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Sound mixers are amongst the simplest and cheapest video accessories, yet they can do more to improve a video movie than almost any other post production tool, but with so many to choose from which is the right one for you?



It's easy to forget that the soundtrack on a video movie can have just as much, and sometimes a great deal more impact than the pictures. Newcomers to video are frequently  side-tracked by smart-looking editors and processors, costing hundreds of pounds,  without realising that, for a comparatively modest outlay of 50 or so on an audio mixer, and a little effort, their recordings could be totally transformed. Adding background music, sound effects or commentary is easy; sound mixers are simple to use,  and you won't need any special equipment, just a VCR, a microphone, tape player and a little imagination!


At the moment there are over twenty five audio mixers on the market, but if you include all the other video accessories that have built-in mixers, such as processors and editors, the total comes to over fifty. To the casual observer it must seem like a nightmare, with so many to choose from but if you break the market and your own requirements down into manageable bite-sized chunks it really isn't quite so bad. It may also help you to know that several mixers and processors crop up under a number of different names, only the badge and sometimes the price are different.



The first consideration is to decide between mono and stereo operation. In days gone by mono mixers outnumbered stereo ones by at least two to one but now, with the proliferation of stereo camcorders, video recorders and TVs the situation has been reversed and you actually have to go out of your way to find a mono mixer these days. Unless you really see no prospect whatsoever of using or upgrading to stereo equipment, now or in the future, and you're on an extremely tight budget  it makes sense to opt for a stereo mixer.


The next question you need to ask yourself is whether to buy a stand-alone mixer, or kill two or more birds with one stone and invest in an editor or processor with an audio mixing  facility built-in. The obvious problem here is cost, the cheapest stereo mixers start at less than 30,  you can add another 30 for a mixer with basic video facilities --  an enhancer and/or fader for example -- and 100 plus if you want special effects or editing features. There's obviously a lot to be said for having as much as possible in one box, though bear in mind that such an arrangement could limit your scope for expansion. It might also meant that you'll end up duplicating some functions, as you add extra devices to your system. One way around this is to adopt the modular approach, by sticking  with products from just one company, such as Hama or Vivanco,  who market a range of compatible and upgradeable units.



The bare bones of audio mixers varies comparatively little from make to make. The vast majority of the units you will comes across (stand-alone and integrated) have three input channels. In most cases two of the channels have high-impedance line inputs (typically 47-100k ohms) that are connected to the camcorder's audio output, and the line-output of another audio components, a cassette deck or  CD player for example. The third input has a much lower impedance (typically 0.6-1k ohms) and is designed to be used with a microphone. It's worth noting that some mixers come complete with their own mics, needless to say  this is very convenient, and in some cases it can be a cost saving as well.


The connections to these devices are normally very straightforward. Most mixers use standard phono/RCA sockets for the line audio connections, and jacks for the microphone and headphone monitor sockets. A few models are fitted with 21-pin SCART AV connectors. They're not as versatile as phono connectors, though they're simple enough to use, but you may also find that you  have to shell out for extra leads. By the way, some mixers come with phono lead sets, again they're worth having and may save you a pound or two into the bargain.


Each input normally has it's own level control, so you can vary the ratios of the incoming signals (original soundtrack, music from tape, commentary from the mike, etc.); finally there is the master output level control or fader, which sets the volume of the sound being recorded by the VCR. Other embellishments on the more up-market mixers include level indicators; these are usually winking LED bargraphs, though one or two use VU type moving coil meters. In most cases they can only give the roughest  indication of over-modulation; in any event it's prudent to make a few test recordings first, to get the feel of your system. We've only come across one mixer so far that has any kind of tone controls, the audio bandwidth of most video recorders precludes such niceties, though as more people upgrade to hi-fi stereo VCRs we may find them becoming more common in the future. Pretty well all mixers have a headphone monitor output, it's a good idea to make use of it, rather than rely on the sound from a TV speaker; in any case you will have to use it if you want to avoid acoustic feedback (howl round) when using the microphone input.


Audio quality is not a major issue, over the years we've found little to complain about. We've tried most of the mixers on the market at one time or another and the majority appear relatively transparent to the signals passing through them. In general battery-powered mixers give the cleanest signals;  some of the units which are powered from AC adaptors can suffer from mains hum in, some set-ups, this can be difficult to eliminate. The slider controls used on most mixers can become noisy with use, this can be caused or aggravated by dust and dirt getting onto the control's resistive elements, through the slider slots, so it makes sense to keep them in their box when not in use.


So which mixer is right for you? Our advice, if you're just starting out, is to buy a basic stand-alone mixer and get to grips with that first; more elaborate and expensive models won't necessarily perform any better, be any easier to use or have any more useful facilities. If you think this might be the start of something big then check out the modular systems, with a view to expansion at a later date. Integrated mixers and processors are fine, but only if you know you're going to make full use of all the facilities, otherwise save your money.



(c) R.Maybury 1993 1703







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Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.