Interfaces and mixers come in all shapes and sizes. Which is right for me?
So you’ve decided to start a YouTube channel or podcast? First thing’s first, you need equipment. Your voice isn’t just going to magically appear on your computer or phone. Or it can, but it won’t be very good in quality, with lots of snaps, crackles, and pops. Before you power up a crispy treat of an unsuspecting audience, you’ll want to know your way a bit around what you need for a base line of quality.
You’ll need a mic. The mic on your phone or computer really isn’t up to the task. It’s probably a good idea to check out our handy blogs on mics: Difference between a dynamic and a condenser and The basics. They cover all the dirt that you need to clean up before taking the plunge and spending one or two or more hundreds of dollars.
The other primary thing you’ll need is a device that connects that mic to the computer. This comes in two forms: mixing boards and interfaces.
If you’ve got a USB mic, then you actually don’t need this, as the mic itself serves as an interface. However, a lot can be improved by taking the next step to a proper condenser or dynamic mic and an interface.
What is an audio interface?
The interface is the piece of technology that has replaced the internal soundcard and is now a kind of external soundcard. It used to be that if you were going to make music, you needed some additional processing and memory power that would be handled in a soundcard, similar to a graphics card. Since the old days of the 90s though, motherboards have gradually gotten better at handling the basics that most games and uses require.
The other thing we once used those artefacts for were to plug instruments into the computer. But it was a really heinous process, because you’d have to turn the computer around to plug it in. Eventually Sound Blaster came out with its Audigy line, which had a little wire connecting it to the soundcard in the back. With the interface in the front, it was much easier to plug things in. Thus the audio interface was born.
Fast forward a few decades after the advent of USB and thunderbolt technology. Now attaching external drives to your computer isn’t a big deal or a huge cause for latency. That allows for interfaces to become more and more portable, and even giving birth to various industry-specific hybrids and even USB microphones that function as interfaces themselves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t larger interfaces that can take more permanent positions on your desk or rack – there are – but when it comes down to portable options, interfaces reign supreme.
Latency is the time it takes between when you input information – pluck a guitar string, for example – and when that hits the speakers or DAW
Long story short, you need some sort of interface in order to record sound onto your computer. If you’re planning on doing a podcast or YouTube show, this is a base-line requirement, unless you do all of your recording on an audio recorder (like a Zoom or Tascam) that you can then transfer sound from.
What is a mixing board?
The evolution of the mixing board came separate from computers. They began their journey in the 1930s as a way for people to bring in multiple microphone sources into a single controller for speakers. Eventually instrument pickups were invented, adding a new complexity to the sound setup, and the rest is history.
Mixing boards come by many names: Mixers, sound boards, sound desks, mixing desks, and so on, and they can take up a lot of space. They do tend to be the most versatile in functionality. They come in all sizes, from just a few inputs to literally hundreds of them. Many also contain onboard effects that are easier to use live and are easy for a variety of inputs to plug into. If you’re looking for something with a lot of headphone outputs, mixers can be used as well, though you might have to hijack some of the other speaker outputs for use. The control room and auxiliary outputs (if your board has them) can both be repurposed for headphones, and they often come with their own dedicated audio controls as well.
It wasn’t until the last 10 years or so that companies have started making mixing boards that could connect to a computer, typically via USB. It’s also still common that mixing boards don’t have USB inputs, so watch out for that when making your purchase.
Also be aware that simply because a mixer has many channels, doesn’t mean it necessarily records on many channels. Presonus mixers are known for this feature, since their designed to line up perfectly with their DAW, Studio One. Many cheaper options though might not offer that. Interfaces are more commonly able to record on separate channels at lower price points.
Which is right for me?
Both interfaces and USB mixing boards can be utilized to great success and they’re essentially the same thing when it comes to podcasting. It’s really depending though on your own needs as a creator.
An interface might be better if you:
- Have limited space
- Want your setup to be mobile
- Only need one or two inputs
- Plan on doing all your editing on your computer
- Plan on connecting electronic instruments/controllers via MIDI
You might prefer a mixing board if you:
- Have several guests at one time
- Have more space
- Don’t need to be mobile
- Prefer to do your mixing/editing live
Your choice may also just come down to what looks cool. Which is fine.
Choosing an interface
When you’re buying an interface, you want to make sure it comes with good preamps (the device that boosts the signal in your microphone, especially necessary when you use a condenser mic). Also that it records in 96 kHz or above – a CD is at 44.1 kHz. Though the difference might not be immediately perceptible, it can make an impact on editing. Finally it should have enough XLR inputs for your needs. Focusrite is the most popular and reliable company for interfaces, so you’re always safe there. SSL, Presonus, Native Instruments, and Steinberg are also solid contenders. Arturia has also come onto the scene lately too, with their very podcaster-friendly interface, the Audiofuse.
You’ll want to make sure there’s at least one headphone output so you can monitor. You usually won’t get more headphone outputs until an interface hits about 6 outputs – this issue can easily be remedied by a splitter and a headphone amp, though.
Choosing a mixing board
If you’ve decided to buy a mixing board, then the main thing you’ll need to be aware of is if you can connect it to your computer via USB. Otherwise, you’ll also want to check the number of XLR inputs, and if you plan on doing live effects and editing, then be sure that the board also has a good selection of those. Like on interfaces, you’ll want to make sure it records at least at 96 kHz. Finally, check for preamps and phantom power, which provides power to your condenser microphone.
You should also keep in mind that not every mixer channel corresponds to a recorded channel, and often they’re summed together (especially with cheaper boards). This will usually be in the description. Presonus, Zoom, and Soundcraft are the most well-known for offering this feature.
For newer USB mixers, there are many brands out there with many options available, from the super cheap to the much more expensive. My personal favorite brand is Presonus, Yamaha also has excellent computer integration. I’ve also had a lot of luck with Alesis, though they tend to get consistently bad reviews, so use at your own risk. I would generally trust the boards with longstanding traditions as well, like Allen & Heath, Soundcraft, and Mackie. Behringer is the king of budget everything, and in the past they have been kind of a joke. But they had some sort of weird strategic realignment a few years ago and now they’ve been improving a lot. They’re still budget, but they’re probably the best of the budget lines.
In the past few years, there have been a series of industry-specific boards that have been coming out, focused on podcasters and YouTubers. These tend to take the best of both mixing boards and interfaces, adding a few more features that are helpful to creators. If you’re not planning on doing music but solely podcasting or YouTube, then I’d suggest looking more into these hybrid options. These options tend to be a bit more expensive than your standard interface. Some of them that made my cut:
Dubbing itself the “first fully integrated podcasting studio”, it’s not actually lying. It’s a favorite for many of the podcasters I’ve talked to who’ve used and/or owned one. It has four XLR inputs, you can connect to your phone via Bluetooth or USB, it has several button controls for up to 64 sound effects and cues, and can record to your computer or a microSD card. You can record a podcast entirely without the PC. Did I mention that it also comes with four headphone outputs?
Coming with four phantom-powered XLR inputs and four headphone outputs and from a company of one of the most reliable portable audio recorders out there, the Zoom Podtrak is a solid bet. It records onto SD card and also attaches to the computer via Thunderbold/USB3, and phone by a TRRS mini jack. The biggest advantage of the Zoom is that it’s even small enough to fit in your pocket.
Zoom started out as a simple audio recording company and has really expanded into the realms of meeting the needs of podcasters and creators. The R16 is another great option, allowing you to record up to 8 mics with two inputs for phantom power. You can record on it and transfer it to your computer later via USB or use it as a computer interface. It also has pretty decent built-in mics, so if you weren’t able to bring your own, don’t worry. It’s battery powered, so highly mobile too.
The StudioLive is a full-featured mixer board with many hybrid characteristics. The AR8c comes with 5 inputs (2 of those stereo, and one for Bluetooth), two headphones (one you’d need a dual mono to stereo adapter), Bluetooth to record calls, 16 onboard effects, and it allows you to record to four stereo channels. You can also record onto an SD card, so you can be completely independent of your computer, and it’s actually a mixing board small enough to be portable. This choice here is ironic because Presonus does actually have a product aimed at podcasters, but falls short in ways that the StudioLive series excels. It also comes packaged with Capture, a DAW streamlined for creators, and a slew of software effects.
Before you buy anything, you should always double-check what you need in your particular setup and make sure that the product offers the most convenient solutions. Hopefully this guide helps as a jumping off point in your research, and if you found it helpful, make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And if you’re looking for SFX or music for your show, check out our easy-to-use Create Music app.