What’s the Difference between an Audio Interface, Mixer and A Soundcard?

Get a full overview on the differences between audio interfaces, mixers and soundcards to help you ramp up the sound of your productions and live sets!

There is a lot of different audio gear used to record or process sound these days. The problem is, not all of them will meet your system requirements or expectations when it comes to your setup. To save yourself the time and confusion when purchasing this kind of gear, let us talk through the basic differences between audio interfaces, soundcards and mixers. That way you’ll have a much better understanding of whether or not it’s worth the investment and whether any of them are suitable for your recording and composition needs.

Audio Interface

Audio interfaces are hooked up to your computer via USB, FireWire and in some cases a PCI or PCMIA. Audio interfaces are devices with built-in microphone preamps. They’re great if you want to connect 2 microphones and level out the sound. However, if you are looking to connect a microphone and a guitar at the same time, you would need an interface with both an input and an output.

Audio interfaces are a simple and inexpensive way to record sound from more than one source, without compromising quality. That’s why for anyone looking to produce electronic music on their computer or record high quality DJ sets – an audio interface is a real must-have.

We recommend: the award-winning Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen) from Focusrite.

This is one of the most popular and very reasonably-priced audio interfaces on the market right now and has been for a number of years. It comes with built-in preamps, XLR/jack combination inputs for instruments like synths, pianos, guitars and a port for a microphone. There are 2 large dials for controlling the volume for monitors, as well as 2 sound indicators to ensure optimal precision when recording. The Scarlett 2i2 works with Windows and Mac; and includes a massive bundle of software and plugins, including Ableton Lite, Pro Tools, Maximal 2, Pivot and more.

Mixer

Mixers are most commonly used for recording sound and adjusting the volumes so everything is balanced in the final track. They usually come with their own preamps alongside multiple inputs and outputs for hooking up instruments, microphones, decks and other gear simultaneously.

Many tabletop mixers also have a built-in interface which allows you to add equalizers, faders, and live effects to these sounds such as filters, reverb, delay, loops, etc. A mixer is pretty much essential for DJs, bands and live acts because it feeds the signal from multiple inputs into one single channel for recording; however, it also allows you to manipulate each individual track in a DAW or sequencer to touch up afterwards i.e. EQing, mixing and mastering.

There are some basic but inexpensive USB mixers on the market right now, one of them being the Yamaha MG10XU 10-input Stereo Mixer. It comes complete with SPX effects, 3 band EQ, high pass filters and a compression knob to reduce unwanted noise and keep your sounds punchy and clean. It’s a highly popular choice among producers who aren’t looking to get too carried away with loads of instruments and channels.

But, if you’re looking for something with more functions, better quality preamps, more inputs and a seriously epic, award-winning FX rack – we would highly recommend the Behringer X Air18. It homes 18 inputs for live applications and instruments, built-in Tri-Mode WiFi router (eliminating the need for any external routers) and comes with a 3-year warranty. Also included are XLR cables, a stereo breakout cable and Austin Bazaar polish cloth.

Soundcard

Soundcards are sometimes referred to as audio interfaces. This is because they are practically the same thing only in a slightly different format. Most computers have either a built-in soundcard or soundboard in the form of a 35mm jack, while others have a combi jack or line-in input which allows for playback through monitors and headphones.

Some older computers have very limited, or really botched ports which make internal recording a genuine struggle. If this is the case for you, you should probably consider investing in an external soundcard. Luckily these really aren’t expensive and most of them are multi-function, meaning you can connect a headset or mic if you’re a gamer.

We suggest: the Tendak External Soundcard 3-port USB hub as a viable and cheap solution. It’s compatible with PCs, Macs, Laptops, tablets, ultrabooks and other hand-held devices. It even comes with an EQ button, plus audio adapter; making a great all-in-one package.

Even though a soundcard will affect what you hear through your monitors, it won’t affect the final output or quality of the sound that is rendered; therefore, if you’re producing through a DAW and not looking to record live instruments, MIDI devices or vocals – your computer’s soundcard will do just fine. Providing it works and has the right ports available of course!

Now, the big question…

Which is Better?

There’s no right or wrong product out the above because each one practically does the same thing, just to a different degree. This is why it very much depends on what you plan to use it for!

If you’re looking to make basic beats using music production software only, your computer’s soundcard will easily get the job done – it just won’t sound great if you’re playing back through crappy monitors; if you want to make quality music which incorporates the use of live gear, instruments and microphones, you’ll want to look at an audio interface, mixer or one which acts as both.

It’s as simple as that!

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Different types of DJ equipment

DJ Headphoes

You can’t DJ properly if you can’t hear what you’re doing or gauge what the audience is hearing. This is why a top-class pair of headphones is essential in any DJ setup. There are hundreds of great headphones on the market, but what you need to factor in when buying is whether they will be in-ear or over-ear, the cup size, orientation, comfort, and durability, among other things.

Different types of DJ equipment

speakers

 If you haven’t got some already and need to add speakers to your shopping list, you’ll want to avoid cheap brands and opt for some which are powerful but suitable for your DJing environment. You wouldn’t go out and buy a huge PA system if you live in a cupboard under the stairs, and you wouldn’t invest in some tiny desk speakers if you are mixing in a large room with thick walls and high ceilings. A set of speakers that fit somewhere in the middle is best.

Different types of DJ equipment

DJ Software

If you’re looking to play solely digital, you’re going to want to invest in some good software. Some DJs who play from USB still do not use software, but the truth is, it can seriously help you stay organized. Software not only allows you to prepare your tracks into neat and tidy playlists, but it also detects the BPM and key of all your tunes, lets you set hot cues, make loops, mashups, and other really cool stuff that wouldn’t be possible if you simply stuck all your tunes on a USB stick or burned them to CD. If you’re just starting out as a DJ, there’s no question that using a high-quality software program will make mixing easier and your sets sound better.

Different types of DJ equipment

Controllers

 DJ controllers are highly convenient because they are an all-in-one setup that you can carry around with you, then plug in and play right off the bat. They also eliminate the need to spend thousands on individual pieces of gear. There are many different types of DJ controllers that are ideal for beginners, each with different functions, personalities, and more. Some are fantastic for multi-deck mixing, changing the volume, tempo, track settings, looping, panning, playing drum pads, and even scratching.

Different types of DJ equipment

mixers

For any analog DJ setup, a mixer is an essential bit of kit. Besides being used to make seamless transitions from one song to another, they also have a wide range of other functions. The crossfader can be used to make epic scratch performances, while the vertical sliders control the volume levels, panning, and can be used in conjunction with effects. They also act as a soundcard to process the music signal you’re sending out to your audience, and let you cue up your next track in your headphones while the current song is playing.

Different types of DJ equipment

Turntables

As mentioned, mixing on turntables is the classic way of DJing, and even some digital DJs still have a vinyl player or two in their repertoire. Turntables are ideal for those who want to get into scratching. They also allow you to switch between songs and albums, slow down tempos, alter the pitch, and do other creative tricks. While laptops and digital DJ setups are the most popular in this day in age, we still recommend learning how to mix on vinyl, even if you don’t plan to buy turntables or use them in your setup. The saying is true – if you can play on wax, you can play on anything.