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Choosing the best audio mixer
An audio mixer buying guide
Audio mixers, otherwise known as mixing desks or sound boards, are multi-purpose tools that make it possible for musicians and DJs to control multiple audio signals entering a system for live music or prerecorded for mixing and production uses. Different types of audio mixers offer different features depending on what they were designed to do. When choosing the best audio mixer, there are many things that should be taken into consideration.
>> Consider how you will use the audio mixer
- Videography: If you are using the mixer for videography, you will usually need an audio mixer design that has more than one mic option. This will allow you to capture the entire range of sound at a live event quickly and easily. When determining the best audio mixers for this type of work, consider a lightweight, portable model that is able to balance more than one camcorder microphone. If you are a semi-pro or pro-videographer, you may need a slightly different type of audio mixer that has more inputs and better signal control for capturing sound at live events.
- Live DJ: The best audio mixers for DJ and live sound purposes have to be able to handle DJ tasks and allow you spontaneity. You will want to have an audio mixer design with a minimum of two channels to connect audio components such as microphones, turntables and CD players. DJ mixers also need to have a headphone jack, an EQ, some crossfaders and other special effects to help get the music pumping. Top rated audio mixers often include many performance enhancing features so that you can carry out your own mixing. Some even interface with virtual DJ mixers and other software for synchronizing audio and visual effects.
- Singing/songwriting: If you are a solo artist or in a small band playing relatively small gigs, you can often choose between many different types of audio mixers. Many powered mixers include options for a DJ mic, mixer and amplifier that are an all-in-one unit. However, if you need less distortion at high volumes and more accurate sound reproduction, the best types of audio mixers are often standalone, unpowered units paired with a separate amplifier.
>> Decide between digital and analog audio mixers
Originally, all audio mixer designs were analog. Digital audio mixers were introduced in the 1990s, but were originally considered to be a novelty item. However, as digital technology has improved, digital audio mixer designs are becoming more mainstream. There are still many top rated audio mixers that are analog, and these are keeping analog mixers popular in an increasingly digital world.
- Digital: Typically, digital audio mixers are smaller and have more features than analog mixers. In many cases, digital mixers can also be expanded using software, which allows the user more flexibility with their processing capabilities. Some digital audio mixers can be set to perform basic functions automatically making them a good choice for music instruments and karaoke use. Digital mixers are less likely to be affected by outside factors such as radio signals, walkie talkies and other interference. However, they do require that the user understands computer technology in order to be properly operated.
- Analog: Analog mixers are typically the best audio mixers for someone learning the different functions and sounds of an audio mixer. Because analog mixers usually have a separate fader or knob for each application, and there is no virtual layering, they are easier to learn and use.
>> Decide between powered or unpowered
- Powered: Powered audio mixers consist of a mixer and a power amplifier in one unit. These are the best audio mixers for use as portable PA systems. Some powered audio mixer designs even have integrated loudspeakers to make a complete all-in-one unit. Powered types of audio mixers can save space and set up time. They typically work well in smaller spaces where a lot of volume isn't needed.
- Unpowered: Unpowered mixers are standalone types of audio mixers that typically offer less distortion at high volumes and more accurate sound reproduction. An unpowered audio mixer design needs a separate power amplifier to produce quality sound. However, you are still able to pair the mixer with any size amp you need for the space in which you are performing.
>> Consider specialty mixers
- Line mixer: Line audio mixers are almost always analog and deal only with line level signals. They are a very simple type of audio mixer that often only has one volume control per channel. Line mixers allow you to combine many sources into one output. This will free channels on your main mixing board. In the recording studio, top rated audio mixers known as summing mixers are the line mixers used to put together final releases.
- Studio mixer: These types of audio mixers are suited for recording studio and audio production tasks. Studio mixers typically have many of the same components and features as the portable mixer, but a lot more options. Most studio audio mixers are not limited to only a few microphone inputs and some audio mixer designs for the studio have around 32 or more inputs. This allows studios to record large bands and performers who require multiple microphones.
- Field mixer: Field mixers are designed to use on location. They are light and portable and allow you to use two or more microphones with your camcorder. When choosing a field mixer, consider the power source. Some use regular batteries, while others use a video battery pack. Some may even need a special battery.
>> Consider board layout
Regardless of the type of mixer you choose, the channels will probably be laid out side by side, vertically. Each channel strip will hold identical sliders, knobs and switches, and each one will perform a specific function. While some mixers may use a rotary volume knob, the top rated audio mixers typically use faders. Think about which you would prefer.
>> Consider other popular features for mixers
- Channels and inputs: When choosing an audio mixer, you need to know how many channels and inputs you need. Remember to include inputs for keyboards and direct inputs for musical instruments. It's also a good idea to purchase a mixer that will allow for future expansion.
- Equalizer: An EQ is very important on an audio mixer. Some will offer very basic frequency adjustments, while others will have a multi-band EQ on each channel.
- Onboard effects and processors: Onboard processing means that you won't have to add any outboard components. However, if you are adding a new audio mixer into a set up that already has outboard processing, then onboard processing may not be needed.
- Routing and buses: If you are planning to send out monitor mixes, external effects mixes and recording feeds, then you will need to choose an audio mixer with enough auxiliary sends to handle the demand.
- Direct outs and inserts: These will need to be on an audio board if you need input channels to be routed to recording systems or external processing components.
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