How to Buy an Audio Mixer for Stage and Live Sound

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How to Buy an Audio Mixer for Stage and Live Sound

The following guide presents a series of hints and points of consideration for anybody thinking of purchasing an audio mixer. As mixers can vary considerably from model to model, each is best suited to a specific task. This guide will focus on those models of sound mixer which can be effectively implemented in stage and live audio performances. The specific requirements of such a task will be identified, as will the various sound mixer options and functions on offer, providing a clear guide of which models will be most suitable.
Additionally, extra attention will be paid to shopping online for audio mixers, as web-stores and virtual marketplaces can offer drastic cost savings on the purchase of many electronic goods.

What Is an Audio Mixer?

Audio mixers are a specialist pieces of equipment that will allow for multiple sound sources to be blended together into a single output signal. Mixers are commonly used in all forms of theatre, music, and live sound performances, where they are used as an effective way of controlling and reproducing high quality and balanced audio from a single location.

Using Audio Mixers in Live Performances

Sound mixers which are intended for use in live music venues or theatres will require certain features that may not be as crucial for mixers used in other areas, such as studios or entertainment systems. For this reason, it is doubly important to be aware of the needs and expectations placed on a sound mixer in a live setting. A mixer which does not provide these key functions will be difficult to operate or, at worst, unusable.
The chart below offers some general details of how a mixer will be expected to operate within certain situations.
 

Public Address System:

Public address systems are used in every kind of venue, from sports stadiums to theatres. They provide sound in various forms to the audience. This can include anything from pre-recorded information and instructions, to background music during intervals, to live voice announcements. They are necessarily versatile systems which require a mixer that is both adaptable and easy to use in real-time.
A microphone input which overrides the normal output signal, much like a DJ would use, is likely to be essential. Additionally, a single personal address system may at times be required to broadcast different audio tracks to separate areas of the venue at the same time. This is only made practical with the inclusion of multiple audio outputs and a headphone monitor option on the mixer.

Small Venues: Pubs and Clubs:

A smaller venue such as an arts centre or pub will generally have fewer specific requirements for their sound system. A reliable and functional mixing unit is the prime concern in a venue where bands are likely to bring all of the equipment they will need to perform a live music concert.
Although it is unlikely that a sound engineer will need to use the in-house mixer to reproduce audio for an entire band or ensemble, it is important to note that some other performances – such as lectures and stand-up comedy – may include multimedia elements that require some sound mixing. Because of this, a sensible choice of mixer would be one that offers slightly more channels than the simple two-channel cross-fader mixers used by DJs.

Stage and Theatre:

Although stage performances will, for the most part, not require amplification, every theatre will nonetheless own a sound mixing console. In this environment, the sound desk is responsible for music and sound effects, as well as off-stage dialogue, which may require amplification.
Although it is unlikely that a theatre mixing desk would ever require the auxiliary sends needed for real-time audio processing, it may require additional outputs and sufficient channels to comfortably manage complex performances with multiple audio tracks of music and sound effects. Additionally, any recordings of a live performance will utilise the audio output of the mixing desk, so bus channels which may be connected to an external recording device should be considered.

Live Mixing Desk:

A mix desk intended for larger-scale live music performances will necessarily be an adaptable piece of equipment. Every performer, band, and orchestra will have a different set of approaches to the way their sound is mixed.
For this reason, a sound console for larger concerts will typically require at least 32 input channels, to cope with larger groups and ensembles. Equally, every performer will expect an on-stage floor monitor, which allows them to hear their own individual instrument. This requires a separate bus output for each monitor.

Key Functions

Knowing what each specific situation will require of a sound mixer is only half of the picture. The other half is knowing how the mixer itself operates, and which functions perform which roles. The following table will detail some of the key features most commonly found on audio mixers, and explain how each can be expected to operate.

Channels:

Every sound source that is received by the mixer as an input is controlled through its own designated audio channel. These faders will most commonly take the form of a vertical fader found along the lower half of the device. Above each fader, the corresponding frequency, effects, and panoramic controls are located for that channel. A mixer with a large number of individual channels can offer a more flexible and precise final output mix.

Cross-fader:

Cross-faders will fade allow one audio channel to be seamlessly faded into another. The second channel will fade in at the exact rate that the first channel is faded out, requiring only a single control. Although this function can be completed manual by moving two channel faders in opposite directions simultaneously, the addition of a cross-fader allows greater precision and a more user-friendly means of operation.

Microphone Input:

A microphone input offers a separate sound source to the channel inputs. Its input audio takes priority over all other input signals. This means that when sound is input via the microphone, the volume of all other channels is automatically lowered. The effect is used by DJs as it allows speech to be clearly heard, whilst automatically fading music into the background, without the need of other controls. When the controller has finished speaking, the other channels will automatically return to their original volume. This is a useful function for any public address system, where announcements may be interspersed with pre-recorded music tracks.

Monitor / Headphone Output:

Monitor headphones allow the sound engineer to hear a separate sound source through a headset, without it being heard by the audience through the main output. This allows the operator to cue up sound effects and external audio so that it is ready in advance. A sound engineer mixing the audio for live music, or any theatre production, will rely heavily on the headphone monitor output.

Bus Outputs:

Bus outputs provide separate audio signals which may be routed to external amplifiers or speakers. Bus signals can offer a channel-specific output, or the entire mix. As musicians rely on floor monitors to hear their own performances, the presence of multiple bus outputs is crucial for any mixer intended to cater for live sound performances. This is because the bus outputs provide the audio for each musician's own separate floor monitor.

Auxiliary Sends:

Auxiliary sends are pairs of input and output sockets. They allow an audio signal to be sent from the mixer and into an external audio processor or sound effect generator. This processed audio is then sent back to the mixer, via the auxiliary return. It is rare for a sound engineer to be expected to mix sound effects in live setting, as these are prepared in advance, or performed on-stage by the musicians themselves. However, the presence of auxiliary sends will allow for greater audio control, and are a useful addition to any sound mixer.

Finding Audio Mixers on eBay

With a particular make and model in mind, or with just a set of technical specifications, it should be possible to find the perfect audio mixer for stage and live sound on eBay's online marketplace.
To locate the right audio mixer via the website, explore the various category options. Audio mixers can be used in many different ways so, individual vendors may categorise them differently.For example, searching the categories TV & Home Audio Accessories, and Home Audio & HiFi Separates categories will return results for mixers intended for use in a home entertainment system. However, that is not to say that such units will not be more than adequate to cope for certain live audio tasks. Researching which functions these units offer may result in an unexpected bargain.
Equally, by searching Other Accessories/ Equipment category, it is possible to find audio mixers most suited for small venue and live music performances. For the widest selection of mixers, there is even a separate Mixers category, which shows the listings for all mixers available on the site.
Finally, there are substantial savings to be found in the eBay Deals section. Any mixers listed here will be available at a greatly reduced cost.

Conclusion

Using an audio mixer in a live performance setting takes precision and careful planning. Part of that planning is ensuring that the equipment provided is up to the task. By following the advice in this guide, it should become apparent which devices will be suitable, and which may not. Similarly, finding a suitable mixer at a reasonable price should be no problem, when using eBay's online marketplace.

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