In this article, we hope to help you understand how to set up a mixer for live sound.
To achieve the best results, start with surveying the room and making strategic decisions about cable management and power outlets. Connect the main speaker to the XLR outputs in the top right corner of your mixer and stage monitors to the dedicated outputs. After you’ve connected and managed all of the mics and instruments, start the soundcheck with gain staging and add effects if needed. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself in the process.
Now let’s dig a little deeper.
What is a mixer
A mixer or a mixing console is an electronic device that takes a number of different inputs and sends them onto a singular or multiple PA sound systems with a possibility of a few alternative or parallel outputs. There are literally thousands of mixer models that greatly vary when it comes to features and possibilities, but there are quite a few things that they all have in common.
How does a mixer work
Most mixers you can get your hands on work on the same very basic principle. They take multiple input signals and send them to the PA system, stage monitors or some other device. With every mixer you always have an opportunity to balance incoming signals and add effects to them. So mixers in addition can have some sort of digital output to connect it straight to the laptop and sometimes digital input to use third-party digital plug-ins.
What mixer to choose
What mixer to choose depends solely on your initial goals and budget. If you intend to accommodate very large venues that house orchestras you should look for the most number of inputs above else. If this is not the case, you may look for versatility and number of functions over the number of inputs. However it may be there are a lot of very decent options that you can check out.
Most mixers have a master section on its left side, which controls the main output and some master bus effects. On the top of a mixer you can find all of the inputs and under each input are located effect controls and faders that control the volume. Main and secondary outputs usually are located in the back or on the top left corner of the mixer.
Before plugging everything in
Every time you venture into a new venue, don’t rush to plug everything in your mixer right away. Chances are you’re going to have to re-do everything from the ground up. To avoid those unnecessary steps first you should get yourself familiar with the room layout to make strategic decisions about cable management, power outlets and mixer location.
The first thing to do when you are given the opportunity to set up your gear is to look around the room and determine what goes where. And more importantly where exactly your gear wouldn’t get in the way of the concert. After all, our job as audio engineers is to give the audience the most joyful experience possible.
Keeping exactly that idea in mind you should carefully choose the place where your mixer will be located during the gig. Its location shouldn’t bother the audience but at the same time you should be able to have a clear picture of what’s going on on the stage and hear exactly what comes out of the PA system.
Once you’ve determined the perfect location for your mixer, you must think about laying your cables properly. Try to lead them as close to the walls as possible, and where it could not be done, secure them with tape to avoid tripping. The same goes for the cables that run through the stage. If you have access to cable ramps, use them as much as possible.
All of the preparations mentioned above will be worth very little if you don’t have convenient and safe access to the power outlet. Considering this, you may try to place your mixer closer to the wall opposite to the stage if there is an outlet. Otherwise, you’ll have to use extension power cables which are a lot less safe.
How to set up a mixer
Now when everything is ready, it is time to connect each piece of equipment to your mixer. The particular order in which you put everything together doesn’t really matter as long as you keep everything powered down while connecting. If you’re not yet familiar with the features and the layout of your mixer, it would be wise to read the manual first.
Main loudspeakers are the primary speakers that you use to output the sound from the stage. Usually, there are two with one on each side of the stage. You can find the outputs for the loudspeakers in the top right corner of your mixer. Majority of mixers have XLR outputs for the main speakers, which means that you’ll need proper cables in order to connect them.
Stage monitors are smaller speakers that are used on stage to let performers and musicians hear what they are doing, which would be otherwise impossible. A connection point for the stage monitors varies from mixer to mixer, but it is always very clearly labeled, so you wouldn’t have a problem finding it no matter what mixer you are using.
Mics and instruments
All of the inputs for microphones and instruments are located on the top of your mixer’s front panel. In which order you would connect your instrument to the mixer does not matter, but don’t forget to properly label everything so you wouldn’t forget what goes where. And always put your mixer at unity gain before you turn it on.
If you want to connect anything other than a microphone or an instrument, for example, a playback device, you should use the same input on your mixer that you’ve used for instruments and mics. Of course, some digital or hybrid mixers have a separate input for digital devices, so you may check if your particular mixer has those.
Most mixers have built-in effects, which we will touch on in more depth later in this article. If you have one of those or, moreover, have an external effects processor, you should adjust the effects sent to the tracks that you would like to have it. Just look for the Send FX button on the control panel correlated to the input which you want the effect on.
During soundcheck, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Firstly, there is a very huge difference between an empty venue and a crowded concert, so be prepared to make adjustments when the concert begins. Secondly, stage monitors and main output should have two different mixes, so consider the feedback that artists are giving you from the stage.
Find the balance
As with studio mixing, live mixing is all about balance. So you’ve probably already figured out that most of the process consists of very thorough gain staging. But don’t forget that in this case, you need to make two different mixes. One for the audience and the other for the musicians.
If gain staging doesn’t deliver a stellar result, most mixers have dedicated EQ section to every channel. Usually, it’s just a few bands, but in a live mixing situation, it is more than enough to make some drastic changes. Other mixers, though, offer you a fully functional digital parametric EQ that makes surgical and precise changes.
Some transient-heavy sounds may require some compression. Most mixers have a dedicated knob either below or above the EQ section. Although attack and release parameters are usually fixed, it is more than enough to tame some wild dynamic ranges if necessary. And as it goes, digital mixers have very thorough compressors with a lot of possible adjustments and presets.
The aforementioned Send FX button will come in handy if you want to spice your mix up with some reverb. Be very careful, though, venues usually have their own reflections and thus, the sound will have a natural reverb. If you add too much reverb, you risk making the sound anything from just mushy to simply incomprehensible.