It’s understandable to be a bit confused on the differences between certain pieces of studio equipment. One of the most notable examples of this is the audio interface vs mixer comparison.
In this article, I’ll clarify the differences between an audio interface and an audio mixer so you can make educated decisions about your future gear.
Let’s get right to it.
What Is The Difference Between An Audio Interface And A Mixer?
An audio interface performs a multitude of functions, most notably being the conversion of audio signals in both analog to digital (ADC) and digital to analog (DAC). This allows you record and playback audio to and from your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW.)
An audio mixer is used to take multiple audio signals and mix them together. From there, those signals are sent to one or more output channels. On top of that, audio mixers are great for effects processing and giving you more hands-on control of all your studio equipment.
That’s the quick summary of the differences right there, but things are certainly more complicated than that.
To further understand the differences between these two important pieces of studio equipment, we need to talk about each one individually.
I have covered the topic of audio interfaces at length in a separate article, but here’s a shorter overview.
Most computers, smartphones and tablets come equipped with a built-in sound card. When it comes to casual listening, these basic sound cards are all you’ll ever need.
In terms of music production and recording audio, those sound cards simply weren’t made to handle such complex tasks.
That’s where an audio interface comes into play.
An audio interface is used to enhance your recording and playback capabilities among all your studio equipment. They also vastly improve the overall sound quality in your studio.
So, essentially, an audio interface is an upgraded hardware version of a sound card.
We already talked about how standalone interfaces convert audio signals, and that’s really one of their most important functions. That said, interfaces are extremely powerful devices that play a huge role in many recording tasks.
To quickly summarize, here are the main tasks that audio interfaces are made to accomplish:
- Converts analog audio signals (from instruments or microphones) into digital audio signals for rendering in your DAW.
- Converts digital audio signals (rendered from your DAW) into analog audio signals for playback through your studio monitors or studio headphones.
- Brings studio microphones and instruments up to line-level with the use of mic preamps and DI inputs.
- Real-time volume and gain adjustments.
- Real-time monitoring of your microphone recordings and instrument playing.
- Provides 48v Phantom Power for condenser microphones.
- Records multiple tracks simultaneously.
- Most interfaces have built-in headphone amplifiers for high-impedance headphones.
Audio interfaces weren’t made to mimic an audio mixer as far as form factor, but many interfaces do come with mixing software that can be accessed either through your DAW or your computer.
On another note, latency is a major consideration when recording audio. The best way to combat latency is with better connectivity. Thunderbolt audio interfaces are the standard nowadays due to their data transmission speeds.
If you’re a Mac user, Thunderbolt will be your default form of connectivity. Check out my guide to learn more about audio interfaces for Mac computers.
USB audio interfaces are still a viable option if you’re just starting out or if you’re on a budget. Check out my USB vs Thunderbolt audio interfaces guide to learn more!
Things get interesting when you start talking about rackmount interfaces and the ability to expand your input count down the road. Let me explain.
To be fair, these devices are usually only found in semi-pro or professional recording studios, but they’re still worth talking about.
To put it simply, a rackmount audio interface is just a desktop interface multiplied. A rackmount interface does the exact same thing as its smaller counterpart, just with more inputs. Sometimes, rackmount interfaces come equipped with higher-quality mic preamps as well.
So, in what scenario would a rackmount interface be useful to you?
Well, only if you need more inputs to record a higher number of microphones simultaneously. Outside of that, they might be overkill.
There is another way to expand your inputs and outputs though, and this method might be more realistic for you.
Expand For The Future
Many top-tier desktop audio interfaces come equipped with either ADAT, S/PDIF, or optical inputs. These ports are used to connect to additional hardware mic preamp devices so you can expand your line-level inputs with ease.
So, if you don’t want to drop a wad of cash on a rackmount interface, then you can wait for your studio to grow and evolve your setup when the time comes. That is as long as you have an interface with an ADAT, S/PDIF, or optical port.
Pros & Cons Of Audio Interfaces
Before we move on, let’s quickly go over the pros and cons of audio interfaces. This will help you learn their practical applications in a studio setup.
- Small and super portable
- Perfect for smaller home studio environments
- High-quality preamps for professional-grade recordings
- Simple and easy to use
- Interfaces with S/PDIF, optical or ADAT ports allow you to upgrade down the road
- Very versatile
- Limited controls when compared to mixing boards
- Onboard effects and dynamics processing is very limited
- Not great for live performances
An audio mixer (otherwise known as an analog mixer, mixing board, or mixing console) is used to blend and mix multiple audio signals into one or more output channels. At its core, a mixer’s main job is to take large recording jobs and make them more manageable.
Outside of that, audio mixers are made to accomplish a much more complex set of tasks that interfaces simply weren’t made for.
Same as before, let’s summarize the list of tasks that mixing consoles are responsible for:
- If a mixer has a built-in USB audio interface, then they can convert signals in both ADC and DAC.
- Takes your multi-track recordings and combines them into one or more output channels.
- Offers a large number of inputs and outputs in various formats in order to connect and record different pieces of studio equipment.
- Equipped with a large number of onboard control options for real-time editing of certain parameters like volume, gain, EQ, effects and more.
- Can handle large recording jobs like multiple-piece bands, vocal ensembles, etc.
- With the use of mic preamps and XLR, mixers can bring microphones up to line-level.
The best part about mixing consoles is the level of control you have at your fingertips. This is a necessity when recording a large number of tracks at the same time.
You can easily make tweaks to your recordings, and if your mixer has a built-in audio interface, then you can even edit your recordings in post.
That actually brings me to my next point.
Standalone Audio Mixers Vs USB Mixers Vs Multitrack USB Mixers
As I just mentioned, there are some audio mixing boards on the market that come equipped with a built-in audio interface.
Yes, that does mean that some mixers can perform ADC and DAC conversion just the same as a standalone audio interface does. This means that you can record and playback audio to and from your DAW just the same as well.
That said, if an audio mixer does not have a built-in USB interface, then you’ll need a separate audio interface that connects to your mixer. Let me explain a little further:
In order to record and playback audio in your DAW, you’ll need to route everything connected to the mixer to an audio interface. Standalone mixers don’t have the ability to convert audio signals the same way audio interfaces can, and they’re sole job is to combine multiple audio tracks into one or more output channels.
The truth is that this is the setup that most producers or sound engineers go with. Although everything recorded through the mixer will still be condensed into one stereo track, you can still record other sources separately through your audio interface.
You can mix and match and get all of your tracks exactly the way you want them. This is a great setup for a home recording studio.
For example, say you want to record two vocal sources through your mixer. Great, now everything is combined into one output channel and is sent to your audio interface.
Now, you want your guitar recording to be on its own track. Well, then just connect your guitar to the line input (or dedicated DI/JFET) on your audio interface and it will be all on its own.
Here’s a visual representation of this setup:
From there, your audio interface will convert all of the audio signals and send them to your DAW for rendering.
Now, that’s just a basic example of how to route certain tracks with a non-USB standalone mixer and an audio interface. How would things look with an audio mixer that has a built-in USB interface?
Glad you asked.
USB mixers function similarly to a standalone audio interface in terms of audio signal conversion, but they have the added functionality of a full-blown mixing board.
You have hands-on control of each track, and you don’t need to route everything through an interface.
The downside is that all of your tracks will be condensed into one stereo track when rendered by your DAW. While it’s true that you can still edit and manipulate parameters on the mixing board itself, you can’t make edits to each individual track through your DAW.
So, if you want to add a VST effects plugin to one of your microphone tracks instead of all tracks at once, then you’ll need to figure out a different way to route everything.
Here’s a visual example of this:
Multitrack USB Mixers
Your only other option is to buy a more expensive USB mixer, like the Zoom LiveTrak L-12. Multitrack USB mixers give you the ability to record every track separately at the same time.
Once again, here’s what that would look like:
They typically come with a hefty price tag though, and they’re really only meant for ultra-complex recording jobs. That said, multitrack USB mixers are awesome devices and are certainly worth the investment.
Digital Mixers Vs Analog Mixers
Every audio mixing console sets out to do the same thing, and that’s routing and processing multiple audio signals. Now, it comes down to how certain types of consoles accomplish those tasks that make all the difference.
Let’s break each of these two types of mixing consoles down to make things more digestible.
Analog mixing consoles have been around for quite some time, and they’re definitely older than digital consoles. In fact, analog mixers used to be the only thing that large-scale studios had to work with.
Analog consoles break down each channel into a channel strip. In each strip, you’ll have a slew of hardware knobs and faders. Each of those knobs and faders will give you control over things like gain, EQ, overall volume level and more.
This makes things very hands-on and instantaneous. You have all of your channels laid out in one place and all of your controls are right in front of you.
Analog mixers tend to be intimidating to newbies, but once you learn that each channel strip simply repeats itself, then the entire board becomes much easier to wrap your head around.
Analog mixing consoles tend to lack in one area, and that’s effects processing. If you want to add effects chains or perform any dynamics processing, you’ll likely need to do so with additional external hardware.
To summarize, analog consoles give you instant access to all of the most important controls that you need. This enables you to improve the speed and efficiency of your workflow in the studio.
The main downside of analog mixers is their lack of onboard effects processing when compared to digital mixers.
Some analog options on the market do offer onboard effects, but most of the time, you’ll only be able to assign one effect at a time. Multi-effects processing is hard to find on an analog mixer.
Also, rerouting inputs to different channels is not possible on an analog mixer. Each channel strip is preset and somewhat linear. Sure you can route input 1 to the master channel and have a subgroup assigned as well, but you’re limited in your ability to configure everything in a specific way.
Digital mixers are devices that are, in general, far more capable than analog mixers. They are superior in terms of onboard effects, dynamics processing, metering and routing.
With a digital mixer, you’ll have all of your channels separated into menus and banks. To access certain features, you’ll need to select a particular channel and control each parameter individually on a channel-by-channel basis.
Now, each channel functions similarly to an analog channel strip, but it’s a bit more of a process to edit things. That said, the level of control you’ll have is pretty extensive on a digital mixer.
Digital mixers are extremely powerful when it comes to routing. Many digital mixers have a routing feature onboard so you can route inputs to any channel you like. This is another level of flexibility to extra-large recording jobs.
Typically speaking, each channel on a digital mixer will have onboard compressors, EQ, aux sends and gate controls. From there, you’ll usually have onboard multi-effects processors that you can assign to any channel.
All in all, digital mixers are ultra-powerful devices that give you an insane amount of control. They are perfect for large-scale recording jobs and especially for live performances.
The downside to digital mixers is the learning curve. You’ll need to spend quite a bit of time learning how to use one of these complex devices. Also, your workflow won’t be as efficient with a digital mixer no matter how familiar you are with one.
Pros & Cons Of Audio Mixers
Let’s quickly summarize the pros and cons of audio mixers so you can better understand their practical applications.
- Great for large-scale recording jobs
- Ideal for those of you who need hands-on control
- A greater amount of flexibility
- Professional level sound quality and recording quality
- Excellent to use for live performances
- Some mixers can double as an external DAW control surface
- Fantastic hardware effects and dynamics processing
- Large and cumbersome
- More complex and harder to use than an audio interface
- Might be overkill for most recording scenarios
More Key Differences To Keep In Mind
So, now that you know the basics, it’s time to get into more differences between audio interfaces and mixing consoles. This time, we’ll be getting into the more technical aspects of each. Also, we’re going to talk about some of the specifications that you’re sure to run into and which one’s you should pay attention to.
Input & Outputs
Audio mixers have much higher input and output (I/O) counts than most desktop interfaces, and that’s really by design. You’ll also get more options in terms of dedicated mono and stereo inputs.
Sure, down the road you might end up getting a studio rack and a rackmount audio interface with a ridiculous amount of I/O’s, but mixing boards give you another avenue for handling large recording jobs in the meantime.
That said, if you’re just starting out, then a simple 4in/4out audio interface will probably be just fine for a while. That gives you two XLR/line inputs for recording vocals and instruments and two outputs for converting in stereo.
If you already have a MIDI keyboard, a guitar and a couple of mics, then an audio mixer might be the better option. Let’s assume that an 8in/8out should cover all the bases. Obviously, your next choice from there would be between a USB mixer or a standalone mixer plus an audio interface.
The main thing here is to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough inputs and outputs for the immediate future. As you expand your studio and gain more equipment, then you can cross that bridge when it comes.
It’s no secret that mixers are much bigger than standalone audio interfaces. With that, if you have limited space in your home studio, then the obvious choice is to get an audio interface.
Mixing consoles with a smaller I/O count aren’t overly cumbersome, but if you’re already opting for a smaller mixer, then it makes more sense to simply use an audio interface.
Either way, as your recording tasks evolve, you’re sure to upgrade to a large audio mixer at some point. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to give yourself quite a bit of space on your studio desk to house a mixer comfortably.
48V Phantom Power
In order for condenser microphones to work properly, you’ll need an interface that offers 48v Phantom Power. The issue here is the number of inputs that have Phantom Power.
Make sure you’re giving yourself enough inputs for your condenser mics. This number adds up quickly when you start using small-diaphragm condensers for recording drums. Some preemptive planning can go a long way in this area.
Audio interfaces are usually powered via USB bus power. This is essential for portability and convenience. Rackmount audio interfaces typically plug into a wall outlet, but when it comes to desktop interfaces, USB connectivity is just fine.
Audio mixing consoles are powered via wall outlet almost exclusively, especially if it’s a larger mixing board with a bunch of I/O’s. Some smaller mixers can be powered by USB bus power or a wall outlet, and this really comes down to the level of portability that you need.
Audio Interface Vs Mixer: Which One Is Right For You?
Now that you know everything about audio interfaces and mixers, you’re probably wondering which one you should get.
Well, that all boils down to what your plans are for your recordings.
It would serve you well to sit down and contemplate what your exact goals are for your recordings and what it is you want to accomplish. Here are a few examples.
If you want to start a podcast, then you can use either an audio interface or a small audio mixer and the result will be just as great. That said, an audio mixer might be the better option. Since everything is done on the mixer itself, you avoid any issues that might arise with software crashes and latency.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can use a USB microphone as well. These mics have built-in interfaces that handle conversion all in one device, but they’re certainly not the best option for high-quality audio recordings.
Instead, you should save up some money and invest in a better setup that involves a better microphone and a dedicated mixer or interface.
High-Quality Vocal Recordings
The obvious choice here is an audio interface. You’ll have great mic preamps and 48v Phantom Power to properly utilize a condenser microphone. On top of that, your signal flow won’t be interrupted and your latency will be as low as possible.
Recording Bands & Multiple Instruments
Definitely go for an audio mixer here. Moreover, an analog mixer in conjunction with an audio interface. You’ll have instant, hands-on control of each instrument and you can still use your audio interface to handle the vocals.
Large-Scale Live Performances
The only real choice here is a digital mixer with a very large I/O count. You can create presets for different bands or certain sections of a song to make the performances seamless. Also, with the added routing and metering capabilities of a digital mixer, you’ll have total control over every channel that runs through your mixer.
Music Production In A Home Studio Environment
When making music in a home studio environment, you can really settle with an audio interface initially. Chances are you’ll be recording one or two mics tops and maybe a keyboard or guitar. You don’t need to go crazy at first, but don’t forget about the future. Get a device that gives you room to expand in the future no matter if it’s an audio interface or a mixing board.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is A Mixer Better Than An Interface?
No, a mixer isn’t better than an audio interface. Both devices have their pros and cons. Standalone audio interfaces are easier to use and are more affordable than audio mixers, but you have less control over certain parameters. Mixers are complex and powerful, but they’re expensive and typically have a steep learning curve.
Can An Audio Interface Replace A Mixer?
Audio interfaces aren’t capable of replacing a dedicated audio mixer. They simply don’t offer the same functionality or the same level of control that you get with a mixing board. USB mixers are the closest thing you’ll get to a hybrid device, but there are limitations there as well.
Do I Need A Mixer If I Have An Audio Interface?
Generally speaking, you don’t need a separate mixer if you already have an audio interface. To adequately record audio of any sort, then all you need is an audio interface. If you need to record a large amount of audio signals simultaneously, then you will need a mixing console to do so. Otherwise, an audio interface will suit you just fine.
Can You Use A Mixing Desk As An Audio Interface?
USB mixers with built-in audio interfaces can be used to convert audio from analog to digital for your DAW. The downside to this is the fact that everything recorded by the USB mixer will be condensed into one stereo track. Your only other option is to get a multitrack USB mixer, but those devices are usually very expensive.
Now that you have the right knowledge about these recording devices, it’s time for you to make an educated decision.
An audio interface is typically a safe choice for most scenarios. Audio mixing boards tend to be overkill most of the time. With that, you’ll know if you need a mixer instead of an audio interface. The recording task will simply be too big for an audio interface to handle.
If you have any additional questions or concerns about this topic, then please feel free to reach out at any time.