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The topic this week came from a question I got from a listener. He asked, “Why don’t you use hardware to do things like EQ and compression before recording audio to your computer?”

There’s nothing wrong with doing processing on your audio before recording it to your computer, I just prefer to do that processing in my software (Logic Pro X) instead.

Another question I see a lot is, “What’s the difference between a mixer and a interface?”

So this week I’m going to explain the difference between a hardware mixer and an audio interface, and talk about why I believe mixers are becoming less necessary even if you want to record and/or stream live shows with guests.

Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:

  • Some hardware mixers have USB outputs, but most don’t. In most cases, you’ll need to buy an audio interface to record audio into your computer (unless you’re using a single USB microphone).
  • You can spend days trying to get your audio quality from 90% to 100%, but your audience doesn’t really care. They only care that the levels are balanced and that it doesn’t sound like crap.
  • As live-streaming web apps like Zencastr get better, the need for physical hardware will be diminished for most podcasters.
  • Most professional audio editing apps allow you to create templates for plugins and channel strips, so learn how to use those and you’ll save a ton of time in post-production.

Show Notes:

What’s the Difference Between a Mixer and An Audio Interface?

  • 2:03 A hardware mixer is a physical board with a bunch of knobs and faders (you’ve seen these in the control rooms at churches and concert venues). It takes a variety of different inputs (microphones, keyboards, etc) and sums them to a stereo track (which is what you and the rest of the audience hears coming out of the main speakers). These mixers often have built-in effects like EQ and reverb. That’s the basics of what a hardware mixer does. They come in variety of different configurations and prices depending on how many inputs and features you want. Here’s what a typical hardware mixer looks like:

hardware-mixer

  • 3:22 An audio interface isn’t too different, but it is made to take analog audio signals and convert it into digital format so your computer can do the mixing and processing. Most interfaces don’t have physical volume faders for each input or special effects like EQ and reverb, they just have input gain knobs for each microphone input. The audio interface I use is the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, and it looks like this:

focusrite-scarlett-18i20

Some hardware mixers have USB outputs, but most don’t. In most cases, you’ll need to buy an audio interface to record audio into your computer (unless you’re using a single USB microphone).

Should I Buy a Hardware Mixer and an Interface?

  • 4:32 I don’t think hardware mixers are necessary for most podcasters these days. If you’re just making a podcast, at some point you’re going to have to put the audio file on your computer to do editing and export it as an MP3. So you’ll either need to buy a hardware mixer that has a USB output (and the good ones are fairly expensive) or you’ll need to buy an audio interface to convert the analog signal from your mixer into a digital signal. For most people, an audio interface will get the job done.

Why Not Do Processing Like EQ and Compression With Hardware Instead of Software?

  • 5:11 I like the freedom of being able to make changes after. I like to record a clean audio track at the proper input gain levels and then be able to do EQ, compression, and noise removal afterwards. There is a downside because there’s the temptation to tweak endlessly, but having a deadline will help prevent endless tweaking.

You can spend days trying to get your audio quality from 90% to 100%, but your audience doesn’t really care. They only care that the levels are balanced and that it doesn’t sound like crap.

Is the DBX 286 Preprocessor a Good Investment?

  • 6:30 A lot of podcasters use the DBX 286 pre-processor to enhance the audio quality of their tracks on the way into their interface. I have one, but I actually don’t use it anymore. Could I save some time if I got used the DBX 286 and got all the settings dialed in? Maybe, but it doesn’t take me that long to do post-production in Logic Pro X. I can apply all those same effects in less than 5 minutes and then save the exact settings as a template to be used anytime I want.

The Benefits of Simplicity

  • 7:31 Fewer parts in a signal chain means fewer things that can go wrong. If you have five different pieces of hardware between your mic and your computer and something goes wrong, troubleshooting is going to be a pain.
  • 7:52 Ideally, I would be using a USB microphone for recording. That would be best case scenario; just a single mic plugged into my laptop or iPad. But the technology just isn’t there yet; I love the sound quality I get from my Shure SM7B. Until a USB mic is made that matches that quality, I’ll be using the SM7B and my audio interface.

What About Live Streaming With Multiple Guests and Mix Minus?

  • 8:45 If you want to record four people in the same room, then you’re going to have to buy four microphones and an audio interface with at least four mic inputs.
  • 9:54 Streaming software is getting more powerful, so having a bunch of audio hardware for live-streaming or recording remote guests is becoming less necessary. Web apps like Blab and Zencastr make live-streaming stupid easy, and apps like Quicktime and Audacity make recording a local file on a computer simple for your guests. With Zencastr, you don’t even need to record local audio files; the web app records them for each person on the call and will deliver them to you after the call is over. Pretty sweet. So the need for complicated audio hardware setups is going away for most people.

As live-streaming web apps like Zencastr get better, the need for physical hardware will be diminished for most podcasters.

  • 10:11 There’s also a Mac app called Loopback that allows you to do some pretty cool routing stuff with audio inputs and outputs from various apps. I was using that as a replacement for my current mix/minus setup, but I ran into some weird bugs so I’m back to using hardware for now. Hopefully those things will get sorted out in the future so I can record and stream guests without needing a second computer to run Skype on.

Control Surfaces

  • 13:36 If you like the idea of physical faders and knobs for mixing, consider buying a control surface like the Korg nanoKontrol 2 ($60) or the Behringer BCF2000 ($300). These devices are really more useful for mixing music, though. I’ve had the nanoKontrol 2 for a year and have used it for mixing podcasts… never.

Consider Investing in a Profesional DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

Most professional audio editing apps allow you to create templates for plugins and channel strips, so learn how to use those and you’ll save a ton of time in post-production.

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