Mixers and Home Recording

Bobbsy

Boring Old Git
A recurring theme of questions here on HR is about mixers. "What mixer should I choose?" "How do I hook up my mixer?" "Why doesn't my mixer sound good?" (and all sorts of variations of the above.) Anyway, I thought I'd try to set down some mixer information in one place.

The first and most important thing to know is that YOU DON'T NEED A MIXER FOR HOME RECORDING. There are some reasons why a mixer might be convenient and aid your work flow--but unless you choose the right mixer and use it properly, many of these reasons aren't valid.

REASONS YOU MIGHT WANT TO USE A MIXER

-You have multiple instruments and the mixer lets you connect them all at once without lots of patching.

-You find it more convenient to set and ride levels with a fader than in software or with little knobs on an interface.

-You are fussy about headphone monitoring during recording and like the convenience of a mixer for setting it up.

-You like having specific knobs to control headphone monitoring, pre fade listen, etc.

-You buy an expensive mixer that can work as a control surface with your DAW.

-Some mixers can replace an interface and feed USB/Firewire/Something else straight into your computer.

REASONS MAYBE YOU SHOULDN'T USE A MIXER

-Cheap ones have rubbish pre-amps that will add noise and reduce headroom.

-Routing options on cheap ones can be limiting and cause more problems than they solve.

-Cheapies don't have direct outs (which are needed to allow you to record multiple tracks).

-Cheapies don't have (or don't have enough) pre fade auxes for effective headphone monitoring set up.

So, other than looking sexy beside your lava lamp, a mixer can be more trouble than it's worth. You may well be better off with a decent interface that handles as many inputs as you need.

Still want a mixer?

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A MIXER FOR HOME RECORDING

1. Inputs

Work out how many sources you need and how many of these need mic pre amps (some mixers claim "16 inputs" but half of these are line level sources).

2. Quality

Microphone pre amps seem simple but have to do a lot. Poor ones can add extra noise (background hiss) to your recordings and also restrict the headroom you have making them prone to clipping. If that 16 channel mixer for the same price as a 2 channel interface seems too good to be true, it probably is--and the pre amps are a good place to cut costs at the manufacturer.

3. Routing to your Computer

You have a few options here. You can buy a conventional mixer and an interface with the appropriate number of inputs and outputs to connect between your mixer and computer. The interface inputs you need to connect a mixer are line level so you can save some money by not buying one with mic pre amps. Working this way, you'll need a mixer with some form of direct outs on each channel if you want to multitrack. If you just want the mixer for home recording, a mixer with the direct outs post fader is probably your best bet. If you want to record live performances and use the same mixer for the live mix, look for one with the direct out post pre amp, pre fader.

Note that it is possible to use the Insert jacks on some mixers like direct outs. This will need either a special cable (recommended) or just pushing a jack half way into the socket (always risky). Insert jacks are almost always pre fader when you consider this option...but always check.

Otherwise you can consider some of the mixers with built in USB or Firewire converters. However, BEWARE! The majority of these (at least in the economy range) only send the main mix output to the computer and also can have limitation as to what you can do with the return signal from the computer. If the return only goes to the main mix, it becomes useless for monitoring when recording. Don't laugh. A lot of cheap mixers are wired this way. Check the spec very carefully before buying--and don't trust the salesman.

At the higher end of things, consider a digital mixer. This could be a topic in its own right but, done properly, this can be a good way to convert your signals to digital then get them to your computer via ADAT, Ethernet or several other protocols.

4. Routing in the Mixer

Consider what you need when you're recording and also mixing.

When you record, you need to route the signal(s) out of your mixer into the computer but you also need to listen to any existing tracks and route these to headphones for yourself (and, potentially, everyone else in your band). If you're just doing the recording, you likely want to be able to give one or more mixes to the musicians but be able to swap between sources, mixes and anything else in your control room feed.

A good way to handle the headphone mixes is with a facility known as a "pre fade aux". You need a separate pre fade aux for each different monitor mix you want. Turn up the pre fade aux for each channel being recorded and also for any returns from the computer (the faders for these channels stay off so you don't feed them back into the mix).

Similarly, it's very useful if your mixer includes "pre fade listen" capability on each Aux output, letting you check each Aux mix at the desk.

Finally, consider how you will hook up and control your monitor speakers. Good mixers have separate monitor outs with a dedicated control so you can turn them off when recording and up again to listen to your recorded take.

5. Use as a Control Surface

Some mixers, particularly digital ones, can send and receive MIDI commands, allowing them to act a a controller for your DAW. In this mode, user buttons on you mixer can operate the transport controls (Play, Stop, etc.) on your DAW and the faders can be used to control the "virtual" faders on the software mixer in your DAW. However, this only applies to some very specific (and expensive) mixers such as some of the Yamaha digital range, some big Studers, Protools/Digidesign specifically for Protools, etc. I don't know any at the economy end of the market that have this facility. If you are buying specifically for this, be aware that there are some dedicated control surfaces (for example a Behringer BCF2000) which can do this for you--but don't actually do any mixing themselves.

Before assuming you want to use anything as a control surface, make sure your DAW is compatible! Not can even do this and not all have the right protocols for every control surface.


In summary, think carefully about whether you even need a mixer--and if you decide to go that route, check every details of the spec of the ones you're considering. All mixers are NOT created equal and very often the cheap one the guy at the music store tries to sell you will be more trouble than it's worth. My advice would be that, unless you can buy a mixer with a decent list of facilities, you're probably better off with a good interface.

Hope this helps!
 
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jimmys69

MOODerator
Good work, can we also perhaps cull a couple of the other stickies whilst we're here, 6 is too many, I reckon and there are a couple which have outlived their usefulness..

Cheers

I agree. I unstuck my US800 thread. It was a seasonal sticky anyway. It's buying flowers time now. :)

What seems spent to you?
 

grimtraveller

If only for a moment.....
What seems spent to you?
This one, because it sort of happens in any event and not everyone is comfortable doing it, prefering to blood in slowly, this one because though it was a good idea conceptually, in reality and actuality it's just too higgledy piggledy {although I would turn Guitaristic's last post into a sticky of it's own to which other books could be added} and this one, because it's a good thread, a handy topic but no longer necessarilly something vital to know when embarking on recording. The questions that often turn up show that people are taking the topic into account.
 

grimtraveller

If only for a moment.....
YOU DON'T NEED A MIXER FOR HOME RECORDING.
There are some reasons why a mixer might be convenient and aid your work flow......

-You have multiple instruments and the mixer lets you connect them all at once without lots of patching.


-Some mixers can replace an interface and feed USB/Firewire/Something else straight into your computer.
Like the intro to interfaces, Bobbsy's is a good piece, well thought through and well written.

I think the golden age of recording {let's say, the 50s to the 90s} has had such an imprint on so many minds that it's hard for some of us to fully grasp just how much the tools if not the mechanics of recording, have changed from the enchantingly magnificent dream machines that we grew up adoring, desiring and salivating over. When you're middle aged and you sit next to a young guy at a garage and see him watching a documentary about the genetic predisposition to violence on his iPad, you can no longer avoid the reality that the world has not only changed, but continues to do so !
I'm still a believer that old technology can sit alongside the new but I'm acutely aware that whether I believe it or not is becoming less relevant. Manufacturers and developers will see to that. There will one day be only an aged relative few that remember, let alone can use, hardware mixers in recording because to a large extent, they've been rendered unnecessary {note, I never said useless or obsolete}. They'll be like cassette portastudios or black and white tube TVs.
That day has not yet arrived so if you do have a mixer, enjoy it. One day you might earn good money showing the younger generation how they work !!
 

Track Rat

Dungeon Studio
If I started making $1000 a week right now I should break even in about....oh say..... 30 years.
 

DrumRookie

"That" kid.
If I started making $1000 a week right now I should break even in about....oh say..... 30 years.

0_o Wow... That comes out to approximately $1,565,323.

Well, good luck with that! :P
Maybe you'll save up enough to retire by oh, say, 80?
 

Hakea

New member
Very useful post!. Good one Bobbsy. :)

The only thing that I'd suggest adding is just a bit more clarification (or emphasis) about the difference between a CONTROL SURFACE and a MIXER as it seems to be common for newcomers not to understand the difference.

From reading posts here I think that many newbies buy a cheap mixer thinking that all those attractive knobs and sliders can be used to control the mixing in their DAW, and then get baffled when they can't figure out how to hook it up to do that.

Cheers,

Chris
 

Bobbsy

Boring Old Git
Good point, Hakea. I've done an edit to add a section about "mixers as a control surface" which should clear this up.
 

arcadeko

Illuminatius Overlordious
Maybe we could integrate this with the interface thread or something - I think one thing that we take for granted and newbs do not understand is that a mixer is not an interface, an interface is not usually a mixer, although some interfaces have mixers... Anyway - to make it more complicated it can be very difficult to tell the difference from a glance at a piece of equipment - you have to read the specs... so we need to really clearly explain the difference between the two and which is appropriate for which task.


forgot to mention: Nice job Bobbsy
 
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Very useful post!. Good one Bobbsy. :)

The only thing that I'd suggest adding is just a bit more clarification (or emphasis) about the difference between a CONTROL SURFACE and a MIXER as it seems to be common for newcomers not to understand the difference.

From reading posts here I think that many newbies buy a cheap mixer thinking that all those attractive knobs and sliders can be used to control the mixing in their DAW, and then get baffled when they can't figure out how to hook it up to do that.

Cheers,

Chris

I know I was guilty of thinking that when I first got here lol. :p

Luckily no one bit my head off for asking the difference between the two :o
 

deaf clef pro

New member
So I'll be the one to ask...what is a "DAW"? Digital Audio Workstation? Dirty Aging Woman? Driver-Angled Wedge? I get that an interface is just a device to interpret and consolidate the signals from individual inputs to a digital fomat a computer can use and am attracted to the idea of a mixer which also serves that function for simplicity's sake (one les peice of equipment generating RF and sucking up AC voltage). Some more questions to show my sheer ignorance...what's "line-level" and "headroom"? I know a pre-amp is a device which adds overall gain to an incoming signal and have experinced the limitations of crummy pre-amps (a donated Art Tube MP Project Series which is very noisy).
 

Bobbsy

Boring Old Git
Well, in this context, DAW is, indeed, "Digital Audio Workstation" in this context (though I prefer "Delicious Australian Wine").

An interface is exactly that: a device to interface from analogue audio signals to digital information a computer can handle and back again so you can listen to your stuff. Most interfaces have three main functions built in: mic pre amps to bring your mic signals up to line level for processing, analogue to digital converters to change the line level signals to digits for the computer (plus digital to analogue so you can play stuff back) and some form of monitoring system so you can hear a mix of playback and the material you're recording in your headphones. Note I said "most" interfaces--you always need to check the specs carefully to make sure a feature you need hasn't been left out.

Line level is the typical signal level used by audio equipment like mixers, CD players, etc. for processing and outputting audio. It's referenced to a specific voltage of signal? What voltage? It depends. There are slightly different specs used by professional gear and amateur equipment and some variations from country to country and application to application. If you want to read up on it, there's a good Wiki article on this topic. However, suffice to say that line level had enough voltage to travel over fairly long cables and be relatively resistant to interference. Typically, devices that output line level plug into mains electricity or at least have a battery pack to provide power.

There are two other main "standard" levels you'll hear talked about: mic level and instrument level. The output of microphones is a very low level--typically 40 to 60dB less than line level. This is because the output is generated (or at least modulated in the case of condensers) by the small movements caused by sound pressure waves in the air. As such, mic level signals are more prone to interference over any distance. This is why mic level signals need to be brought up to line level by a mic pre amp, hopefully as early in the chain as possible. Instrument level is what you get from things like electric guitars or pickups on violins. It sort of sits half way between mic level and line level.

Headroom is the difference between the nominal signal level and the point at which electronics run out of steam and start to clip. In the analogue world, this is typically around 18dB above line level but every bit of gear is different. I've seen some pro gear that claims 22 or 24dB above line level--and other stuff the clips at as little as 10 or 12dB above line level. Headroom in the chain, particularly with live mics, is important since it's quite common for a vocalist to idle along at a certain level, then suddenly get hugely louders briefly. There are faqs here on the site that give details of what levels you're working at.

If you decide to go the mixer route, I strongly recommend you read and head the advice in this sticky about checking how many outputs your mixer has and also the routing options for headphone monitoring. These seem to be the two weak points of a lot of economy mixers (a third being noisy pre amps of course).
 
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