How to Buy an Audio Mixer for Studio Recording

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How to Buy an Audio Mixer for Studio Recording

Audio mixers are used in many areas of audio-visual processing and editing. In its least complicated form, an audio mixer simply allows a sound engineer to mix together two or more channels of audio into one combined output signal.
Audio mixers can be found in the home, in video and sound editing suites, and in live music venues and theatres. Their versatility makes them a key element of audio-visual systems, from home entertainment to professional recording.
This guide is designed to offer advice to consumers who are interested in purchasing an audio mixer for recording in a studio. As consumer electronics continues to close the gap on state of the art professional equipment, it is entirely practical to create a functioning sound studio in the home. To reflect this, the guide will explore the full range of sound mixing options available: from home studio technology, to professional sound desks.

What Is an Audio Mixer?

Audio mixer is a catch-all term that covers any piece of audio equipment allowing multiple channels of sound to be blended together into a single output. Not surprisingly, an audio mixer is absolutely essential for any sound recording, and every studio will be furnished with at least one professional mixing desk, and possibly several additional, smaller mixing units as well.
Whether an audio mixer has only two channels, or tens of channels and additional features, its configuration will usually comply with a set of accepted standards, that makes any mixer or sound desk familiar to an experienced engineer.
Mixers provide a separate channel for each audio input it is able to receive. Depending on the scope of the unit, each channel may then be processed and manipulated in a number of ways. The most basic of these processes is simply being able to alter the output gain (volume) of each channel individually. The separate channel faders are found along the lower half of the mixer. They are virtually always a set of vertical sliders, positioned side-by-side. If the unit offers any effects processing, panoramic controls, or frequency gain modifiers, these will usually be situated above each channel's fader, in the top portion of the mixer.

Using an Audio Mixer

When it comes to assembling a recording studio – for home professional purposes – the choice of audio mixer is amongst the most important. The limitations of the mixing console will essentially dictate the limitations of the whole studio, and with it, the recording process itself.
With the rapid development of technology, it is quite possible to create a professional, or semi-professional, recording studio at home and on a tight budget. Virtual studio technologies allow for a great deal of recording and processing work to be completed digitally. The table below outlines some of the most important features for each type of recording environment.

Home Studio:

It is entirely possible to construct a recording studio at home, using digital technology. Home studios are ideal for recording demonstration tracks before entering a professional studio, or can be entirely adequate systems for recording solo performances or small ensemble piece. A mixer is essential to a small recording studio, though its key functions may not be the same as those of a professional mixing console in a studio.
Where digital devices are relied upon to save space, it may be worth considering a digital mixer. Digital outputs are the fastest and easiest method of recording audio onto a digital recording device. It is impractical to record large group performances in a home situation, so it is unlikely that many such studios will require a mixer with more than 8 audio input channels.

Specialist Studio:

As the performance gap between professional and consumer electronics closes, it becomes more common to find specialist recording studios. These facilities will often use top of the range consumer products, and will equip their studios to cater for one specialist area of sound recording, be it radio and voice, or a certain style of music.
A mixer for a specialist studio may be a full-sized console connected to an external recording device, or it may be a high-end digital unit. The most important functions will be sufficient channels (usually 16-32 audio channels) and multiple auxiliary sends. Such a mixer offers complete flexibility and allows real-time sound processing and manipulation.

Professional Studio:

Professional recording studios are expected to provide the very best facilities, and only a high specification mixing desk will offer the best quality audio and recordings. A professional studio must be versatile and able to accommodate any performance, from an entire orchestra to a solo voice.
The audio mixers found in professional studios are iconic: the large consoles with rows of channels (frequently between 32 and 64), and banks of outputs for unlimited processing and expansion. A bus output for each channel will allow performers the option of silent monitoring through headphones. Auxiliary sends will allow for individual tracks to be processed separately. Frequency gains and panoramic controls are necessary when attempting to blend a large number of individual sound sources simultaneously.

Key Functions

Selecting an appropriate audio mixer will mean providing the correct functions for the requirements identified in the previous table. The next chart will describe the key operations which a sound engineer or recording artist will most commonly require.

Digital Outputs:

Digital outputs send audio data to a digital recording device such as a computer or laptop. Digital recording is an ideal method of making high-quality sound recordings on a budget, as it solves the need for expensive DAT tapes and other recording media. Digital studios can make use of virtual studio technologies (VST), which are computer programmes capable of manipulating sound waves. These can recreate the effects of expensive processing units at a fraction of the price.
It is important to research the sample rate and format of any digital audio device. A sample rate of 192khz in 24-bit format is considered a modern professional standard. Digital outputs require a USB connection.

Midi Controls:

In a digital recording environment a sound mixer can directly interact with the processing software, if it contains midi functions. Whereas a standard mixer allows manipulation of the on-board controls, a mixer with midi functionality can be programmed so that some of the dials will alter the options and effects loaded onto the computer programme. This takes real-time processing to an advanced stage, where the software is not only recording the output audio, but is actively altering it too.

Channels:

Audio channels provide the basic functionality of a mixer, and also the source of its greatest limitation. Each sound source will require a separate audio channel to allow for the most precise mixing and blending. For a home studio, it is unlikely that more than 8 channels will ever be necessary at any one time. In a specialist studio or a professional recording studio, a vast number of channels will be needed.
Although it is unlikely that every channel will be used each time, the higher number will be required to cater for larger groups and ensembles when they choose to record. Additional channels allow for optional recording techniques such as ambient microphones, which record the reverberation of the performing space and create an authentic, richer final mix.

Bus Outputs:

Bus outputs are separate audio outputs which may be sent to external speakers. Bus outputs allow individual parts of the mix to be monitored separately, and in real-time. This can be a useful performance aid for musicians, who may listen to their playing through a headset while recording.

Auxiliary Sends:

Auxiliary sends provide extra flexibility in an audio mix. Every send is a pairing of an input and an output which may be connected to external processors and effects. The processor units manipulate the output signal, which is then returned to the audio mixer through the input. It is then possible to blend the unprocessed audio with the processed signal, with greater precision.

Frequency Gain:

Frequency gain controls are typically potentiometers, which can boost or cut a certain frequency range (most commonly labelled as bass, mid, and treble). Where frequency controls are present, each mixer channel will have separate gain controls. These are a useful addition to any audio mixer, though in a studio environment, it is usual for the majority of frequency fine-tuning to be achieved with external equaliser units, which are separate to the mixing console.

Finding Audio Mixers on eBay

Due to their diverse nature, audio mixers could potentially be advertised within one of any number of eBay's product categories. To avoid missing the perfect make and model, it is advisable to search each section separately.
For example, audio mixers found in the TV & Home Audio Accessories, or the Home Audio & HiFi Separates sections may be best suited for home use. However, they may be equally suited to other applications, such as in a modest home-studio set-up.
Searching the Other Accessories/ Equipment subsection of the Musical Instruments category will present audio mixers which may be perfect for use in a specialist studio. Finally, the Mixers category presents every audio mixing device currently listed on eBay. These items range from a two-channel DJing unit to high-specification professional mixing consoles.
Conclusion

Recording audio in any environment is wholly reliant on the equipment used. Knowing how to get the most out of a performance is down to having the appropriate tools to work with. This guide outlines what every sound engineer should be looking for in each recording environment, and which mixers will provide all of the necessary options.

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