Mixers Are Musical Instruments

Too many people look at a mixer with a “set-and-forget” mentality that treats it as a sort of glorified appliance. They move the faders slowly and carefully, and think it’s cool to automate the mix so it’s untouched by human hands.No! A mixer is an instrument to be played, stroked, struck, and stretched. The person who “plays” the mixer is like an orchestra’s conductor, but with more control: A conductor suggests changes, but a mixer can make those changes on the spot.You can play the mixer live or in the studio. Better yet, you can play the mixer in the studio the way you would live, and bring those performance aspects into the control room. The live shows I perform with other musicians wouldn’t be possible without a big, parametric-laden mixing board. And all of my studio productions require serious mixing board abuse to sound suitably psychedelic and unpredictable. Go ahead: Take your mixer to the next level.


If you’re going to play mixer, you need sound sources — preferably sound sources (like loops) that play all the time. Then you can use the faders, mutes, solos, and effects knowing that they will always have some effect on the sound. The mixer becomes your “arrangement” machine, and the instruments are food for the mixer.

I like to use various instruments, like Akai’s MPC-3000, Jomox, and others that produce patterns, then patch individual outs to the mixer (mixed stereo outs are no fun); each output carries variations on the same basic pattern. My “rhythm section” is a couple break patterns, a couple rhythm variations, a couple bass parts, and two outs with pads or effects. Of course, if you hit “play” and run these patterns without muting most of the mixer channels, you’ll get noise. I always start a performance with all channels muted and all faders down.

The effects and pads typically get faded up slowly first. Next comes the bass to build up the intro, kick in the first few beats, and so on to “arrange” the piece on-the-fly. Mute buttons work for rough cuts, or you can slam the faders around for a smoother fade. You don’t have to switch programs on your sequencer, sampler, or drum computer: They’re already there, ready to use. It’s up to you to fade, mute, solo, and EQ these different “musicians” to create the desired arrangement and flow. To build the song further, make entirely new grooves by moving faders, or punching mute buttons to cut in different parts from different tracks.

Also try loading some tracks that don’t loop well (like vocals) into a sampler, and just hit some keys to bring them in. This mixing technique even works with rock music, when you have the parts for verse, chorus, etc. going into separate outputs: Bring in what you want, when you want it.


EQ shouldn’t be set-and-forget, either. Manipulating the parametric midrange EQ on the bass or pads/effects channel can modulate your sounds (like using a synth filter). EQ can also “warp” the drum channel EQ to the rhythm by emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain parts to the beat (e.g., cut the bass frequencies to kill the kick, or peak the midrange to emphasize the backbeat from snare, hand claps, etc.).

Adding delays and other processors in the channel inserts and aux buses creates a whole other dimension. For example, you can add a delay to one channel, and assign that to its own fader. Or drop in signals from a shortwave radio — they’ll surprise you and your audience!

My secret weapon is a pair of DigiTech JamMans. These processors can sample in real time, then play back the sampled loop in sync with MIDI clock signals. If someone plays a really good riff or sound, you can just sample it as it happens and bring it back in later on. You can also sample the groove variations you create on the board, or even the entire mixed output for a few bars, which you can play back to cover yourself when you need to change over to different sounds, sequences, or patterns. The JamMans are always fed from aux sends, and return into normal mixer channels in order to use the EQ.

If you think you need an extra pair of hands to do all this, well, it wouldn’t hurt! But you can do a lot with just being fast. The more you jam around, the more you’ll start making the right moves — just like playing any instrument.


Never forget that the most important equipment while mixing is a set of ears: Listening and reacting to the moment can let you make a mix that really rocks. Sometimes the best thing to do is to let a really great riff go on for as long as you enjoy listening to it; and if you’re a musician playing into the mixer, listen to the overall mix, not so much what you’re playing. If you’re listening carefully, your hands will instinctively know what to do.

Dr. Walker has been involved in more than 700 record productions, movie soundtracks, and remixes, and performed in over 1,000 concerts all over the world. He’s lived on the island of Crete since 2005, where he runs an artist hotel and ambient bar. More info: Dr. Walker and myspace.com/dr_walker.