That gear battle, however, gets easier and more affordable all the time. The ART USB Mix 3-Channel USB mixer takes care of some of the entry level fundamentals necessary to get in the the home recording game.
It’s accepted and even expected that under $100 gear will have compromises. In some cases, these compromises are minor, perhaps omission of a three-band EQ. Other times, things are critical, such as a mixer that generates so much hiss that recording isn’t possible to any sort of quality level.
Thankfully, the ART USB Mix isn’t one of the latter. This is not a mixer with lots of bells and whistles, but it’s a one-stop shop when it comes to adding the first critical piece to a basic computer home recording setup.
First off, there’s no power supply. The USB connection delivers the voltage needed, or it should. If you have an underpowered USB port, there may be issues, but that’s with your computer and not the mixer. Class compliance for USB mixers has grown to the point that these devices rarely encounter issues. Plug it into your computer and it shows up as an audio device. Easy.
Audio input is straightforward as well. Calling these channel strips is a little high falutin’ for the USB Mix. There’s a mono channel and a stereo channel, so technically three channels. However, this covers just enough territory for one person to do just about anything.
The big business channel is number one. It has an XLR combi jack, in that it accepts both XLR and ¼-inch plugs, mics or instruments. Perfectly complementing this is a Hi-Z pushbutton that changes ¼-inch input between guitar and line level sources. This is a surprise, but a welcome one.
Phantom power switches with a push button also, supplying 48 volts to condenser mics. Ultra affordable mini-mixers might be excused in past for omitting phantom power, but no more. Inexpensive condensers make this essential in the contemporary world. An LED indicates phantom power status.
A single control adjusts gain on Channel 1. No EQ, no pan, no auxiliary, no effects. You can do most of that stuff in DAW software anyway, so no need for it here in a bare bones mixer/interface.
The stereo channel has two ¼-inch inputs for left and right (use left for mono signals). There’s a push button that assigns this channel to either route audio input via USB or from the jacks. A level control rounds out that strip. An overall Main Mix volume knob adjusts, astonishingly — not — the Main Mix output. Usually these route to a pair of powered monitors. There’s also a Monitor Phones volume knob and ¼-inch headphone jack.
That’s it. A basic mixer in a tiny footprint.
This is where the pleasant surprises get useful. This is a quiet mixer. Not in the realm of a $3,000 studio mixer, but quieter than the typical under-$100 budget mixer. I suspect that, because the USB Mix isn’t trying to be all things for all people, ART put the money in the right places. The sound is neutral and hiss-free. Obviously, with one mono and one stereo channel, there’s not a lot of issues with audio summing. There’s no additional circuitry for those extras like EQ and effects, so there are fewer places an audio signal can get compromised.
I even find that the USB Mix shows more headroom than most budget gear. That’s not a researched, scientific evaluation, merely a gut feeling based on the sound. There are not oodles of gain coming from this mixer which, as we’ll see, some users perceive as a flaw. In this over-compressed, gain-crazy contemporary society, too many people equate louder with better. In my opinion, the USB Mix’s modest gain structure contributes to the integrity of sound coming from a budget product. Again, that’s a guesstimate, not a lab measurement.
At the end of the day, the sound through this little box is clean and usable. Those new to the recording game will put a lot of miles on this mixer before the sound starts to bother them.
ART is one of those companies that seems lost in terms of design consistency, from time to time. This might come from stamping their name on generic Chinese products. Sometimes there are winners and sometimes, well… not so much.
The USB Mix is in the winner category for build too. There’s nothing fancy, but there’s nothing flimsy. A 4-inch by almost 5-inch steel box, it’s well built and heavy enough for its size. I suspect you could drop this once or twice with nothing more than superficial damage. Those of you who want to try that, please follow your friends when they jump off a cliff, okay? I’m not advocating mixer abuse, just pointing out there’s some quality to the build.
Reviews match what I’m saying. There are no real surprises save for the observation that this isn’t a high-gain mixer. Essentially, the more a signal gets boosted, the more work necessary to keep noise at bay.
When you record an audio signal, there’s no real need to keep meters peaked. Audio with an average level between -12 dB and -6 dB adequately exceed the noise floor enough that further gain only risks clipping. DAW software has, almost universally, some method to normalize digital audio signals. This takes the loudest value of a section, and bumps that value up to 0 dB, the top of the digital signal range.You can normalize after recording if you need more gain for a given track.
Using the USB Mix during the review period in such a manner showed no particular low gain issue. True, with a low-power ribbon mic an additional preamp is probably a good idea, but these are fringe products, not likely used by those new to home recording. The low gain commented on by some users is a false flag. This is not a problem, but a good trade-off with sound quality.
Simply, the ART USB Mix 3-Channel USB mixer is the ideal entry-level mixer/USB interface. It’s low-cost, performs its key functions in solid fashion and makes life easy for the new home studio enthusiast. Equipment should never get in the way. Invariably, it does as a user becomes familiar, but once mastered, it should stay — and sound — out of the way.
The USB Mix delivers. Strongly recommended for the new home studio where budget and learning curves must be kept to a minimum.