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Mixers in PA Systems

Console Controls and Functions

The Mixer is the core of any PA System. It is where the most important processing decisions - gain structure, channel EQ and mix - take place.

What it is

An audio mixer is a device that combines two or more separate signals. Mixers range from a couple of variable resistors with knobs to the big and complicated-looking consoles used in the largest multi-performance events. Digital mixers are becoming increasingly common in large-scale productions. Early digital mixers tended to be more menu-driven, but recent products generally favour a more analogue layout, with a ‘virtual’ on-screen mixer similar to the type of analogue mixer described here.

What it does

Although - at its most basic level - a mixer simply combines a set of individual signals, most mixers do quite a lot of other things too. In most live event applications, signals are generated from a range of sources (instrument pickups and instrument amplifiers, electronic instruments, and microphones covering everything from soft voices to loud snare drums). It is the mixer's job to combine these so that they work together effectively. The channel controls of a typical mixer may include any or all of the following (not necessarily in the same order):

Typical controls on a large-format mixer channel

  1. Phantom Power. Most (even the cheapest) modern desks can supply 48V phantom power, and on larger desks this is independently selectable on each channel. Budget desks commonly have a single switch in the master section (or sometimes on the back panel) to select phantom power globally for all channels. Where global phantom applies, correct wiring of mic leads is essential: 48 volts can make quite a mess of a small coil.
  2. Mic/Line. Most mixers have a switch to select between the mic (XLR) and line (1/4″ Jack) inputs. Inserting a jack plug disables the XLR socket on some mixers. On others (e.g. most Allen & Heath mixers), the Mic/Line switch selects the input, and doubles as a Pad switch (see below).
  3. Gain. Signals arriving at the mixer vary substantially in level. The channel gain control adjusts the level of the signal in that channel so that it is appropriate for the mixer's circuitry. Some mixers also have a Pad switch, to reduce the level of signals that are too big when they arrive.

    It is important to keep the gain control's purpose in mind: to adjust the level of the signal so that it is appropriate for the mixer's circuitry (see Gain Structure, below). It is not a volume control.

  4. Polarity-reverse (Ø). Often incorrectly called ‘Phase Reverse’, this reverses the polarity of the signal. It might be used, for example, on a microphone on the underside of a snare-drum, where the signal would otherwise partially cancel that from the microphone on the upper side.
  5. High-Pass. Typically at the top of the channel strip, but sometimes in the EQ section, thjs is useful to remove the lowest frequencies from signals that don't need low-frequency amplification. In most live applications, only kick drum (and occasionally low toms), bass guitar and keyboard will need any amplification below 100Hz or so. The High Pass switch also helps to reduce any stage rumble a mic might pick up. This is usually a fixed-frequency switch on smaller consoles, but on larger desks there will often be a frequency control as well.
  6. EQ. Any signal arriving at the mixer may need some tonal adjustment (see Using EQ, below). Even the most basic mixers normally have some kind of channel EQ facility. The following varieties are common:
    1. High and Low (fixed frequency)
    2. High, Mid and Low (fixed frequency)
    3. High and Low fixed frequency, variable frequency (‘sweepable’ or ‘semi-parametric’) Mid
    4. High and Low fixed frequency, two variable frequency (‘sweepable’ or ‘semi-parametric’) Mids
    5. High and Low fixed frequency, two variable frequency and variable bandwidth (‘fully parametric’) Mids
    6. Four-section fully parametric EQ.

    Generally (but not universally), the highest and lowest frequency bands are shelving EQs...

    ...while the middle bands are peaking EQs.

    Many mixers also have a switch on each channel - useful for comparison - to include or bypass the channel EQ. Before using the EQ on any channel, check that it is switched in! If you are moving the EQ level control beyond the 9 o'clock or 3 o'clock positions and cannot hear any effect, check this first. If the EQ is switched in and you still can't hear the effect, check you have the right channel!

  7. Monitor Sends. This enables a separate and different mix to be sent to on-stage monitors. Budget mixers (including those with built-in effects) often have a dedicated Monitor control on each channel. Most other mixers have an Auxiliary Send (Aux) section on each channel, with Prefade and Postfade sends (often this is switchable, either for each send individually, or for one or more groups of sends). The number of Auxiliary sends typically varies from two (often one Pre, one Post) to eight or more (often switchable individually or in pairs between Pre and Post). Monitor sends are usually Prefade so that movement of the channel fader does not affect the monitor levels. Each prefade send allows a further independent monitor mix. Sometimes there is a choice of whether the Prefade send is Pre- or Post-EQ. If it is Prefade and Pre-EQ, changes to the channel EQ will not affect the monitor sound.
  8. Effects Sends. Some channels may need an effect (e.g. reverb) where others do not, or some may need more and others less. Again, budget mixers may have a dedicated Effects control (many of these also have onboard effects), while others use sends in the Auxiliary section. Effects sends are normally Postfade: you want the amount of reverb to rise and fall with the channel output level. Postfade means the signal is taken after the channel fader, and so is subject to the fader position and channel EQ.
  9. PFL/AFL. Pre Fade Listen and/or After Fade Listen. This switch routes the signal to the headphones, and usually also to one or more of the meters in the master section. On larger mixers - especially those designed for use as monitor desks - a dedicated output for a listen wedge is also provided, fed by the sound-engineer's monitor signal (see notes on the Master Section, below).

    PFL usually monitors the signal after the EQ section but before the channel fader. AFL monitors the signal after the channel fader (to give an idea of the level in the mix). AFL may also be called Solo (or sometimes Solo In Place or SIP), in which case the signal will be monitored after the Pan control.

  10. Pan. Most modern mixers (even the little ones) are stereo, and the Pan control positions the signal in the stereo soundstage. On desks which have groups (see below), this will also apportion the signal between pairs (1-2, 3-4, etc.) of groups.
  11. Mute/Channel On. Most mixers have a switch on each channel (sometimes at the top of the channel strip, but more commonly at the bottom) that either mutes (i.e. disables) the channel, or switches it on (enables it). On some desks the channel is on by default and is silenced by the Mute switch. On other desks, the channel is off by default, and needs to be switched On. On some mixers the Mute/Channel On switch has no effect on the channel's auxiliary sends (this arrangement is more common in studio mixers). On mixers with Groups or VCAs, each Group or VCA usually also has its own mute switch, and on many mixers the main outputs are mutable too.
  12. Channel Meters. Even very basic mixers often have a single LED to indicate channel overload. Others have more than one LED, ranging from two or three (e.g. one for signal present, one for intermediate levels, one for overload) to full channel metering. Some have multi-segment LED meters alongside the channel fader, while others have a Meter Bridge: comprehensive metering from a separate meter section above the channel strips.
  13. Channel Assign. The channel signal on most budget and notepad mixers is routed directly to the main mix. As console-size increases, the number of routing and control options will generally also increase. Common channel assignment options include:
    1. Direct Routing. Routing buttons (usually alongside the fader, at the bottom of the channel strip) allow the signal to be sent either to the main mix alone, or to any of a number of subgroups (usually four or eight). The subgroups can be used to feed separate sub-mix amplifiers (or recording equipment), but will usually themselves be routed to the main mix, so that the level of a group of signals - e.g. backing vocals - can be controlled by the group fader. The signal will not be routed directly to the main mix, but to the group (and from there to the main mix). The groups are always configured in pairs, using the channel's Pan control to assign the signal to odd (1, 3, 5, 7) or even (2, 4, 6, 8) groups. For stereo operation this means that a pair of groups is needed for each sub-mix, so that an 8-group desk can only provide four stereo sub-mixes.

      Using groups also allows a group of signals to use a single processor (e.g. compressor or noise gate).

    2. VCAs. Voltage Controlled Amplifiers. The overall level of any channel strip can be assigned to an independent fader (again, there are commonly four or eight of these, either assigned by buttons next to the channel strip or by selecting a combination or sequence of channel and VCA assign buttons). This means that the output level of a group of channels can be controlled by a single fader. However, the signal can now be routed directly to the main mix (with its position in the stereo soundstage maintained). The VCA fader is not part of the signal path; instead, it controls the DC voltage governing the gain of an amplifier stage in the channel path, and because there are less components in the signal path, VCA desks are inherently less noisy (although in a modern console at a live event this is unlikely to make much practical difference). VCA desks usually have VCAs as well as groups, not instead of them.

      Note that because the VCA is not part of the signal path you cannot process (e.g. compress or EQ) or route a VCA fader: its only function is to control the level of a group of channels.

    3. Mute Groups. Some mixers allow you to assign any channel to one of a number of Mute Group buttons. This means you can mute (or un-mute) a group of channels with a single button. Usually the selectors for mute group assignment are in the same area as the other routing buttons. However, on desks with a lot of functions, there is generally an Assign button in the master section, allowing a single channel switch to cover a number of separate functions. This helps to reduce the overall number of buttons on each channel strip (which - with 8 or more groups, VCAs and mute groups - would otherwise be excessive).
  14. Channel Output Level. On mini budget mixers this may be a knob. On most mixers, however, it will be a Fader (sometimes 60mm on smaller budget desks, but usually 100mm). This sets the final level of the channel signal in relation to the level of other channels. On smaller mixers, the signal (as determined by the channel fader) will go straight to the main mix. Bigger mixers generally allow different subgroups of signals to be controlled by Group and/or VCA faders.

Mixers also have a Master section, from which the main mix and/or various sub-mixes can be controlled. Commonly there are Mute (or On/Off) switches on the groups and main faders. The master section will generally include some or all of the following:

  1. Aux Send Masters. The overall level of each auxiliary send will be determined by a control - usually a knob on smaller desks, a fader on some larger ones - in the master section. There may be a PFL/AFL button for each.
  2. Aux Returns. Most mixers include extra inputs for effects returns. Often these are stereo, controlled by a single knob or fader. On smaller mixers these may be permanently routed to the main mix. On larger mixers there will usually be buttons to select routing options for each of the returns, and many also include basic EQ facilities - as well as PFL/AFL - on each return. Where extra channels are available, many engineers prefer to use full channels for effects returns.
  3. Matrix. Some desks have a Matrix section, in which different combinations of input can be assigned to different outputs. This allows further submixing options.
  4. Assign. Mixers with extended functions (e.g. most VCA mixers) will usually have an Assign button, allowing channels to be assigned to Groups, VCAs, and Mute Groups. On the Allen & Heath ML range, for example, engaging Assign allows channel and master-section Mute buttons to act as selectors.
  5. VCA Faders. Each fader will control the level of any channel or group assigned to it.
  6. Group Masters. Each group will have its own output from the mixer, but will also have a switch allowing its output to be routed to the main mix. Larger desks may have more comprehensive routing options. Again, PFL/AFL is common.
  7. Main Faders. These control the desk's main mix (Left and Right output). Some desks use a single fader to control the stereo output.
  8. Mono Sum/Sub Out. Some mixers have an extra separate fader providing a summed mono output. This is sometimes used to provide independent control of the sub-bass level.
  9. Talkback. Many desks include an input for a talkback mic. The talkback mic can usually be routed to a choice of outputs, allowing the engineer to talk to individual performers via their monitor.
  10. Headphone/Monitor Section. Most mixers have a headphone socket, enabling the engineer to listen to different parts of the mix. Sometimes the choice of headphone mix is comprehensive, determined by the selection of PFL/AFL buttons on the mixer. On budget mixers, the choice may be more limited, determined by buttons in the master section. Larger mixers usually have a separate output for the engineer's monitor mix, allowing the engineer to hear what is selected through a separate loudspeaker.

How it works

The principle of operation is to combine discrete inputs via buffered outputs (so that changes made to one do not affect any other) to one or more summing amplifiers. As far as the end-user is concerned, however, the principle of operation is less important than the method. Knowing how and when to put your foot on the brake is what counts, not the fundamentals of hydraulics.

How do you use it?

If all else fails, read the manual!

A full description of how to use a mixer is beyond the scope of this article (the specific mixer's User Guide is always a good place to start, and there are useful notes on some manufacturers' websites, e.g. the Soundcraft General Guide to Mixing). However, there are three main points to observe:

  1. Gain Structure. Although most mixers have plenty of headroom - often capable of channel levels and summed outputs of +20dBu or more - the capacity of the system as a whole is restricted by whatever point in the signal path has least headroom. Many professional amplifier/loudspeaker systems are designed to produce full output at +4dBu (1.23 volts), which corresponds with 0dB on the main meters of most mixers. Higher levels will simply drive the amplifiers into limiting or distortion, risking loudspeaker damage, as well as compromising the sound.

    Also, individual channel levels combine to produce a higher overall level. If the peak level in each channel is +20dB, the channel may be (just) below clipping, but the sum of all the channels will be well over +20dB, so the main mix bus will clip. If you are using 20 channels, using even a modest amount of the headroom in each channel may be enough to overload the mixer's summing amplifiers.

    The solution is to set individual channel gains so that the peak channel level is no greater than 0 dB. Where the dynamic range of the signal is too great to make this practical, it is best to use a compressor to compress that signal. If you can't (if you haven't got a spare compressor, for instance), keep any extra gain to a minimum. Aim to set each channel's fader at around the 0dB position (if this isn't indicated, go for somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way up). Where the mix needs adjustment, reduce the prominent sounds before you resort to boosting the weak ones. However, where the weakest sounds also need to be the most prominent in the mix (this typically applies to vocals), a few extra decibels on the channel fader may be the most practical option once the show is up and running. The most important element of the mix is almost always the vocals. Where backline levels are too high to begin with, try cutting or muting everything except the vocals.

    To set the channel gain, select the PFL on that channel (check that no other PFL/AFL buttons have been selected), and adjust the gain until the loudest sounds from that voice or instrument indicate 0dB on the meters. Getting this right will make everything else much easier.

  2. Using EQ. Boosting or cutting the channel EQ will affect the channel level, so recheck the gain after any change to the channel EQ. Generally, you will get a better sound by reducing frequencies that are too dominant (rather than by boosting those that are weak or missing). Often, however, you may find it easier to identify the frequencies that need to be reduced by boosting the midrange, then sweeping the mid frequency control through its range. Having identified the offending frequency, reduce the level (a small amount of cut - typically with the control at 10-11 o'clock - will usually be enough). If you need more EQ (beyond 9 o'clock or 3 o'clock), you may need to concentrate on problems outside the mixer (choice and/or position of microphones, pickups, speakers, or even instruments or lead vocalists).
  3. Muting and Routing. If it is muted, it won't make a noise. If none of the channel's routing options is selected, the signal won't go anywhere. If you can't hear anything, check these two things first.

It is also good practice, before you start, to set all knobs and switches to the following defaults:

This will get you into the habit of actively selecting what you want to happen to the signal and where you want it to go: using every control every time you use a mixer will rapidly lead to complete familiarity with them. It also means you will have checked the status of every knob, switch, button or fader before you set out, so you won't be surprised by absent signals or sudden ear-splitting howls from the monitors (or from the musicians on stage).

Do you need one?

Simply, yes. Even when your requirements are basically simple and modest, gain control is important.

What sort do you need?

This will depend very much on what you want to use it for. A small ‘notepad’ mixer is often fine for speech or background music. For live performance, make sure the mixer has:

Other useful - in many circumstances vital - facilities are:

Have a look at Digital Mixers if you are weighing up the choice between analogue and digital.

See Also...

The Soundcraft General Guide to Mixing.