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Live Sound & Recording Mixers 101

Live Sound & Recording Mixers 101

Overview

There are currently many different types of live sound mixers available on today’s market, serving a wide variety of applications. At their most basic, Line Mixers will allow you to mix anywhere from four to sixteen stereo line-level input signals to a stereo output. But while some of these handy devices will also allow you to split one stereo mix to multiple stereo outputs with independent level controls, there is no EQ (tone control) or onboard effects capability.


On the other end of the spectrum, you have a wide variety of Digital Mixers; some of which provide up to 40 inputs, near limitless routing options, onboard DSP (Digital Sound Processing), motorized faders, recallable settings, etc. And then you have everything else in between, including analog and digital designs with various amounts of inputs and processing; as well as mixers that provide amplification for passive speakers.


Of course, PhotoSavings carries them all — but our goal here is to help you narrow down your choices based on your specific needs. So let’s start by discussing the various mixer types available and their most common applications. For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume that you already know the difference between Inputs and Outputs; Mic versus Line inputs; what a Fader is; and that you possess a basic understanding of Equalization (EQ) and Digital Signal Processing (DSP). If any of these terms are unfamiliar to you, there are a number of very good primers available online.


Analog Mixers

Analog Mixers typically have rows of knobs and/or faders that are dedicated to specific channel or bus functions. Unlike Digital Mixers, there is no sharing of knobs or faders. Everything is laid out directly in front of you — just reach out and adjust a specific function for an individual channel or output bus. This very intuitive user interface is one of the main benefits of Analog Mixers. However, it also results in a much larger footprint that may not work for larger bands or small home studios.


As the name would imply, audio signals remain in the analog domain throughout the entire signal chain within an Analog Mixer — which is another disadvantage, as they are typically a bit noisier than their Digital counterparts. There is also no capability to control your mix remotely or to save your settings from one show to the next. But Analog Mixers are relatively inexpensive as compared to Digital, and they may offer all the functionality you need for your particular application.


Digital Mixers

Digital Mixers convert analog input signals to digital via Analog to Digital Converters (ADCs). As such, there is a minimum of noise or degradation as the signal passes through the electronics. Signals are typically output as analog via Digital to Analog Converters (DACs); but many Digital Mixers also offer output as digital data via USB, Firewire, AES/EBU, or another proprietary format — ensuring uncompromised signal integrity as other digital devices are connected down the line.


 

There are a myriad of useful functions offered by Digital Mixers that simply wouldn’t be possible with Analog Mixers. Among the more significant are a streamlined interface and smaller footprint, since many functions share knobs, faders, buttons, and displays. Another is the ability to apply a variety of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) to control dynamics via compression; equalize the signal; apply effects such as reverb, delay, and modulation-based effects such as chorus or flanging; control feedback automatically — and many of these processors can be applied to each channel or bus simultaneously.


One of the greatest benefits of many Digital Mixers is the ability to adjust settings remotely via a laptop, tablet, or in some cases; a smart phone. Some even support multiple devices — so your sound technician can be out front adjusting your house mix, while each individual musician or vocalist adjusts their own monitor mix right from where they stand. And when the show is over, your entire setup (i.e. overall configuration, house and monitor levels, EQ, effects) can be stored in recallable scenes for quick and easy setup the next time you’re in the same venue.


Line Mixers

Line Mixers are almost always analog and are designed to mix multiple line-level signals to one mono or stereo output. These are typically used to conserve inputs or expand a mixer or instrument amplifier’s input capability. You’ll often find keyboardists using a Line Mixer to combine the outputs of multiple keyboards to one amplifier or mixer channel; or in a permanent installation such as a restaurant where a variety of input sources (e.g. radio, CD, television audio) must be combined for amplification by one sound system.


USB Mixers

A USB Mixer can be either Analog or Digital in architecture. Meaning that it can be exactly like an Analog Mixer that happens to include a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port for digital output of a stereo mix or integration of an external digital playback source — or it can be a full-blown Digital Mixer that outputs a wide variety of signals and data via USB. Otherwise, USB Mixers are pretty much the same as mixers found in either category; but with the ability to transfer data via USB.


Powered Mixers

Designed for Live Sound use exclusively, Powered Mixers provide amplification for non-powered speakers. However, they also include many features found in the Analog Mixers category, e.g. multiple channels; channel and master EQ; a discrete monitor/aux mixer, and in most cases — an onboard digital effects processor. This all-in-one approach is much more convenient than having to transport and interconnect a separate mixer, EQ, effects processor, power amp, etc. But there are channel quantity and power output limitations to consider.


Most Powered Mixers incorporate two amplifiers that can be used to amplify a stereo house mix; or that can be split and assigned to simultaneously power a mono house mix and stage monitors. Many also feature a small patch panel that will allow you to send your master mix to external mixers, amplifiers, or powered speakers — ensuring that you won’t be limited by the capabilities of the unit’s onboard mixer or amplifier sections; assuming you’re willing to invest in and transport additional gear. And since most Powered Mixers are now utilizing Class-D amplifiers, they’re generally very lightweight and portable.

Ready to Buy?

Regardless of your application or budget, PhotoSavings has the right Live Sound & Recording Mixer in stock or on its way to our vast East Coast warehouse.  We also stock a wide selection of Microphones, Powered Speakers, Reference Monitors, Computer Audio Interfaces & Software, plus all of the accessory items you’ll need to complete your ideal live sound system or recording studio. Simply order online and we’ll ship everything right to your door!

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