Nowadays almost all recording and mixing is done digitally. Working in the box boasts a number of advantages, and we aren’t here to tell you to smash your computer and go back to tape. Let’s face it, audio software is cheap, fast, and versatile, and it isn’t going anywhere soon. That being said, sometimes analog hardware can push your productions to the next level.
By and large, the only places where inserts and large analog mixing consoles are commonly found these days are in recording studios. Yet there’s still a relatively high demand for summing mixers among hobbyist podcasters. Wondering why? let’s break it down.
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What is a Summing Mixer?
A summing mixer (as the name suggests) is a form of mixer in that it takes incoming audio signals, and allows adjustments to level, and panning. While other mixers may have options for cuts, boosts, inserts, etc, a summing mixer typically starts and ends with these two controls.
Why is this? It’s all down to the use case. Most mixing consoles require these additional controls, as their primary purpose is to ensure that engineers have full control of the level, frequencies, and any other important parameters of the incoming signal during recording (in a DAW or otherwise).
Mixing consoles focus on the signal prior to recording, whereas a summing mixer is used in a different part of the production process entirely. A summing mixer is used exclusively in the process of post-production and therefore requires comparatively little signal controls. They also require fewer channels compared to a regular mixer, and for good reason.
The summing part of the mixer is the reason for its limited channels. Instead of sending each individual channel to the summing mixer, groups of tracks are sent instead. We’ll talk about ways in which you can group tracks below, however for now it is important to note that these mixers are primarily used to level and pan whole groups as opposed to single tracks.
Sub-mixing: A Podcasters Guide
While primarily a technique used on large music projects, sub-mixing has a variety of applications in a podcast project. Sub-mixing as a technique is taking individual tracks, and grouping them using either auxiliary sends on analog or summing stacks and groups in the box.
So how do you group your tracks? Should you be using a large number of groups, or go for a less is more approach? And more importantly, which tracks belong together? These are all largely subjective and will vary based on your project and preferences, but here are a few approaches to get you started.
Grouping by Takes
If you are a recording perfectionist and enter pre-production with multiple takes for each segment of your show, then you may be inclined to sub-mix based on final takes. Chances are your final comp will be a Frankenstein of the best bits from a number of takes, and oftentimes subtle variations in levels and frequency content will make each cut feel a bit disjointed.
If this sounds like a familiar scenario, then try sending the final takes to a sub-mix. From here you can apply EQ and compression to iron out the seams between clips. An advantage of sub-mixing is that processing is applied equally to each channel, which helps multiple tracks combine as one cohesive entity, so try processing to ensure your audio is as even in level between takes as possible.
Grouping by Segments
While sub-mixing can tie tracks together, sometimes what your episode needs are distinction. Having everything sound too level will result in a flat and dull listening experience, but luckily sub-mixes can also be employed to create a sense of separation.
Grouping by sections allows for separate processing at different points in an episode. If you have set talking points then maybe each one would merit its own sub-mix group, which through the use of processing and effects can be made to stand out on its own.
And remember that sub-mixes can be layered. If you go too far and your episode sounds too disconnected, combining sub-mixes and processing may help craft an overall cohesive sonic aesthetic.
Grouping by Speakers
In much the same way as grouping by section, sub-mixes for each guest in an interview podcast may help create distinction. In this instance, the differentiation between speakers helps with clarity in the mix. The last thing you want is to be unable to hear one or all of the speakers due to frequency masking, or uneven levels. By grouping by speaker, you can use EQ creatively to carve frequencies to allow a speaker’s voice to sit in its own area in the mix.
Do Summing Mixers Make a Difference?
So why would you ever want to buy a sub mixer? DAWs offer gain, panning, and grouping controls, so why is there still a market for these seemingly outdated outboard mixers?
Well, there are a few reasons. The first of which is that some people just prefer hardware. An analog summing mixer is much cheaper than a full analog mixing console (thanks to its comparatively limited functionality), and some engineers and producers may find mixing entirely in the box creatively stifling.
But how does this make a difference? Well for one, the mixer provides a hybridized approach to mixing, which if you have an established workflow in the box, will allow you to break out of your mixing routine, and explore new approaches to post-production.
Another way that these mixers make a difference is having the audio route through hardware. Unlike digital audio, which has an incredibly flat and large frequency response, hardware imparts a color on the sound. One of the main benefits of running through a series of physical transformers is that it warms up the audio. While mixers that use transformers are largely overshadowed by solid-state mixers nowadays, manufacturers typically emulate the warming effect, achieving virtually identical coloration.
Summing Mixers: Our Picks
Now we know a bit more about what summing mixers do, and why you might want one, let’s take a look at what’s out there on the market currently. To keep things simple, we’ve picked three mixers at three different price points and will be breaking down why these products are the best bang for your buck.
Budget Pick – MouKey Mini Audio Mixer
|Moukey Ultra Low-Noise 4-Channel Line Mixer for Sub-Mixing, DC 5V 4-Stereo Mini Audio Mixer, Ideal...||View on Amazon|
Number of Channels: 4
Inputs: ¼” Stereo Jack
Dimensions: 6.1 x 4.3 x 1.9”
The MouKey Mini Audio mixer is our top pick for budget summing mixers. This piece of kit takes a no-frills approach to outboard mixing, giving you everything you need and nothing more.
Due to its small footprint, and rugged construction, the MouKey mixer is perfect for you podcast producers who are tight on space but want to add an analog element to your workflow.
With 4 channels to work from, this mixer is perfect for those situations where you need to mix with larger brush strokes, and having a separate mixer to do this from will allow you to take a break from the screen when adding these final touches.
Mid-Range Pick – Pyle Professional Audio mixer
|Pyle Professional Audio Mixer Sound Board Console - Desk System Interface with 6 Channel, USB,...||View on Amazon|
Number of Channels: 6
Inputs: 4 x XLR/1/4”, 2 x ¼” Stereo Jack
Dimensions: 2.2 x 9.6 x 9.2”
For our mid-range summing mixer pick, we have the Pyle Professional Audio Mixer. With 2 extra channels to play with, this mixer boasts a moderate price tag, a slightly bigger footprint, and even bigger versatility.
Not only are you afforded two extra channels, but each channel offers its own 3-band EQ, meaning you can get deeper into signal processing when sub-mixing, shaping the panning, level, and frequency content of your groups.
Another great feature included with the Pyle mixer is an effects send available on each channel. This allows you to add one of the 16 built-in digital effects to any number of tracks, which can be used to further blend or distinguish groups as discussed above.
This mixer is a solid mid-range pick, offering a greater degree of control for just over double the price of the MouKey. If you are working on some potentially bigger projects, and require more groups, and more control over your audio without breaking the bank, then this mixer is a solid choice for you.
Premium Pick – Boytone BT-88MX
|Boytone BT-88MX- 9 Channel Bluetooth Studio Audio Sound Mixer, DJ Sound Controller Interface, 6 XLR...||View on Amazon|
Number of Channels: 9
Inputs: 6 x XLR/1/4”, 2 x ¼” Stereo Jack
Dimensions: 9.3 x 7.5 x 2.6”
And last but not least is our top-tier mixer, the Boytone BT-88MX. This 9-channel mixer is jam-packed with functionality and is sure to give you the control you need to get your mixes sounding great.
What makes this mixer better than the mid-range pick? Well, there are a few things. The Boytone boasts all the functionality of the Pyle and more. Not only does it have more tracks to utilize, but it also features the addition of two aux sends.
This is a huge advantage, as it allows for two extra track groups, allowing for even more sub-mixing potential. Both auxiliary sends are routed through the effects inserts, meaning that you can run two of the 24 onboard effects simultaneously.
This mixer features classic slider levels, setting it apart from the other two pot-only picks. If you are after a mixer that can accommodate large-scale projects and has a plethora of unique features to boot, then the Boytone BT-88MX will not disappoint.
Are Summing Mixers Worth it?
So, are these mixers worth it? This is a contentious question. As with anything on the internet you will find convincing arguments for both sides, with some arguing that analog gear is king, and these will solve all your mix problems, and others arguing that there is no discernible difference in quality. But who is right? Well, actually both.
As with many things in recording, what makes something ‘worth it’ is entirely subjective. Some people seem to massively benefit from using analog gear – whether it is the difference in workflow, or the hardware imparting a color on the mix that they find creatively inspiring, in some circumstances spending a bit extra for a summing mixer is an incredibly fruitful endeavor.
However, other people are able to achieve a high-quality mix without the addition of outboard gear. While it may be inspiring to get hands-on with pots and sliders, some people are perfectly content with an entirely digital post-production process, and taking the time to figure out how to use additional hardware may not always be the best use of your time.
So, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you think a summing mixer is a worthy investment. It is important to think critically about your current mixes and weigh up whether hybridizing post-production makes the most sense for your podcast, after all, every investment (in both time and money) should always be in service of a higher-quality end product.
Hopefully, by taking the time to learn about the concept and application of summing mixers, you should be better informed to judge whether they are right for you. Whether you are an absolute beginner or a seasoned pro, sometimes all it takes is one addition to your creative process to take your productions to the next level!
This has been our whistle-stop tour of the wonderful world of summing mixers. Despite being relatively stripped back in comparison to desks used for recording, these mixers have earned their spot as a mainstay for both hobbyists and professional mixing engineers alike.
That’s not to say that a summing mixer will solve all your problems, in fact, there are many ways you can upgrade a setup if you are looking to splash some cash. Why not see how you can take your mixes up a notch with ‘7 of the Best Headphones that Don’t Leak Sound’, or if you are looking for a headphone-free mixing solution, maybe you are asking yourself ‘Do I need a Pair of Studio Monitors?’.
Whether you are a long-time professional or are completely new to the scene, we at The Seasoned Podcaster are here to keep you up to date on all things podcasting!