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Audio interface vs mixer: What they are, and which is right for you

If you’re interested in recording music, you’ve probably watched documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of your favorite bands.

You’ve noticed the giant desks with knobs and faders, and the little metal boxes with inputs and outputs.

What are they, and what’s the difference? The terms “mixer” and “audio interface” get thrown around, but you might not know what they mean.

In this article, I’ll demystify these devices, so you can understand their different purposes, uses, and functionalities.

Why you should trust me

Brandon Schock, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a producer and audio engineer with a decade’s worth of experience with a wide range of gear and recording techniques.

I’ve worked with a myriad of different audio interfaces and mixers, from iconic Neve consoles like the 88R to versatile interfaces like Focusrite’s Clarett+ OctoPre and Universal Audio’s Apollo x8p, among many others.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What is an audio interface?

An audio interface is a device that serves as a bridge to get sound in and out of your computer.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 4th Gen audio interface
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface | Image: Higher Hz

While it may often have multiple inputs and outputs, built-in microphone preamps, and various connectivity options (think USB, Thunderbolt, and FireWire), the main element that these units have is analog to digital conversion tech, otherwise known as AD/DA converters.

This takes the analog signal coming through your microphone, converts it into a language your computer can comprehend (such as binary), and then converts it once more so that sound can come out of your speakers or headphones.

Types of audio interfaces

There are four main types of audio interfaces: USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, and PCIe.

  • USB: Very common and widely compatible across many different systems. Often used in home studios.
  • Thunderbolt: Transfers data faster and with lower latency, making it suitable for professional studios.
  • FireWire: Less common in the current age but still used in older setups. Started becoming outdated around 2004.
  • PCIe: Often used in high-end professional studios, these are internal interfaces which provide super low latency.

What is an audio mixer?

An audio mixer, sometimes referred to as a mixing console, is basically the physical manifestation of what we now refer to as DAWs.

Yamaha DM3 digital mixer
Yamaha DM3 digital mixing console | Image: Yamaha

The device takes in a multitude of audio signals, processes them (EQ, compression, etc.), and routes them to their designated outputs.

Mixers are used for live sound, recording, and broadcasting. The level of control that they offer over leveling, tone, effects, and so on, make them ideal for large and complex audio setups.

Types of audio mixers

There are three main types of mixers: analog, powered analog, and digital.

  • Analog mixers: Rather than using a DAW, an analog mixer provides tactile control over levels, EQ, etc. via knobs, buttons, and faders. There is no AD/DA conversion present in this setup.
  • Powered analog mixers: These include built-in amps, simplifying setups by cutting out the need for power via an external amp.
  • Digital mixers: This is a bridge between a mixer and an audio interface, as they contain AD/DA converters. Thus offering digital processing, saving, recall, and other advanced features.

So, what’s the difference?

The primary distinction between these two types of devices lies in their primary functions.

Think of an audio interface as the essential tool for converting and routing signals into and out of your computer. A mixer, on the other hand, focuses on blending and processing multiple audio sources in one place.

Audio interface vs mixer: An in-depth comparison

Now that you understand the main differences between the two devices, let’s delve into an in-depth comparison across various applications and recording scenarios.

Sound quality

I can’t say that there is a one-size-fits-all answer in this department. Both an audio interface and a mixer can offer amazing sound quality.

However, this highly depends on the make, model, features, and, most importantly, the experience and skill of the person operating the equipment.

A great engineer can make a crap piece of gear sound great, but a crap engineer will make a great piece of gear sound crap.


Audio interfaces tend to be far more compact and portable, whereas a mixing console tends to be rather large and bulky. There are always exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

Ease of use

Audio interfaces, with their fewer buttons and knobs, tend to be much easier to operate.

Mixing consoles generally require significantly more expertise, especially if you’re working with older equipment.

The Yamaha LS9, for example, is an incredibly common mixer when it comes to live sound, but is absolutely prehistoric at this point. Having a manual on hand is usually quite helpful.


An audio interface focuses on connecting to your computer and other digital equipment.

A mixer, on the other hand, offers extensive connectivity options for multiple audio inputs and outputs.

Software integration

An audio interface allows you to easily transfer audio into your DAW of choice, and digital mixers can also offer a similar level of DAW integration.

However, analog mixers will require additional external gear to get the signal into a DAW.


Audio interfaces are generally much more affordable and accessible than mixers, making them especially ideal for beginners.

Mixers, depending on the scale and model, can be significantly more expensive.

At a home studio

The compact nature of audio interfaces, combined with their ease of use, makes them ideal for home studios where space might be limited.

At a pro studio

Mixing consoles are often the prime centerpiece of any professional studio, but audio interfaces are also commonly found somewhere in the chain.

This allows engineers to employ additional digital processing techniques.

In a live setting

Mixing consoles are essential for live sound, but audio interfaces might also be used to send files via QLab (multimedia playback software) or to record the performance into a DAW.

Frequently asked question

Since early 2021, when we started publishing articles and reviews on studio gear, we have consistently received numerous questions here at Higher Hz about audio interfaces and audio mixers, their uses, and how the two devices compare.

I’ve collected these questions and here are the answers to the most frequently asked ones.

What’s the difference between an audio interface and a sound card?

A sound card is an internal component for general computer audio, an audio interface is designed for high-quality audio recording and playback.

Does an audio interface improve sound quality?

Yes, an audio interface will definitely improve the sound of your recordings due to their built-in preamps and high-resolution converters. However, the quality also depends on the audio interface in question.

Does a mixer improve sound quality?

A mixer will improve the sound quality same as an audio interface would, but again, this depends on the mixer being used.

Is a mixer better than an audio interface?

Totally depends on the scenario and overall setup. Either a mixer or audio interface can be employed in recording studios, live sound and performance, or broadcasting.

Can a mixer be used as an audio interface?

Yes! Most digital mixers have built-in audio interfaces allowing for easy transfer of audio to a computer.

Can you use a mixer without an audio interface?

Yes, a mixer can work independently without an audio interface or computer.

Do I need an audio interface if I’m not recording?

If you’re not recording external sound sources, and are only working with digital files, an audio interface isn’t always necessary.

Can I record vocals without an audio interface?

Yes, but the sound quality might not be great depending on the equipment being used in its absence. An audio interface will almost certainly improve the overall sound of your recordings.

Do you need a mixer for a microphone?

Not necessarily, an audio interface can work just as well.

Is an audio mixer also an amplifier?

While there are powered mixers that can amplify signals, most will need external amps.

Does a mixer need an amplifier?

If the mixer isn’t powered, yes.

Can a mixer power a speaker?

Powered mixers can directly supply power to your speakers, but a non-powered mixer can’t.

Do I need a mixer if I have a DAW?

Not really, a DAW can often accomplish many of the tasks that a mixer can, but a mixer serves as a more tactile solution.

Is a digital mixer better than an analog mixer?

Depends largely on the mixer in question. A digital mixer will often provide more connectivity, options, and versatility than an analog mixer. However, analog gear can offer a difference in sound quality and technique.

Can I connect a mixer to an audio interface, and how do I do it?

Yes! You can connect your mixers outputs to the audio interfaces inputs and vice versa via XLR or TRS cables.

Final thoughts

When it comes to picking between an audio interface and a mixing console, you’ll have to take account of your own personal needs, preferences, as well as the capabilities of your overall setup.

Understanding the difference in functionality and benefit of each, hopefully, you can make an informed decision that best suits your needs.