How to Choose a Mixer for Live Modular Synth Performances

We recently covered some affordable mixers for electronic music artists—typically solo acts or duos and small groups—that are working with hardware synths, drum machines, samplers, and effects racks. When playing live, they may find it advantageous to exert control over different aspects of their sound: lead synthesizer sequences, basslines, and the various elements of percussion.

With modular synth performances, however, an ideal mixing solution might look quite different. To get some insight into how to find the right live mixing approach for modular artists, we met up with Modular Addict's Logan Erickson at the company's Milwaukee storefront. We also put some questions to experimental techno artist Paul Birken (aka, Tonewrecker), who regularly performs live with his modular system.

Both Birken and Erickson give plenty of food for thought on why modular players might want a mixer—and which ones to consider buying for yourself.

External Mixers: Pros & Cons

Erickson, who also builds Eurorack modules under Low-Gain Electronics, says a common consideration for live modular sets comes down to how much gear one wants to bring to a show. Another consideration is whether the effects are internal or external, in the form of pedals or rackmounted units. Some may want everything to be within the system—including the mixer, in the form of a mixer module—while others prefer carrying around an external mixer, or at least making sure venues can provide one for use on stage.

Others still might want to have voltage control over mixer tasks like panning, or voltage control over the volume of each mixer channel.

For his part, Erickson does a lot of effects processing outside of his modular system, so he ends up using external mixers. He prefers to perform with his mixer and "throw faders," much like a DJ does, to drop things in and out of the mix in a sort of sound-collage way. And if he wants to pan certain channels, he wants to be able to turn knobs on the mixer, not on his modular rig.

"I don't do a lot of processing of effects within my modular system," he says. "I tend to use auxiliary sends on a mixer to go to pedals or effects units. Effects would take up relatively expensive real estate."

"I tend to be more of a 'set and forget' kind of guy when it comes to delay and reverb, I'm not doing a ton of modulation to it," Erickson adds. "I'd rather play it with my hands if I'm performing versus having CV control over it."

Logan Erickson's "Modular on the Spot" performance at Modular Addict

By including the mixer in his live rig, Erickson's setup time is a bit longer. He has to run cables out from his modular system, connect them to the mixer, and run effects sends and returns. In the end, sonically speaking, it's worth it. Paul Birken, however, doesn't recommend that every modular player use an external mixer. As he tells Reverb, not every one of his modular setups requires it.

"Everyone needs to find what works best for them," he says. "Some will find that having access to an expanded tactile layout is overload for their mind against the sound work they are doing. Trying to create or sculpt the sound structures you are exploring can involve limitless avenues, so it may make sense to stick with a time-tested stereo output."

Paul Birken explains that, when he performs, there are times when he enjoys splitting his processes into two distinct areas: the creation of sounds/textures and then the building of how it all will be channeled and performed. For such shows, he cuts betweens sounds rather quickly when playing, and this proves easier to do with the space provided by an external, dedicated mixer.

"I also find it helps troubleshooting when things go sideways at times, and you need to keep a performance running so the audience is unaware you are having issues," Birken adds. "I enjoy the variety of ingredients it makes available to quickly insert or remove when spread across a board."

External Mixer Options

In his past, Erickson has primarily used Mackie mixers, typically some version of the 1202 or 1402. The independent stems coming out of his modular system range from two to six voices, which he feeds as mono signals into the mixer's mono channels, so ultimately he doesn't need a ton of channels. The last two channels he uses are usually stereo, which accommodates delay or reverb effects units (handled by the Aux 1 and Aux 2 channels) that might have stereo outputs.

"I'll do a mono send to my delay unit on Aux 1 and return back stereo if the delay I happen to be using is stereo and does ping pong or some sort of stereo delay effect," he explains. "Aux 2 on the mixer is usually my reverb, and that right now is almost exclusively the Oto Machines Bam, which is a stereo reverb unit. I tend to use those almost exclusively in my outboard effects."

Mackie Mixers

More recently, Erickson has switched over from a Mackie to a Behringer Xenyx UFX1204 mixer.

"The faders [on the Behringer] are a little bit longer—it has two Aux sends, and it's just a very different board because of how long it is," says Erickson. "It has more or less what the Mackie has, but it has onboard recording and it does USB hosting, so you can plug either a thumb drive or hard drive and record the mixer."

"It can do individual tracks, which is quite handy, so I can take my live performance and record each stem onto the hard drive and go back to it later," he adds. "In the past, I could never reproduce it, so it's nice to record these stems individually."

Despite his current use of the Xenyx UFX1204, Erickson likes the Mackies because they can handle the headroom on the front end when someone is playing a modular system. Since he throws the faders a lot, a mixer that can handle signals without clipping is vital.

"I can take a +/- 5 volt signal from my modular system, run it directly in with the trim all the way down, so there is no gain whatsoever, and it can handle it without clipping," says Erickson. "The cheaper mixers, like Behringers [excluding their high-end offerings], can't handle it, so you will need an output module that can do that attenuation for you."

While Erickson brings a mixer along to live gigs, Birken leaves it to the promoter to provide a 16-channel (or more) mixer when he is traveling and performing. Beyond his live modular system, Birken's rig also typically includes a table full of other synthesizers, samples, and drum machines.

"You could certainly have fewer channels if it was just your modular rig alone," he says. "I prefer to constantly get different layouts and configurations, so I have to adapt and then feel comfortable with the unknown. There are dozens of great choices these days between line and DJ mixers to get you going: Mackie, Allen & Heath, Midas, Yamaha, Pioneer, Behringer, etc.—find your budget, take your pick, and try something."

"I think if you were strictly running a modular setup, then most DJ mixers would be a good option as you get three to four channels to work with," he adds. "And they generally have a smaller footprint on the table."

Another option, of course, is running the modular outputs straight into the sound engineer's mixer. But now the player has lost control over mutes, panning, EQ, and other mixer elements.

Mixer Module Options

If a modular player is looking to remain in the system, there are options, though they may not be as flexible or powerful as external mixers.

Befaco Hexmix and Hexpander

Erickson thinks the Befaco Hexmix is a very capable mixer module.

The Hexmix is a six-channel performance mixer specifically designed for the 6U Eurorack system (two rows as opposed to one row). For maximum functionality, you'll want to get the Hexpander expansion module too.

By itself, the Hexmix has six channels with three-band EQ, mute, pan, and an EQ section on the master, and then Hexpander adds three auxiliary sends per channel, PFL, individual outs, and a balanced output.

"It's a really great mixer for what it is," says Erickson. "If you're trying to keep everything within your system, it covers a lot of bases with regards to effects sends. If you have the Hexpander, you get the effects sends. It has a pre-fader listen, or some sort of cueing system can come in handy if you're really doing things like figuring out a sequence or things that are improv, and you want to make sure it sounds good before everyone else hears it. I haven't seen many people do it yet."

Erickson also cites the WMD Performance Mixer and Make Noise Rosie as two other capable mixer modules.

Both offer cue systems, which allow players to hear different elements in their headphones before ouputting into the soundboard for everyone to hear. The Performance Mixer is an 8-channel audio mixer, with 12 audio inputs for the first six channels, and two true stereo channels. Meanwhile, the Rosie is a much smaller solution at two channels, though it does have a crossfader and effects sends and returns.

"If you want to think of it like DJing, it's the same concept," says Erickson of the cue systems in the Hexmix, Performance Mixer, and Rosie. "You want to hear a sequence, bassline, or even tuning; or maybe you need to change your tuning, whether it's a sequence or your oscillators got knocked out of tune. It's nice to be able to listen to it—there's nothing worse than trying to tune while performing."

Birken, like Erickson, is skeptical of mixer modules because of the amount of HP (Horizontal Pitch, or width) they occupy. Both would rather fill their racks with modules that craft sounds.

"When I'm using just stereo outs either with the Make Noise Rosie or WMD Pro Output from either of my rigs, then the Low-Gain SubMix series makes great use of working with the levels and blends before they leave the rigs," says Birken. "What I usually like to use is the Praxis Electronics Snake Charmer Out, which gives eight separate channels on a DB25 connector. I use a 1/4" snake to run over to my mixer then. It has a small HP factor and works flawlessly—love that thing!"

Birken emphasizes that modular players will need to decide if they prefer dials or faders when working with levels. They also need to look for mutes, panning features, aux sends (switchable pre- or post-fader), sub groups, and cue channels into a separate headphone jack to hear the mix before the audience does.

"Those features are pretty standard on any external mixer," Birken says. "So if you find much of that packed into a module like the WMD Performance Mixer, then that seems to be a decent offering, but I haven't used anything that expanded within Eurorack modules only."

Have you own preferred mixers or mixing setups for your live modular performances? Let us know in the comments.

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