Mixer or audio interface?

November 6, 2015 11:57 AM

I'm ready to take the next step with regards to music production hardware, but I have no experience or knowledge with some portions of my possible setup. I would like the hivemind's advice with regards to whether I need a mixer, an audio interface, or both.

Currently I have a MacBook Pro with Logic, a couple of el cheapo hardware analog synths, a couple of el cheapo computer speakers, a decent MIDI keyboard controller, and a crappy USB microphone I pilfered from Rock Band.

What I want is something I can use to record and playback voice, synths, electric guitar, electric bass guitar, drum machine, and Logic output, on a live-to-tape basis and possibly a live performance basis with friends or just me, for funsies. No one's going to be making money off this.

To do that, I've worked out that I need something with the following inputs for sure:

1/4" jack for Minibrute
1/4" jack for DIY synth / future Boomstar / future modular
1/4" jack for future drum machine
line/mic/1/4" jack for guitar/future nice mic
1/4" outputs for speakers

Here's where it gets tricky. I might want to use some real-time effects devices in the future, so I might want a send/return setup, probably with 1/4" send and return jacks. I'll need something that can send a mix to the computer to record and play a mix back out from the computer (which only has the 1/8" stereo jack out). Would that be a tape in/out? And I'll need main outs to play over some future nice speakers, with 1/4" outs.

I could get a Mackie mixer with I think all of these features for like $100. Or there's something called an AudioFuse from Arturia that's not released yet that's listed at $600. Or I could get both.

This is just a low-cost hobby for me, but I want to do things right without breaking the bank. What are the upsides and downsides to just a mixer, just an audio interface, or both? Am I missing something completely?
posted by infinitewindow (5 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

There are inexpensive mixers which are also USB audio interfaces, too: For example. I haven't used any of those personally, and Behringer has kind of a bad reputation, quality-wise, but in your situation I'd probably try one of those out. For getting your computer to be part of the system, a USB interface (either built into the mixer or as a separate item) is going to be better than running analog to and from your laptop's headphone/microphone jacks. I think if you want to use the laptop both for recording the mix and as a live effects loop, you'll need a USB interface with more than two ins and outs, like this one, unless you want to use the left channel as an effects loop and the right channel to record a mono mix.

You probably do want the functions of both a mixer and an audio interface, though. Whether that's two devices or one doesn't matter so much. I recommend checking out Sweetwater's selection of interfaces and mixers (both links to sub-sub-categories; so explore outside those pages, too) to see what's out there.
posted by hades at 5:23 PM on November 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "live-to-tape". Do you mean you want the various instruments to be able to be played simultaneously and you just do a basic stereo recording? Then, yeah, you want a mixer, and one of the small ones with built-in USB should work fine - they're only capable of 2 tracks of USB out and two in, but it sounds like that's all you need, and so you wouldn't need, necessarily, an external audio interface. Personally, I would recommend a Mackie product over pretty much anything else in that kind of size and price range.

An audio interface is mostly just a device that converts analog audio signals into bits to be stored and manipulated in a computer - there the important consideration is how many separate tracks or channels do you want to be able to record simultaneously. They're not really set up to substitute as a mixer for live performance or stereo recording of live performances.

Here's where it gets tricky. I might want to use some real-time effects devices in the future, so I might want a send/return setup, probably with 1/4" send and return jacks.

This is actually not very tricky at all, on a mixer. Even small ones (like the Mix8 you linked to) have an auxiliary ("aux") send control on each channel, an "aux send" 1/4" jack, and a pair of "aux return" jacks, and an "aux master" volume control somewhere near the main master volume controls. Connecting external effects devices is exactly what this is for.

There are plenty of fine audio interfaces way cheaper than that Arturia.

Also, if you want a basic overview and explanations of audio signal flow and inputs and outputs, you could do a heck of a lot worse than Mackie owner's manuals, especially for their mixers. Even if you're looking at a manual for a mixer you don't own, they're full of diagrams and plain English explanations about what plugs into where and why. Most of these basic principles will carry over to other mixers and audio interfaces.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:21 PM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Why does a person need a physical mixer when software such as Ableton (I'm not that familiar with Logic) acts as a virtual mixer?
posted by DMelanogaster at 9:14 AM on January 11, 2016

Why does a person need a physical mixer

I'd say, because of the ability to mix between two or more discrete live sources. I mean, I'm sure I could buy a multiple-input audio interface that would run with Logic or Ableton, and have someone do live mixing by sliding virtual control surfaces, but a mixer like the MackiePROFX8 linked above (or its successor, the PROFX8v2) is more useful and versatile to people who still prefer to perform mostly live. This guy, a big Ableton fan, talks about the drawbacks of Ableton in live performance and recording.

I'm primarily a singer, so I'm just more comfortable with live performance. I've got two MeFi music tracks on here. They both suck, but one took ten hours and one took three. The one that took only three hours was 1. much faster and efficient to do 2. sounds wayyyyy better and 3. had a lot of happy accidents when I accidentally tweaked the cutoff or resonance knobs too much. My composing and mixing sessions without live interfaces consist of me spending hours playing back one or two parts to make sure I have it timed right and sounding perfect... and completely destroys any possibility of improvisation or happy accidents.

I've seen videos of Underworld, who plugged simple synths into amps and pedals, and re-created their studio sounds live.... until the end of "Rez/Cowgirl," when they turned off all the amps and pedals and just played simple polyphonic square waves to let their audience know it was over. I've seen videos of Radiohead live-patch Eurorack modular synthesizers alongside symphonic instrumentation. I've listened to White Laces play live with a computer on stage acting as a versatile oscillator (but not as a mixer). I've been on set when Egyptian Lover kept the groove moving on his music video shoot by dropping beats live on his vintage 808 before having to go back to the tape for the next take. These folks used physical mixers, why shouldn't I?

Also, it just seems like more fun to me!
posted by infinitewindow at 2:06 PM on January 11, 2016

And now there's this thing.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:06 AM on January 12, 2016

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