Choosing a Mixer for Your Home Studio
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Choosing a Mixer
for your Home or Project Studio

Which Mixer?  Everything you need to know

by Tweak

Tweak: This is the back of a Mackie 1604VLZ3 a known favorite in many home studios.  Understanding the back of your potential mixer is more important than the front.  By the end of this article you will know what all those ins and outs do.

This is the Mixer Class!!

Critical points we will cover:

1. The difference between the mixer approach and the "mixerless" approach

2. Critcal mixer features--sends-returns, inserts, sub outs, direct outs

3. The types of analog mixers and which is most appropriate for different recording situations

4. The difference between analog and digital mixers, who needs which, why

5. A rudimentary understanding of the new breed of firewire/ USB mixers and how they can be used as audio interfaces

 

On the next four pages we will cover a lot of mixers and approaches to building your studio. My goal is when you are done reading this article, you will have a really good understanding of mixers, enough to make an intelligent decision on what you need.  If not, this article links to live discussion going on at studio-central on the topic of mixers.

Understanding mixers is important.  When you can talk mixers, you  talk the studio talk.  Why?  Everything connects to them!  This is true even if you go mixerless, because if you do then you have to understand software mixers, which have similar functionality and use the same terminology.

Behringer XENYX XL1600 16-Channel Mixer
Combining professional features, dramatic styling and astounding value, the Behringer XENYX XL1600 4 Bus Mixer features an intuitive layout and color-coded control interface designed for ease of use. Built around Behringer's proven XENYX high-headroom, low noise mic preamps and warm, musical EQ, the XL1600 is an ultra-low noise, high-headroom analog mixer for live, front-of-house, monitor, corporate and touring audio applications.

 

 

What does a Mixer actually do?    

A mixer or mixing console or mixing board all refer to the same thing:  a device that allows you to balance, position, effect and equalize its different audio channels into a good sounding sonic image that we call a mix. You can add effects to some channels but not others, position instruments to a location in the stereo field, route channels to outboard gear that produces an interesting effect and "sculpt" the sound of each channel with a dedicated equalizer where you can vary the bass, treble and mid range in such a way that the whole song "gels" into a work of beauty. You can dramatically improve your music made of multiple tracks by learning how to mix.

Those starting a studio need to decide early on what is going to be the center of the studio.  As you saw in the class on Audio Basics, there are 4 approaches here.  The first, and most traditional, is the analog  mixing board, where all the outputs of everything is matrixed with all the inputs and the output feed another recorder (which is typically a computer soundcard and DAW.  Second, you may decide to go "mixerless" using an audio interface and make the computer sequencer your center, where all the sound goes for mixing on audio tracks and plugins.  Certainly, that approach requires the least amount of cash and gear. It's an easy way to get started. The third path, used mainly by those using multi-track recorders,  is where a digital mixer is used.  Fourth and finally, there is the newest breed of mixer/audio interface combinations.  These sometimes add a a control surface and even a MIDI interface, making it an all-in-one solution.  We will talk about all these approaches in detail. 

Making this choice is one of the most difficult for the home and project studio, as no piece of gear has as many ramifications for the future path of your studio.  The larger your enterprise, the tougher the call as you only want to go through this once.  How many channels do you need?  Conventional wisdom answers: one more than you currently have.  :) OK, stop rolling on the floor already.  With mixers, you should build in a little room to grow.  Maybe more than a little.  You will buy more gear again after you recover from this major purchase.  The hardest thing about the decisions you have to look ahead 3-5 years and formulate a concept of what you want your studio to become.

 

Going Mixerless

Is a mixer even necessary for your rig?

Maybe not--given that you are doing your mixes in the digital domain of your computer with a professional sequencer like Logic or Sonar, Cubase, Nuendo or Digital Performer or Pro Tools LE. If you have a multi input audio interface, it is easy to simply connect your sources to the interface and your outputs to a monitoring system.  The audio interface does all the functions of a soundcard, but adds more inputs and outputs.

Even many professionals are mixerless now. With a control surface like Mackie Control you can have a hardware mixer-like surface to control all the leveling and effecting you do in the software's mixer.  Just get good preamps for your mics if your audio interface doesn't have them.  Your mix is actually created in the CPU of your computer.  Streams of digital audio, (which are essentially numbers) are mathematically added together and scaled to create your stereo or surround output.

Who should go Mixerless?
  • A) People with only a few pieces of hardware
     
  • B) People who want to keep their signal totally in the digital domain 
     
  • C) People with FAST computers who will be using a lot of virtual instruments or have a lot of audio interface channels and premium preamps.  
     

Another option related to the mixerless approach are the control surface/audio interface combos, such as the Tascam FW1884, Project Mix and the Digidesign 003These are more than just a control surface and more than just a mixer.  These hybrid devices combine a basic digital audio mixer, control surface, audio interface and MIDI interface all in one.  Because they function as an audio interface, they replace the soundcard in your rig.  So if you are getting one of these you don't need another mixer, at least not until you run out of inputs.   The same limitations apply as with the mixerless approach.  There may be limited inputs and outputs (typically 8 in 8 out) which is fine for small rigs and small bands, but not for a full band where you mic the drummer and want everyone playing together. We'll talk about these devices on the control surfaces page.

Can you go Mixerless with a stereo soundcard?

Sure you can.  You would need a dual (2 channel) mic preamp to connect to the soundcard.  You would be limited to laying down 2 mono tracks at a time.  With 2 channels you could record stereo tracks or you can actually jam with a buddy.  Why doesn't everyone do this?  Well you lose out when you start adding hardware synths.  You will have to record everything as audio, and that takes up lots of storage and the CPU gets burdened pretty quick. 

But you can go this route if you are just using 1-2 mics and plan to only use soft synths and samplers, or programs like Fruity Loops, Acid, Reason, etc for your instruments.  Limit yourself there and you will never need a mixer.  The disadvantages here can be profound, however.  You are passing all your audio through the soundcard's converters.  If its a good soundcard, that is not a big issue.  If its not a good soundcard, your quality will suffer.  However, the amount of money you save is miniscule these days as small audio interfaces are really inexpensive.

Where the Mixer fits in: The Front End and Back End

You can add a mixer as the front end of your audio interface as well as you can to a soundcard.  As a "front end" the mixer routes a variety of signals, like mics, synths, guitars to the soundcard or audio interface that you want to record.  As a "back end" to the audio interface, it receives the signals from it, and allows you to mix the various analog outputs of the interface on faders.  Not all mixers can function as both a front and back end to your computer.  We will get into which can do both and which cannot.

Of course you can go mixerless with just an audio interface.  If that is what you want to do, make sure you read the the page on those.

 

Visualize these signal flows:

signal flow mixer

Front end: 

Instruments, Mics--> Mixer-->Audio interface inputs--->Computer Sequencer

Back End:

Computer Sequencer--->Audio interface Outputs--->Mixer line inputs-->Mixer control room outs--->Monitors

 

 

 

 

M-Audio Audio Delta 1010 (8in/8out PC Card)

The Delta 1010 is an audio interface that has 8 ins and 8 outs for connecting to a mixer.  The mixer's busses or direct outs connect to the Delta's inputs and the Delta's outputs are connected to the mixer's line inputs.  

Types of Mixers

There are basically 3 basic types.  1)Analog Mixers and 2) Digital Mixers.  There is a 3) new breed of analog mixers that have USB and Firewire interfaces added.

 An analog mixer is comprised of analog signal paths and does not convert the audio to digital data. 

A digital mixer accepts both digital and analog sources.  It converts analog waveforms to digital data as soon as it enters the mixer, and usually has effects and processors that can affect the data digitally before it converts the data back to analog waveforms on the way out. 

The newest analog mixers have USB or Firewire interfaces added.  These usually have totally analog signal paths throughout the board and may be used to output analog.  However, individual tracks and the master output may also be converted to digital to give you another option of getting your audio to the computer. (You have to check specs to see exactly what goes down the firewire or USB pipe.  It may be different in each mixer.)

What's "Best?" Oh I knew you would ask that!  Short answer: As always, it depends. We'll spend much of the remainder of the class helping you decide what's best for you. 

You can use a mixer with an audio interface. If your mixer has enough channels, you can also route the backend, that is, your audio interface's outputs to the board and use the EQs and sends/returns to touch up and polish the sound in the analog domain.  This allows you to separate vocals, drums and bass so you can have a real hardware fader to move when mixing. This is the classic approach to mixing and it has been used since the 60's. If you have an 8x8 audio interface then you can have 8 separate channels at the board.  An advanced studio operator might have 24 channels streaming from the computer.  With a mixer, you gain flexibility, ease of patching in gear, and for many of us, it's just more fun to have real faders and not stare into the computer screen.

 

Types of Mixers
Digital Mixer with Firewire Option

Classic Analog Mixer

Analog Mixer with Firewire Option

Large Format Analog Mixer with USB

   

 

Mixers and Quality

Why do some Mixers cost so much more but offer fewer features?   

Typically, in mixers, you get what you pay for, and you really can't go by specs when it comes to durability.  Quality components cost money, so does rugged, reliable construction. Keep in mind that mixers have many moving, mechanical parts.  If you are going to gig with a mixer, it has to be pretty solid.   The really inexpensive mixers often have less headroom, more hiss and susceptibility to picking up hum, so you have to be real careful about overloading it, wiring, and not EQ-ing as much. That is particularly true of older, used mixers you might find at online auctions.

Who needs to get a Mixer?

  • For the budget studio, people need mixers when they want to add recording studio functions to their basic soundcard which may only have two inputs and two outputs.

 

  • For the more advanced studio, People need to have a mixer to when they have lots of gear, like several MIDI synths, mics, or want to use quality outboard gear like reverbs, delays, compressors, pedals and other stuff that needs to be routed to the computer or stand -alone multi-track recorder. 

Today, however, the sound quality of most mixers, even the budget Behringers, is very high, and some say indistinguishable from mixers that cost 2-3 times as much. However, the inexpensive mixer may have wobbly, sticky faders and knobs. Or it may have had less than rigorous quality control at the factory where they were built.  A mixer is full of complex wiring and circuitry and if even one of internal connections goes bad, it may be extremely difficult to fix. Warrantees and repair policies may figure into the price of a quality mixer

 

There is also the matter of microphone preamps, which have to boost the relatively weak signal coming from a mic into useable line level signal. The cheaper the preamp, the more garbage will be included in the final signal. Now if you are just mixing synths (which are usually all at line level already, you don't need mic preamps. But if you are wanting to record acoustic guitars and vocals into your computer, you need good preamps.  The Mackie's, for example, cost more, but are built like tanks, sound excellent, are great work surfaces, and they have their much hyped XDR preamps, which will not let you down.  You might think that the Behringers, due to their inexpensiveness, might have bad preamps.  However, they are in use in many home studios, and people often remark in my forums how good they sound.  As people go more professional in their studios they typically get outboard preamps to bypass the mixer's preamps.

Go to the Next page on Mixers

Go to the Previous Class

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More Articles by Tweak on Mixing and Mixers

Mixing and Mastering
Choosing a Mixer for your Studio
Understanding your Mixer
Digital Mixers
Classic Analog Mixers
How to Hookup a Mixer
Guide to Control Surfaces
How to use EQ
How to Use a Compressor
Using Pan Controls
The Perfect Mix
Review of the UAD 4k Processors
Mixing on a Virtual Console
Tascam DM3200 Resource
Mackie 8 bus Console Resources
Elements of Mastering
Mixer catalog List

 

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