Basic guide to mixers for creators

Using a mixer or sound board might seem daunting at first, but once you learn the basics it’s a breeze.

Using a mixer

I remember when I first saw a mixing board. The vast outlay of knobs and holes was quite intimidating to me. I just said, what on earth am I going to do with all this? But bit by bit, I learned the layout and figured out what was going on with all the doodads and maenads.

Now, I can hardly call myself an expert on it – there’s always something more to learn – but I’ve ran more than a few soundboards for bands and helped podcasters with their set ups enough that I at least know my way around what twisty-turny thing does what and the difference between a tip sleeve and a sleeve cuff (one of those is not a mixing board term).

The biggest disadvantage working with boards and bands though is that everyone has their own random terminology. I’ll try to get to that as we go along. I’ll start with the simple stuff that you need to know to get going, and then I’ll get to the more complicated stuff further down. And don’t worry, I’ll avoid all the technical jargon like ohms, impedance, particulate sumatra, and umlauts.

How is a mixing board laid out?

The layout

It seems a lot to wrap your head around, but it really isn’t. The most important thing is to understand that on one side we have channels, and on the other side… you’ll probably never touch it. Each of these clearly marked columns there is a “channel”, which basically handles one input – either a vocal or an instrument, though for big bands with small boards sometimes you can double up. Then we have a basic equalizer, sometimes knobs for effects, and then the volume slider and a mute or solo button. More detail on that further down.

Boards can come in many sizes, from just two channels to 128 channels. As a podcaster, you probably won’t need a 128 channel board, and I’d recommend getting closer to one with 4 to 8 channels, but it’s up to you. Some people like them big. I have an 8 channel board at home myself, and I keep wondering why I didn’t get that 16 channel one, even though I’d probably never use those 8 extra channels. Don’t get confused with names either: a mixer by any other name, like mixing board or sound board, sounds just as sweet.

You might notice that the first few channels just have single numbers, and the last few have double numbers. The ones with single numbers are meant for mono channels – you can make them stereo though by using two channels and assigning one to the left and one to the right with the balance knobs.

The channels with two numbers will have two different instrument inputs, which is why they’re actually two different channels. More about those later. It’s important to note that on more modern mixing boards – like Presonus’s StudioLive series – these channels will often correlate with those on your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

What kind of mixer do I need?

For podcasters, I recommend getting the simplest board you can find, with about 4 to 8 channels depending on what kind of show you’re doing. You’ll absolutely need at least two mic inputs, especially if you plan on having a guest. You want another channel for sound effects and music, and at least one more for room to expand. Maybe you’ll have several guests at once or who knows. More channels are especially important if you don’t plan on spending much time on the computer and you want to do everything live.

As for brands, you have some options.

There are a great deal of budget mixers out there. The best of the budgets is Behringer. It used to be a mediocre company but in the last few years it’s really started to shine.

In the middle zone there’s Presonus and Zoom. On the upper end there’s Yamaha, Mackie, and Allen & Heath. The upper end focus on the serious boards, more aligned towards the needs of clubs and churches, while Presonus and Zoom have a great array for podcasters (though Presonus also ranges into the upper end).

Whatever the board you choose, make sure it has a USB jack so you can connect it to your computer. Maybe you don’t want this option for now, but as you advance in your podcasting career it will be a nice option to have later on.

Where do I plug in my mic?

The most basic question.

Some people come at me with all sorts of funny cords connecting their microphones. The best thing you can do for your mic (and as a general rule for beginners though with all sorts of exceptions) is to try to stay true to your inputs and outputs – make sure you’re using a cable that has the same sort of thing on each end of the snake.

The best jack to use is that big black one with three holes in it, called an XLR jack (a “jack” is the slot while a “plug” is what you stick into a slot, though plenty of people refer to plugs as jacks as well, making the sentence, “Jack the jack into the jack” perfectly okay).

It’s the best because that’s specifically what it’s made for. You can plug one of those long TS plugs into it, but that’s the second best option.

What is an XLR and TS?

The two types of inputs you’ll see for mixers are XLR and TS (also called “quarter-inch” in the States or a “guitar jack” by most musicians).

Tip sleeve

The TS, “tip sleeve”, is called that because the two surfaces conducting are the tip and the sleeve, typically divided by a thick black ring. Sometimes they have two or three rings, in which case they’re called a TRS or TRRS respectively.

TS tip sleeve

A TS or “guitar cable” in the colloquial

You’ll likely never use a TRRS, but a TRS can be used as an in and out for inserts or for stereo depending on your need. If you’re using a TS for a microphone though, make sure it has only one or no visible rings.

The thing about the TS for a mic is that you’ll get a very quiet signal. There’s no real way around this. Some mixing boards try to make up for that with that little “instrument/mic” button, but it’s just not as good as the real thing.

XLR

XLR, or “mic cable” in musicians’ parlance, stands for “external line return”. It offers the best clarity in sound and it can also provide an electric power boost, or “phantom power”. The power runs along the line and provides something with some juice (namely condenser mics – if you are using a condenser, you MUST have phantom power selected on your board).

XLR mic cable

A XLR or “mic cable” in the colloquial

Basically you know its better quality because the more money you spend on stuff, the more XLR lines you’ll need rather than TS cables.

Choose XLR, and put it in the first channel. Put your guest on the second channel. All channels are the same though, so it’s really just a matter of preference.

What’s with the double channels?

Sometimes you’ll see channels paired up, like 8/9 or 9/10 or something like that. That means that there are two inputs into that one channel (think of a channel more as an input rather than the line of effects). Those will often be just for instruments or effects returns (more later) and usually won’t have gain knobs (more on that later).

Each non-paired channel is mono, while the paired channels can easily be used as stereo. However, you can also usually make those lines stereo as well. Somewhere on the channel strip there will be a button reading “mono/stereo”. If it’s clicked on “stereo” than the first input will only be on the Left and the second channel will be on the Right. If “mono” is selected, then both signals will play equally on the Left and Right.

What’s an insert?

Probably something you don’t have to worry about. Depending on your board, there is often an “insert” jack next to the line in jack. An insert jack allows you to plug in a compressor, delay, reverb, or any other external effects box you might want to use for your mic.

For this, you’ll need a two ringed TRS plug. One ring carries the signal from the mic to the compressor, the other back to the board. The disadvantage of using the insert line is that it will only be in mono. As a podcaster though, you don’t have to worry about stereo effects on your mic, so that’s all right.

The gain knob

It’s best to think of the channel strip as a series of events. The signal enters from the plug, goes into the gain, then the equalizer, and so on until the volume slider/knob at the very bottom. The gain knob allows you to adjust the volume of the microphone’s input, before any effects are applied.

Especially if you are using a condenser mic, this is perhaps the most important knob on the board. You want to set it loud enough to where you can comfortably sit and speak – but not loud enough to pick up all the background sounds.

If you notice that you’re picking up a lot of car horns or birds or the television from three doors down, then the fix might be as simple as turning down the gain a hair and adjusting your seating.

This is the primary advantage of using a condenser. A dynamic mic won’t give you such precise control.

A hot gain

To check to see if your gain is too high, look for a “solo” or “PFL” button (“Pre-Fader Level) on the mixer. Click that and you should see the lights flash up over above your main outs. Adjust the gain knob down if it’s showing red. Ideally you’ll want it only in the green and not going any over the yellow.

Remember this knob is not controlling the overall volume of the channel (that’s the fader’s job), but the volume into the channel. Louder is not always better, because louder means more sensitive.

The equalizer

This is where things start to really get tricky. As a rule of thumb, you only really want to use the equalizer, on a live production. If you’re recording your podcast and then making edits on the computer later, then there’s no real reason to worry about the equalizer at this point. Just make sure everything is set to level, which for equalizers is at the upper middle.

If you are planning to do a live show without any subsequent editing, then you’ll want to adjust the equalizer some and test your voice in advance.

Testing your voice

This will take a bit of time, as you’ll need to experiment with it. First record yourself reading some lines with all the frequencies flat or “at unity”. Keep this as your primary reference recording. Make some adjustments where you think is necessary. Read the same lines again. Listen to the original recording versus the new one.

Continue until you find a version where your voice sounds rich and full. Don’t be tempted to do too much – I know men often like to bring out their bass timbres, but this often is the opposite of what you need. If you already have a low voice, you might even need to turn down the lows and give some love to the upper regions of your chatter box.

Don’t be afraid to get a second and third opinion if you’re not sure, showing people your A/B test, that is the untouched version versus what you think is final.

Once you’ve found your perfect voice, mark down the settings and leave it alone.

AUX and FX

Next you might find an AUX or FX knob, or both. An FX knob usually refers to any onboard effects on the mixer. This controls how much of the sound is sent to the effect. The effect then has its own volume control, controlling the output of all the sound that has been sent there.

AUX outputs on a mixer

Top right of a small board, not the Aux Outputs and Phantom Power

For example, you can send a bit of sound from both channel 1 and 2, and then have the FX be a reverb. The volume of the reverb tail is controlled at the FX knob near the master fader.

If you’re doing editing on a DAW later, leave this alone. It’s really only useful if you’re recording live.

Sometimes the FX is routed to an external FX jack. AUX is always this case. It’s usually at the top right of the mixer, somewhere above your master fader you’ll probably see the FX and/or an AUX jack. This works the same way as an onboard FX.

Routing external FX

The amount of signal is controlled at the channel and is sent to the jack (you can send signals from any amount of channels). The signal then goes into your FX box (such as a guitar pedal, vocal FX pedal, looper, and so on).

You next have to bring the signal back into the mixer. Sometimes there’s a “return” plug, or you just have to plug it back into a channel. I prefer reserving one of those double channels for this, since if your effects pedal has stereo outs, you can make full use of this.

You probably won’t have to worry over this if you’re putting effects on after recording. It is more a concern for live use and if you don’t have any effects on board. If you’re recording live, just a touch of reverb from the built-in effects processor is typically more than enough.

The volume fader

Finally, we’re at the channel volume fader. This controls the volume level sent to the master fader. Typically you’re going to want to have this fader sitting “at unity”, which is that thick line marked “U”. Adjust the volume here to focus on the relative volume between each track. For the “real” volume that you hear, you should control that with the master fader.

This is probably more than you’ll need to know when setting up a mixer for your podcast. If you’ve got any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments! Make sure to subscribe for more great tips and keep creating!

2020-07-14T20:39:39+00:00July 13th, 2020|Podcasting|0 Comments