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Mixers come in an array of shapes and sizes and can be designed for specific jobs, but the core function of any mixer remains the same: mixing sound. Mixers are used by live sound engineers working with PA equipment; by sound engineers in recording studios; and by DJs during their set.
The sound of various different sound sources come into a mixer via a number of channels, where volume and often the tonal balance (so the bass, treble, etc) of each channel can then be individually adjusted. The mixer then combines the sound of each channel in the 'main bus' and sends it out via the output as a blended signal. This output can be hooked up to active speakers or an amplifier. The main difference between PA mixers, studio mixers and DJ mixers lies in the extra mixing functions.
PA mixers are also referred to as live mixers. Most mixers combine the sound of a number of inputs and send the result out to a specific number of outputs, like a speaker system, a set of headphones, and maybe a set of stage monitors. With a live mixer, it's much easier to group channels and control them with a single fader via 'mute groups', 'VCA groups', or 'sub groups'.
Studio mixers combine the sound of different sources before sending the mixed signal out to gear like studio monitors, a recorder, or an audio interface. It's also easier to send the signal of individual channels out to various external gear, like effects or equalizers using a studio mixer. As such, studio mixers usually offer a lot of options for routing the signal, which also means you can do things like connect a microphone and a line signal to the same channel. Popular studio mixers are made by SSL, Neve and API. While engineers still use tactile mixing desks, more and more of the functions of a mixer are being transferred to DAW recording software.
DJ mixers are much more compact than PA or studio mixers, and usually have no more than four channels. A DJ mixer offers all of the functions and tools needed to seamlessly blend and then transition from one track to the next, and many models include effects and other features for manipulating tracks in real-time. DJ mixers always have a main output, a headphone output and sometimes, some extra ports for hooking up monitors.
Digital mixers offer a few advantages over analogue mixers, one of which is the option to assign the physical inputs to each channel, making it easier to group and re-group instruments without having to physically disconnect and move plugs around. Digital mixers also offer more options when applying effects per channel, and are generally less noisy.
USB Mixers with an Audio Interface
These days, a lot of mixers come with a built-in USB audio interface, so you can directly hook your mixer up to a computer via USB. The function of the USB interface is usually simple: send a two-channel stereo mix to your computer, so in the case of PA mixer, you can make a digital recording of a live show. You can also send stereo sound from your computer to one of the mixer channels. Some mixers also offer multi-track options, meaning that each of the mixer channels can be recorded to a separate track in DAW recording software on your computer. This way, you can record multiple tracks at once, then mix them in detail later.
Frequently Asked Questions About Mixers
Which mixer should I buy?
From a technical standpoint, most people go for an analogue mixer. But before making any decisions, it's worth figuring out how many mono and stereo sources you'll want to hook up to your mixer, and then look for a model that offers even more ports so you have the room to expand later. In terms of brands, Behringer make very popular mixers, and if you're looking for an entry-level model that will give you a lot for your money, then take a look at the mixers that Devine has to offer. If you need more help, see our PA Mixer Buyer's Guide.
How do you use a mixer?
You use a mixer to hit the optimal balance between the sound of the various different sound sources that have been plugged in. Using the volume faders and control knobs, the level of each channel is set in relation to the rest of the channels, so that every instrument or vocal sounds blended with the whole.
How do you connect a mixer up to an amplifier?
You can simply connect a mixer up to the power amplifier of a PA system using the main output. Usually, they can be connected using XLR cables.
How do you connect a mixer to a computer?
The easiest way to do this is to get a mixer with a built-in USB audio interface, then you can just use a USB-A to USB-B cable so connect the mixer to a computer or laptop. If your mixer doesn't have a built-in USB audio interface, then you can connect it via an external audio interface.