The Terminal: Finding a mixer

Posted by on Jan 10, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Hey folks – how’s it going?  I’ve been busy here in Studio Laminar working on just how to write and perform a song without the help of a computer.  I’ve been going deeper on my devices, learning their limitations, and even learning my own limitations.  And while I’m far from dropping some chill house-esque beats for y’all, things are progressing.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a mixer.  You see, a mixer isn’t some new thing I’ve come up with that I need.  On the contrary, I’ve known I would need a mixer from day one; right now my computer performs this task for me.

Since day one it was clear that, there was no way I was going to hand all my io to a sound engineer at the local pub and it would somehow work out.  That, and, the mix is a huge part of the performance.  If I’m going to sequence my synthesizers live, they need to be mixed, they do.  I need certain aspects of control over the sounds, and the ability to tweak how those sounds fit together at different portions of the song.  I also need to be able to do a little bit of routing, you know, to effects and things since there’s no way I’m going to have delays and such be inlined, if I can at all avoid it (inlining effects is the really fucking expensive way to do things).

And sure, I can mix some using the synths themselves.  I can adjust levels for a whole instrument, or a single timbre on a multi-timbral instrument.  Though, mixing in this way is a bit more difficult, and you do scrape up against limitations provided on various instruments, like the AY3 or Arcano NES – neither of which have any output or equalization controls (and let’s be real, most EQ on a synth are the filters, which is way more about timbral-shaping than it is about the mix).   Oh, and you get to deal with doing it a slightly different way on every instrument to boot.   Yea, it’s possible; yea, it’s complicated; yea, there’s a better way.

That better way… is a mixer.  Oh, but what mixer to get?  Since I’m thinking about that a lot lately, why not bring you into that thought process.  Maybe by the end of this thing we’ll settle on one of em, eh?

The Terminal: Finding a Mixer

Needs – Inputs

Alright, in finding a mixer there are a lot of choices out there.  Analog vs Digital, various numbers of channels, busing, effects, and other features.  I know this because I’ve been looking.  First, analog all the way – it’s cheaper and does what I want.  That said, to pick the right mixer  we need to understand our needs.  Where are we?  Where are we going? What could we survive with? What does it look like to be frivolous?

I think over all we want something that sits somewhere in the middle and provides room to expand.  Note that that expansion could mean downsizing another part of the setup later thus, it’s important to know our options when hooking up the gear.  Just because you can hook up a synth in stereo doesn’t mean there’s any value in actually doing so, you know?  But, at the same time, it can also be nice to just hook all that shit up and not worry so much.

Okay, so, let’s talk the gear.  Just how many inputs could my gear use if I just hook everything up:

  • Elektron Rytm – 8 channels
  • Twisted-Electrons AY3 – 2 channels
  • Moog SubPhatty (wait… I got a subphatty?  yea… it’s in the mail!) – 1 channel
  • Arcano NES – 2 channels
  • Nord Lead2x – 4 channels
  • Roland Juno 6 – 2 channels

Total channels for synths: 19 channels (that is, these all need mic pres – line inputs just won’t do!)

Rytm – Deeper Dive

Phew.  That’s a lot of channels.  That said, there’s not necessarily a lot of value in hooking up the Rytm into the mixer (well, there could be… let’s chat in a sec).  My original intention was to mix the drums in the Rytm exclusively – it’s well setup for this, and to route the entire mixer through the Rytm.

Wait, what now?  Okay, I’ll explain a bit more.  The Rytm has a bus compressor on it.  Bus compressors on drums are the business – they really help everything gel together well; I use them in a few context in all of my mixes.  Elektron gets this and I’m glad they do.  They also get that it can be useful to have everything through the same bus compressor, you know, to have even more tracks be on the same page (people have been doing this since forever).  So, what did those nice folks do?  They added an external input that jumps right in before the compressor stage allowing me to compress all sounds together if I want to and can provide them on that single, stereo, external input.  And of course, this exactly I want to.

If I do use this compressor for all sounds then I want to use the L/R channels of the Rytm as the master audio.  That is, these are the two channels that run to the PA.  The input to the Rytm would be the L/R master outs of the mixer.  All other instruments go into mixer, mixer goes into Rytm where it joins the drums, Rytm goes to PA; people dance and shit.

This route would effectively reduce my need for 8 channels into the mixer.  This would be great, as needing 19 channels just to function is a lot of shit.  But wait, would I lose anything if I did this?

Yes, though it might be manageable.  You see, the nice thing about most mixers is that they provide basic EQing.  The Rytm, while I can pan and control levels very easily from it – does not provide EQ’ing.  I do get filters though, well, one filter per channel.  Honestly, these filters may very well be enough, usually for drums I don’t do a ton of EQ’ing to get them to work.  Mostly I roll off lows or highs.  With snares and kicks though, I do find some EQing helps a lot.  So you know, I could just do those two if I wanted – taking me from needing 8 channels to 2, when I’m feeling a bit extra bougie, anyway.

Another benefit, and this isn’t huge is – the mixer provides a single surface and a single interface to absolutely everything.  This sort of thing can simply reduce the amount of thinking necessary to do things.  However, you get so used to doing shit on your synths this sort of thing doesn’t save tons of time, at least, not with the old gear.  And, I’d say that this is done well on the Rytm – not a selling point I want to consider to heavily, at least in this case.

A final note, before I summarize – it may be interesting at times to leverage the Rytm as a sample player.  Say, I want it to play a riser or some other favorite effect from my Vengeance packs.  I may even want to run these effects through other bits of special processing – a side chained compressor, or a unique and epic reverb.  Using a specific out for one of these sounds and avoiding the Rytm’s main mix might be to my advantage, since that’s an individual out from the Rytm is the only way I can do anything unique to a sound (i.e. apply outboard gear to it).  Having the space for a couple channels of this sort of thing, if I need it, would be good.

Okay so, what’s the synopsis on the Rytm, the potentially heavy weight I/O beast – if I ran 8 channels from the Rytm to a mixer that’d be cool, but not absolutely necessary.  2 would be a happy medium.  Aw heck, and I could probably do with just two, if I wanted.  Finally, an extra couple of channels could be useful for special activities, so maybe reserving 0-4 is a bit more realistic than maintain an absolute of 8.  And hey, it’s compressor is going to be very useful, and save me the trouble of yet another piece of outboard gear.

Everything but the kitchen sink

Okay so, after further inspection, I stated that I likely didn’t need all 8 outputs of the Rytm to go through a mixer.  But what about the other synths?  Do I need to use all of those outputs?  Truth be told, not really, though there are a handful of advantages.

Nord Lead 2x

When it comes to the nord, there are 4 outs.  These can be configured in a variety of ways – a couple of stereo pairs, 4 individual outputs for 4 individual sounds, or a couple other derivative combinations.  When I’m using 4 sounds, having four specific channels to a mixer is actually really nice – it makes mixing the nord with everything else much more straight forward.  The reality of the nord is, sure I can control volume per loaded patch, but I have to select that patch or map a midi knob to volume – this is a PITA so, fuck it – I’d definitely prefer a mixer with 4 channels.

But stereo pairs?  Well, here’s the thing – there’s not a whole lot that’s stereo on the nord.  That’s not always the case, but it is plenty of the time.  Pretty much the only time stereo matters is when I have unison enabled on a patch.  It’s at that point that there’s a fun stereo image.  When there’s no unison, both channels for a patch actually output the same thing and while this gives me more signal to work with, it’s not particularly valuable to me given the output of the nord is reasonable.

A second note about stereo pairs – say I want to use unison for a cool stereo effect, this means that I’ve got two pairs of outputs, just two.  What if I want to use 4 sounds like I mentioned in the first paragraph?  Then they share a pair of outputs.  This puts me back into a hybrid mode for mixing these sounds – that is, I must make the two sounds fit together on the stereo pair, and the two sounds must also fit into the mix using the exact same processing on the mixer.  Doable, but it does beg the question, if I have this limitation, do I really want to have 4 sounds playing?  Maybe this is the case where I say the Nord’s job is really only that of two timbres instead of 4.  Nothing wrong with that, but if I’m going to take advantage of unison like features, it’s definitely a mix challenge that I should only take on if it’s worth it.

Minimalistically, I can survive with 2 outs from the Nord, or even 1, if I want to do more work mixing using the midi on the Lead 2x.  That is to say, I can have a two channels with up to two patches each, or I can have 1 channel with all 4.  Both of these situation increase the complexity of the nord and whatever controller relationship I setup with the nord.  I think this isn’t ideal, and while I can still use the unison feature, I don’t get that fun stereo image.

Summarizing the Nord, I’d prefer to have 4 outs from it, but I could get away with 2… but I want four (like, for reals yo).

Juno

The juno isn’t particularly stereo, though it’s got two outputs.  Like before, this can give me more signal to work with but also isn’t necessary.  There’s really only one selling point to using the two outputs which is that the Juno comes with a nice sounding chorus and this chorus is much nicer sounding in stereo.  2 channels here is fine, but a single channel would do for live performance just fine.

AY3 and Arcano NES

These two synths have fun character.  In the case of the NES I would take the two channels simply because it gives me more signal to work with.  It’s really weak on the output.  2 for this synth, absolutely.  Though, if I could get a better signal out of this, 1 would do; sadly the NES’ output is way too close to the noise floor for me to be too cozy with that idea.

The AY3 also suffers from a lack of volume knob, though it’s output levels are quite a bit better than the NES.  Additionally, it provides six voices, and you can only access all of them in stereo mode.  That is, you can have 3 voices per channel.  Using all 6 creates a really rich and interesting stereo image.  I’d also prefer to keep 2 channels here.

Synth Output Summary

Alright and that’s all of the synths.  What’s the tally once we’ve managed our needs a bit better? 4 for the Rytm, 1 for the juno, 1 for the Moog, 4 for the NES and AY3, 4 for the Nord Lead2x – Total 12 – at least, for a general sense of happiness.

Needs – Effects

Effects need loving too.  Though, not that much love.  Well, hopefully.  In general, you need a few sends for things like delays, reverbs, choruses.  These effects work really well on sends, and are much more cost effective to use in this way than inserts.  Also, using them as sends gives me a lot more creative freedom with them live compared to in-line effects, which have to be re-routed the old fashioned way (switching cables!).

Okay, that’s all fine and good, but I don’t have a lot of effects now (2 channels worth) and I’m not sure how many I’m going to get, so… how do I plan all this?

First, let’s figure out what we don’t need as outboard gear.  This one is going to surprise you, but reverb actually.  Wait, but no reverb?  That’s crazy!  Well, it’s not no reverb, it just turns out that mixers out there have thought of everything.

You see, seems some mixers worth come with a couple of effects processors on them.  That’s right folks, a built in effects processor, a built in route to that effects processor, and that effects process can do all kinds of things.  You know, like reverbs.  This means that, as long as I buy a mixer with this capability I don’t need to have it as outboard gear.  This is a very good thing.  And heck, if the processor has a delay, chorus, over drive, or saturation in it, even better.

That said, this won’t be everything.  I’m still going to have at least one delay, and that delay might very well be stereo (cause delays can be great in mono, and can be even greater in stereo).  I’ll likely have two of these at some point in time, and maybe even one or two other things.  I’d think that a couple of stereo sends and a couple of mono sends would be superb.  From an IO perspective, well I need sends, but more importantly, I need returns – aka more tracks.  And it sounds like I could survive with 4, but 6 would give me a lot of room to hang myself with.  Let’s say 4 inputs for returns for now.

Needs – Growth

Okay, we’ve talked about what we need now.  And sure, we’ve talked a little bit about what we’ll need later but we need to talk about that more.  How do we know what we’ll need later?  We fucking don’t.  All we can do is make sure we’ve got some headroom, and know what are options are.  For example, I can reserve a few channels for things I’m thinking about and a couple for things I haven’t thought about.  I can also consider scaling down a synth I’ve already got hooked up, or changing it’s role to simply need less.  And of course, I can unhook shit and hookup different shit in it’s place; it’s not like I need to use absolutely everything all the time – though hooking shit up is a PITA.  These are all options to me.

Okay, well, let’s size up what I might like to do, here or there or maybe or maybe not:

  • Hook up a bass guitar via a looper – 1 channel
  • Therapasid – another 8 bit gem from Twisted Electrons.  It’s not out yet.. but it will be 😉 – 2 channels
  • Digital Piano, cause piano’s dope – 1 or 2 channels
  • Sampler, phone, ipad, or whatever else, containing loops or songs to dj with the live set, 2 channels

The first two bullets will happen for sure.  The second two, I dunno, I just came up with them.  Would I ever need them all at one time… I dunno that either.  They all seem swappable as of right now.  Maybe I just want to have a few channels of ‘hotswap’ available.  There’s like, the standard setup, the main synths and all (the drum machine ain’t goin nowhere never), and then there’s the hotswap.  The things I like to change in and out.  Seems like I could probably get away with 4 to 6 channels for growth

Needs – Summary

Okay, so, let’s tally up the I/O for ‘maximum’, and ‘awesome enough’ levels of operation knowing that we’ll likely grab a mixer that also provides some of the effects needs, thus reduce out needs for sends.

  • Max Inputs – 19 for Synths, 6 for effects, 6 channels for growth — 31 channels
  • Awesome Enough Inputs – 12 for synths, 4 for effects, 4 channels for growth — 20 channels
  • Minimal – well, I never really like to do miminal, but we could shave off another 6 probably and say 14 channels

Mixer Selection

Okay, that’s all fine and good, but how do I choose?  Well, let’s talk about standard analog mixer sizes.  From sweetwater, seems like things like to come in flavors of 12, 16, 24, and 32.  Well, and maybe they come larger, but we don’t really need to worry about it.

Larger mixers have a larger physical footprint.  They’re longer, but like a foot and they weigh more.  I think many of the 32 channel mixers I looked at were around 40 to 50 pounds.  But the difference between the Yamaha 24 and Yamaha 32 in size was 6lbs and 8 inches of width – it’s not that much of a difference size wise.

Larger mixers, while meaning I can hook more shit up, also mean… I hook more shit up.  Yep, that means more cables, more back up cables, more organization to hook the entire thing up… and this is something I want to do on the road.  Uh.

That said, a 32 channel mixer would probably never ever become inadequate.  I suppose the question is, is it too big?  Seems as though a 24 channel mixer is better than ‘awesome enough’, doesn’t come with the epic physical footprint, and I could take the money I’d spend on size… and spend it on quality.

But what else do I want in a mixer?  I mean, honestly, I don’t want it to be from a company I don’t trust a whole lot.  This rules out some companies, because I think they make cheap shit.   Behringer?  Yea fucking right.  And I know some people love peavey, but I think their guitar products are crap… I’ll pass on their mixers too

Other companies I’m on the fence about a.k.a. Mackie.  While I love my MCU Pro, I’ve also seen the shortcuts they’ve taken with it.  They don’t seem like they really keep their shit up to date, not that an analog mixer really needs much up to date.  Regardless, my issues with the panel on the MCU Pro make me skeptical, and, I gotta be real, their mixers are priced really cheaply for what they do and this simply raises concern; Mackie is out of the race too.

There are a couple of manufacturers that have really caught my eye in my price range.  Yamaha is one, and definitely on the cheaper end.  On the less cheap end, well, Allen and Heath make a couple really appealing 24 channel mixers.  There are a couple others too, I’ll call them out.

What’s important?  Well, we know we’ve got enough inputs.  We want enough sends, we want some internal effects processing, and we want it to not be a complete piece of crap.  Good preamps are awesome, but I think it’s mostly important they aren’t terrible; remember, when I want epic good sounds, I’m going to run things through the pre-amps in the studio, here we want something that’s going to work for mixing on stage.

Alright, time for some links:

  1. http://www.allen-heath.com/ahproducts/gl2400/ – 24 channel allen & heath.  2k$$$ – dang
  2. http://www.allen-heath.com/ahproducts/zed-428/
  3. http://www.yamahaproaudio.com/global/en/products/mixers/mgp_series/features.jsp

And there are a bunch of others.  The Allen & Heath stuff is definitely expensive; I probably won’t get them, but I’m looking at them to understand what the high end is.  So far it looks like better pre-amps and I certainly understand why one would pay more for them.  Alas, that may not be enough of a selling point for me.  Well, and better components (fancy faders, potentiometers and so on) – again, if I was using this in the studio as the main thing sure… but maybe not for my live rig.

Also, the Allen & Heath don’t provide those cool integrated effects processors; these are pretty straight forward mixers.  They have strict mixing features and that’s that.

The current front runner for me, actually, is the Yamaha MGP24/32 (and sweetwater has a floor model available for the 24…).  The Yamaha definitely has more bells and whistles than the 24 channel Allen & Heath models.  Compressors on each channel, effects processors, and even some bus processing is available on the Yamaha.  Sure, maybe the connectors aren’t Neutrik, and I have a feeling the pre-amps aren’t quite as good – but the feature set and quality lines up with my goals and price point a bit better.  Shit, and there’s literally a 200 dollar difference between the 32 channel and the 24 channel model.  Uh, it almost seems like you just want to go big or go home with these.

Fuck, I think I might be sold on the Yamaha after this thought experiment.  But, is there anything else we should look at?  Soundcraft has two comparable models and they are fairly popular over on GearSlutz, though the feature set doesn’t just sing to me the same way that “Yammy” (as the gear slutz people call it) does.

Well, I think that’s all I’ve got for tonight.  I understand my needs better and I’m definitely leaning towards the Yamaha MGP32 based on price and features.  That said, I know better than to simply go buy it right now so… I’m going to sleep on it.  But don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I end up getting and just how I hook it up.   Thanks for hanging out.