Audio Interface vs Mixer: Which is Right for You?

You might have a hard time differentiating between these two if you’re not experienced with studio and live equipment. In this guide, we’ll help you settle the audio interface vs mixer discussion once and for all. Don’t worry – everyone had a hard time understanding how these things work at some point, and we’re here to help you out.

Keeping Up with Changing Times

It’s fascinating to see how much technology has advanced and how it’s affected the music industry. And it’s not only about the instruments that we use or how we consume the music – the very creative process is completely different now compared to the old days. What was basically unimaginable back in the old days is a common sight today. For instance, you can easily make a decent studio in your own home without spending your life savings on gear.

If you’re new to audio and music production and you’re interested in learning more about them, you’ve definitely stumbled upon terminology you don’t completely understand. Furthermore, if you’ve been thinking about recording music at home, there’s a good chance you’ve done a little bit of research on mixers and audio interfaces. But since you’re here, this is likely where things got a bit confusing. Online research can bring new knowledge, but can at the same time raise more questions than answers.

What is an Audio Interface?

Simply put, an audio interface, also known as a sound card, is a piece of hardware you connect to your computer if you want to record music in real-time. Technically, every modern computer has an audio interface. The problem here is that these integrated sound cards won’t provide you with enough processing power or audio quality for real-time recording.

Sure, you can plug your instrument directly into your computer and you could try to record a song using simple software. But if you want to do multi-track recordings and complete mixes with numerous overdubs, you would first need some more complex software. We call software suites made for this purpose digital audio workstations (or DAWs).

These programs, however, would be almost impossible to use with standard integrated sound cards in a stock PC. You would need to get yourself an audio interface along with a DAW. If you were to try to record using basic DAW software and a basic integrated soundcard, the latency and the sound quality would make your recording process impossible. The whole mixing process would be a nightmare, and it would be impossible to play a multi-track project without running into buffer underruns and glitches. Frustrating, to say the least.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin audio interface with Realtime UAD Processing and Thunderbolt - 2014 NAMM Show (by Matt Vanacoro)

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin, a very popular audio interface for home recording and music production.

Aside from better latency figures and more powerful D/A and A/D conversion, one of the most important things about audio interfaces is their ability to record multiple channels at the same time. Of course, there are 1-channel audio interfaces, usually designed for guitar and bass players, but most of them feature multiple channels. This means that you can record two or more instruments or microphones at the same time as two or more completely independent audio files.

Audio interfaces are usually connected to computers via USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt, and they transform the analog signal from instruments and microphones into digital information. Many modern audio interfaces have combo inputs that we can use as either line (instrument) or XLR (microphone) inputs. The digital information is then converted into an audio signal again and played through speakers or studio monitors that are connected to the audio interface.

What is a Mixer?

You’ve probably heard expressions like “mixing board” or “soundboard.” These are all the same thing as a “mixer.” Generally speaking, audio mixers take multiple inputs, either instruments or microphones, and mix them together as one mono or stereo output. Those which are intended for live shows may also include additional outputs for stage monitors.

Each of the individual channels on the mixer has its own controls. No matter the type of mixer, you will always have an individual volume control for each input. Most mixers also have equalizers for individual channels, left and right panning features for each channel, and quite often an additional aux or FX level control which we can use for monitor output levels. Most of the mixers these days have one or two effects processors. Some mixers adds effects like chorus, delay, and compression to individual channels.

Kookie Studio Mixer

A large mixer for professional recording studio.

Generally speaking, mixers allow full control and adjustment of volume levels and other parameter before the speakers or PA system. For instance, you have a five-piece band with a guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals, and drums. Guitar and bass amps are miked up, with each of the microphones going into individual channels. Keyboards go into their separate channel, as well as the vocals, while the drums usually take up around 4 to 12 channels for all the miked individual components. We can control and adjust each of these channels to give one full sonic picture that goes out into the PA system with speakers directed towards the audience. This way, every part of the venue will be able to get the same sound from the entire band as one unified output.

Active vs Passive Mixers

Of course, there are different types of mixers. The main division we want to point out is active vs passive mixers. Active mixers have an integrated power amp, meaning they can go directly into passive speakers. On the other hand, passive mixers are cheaper but don’t have a power amp in them. They require power amps or active speakers (those with their own power source and power amps) in order to work.

Analog vs Digital Mixers

Then there are analog vs digital mixers. Analog ones are straightforward and cheaper, with all the processing altering the original analog signal. Digital mixers convert the analog signal into digital information, process it in that form, and then convert it back into an analog signal before going into the power amp or the speakers. They also have many other features, including saving desired presets. Most of the famous bands and artists use digital mixers on tour.

Audio Interface vs Mixer: Main Differences

Let’s take a simple approach and further explain this audio interface vs mixer dilemma. Let’s say you connect several instruments and microphones to inputs on a mixer. Then, you connect the mixer output your integrated sound card’s audio input. If you would try to record anything this way, you’d record all of the instruments as one audio file.

Now, let’s say you connect a few instruments to the inputs an audio interface. They would be recorded each as individual audio files in your sound recording program or DAW. An audio interface allows you to map out these individual channels so your computer accepts them as individual digital audio streams.

In addition, audio interfaces require their own drivers and software to operate, just like your average integrated computer sound card. Drivers and software come with the product and can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s official website.

Roughly speaking, audio interfaces and mixers are two distinct types of products with completely different purposes.

Mixers That Are Also Audio Interfaces

We also need to point out that digital mixers come with their own built-in audio interfaces. They look like standard mixers but we can also connect them to a computer via USB or Firewire. They support multi-track recording and come with special drivers and software that allows their full use and high-quality audio recording, both for studio and live settings.

There are also controllers that look like mixers. But these are only specialized hardware that can be paired up and connected to an audio interface. When properly mapped out in a DAW (digital audio workstation), they allow you individual control over channel levels and other parameters for individual channels.

Uses

As we’ve seen, the whole audio interface vs mixer discussion is not that simple. The utility of your choice depends on what you really need. Mixers come in handy for:

  • live performances
  • clubs
  • other venues with live or pre-recorded music
  • professional recording studios

If you want to record music at home, or if you want to have a mobile recording setup with your laptop, then an audio interface is for you. There’s an abundance of great products these days, anything from one up to sixteen or more individual channels. If you’re a beginner, a 2-track sound card will do the trick.

If you’re beginning to understand the whole audio interface vs mixer difference and realize that you’ll need both for your situation, you can get a mixer with an integrated audio interface.

Cost

There’s always gear out there for you, whether you’re an entry-level user or a pro with many years of experience.

These expensive professional products allow better sound quality. Many have near-zero latency close to real-time recording, and they come with 8, 16, or more channels.

We can say the same about mixers. If you need a simple passive one with only 4 to 12 channels, you can find something in the $100 to $200 range. If you want to go full pro, the prices go up to several thousands of dollars.

Brands

When it comes to audio interfaces, there are plenty of companies that manufacture some of the best out there. Focusrite is one of the most popular brands. Their Scarlett series interfaces offer some excellent features and quality for their price. There are also brands like Steinberg, Native Instruments, Audient, PreSonus, and others.

For mixers, Behringer offers some very cost-friendly product with their Xenyx series. There’s also a variety of different mixers by Yamaha, both for amateurs and pros. But if you need something more serious, you can go with PreSonus StudioLive, Mackie ProFX22v2, or Yamaha TF1.

Audio Interface vs Mixer Summary

Audio interface Mixer
Uses Recording, A/D and D/A conversion Mixing, live performance, recording studios
Cost less than $100 to a few thousand less than $100 to tens of thousands
Brands Focusrite, PreSonus, Behringer, M-Audio, Audient, Lynx, Universal Audio, Steinberg, Apogee, MOTU, Native Instruments, Tascam, Antelope Audio, RME Yamaha, Behringer, Mackie, PreSonus, Midas, Roland, Allen & Heath,
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