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Mixers are the foundation for all live performance audio and recording setups. Microphones for vocals and acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, and audio playback from devices are connected to a mixer with cables and are then individually managed (mixed) by adjusting volume, frequency, and tonal characteristics to achieve a proper balance.

The combined signal can be directed to either PA Speakers for the audience, Stage Monitors for the performers, sent to an external recording device, or in the case of a digital mixer, sync up with a computer and DAW (digital audio workstation) software for multitrack recording.

Mixers (or mixing consoles) come in all different sizes, types, and configurations with varying features. There are two main types to choose from: digital mixers and analog mixers. There are also ‘hybrid’ models that are a combination of the two types.

So, with a new mixer on your mind, I’m sure you’re ready to ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • What are the differences between digital and analog mixers?
  • Which type is going to best suit my needs as a musician, producer, or engineer?
  • Ultimately, what should I choose?

This article will walk you through the different varieties of mixers, which type is most commonly used for each situation, and help you select the model that’s most compatible with your needs. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!

Closeup of a 120-channel digital mixer with all faders down except one, red active mute buttons, and onboard EQ controls at the top with part of the LCD display showing.

Digital mixers

Digital mixers are versatile, flexible, powerful, and packed to the brim with features and built-in audio engineering tools.

First introduced in the late 1980s, digital mixers are now the industry standard for professional audio engineers and producers worldwide. Also, due to a steady increase in popularity and computing power since their inception, they have become the gear of choice for hobbyist musicians, podcasters, content creators, and touring bands of all different types.

Digital mixers are designed to look, feel, and operate like traditional analog models (which we will talk about later) but instead employ the use of AD/DA (Analog to Digital/Digital to Analog) convertors that take the analog electric signals from input sources and convert them to digital signals. Once in that form, it can be routed into a computer for DAW multitrack recording through a USB or Thunderbolt cable. The output signal is converted back to analog when going to speakers and other sources.

While an analog mixer needs every knob, fader, and switch visible and accessible for each function, digital mixers have many of their production and routing features stored inside a software operating system that is accessed through a display screen. You will still see a variety of physical controls, such as inputs, gain, solo/mute, and volume faders, but they are much more minimal compared to a similar analog mixer.

Models from different brands each have their own design. It will require you to dedicate time to learn how to access all the menus and incorporate the features, so you can use the mixer quickly and efficiently.

Since digital mixers run on software, there are more possibilities for routing and managing signal on stage and in the studio. Once you set all your sound levels, effects, and parameters for a group of performers, you can save those settings to the internal memory. If you are running sound for multiple ensembles during a show or spend a lot of time with the same band on tour, it’s easy to recall those individualized settings and switch between them quickly.

Digital mixers also make it easy to ditch the extra rackmount equipment and outboard gear that’s used with an analog mixer. Digital models are packed with suites of internal digital effects like compressors, parametric and graphic EQs, reverbs, delays, modulation effects, noise gates, and more. With the help of the display screen, you’ll also be able to visualize how each effect operates and can fine-tune the details much more easily than an analog mixer.

Expand the possibilities with wireless and network connectivity

To maximize a digital mixer’s feature set, connect it to the internet and an external router. Then you can remotely mix using a tablet or phone through a manufacturer’s app. This is a huge bonus feature for a physical console and an absolute requirement for a rackmount digital mixer (which we’ll discuss in just a bit).

In addition to a standard issue network port, some models have built-in routers. However, a physical router is considered by many to be more reliable due to increased signal strength and by relieving the mixer itself of the extra responsibility of network connectivity, lightening its burden and increasing bandwidth.

Digital mixers can also work with extra digital connectivity protocols as well as wirelessly through a local network connection (ADAT, Dante, and more), syncing up with stageboxes using a long network cable instead of needing the traditional wired audio snake.

Overall, digital mixers require fewer add-ons and can run a complete setup with less stage and studio clutter due to those wireless capabilities.

Closeup of the back panel of a mixer showing 14 XLR outputs with three XLR cables attached.

Rackmount digital mixers – a smaller footprint and complete device control

If you’re looking for a more space-friendly digital mixer, a rackmount model may be just thing for you. They can easily fit into a portable rack case and are incredibly popular for bands that might not have a dedicated sound engineer. You can park the mixer right on stage along with power conditioners, wireless receivers, in-ear monitor systems, and any other essentials you may need.

While a physical digital mixing console gives you many hands-on advantages, it’s no surprise that they can take up a lot of room. Large consoles mean you need to seek out a table (or bring your own) and block off space in which to operate — which is easier said than done in a cramped, close-quarters venue.

A rackmount digital mixer eliminates space concerns, as they are controlled primarily through an app or web browser from a phone, tablet, or computer. The physical inputs and outputs and basic menu controls on digital rack mixers are there, and some models may even have a screen that allows you to control certain physical aspects of the device more easily. But you should know that you’ll be using a device to do pretty much all your mixing.

Limitations of digital mixers

Since digital mixers operate just like a computer, you’re inevitably going to run into same types of issues that computers face. Digital consoles have their own internal software that does occasionally need to be updated — because they have to be able to work with other music software platforms. And since music software must be regularly updated to work with computer operating system software that is also being regularly updated… well … you see what I’m getting at here…

You need to make sure and check and that the mixer’s software is updated!!!

That means visiting the manufacturer’s website for details on these ‘firmware’ updates so you can stay current.

Just like with computers and phones, digital mixers can eventually become outdated. Over time, newer and faster software in the production ecosystem will eventually outpace the mixer’s hardware capabilities and render parts of your mixer obsolete.

Since digital mixers are specialized tools, the manufacturers are able to extend the life of mixers well beyond that of other consumer devices. While phones and computers can stay fully current between five and seven years (give or take a bit), there are many models of digital mixer that have been going strong with the latest software updates for over ten years!

Another limitation of digital mixers to take into consideration is the presence of latency. Latency is the slightest amount of delay (measured in milliseconds) that occurs during the process of converting analog and digital signal. The more effects, plug-ins, and number of tracks you use with custom parameter automation translates to more digital data that has be processed by the mixer, which in turn can lead to longer latency times.

These digital mixers are ready to be pushed to explore new creative frontiers. Just make sure when operating one that you look regularly at how much memory is being used. That way you can manage your workflow to achieve maximum efficiency and performance.

Two hands working on a large multi-channel analog mixer showing numerous faders and hundreds of control knobs. Left hand turning a gain control knob, while the right hand moves one of the sliders.

Analog mixers

The original. The traditional. The tried-and-true. Modern analog mixers are built using the same technology that has been the foundation of the music world for well over fifty years.

Based on physical point-to-point electronic connections, the analog mixer takes audio signal from an input and runs it through a series of internal potentiometers, allowing the engineer to manage and mix the sound. These ‘pots,’ found in adjustable knob or slider (fader) form, are used to control the volume, attune frequencies, and adjust other characteristics of audio signal.

There are also a number of switches that can be used to open or close circuits throughout the unit, necessary for isolating, muting, and sending signal from various sources to alternate locations. Then, the finalized signal is sent out to an output source (PA speakers, monitoring systems, headphones).

Stereo Mixers are the most basic of analog mixers, and they refer to models where the output from all your signals is summed into a final stereo mix.

Larger mixers often have groups (also known as “busses”) in addition to the standard stereo output. With one of these devices, you can assign channels to specific groups. This increases the amount of mixing, monitoring, and routing options available to you. The number of busses refers to the number of groups you have available to assign. For example, a 4-Bus Mixer has four groups, each with multiple inputs.

When you run sound from the vantage point of an audience member (front-of-house), then you’ll definitely need an Audio Snake. This is a stage box with input and output jacks that has all the cabling bundled together into one long cord (think fifty feet or more) that runs back to the mixer. This cuts down on-stage clutter and means you won’t have to use a large number of extremely long individual cables.

If you have (or are thinking of running) an Unpowered (passive) PA Speaker rig, you might want to consider a Powered Mixer. In addition to their primary function as a mixer, they also provide power to passive speakers, so you won’t need to include a power amplifier in your setup. Be sure to check the power ratings of the speakers you plan on using and make sure that they match the output from the powered mixer.

Benefits of analog mixers – solid, stable, and consistent

What are the strengths of an analog mixer? Well for starters, analog consoles are less expensive and there are more models to choose from, particularly for those looking for smaller mixers with just a few channels.

Next is simplicity. Analog mixers are standalone devices. You don’t need to regularly manage computer settings, update device firmware and associated software, or be dependent on wireless network connections to access features. As long as you have power, all the necessary cables, and speakers or other output sources, you’re good to go!

Analog gear is straightforward and consistent. If you’re deliberate and careful with setup, use, teardown, and transport, your analog rig can be a trusty go-to platform for years. In fact, there are many engineers that have been using the same analog equipment for decades!

And lastly, analog mixers are easier to use right out of the box. All the controls are right in front of you, and the layouts have been designed to maintain a sense of familiarity based on the traditional look and feel of past mixers. If you learn how to use an analog mixer from one brand, you’ll be able to transfer over to another from a different brand pretty easily.

Closeup of a rack-mounted analog mixer with blue, white, yellow, and black control knobs and various LED lights indicated setting parameters.

Limitations of analog mixers

There are a few limitations you should be aware of when considering an analog mixer. The most common is that they are primarily for live sound management and can’t be used for multitrack recording. There are models that do have USB outputs that can send your final stereo mix to your computer and DAW but not all the separate isolated tracks. We’ll touch on that a bit more in the section about Hybrid Mixers.

Since analog mixers are wired with more electrical components, the larger models are a bit heavier and more cumbersome to transport than their digital counterparts. Their stability, while offering many benefits, can also mean that operations end up being a bit more rigid and inflexible. Smaller analog mixers don’t offer as many routing options, so if you’re looking to scale your music performance operation to accommodate bigger bands and more instruments, you will need a larger mixer and lots more physical connections to direct signal around the stage.

To maximize the potential of a standard analog mixing console, you’ll need a few pieces of external rack gear to pair with it. It’s important to include a rackmount multi-effects unit, which can provide reverb or delay to any channel. Many of these effects hardware pieces also include modulation effects like chorus, phaser, flanger, and tremolo.

While analog mixers have EQ to make changes to each channel (and for certain models, the entire mix), rackmount audio equalizers allow you to fine-tune those adjustments even more, which is helpful in “ringing out” problem frequencies that might be causing feedback in your main speakers and stage monitors.

As a rule of thumb, the more features you add to an analog mixer, the unit itself will need to be bigger and heavier to accommodate the extra housing for all the electronic components, wiring, and controls. If you need more channels, more AUX sends, additional output connections (such as additional direct outputs on channels), and grouping capabilities (a stereo mixer versus a 4-Bus or 8-Bus mixer), it’s also going to be more expensive.

Yamaha MG10XU 10-channel stereo USB hybrid mixer with onboard effects.

Hybrid mixers – a combination of the analog and digital

There is a newer class of console called a “hybrid mixer” that combines elements of both the analog and digital. These models work mostly like standard analog mixers but also include a number of digital touches, including multi-effects, Bluetooth, and multitrack recording to an external source (like an SD card) through its own internal AD/DA (Analog-to-Digital / Digital-to-Analog) convertors.

Practically all hybrid mixers include USB ports that allow you to interface with a laptop or desktop computer. With USB Mixers, you will be able to send the resulting stereo mixdown directly into your DAW (digital audio workstation) software. Each brand and model of hybrid mixer also offers additional digital touches and features that can be incorporated into your performance and production through USB.

So, should I go with a digital or analog mixer?

There are lots of mixers to choose from, and making a decision can be a bit intimidating. The choice really comes down to your ambitions and plans. Do you see yourself just playing for fun on occasion and hosting no-hassle jam sessions? Or are you an aspiring professional and perhaps already finding yourself working as an established audio engineer?

If you’re a hobbyist musician and play solo, as part of a duo, or are in a small band with friends, a small analog mixer is a great way to go. One of the hybrid models with onboard digital effects (it’s always great to have reverb), built-in one knob compressors, and some recording features will cover all your needs without going overboard.

Venue owners who want a no-hassle setup to host karaoke, trivia nights, small music shows, or want something easily accessible for general PA needs would also do well to go with an analog mixer. A pair of main PA speakers, a couple of floor monitor speakers, a small collection of microphones for vocals/instruments, and the necessary cables, and you’ll be set!

If you’re planning on handling more extensive audio engineering duties, are part of a larger touring band that needs more routing and output options (especially if you’re using in-ear monitors), or are looking for something that can tackle an ever-growing list of live sound, recording, and post-production applications, a digital console would be a better choice.

A digital mixer would also suit a larger music venue that hosts a wider variety of bands. As mentioned above, a rackmount model is a great option for those app-savvy individuals looking to mix on a tablet or device and to save space wherever they are set up.

American Musical Supply is your mixer headquarters

Hopefully this information has helped you get an understanding of the different types of mixers and which type would work best for you in preparation for your new musical journey.

If you have more questions about mixers (or anything music related), you can always give our gear experts a call at 800-319-9043 for more assistance. Getting the gear you need shouldn’t blow your budget. And that’s why American Musical Supply offers 0% interest payment plans as well as fast and free two-day shipping on practically everything we sell. Order today and in-stock mixers will ship right out. You’ll be able to get start showcasing music and managing new projects right away!