In music production the mixing board can be quite intimidating for new users – whether it’s an actual physical mixing board, or one incorporated in your DAW software. There are an abundance of knobs, buttons and faders – What to use? How to get started?
The Mixing Board
The good news is the mixing board does not have to be intimidating. The secret is to take it section by section and understand what things mean and how everything works. A good start is to understand the mixing board channel strip which is duplicated many times across the board.
The Channel Strip
One important thing to consider is that sound moves from the top of the strip down to the bottom. So the inputs are at the top – and the outputs are at the bottom of the strip. That is a general statement, however it is not completely correct. There are places where the flow is not strictly top to bottom.
At the top of the strip is the input section. It has an XLR input for mic input and a line input for a line level source which could be either balanced (TRS) or unbalanced (TS) cable. There is also a trim knob or gain which sets the output level. This is where you set the levels – much like when using the audio interface.
Input Section with Insert
Below the input section we have the insert section. This is where we can add external devices such as EQ or compression to the signal flow. With an analog mixer we would use insert cables – a cable which is a combination of a single TRS and 2 TS.
Below the insert section are a series of knobs which usually make up 2 sections – the EQ section and the Aux Sends.
The EQ section gives us some general control of highs, mids and lows. This section may be missing in a DAW mixer where you may rely upon digital EQ inserts or effects.
EQ and Pan Knobs
The aux sends is a separate output for the track. This can be used to send the signal to headphones, effects or more than one place. This area functions as a secondary mix or can be more than one mix. This can be useful in live situations for individual monitoring of musicians on stage.
Then we have the pan knob which is used to change the level between the two channels – this is a mono channel strip with a single input to the channel strip but with an output in stereo. The pan knob controls the relative levels so if we pan fully to the right we will hear the sound out of the right speaker only. And if we pan fully to the left, we’ll hear sound only out of the left speaker.
In the DAW mixer it is usually a stereo channel strip so it doesn’t take the information and move from one side to another. Be aware that if you pan to the right it will reduce the left side information.
Next we have the mute button used to turn off the sound. The solo button is used to isolate the track from other tracks in the mix. In the DAW you may turn the solo button on and all others turn off. In some DAWs you can have multiple solo buttons selected at one time.
Solo and Mute Buttons
Below this are the main faders. On an analog mixing board there may be a unity gain section which will not amplify or attenuate the signal. Our desire is to keep levels at unity if possible.
We are now at the bottom of the channel strip. This section repeats across the mixing board and each fader level combines as the mix in the master bus (the master section in the DAW). The mixer LEDs will help to guide the level of the entire mix. For a rule of thumb – keep in green, peak at yellow – never enter red.
The mixing board in the DAW is mainly the same, but there are some differences. In the DAW the signal flow is also located in channel strips and is configured using drop down menus.
DAW Channel Strips
In the DAW it’s a good idea to always name your tracks. Be aware of the signal flow and the individual track’s inputs and outputs. As there are no cables it is essential that we have a good mental image of the signal flow. For the outputs these can be hardware outputs for headphones, speakers etc., or the sounds can be routed to the bus. The bus is the area where sound is collected and re-routed in a computer.
Inserts are the sections where we can add effects such as gates, compressors and EQ’s to the track.
Sends can exist in two places, before the fader (pre-fader) or after the fader (post fader). We should be aware of the send section on the mixing board. It will usually be a bus or hardware output. We’ll have a send level (how much signal is going to that output), and usually there’ll be a button for pre or post, which controls where that send lives inside of the signal flow.
Then there will be the volume and pan. The pan knob controls the output of the signal in the left or the right channel. The volume fader controls the main output volume of the channel. This is the basic signal flow through DAW.