The Beginner’s Guide to Summing Mixers

Summing mixers are some of the more intriguing pieces of outboard gear available today, but for many mixers they remain a mystery. What are these boxes with sometimes little more than a few buttons and knobs and what do they do?

Summing mixers have a role in the studio, but their impact on a mixer’s workflow will vary based on the user. There are pros out there that swear by summing mixers as an essential part of their signal chain. There are others that don’t see the use of them at all.

Regardless of where you end up in the debate of whether or not you should use one in your setup, you need to understand what they are, what they’re intended to do, and perhaps most importantly – what they won’t do.

The Purpose of Summing Mixers

Summing mixers are essentially just what their names entail – a way to sum your individual tracks together and pass them out to a stereo track. But isn’t that what your DAW is already doing?

Yes – and that’s why these boxes are somewhat controversial.

They’re high-ticket items designed to do something in a different way from how you’re already doing it. They give you a way to take a multi-track output from your DAW and sum them in the analog realm, imparting all of their hardware warmth and color on your mixes.

Depending on the particular summing mixer you’re working with, other features and functionality are somewhat common as well. You’ll find everything from built-in compression, monitoring & A-to-D conversion to insert points and aux sends on some of these units, but each new feature adds to the overall cost.

Analog Summing vs. Digital Summing

In a way, this analog summing process is designed to bring analog into the workflow of mostly digital mixers. Much like an SSL, API, or Neve console would impart its sound on an analog mix, summing mixers offer similar characteristics for your digital mixes.

Summing digitally (routing to your master fader & printing your sound from there) isn’t going to impart the same sound – at least not by default. 

Your DAW is designed to be as transparent as possible in the mixing process. The DAW acts as a canvas for your audio and enables you to load plugins that shape and color your sound, but aside from some basic functionality (panning & volume), your DAW just gets your sound from Point A to Point B with plenty of inserts along the way. 

Summing Mixer Drawbacks & Alternatives

Summing mixers aren’t going to be an end-all solution for many mixers – especially those with large track counts that will need to be mixed down to subgroups before they can be summed. At most, you’ll find about 32 channels in the largest summing mixers, with the most popular options coming in 8-channel or 16-channel configurations.

This means you’ll have to make some in-the-box decisions to keep your track counts down if you want to use a summing mixer in your workflow.

We also shouldn’t discount the fact that analog “warmth” isn’t impossible to replicate in the box either. This is where a lot of the arguments against summing mixers exist. If you can spend a few hundred dollars on bus compressors and saturation plugins that can be used anywhere you see fit in your mix – what is the summing mixer really giving you that your DAW can’t?

Just like with analog consoles, the color you’re seeking isn’t unattainable in the digital realm, but analog gear might make it easier to achieve. There’s also some merit to working with restrictions in place – while your DAW is giving you nearly unlimited flexibility, there’s something comforting and challenging in trying to get your sessions down to those lower track count limits for analog summing. 

Do You Need a Summing Mixer?

There are plenty of valid reasons why someone might want to add a summing mixer to their setup, but with such a high price point, you really need to consider how much value the processor will add to your setup.

For mixers who are working completely in the box, summing mixers can be a great way to add some analog circuitry to their mix without going all out on a console. They do a great job of giving you a clear, dynamic print of your mix when fed with good source audio, but they’re not magic boxes that are going to clean up poor-quality mixes.

If you’re hesitant to purchase, consider looking to your master fader and aux tracks for alternative solutions first. Sometimes the color you’re looking to add can be found right inside your DAW – saving you thousands of dollars in the process.

More Signal Chain Secrets

There are plenty of different ways to add character to your mixes using plugins in non-conventional ways. The pros know that the routing options and processing they’ve got in their DAW gives them the ability to shape their tracks in just about any way imaginable virtually.

If you’re ready to add some of their techniques to your workflow, check out our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets. In the book, we cover both common and uncommon techniques anyone with a computer and a DAW can use to get the sound they want in every session. 

Check it out!