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Buying Guide: Live Mixers
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Kurt and Kristin have spent over 20 years recording independent-label rock bands in their recording studio.

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Buying Guide: Live Mixers

Any search for a mixer starts with one question: What are you going to use it for?

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Mixers all basically do the same thing. They allow control over multiple signals (voices, instruments ,or tracks), being sent to either a live PA system or for recording and mixing purposes. Their features vary greatly depending on the application(s) they were designed for.


We’ve put together some guidelines on what to look for when buying a live mixer, what’s available, including an overview of some popular models and their features.


For the Videographer


Capturing the full range of sound at a live event may require more than one mic. You’ll soon be looking for ways to control your mic levels.

If you are looking for a lightweight portable mixer to balance a few camcorder mics the Azden Cam-3 is as simple as it gets.  For under $45 this compact mixer weighs 3 oz. and can attach right to your camcorder or strap. It allows you to control the volume of up to 3 microphones simultaneously.

Semi-pro or pro videographers needing more inputs and greater signal control in capturing sound at live events, indie film or documentary productions can opt for Azden’s Professional Field Mixer FMX series. Very reasonably priced between $235-$540, these models include enhanced features, like:


  • Balanced XLR inputs and line level outputs for more gain and less noise
  • Headphone monitoring and volume control
  • High quality limiters to protect against overload distortion
  • Built-in phantom power for condenser microphones
  • LEDs for peak level monitoring, power and battery condition



These are all portable, battery powered units and depending on the individual model may have additional 12V DC power.

Shure also manufactures a line of high-quality portable mixers for remote audio recording and field production. The Shure FP33 3-Channel Stereo Mixer, at $1,275, provides exceptional low noise and wide dynamic range. It also has the ability to expand by linking with additional FP33s or an external mixer adding even more control and flexibility. 


For the DJ


If you’re looking to get the crowd on it’s feet and keep them dancing, you’ll need a mixer designed to not only handle DJ tasks but to let you have some sonic fun.


Entry to mid-level DJ mixers have the basics to help you entertain a crowd at a nightclub or a social event. They have a minimum of 2 channels to connect your audio devices (turntables, microphones, cd players). With a headphone jack, crossfaders and some EQ or effects you’ll be able to get the music pumping.


As you get into the more high-end units these mixers come with all kinds of performance enhancing effects so the DJ can really show off their own mixing style.  Some even let you interface with software applications for added control or display devices for synchronizing visual effects.

The Pioneer DJM Pro DJ Mixing line offers pro quality sound and a host of cool features for the creative DJ. The DJM-700K ($999) is a 4-channel portable mixer for either the DJ booth or stage. It’s packed with effects including Pioneer's groundbreaking Effect Frequency Filter, which allows the DJ to limit the frequency bands subjected to effects. Also included is another Pioneer signature-The Beat Effect. The mixer automatically detects the tempo (BPM) and perfectly aligns the effects with the beat. It has multi-layering effect and sampling capabilities as well.


The DJM-700 can handle up to 5 line inputs, 3 turntables and it’s got a MIDI out for synchronizing external MIDI keyboards or drum machines. With the ability to output its performance effects at 96khz/24-bit this mixer will give the serious club DJ really unique and great sounding effects.


For the Singer/Songwriter or Small Venue


Powered Mixers


If you are a solo performing artist or small band playing gigs in coffeehouses or you own a small venue and host frequent performances you might want to consider a "powered" mixer.
Very portable and easy to set up- a powered mixer is a simple all-in-one unit that saves space, setup time and money. These fully integrated units contain a mixer, power amp and effects and generally work well in smaller spaces where a lot of power or volume isn’t necessary. Convenience and ease of use are key.

Technical Pro makes an all-in-one unit that contains speakers. The Technical Pro Stage 12U Pro is a self-powered 8-channel mixer and speakers set. There is a built-in 5 band EQ and echo. For $300 you and your band can set up, plug in, and play anywhere in minutes.


If you're looking for something more powerful, Mackie has a series of lightweight but very robust powered mixers.

For under $700 the Mackie PPM608 has some great features including:


  • 1000 watts of total system power
  • 8 mic preamps with 48V phantom power
  • 3-band active channel EQ and an additional 24 "Gig Ready" reverbs, choruses and delay
  • Dedicated in-line compression
  • Built-in limiter to keep your speakers sounding distortion free and clear



While the Mackie works great as a compact small venue/stage mixer, it can also double as a mixer for your rehearsal studio PA or as a monitor mixer.


Unpowered Mixers


Though mixers with built-in power amps offer a lot of convenience they really limit the size of the venue you can play in.


You’ll be able to get much more accurate sound reproduction and less distortion at higher volumes using a stand-alone “unpowered” mixer paired with a power amplifier. You can pair your mixer up with whatever size amp you need depending on the room and you won’t be limited by an internal amp.

Crown Audio is known for building great quality power amplifiers. The XTi-1000 at $379 is lightweight but rugged and suitable for portable PA applications.

So if you’ve decided to go with an  “unpowered” mixer you will have the added expensive of an additional component but you can still keep your costs down by considering Nady’s MXE Mixer series.  These are very affordable fully functioning mixers ideal for small venues. With models ranging from 6 to 14 channels and for a very low price they include advanced features and even built-in DSP (digital sound processing) for reverb and echo.


For the Full Live Stage Show


Working with live sound in a large venue with so much happening on stage at one time brings an added complexity to your mixing.


Focus the requirements of your venue, sound system and performers in order to decide on an optimal mixer.


Analog vs. Digital Mixers


Both types of mixers allow you to perform the same basic mixing functions but it’s the big differences in signal processing that effect your workflow.

The strengths of a digital mixer are in a few key features:

  • Programmability
  • Automation and Screen Recall Ability
  • Onboard Effects
  • MIDI capability
  • Multiple routing configurations
  • Lightweight



High prices and overall complexity can be a deterrent for many considering purchasing a digital board. Also the fact that you need time up front to take advantage of all the menu-driven programming features can be limiting in certain situations. But giving a live sound engineer the ability to save the mix configurations of multiple bands at sound checks and recall them all later is a big advantage.


Though all the programmability and features of a digital mixer can be tempting, the appeal of an analog mixer is in its ease of use and lower cost. You are not paying for high-end A/D converters or computer parts that may quickly become obsolete.


Many sound engineers still prefer the “hands-on” feel and flexibility of an analog mixer, especially in a live situation where anything can happen.  You can make a quick adjustment with the turn of a knob. Warmth of sound, simplicity and lower cost still drive the market for analog equipment.

Both Tascam and Mackie offer basic 16-channel mixers with some digital effects that won’t break the bank. While these models don’t have all the programming/automation capabilities of the pricer boards the Tascam M-164FX at $469 or the Mackie CFX MKII at $649 both offer onboard digital stereo effects processing. Each can handle your live or studio mixing and you won’t have to lug around a rack of outboard effects.


Tascam also offers additional mixers in their M-164 line that come with a  USB 2.0 inferface for computer connectivity or without the digital effects.


The Big Kahuna


For those ready to take the leap to a more professional digital mixing platform some manufacturers like PreSonus are building digital boards with a more tactile analog feel. 

The PreSonus StudioLive 24.4.2 ($3,299) is a 24-channel digital console with integrated firewire computer interface. Boasting a new “analog style” layout with more dedicated controls and less menu-driven displays, it’s designed to be equally useful in the recording studio and as a live sound mixer.


It’s got some great digital features that make it a live powerhouse:

  • Ability to save and recall settings even fader levels
  • Two programmable digital effects processors with an effects library
  • Extremely high quality digital converters for optimal sound


Additionally there are 10 aux sends to control individual stage monitor mixes or zones and it’s expandable. You’ll never be without enough channels because with a simple Firewire cable you can link together up to 4 StudioLive mixers.


Recording Your Gig


Wouldn’t it be great if you could be running your live mix out to the PA and at the same time be recording the whole show on your laptop?


Mackie’s Onyx mixer series was designed to do just that. These boards come with a built-in 24 bit/96khz computer (DAW) interface that allows complete integration with your computer’s recording software.

 

For added live control they are ruggedly constructed with a “hands-on” analog feel. High-quality components, like boutique pre-amps and EQs, and additional routing flexibility make it easy to get a pro sounding mix or recording at an affordable price.
Check out our full review of the Mackie 1620i.


Whether you’re a videographer trying to record an interview, a singer with an acoustic guitar playing at the local cafe, a DJ or a band psyched to play their next live gig—there’s a suitable mixer out there designed for you. Check out Adorama’s Pro Audio great selection to help you get the job done.

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