With all the information available and online resources for audio equipment, setting up your own home recording studio is easier than ever. But if you want to produce great quality sound, you can’t settle for just any hardware. You will need a good recording microphone and audio device that will receive and convert audio signals from analog to digital and ensure superior audio quality when you are recording songs, doing live audio post-processing for video productions, etc.
Typically, people use two audio devices: an audio interface and a mixer. Some include both in their audio setup while others choose just one, depending on their production needs.
But to be able to figure out which one you should use, whether you’re podcasting or focusing on pro-level audio production, it helps to first understand the uses of each device.
What is an audio interface?
Simply put, an audio interface is a device that connects your microphone (and other sound sources like musical instruments) to your computer. Now why can’t you just use a USB microphone and connect it directly to your computer, you may ask? An audio interface is specifically designed to take sounds from your live audio sources and send them to your computer for playback or recording – and unlike the built-in 3.5mm microphone jack or your computer’s sound card, it actually preserves sound quality, which is essential if you want professional quality sound.
These devices have FireWire or USB outputs that allow direct connection to your computer and even have built-in preamps so you can boost your microphone’s audio signal to be loud enough for recording and mixing. They come in all shapes and sizes, with studio-grade ones being much larger to accommodate more inputs. If you decide you need an audio interface, choosing one should consider the type of recording you want to do.
For regular podcasting where you may have a co-host or interviewee, or perhaps a recording session with a vocalist and guitarist, a two-input audio interface is all you’ll need. But if you’re recording a conference with multiple panelists or a four-piece band, you’ll probably need a larger audio interface with four or more input and output channels.
In addition to multiple input channels, some interfaces also offer additional ports and displays.
To get a better idea of what these devices can do for you, you can check out our article on the best audio interfaces for recording.
What is an Audio Mixer?
While a mixer is often compared (and confused) with an audio interface, it serves a completely different and more complicated purpose. Mixers offer more control over what is sent to your computer. It’s built with a set of dials and sliders, which serve as volume faders, EQs, and controllable built-in effects like reverb, delay, and chorus, usually for each individual line input.
Mixers are particularly useful for live performances and other situations where it is necessary to modify the audio coming from multiple microphones and instruments (which are played simultaneously) to create a clear and solid mix. With a good mixer, there’s no need to worry about one particular sound overwhelming the others.
These days, you’ll be able to find mixers with built-in USB or FireWire, eliminating the need for a separate audio interface. There are also music production programs that offer virtual mixing without the hardware. However, many professional music producers choose to have standalone devices in order to have more inputs, effects, higher quality preamps, filters, etc. Manual tuning on a mixing hardware also allows you to make more precise and intuitive adjustments for each audio signal.
If you’re a podcaster, we’ve got a list of the best mixers for podcasting.
Mixer vs audio interface for recording:
If you are a beginner with a fairly small home studio or very basic recording needs, you may not need some of the features found in most mixers. But while this eliminates the need for a hardware audio mixer, we still recommend using music production software on your computer for your mixing needs.
A dedicated mixer might be optional if you only tend to record one or two sound sources, but the audio interface is another story. If you want high quality sound, this device is absolutely essential.
Again, your decision mostly comes down to your preferences and long-term goals. If you have the budget, space, and patience, you can always get both, especially if you want to try your hand at experimenting with a mixer and discovering all it can do to transform your sound. If you eventually want to become an audio producer or record producer, the investment is definitely worth it.