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Making the Most of Your Mixer

Published: Thu June 07, 2007  News Feed

You’ve got yourself a mixer and now you’re ready to use it. Just plug everything in, twiddle the controls, and away you go … right? Well, if you’ve done this before you won’t have any problems, but if this is the first time you’ve ever used a mixer you might want to read through this little tutorial and pick up a few basics that will help you get better performance and make better mixes.

Balanced, Unbalanced - What’s the Difference?

In a word: “noise.” The whole point of balanced lines is noise rejection, and it’s something they’re very good at. Any length of wire will act as an antenna to pick up the random electromagnetic radiation we’re constantly surrounded by: radio and TV signals as well as spurious electromagnetic noise generated by power lines, motors, electric appliances, computer monitors, and a variety of other sources. The longer the wire, the more noise it is likely to pick up. That’s why balanced lines are the best choice for long cable runs. If your “studio” is basically confined to your desktop and all connections are no more than a meter or two in length, then unbalanced lines are fine—unless you’re surrounded by extremely high levels of electromagnetic noise. Another place balanced lines are almost always used is in microphone cables. The reason for this is that the output signal from most microphones is very small, so even a tiny amount of noise will be relatively large, and will be amplified to an alarming degree in the mixer’s high-gain head amplifier.

Balanced noise cancellation

To summarize

Microphones: Use balanced lines.
Short line-level runs: Unbalanced lines are fine if you’re in a relatively noise-free environment.

Long line-level runs:

The ambient electromagnetic noise level will be the ultimate deciding factor, but balanced is best.

Signal Levels and the Decibel

Let’s take a look at one of the most commonly used units in audio: the decibel (dB). If the smallest sound that can be heard by the human ear is given an arbitrary value of 1, then the loudest sound that can be heard is approximately 1,000,000 (one million) times louder. That’s too many digits to deal with for practical calculations, and so the more appropriate “decibel” (dB) unit was created for sound-related measurements. In this system the difference between the softest and loudest sounds that can be heard is 120 dB. This is a non-linear scale, and a difference of 3 dB actually results in a doubling or halving of the loudness.

You might encounter a number of different varieties of the dB: dBu, dBV, dBM and others, but the dBu is the basic decibel unit. In the case of dBu, “0 dBu” is specified as a signal level of 0.775 volts. For example, if a microphone’s output level is –40 dBu (0.00775 V), then to raise that level to 0 dBu (0.775 V) in the mixer’s preamp stage requires that the signal be amplified by 100 times.

A mixer may be required to handle signals at a wide range of levels, and it is necessary match input and output levels as closely as possible. In most cases the “nominal” level for a mixer’s input and outputs is marked on the panel or listed in the owner’s manual.

Signal Levels and the Decible

To EQ or Not to EQ

In general: less is better. There are many situations in which you’ll need to cut certain frequency ranges, but use boost sparingly, and with caution. Proper use of EQ can eliminate interference between instruments in a mix and give the overall sound better definition. Bad EQ—and most commonly bad boost—just sounds terrible.

Cut for a Cleaner Mix

For example: cymbals have a lot of energy in the mid and low frequency ranges that you don’t really perceive as musical sound, but which can interfere with the clarity of other instruments in these ranges. You can basically turn the low EQ on cymbal channels all the way down without changing the way they sound in the mix. You’ll hear the difference, however, in the way the mix sounds more “spacious,” and instruments in the lower ranges will have better definition. Surprisingly enough, piano also has an incredibly powerful low end that can benefit from a bit of low-frequency roll-off to let other instruments— notably drums and bass—do their jobs more effectively. Naturally you won’t want to do this if the piano is playing solo.

The reverse applies to kick drums and bass guitars: you can often roll off the high end to create more space in the mix without compromising the character of the instruments. You’ll have to use your ears, though, because each instrument is different and sometimes you’ll want the “snap” of a bass guitar, for example, to come through.

The fundamental and harmonic frequency ranges of some musical instruments

Some Frequency Facts

The lowest and highest frequencies than can be heard by the human ear are generally considered to be around 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, respectively. Average conversation occurs in the range from about 300 Hz to about 3,000 Hz. The frequency of a standard pitchfork used to tune guitars and other instruments is 440 Hz (this corresponds to the “A3” key on a piano tuned to concert pitch). Double this frequency to 880 Hz and you have a pitch one octave higher (i.e. “A4” on the piano keyboard). In the same way you can halve the frequency to 220 Hz to produce “A2” an octave lower.

Boost with Caution

If you’re trying to create special or unusual effects, go ahead and boost away as much as you like. But if you’re just trying to achieve a goodsounding mix, boost only in very small increments. A tiny boost in the midrange can give vocals more presence, or a touch of high boost can give certain instruments more “air.” Listen, and if things don’t sound clear and clean try using cut to remove frequencies that are cluttering up the mix rather than trying to boost the mix into clarity.

One of the biggest problems with too much boost is that it adds gain to the signal, increasing noise and potentially overloading the subsequent circuitry.

Boost with Caution

Ambience

Your mixes can be further refined by adding ambience effects such as reverb or delay. The MG’s internal effects can be used to add reverb or delay to individual channels in the same way as external effects processors.

Reverb and Delay Time

The optimum reverb time for a piece of music will depend on the music’s tempo and density, but as a general rule longer reverb times are good for ballads, while shorter reverb times are more suited to up-tempo tunes. Delay times can be adjusted to create a wide variety of “grooves”. When adding delay to a vocal, for example, try setting the delay time to dotted eighth notes corresponding to the tune’s tempo.

Reverb Tone

Different reverb programs will have different “reverb tone” due to differences in the reverb time of the high or low frequencies. Too much reverb, particularly in the high frequencies, can result in unnatural sound and interfere with the high frequencies in other parts of the mix. It’s always a good idea to choose a reverb program that gives you the depth you want without detracting from the clarity of the mix.

Reverb Level

It’s amazing how quickly your ears can lose perspective and fool you into believing that a totally washed-out mix sounds perfectly fine. To avoid falling into this trap start with reverb level all the way down, then gradually bring the reverb into the mix until you can just hear the difference. Any more than this normally becomes a “special effect.”

The Modulation Effects

Phasing, Chorus, and Flanging

All of these effects work on basically the same principle: a portion of the audio signal is “timeshifted” and then mixed back with the direct signal. The amount of time shift is controlled, or “modulated”, by an LFO (Low-frequency Oscillator). For phasing effects the shift is very small. The phase difference between the modulated and direct signals causes cancellation at some frequencies and reinforces the signal at others and this causes the shimmering sound we hear.

For chorus and flanging the signal is delayed by several milliseconds, with the delay time modulated by an LFO, and recombined with the direct signal. In addition to the phasing effect described above, the delay modulation causes a perceived pitch shift which, when mixed with the direct signal, results in a harmonically rich swirling or swishing sound.

The difference between chorus and flanging effects is primarily in the amount of delay time and feedback used—flanging uses longer delay times than chorus, whereas chorus generally uses a more complex delay structure. Chorus is most often used to thicken the sound of an instrument, while flanging is usually used as an outright “special effect” to produce otherworldly sonic swoops.

Compression

One form of compression known as “limiting” can, when properly used, produce a smooth, unified sound with no excessive peaks or distortion. A common example of the use of compression is to “tame” a vocal that has a wide dynamic range in order to tighten up the mix. With the right amount of compression you’ll be able to clearly hear whispered passages while passionate shouts are still well balanced in the mix. Compression can also be valuable on bass guitar. Too much compression can be a cause of feedback, however, so use it sparingly.

Most compressors require several critical parameters to be set properly to achieve the desired sound. The MG compressor makes achieving great sound much easier: all you need to do is set a single “compression” control and all of the pertinent parameters are automatically adjusted for you.

Compression

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