Recording vs. Mixing


Recording versus mixing console functions


The recording console (or mixing console, or mixing desk) has been the centrepiece of most all professional or semi-professional recording studios, from the earliest moments of multitrack recording's existence. With the advent of more modern digital technologies in recent years, recording consoles have become somewhat less critical to a recording studio's operations, and yet, there are many studios which still have a recording console installed in their facility, more often than not, nowadays, running audio sourced from a digital, software-based recording system, although some studios also still have multitrack tape decks in their arsenal of recording equipment. With such a comprehensive, costly and complex piece of equipment as the recording console now no longer being something that is utterly necessary to the very existence of the studio, as it once was, some people have come to suppose that recording consoles have become obsolete and pointless relics, from a bygone time when recording studios had no choice but to invest in expensive, bulky and temperamental equipment, just to record sound.


While it's true that early recording studios had few options in the way of commercially-available recording equipment, and that the earliest audio gear was, in fact, often built by the engineers themselves, making for some rather crudely-functional hardware in some instances, each new advance in recording technology was developed to solve a problem or improve a sonic result, and because of this, there are many very valid reasons why the earliest commercial recording and mixing consoles that appeared in studios had the options, features, number of channels and physical size that they did, and why they developed their various more complex capabilities over time. Those reasons are still valid today, and still in use, in many cases, though digital technologies have made some of those parameters more of a choice, than a limitation.


So, what's a recording or mixing console made up of? To begin, we could look at the actual differences between recording consoles and mixing consoles. While both are indeed very similar, and in some cases, identical in function, each one has its own particular strengths.


Recording consoles, as their name suggests, are designed predominantly for the actual task of recording a performance to multitrack media. While many models may share some of the features also found on mixing consoles, their layout is designed with emphasis on providing a series of exceptionally clean, clear, high-headroom microphone and line inputs, linked to short, clean output paths, which in turn are fed directly to the multitrack recorder's inputs, with some monitoring facilities designed primarily for the performers to hear themselves as they record. Often, the output paths for the recording circuits are specifically-designed, discrete recording buses that are permanently wired directly to each track of the recorder, and are then selected individually at the console, as needed. Many recording consoles have 16 or 24 dedicated recording output buses. Any mix buses or groups are generally in addition to these “tracking buses”, on a dedicated recording console.


In some cases, recording consoles utilize what is known as an “inline monitoring” design, in which each channel provides both a “regular” mic/line input, and also a secondary “tape return” input, routed into a second signal path within the same channel. Each signal path is equipped with its own level fader, and accordingly, any one channel can be used to input a microphone or line signal, set its level and EQ, output it to a recorder channel, and then simultaneously return the post-recorder, “downstream” signal back to the “tape” input for monitoring on its own fader. In more modern designs utilizing this concept, each signal path's fader and output can be swapped, and both outputs can be routed to the groups or master, often complete with EQ and auxiliary sends available on both paths, allowing for a conventional inline monitoring recording process, and also doubling the channel count for mixdown, while greatly enhancing the routing flexibility of the console.


In contrast to the dedicated recording console's design, mixing consoles don't usually have any permanent recording buses, but instead usually offer only the normal direct post-fader output on each channel. These can be connected to a recorder, though they are not generally permanently connected as such, in a mixdown-configured setup.


Channel insert points are generally available on either type of console, and are used to “insert” a piece of external equipment directly into a given channel's signal path. The insert's simultaneous in-out connection is especially useful for dynamics and EQ processing, where the signal is intended to be processed completely, without any “dry”, unprocessed signal remaining. Insert points were conventionally a single-jack, unbalanced connection on earlier console designs, but most inserts on modern gear are balanced connections using discrete connections for the send and return circuits.


Dedicated mixing consoles often provide large numbers of auxiliary sends, which can be used for not only monitoring/foldback purposes, but which are intended to be connected to auxiliary “outboard” equipment, such as multi-effects devices, analogue or digital reverbs, re-amping circuits, or any other external processing hardware. These auxiliaries can be in mono or stereo format, and are often switchable to take their source “pre” or “post” fader, allowing the channel fader to regulate the send level simultaneously, or not, depending on the selection.


In addition to the greater number of available auxiliary connections, mixing consoles often have more flexible and musical-sounding equalizers on their input channels, and possibly other extended features such as dynamics modules on each channel strip, and more, or more fully-featured group buses, and more flexible master section capabilities. In modern consoles equipped with inline-monitoring systems, channel EQs can often be reassigned to either path, or split to accommodate both paths with different EQ capabilities. Channel dynamics modules allow compression and limiting to be performed in the console on a channel-by-channel basis, without any external patching, added hardware, or the inherent latency issues of many software-based processing systems. Channel paths can be panned into the left and/or right channel of the master section, or can be panned to select odd or even (left or right) group bus numbers, or panned between any odd/even group pair. The groups can then, in turn, be panned to a position within the master's stereo panorama.


Most mixing consoles offer at least eight subgroup buses, sometimes equipped with equalizers, and these can generally be routed into the master bus, or used to group audio signals for output to external processing. Some mixing consoles also provide EQ, and even stereo dynamics controls, within the master section, allowing for peak control, and some amount of dynamic finalizing and thickening of the final mix, before it is recorded to the master media, usually via a high-end digital recording circuit.


All in all, mixing consoles are designed to be totally flexible audio routing, colouring and mixing devices, capable of handling a very large number of input channels with possibly widely-varying levels and sonic makeup, and able to produce a smooth, clean and musically-pleasant final output. Recording consoles still offer most of the basic functions of mixing desks, but may sacrifice some of the more flexible options, in favour of providing dedicated output buses and monitoring options for multitrack recording.



Recording and Professional Audio Consulting Services

Rock Shop Pro Audio

Rock Shop Pro Audio has changed its mode of operations, and now primarily offers consulting on professional recording technique and studio design and operations questions.  While we still have maintained limited access to various lines of high-end audio gear, the focus has been shifted to the distribution of information and expertise, rather than product supply.

Some lines we have maintained links with include Microtech Gefell, Millennia Media, Focal Pro, MAGIX, RME, Primacoustic and Radial Engineering.

Email Rob to discuss your needs, without cost or obligation.