Ok, I’ll get the question out of the way right now:
Do you NEED a mixer for podcasting?
No, definitely not.
Do you WANT a Podcast mixer?
Yes, almost certainly.
Confused? Well, read on.
The Desire to Upgrade
It never takes long. It can be mere months into your broadcasting journey before the thought of a mixer starts to play on your mind.
You might not even have a reliable audience yet, but you’re getting some great feedback, you’re enjoying the recording, the equipment, the whole process. As so often happens, the fever takes hold and you want to get the best kit possible to really make your Podcast shine. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and there are a tonne of really great reasons to get a mixer.
My only caveat to the whole thing is, don’t rush in. Despite the advantages, mixers complicate the whole business. Wait until you’ve settled into a good mix of quality and reliability. Make sure you have people listening, and that they like your content. At that point, you know you’re in it for long haul. It’s worth the money to buy it and the time to learn how to use it.
Now, we can think about a mixer.
I’ll start by saying that yes, a mixer will improve your audio quality. The pre-amps will be nicer and will really help your microphone shine. But, if you have a decent microphone already, then it’s not going to make as much of a difference. At that level, it’s certainly not something that’ll suddenly win you a load more listeners.
Audio Engineers buy mixers for the sheer audio quality, but Podcasters buy mixers for the options and the control that they offer, as well as the efficiency they can bring to our recording workflow. Let’s have a look at the details – here are the reasons why a Podcaster should buy a mixer:
If you want to use professional quality microphones, or any with XLR inputs, then to get the best out of them you’re going to need a mixer. It is possible to get XLR > USB converters, but they’re not going to take as much advantage of the quality of your mic.
2. Multi-Channel Control
Having control over the individual channels of your audio is one of the simplest, but biggest enhancements that a mixer brings into your life. In your early days you’ll be recording everyone on one channel. That means loud people are loud and quiet people are quiet. With a mixer you can actually turn up those quiet folks, and turn down the shouters. Plus you can record them on different channels and have much more power in post production. Excellent!
3. Inline Enhancements
Inline enhancements work hand-in-hand with the multi channel capability and are great for improving your sound. They can also save you a whole lot of time in post production. The ability to use a lo-cut filter, equalisation and gain on each channel individually is brilliant, plus some mixers have compression and limiters too.
4. Backup and reliability
Mixers don’t crash, unlike computers, and I’ve never seen a digital recorder do so either. You can cut out the computer component altogether, reducing noise and flakiness, or you can do a backup recording sending a second output to the digital recorder.
So, that’s 4 big advantages. To me, as good as they are, they’re all nice to have, but they don’t quite justify the cost for an average podcaster. What we need are a couple of game changing features. Luckily enough, here are two just such things.
5. Live Production
Live producing means that you’re adding your music, your sound FX, phone calls, recorded messages, and anything else that goes into your show on the fly – it’s all going in live. You’re treating it like a radio show, so there’s no post production at all. You simply hit record, do the show, and then stop.
Afterwards, you might do some compression or EQ in Post, but all of the audio you need is in there already.
This is achieved by plugging in a device to play your sound FX and recordings on it’s own channel. I use an iPad with the Soundbyte app for this – it just gives you a rack of buttons with the sounds and music attached making it very easy to play anything off the cuff. If you don’t have that, though, you can just use a laptop or a PC.
This is what I do for nearly all of my podcasting, and once you’ve got used to the kit it makes it all so much quicker.
And, not to forget, it’s fun! It’s great to hear your music playing at the start, get yourself hyped up, fade it down and enthuse your welcome into the mic. It’s great to play bumpers and stings and to react to them. Or to play FX when your co-host does something – for him to hear it too, and react. It makes podcasting quicker and more enjoyable, which to me, is the biggest reason for getting a mixer. Plus, I hate editing – I’m too much of a perfectionist so I end up adjusting stuff endlessly, wasting time….
6. Mix Minus
Mix minus ties into the last thing I mentioned above: working with a co-host. Mix-minus is a technique which allows you to do live production with a co-host while that co-host is remote, such as using Skype, Hangouts or Appear.in.
If you connect your normal recording setup into Skype so that he can hear you and the FX, then he’ll also hear his own voice back. It sets up a horrible echo. So, what you want to do is send him the full mix – your voice, music, etc – MINUS his own voice.
You can do this with any mixer than has an ‘Auxiliary Out’ or an ‘FX send’ on it, and a fader or a knob to control that output. In practice, you plug that Aux/FX into Skype, and then you turn down the Aux/FX knob on the Skype channel alone. That means he can’t hear himself on that channel, but can hear everything else. Easy!
Now that you’ve made the decision to buy a mixer for podcasting, here comes the difficult part. The range of mixers on the market is bewildering, and the choice isn’t made any easier by the ridiculous features and specs that are listed for each one.
The problem is that mixers are really designed for Audio Engineers, and those guys know a LOT about the technical details. Therefore, those that sell mixers plaster the tech specs all over the website.
As a podcaster, there are 3 things you need to worry about:
1. The number of channels
How many inputs will you use? My setup uses 4 channels on a regular basis, but 5 or 6 on occasion.
This is made up of: 1. My own microphone, 2. a local co-hosts microphone, 3. Music and FX via iPad, 4. Skype input for interviews or other co-hosts. I’ll sometimes have a mobile phone plugged into another channel, and another local co-host on occasion, so I need a minimum of 6 channels, and probably 3 XLR inputs to be safe.
Many cheaper mixers will only have 1 or 2 XLR inputs, which limits the number of decent quality microphones you can use locally, especially if they’re condenser microphones that need phantom power (check out my microphone article for more details).
Buy something with enough channels to expand into.
2. Aux Out or FX Send
To achieve a mix-minus setup, you need that Aux Out or FX Send feature. Look for a stereo output socket labelled with either, and a volume control knob on each channel labelled the same.
More often than not, cheaper mixers use knobs all over the board. Knobs are fine for those adjustments that don’t tend to change during a recording, such as Pan, EQ or gain. But, for your main volume control faders can be an advantage. A fader is a slider rather than a knob – you can see faders on the bottom of the picture opposite and knobs at the top. Faders offer more fine control than a knob.
You can get your music levels right every time with a fader, and ensure your recordings sound great. But, in saying that, knobs can do the job just fine, and tend to allow you to save a bit of cost if required.
4. Advanced Inline Processing Features
If you want to have fine control over your sound, reducing post-production, then you may be looking for extra inline features. The minimum you would generally expect are Equalisation (or EQ), a gain control and possibly a lo-cut filter. Beyond that, some podcasting mixers may have compression or limiter options, but don’t write it off it doesn’t
The Nitty Gritty: a Range of Mixers for all Budgets
I’m going to offer a range of mixers at a budget level and a high quality level, but, I have to admit, I don’t hugely recommend the low budget options. I include them because I’m asked about them all the time, and people argue that they’d like to try a mixer at a low cost. But, the quality increase isn’t amazing, and it’s not that much more to jump in with a really good mixer. That said, let’s look at the budget level:
I used to talk about sub-£100 mixers from time to time. Sadly, over the years, I’ve learned that they’re just not worth it… The budget Behringer range in particular are a troublesome bunch. They’re budget in every sense of the word – hissy, loud noise floors and cheap components that break pretty quickly.
That’s why, now, my budget recommendation is at the £100 level, and comes in the form of the Yamaha MG10.
The Yamaha has been a constant presence in our studio for nearly a year now. It’s a brilliant little mixer with an amazingly quiet noise floor, especially at this price. It has features normally found only on expensive units, such as in-built compression, and it also has Aux Out so that you can run a mix-minus setup.
As a bonus it’s a small and hardy little unit, so it can even been taken out and about without too much worry. We’ve used this to record a number of events with great results.
I’ve had such great results with this that, to be honst, unless you need the extra channels, I’d recommend this over the mid-level Behringer unit below.
For a runner-up in this category, try the Mackie 402. This is a pro quality bit of kit, but costs about the same as the Yamaha and has fewer features. You could argue that it’s better audio quality, but there’s really not much in it.
The Behringer Xenyx 1204 is a fully featured mixer that’ll do the job for any podcaster out there that needs a lot more channels and the full set of mixer features.
You’re not going to run out of channels on this any time soon either with 6 fader-controlled channels, plus extra if needed. 4 of those are phanton powered XLR channels so you can bring in a range of co-hosts on top quality microphones.
This comes in USB too so you can bring your audio straight into the computer for direct recording, or you can record out to a digital recorder if need be.
The Mackie ProFX8 is a professional level piece of kit, and something you can aspire to if you really want the best quality out there, and the utmost reliability.
The Mackie is similar to the Behringer above, but actually has one less fully controlled channel, so 5 main inputs, but still 4 of which are XLR. It has all the same inline features, except for compression – something which can easily be added in post production in very little time anyway.
What the Mackie does have that the Behringer doesn’t is better pre-amps, reportedly better reliability and a 7 band EQ to really refine your sound in live production.
If you have the budget for it, this is a pretty great bit of kit.
Whether you’re at the podcasting mixer stage or not, it’s always fun to look. Don’t jump in too early – there’s nothing worse than complicating your recording process before you’re ready – but once you are, a mixer can really help with your process, improving your sound and speeding up your workflow.
If you’re already using a mixer, I’d love to hear what. Tell me in the comments below: What mixer are you using, and how do you find it? Look forward to hearing from you!