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Choosing a Mixer

for your 
Home or Project Studio

by Rich the Tweak

Which Mixer?  Deciding on a Studio Center

Best Bang For the Buck

Behringer MX9000 Eurodesk Mixer
 TWEAK's PICK
The MX9000 mixer features an expander port for linking consoles, comprehensive monitoring facilities, and integrated meter bridge  Read the manual.  Online Brochure  Behringer writes:
Our largest console features 24 fully inline channels, each with an extensive MIC/LINE and a MIX B/TAPE RETURN path. The MIC/LINE path offers balanced mic and line inputs, an INVISIBLE MIC PREAMP, pad, inserts and a 4-band EQ with two semi-parametric mid-frequency bands, 15 dB of boost/attenuation plus low-cut filter. 6 aux sends are available (pre/post switchable in pairs), plus a pan pot, solo and mute functions, full routing options and 100-mm faders. The MIX B/tape return path features a dedicated 2-band shelving EQ, pan and level controls, mute function and access to aux sends 3 to 6. Tweak:  The MX9000 has been around for years at much higher prices.  The built in meter bridge is cool; it has TWO inputs for gooseneck little lights,  8 busses and the MIX B tape returns gives it the flexibility of 48 audio channels.  That's enough for all you synths, your multichannel audio interface, FX, tape machines, mics whatever.  This is a BIG board.  37" wide, 29.5 " deep. It's heavy too--70 lbs. It's solid steel. Nice layout. The knobs are well spaced where you can actually turn one without touching others.

It works wonderfully with my 8x8 delta 1010.  Read my review of this board for more

 And you can expand it with another board if you want. Very cool.  For example, I connected by Alesis Studio 32 (below) to my MX9000 and the sends and busses of the Alesis are merged with the sends and busses of the Behringer.  This gives me 80 channels at mixdown NOT counting the combined 10 stereo returns.  The best thing is how much you get for the price. If you have lots of gear to connect, record bands, or just want a discrete audio channel for all your tracks from your midi and audio sequencer, this board rocks.  I give it the coveted Tweak's Pick Award.

Big Features on a Budget 

Behringer MX3282A Eurodesk Mixer 32-channel (24 mic/4 stereo line) 8 bus console, 8 aux sends per channel (on 6 pots, 4-8 switching pre/post). Tweak:  No inline monitoring on this one, but with 32 inputs, you might not need it. 

Alesis Studio32  
The Studio 32 is a 16-channel, 4-group, inline monitor recording console which offers sonic quality and routing versatility that goes far beyond the capabilities of any mixer in its price range. As a true inline console, the Studio 32 lets you send 16 audio signals to a recorder and monitor 16 channels coming back from tape without re-patching. Its 16 hybrid/discrete phantom-powered mic preamplifiers offer excellent sonic quality, very low noise and high headroom with more than 60dB of gain, making it ideal for digital recording. Plus, these preamps are fed by 16 XLR inputs- one for each mic pre-making small mixer routing nightmares a thing of the past. Another highlight of the Studio 32 is its big console EQ section, providing low and high shelving controls and a powerful, fully-parametric mid-frequency control set with individual gain, sweep and Q controls.
Check Price... Tweak Writes:  The amazing thing about this board is its flexibility.  You can listen to your tape returns (or any other source) and your source tracks.  I studied this board a long time. And now I have it. And yep, I have 32 channels of synths running through it, all of which are available at mix down, along with 4 stereo returns.  If you are like me with too many synths so that digital mixing is out of the question, you should look at this board. The EQs are sweet and synthy with the q control and the headroom is excellent Here's a BIG Pic of the Alesis 32  Check out the manual.   There is also an excellent review at Sound on Sound.

Behringer MX3242X Eurorack Mixer The MX3242X features 100mm faders, 4-band EQ (2 swept mids) with low cut, and internal 24-bit DSP (12 rack spaces).  Read the manual  Online brochure  Behringer writes: Our largest “X-rack” sports 16 fully inline channels with INVISIBLE MIC PREAMPS and features rarely found in a rack-mountable mixer, like 100-mm faders and individual level meters. Six aux sends can be accessed from main channel and tape return path; two are pre/post switchable and four post-fader. The four stereo returns offer flexible routing options. The subgroup channels and main section are also fully outfitted, including talkback and independent metering. The built-in effects section delivers 32 algorithms in 24-bit quality to cover all of your basic effects needs. Tweak: This is a lot of mixer for the money. Newer than the Alesis 32, longer faders, better metering, onboard FX and inline channels makes this a really hot contender.  When I got my Alesis 32 this board was unavailable.  I have not heard it though, but if I liked the sound it could dethrone my board of choice. 

Mackie 1642VLZ PRO Professional Mic/Line Mixer (16x4x2) Got a small band without a sound man? Grab a few powered speakers and this board for a great PA. Manage a big keyboard rig with it. And it's tops for a drum sub-mixer. Project studios cramped for space or big studios that need an auxiliary pre-mix can find help here. Video producers, deejays, radio remotes, nightclubs...the list goes on. If you're seeing a picture develop that this legendary mixer is right for just about any application you throw at it, then you've got the right idea.

Mackie CFX20 Compact Mixer with Effects (20x4x1) Mackie's Digital Engineering staff contributed sophisticated EMA 32-bit digital effects that are the equal of outboard processors. They spent a ridiculous amount of time perfecting a graphic EQ section. And they packed the CFX Series mic/line mixers with extra features.

Visit Mackie.com

Going Digital?

 

Roland VMBasic 71 VM7100 VMixing Package  The VM-7100 is a processor with 10 analog inputs plus room for one 24 channel R-BUS expansion.  Tweak:  A touch of quality throughout

  Event EZBUS Audio Recording Interface With Digital Mixer
The EZbus is a massively powerful, very easy to use, gig bag-sized 24-bit digital mixer/interface/control surface with tremendous I/O flexibility and 8 independent channels of fully programmable dynamics processing on board. That's a real mouthful, but so is the EZbus.  Tweak:  You connect this to your computer via s/pdif to an soundcard (not included) or an ADAT PCi card.  Click the pic to read up on it.

click for DDX3216 Site Behringer DDX3216 Digital Mixer
32 channels. 16 busses. Analog feel.
 It's NEW and it's Here! The DDX3216 represents an affordable, fully automated 32-channel, 16-bus digital console with 8 aux sends and unusually flexible routing options. Incorporating the latest technology developments in digital signal processing, the DDX3216 is destined to challenge the best analog and digital consoles on the market Read up on Behringer's Site  Tweak: 100-mm motorized faders, built in effects, plus Compressor/limiter plus gate, 4-band parametric EQ, sweepable high-pass and phase reverse on all 32 channels

The Intermediates

Spirit by Soundcraft RW5633 M12 12-Mono 4-Stereo Channel Mixer

In a world full of cheap compact mixers, Soundcraft has achieved something exceptional with the new Spirit M Series. Equally suited to recording and live sound applications, the Spirit M Series delivers a great-sounding, reliable performance, session after session, mix after mix. A mixer for life. Tweak: Analog board with a S/PIDF output.  Very cool feature

The Little Ones

Behringer MX802A Eurorack Mixer  This little mixer is great for the person with one or two synths and a few mics who records direct into an audio sequencer.  

If you need a mixer that can simultaneously send audio sources to the soundcard AND mix the outputs of the soundcard with other devices like FX boxes and MIDI synths, and record your synths as audio at the touch of a button, then you need a mixer with an additional bus (sometimes called the ALT 3-4 bus).  The Behringer 1604 (below) and 2004 has this feature.  So does the Mackie 1202, 1402, and many others.  Having an ALT 3-4 bus is one of those things that greatly enhances your rig's flexibility and makes using your computer as a multi track recorder much easier.

Behringer MX1604A 12-Channel Mixing Console  Tweak: This is your basic, entry-level mixer for recording audio on the computer.  It has the special "alt 3-4" bus that makes recording on the computer simple.  Do NOT settle for less than this if recording audio on a computer with a soundcard.

Mackie DFX6 6-Channel Mixer with Effects  The new DFX mixers are designed specifically for solo or small performing groups that don't have the luxury of a front-of-house sound technician—those die-hard do-it-yourselfers that manage their own set-up and tear-down while possessing the uncanny ability to simultaneously make music and control their own audio mix. All knobs are color-coded and can be easily identified at a glance.

Samson Mixpad 9
Features 9 total inputs, 3 balanced mic/line inputs, 3 stereo line inputs, 2 band EQ, and 2 aux sends. 
Check price.  Tweak writes: Good little box for tweaking out multiple outs on a sampler or big synth

Too Many Synths?  Not enough Mixer Channels?

Lovely Item! Alesis Studio 12R 12-Channel Mixer and Microphone PreampThe Studio 12R is a 12-channel, rack-mountable mixing console that offers eight ultra-high-quality microphone preamps, balanced XLR inputs, phantom power, and 60mm faders on each channel. These factors make the Studio 12R equally valuable as a tool for home/project studio recording as it is for instrument line mixing, remote broadcast applications, and permanent installation in live sound venues.

 Samson PL1602 Rackmount MixerA great way to add more inputs with mixing capability to keyboard setups, small live sound systems, techno bands, and multimedia situations, the PL1602 is a highly practical audio tool for all kinds of professionals. Transparent audio and useful features make this mixer an ideal add-on for any kind of application.

Rolls RM203 Stereo Line Mixer The RM203 has 10 channels of stereo inputs, a tape input and output provided via stereo RCA jacks, and a mono auxiliary send and stereo returns for 20 total 1/4 in. inputs. Each channel has a clip indication. Other features include headphone output and master output level control. Tweak: Great for studios with lots of outboard gear, synths, recorders.

So lets get back to earth.  On your left you see a whole bunch of mixers.  Lets come at the "Which Mixer?" from a different perspective.  The beginner needs to decide what is going to be the center of the studio.  Traditionally, it's the mixing desk, where all the outputs of everything is matrixed with all the inputs.  Today, however, you may decide to 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.  And there is yet a third path, opened by the advent of the newer digital mixers with automation where one gets all the benefits of computer assisted mixing while retaining the fidelity of an outboard mixdown with its accessibility to higher quality outboard gear. 

Time Out! 

What does a Mixer actually do?     A mixer 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.

What's a Bus? A bus is a major pathway to a single fader.  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 is a switch 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 sometimes grouped in pairs, like the 1-2 bus, 3-4 bus, etc.  There is also a switch, usually, 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 an audio interface.  Yet you can also be very creative with them, such as sending them to samplers, grooveboxes with analog inputs, surround encoders, separate compressors and more.

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 the 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.  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.   

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.

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.

I Just want to get stuff recorded on my Computer.  What do I need?

You can record sources to your computer with just a mic preamp.  But it also makes sense to use a small mixer here. If you need a mixer that can simultaneously send audio sources to the soundcard AND mix the outputs of the soundcard with other devices like FX boxes and MIDI synths, and record your synths as audio at the touch of a button, then you need a mixer with an additional bus (sometimes called the ALT 3-4 bus).  The Behringer 1604 (left) and 2004 has this feature.  So does the Mackie 1202, 1402, and many others.  Having an ALT 3-4 bus is one of those things that greatly enhances your rig's flexibility and makes using your computer as a multi track recorder much easier.

Buying a mixer is probably the most difficult choice for the home and project studio, as no piece of gear has as many ramifications for the future path of your studio as the mixer does. The larger your enterprise, the tougher the call as you only want to buy a main mixer once.  So how many channels do you need?  Conventional wisdom answers: one more than you currently have.  :) OK, stop rolling on the floor already.  You should build in a little room to grow.  Maybe more than a little.  You will buy more gear again (after you recover from credit shock). 

Is a mixer even necessary for your rig? Maybe not. If you are doing everything in the digital domain of your computer with a sequencer like Logic 5.0 or Sonar or VST, and you have a multi input audio interface, it certainly is possible to simply connect your sources to the interface and your outputs to a monitoring system.  With new control surfaces like Logic Control, or Houston, you can have a hardware mixer like surface to control all the software mixing.  Just get a good preamp for your mics.  However, you may want to have a mixer to if you have lots of synths, mics, or use quality outboard gear like reverbs and delays, or have compressors, pedals and other stuff you like to patch.  You can also route 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 turns your software mixer into a pre-mixer and your analog board into the final polishing mixer.

So what's the big differences between all these mixers?  Typically, in mixers, you get what you pay for, and you really can't go by specs.  Quality components cost money, so does rugged, reliable construction.  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. 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. 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 and are great work surfaces, and they have their much hyped XDR preamps, which will not let you down.  But in experienced hands all the mixers shown will improve your audio by allowing you to tastefully level individual parts, add effects, and blend sounds. 

Going to digital mixing is not a decision you want to make lightly.  The question: is the perceived audio result worth the trouble of learning yet another gear language, dealing with menus and submenus, just to make something 3 db hotter?  It's not for everyone.  Many of the functions of a digital mixer can be had without one. MIDI sequencers can do volume fades, effects fades, and can automate virtual effects sends and returns, pans, even eq sweeps. If you are planning to do automation at the sequencer level, do you really need another layer of automation after that?  I say no.  However, if you are interfacing a stand alone multi track recorder that does not have an onboard mixer (or only has a simple one) such as an ADAT, Roland, Mackie, Korg or Tascam 8, 16 or 24 track recorder, then you bet, a digital mixer will let you automate your rough tracks and polish them down to sweetness. And for the true die-hard tweaks who want every nuance of their mix recallable, including bus destinations, internal effects settings, onboard eq and compression settings, a digital mixer will reward them with consistent, repeatable performance.

Yet, it pays to carefully research compatibility. Here's where you get into issues like ADAT lightpipes, TDIF, S/PDIF and other digital audio piping schemes. Here's where you need to hit the newsgroups and find out what people are saying that have the gear you are thinking of getting.  Pay attention to horror stories of digital interfacing.    Join the mailing lists that address the gear you want.  The answers are out there. And people that spend thousands on digital gear are usually quite vocal when something doesn't work as advertised. Fortunately, as of 2002, many of the early gremlins are behind us and a good digital mixer makes an awesome centerpiece for the modern studio. 

Perhaps the main advantage of going digital is that you can keep your signal path totally in the digital domain all the way to the computer.  True?  Well yes.  If.  That is, if most of your studio is digital.  If you like to use global inserts on the mix bus, that is, route the master out through a compressor, exciter, eq, you better make sure it's digital too, or you will be doing extra da/ad conversions.  Read up on the quality of analog to digital converters, this is a picky point with the pros. Also double check on the number of analog inputs you get.  Its very common for a piece to tout 24 channels but only have 8 analog inputs.  When you add in the price of 2 extra analog expander modules to take you to 24 you find yourself at a premium price point over and above a classy 48 input analog dream board. Don't think that because the board is "analog" that it is "old" and not as good.  People love the dedicated faders knobs, the warm sound, and the immediate response of the sound to the twist of a tweak.    

Which Mixer is right for you?  That's the tough question.  So lets get to it. 

Are you using a modular multi-track like an Alesis ADAT, or a hard disk recorder like an HR 24?  If the multi track has no mixer of its own, then you will need either a large mixer or a digital mixer with the right number of channels.  Count up the number of tracks.  You will need that many channels to play them all at one.  Now add more channels for inputs to the multi track recorder.  This is where boards with "in line monitoring" come in useful. (see sidebar, right).   Digital mixers make a lot of sense here.

If you are using a computer sequencer as a recorder, then a small mixer or just a good preamp is fine.  However, keep in mind if you are adding lots of outboard hardware, then you too will benefit for a larger console.  If you are doing digital mixing in the sequencer then a digital mixer is not necessary.  Read my article on mixing in the digital domain for more ideas on this  The more synths you have, the larger the mixer you will want.  Though it is not necessary to get a full tilt 32 channel recording console.  Since it is just synths, you can get by with rackmount sub mixer or even a patchbay if you don't mind all the plugging and unplugging.  If you are planning to record 2-3 musicians into the computer simultaneously, make sure you have at least that many audio interface inputs and preamps going to your computer.  A mixer that sums to stereo is NOT going to cut it here.  You need one with as many busses as performers.  (4 musicians=4 busses).  Each musician gets there own mono channel, assigned to a bus out to a separate channel on the audio interface. That way, in the sequencer, each will have their own isolated track.

If you are using a digital multi track that already has a built in mixer, you might only need a rackmount mixer for your arsenal of synths.  You can route different sources to different tracks easily.  Just make sure you have enough preamps to cover your mics.

Reference some Pro Mixers

 

 

The Sony Oxford Console

 

Fairlight Dream Console

DREAM Console

If you intend to record a full band in your studio, you need a board that can handle lots of mics and instruments simultaneously and let you listen to tracks already recorded.  Remember the drum kit might take 4-5 mics itself.  You'll probably need to send a monitor mix out one of the busses, have inserts on every channel for patching stuff in during mixdown, generous sends and returns. 

Mixing is like sculpting.  Something the hands do on a board.  This is why analog boards remain popular.  While these craftsmen may be the last to think they need a digital mixer, they are probably the most suited to realize their benefits, the biggest of which is to be able save and collect these beautiful, hand carved mixdown configurations, with all the send and returns set just right, recallable when the need arises.  Professionals doing film scores already know this.  They don't want to waste time remaking the scenes that come up again and again in their work.  It allows them to have templates for the may types of music they are called upon to make.  

To sum up for now, mixing music is an art form. It is the control surface for your musical ear. Consider that first.  Be careful not to take on more technology than your vision inspires, yet remember with mixers you want to cover your future needs as well as your current needs. Yet if you envision a music that takes the most sophisticated of tools to get where you want it to be, follow your flow.  After all, its just a flow of electrons disturbing the air in ways we have associated with pleasure. 

MORE MIXERS ON PAGE 2


The New Behrs on the Block

Behringer UB2442FX Pro 24 Input Mixer with FX  This is the big cajuna of the whole UB Series. You get all the features you’d expect in an ultra high-quality compact mixer: 16 balanced high-headroom line inputs with dedicated gain controls on stereo channels 13-16, 10 new state-of-the-art, studio-grade IMP “Invisible” Mic Preamps, and an effective, extremely musical 3-band EQ with semi-parametric mid band plus switchable low-cut filter on all mono channels. There is also an integrated 24-bit digital stereo FX processor with 99 great-sounding Virtualizer presets.  Tweak:  The critcal line in the sales info: "4 subgroups with separate outputs for added routing flexibility" 

Behringer UB1204FX Pro Eurorack 12 Input Mixer with FX Essentially an expanded version of the UB1204-PRO. It has all the same features as found in the UB1204-PRO, plus an integrated 24-bit digital stereo FX processor with 99 great-sounding VIRTUALIZER presets. There are also solo and PFL functions on all channels as well as a pre/post fader switchable aux send for monitoring/FX applications. Tweak:  A great solution for computer multi-tracking with a soundcard If you don;t want the Virtualizer FX, you can save money by getting the UB1204
 

Behringer UB502 Eurorack 5 Input Mixer It may be small, but the UB502 features the same state-of-the-art Invisible Mic Preamp (IMP) and the same Ultra low-noise (ULN) design for highest possible headroom as its larger brethren. Its one mono channel plus 2 stereo channels with a 2-band EQ on the mono channel make it ideal for use with fixed audio installations as well as keyboards, samplers and computer application. Hobby musicians and video makers will also find use for this ultra-compact mixer. Tweak:  The new little guy. For those with small setups.  If you just need to get a synth and a mic to your soundcard, this will do. 

Other new Behringers

Behringer UB802 Eurorack 8 Input Mixer

Behringer UB1002 Eurorack 10 Input Mixer

Behringer UB1622FX Pro Eurorack 16 Input Mixer with FX

Behringer UB1832FX Pro Eurorack 18 Input Mixer with FX

Behringer UB2222FX Pro Eurorack 22 Input Mixer with FX

 

 

 


Recommended Reading

Want to talk about Mixers? See what others think?
Join the discussion at Studio-Central! 

The Perfect Mix  And notes on Post production

Rich the TweakMeister