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Why I Love... Old Keyboard Mixers

Old Keyboard Mixers

Back in the pre‑computer days, having lots of sounds at hand, or being able to record a demo to a tape machine at home, meant having lots of hardware like organs, synths, sequencers and drum machines. Manufacturers saw the need for straightforward and affordable mixers to handle the stack of electronics and bring it all down to a simple stereo pair, or even just a mono output.

These keyboard mixers could have other uses, but the intended market was made quite clear by the initials, with the Boss KM series or the Korg KMX range being examples.

Lots of manufacturers made these kinds of products, and having spoken to some friends who used them at the time, they were a bit frustrating at times because they had quite extreme EQs and could very easily overdrive and saturate... which is precisely why they’re interesting now.

To make things even more exciting, another popular use for these products was karaoke and, whilst I can’t imagine the horrors that befell these mixers in those situations, they were often endowed with spring reverbs and even bucket‑brigade delays to help the (probably unhelpable) situation. Some of these mixers even had weird little rhythm machines built into them too! (Check out the Yamaha EM‑90 [YouTube video] if you don’t believe me.)

There were so many of these kinds of products made that they’re relatively easy to find. Some have some fame, and an associated price tag, but many don’t.

With so many great digital products available now, sometimes things can get a bit clean and clear...

With so many great digital products available now, including all those in your computer, sometimes things can get a bit clean and clear, and that’s where these things can be a handy solution. I run all sorts of stuff through a pair of old Maxon/Ibanez mixers, and the drive and saturation can really add a lot of life to a sound. There’s also effects sends to play with, and so I stick rack units and pedals on those and record the whole outcome back into my DAW.

It’s also worth setting up a bunch of equipment on different channels and recording it all at once into your DAW. Yes, this is kind of silly, because now you can’t isolate anything or mix it later, but if you get it all gelling and vibing on an old keyboard mixer, perhaps that’s the mix? Why not dare to commit? A halfway house would be to record groups of things through these mixers as broad stems to allow for a bit more flex later.

When I recorded my most recent album, half the songs were multitracked in the usual way, but half were done through the Ibanez mixer in one pass with no additional mixing done, or even possible. Listening back, the live mixes sound better to me than the ones I spent time mixing.

It seems extremely obvious to point out, but there’s something to be said for getting the whole track working on a fundamental level before pressing record. This can easily be forgotten when we are used to building things up in a Lego fashion within the computer (which I love too, by the way).

So, if you’re looking for a slightly different way to work, maybe grab a grubby old keyboard mixer and see what you think.