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Mixer Messages

Those of us who grew up with tape machines and mixers can see how most DAWs follow an analogue mixer paradigm, but this might not be quite so obvious to a musician who’s taken the DAW route from the start. Indeed, some newer DAW users may never have touched an analogue mixer. However, a basic analogue mixer can teach you all you need to know about signal levels, gain structure, headroom, routing, insert points and pre/post aux sends.

Familiarity with mixers proved useful at a recent festival where I was asked to play percussion for my daughter’s act, booked to open on the acoustic stage. We were sent a technical rider form and asked only for the basics; a monitor or two, somewhere to plug in an electric piano, a guitar DI, two vocal mics and a cajon mic. This was a fairly up-market festival with tickets costing over £100, so I was expecting a degree of proficiency.Paul WhitePaul White

I turned up an hour or so before required and had time to look around. The main stage was serviced by a large digital console with more screens than NASA, but the acoustic stage, which alternated with the main stage, was controlled from an ageing ‘designed in Germany, made in China’ analogue mixer with just four mic/line inputs and two stereo line inputs, plus a dial for selecting preset effects. There were no monitors at all and only two mics. One of the helpers set off to get another mic and left me to plug in and set up. One of the mic/line channels was needed for the guitar DI, the other three for mics and one of the stereo line-only channels for the piano.

That’s when the problems started, as channel two was completely dead and there wasn’t enough gain on the line-only inputs for the acoustic guitar DI. We needed all three mics so had to find another way to get the acoustic guitar into the mix. The solution turned out to be to use one of the stereo aux returns, as that did have enough gain, so we plugged the guitar into one of the return’s inputs (which defaulted to mono when only one jack was occupied), and all seemed well. A bit of reverb to wet up the vocals and we were good to go with two minutes in hand — but still no sign of anybody to actually operate the mixer.

About halfway through the first song our clean electric piano morphed into fuzz piano, so at the end of the song I repatched it into the second stereo line channel, which worked fine for around two minutes, then the distortion returned. Before the third song I re-plugged one side of the piano into the free aux return and left its second jack unconnected, so we now had guitar in one speaker and mono piano on the other, but at least it stayed clean. The rest of the set went smoothly, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for any other acts destined to play on that stage later in the day.

Paul White Editor-In-Chief