Advanced Small Console Techniques: Maximizing The Available Feature Set
What about those times when, for whatever reason, a big console is not available? That's the time for ingenuity and some special techniques

March 30, 2012, by Dave Dermont

mixing consoles

Everyone loves a big console.

Even when they’re small in size, like modern digital consoles, we favor consoles that have everything we need to solve any problem that may come up.

But what about those times when, for whatever reason, a big console is not available?

That’s the time for ingenuity and some special techniques that maximize the usefulness of the available feature set. Some people call these “workarounds,” but the term I like is “tricks.”

You know, like a magician. Here are some of my favorite tricks.

The XLR “Y” Cable
The one-female-to-two-male XLR “Y” cable is a powerful problem solver that should be in every audio person’s bag of tricks. It’s most common use is splitting an input to two channels of a mixer, using one channel monitors, the other for mains. This allows the EQ and processing used on one to not appear in the other.

It can be especially important if you need maximum gain before feedback in the monitors for a vocalist, or the input channel EQ helps with an acoustic guitar that’s giving you feedback issues. This trick can also be used for “wet/dry” channels, or if you need some sort of crazy EQ or effect for one part of a song and then quickly need to change back to normal.

Channel Insert As FX Loop
When a console is lacking a function, sometimes it can be found in a piece of outboard gear. For example, most effects units have a built-in mixing feature. When the aux sends are all used up, but you still want one more special effect on one more input, it’s a simple thing to insert the device into the input channel, and use the effect’s wet/dry mix control to vary the amount of effect.

No, it’s not ideal, but under battle conditions, you do what you must.

Direct Out As FX Send
The input channel’s direct output is not just for multi-tracking any more! An input channel’s direct output is another way to get signal to an effect that is only needed on one channel. This trick works well for things like a chorus on an acoustic guitar, or a reverb on the lead vocalist.

It’s best if the direct out is post-fader. A pre-fader can also be used as a direct out too, but you’ll have to keep a watchful eye (ear) on relative levels.

Audio Group As FX Send
So, you’re using four auxes for monitors and two for vocal effects - how are you going to get reverb on the drums?

Sure, the same ‘verb could be used for everything, but where’s the fun in that?

One trick is to assign the drums you’d like to have reverb on (I often leave out the kick drum) to a sub-group, and use the sub-group output as an effects send.

If you have a 2-in/2-out effects box, assign the drums to two sub-groups and you have stereo drums with stereo effects. Use the group’s insert loop and the mixing feature of the effects box, and you have it without the need for an effects send or return.

Pretty cool, huh? This trick can also be applied to vocals, horn sections, or any group of inputs.

Uncommon Insert Hardware
Everyone is familiar with dynamics processors and equalizers inserted into input channels. However, these are not the only useful tools you can insert into an input channel.

For example, many smaller mixers do not include a variable high-pass filter (HPF). The advent of digital loudspeaker processors finds a great many analog crossovers sitting around gathering dust. Just connect an insert send to the input of an analog crossover, then take the output from the crossover’s “high” output, and there you have it, a variable HPF.

Many common analog crossovers have a frequency range both above and below the frequency of a console’s switched HPF, which is usually 80 Hz to 100 Hz. If you don’t have an analog crossover laying around, the glut of these kinds of units on the used market makes them very affordable.

That 4-channel, 2-way crossover pulled from the old monitor system can now be four channels of variable HPF, all in a single rack space.

Any conversation about small mixers should include sub-mixers.

Sub-mixers get a bad rap, but they are an excellent solution to many small mixer problems, the most common being not enough input channels.

The logical use for sub-mixers is on things that can be grouped together - things like drum kits, horn sections, or backing vocals.

With a stereo sub-mixer, you can pan some inputs left, some others right, effectively giving you two sub-mixers. Sending the sub-mixers outputs to input channels on the main mixer transforms those input channels into additional sub-groups.

If your main mixer has sub-groups, you can also patch in your sub mixer there, and save the inputs on the main mixer for other things.

Insert To Bypass Mic Preamp
It’s becoming increasingly popular for artists or their engineers to carry around an esoteric front-end device. These devices almost always contain a microphone preamp as well as some combination of EQ and dynamics processing.

More often than not, the line inputs of an inexpensive mixer is the mic input padded down to line level. This means the fancy preamp is being hooked up to the console preamp, which is one preamp too many.

A specially constructed tip-ring-sleeve cable can bypass the mixer preamp completely by using the channel insert jack. The preamp end of the cable is wired tip/sleeve, the mixer end of the cable is wired ring/sleeve.

Please note that a cable constructed this way is for use with the most common unbalanced inserts that are tip send/ring return. For a mixer that’s configured ring send/tip return, both ends of the cable should have a tip/ring/sleeve connector wired tip/sleeve.

These cables, and any other cable wired in a non-standard fashion, should be very well labeled!

Many Happy Returns
Console returns are very often left unused. Most of us prefer the stereo input channels and/or the mic input channels, and for good reason. They have EQ and full routing capability, so what’s not to like?

Once again, for things like drum kit reverb where you are going for a “room vibe” type of effect that will be set and mostly left alone, the often overlooked console return works just fine. These are good places to plug in sub-mixers too.

Go Forth And Mix
These tricks are ways to squeeze big console performance out of a small console (or two). Again, some of them are not preferred practice, but they allow you to say “sure, no problem” instead of “I can’t do that.”

Now go forth and mix - big console or small.

Dave Dermont is a long-time working live sound mixer and a moderator of the ProSoundWeb Live Audio Board (LAB).

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Advanced Small Console Techniques: Maximizing The Available Feature Set