You would certainly need to understand the workings of a PA system if you’re in a band, have a home studio, or if you’re simply starting to work live sound.
There are different types of mixers purpose-built for scenarios from live streaming at home to playing a 100,000 large crowd. While you could rig something up to work with most mixers, you will undeniably benefit from finding the right tool for the job.
Once you get past the jargon and the shock of being faced with -so many- buttons, you’ll see that mixers are quite simple devices.
Mixers come in a variety of sizes and quality, and while we’d all love a Yamaha CS-R10, that may not work out financially for everyone. Today, companies like Behringer, Allen and Heath, Soundcraft and Yamaha all create well priced, high functionality mixers for any setup. Our buying guide will help you figure out what you need and make sure you have the right mixer for the job.
Consider answering these questions, which may help you understand essential features and ascertain value for money.
What is your budget?
What is your use case for the mixer?
Is this mixer for a specific purpose, like a studio mixer, musical theater use or live-streaming?
Do you need lots of inputs/outputs?
Do you need a USB/Firewire connection?
Basic Mixer Features
At the basic level, a mixer takes audio signals and adjusts the volumes as required. Mixers also act as an audio leveling tool, changing microphone level signals to line-level signals, meaning, you can make microphones loud enough to compete with louder keyboards and synthesizers.
The Mixer Channel and the Preamp and Inserts
Mixers have a varying number of channels where audio can be manipulated. Mixers range in the number of input channels they have, and this is an essential distinction to consider when purchasing a set. Depending on your circumstances, you may need anywhere from two to 20+ channels. Prices tend to correlate to the number of channels, so if you are on a budget, you’ll want to pick a mixer based on the amount of input you need and no more.
When selecting a mixer, ensure that it has the correct amount of XLR and 1/4” jack inputs per your use case.
Preamps are important. If your mixer cannot supply enough gain, you may not be able to use the microphones you have at your disposal.
After the preamp, you have your Insert stage - this allows you to ‘insert’ other equipment into the signal path, like a compressor or a gate.
After the preamp and insert stage, you come to the EQ stage of the mixer. This is more important to some users than others. DJ mixers, for example, have a more substantial EQ. EQ bands on DJ mixers can ‘kill’ a frequency band, reducing it to disastrous levels. This allows you to mix two songs with conflicting baselines together, adding to the sonic creation of the DJ. Other mixers have more subtle effects and allow you to smooth out frequencies that are too loud or quiet.
Auxiliaries - or Sends and Returns
Auxiliary channels are channels you can use for effects that apply to multiple channels. Sends do exactly what they say on the tin - send signals from one area of the mixer to another. This is helpful if you are using the mixer to send a reference to performers or adding external effects units to your signals. These signals are then returned to the desk via the return channels.
Faders and Outputs
The faders at the bottom of the channel strip are used to reduce and augment the volume of the signal on each channel. These are what you use for the actual mixing of the music. It’s important to have high-quality faders. Faders come in different lengths and widths, but we recommend the larger and wider ones.
You will have one fader for each output channel, return channel and a master fader.
The outputs of the mixer are also significantly important as sound often needs to be routed to multiple places like external FX units, foldback monitors for the band, headphone mixes, and the archival of live recordings.
With this in mind, it is vital to make sure you get the right outputs on a mixer for you. If you require SPDIF, USB/Firewire out or other lesser-known outputs, make sure that the mixer you are purchasing has that.
There’s a whole host of other things mixers can do, but these vary from model to model. Commonly added extras include feedback reduction, added Digital FX and motorized faders.
If you are a gigging musician or a sound engineer with a band that travels frequently, you’ll need something portable, light and powerful. We love the Behringer QX1222USB for precisely that. It has fantastic preamps, 12 inputs, and a wide variety of outputs for most common situations. With a quality built-in digital FX and USB audio interfacing for mobile recordings, you can put on a professional show without breaking the bank or your back carrying this around.
Large Form Console
If you are looking for a mixer that can handle the demands of a large venue, like a gig venue or a theater, we think the Soundcraft SI Impact console is a fantastic fit for you. Soundcraft has a field record for quality goods that are durable and can take a beating. Keep in mind that the gear used in a large venue must tick all the boxes above.
With 32 channels, you’ll be able to engineer large bands, sessions and theater performances, not having to skimp on microphone placements for effects and drum kits. The high-quality preamps inside this desk also means that everything will be captured perfectly.
Further helping this desk is the fact you can control it using your iPad, changing levels and recording things on the go, which is pretty helpful if you are short-staffed or need to move around the stage while setting up an act. This desk is easily one of the best professional mixers that offer notable value for money.
Beginner Options - Digital Mixers
Our previous two suggestions have been for people that understand in great detail the process of setting up and engineering a gig. Still, they might be a little intimidating for those less experienced in live sound.
Digital desks like the Behringer X32 Producer or the QSC TouchMix8 are incredibly helpful for the beginner sound engineer as these mixing desks can take some of the difficult tasks out of sound engineering. Digital mixers often have built-in feedback reduction, lots of integrated presets for mixing instruments that are designed for a step by step approach. These mixers are incredibly useful for travelling musicians, smaller events, church systems and any other situation where sound reinforcement is required without the presence of a sound engineer.
Choosing the right mixer for the job is easy enough when you decide what you need. Ensure you pick a reputable manufacturer to avail their after-sales services, durability, and of course, name-brand recognition.
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