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  Choosing a Mixer

Page 2  

Critical Mixer Features

Lets Get the Lingo straight. 

These terms will let you  talk about mixers. They will help you compare the features of the boards you see. They apply to all types of mixers, even the software mixers in your sequencer.  So these terms are important.  Make sure you have a solid grasp on them, even if you are going mixerless.


What is a pan pot? 

A pan pot, or sometimes called pan knob is short for "panoramic potentiometer".  It allows you to place the signal anywhere in the stereo field, from extreme left to extreme right. 

What are a mute/solo buttons? 

The mute button silences the audio on a channel so you can hear other stuff in the mix.  A solo button silences everything except the signal on a channel so you can hear the channel in isolation

What are routing buttons?

These are switches that switch the audio signal down the pathway to the busses.  You might think of them as an output selector for now.  If you press the 3-4 button and pan all the way left, the signal goes out bus out 3.  If you press the 1-2 button and pan all the way right, the signal only goes out bus out 2.  If you press 1-2, 3-4, and L-R and pan center the signal goes out all 6 outputs.

What is a fader? 

A fader is a sliding level control that can be used to vary the loudness of any mixer channel.  The name comes from "fading in" and "fading out" tracks.  Note the little "infinity" symbol at the bottom.  Infinity means "zero" in mixer-speak.  See the heavy line next to the solo button?  That is the marker for 0dbvu, or sometimes called the "nominal"  or normal level.  What it means is at that point the signal that exits the fader is the same as the signal that entered the fader.  If you lower the fader from that point you attenuate (reduce) the signal.  If you raise the fader from that point you add gain (or boost) the signal.

From top to bottom  you see a pan pot, mute button, solo button, and 3 routing buttons. The fader is the sliding control. The pic is of a 4 bus Mackie 1604 VLZ3

What is a channel? 

A channel is basically an audio input that goes to a fader.  A typical mixer channel may have an input selector for choosing mic or line signals, a trim knob for adjusting the input level, dedicated EQ (equalization) controls to alter the bass, midrange and treble bands of the signal.   A channel usually has sends which send part of the signal to an effects unit (or other destination).  Finally a channel may have a bus selector switch (the routing buttons we saw before), which switches the channel output to a bus.

What's a Bus?

A bus is a fader with its own dedicated output.  Said differently, a bus is a major pathway from all channels to a single fader connected to an output.  You can take everything going to that fader out of the mixer where you can send it to another piece (or rack) of gear. You can also bring the signal back in to the mixer on spare channels.   On mixers with busses, there are routing buttons on each channel that lets you route the whole signal to one of the busses.  The Main bus is often called the L/R bus. Other busses are often grouped in pairs, like the 1-2 bus, 3-4 bus, as in our example above.  There may also be another switch that lets you route these bus faders to the Master fader. 

Typical uses of busses are to send a track or groups of tracks to a digital multitrack, or to a soundcard or audio interface. Yet you can also be very creative with them, such as sending them to samplers, grooveboxs with analog inputs, surround encoders, separate compressors and more.  Some busses may have inserts.  These are nice as they let you return the external signal back to the mixer without eating up more channels. 

The faders at the bottom right side are bus faders.  The switches above the channel faders switch the channel to one of the busses

What is a channel insert?

An insert is a pathway out and then back into a single fader. You use it to patch in an external piece of gear that only affects that one channel. Typical uses of inserts are patching compressors, outboard EQs, exciters, pedals, multi-track recorder i/o, and FX boxes. Lots of people route channel inserts to a patchbay where they can plug in various devices conveniently. We are talking Hardware plugins here. On a well featured mixer, there are inserts on individual channels, buses and the master fader.

inputs and outpiuts
You should be getting a sense that there is no one way to set up a mixer. Its really just a matrix of audio pathways that can be used to build up a sculpture of sound that is called a mix.

What is "In-Line Monitoring"

In line monitoring is a feature on some recording consoles, like the Mackie 24-8 or Behringer MX900 and Alesis Studio 32 that allows each channel strip to have 2 separate inputs, with a switch that sends either input to the fader on that channel. Usually, the input that is not selected goes to a knob on that channel where it can be turned up and be "monitored" on one of the busses. This is how 16 channel boards can have 32 inputs at mixdown. This is sometimes called a "Mix B" feature. The input for the Mix B channel is the "tape in" jack. On this kind of mixer there is a tape in on every channel.

"Balanced" ins and outs.

A mixer with balanced inputs and outputs allows you to connect gear that is balanced with XLR or 1/4 inch TRS cables. This essentially allows you to run cables in greater lengths, even to the next room, and not pick up hum or noise. Mixers with unbalanced ins and outs require shorter cable runs, and use 1/4 inch TS cables or RCA jacks. More on cables. If your audio interface has balanced inputs and outputs you may want a mixer with balanced inputs and outputs. Most mixers with balanced inputs will accept unbalanced cables too. So if you are using a soundcard with unbalanced RCAs you can still use a mixer with balanced inputs most of the time.

What's a Send and Return?  

A send is a major audio path that goes out of the mixer.  On each channel, ideally, there is a knob for each send so you can direct variable amounts of that channel to the pathway.  This can function as a separate monitor mix if you are doing a live show, where every player has a monitor in front of them.  Or in the recording situation, the send typically goes to an effects unit.  See the 4 turquoise knobs in the pic?  Those are sends.  And in my system, each knob goes to a separate hardware device. The signal is brought back to the mixer by the returns, then is added to the main signal. 

Creatively speaking, a send is a submix, do with it what you want.  You don't have to bring back the sends to their returns. You can bring them back to an empty channel where you can continue to process with EQ, or to a bus fader if you want.   You can use the returns like any other line input, patching in synths, other mixers, computer soundcards even your cd player, turntables, TV whatever.



Time Out: What is the difference between a "live" console and a "recording" console?

To really understand how these terms came into being you have to go back to the days when multi-track reel to reel recorders ruled.  Each channel of the recording mixer had to have a direct path to the recorder, called a "direct out".  Many recording consoles had a "Mix B" as well, which allowed the band's instruments and the recorder to share the same fader so you could press a button an monitor what was exactly being printed on the tape.  The early live mixers did not have these features.  Mix B is still a useful feature today, particularly if you have a 24 track digital recorder.  You'll find it on the Behringer MX9000, Mackie 8 bus series, to name two.

A live console may omit the direct outs and usually won't have a Mix B.  However, they will have busses like the recording mixer and will more than likely have inserts as well.  Many Live consoles will have global EQ, an EQ that affects the whole mix, as well as channel EQ.  Recording boards typically won't have global eq.  Finally, a live console may have more sends on it.  Sends are used live to send signals to stage monitors.  In the studio, they are typically sent to FX boxes.  They work the same way though.

OK, the all important questionCan you use a live console for recording to your DAW?

Answer:  Of course! Use the busses to get isolated signal to your DAW, soundcard, or audio interface.  They work the same way.  Or if you want, use the inserts to connect to the DAW with unbalanced cables.  Just shut off the global EQ. 

Rather than worry about the archaic category name of the mixer, focus on whether it has all the ins and outs you need.  Does it have enough busses?  Do you need direct outs? How many sends and returns, preamps do you need?  How is phantom power implemented? Are all the connections balanced? Which are not?  Those are the questions to ask.

Mixer Price List

Time Out: Don't Buy the Wrong Mixer!
A Quick Primer on Analog Mixers:

A 2+2 bus mixer typically has both main stereo outs and an "alt 3-4" or "subgroups out" for connecting to a soundcard. These are fine for using a computer as a recorder. Stereo mixers do not have this bus. I do not recommend them for computer multi-track recording A 4-bus mixer typically has main stereo outs plus two alt or subgroup busses. These are great if you have a soundcard or audio interface with more than 2 inputs.  However, some manufacturers call their 2+2 mixer 4-bus mixers because they count the main outs as 2 and the alt bus as two more.  So  be careful you might find some 2+2 mixers lurking the in zzounds 4-bus category.

Stereo and 2+2 Bus Mixers

4-Bus Mixers

8-Bus Mixers

Digital Mixers

Tweak's Mixer Showroom


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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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