therefore, you can get away with a lower sample rate if the result is a less delayed sound.
The other highly recommended option is buying an audio interface with a direct monitor. Direct monitoring on an audio interface is excellent because it sends the audio signals straight to your monitor while allowing you to record to your DAW simultaneously. If you choose an audio interface, make sure it includes direct monitoring to help solve latency problems when recording.
Collecting Audio Information: Sample Rate and Bit Depth
Another consideration to think about when discussing audio interfaces are the number of details they can capture. Digital audio recording measures data collection in two different ways: sample rate and bit depth.
Audio Sample Rate
The sample rate is the audio equivalent of the frame rate in film. Think about it: frame rate means the number of visual snapshots recorded in a second, and higher frame rate results in a smoother, more fluid video.
The sample rate is the number of snapshots taken from an audio wave per second. For instance, if the sample rate is 48,000Hz, 48,000 audio snapshots get taken per second of recording.
So, what is the industry standard for sample rates? When it comes to music, CDs, MP3s, and music streamers playback music at 41,000Hz. DVDs playback audio at 48,000Hz. However, it is possible to record at sample rates as high as 96,000Hz. Considering humans can only hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz, super-high sample rates may seem excessive. Still, some audiophiles swear by high-end sample rates.
Audio Bit Depth
The bit depth measures how much headroom can get recorded. In other words, the bit depth determines how ‘hot’ a signal can read without clipping in the recording process.
On the opposite end of the sound spectrum, higher bit depth allows one to record quieter sound without introducing noise. In sum, higher bit depth increases the dynamic range available to you. Most interfaces cover 16 or 24 bit, but we always recommend going for the higher bit depth when possible.
How To Choose
When deciding the bit depth and sample rate you wish to record, more is not always better. It is vital to remember that more bit depth and sample rate require more processing power on your computer. If your computer cannot handle processing these details, the resulting recording can have serious latency problems.
Our recommendation is to stick with 41,000 Hz at 24 bits. If you invest in a more powerful computer, feel free to play with these values as you see fit.
Audio Mixers: What You Should Know
Audio mixers, while similar to an audio interface, are not entirely the same. An audio mixer takes in multiple inputs, adjusts their levels, adds effects, and sends all of these sources to a stereo or mono output. While audio interfaces are often associated with recording, mixers also work well in live performance due to the lower latency.
Let’s take a closer look at what they do so you can make the most informed choice for your audio needs.
Digital vs. Analog Mixers
We already told you that analog mixers were a standard tool used in professional audio recording before digital music, and some musicians still prefer the analog mixer setup.
However, modern mixers often include a digital music interface. So before we go any further, it is vital to break down the differences between digital and analog mixers.
Don’t feel like reading? Watch this video to understand the differences between digital and analog mixers:
Digital mixers include a digital audio interface, giving them the ability to record music electronically. This quality provides some great benefits while still offering the precise controls of an audio mixer.
First, digital mixers can accommodate many devices, from analog musical instruments to electronic instruments, like synths. Suppose you have a wider assortment of instruments you wish to record, especially digital musical instruments. In that case, this makes choosing between analog and digital rather obvious.
Another significant plus of digital mixers is the ability to pre-program controls that you can pull up at any moment. Furthermore, you can program one control to operate multiple functions. Therefore, even if you purchase a smaller mixer, you can still manage various features as if you were using a giant mixing desk.
Lastly, digital mixers do not pick up external noise as much as analog mixers. This trait is often one left up to personal taste. If you prefer the classic lived-in sound of a studio session, you will be happier with an analog mixer. However, those wishing to create a clean and polished track in line with today’s pop music should go for a digital mixer.
Analog mixers, as the name suggests, utilize analog signals instead of digital. While digital mixers have more advanced features, analog mixers come with a simplicity and honesty that some musicians will love.
In terms of simplicity, analog mixers are easier to operate over digital. While digital mixers allow one to pre-program multiple functions to one button or control, analog mixers do not. On the contrary, analog mixers maintain a ratio of one function to one control.
Suppose you’re a less tech-savvy individual or have a hard time keeping track of what function you assigned to which control. In that case, you will have an easier time with an analog mixer.
Analog mixers also tend to run more budget-friendly than their digital counterparts. This price gap is definitely according to the adage of “you get what you pay for.” Digital mixers offer more features, which makes them cost more money. The extra features justify the higher cost, mainly since a digital mixer also includes the price of the drivers one will have to install on a computer for it to work.
As we mentioned before, digital and analog sounds are different, and digital recordings usually pick up less external sound. If you’re an audio engineer who wishes to save time editing background noise, digital is an obvious choice.
However, suppose you need a purer, more natural sound in your recording. In that case, many musicians will tell you analog is the way to go. Plus, analog audio signals have lower latency, making analog mixers better for live performance.
For even more information on this subject, please read our article, Analog vs. Digital Mixers: The Pros and Cons Explained.
Audio mixers can feel intimidating due to their massive number of controls. However, once one understands the workflow of a mixer, operating one becomes relatively simple.
One well working analogy is the comparison of mixers to water pipes. Audio enters the input, flows through various effects and faders like a filter, and the resulting sound comes out of the output device. Each stream of audio is a channel.
Working with the idea that each audio source is a different channel, we can see that each column of knobs and buttons sport the same controls. The only difference is that the buttons and knobs in each column of the mixing desk correspond to one dedicated channel.
Like an audio interface, one would connect each musical instrument to a channel via the corresponding input. Input jacks are the same as those on an audio interface, and each channel should provide both an XLR port and a ¼ in (0.64 cm) line port. Audio mixers commonly feature stereo inputs as well.
Insert jacks accommodate other devices on a channel without getting affected by any other controls further down the column. For instance, should you want to reduce your instrument’s dynamic range with a compressor, you can plug it into the insert port, allowing it to affect the incoming audio before any other faders and knobs in the channel.
Gain is the level of sound coming through the input, and the gain knob controls the amount of gain on each channel. The gain is to the input device as volume is to the output. Accurately managing the gain is vital to prevent distortion to the sound of each channel.
EQ, short for equalization, is a process in audio production that controls the volume of a precise frequency or scope of frequencies within a sound wave. The three EQ knobs address high, mid, and low range frequencies, though the human ear can only hear a specific range of frequencies. Therefore, adjusting the EQ to reflect this range eliminates unnecessary noise and creates a clean, pure sound.
Auxiliary send ports provide various functions in a channel. For instance, an auxiliary port can connect to a set of monitor speakers so the musician can accurately hear what they are playing.
Another standard device attached to this port is an “audio effects unit.” In most cases, each channel would connect to the effects unit’s input. Then the effects unit would send the rendered sound back to the auxiliary return inputs.
If the audio mixer does not feature aux return inputs, the rendered sound from the effects unit will get routed down an input channel (or channels) on the mixer.
Panorama, more commonly called the ‘pan,’ is the physical placement of the audio when it gets played back on the output devices. In other words, the pan determines where the sound gets heard.
If you’re working with two-speaker stereo output, turning the knob to the furthest point left sends the sound to the left speaker. Conversely, rotating the pan knob to the right-most point sends all of the sounds out to the right speaker.
Pan becomes increasingly essential as more output speakers get added. When working with a multi-bus mixer, each pan control will operate a different pair of output speakers.
A person engineering a concert at a giant arena like Madison Square Garden would utilize the pan for that massive speaker system in order to maintain a perfect balance of sound throughout the area.
The mute button mutes the input of an individual channel. Conversely, many audio mixers also feature a solo button, which mutes all channels except for the desired solo channel. In short, the mute controls allow you to cut out undesired inputs or highlight specific ones.
The faders control the sound levels, or volume, coming through the output devices. First, channel faders control the mix of sound levels for each instrument. Second, the master fader controls the overall level of this mix, determining how much sound playback is on the output devices.
The master outputs are the destinations of everything in your mixer. If you’re working with a mixer with buses, the master output area usually holds the faders for each bus. If we look at what a mixer does step by step, the audio signal runs through the input first. Then the signals get adjusted for various attributes. Lastly, the audio ends its journey through the master output device, where it gets played back.
Audio Interface vs. Mixer: How Do I Choose?
There is a lot to digest when talking about audio interfaces and audio mixers. Both devices get used for similar tasks but work quite differently. Furthermore, audio mixers can include a built-in audio interface, further complicating the issue.
How do you know which device is best for you? Let’s take a look at some key points to consider.
Do You Need Digital or Analog?
Digital and analog sound work differently. Therefore, it is essential to consider what type of sound you wish to utilize. Whether you use a standalone interface or mixer/interface combo, you will have a more comprehensive option of compatible instruments. However, working with an analog mixer will save you the trouble of adjusting for latency.
Will You Use Hardware or Software?
Audio mixers have a lot of controls. However, most DAW software offers the same control over your music, albeit on a separate computer screen. Therefore, we recommend asking yourself if you prefer working with a computer or a tangible, physical interface.
However, keep in mind that some mixer/interface combos only send the master output to the DAW and not individual tracks.
How Much Space Do You Have?
With a massive amount of controls and ports, an audio mixer may take up more room than your studio can provide. On the other hand, most standalone interfaces can fit on a computer desk or set aside on a separate rack.
It is worth thinking about the size of your studio space and which device would better suit your needs without becoming cumbersome.
What Is Your Budget?
The more features you add to a device, the more it is going to cost. Digital tools, whether they are standalone interfaces or mixers that include an interface, will cost more. Analog mixers, on the other hand, are generally cheaper. Therefore, you should consider how many features you will use before investing.
What Are Your Project Requirements?
The project you’re working on will often determine whether you need an audio interface or a mixer. For example:
- A live performance at a small club will get by with an analog mixer.
- Tactile creators working with analog and electronic music would prefer a mixer with a built-in interface.
- Vocalists, voiceover artists, and podcasters will require a standalone interface that provides phantom power for their microphones.
Which Is Right?
As you can see, the more questions you ask yourself about your needs and the project’s needs, the closer you get to an answer. However, once you decide between an audio mixer or a standalone interface, there is even more research to be done. You need to ensure your choice supports your desired inputs and outputs, provides phantom power if required, and more.
A great way to guarantee you stay on the right path is consulting with fellow musicians and audio engineering experts. For example, companies like B&H and Sweetwater offer excellent customer service for those having difficulty finding the right audio tools.
The choice between an audio interface and mixer is a pretty complex one. While a standalone interface connected to a DAW can often produce similar results to a mixer, that does not render mixers obsolete by any means.
Furthermore, mixers can include an audio interface and make them adaptable to digital audio production and analog. The best way to decide for yourself is to consider your needs and consult with an audio expert.