If you have basic entry level gear or the most up-to-date digital automated features, the basic components are the same. By now you have already gathered that most mixers will have some way to plug in a bunch of cables going to and from the snake as mentioned earlier. (in small clubs you might not need the snake at all, but you still plug cables into the inputs on the mixing console).
So, once everything is connected to your two independent sound systems, what do you first? Take a good look at the mixing board. Take your time. If this is the first time you get to see the board you will be using (maybe it was rented or is the house system, etc….), get a good feel for the section layout. If you are still getting used to running sound the mixing console can be daunting. Buttons, knobs, sliders and flashy things everywhere. It’s connected to a bunch of other electronic boxes and there are big faders that look important.!??%#!**?! We have done this before so let’s take a look at the basic components of the mixer and make this a lot less confusing.
Layout. There are a lot of knobs and a ton of buttons you don’t even see at first. Each manufacturer will do things a little differently than the others, but if you look for the patterns you will see how each model will outline or border the different sections. Color coding is also the biggest help if you have enough light to make out the difference in color schemes. Yes, this is another one of those reasons you bring your own flashlight to every gig. We know where the input section is as we have already connected the snake and sends during the initial set-up and sound check. In the same logical order (1, then 2, then 3, then 4……..) as the cables are connected, you will see what we call ‘input channels’ on the face or front of the mixing console for each input connector. Some boards can handle 8, 12, 16, 24 and more inputs. In the input channel section you will see strips for each input. The knobs and faders and buttons that affect that input channel will all be inside the border for that track or channel. Many mixers use a vertical configuration, so tracks run up and down, not left and right. But to make sure you do not get the wrong idea now, the BEST way to think of the input channels is TOP to BOTTOM. We ALWAYS start mixing from the TOP of the channel. Think of the ‘signal path’ for a moment. The signal created by the keyboard or the microphone in front of the vocalist is sent through the audio cable to the snake. From there it is sent directly to the mixing console. Once connected to the mixing console, the signal will go to the TOP and FIRST knob of the input channel. Yes, the 1st Gain Stage. The mixing board’s major task is to balance all the different input signals, each with a different signal strength. This is done at the TOP of each input channel. It is the first and perhaps most important step in setting up the mixing console. This is the gate keeper. Think of it and a number of other knobs in the signal path to follow as amplifiers. They can turn the volume on things up and they can turn them down. The flute or the vocals may need more ‘gain’ than the trumpet or keyboards. You want to get a good strong input level, but you do not want to overload the input channel here as it will affect everything going forward. Watch the solo or input monitor levels and set it up so all inputs are within the same range. The end result after we set the other knobs and buttons is to have all inputs so that the gain is averaged enough among all input channels that the faders on each channel are close to the prime area or level set for your console. You do not want some instrument faders at “2 or 3”, and others at “10 or 11”!!
If the volume fader for the keyboard input channel is sitting around 2, and the 1st Gain Stage knob is turned clockwise to 8 or 9, (OR if you are getting up into the red or over load area on the level meters!!) turn the 1st gain stage knob counter-clockwise as needed including down all the way if you have to. Then check the range of the volume fader and see if you can get good house levels keeping the fader fairly close to that sweet spot. Do that for each input channel. The input channel is also referred to as the ‘track‘ when recording. With tracks or channels clustered or grouped as discussed earlier and with all tracks/channels properly gain staged, we can begin to look at which tracks need effects, EQ, processing, sent to monitor groups etc. Keep in mind that changing a track’s EQ and other effects can also increase or decrease the track’s over all signal strength. When we are setting up the board and doing gain staging, it is best to leave a little ‘head room‘, or back the 1st Gain Stage knob back a little so we do not overload the input during EQ and other signal processing. EQ is a series on its own, but the basic premise is to make the source signal sound good or accurate. It is better to take out frequencies that are harsh or distracting rather than turn up the pleasant ones. Certain sounds ‘fit’ better in the mix if they have the distinct qualities of their source. By that I mean you do not want a kick drum to sound hi-end and tinny with no low frequencies and in most situations you do not want the flute to sound like a bass guitar. It is better to take out the low end on the flute track/channel than to leave it at center or turn it louder. Less is more, but add EQ where needed to enhance the desired tones and make it sound pleasant and it will then fill the slot for it in the overall house mix.