How to pick the best mixer for live gigsMark Ellis
As much as we love line arrays, big amps and system controllers, an audio engineer is never going to get particularly far without the humble mixing desk.
They’re the hub of any live audio gig into which every input and output connects. They’re sweated over during the performance, tweaked, fiddled, occasionally bashed and monitored almost constantly.
Put simply, the mixer plays perhaps the most crucial role when it comes to ‘gluing’ a gig together.
But how do you pick the right one? More importantly, if you’re completely new to the world of pro audio, or have started a band and need some technical input, how do you avoid choosing something that ends up causing more problems than it’s worth?
We think it all starts with a basic understanding of mixing desk terminology and the types that are currently on the market. With such knowledge in hand, you can make better informed purchased decisions and ask the right questions of retailers.
So, to set yourself on course to find the right mixing solution, read on!
Basic mixer terminology
Think of a channel as a signal path. Mixers will have a set number of channels (8, 16, 32, 64 are common form factors) and each one will be put to use by accepting a signal from either an instrument, microphone or some other source of sound such as a laptop.
Faders are attached to channels, and act as the most convenient way to raise and lower volumes during performance. They’re the things over which a sound engineer’s fingers constantly hover.
This is a group of controls or devices that act together to affect the audio signal that passes through a channel.
Let’s take a mic, for example. The vocalist may want some reverb, while the engineer knows a dab of compression and bottom end roll-off will result in a decent mix. In that scenario, an FX unit, compressor and EQ will be the devices applied to the vocalist’s channel strip.
The number of inputs and outputs on the mixer will be greatly determined by how you intend to use it.
For live music, for example, you’ll need enough inputs to handle the number of instruments and singers and adequate outputs to feed the front of house PA and monitor setup.
When using external FX, compressors and EQ, you’ll also need to account for additional inputs dedicated to accepting and processing signals from those devices (often known as auxiliary returns).
A bus is essentially a collection of channels that have been grouped together in order for the resulting, combined signal to be controlled ‘as one’. They’re often referred to as ‘groups’, too.
A great example of this in practice is drum mixing. Chances are, you’ll have the individual parts of the drum kit miked separately and therefore entering the mixer on individual channels. By sending each one of those channels to a master drum bus channel, you end up with one fader for drums which can be easily controlled, volume-wise, and which can have effects applied en-masse.
Analogue mixers vs digital and software mixers
Analogue mixers have been around since the early days of sound recording, while the digital variants started to make themselves known in the early 90s.
More recently, virtualised software mixers have entered the fray. So, what’s right for you? Here’s a bite-sized low-down:
- Analogue mixers. Generally low-cost, although somewhat more cumbersome than their digital and software brethren. Engineers still tend to favour these because of the presence of physical, twiddle-able knobs and faders.
- Digital mixers. Digital mixers are more commonplace these days and are lighter and more compact than their analogue forefathers due to fewer physical components. That means knobs and faders are usually swapped for touchscreen controls and software updates (the latter enables new functionality to be added without re-buying the entire unit, which is nice).
- Software mixers. Generally used for recording within apps such as Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, software mixers are based entirely on-screen and rely on a decently configured laptop or desktop PC to run. Rarely found in live audio situations as the main mixer, but their future may be bright.
Final thought: to go powered or not to go powered?
This choice is relatively straightforward. A powered mixer includes the amp, and that means no lugging around extra kit and a mixer/amp package that works in perfect harmony. For gigging bands, it’s the obvious choice.
If you’re a live audio engineer, however, you may prefer the configurability and flexibility offered by a separate mixer/amp setup – particularly if someone else is doing the carrying!
We hope you’ve found this guide useful, but if you need any further advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch!