Your home studio is a place for you to exercise your creativity. Often this must be squeezed between going to work, taking out the garbage, getting the kids to bed on time, and sleeping once in a while. You don’t want to spend a lot of time wiring gear together no matter how little or how much time you have to spend in your home recording studio. Throw a computer based DAW into the mix and things get tougher. Fortunately you can make your life a lot easier and create a ready-to-record environment by adding a small mixer to your setup. How small? I’m going to outline three strategies for connecting your home studio through a mixer.
Goals for the mixer based home studio
- Monitoring – This refers to your need to hear the instrument you are currently playing as well as the prerecorded tracks you may be playing over. You need to hear both sources (playback and new material) and have easy access to adjust their level in relation to one another. This all needs to happen without any consideration to possible software latency.
- Routing – The last thing you want to do with your precious 45 minutes of recording time is spend ten to fifteen of those minutes plugging in gear. You want to lay down a guitar part, replace a few loose notes on the bass track, and layer on that keyboard pad you were thinking about all day at work. This is something you might accomplish in your time frame if you can avoid the hassle of getting behind your computer every few minutes to plug in a different instrument.
Home studio mixer using tape inputs
- Stereo Tape Inputs – Most mixers these days have the tape in/out as RCA jacks. The small mixers we are talking about here will usually have them on the top of the unit. See Figure 1.
- Separate Control Room mix – A phones/control room mix is also fairly standard these days on small mixers marketed for the home recording studio. This gives you a second mix which can differ in some very important ways from the main mix (more on that in a bit). See Figure 2.
- Tape routing options – Mixers with tape inputs should have a few switches allowing you to route the tape input to one or both the control room and main mixes. See Figure 3.
IMPORTANT: Your mixer must not defeat the main mix to the control room outs when engaging the “tape” source button as shown here. The small UB mixers from Behringer do NOT qualify for this requirement. These small mixers mute the main mix when you monitor the tape input. Please be sure of the mixer’s capabilities before making any new purchase.
Many mixers will also be able to fill this role. Do your research. Once you’ve chosen your mixer it is time to wire your home studio together. The diagram is labeled in relationship to the mixer. Explanation follows.
Plug all your normal sound sources into the regular channels of your mixer. The advent of small mixers with dedicated stereo channels has made life in the home recording studio a lot easier. Keep all your keyboards, amp modelers, direct boxes, microphones or whatever else you may have plugged in all the time. Your home studio monitor speakers should be plugged in to the control room outputs of the mixer. Output from your computer’s soundcard goes to the tape inputs using an appropriate cable (most often a 1/8″ stereo to dual RCA mono). Output to the computer is from the main output of the mixer to the line input of your computer.
Set the main mix volume to unity gain (the detent, or notch, when the knob is straight up). This will ensure optimum signal level between your mixer and computer. At this point, the mixer is neither boosting (adding noise) or attenuating (cutting level) from the source signals.
Engage the tape to control room switch. This is what allows you to hear output from the computer through your monitors. You can disengage this switch any time you want to mute the computer signal.
Disengage the tape to main mix switch. This keeps the computer playback from forming a feedback loop into itself. That means the main output of your mixer is only the instruments plugged into the normal channels.
The control room volume knob controls the volume of your monitors.
The level knob on each channel controls the signal sent to the computer and what you hear. Do not adjust the main mix knob. Leave it where it is. Adjustments to the signal level sent to your computer are made with these level knobs on each channel. If signal to your computer is weak, turn up the sound source and/or the level knob (assuming appropriately adjusted gain on your mics).
Primary drawback: There is no straightforward way to adjust the monitor volume between your playback track and the instrument you are playing. If your playback track is too soft/loud in comparison to your instrument, you have to adjust the playback volume in your DAW. If your mixer is fancy enough to have an individual volume on the tape input then you can avoid this drawback. Also, if you are using a mixer with a Mackie style Alt 3-4 bus then you can use a similar setup but substitute the Alt 3-4 bus for the tape inputs. This would also get around this drawback.
Home studio mixer using aux sends
The only mixer requirement for using this technique is having two pre fader aux sends. Sometimes a mixer will have a few aux sends that can be switched pre fader or post fader. This is fine, as long as you configure it for pre fader. Here is how to hook everything up:
Plug all your normal sound sources into the regular channels of your mixer. Also plug the outputs from your home studio soundcard into one of the stereo mixer channels. Your home studio monitor speakers should be plugged in to the main outputs of the mixer. Output to the computer is from the aux 1 and aux 2 sends of the mixer to the line input of your computer.
Make sure the aux send volumes on the channel with the computer are turned all the way down. Otherwise you will get a feedback loop. To record any sound source to your computer, turn up the aux send on that mixer channel. For instance, to record vocals and guitar at the same time, turn up aux 1 on the vocal channel and aux 2 on the guitar channel.
Primary drawback: Recording in stereo is a bit harder with this method. Aux sends tend to sum the left and right signals and send a mono signal. To record in stereo using the aux send method you will have to plug your left and right signals into two channels of the mixer. Then the left signal would go on aux 1 and the right on aux 2.
|Behringer Xenyx 1832FX price check
Here is an example of a mixer with enough aux sends to do this technique. Aux 1 is dedicated pre fader and aux 2 is switchable between pre and post fader. A great feature of this mixer are the built in effects. You won’t want to record the effects but the mixer routing allows you to apply the effects to what you hear while still recording a dry signal. This is great for things like giving the singer some tasty reverb on their voice while still recording a pristine dry signal.
Home studio mixer using channel inserts
This method requires a more specialized mixer and is my preferred way of working. Of all the techniques desribed here, this is the only one that allows you to feed lots of inputs to your computer. If you bought an upscale, multi-input home studio soundcard with a bunch of inputs, then this is the way you’ll want to connect your studio.
You need to get a mixer with Mackie-style channel inserts that allow you to plug an insert cable in half way without interrupting signal flow through the channel. Regular channel inserts are not good enough because they interrupt the signal flow through the whole channel when you plug them in.
Similar to the other methods, all your normal sound sources plug in to the channels of your mixer for daily use. Your studio monitors are connected to the main outputs of the mixer. The output from your home studio computer goes to one of the stereo mixer channels. Connect one channel insert to each of the inputs of your soundcard. I like to make the channel number match the inputs. My channel 1 insert goes to input 1 of my soundcard, mixer channel 2 to soundcard input 2, and so on. Make sure you only plug the insert cables in to the first “click” of the insert jack.
When you want to record a signal you have to pull the cables out from whichever channel they are plugged in to and plug them in to the mixer channels that have the soundcard inputs you want to use. If you mixer were hooked up like mine is, when you wanted to record vocals to soundcard input 1 you would plug the mic into mixer channel 1. When you want to record guitar in stereo to soundcard inputs 1 and 2, you would take the guitar cables from channel 5 and plug them into channels 1 and 2. The great thing about using the channel inserts is that nothing you do on the mixer affects the signal to the computer. You can eq the signal you are listening to, add effects to it, change volume, etc. None of these will be recorded. The insert comes right after the input and mic trim so you can make the monitor mix as sweet as you’d like.
Primary drawback: The weakest link in this chain is your soundcard inputs are tied to particular mixer channels. This means you still have to reach over and move a few plugs around when you want to do some recording. The great thing is all the moving around of cables is now happening right on your desktop within arms reach, and you still have 100% hardware control over your monitor mix.
|Mackie 1202 VLZ3
This is the mixer I use in my home recording studio. It works great with the channel insert technique. It has four inserts so you will need to look at a larger VLZ series mixer if you need more. This is such a flexible mixer. It will actually work with all three routing options outlined on this page. In a pinch, you can even tap the aux sends and alt 3-4 bus to get a full eight outputs. I have done this a few times.
Did our mixer help us attain our home studio goals?
Now that we’ve talked about three ways to integrate a small mixer into your home recording studio, did we achieve our goals of easier monitoring and routing?
The aux and insert methods certianly gave us full and powerful control over our monitoring. Anyone who has dealt with software monitoring can understand the frustrations it can cause. Adjusting your monitor levels between prerecorded material and your live tracks has become a simple matter of reaching over and twisting a knob or pushing a fader. The tape input method was a bit more limited in its monitor capabilities but it still gives you convenient balancing between live tracks.
Routing is a lot less of a headache with all three of these methods. You can leave all your equipment hooked up to your DAW all the time. You don’t have to worry about patching in the next piece of gear you want to use because it is already patched in. Just twist a few knobs on the appropriate channel and you’re ready to record. The insert method described last requires you to switch a few cables around instead of twisting knobs, but it is miles better than crawling behind your computer since everything is still on your desktop.
The massive number of small mixers being marketed to the home recording studio owner is growing all the time. Every manufacturer tries to put their own interesting twist into the equation. I have discussed three ways to hook up your small mixer but there are probably a hundred ways. Hopefully I have sparked some creative thinking in your mind about new ways to employ a mixer in your home studio.