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Sound mixers buying guide

How to find the right digital or analog audio mixer for your needs

In this article: Trying to figure out what kind of audio mixer is best for you? We'll explain what a mixer is, then talk about the different types, including...

Analog mixers

Powered mixers

Digital mixers

...along with some shopping tips for choosing the best mixer for different live sound and recording scenarios, and features you'll find when comparing mixers.

Mixing has been a part of my life for a long time. I stumbled into it by necessity. I was 14 and the singer of a band. We all rented our gear from the Doo Wop Shop. The guitar player and bass player had their amps, the drummer his drums, and to be heard over them, we needed a PA. I needed a PA.

What is a mixer?

A sound mixer — or mixing board or console — is the PA or recording component that lets you blend and tweak the audio signals in from microphones, musical instruments, and other sound sources plugged into its multiple channels. It then sends the mixed and polished signals through an amplifier and loudspeakers, or to your recording device.

Basic PA system diagram

In this basic PA system illustration, sound flows in from microphones and instruments to different channels on a mixer, then out to powered speakers.

Mixing is the art of controlling those different channels or tracks in a live rehearsal, performance, or recording. You can control sound levels and add effects to one or more tracks, and a whole lot more. Mixers give you — the operator — that control.

Do you need a mixer?

Just need a mic or two for acoustic music, a low-key band, or karaoke? Or something for making pass-the-mic toasts at an outdoor party? Consider keeping it simple with a powered PA speaker. Our most popular models have at least a couple of mic/line inputs with independent control.

You could also consider a portable PA system. They're designed to be moved around and used in smaller spaces, and the higher-end models give you some useful mixing features like EQ and reverb.

If you're recording, you won't necessarily need a physical mixer if you're using a computer audio interface and digital audio workstation (DAW) software like Pro Tools, Garageband, Ableton Live and others. That's because a DAW has a virtual mixer that you control with your computer, tablet, or even your smartphone.

The DAW gives you extensive in-computer mixing capability for as many channels as your software and computer processors can handle. That can number in the dozens or hundreds, even for free programs like Audacity.

Studio mixing vs. live mixing

The studio setting lets you hear fine detail in the mix, whether you're in a control room of a world-class recording facility or in your bedroom in headphones.

Live mixing is a different game. You're still doing the same basic operation: controlling the levels of individual sounds to create a balanced mix. But live signals are necessarily much louder and stronger.

You're also mixing for dozens, hundreds, or thousands of variously located pairs of ears, not just your own.

Avoiding feedback

Setting up your PA properly by making sure mics are never aimed at PA speakers is your first line of defense against that ever-possible sonic menace: feedback.

Feedback occurs when a microphone picks up the sound frequencies it is helping to send through the main or monitor speakers, producing at best a series of intrusive whistles and at worst an ear-splitting howl.

But when feedback still finds its way into the speakers, the mixer can play a big part in the solution. It lets you reduce volume levels and tweak EQ and effects to help keep feedback from ruining the sound.

What are the different types of mixers?

There are three main types of audio mixers — analog, powered analog, and digital. They share some common features, but there are some features that are unique to each type. And as you get in to higher-performance models, you generally get more, advanced, and better features.

Analog mixers

Analog mixers are great for live sound, and often for recording as well. For live sound, they require either powered speakers or an amplifier with non-powered PA speakers, plus the necessary cables for connecting your sources to the mixer.

Angled view of Mackie mixing board

The Mackie ProFx16v3 16-channel analog mixer features onboard compression and effects and a USB output.

Each control on an analog mixer performs a single function. You can take in the settings at a glance and make quick adjustments.

Analog mixers generally cost less than digital models, but they lack the automation and programmability you might need for complex shows and recordings. And there’s no wireless remote control like you'd get with a digital mixer.

In a practice situation, an analog mixer is great. It can be right beside the performers, with mic and instrument cables going straight into it.

But if you're mixing for a performance in a larger room, the board needs to be in front of the performers, in the "sweet spot." For that, you'll need a heavy multi-channel extension cable called a snake. Even then, you're stuck in one spot, so it's harder to make sure the mix sounds good everywhere.

Analog mixers have fewer onboard audio effects than digital mixers. You'll have to buy extra outboard signal processors — like reverb, delay, compression, etc. — to get the multiple sorts of advanced effects available in many digital mixers.

Key features of analog mixers :

  • full visual and tactile access to controls
  • extensive choice of amplifiers and speakers
  • available with multiple aux sends for connecting outboard effects
  • available with a variety of feature sets and number of channels for almost any use

Powered mixers

A powered mixer is an analog mixer with built-in amplification. Powered mixers are compact, portable, and easy to set up. They work with non-powered PA speakers. They're great for band practice and smaller-room settings.

Angled view of Yamaha powered mixer

Yamaha's EMX5 powered mixer has dual built-in 630-watt amplifiers and 24 onboard effects.

Powered mixers aren't really designed for recording. That said, I once made an album using my old Yamaha EMX 66M to record the basic bass, guitar, and drum tracks live. We used four mics for the drums, one for the electric guitar, and plugged the bass straight into the mixer. I probably wouldn't do it again, but it had a listenable, retro-psychedelic garage-y sound.

Most powered mixers have two amp channels. They can power two main speakers or one main speaker and one monitor. (A monitor is an onstage speaker aimed so the performers can hear themselves.)

Powered PA mixers usually feature line-level outputs so you can expand a system by adding powered speakers and monitors. With a powered mixer, you don’t have to carry around separate amps. But while the compact, all-in-one design is great for small-to-medium settings, you'll need something more powerful for larger spaces.

Key features of powered mixers :

  • portable
  • just add passive speakers
  • full visual and tactile access to controls
  • great for band rehearsal and small-to-medium-space gigs and events

Digital mixers

Digital mixers offer a wide range of control capabilities. You can save and recall setups, which is a big time-saver for bands that play the same rooms on a regular basis. This is also great for making quick scene-by-scene changes during theatrical productions.

QSC digital mixer and a variety of mobile devices for wireless mixing

The QSC TouchMix-16 digital mixer lets you control it using the actual unit, a tablet, or even your smartphone.

Most digital mixers feature wireless remote control. You can walk around a room while mixing on your smartphone or tablet, making sure the music sounds good everywhere.

That makes it easier to get a good mix than if you're using an analog mixer and can only make changes from where it's stationed.

With a digital mixer, you can apply more than one audio effect to every channel. You won’t necessarily need to invest in outboard effects units.

Making quick changes with a digital mixer during a live performance can sometimes be a challenge. You may have to use a touchscreen to dig through a menu before making an adjustment.

Key features of digital mixers:

  • the ability to save presets and automation
  • remote mixing with computer, tablet, or phone
  • extensive digital effects processing
  • extensive choice of amplifiers and speakers
  • available with a variety of feature sets and number of channels for almost any use

How will you use your mixer?

Before looking through a random selection of mixers, consider how you intend to use one.

Live sound for acoustic musicians

A powered mixer can work well for a soloist or small acoustic act. The compact size and modest output of most powered mixers make them a good choice if you're playing in coffeehouses, classrooms, and other small spaces.

Bose S1 Pro+ portable PA system

The Bose S1 Pro+ portable PA works great for a solo act in a small venue like a coffeehouse.

Live sound for a rock band

A simple powered mixer with two or three vocal mics might be plenty for rehearsal and house shows. But if you're getting more serious about playing larger shows, you might consider an analog or digital mixer with plenty of input channels for every member of the band. They can add up fast.

If, for example, the guitarist also sings, you'll need one channel for the vocal mic and another for the guitar. And miking a drumkit can be as simple as two channels: one for the snare and another for the kick. But you may also want channels for overhead mics to capture the cymbals, or even a mic channel for each drum.

So a non-powered digital or analog mixer and some powered speakers might be the more flexible, future-proof option. The digital mixer route also allows for more extensive, hardware-free effects like reverb and delay.

Young rock band practicing in the basement

Even if you're just practicing in the basement, a mixer comes in handy to keep all the sounds organized.

Portable sound system for a church, school, or business

An analog mixer with several inputs running one or more powered PA speakers will give you flexible options for future expansion if you think you'll need it.

A powered mixer with some non-powered speakers can work well for events in small auditoriums and meeting rooms.

Permanent PA system for church, club, or theater

For permanent installations, look for a mixing console that performs the most functions and has the most inputs and outputs you can afford.

mixing board in a church with choir singing

For permanent PA installation in a church or theater, a large mixing console gives you room to grow.

Best type of audio mixer for studio recording

For old-school analog recording with an analog mixer to magnetic tape, you use the same balanced XLR or 1/4" outputs as you would for live music.

Some analog mixers have USB outputs, so you can use them for digital recording. In that case, the mixer's output goes to your computer running a DAW. That's also great if you're recording for a podcast — check out our article to see how that works.

When you're recording with a digital mixer, you have the convenience of being able to set levels and route signals with both the DAW software and the physical controls on the console.

Important mixer features to look for

Take a look at a mixing board and you'll see that there's a lot going on. It's good to get familiar with several common, universal features that you'll see when you're shopping for mixers.

Mackie 1402-VLZ4 mixer on a green background

Mackie's 1402-VLZ4 14-channel mixer has most of the common features and controls that you'll find on nearly every mixer.

Microphone preamps

Each mic input on a mixer has a preamp that lets you boost its signal to the right level.

Phantom power switch

Condenser microphones — one of the most-used types in studio recording — require 48-volt phantom power to drive their active circuitry. That's why most mixers have a phantom power  switch to turn it on.

Analog outputs

To get an output signal for live sound or analog recording, most mixers have balanced and unbalanced outputs. Especially for recording, you'll want to use balanced XLR or 1/4" TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) outputs for the most noise-free wiring connections.

USB outputs

If you want to record digitally, you'll need a mixer that has a USB output. This lets you record to your computer without needing to purchase a separate audio interface device.

EQ: frequency equalization

Each channel on a mixer usually has some type of frequency equalization control. Treble, mid, and bass controls can eliminate feedback, give an acoustic guitar body, or help vocals cut through the mix.

Some mixers have low-cut or high-pass filters. These can really help eliminate bass rumble picked up by vocal mics. They can also help prevent feedback.

Insertion (I/O) jack

A pair of insertion jacks lets you add an outboard signal processor like reverb, EQ, or compression to a channel's signal. I/O connections can be unbalanced or balanced, with higher-end models having balanced XLR.

Auxiliary buses

An auxiliary or "aux" bus send is a secondary output from a channel that can be used to feed the input of an effects processor or a monitoring device like a floor monitor or in-ear-monitor. 

Yamaha MG16XU bus send detail

It's helpful when your mixer has at least as many auxiliary bus sends as the number of different monitor mixes your musicians want.

Pan

The pan control adjusts the left/right location of a channel in a stereo mix.

Pad

Sometimes an electronic instrument's output is too strong for the mixer's preamp to handle. Switching on a pad lowers the incoming signal to a controllable level.

Meters and peak lights

Meters, usually arrays of LEDs, show the relative strength of the mixer's signals. It's important to see that adding all the input signals together doesn't overload the output and create distortion.

Yamaha analog mixing board, focused on the output level meter LEDs

This mixer's meter lights show you the strength of the signal — green/yellow=good; red=bad (distortion or clipping).

Peak or clip lights turn on when the mixer senses distortion, letting you know you need to turn something down.

On/off or mute buttons

A convenient feature is the ability to mute channels and outputs when not in use, so no loud accidents will occur.

PFL and solo

Pushing a channel's PFL (pre-fader listen) or solo button sends that signal to the mixer's headphone jack and output meter.

This lets you hear just the soloed channel, so you can check its level and sound quality without being distracted by other sounds.

Subgroups

Subgroups are preliminary outputs you use to link parts of the music together. Subgroups allow you to control the volume of multi-miked parts — like a drum kit, or backup singers — with one fader for each.

Onboard digital effects

Many mixers, including analog ones, have digital effects like reverb, delay, chorusing, and flanging. The effects let you add some extra feeling and dimension to your music.

Most analog mixers let you apply one effect at a time to the output channels. Many digital mixers let you apply more than one effect to all the channels and buses.

Compressors

Some analog mixers feature onboard dynamic compressors. Compressors keep the signal from getting too strong or sounding too weak. Compressors are very useful when working with drums or a singer who screams occasionally.

Headphone and control room outputs

Headphone and control room outputs carry the same signal as the main outputs. They let the mixer operator hear the mix without room noise.

Digital inputs

Some mixers feature a USB port for playing digital music files for backing tracks or “break music” between sets.

Scribble strip

A scribble strip is the place where channel labels go, along the bottom edge of the mixing surface. You can buy special console-marking tape, or use masking tape. It's super-useful for a live music club or a studio that regularly mixes for different bands.

person labeling a mixing with a sharpie

A scribble strip helps you keep track of what each channel on your mixer controls.

Some digital mixers have a virtual scribble strip, so there's no need for the clutter of tape and markers when you can neatly type in, save, and recall the name of each channel in every setup.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about PA equipment in general, check out our Introduction to live sound equipment.

Some of our other pro audio buying guides feature:

Ready to shop?

If you want some expert one-on-one advice, contact us today. To talk directly with a Pro Audio specialist, call 1-800-555-9369. Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • Al from Fort Myers

    Posted on 2/28/2023

    Call me old school. I love the utility of digital mixers however I do not think digital equipment has the rich, full sound of analog. This includes vocal mixers and modeling guitar amps. The closest I have come to that full, rich analog sound is the Bose T8S which is amazing. I have used other digital mixing boards that I thought sounded terrible, voices were thin and effects artificial.

  • Manuel Fernandes from Lisbon

    Posted on 10/3/2022

    Very useful information on mixers and other music hardware.

  • Keneth mwakasitu from Dar es salaam

    Posted on 2/8/2021

    Good explanations also we can get the video is much better

  • Art Simon from Riverdale, UT

    Posted on 4/20/2020

    hey, thnx... very useful info. have been doing 'mobile music' from old studio van for 10 yrs using same system. now will switch to old pickup to carry equip to/fro venues and want simple (likely, analog) system w/laptop to 'broadcast' music to show cruisers in large sites, like park, auto dealerships, etc. Am starting 'all over' (at 76) trying to incorporate new info or additions into my events. BTW, distance to push sound typically ranges 50yrds to 300yrs or so. - jS

  • ilovedongle from USA

    Posted on 6/17/2019

    I recently bought Behringer mixer for twitch streaming. It has many features like It is an ultra-low noise, analog mixer, comes with logarithmic-taper master fader along with rotary controls. Also, you can monitor the effect signal through headphones and the control room outputs. It is not expensive, you can afford this one.

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