The modern recording is almost exclusively done digitally and has been for many years. Strangely, though, many modern audio mixing boards (also known as mixers or soundboards) are fully analog, meaning they do not have any digital output ports. And if you have an older mixer, or plan to purchase a one-second hand, it too is likely to be an analog-only device without any digital outputs.
So this raises a very good question. If you want to record digitally on your computer, but your mixer does not have any digital outputs, how do you connect your mixing board to your computer? Fortunately, there is an easy answer – the Audio Interface.
In this article I will be talking about how to make an analog mixer work with a computer – that is, how to connect a mixer to an audio interface and how to connect the audio interface to your computer. I will also explain exactly what an audio interface is, and recommend a few of the best audio interfaces available today – well-made, great-sounding devices that are really affordable and offer you just what you need.
What is an Audio Interface?
Why do you need an audio interface? Well, to answer that we first need to explain in a little more detail exactly what an audio interface is.
An audio interface is an electronic component with analog inputs and digital outputs. What this means is that you can plug an analog (non-digital) device like a mixing board, or a microphone, guitar, or bass, into the audio interface, and it will convert those signals into digital signals and feed them into your computer (or digital sound processing or recording device) so that you can digitally record those originally analog sources.
An audio interface will often have only two of these analog inputs, which means that you could plug, for example, a single guitar and a voice microphone into it and record those two, using the audio interface as a very small and simple mixer which will convert those two inputs into digital and feed that digital audio signal to your computer.
Really, though, we very rarely want to only record two things, and that is why we use mixing boards, which have lots more analog audio inputs and allow you to connect, and record, say a lead guitar, bass guitar, drum set, keyboards, several voice microphones and even more all at the same time. The mixing board will mix all of those analog inputs into a stereo signal, bringing many different channels down into two – left and right – and will have two analog outputs – also left and right.
Then it becomes a matter of connecting those two analog outputs to the two inputs on the audio interface, which will convert them to digital and feed them into your computer.
How do I Connect a Mixer to an Audio Interface?
Actually physically connecting a mixing board to an audio interface is quite simple, and just involves bringing the analog audio outputs from the mixer to the analog audio inputs of the audio interface.
Your mixer may have several different output jacks, including quarter-inch phone plugs, RCA connectors, headphone jacks, and XLR connectors. It is these last, the XLR connectors, which we want to focus on and use since they will give the best and most reliable results.
The audio interface you are using may have several different corresponding analog audio inputs, although audio interfaces are actually much more likely to have only one type of audio input – you guessed it, the XLR connector.
What is an XLR connector?
The XLR connector has become the industry standard for both professional and amateur recording and sound. It is secure, reliable, and you can run long lengths of cable without any noise or loss of sound quality. Even for very short lengths, though, the XLR cable is the standard and the best choice.
An XLR connector is a connector at the end of an audio cable, which locks in a place where you plug it in and is often balanced, meaning it reduces possible noise and other interference from degrading the audio signal. It is likely that your mixing board also has RCA connectors and quarter-inch phone jacks (like a guitar plug), and some audio interfaces may have them too, but when possible you should always just use XLRs.
Making the Connection: Connecting your Mixing Board to your Audio Interface
1. Plug your XLR Cables into your Mixing Board
Your mixing board will have a pair of female XLR sockets labeled Stereo Out, which will allow you to plug the left and right cables in. Make sure the XLR plugs click and lock securely, but do not force them – if they do not click, or feel right, they may need to be turned or aligned properly and should click in without effort. The XLR Connectors may be color-coded – red for right – or simply labeled left and right, and make sure you put the correct cable into the left and right sockets.
2. Plug your XLR Cables into your Audio Interface
Your mixing board will have a corresponding pair of female XLR sockets labeled Stereo In, Audio In, or Line Level In, and this is where you plug the other end of the two cables into. Again, make sure the plugs click and lock securely without forcing them and make sure you have the left channel cable plugged into the left channel socket and the right into the right.
Connecting your Audio Interface into your Computer
Once you have connected the soundboard to the audio interface, it is an even easier process to hook the audio interface to your computer.
There has been a lot of talk about the different types of digital outputs available in the last few decades – mostly Firewire, Thunderbolt, and USB – forums and articles discussing the relative merit and usefulness of each. Thing is, these discussions and debates have all pretty much become moot in the last few years, as Firewire and Thunderbolt have slowly faded from view, from the industry, and from equipment, leaving only the incredibly versatile and powerful USB connection protocol.
While this isn’t the place to get into a lot of detail about what USB is, how it works and how amazing it is for digital audio and digital recording, what this all means for us is that connecting your audio interface to your computer is simple itself – just connect the USB output of the audio interface with the USB input on your computer and you’re up and running.
The computer will sense, recognize and automatically install drivers for the audio interface, and all you need to do then is install any included software which the audio interface might have included – usually some sort of DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, which allows you to control all aspects of the digital recording process.
What is the Best Audio Interface?
If you haven’t already purchased, or have on hand, a good audio interface box, you may be wondering:
- What is the best audio interface on the market today?
- What is the best inexpensive audio interface?
- What is the best audio interface for me?
- Do I need a professional quality audio interface?
There are so many different audio interfaces on the market today, and selecting one which works well, sounds great, does what you need, is nicely designed, and comes with useful software can be quite a challenge.
And while this is a tutorial on how to connect an audio interface to a mixer, not a buyer’s guide to the best audio interfaces available today, I thought it might be useful to include a few recommendations for the best audio interfaces I have found at different price points.
If you are using a mixing board and need to connect it to your computer, for digital recording, streaming, or any other reason, any one of these will work great. As they get more expensive they will offer slightly better sound quality, as well as possible higher quality construction and more professional caliber reliability, but these are all great machines, and any would serve you well.
PreSonus, 2 AudioBox 25th Anniversary Edition USB Audio Interface – the very best budget audio interface on the market today — simplicity, great sound, and incredibly inexpensive.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools – easily the most popular and beloved audio interface available, with a fiercely loyal customer base who all rave about its usability, amazing sound, and high coolness factor.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i18 USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools – a more flexible and capable bigger brother to the 2i2 above, with the same stunning Focusrite sound and the same passionately loyal following among musicians and engineers.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin High-Resolution USB Audio Interface – superb in every way, this truly professional audio interface offers state-of-the-art digital conversion and processing and superior audio circuitry.
Final Thoughts: Do You Really Need an Audio Interface?
If you have a mixing board that only has analog outputs, then the answer is yes, you will need an audio interface to connect your mixer to your computer, in order to do digital recording, streaming, broadcasting, and the like.
If you have not yet purchased a mixing board, you could instead get one with a digital output – that is, a mixing board with essentially an audio interface built right in. Four of the best mixers with digital output that I’ve used, at three different price points, are:
Yamaha MG10XU 10-Channel Mixing Console with Built-In FX and USB Connectivity – a great starter, not the cheapest but miles better than less expensive models.
Tascam DP-24SD 24-Track Digital Portastudio Multi-Track Audio Mixer – a really meaningful upgrade, with superb sound and extreme flexibility.
Yamaha MGP32X 32 Channel Professional Mixing Console – expensive, but the best bargain I know in a truly professional-grade mixing console, with superb sound, design, and build quality.
BEHRINGER X32 40-Input 25-Bus Digital Mixing Console – the best I’ve ever used in a modern, full-featured professional analog and digital audio mixing console.
But if you already have a good mixer, you are used to using it and have been happy with its features, its layout, it’s sound, and the results you have always gotten, there is no real need to replace it or upgrade. Instead, spend your money on a really good quality audio interface, and enjoy exploring the newly available digital domain!