Meeting the Many Mixers for Home Recording

One main tool that every home recording studio needs is a sound mixer. For the home recordist, mixers come in several varieties: the analog desk, digital mixer or computer control surface with sliding faders and fader banks, and software mixers controlled by your computer mouse and keyboard.

Your choice between the types of mixers depends on the other equipment that you use in your studio and your budget. For example, if you use a stand-alone digital recorder, you need to buy a separate mixer. Digital mixers can be expensive, so you may want to get an analog mixer to use until you can afford a digital one. On the other hand, if you buy a studio-in-a-box system, you automatically get a digital mixer as part of the deal. You may still want to add a small analog mixer to bring submixes of drums or other instruments into the system, though.

Analog mixer

The analog mixer, as shown in Figure 1, enables you to route the signals within the analog domain. Analog mixers tend to have many knobs, lights, and faders — a set for each channel. If you want to change from mixing inputs (your instruments) to mixing sounds recorded on the recorder, you need to plug and unplug cords or you need to get a mixer with twice as many channels as your recorder.

Figure 1: The analog mixer has tons of knobs, lights, and faders to play with.

Digital mixer

The digital mixer, as shown in Figure 2, is a great option for home studio owners because it can perform the same functions as a conventional analog mixer in a lot less space. Routing — the process of sending your signals to various places within the mixer — becomes almost easy using one of these. You can switch between input and track channels without having to change a single cord.

Digital mixers handle all the busing and routing tasks within the digital domain. With no cords to mess with, you have a lot less possibility for noise to enter the system. And if noise does enter the system, it's easier to find and eliminate.

One of the great things about digital mixers is the ability to automate your mix. You can set-up complex fader and effects changes to run automatically. Some digital mixers even have motorized faders, which are really fun to watch!

Figure 2: The digital mixer performs the same functions but takes up less space than an analog mixer.

Software mixer

If you want the flexibility of a digital mixer and don't have an overpowering need to physically touch the faders and knobs, then a software mixer (shown in Figure 3) may work for you. The software mixer is included with any computer audio or MIDI production software. The advantage with a software mixer is that after you have the computer and audio software that you want, you have nothing else to buy.

Software mixers work much the same way as a digital mixer. Because they are digital, you have an almost infinite variety of routing choices that you can make without having to patch and re-patch cables. Still, some people may not be too keen on having to use a keyboard and a mouse to get mixing work done rather than working with the more traditional knobs or slide faders.

For those of you who want the best of both worlds — high-tech computer software and tactile stimulation — you can find control surfaces that allow you to control the software's mixer using real faders and knobs, as you can read in the next section.

Figure 3: Use your mouse and computer keyboard to control a software mixer.

The computer control surface

If you end up with a computer-based system with a software mixer, you'll have some knobs, buttons, and faders to play around with on the computer control surface, as shown in Figure 4. Aside from being able to fiddle with some knobs, you'll find that a computer control surface is a handy tool if you decide to use a computer-based Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and want (or need) to control the virtual mixer with some hardware.

Figure 4: A computer control surface acts like a digital mixer for a computer-based system.

These controllers send MIDI messages — messages coded using the Musical Instrument Digital Interface communications protocol — to the computer that tells it which parameters to change. These controllers can easily be programmed to work like a separate digital mixer.

Not all software works with a computer control surface, so make sure that you check with the software or computer control surface manufacturer before you buy it.

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