The Difference Between Audio Interfaces And Mixers – And Which One To Use
Quite a lot of confusion reigns among new audio users as to what exactly the difference between a mixer and audio interface is. For many, they are one and the same device. Although this is partially true, they differ significantly in some key areas which will definitely help determine which one you should choose.
Apart from the clear physical differences between the two devices, each one has its advantages and limitations that are not so obvious. To really understand the differences between the devices, we need to take a quick look at their history.
A Brief History
During the 1960's and 70's mixing consoles really started to become popular. This coincided with the appearance of multitrack recorders. Before these recorders, all instruments and vocals were recorded on a single track. This means that with every single mistake or fault during the recording, the whole recording session had to be repeated over and over again. Anyone who have been working in the audio recording industry long enough, can tell you what a nightmare that can be.
Multitrack recorders, especially 8-track recorders changed all of that. Not only could the different sounds be recorded individually on each track, with the help of mixers each track could be edited and "corrected" post-production before the final track got released.
Audio mixers became an indispensable part of recording studios, saving valuable time and money and opened up options that was just not available previously. (Even before this revolution in the recording industry, mixers were already used during live events to mix all the different inputs from musical instruments, vocals and numerous other devices to make sure the desired sound traveled to the amplifiers and speakers.)
During the 1990's computer power and technology became advanced enough that mixing could now be done digitally. This signaled the birth of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). More and more studios started changing to the new digital platform and today the vast majority of mixing is done on computer.
As mixers were no longer an absolute necessity, simpler audio interfaces started to become popular in many recording studios. By no means did this spell the end for audio mixers and they are still very relevant and widely used, as you will soon find out.
Similar In Many Ways
From this brief history lesson, you should be able to better understand how mixers and audio interfaces established themselves in the audio recording industry.
They have a lot in common. Both accept one or more microphone XLR-inputs, as well as line-level inputs for instruments in many cases. These signals get converted and send to a computer via USB, firewire or thunderbolt connections for recording and additional editing.
They both have control over the gain (volume) of the input channels, and most have the ability to send phantom power to condenser microphones as well. But that is where most of the similarities basically end.
As much as they have the same advantages going for them, mixers and audio interfaces also differ fundamentally in many ways, as you will see as each component's unique features and limitations get highlighted.
From the brief history overview, it is clear to see why mixers became so popular and widely used, and why they are still popular and serves a valuable purpose today. They have unique advantages and drawbacks, but what does it mean for the home recording enthusiast though? Having a look at its different features will help you better understand how it may or may not be suited to your needs.
From the example shown above, it is very evident that visually, a mixer seems to be a much more complex piece of equipment than the standard audio interface. The sheer number of various knobs and sliders can be overwhelming, but each one of them serve a purpose.
For a seasoned audio technician or sound engineer, the speed with which you can make changes in real time to the sound (gain, balance, bass, treble etc.) of each channel while a recording takes place, is invaluable.
If you look at the virtual interface of DAW software, the mixing interface on screen looks very similar to what you are seeing on actual physical mixers, simply because it serves to fulfill the same purpose.
It is easy to understand how the speed with which you can make changes with the twist of a know or shift of a slider, makes it a lot quicker and more convenient than trying to make those same changes as quickly and effectively on a computer.
There is handicap to all these advantages though. Even though you can mix and change multiple channels at once and very quickly, most of the time many analogue mixers can only output a single track at a time. This means you have no way of going back to you recording and change the original input channels individually on your DAW software afterwards. For a recording professional, this can be a real problem.
Then there is always the issue of price. Although you can get budget versions of both mixers and audio interfaces, when you compare a high-quality mixer and audio interface, a mixer is normally substantially more expensive. (Some high-end mixers can set you back thousands of dollars.)
Space is another factor that should also be taken into consideration. Simply due to its physical nature, mixers take up a lot more space than audio interfaces that can be very compact. Something to take into consideration if you have limited space available in your studio.
Finally, there is the debatable issue over sound quality. Due to the the amount of mixing and processing that takes place in the mixer, many specialists believe the resulting sound quality that gets outputted, is not as clean and pure as that of an audio interface. To the untrained ear, this may not even be audible, but to the specialist recording professional, this may be a concern.
As you can clearly see, mixers have some very clear advantages, but also limitations that may make it less ideal for your needs.
Audio interfaces fulfill the primary role of accepting analogue and line-level inputs, convert it to digital signals and send it to the recording device (normally a computer). Just like mixers, they are very popular and have a vital role to play as part of any professional or home recording studio setup.
Just like mixers, they also have unique advantages and drawbacks. Having a look at its different features will help you decide whether an audio interface will be a better fit for you.
In general, audio interfaces are much simpler devices, as you can see from the example shown above. They may have one or more audio and line-level inputs, simple controls for the gain of each channel, maybe phantom power switches and a headphone jack. (In it's simplest form.)
For the home user solely focused on audio for recording purposes, the simpler and cleaner interface of an audio interface may be more convenient.
Probably the biggest advantage of an audio interface is its ability to output multiple tracks to the recording device for editing of each track later on.
Although much improved, the latency between audio interface and computer used to be pretty slow, making live digital mixing of sounds very difficult. (In the past, a delay of almost a second was not uncommon, which made digital mixing and editing on DAW software very difficult for "real time" results.)
As a home recording professional, live editing is not a priority and latency is not a concern. You can edit the recording with its different channels later on at your own leisure.
I already touched on the subject, and although this is not a big concern, audio interfaces in general provide a marginally purer and cleaner sound to the recording device than a mixer. If the best audio quality is you main concern, you may want to keep this in mind. (This difference in sound quality is very small and debatable, so should not be the deciding factor when making your choice.)
Also, as already mentioned, audio interfaces tend to be a lot more compact than audio mixers. For professional home recording where space can be limited, the smaller footprint of an audio interface can be ideal.
It should become obvious by now that, depending on your personal requirements, one of the two devices will be more suited to your needs
As I mentioned throughout this article, both devices have their own distinct advantages and drawbacks.
I normally don't try and choose for you when comparing two items with each other. As this website is dedicated to the home recording studio enthusiast however, this user is my primary audience which I am trying to assist in making an informed choice.
As a result I am leaning towards recommending the audio interface for a home recording studio. With its more compact design, multiple-track output support, clear output signal and budget friendly price, it is hard not to recommend the audio interface. They simply don't have the complexity and steep prices of modern analogue mixers.
This does by no means imply that mixers are inferior in any way. They still remain the equipment of choice in the broadcasting industry and many commercial recording studios. (Simply take a look at the control room of any broadcasting station.)
I hope this post helped you to better understand the differences between these two devices, as well as which one is best suited to your needs.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!