In this article, we’re going to look at the difference between an audio interface and a mixer with a USB interface built into it (we’ll even throw in a multitrack mixer).
If you’ve been searching the internet and have come across these two options, this might just be what you need.
We’ll look at whether, both of these approaches are pretty much the same, whether there are differences in things such as sound quality, which is better, and whether you can replace one with the other.
We’ll even throw in some tips to help you get started with either.
This article is a follow up to what is an audio interface. You have a look at that too if you haven’t, to get a well-rounded idea of the differences discussed here.
Let’s jump right in.
What is an Audio Interface?
In the article linked above, we saw that an audio interface is used to convert and send signals such as mic and instrument inputs to and from your computer (and DAW).
This way you can play and record an instrument, and record vocals onto a track in your DAW and have that ready for mixing.
An audio interface, a USB mixer, and a multitrack mixer all achieve the common goal of recording tracks to your DAW.
The audio interface is hardware that improves the sonic capabilities of your computer. Many people often compare an audio interface to an external sound card that you can plug in your input devices.
What is a Mixer?
Audio mixers are the kind of hardware consoles you see in a studio, or live entertainment venues, where bands plug in their instruments, mics, and output a mixed signal.
The features vary widely.
There is a raft of different mic inputs, EQ, phantom power, panning, and many other effects built into a single console.
You can mix all the signals and push them all to the main fader that will go to your output, such as your speakers.
Both an audio interface and a mixer will include phantom power. This is one of the main reasons people buy audio interfaces in a home studio. Condenser mics need phantom power to work. To have a home studio, a condenser mic is an absolute must.
That is one of the main reasons an audio interface is so important.
The Differences Between an Audio Interface and a Mixer
Difference #1 — Mixers are Good for Recording Big Bands
A typical mixer will give you a lot more inputs than an audio interface.
One of the coolest thing a mixer does is it gives the option of recording in a studio or live with a huge band, easily. One of the most difficult things in a home studio is recording a huge band.
If you need to record a big nad with 10 different mics, guitars, vocalists, and so on, you’ll have a bit of an uphill task just an audio interface.
With a simple mix in a home studio, an audio interface is perhaps all you need, but a mixer will allow you to have as many mics as you want, as many instruments as you need, and so on depending on the size of the mixer of course.
Audio interfaces can be expanded to accommodate more inputs, but this route is a hassle because it requires more hardware which starts to get expensive.
At the end of the day, if you work with a big band, you don’t want to go through a simple audio interface.
For the sake of clarity, something akin to a Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 wouldn’t fall under the simple category.
Difference #2 — Mixers are Good for Live Shows and Studio Band Rehearsals
Mixers are particularly good for live shows and studio band rehearsals because all the mixing is done on one piece of kit.
With an audio interface, the digital signal that is produced still needs to be sent to a DAW for mixing because a typical audio interface has no inbuilt mixing console.
Any live band can make do with a mixer and speakers (without mixing in a DAW). An audio interface uses a DAW. You need to install and run a host.
If your work is mostly live gigs, you want to hold off from using a DAW for whatever reason, a mixer is a way to go.
Difference #3 — Recording a Band with a Mixer is a Lot Quicker
A typical mixer will give you separate EQs on every channel, faders to change the volume on every channel. You’ll get a lot of other builtin effects.
This means that for the most part going through a recording process with a band is a lot quicker with a mixer than with an audio interface. And a lot simpler too with faders and EQs on every separate channel.
The most you’ll get with a typical audio interface is a gain knob and phantom power. You need to learn how to do post-production on a DAW.
Difference #4 — Connecting a Mixer to a DAW is Non Trivial
One of the pain points I’ve had with using a mixer as an audio interface is the connection between the audio interface and my DAW.
As might have guessed, there are quite a few things that need to be hooked up correctly for things to work out seamlessly.
But other than the connection problems, a mixer works perfectly.
For the audio interface, the connection is a breeze. You’ll get two simple Left and Right outputs on the back, and a USB or Thunderbolt connection to your laptop.
Difference #5 — Audio Interfaces are Much More Portable and Cheaper
An audio interface such as the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 will be smaller, more portable, and more lightweight than a mixer such as the Behringer XENYX X1832USB.
Also, you don’t have to have an external power source to power an audio interface.
An audio interface has many benefits, it’s small, it doesn’t cost a lot of money and it gets the job done with amazing quality.
For the most part, entry-level audio interfaces are quite affordable. These, of course, vary across brands and according to the specific features you are angling for.
Again, from a cost perspective, an audio interface requires you to have a DAW. DAW requires licensing, plugins, and a raft of other costs, and proficiency to work with them.
One of the limitations is the number of simultaneous inputs. I spoke about this at length in the article I linked above.
A mixer looks more feature-rich and more capable with effects on every separate channel, but at the end of the day, you’re looking for quality, value-for-money, something that will get the job done.
Save for the differences pointed out here, an audio interface will be just as capable.
Mixers come in a bit pricey.
If you are looking for a mixer that has builtin effects, and all the capabilities you need for a live show, you might need to fork over more than just spare change.
Difference #6 — Generally, Audio Interfaces Have Nicer Interfaces
If you decide to go for a more powerful audio interface, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 with 8 inputs, then it’s better to go for the Focusrite interface, compared to that of a mixer.
I will go for the Focusrite Scarlett interface, or any other mobile interface over a mixer interface, any day.
Difference #7 — An Entry-level Mixer Won’t Come with Multitrack Recording
A mixer won’t always come with multitrack recording, you be forced to spend a bit more to get it when you need it.
You won’t always need multitrack recording but that down to your use case— if you need it, you need it.
Difference #8 — Generally, Audio Interface Have Better Sound Quality
Sometimes, the quality of sound coming out of a mixer won’t be on par with that on an audio interface.
Your specific setup plays a lot into this, but, generally speaking, an audio interface is a better bang for your buck, quality-wise.
The choice between an audio interface and a mixer is not always a one-or-the-other decision.
You can get both and connect a mixer to an audio interface for recording.
There might be various reasons why you’d want to connect a mixer to an audio interface when recording in a DAW. But that’s a topic for another day.
If you are the kind of person that prefers to do everything on board before you touch your computer, you might want to look into mixers.
If you don’t mind tracking down some good EQ plugins for your Mic and other inputs and are pretty proficient with your DAW (meaning you have an electronic music workflow), you need audio interfaces.
Eventually though, if you get a chance, it probably worth it trying the two, separately or together, to get a feel of what each is capable of.
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That’s it for this article.