This post is part of the series Multitrack Equipment, your guide to creating the best multitrack recording setup for your budget.
Buying a USB mixer may just be the perfect solution for your band if you need something that you can take to gigs to run the sound off, and also a way to record directly to computer. However, it’s worth looking around, reading some reviews and in particular looking very carefully at the mixer specification as these can be misleading. The tricky bit is finding a mixer that is usable, has enough recording channels AND is not too expensive. Ones that you will be able to actually use for full PA mixing and get multitrack out of are likely to be fairly expensive, but for recording home-demos there are options for a more reasonable budget. The primary considerations for us now will be the quality and number of mic amps in the desk, usability as a mixer and the number of available channels for recording.
As a rule of thumb, steer clear of anything with ipod-recording as this will almost certainly mean it can only record the stereo mix, or maybe even a couple of the busses. Likewise anything saying simply “usb connector” usually translates as two channel stereo audio to and from the mixer, nothing more unless specifically stated.
For recording acoustic sets, or a very simple home studio set-up, the Phonic Helix Board 12 MKII is an absolute budget multitrack mixer. It should see you to simple recording demo track etc. To take it up a notch the Tascam M-164UF gives you 6 decent mic-amps and 3 pairs of stereo analogue inputs. A big plus with this desk is that it will also give you some basic reverb for nothing! This will prove very useful for listening on headphones in something like an acoustic folk band, as listening to a completely dead / dry sounding vocal or acoustic guitar can sound very false and a bit of reverb just might be enough to stop the singer being so critical and loosen up vocally.
Our desk of choice is the Mackie Onyx series firewire desk. It comes in several different flavours depending on your budget and channel count requirements. At one end we have the 820i with 3 mic-amps and up to 8 channels of 96kHz audio over firewire (which can be pre or post eq to your liking), and at the other we have the 1640i with a whopping 16 mic amps all available over firewire too. The onyx mic amps are frankly excellent, very clean and quiet which is the MAJOR consideration when choosing a desk and audio interface, and are just the start of a great sounding desk. We actually recommend the 1620i desk as it still has 8 of those superb onyx mic amps and still 16 channels of digital audio over firewire. This should be plenty to properly cover a drum-kit, and would be enough channels for a live gig. The desk itself is incredibly intuitive to use, and the eq in particular is very well laid out. This particular model is likely to set you back around £670, but really is a great all-rounder for in the studio and on the road. This would be our number one desk of choice for any aspiring live sound engineer with an interest in doing some live/studio recording on the side.
[image via butchasound]