An audio interface is an essential tool to have in any recording studio. It allows you not only to record but also to playback and even manipulate your audio. It uses its analog-to-digital converter that converts incoming audio into binary code to be recorded on the computer's hard drive. The primary USB or Thunderbolt connection allows it to talk to the computer at all.
Interfaces from some pro audio companies offer more inputs and higher-quality specifications, such as better analog preamps, digital I/O, and higher-spec'd converters. Entry-level and consumer-oriented interfaces' capabilities may be limited compared to their high-end alternatives. However, even they should enable you to make professional-quality recordings in the comfort of your bedroom.
One question on many musicians' minds is: Do I need a mixer, or can I use my best audio interface?
The answer is not always correct in front of you. Sometimes, people prefer sticking to one thing - whether it's a mixer or something else entirely. But if you're primarily studio-based, the need for different things lessens, and there isn't much of a reason to spend all your resources so that tools can be fully compatible with each other sometimes.
Let's explore this question from multiple perspectives and see which scenarios apply to you:
- Home/studio recording with multiple instruments and microphones.
In this scenario, multiple sources (instruments, mics, etc.) connect to your audio interface, and when writing/jamming/recording, you primarily focus on monitoring playback through your speakers or headphones. This is an excellent scenario for ditching the mixer because you can quickly run the audio interface's mixing application on your computer at the heart of your home studio setup (or on an iPad if there's an app for your interface) so that you can control levels as needed without having to operate anything besides software.
- Rehearsing with your band.
You may be using the best audio interface or mixing board to run your keyboard and microphone signals through a PA system. If your band is performing on stage, having a mixing board is essential if you need to mix quickly with physical faders. Without physical faders, you'll have to use your mouse to adjust the gain of each channel. The biggest challenge is finding ways to keep yourself from tuning out when there are technical elements you aren't interested in dealing with.
- Live performance with a keyboard rig.
Keyboard players often use smaller mixers to combine the output of their different keyboards. These instruments often have built-in mixer functionality, and a keyboardist can choose to plug them directly into the sound system or use an extra device known as a line mixer. If you're a keyboard player who records at home, you could connect directly to your computer using an audio interface.
Engineers usually have a mixer to make your setup work for what keyboard sounds you have in a studio setting. You can also keep the audio interface in your rack and use it at live shows, but there are some significant drawbacks with doing this. Suppose you're using a laptop in your show to do things like play virtual instruments or play backing tracks. In that case, you will need the audio interface's mixer utility to change settings on the fly that you might not otherwise be able to make happen from an app on your phone or tablet.
Suppose your tour is at the professional level, or you're going to be playing with an audio engineer who has experience mixing bands. In that case, it may be easier for you to have them deal with a digital mixing board that has automated mixing settings as EQ and volume controls for each instrument. Just remember to keep your interface presets, so if anything changes on stage, the sound engineer doesn't need instructions on how to fix it – they can go straight to the settings and get your audio back in order again. If you do play local gigs more often and with no dedicated sound engineer insight, we recommend sticking with an analog mixer solution that will give you more flexibility over how each song is mixed.
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