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Analog mixers have been around for nearly as long as there have been audio recordings and PA systems. Beginning in the 1990s, digital mixers began entering the pro audio world. Since then, their capabilities have grown as has their affordability. Beginning in the early part of the 21st century, software-based mixing became a reality as computers grew more powerful and related hardware was developed.
We'll take a brief look at each type's capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
Despite the greater versatility of their digital brethren, analog mixers remain popular due to their generally lower cost and ease of use. Since their functions are controlled by physical knobs, faders, and switches, their operation can be somewhat more intuitive than digital soundboards. The downside of their reliance on physical controls is the analog mixer's generally larger footprint—a disadvantage in crowded home studios and on cramped stages. Many people find the analog mixer's signal and hardware routing easier to grasp at a glance since everything's physically present rather than being hidden in the menus of a digital soundboard's many status screens.
Both analog and digital mixers are capable of transmitting very high quality sound. The quality and design of their electronic circuits—especially the mic preamps—and in the case of the digital mixer, its analog to digital converter (ADC), have the biggest influence on sound quality. Most sound engineers agree that mics and speakers with their inherently greater degree of coloration and distortion are the biggest barriers to absolute sound fidelity. That said, well-designed mic preamps that boost the microphone’s output without adding coloration or distortion are critical to good sound. High-quality circuitry and components in the mixer's gain stages and signal routing will minimize the hiss that inevitably occurs with analog mixers.
For instant changes to signal routing, flexible and extensive signal dynamics, and an amazing array of effects possibilities, a digital mixer is hard to beat. With the touch of a button, preprogrammed routing and effects can be triggered that would be impossible for even a talented octopus to accomplish on an analog audio mixer! Some digital boards are compatible with software plug-ins that extend their tone-shaping capabilities even further. They also can ride herd on dreaded feedback, preventing the howls and squeals before they even start. Another nice feature is automatic gating that silences channels with little or no signal passing through them.
One of the huge advantages of digital mixers is their ability to save and recall mixes. Many use USB flash drives or internal memory to store settings from past performances. This makes the set up in a venue that’s been saved dead easy. Even in a new venue, recalling mixes from similar venues can be a big time saver during sound checks. Some digital mixers let you pre-program mixes using a laptop computer, so when you get to the gig only fine-tuning tweaks to the sound are needed. Some advanced digital mixers have motorized faders that respond to saved configurations.
One potential downside of digital mixers grows out of their versatility. Their enormous flexibility comes with a price: The learning curve for mastering all the possibilities your mixer offers can be steep. That said, like any complex digital device, it’s usually not essential to learn every function—the ability to save the settings and configure the interface to your needs can help you cut through its complexity.
How well the user interface is designed will make a big difference in how quickly you can master the functions you need to know. Talking to fellow mixer users, hanging out on pro audio forums, reading reviews, and checking out demos and tutorials will help you find the mixers that offer a gentler learning curve.
A suitably configured laptop, mixing software, and a compact control surface can get you into the mixing game without the larger space and budget concerns of standard analog and digital mixers. Music production software is available to accomplish just about everything by way of signal processing and routing that you can achieve with a physical mixer. Today there are simple audio mixing apps that allow you to do basic audio mixing using your IOS or Android smartphone or tablet.
Used for recording, software mixers let you easily integrate virtual instruments, samples, drum loops, and much more into your productions. Most mixer applications support advanced MIDI functions, and using a computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW) opens up an enormous world of possibilities including the use of a MIDI controller keyboard to create and record your music.
As with physical digital mixers, learning curves can be steep when your first dive into software mixing, and the same advice applies: Talk to fellow musicians who use mixing applications, read the expert reviews, and check out the many customer reviews you’ll find online at MusiciansFriend.com.
If you're looking for a mixer to handle your live performances and your main and monitor speakers are unpowered, a powered mixer eliminates the need to transport and set up separate power amplifiers to drive them. Powered audio mixers are available in a wide range of sizes and configurations. They can handle everything from a solo acoustic singer-guitarist using one or two mics, an acoustic-electric guitar, and modestly sized speakers, to a full-blown band with a full array of mics, electric instruments, and hefty main and monitor speakers.
Powered mixers offer most of the bells and whistles you’ll find on unpowered mixers in terms of routing options, effects processing, EQing, and much more. As with any mixer purchase, you’ll need to calculate the total inputs and outputs you need as well as the necessary power to drive your PA speaker cabinets and stage monitors.