The eternal dilemma: mixer or audio interface?

Lyrics by Michael Cusack

Find out which option is right for you.

Something I often see from newbies is confusion about whether they need a mixer or an audio interface.

This is an understandable point of confusion, especially with many modern mixers now featuring USB connectivity, in turn offering similar functionality to audio interfaces.

Summary

  • Depending on the type of music you’re creating, buying a mixer may be a superior option to an audio interface.
  • Typically, setups with large amounts of hardware that require constant adjustments are better suited to a mixer.
  • Audio interfaces tend to cater to the needs of producers working inside the box or dealing with MIDI instruments.

For more audio tips and gear summaries, check out our Features page.

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not as clear cut as you would like, because the way people make music varies wildly.

To make this article as succinct and clear as possible, I’m going to focus on musicians who don’t intend to make music with a live band or record through a complex acoustic instrument setup. Let’s talk strictly about chamber producers.

The most important factor in deciding between the two is: do you want to make music – with electronic instruments – without involving your computer? Say you have a drum machine, a keyboard synth, and a mic.

You intend to write the craziest post-future-dub-folk track the world has ever heard. But rather than doing it in front of a computer screen, you prefer to work near a window and reflect on the existential crisis your neighbor’s dog is going through while you write.

To do this, you’ll need to combine the outputs of the drum machine, synth, and mic so you can listen to it while you jam. This is an ideal scenario for a mixer.

At its most basic, a mixer is a device designed to combine and mix audio signals to and from various sources. Most will also provide at least a basic set of EQ settings for each channel of incoming audio to help you fine-tune your mix.

For the example above, we need a mixer with five or more channels (microphone output plus stereo synth and drum machine outputs).

As mixers grow in size (and price), so does their audio routing capability, incorporating “inserts” for effect boxes, input groups called “busses” and tons additional features.

Let’s say our musician in the example above is totally fine with working in front of a computer. In fact, they hope to record vocals and combine them with parts they have written with music creation/arrangement software like Ableton Live or Logic. This is an ideal scenario for an audio interface.

At a fundamental level, an audio interface is a device for getting live audio from various sources to your computer via USB or Thunderbolt, and allowing you to listen to/record it.

Audio interfaces rarely have an equalizer or extensive mixing functionality – the idea is that you use your software to edit and mix the audio.

It’s not uncommon for an audio interface to double as a MIDI interface, so you can send sync and control signals to or from your software to your compatible hardware instruments.

In the case of our example, they could synchronize the tempo of the drum machine to the tempo of its software via MIDI.

As I mentioned at the beginning, many mixers now have USB outputs, which means the mixer can act as an audio interface and send audio via USB into your computer.

For some people, having that flexibility to work on or off the computer is ideal. For others, especially people for whom music creation revolves around using a computer, it’s probably overkill.

This obviously simplifies things – there are tons of products out there that provide solutions for very specific situations. But for you newbies: No computer = get a mixer. Computer = get the audio interface.

Hope this clarified things for you!

Looking to get into music production? Here are ten great DAWs to try.