When you enter the wonderful world of podcasting, you soon realise how many options there are to get the setup which works best for you. Your approach to gear selection can be a minimalist one or if you enjoy the audio engineering side of things, you will want to experiment with different setups to continually optimise your production quality.
Either way, it is highly likely that at some point you will want either a USB mixer or an audio interface. The only time you may not need one of the two is when you are using a USB microphone and either hosting your podcast alone or feature guests who are in a different location. As soon as you want to use an XLR microphone and/or record multiple tracks, a USB mixer or an audio interface is a great solution.
Which one should you choose though, is one better for podcasting? In this article, we will explore the differences between the two and help you decide which one is the correct choice for your needs.
If you need just one or two mics to produce your podcast, a USB mixer and an audio interface will achieve the same thing and allow you to record them onto separate tracks. If you need more than two mics and wish to record them all on separate tracks, an audio interface would be the most cost-effective option.
Before we explain why this is the case, let us first look at both USB mixers and audio interfaces to see how they work as this gives us more context and helps us to make the correct choice.
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What is a USB Mixer and How do they Work?
Fundamentally, a mixer has a simple function – to take audio signals from various sources via its input channels, process them (eg level adjustment, EQ, panning), and then combine those sources for output which is typically in stereo format.
There are two types of mixer, analogue and digital, and you can get both analogue and digital USB and non-USB mixers. A USB mixer has a digital convertor built-in to the unit which sends the audio signal to the USB port of your computer. Analogue and digital mixers do the same thing, but the configuration of the controls on a digital mixer tends to be slightly different to that of analogue models. Digital mixers do offer more flexibility, although that comes at a cost with the price point typically being higher.
Mixers come with a variety of input channels and you’ll generally see XLR inputs, ¼” jack inputs and combo jacks that can support mic, line or instrument level signals. Audio mixers can look intimidating but there is a lot of repetition with them. Learn the functions of one of the channel strips and you have essentially learnt the functions of the whole mixer.
For podcasting, important mixer features include:
- High quality mic preamps
- A suitable number of channels to match (or ideally exceed from a futureproofing perspective) the number of inputs you may need to produce your show
- An ‘AUX/FX Send’ function which allows you to create a mix-minus setup for when recording remote interviews via Skype
- A USB version which will allow you to use it with your computer
So, that’s a quick overview of audio mixers, now let’s look at interfaces to see how they compare.
What is an Audio Interface and How do they Work?
An audio interface can be thought of a bit like an advanced, high quality external soundcard for a computer. Most commonly, they plug into a computer via the USB port although Thunderbolt interfaces are also available.
Audio interfaces will typically have at least one input, normally in the form of XLR-1/4″ combos although some do have separate XLR and ¼” jack inputs. They will also come with a 48v phantom power switch and a headphone jack for monitoring audio. On the point about monitoring audio, a good interface will allow you to choose whether you want the monitoring to be direct. Direct monitoring is when the interface sends the input signal directly to the headphone output of the unit which avoids experiencing any latency issues.
Unlike on a mixer, you won’t find a myriad of switches and faders on an audio interface as they’re primarily used for converting the input audio signal to digital and sending that signal to your computer. Any processing would then be done in your DAW.
The main advantage of an audio interface over a mixer is when you’re looking to record multiple inputs on separate channels. Most mixers output a stereo signal meaning that you’ll have a maximum of two channels to play with in your DAW. Audio interfaces on the other hand can send each input to your DAW on separate channels which will give you much more flexibility when you come to edit your podcast.
What About Preamps – do you Need one with an Audio Interface or Mixer?
Mixers and audio interfaces both have built-in preamps. However, if you’re using a particularly low sensitivity dynamic microphone, you may have to crank them right up which could introduce an unacceptable amount of noise. In this case, you probably do want to think about an inline gain boosting mic activator (such as a Cloudlifter or an alternative).
If you’re using a condenser mic, this shouldn’t be necessary as the signal is usually ‘hot’ enough that the mixer or audio interface preamps can stay within a reasonable range to bring the mic up to the required level.
One thing to think about though when you are shopping for either a mixer or an audio interface for your podcast is the quality of the preamps. Buy the best you can afford but if you do end up with a unit where the preamps aren’t the best, using an outboard preamp is always an option although in the long run is likely to end up a more expensive setup so choose wisely out of the gate.
Can you use a Mixer with an Audio Interface?
You may be wondering whether there is any need to choose between a mixer and an interface, couldn’t you use both together? The answer is yes you can. However, if you only use one or two microphones to produce your podcast, there may not be an advantage of doing so as both a USB mixer and a 2 channel audio interface will allow you to send the audio on separate channels to your DAW. In this case, you if you really wanted the features of a mixer, you could do away with the interface.
A case for using both together would be if you have a non-USB mixer that you wanted to use, either because of the on-board processing options or because you like the sound of the preamps. Here you could send a feed from the mixer to your audio interface to then digitally process the signal to send to your DAW.
If you wanted to record with more than two microphones, you have the following options:
- Use a non-USB mixer and send a feed to your audio interface to get the audio to your computer (note that you’ll be limited here by the number of inputs on your interface so will end up with multiple mics on at least one of the tracks)
- Use a USB mixer and bypass the audio interface by plugging it directly into your computer (with a standard stereo out mixer, again you’ll be limited to two tracks so you’d hit the same issue as above)
- Use an audio interface with as many inputs as the mics you’re using which will result in you having each one on a separate track for maximum flexibility when editing your podcast
- Use a mixer with a multi-track recording feature (the Zoom LiveTrak L-8 from Amazon is a great option for podcasters using a maximum of 4 mics). These can be quite expensive but are probably the most flexible – you get all the features of a mixer whilst still retaining the ability to record each mic on a separate track in your DAW like you would with an audio interface
So, yes you can use them together, but you should think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve.
Conclusion – is an Audio Interface or Mixer Best for your Podcast?
So, you now know the differences between a mixer and an audio interface. You also know about the different types of mixers and how mixers and audio interfaces can be used together.
The big question though is which one is right for you. Well, as we have seen, the answer isn’t always straight forward. To help you decide, we’ve set out some common scenarios below and given our view of which might be best for each situation.
- Solo host who conducts interviews in person
- Audio interface (2 channel)
- Solo host who conducts interviews via Skype
- USB mixer (with an AUX/FX send function to achieve a mix-minus setup)
- Two hosts – in person, no guests
- Audio interface (2 channel)
- Multiple hosts and/or guests (maximum of 4)
- Audio interface (4 channel) or a USB mixer with multi-track recording capability (such as the Zoom model mentioned above)
The best advice we can give you is to think carefully about your needs right now but also where you want to take your podcast in the future so that you can put together a setup that can grow with you. Whether it be an audio interface, a USB mixer or a combination of the two, the setup should allow you to produce the type of show your audience will love.
If you’ve decided that an audio interface is the way to go, our article on the best audio interfaces for podcasting could help you decide on the best one for your specific needs.