Digital Consoles in Live Sound Reinforcement Systems
Digital mixers have been around for quite a long time now (early examples included Yamaha's 01V and 02R, and the Soundcraft Spirit 328), but they did not initially have much impact on mainstream live sound production.
More recent digital consoles have ironed out some of the early difficulties of combining extended and recallable functionality with rapidly accessible and intuitive controls, and some of the latest models from a growing number of manufacturers are quickly gaining acceptance and market share. Later digital mixers are less reliant on menus and have more of an analogue feel than their predecessors, and the balance in the live music arena has probably already moved from analogue to digital. Technical riders that once said ‘No Digital’ are now saying ‘No Analogue’.
It is a mixer in which mixing and sound processing are carried out in the digital domain. Analogue audio from the mixer's microphone preamplifiers is converted by analogue-to-digital converters (ADCs) into digital format. Signals are processed and combined by computer functions rather than by discrete electronic components, then converted back into analogue audio by digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) at the mixer's outputs.
Most of the latest digital mixers not only provide all the functions offered by their analogue predecessors, but also include banks of effects and processing that exceed the most comprehensively-equipped analogue offboard-rack. Channel functions commonly include four-band fully-parametric EQ (often with a choice of peaking or shelving on the uppermost and lowest bands), gating, compression, and multiple effects. In addition, there will usually be a generous provision of auxiliary sends (frequently with a 31-band graphic equaliser and/or multi-band parametric equaliser on all mixes and outputs). Most also include motorised faders (so everything, including fader positions, can be recalled at the touch of a button), and all but the least expensive makes and models include - or at least allow for - a digital multicore and stage-box, so attaching the multicore to the mixer is via a single connection, and a 40+12 50-metre cable is little bigger than a domestic 50-metre 230V extension reel.
One principal facility that digital mixers offer and analogue mixers do not is the ability to store and recall settings. This allows you to store anything that you do repeatedly (for example, EQ-ing a Shure SM58) and recall it accurately and quickly. It also allows you to store and recall multiple settings (for example, console settings for an entire band), enabling, among other things, sound-checking and saving the settings for four bands, then recalling each band's settings for their performance. Digital mixers also offer considerable processing power (like compression and gating on every single channel) without the cost and weight of an equivalent offboard rack. Most also allow remote operation (so you can EQ the monitors from the stage with an i-Pad), and nearly all provide digital as well as analogue outputs (so you can take a digital - often multi-channel - recording, or connect directly to an amplifier with a digital input).
On higher than entry-level digital desks, also, channels are often independent of a physical control location: you can reorder them without needing to repatch on stage or at the mixer. Many also have more channels than their default stage-box has inputs, so that the same input can be routed to more than one control channel (allowing different mixes to be set up from a single set of microphones), which can make it much easier to manage shows with more than one band, or cover monitors and front-of-house with a single desk.
Essentially, it is a dedicated computer with an interface (control surface) optimised for live sound-processing. Typically, digital processing will deal with everything except input gain (and even this is under digital control), so that knobs and faders control processor functions rather than physical signals. This means, among other things, that a single knob or fader - like a PC's right-hand mouse button - can be context sensitive, and can be used for more than one task (or for the same task in more than one setting).
If all else fails, read the manual! This may take some time: for example, the Midas PRO2 Quick Start Guide - to be fair it is multilingual - is a 40-page document.
In general, most of the actual functions control the same processes (and have the same effect) as their analogue counterparts, so if you understand all the components of sound processing from an analogue point of view your main challenge is to find out which knob does what. This isn't always helped by the fact that each knob or fader may control more than one function or channel, so you will usually need to select something before you can adjust it (putting you at least one button press - which button is it? - away from whatever you need to do do). Commonly, a single control or section of controls for each function (for example, EQ) will operate on a selected channel or group. However, some controls are also commonly multi-function (for example, many mixers have a single parameter knob next to the display screen, and this will adjust whatever function has been selected on the active channel and/or mix), so you need to be aware at all times of which mix, channel and function is active. Some digital mixers are better than others at making the active selection obvious.
Even the most basic digital mixers generally have some sort of display screen (touch-screens are increasingly common), and having a visual illustration of what you are doing with EQ or dynamics can be very useful. Some of the larger touch-screens can give you most of an analogue console on-screen (you can expect having to toggle between channel and master sections), which can also make selection and operation clearer.
In general, however, you will probably need at least an hour or so to gain sufficient familiarity with any digital mixer to be able instantly to put your hands on the right function in a live environment. A mixer with an uncluttered interface that crams a lot of functions into a small footprint will typically rely more heavily on multiple-function controls.
If you are confronted with a digital mixer you haven't seen before and need to get operational quickly, concentrate on finding out what indicates selection and how to access:
Find out and make a note of the answers to the following (if you write it down, you are less likely to need to look at it later):
How do I...
...add (remove) a channel to (from) a mix?
...change channel volume in each mix?
...change channel EQ?
...change front-of-house volume?
...change front-of-house EQ?
...change monitor volume?
...change monitor EQ?
...select/change an effect?
...add (remove) an effect to (from) a channel?
...change channel effect level?
...change overall effect level?
...add (remove) compression/gating to (from) a channel, group or mix?
If you already have a good analogue mixer with all the channels and offboard facilities you need, a digital mixer probably isn't essential. How useful its extra functions or save and recall capability will be depends on what you need your mixer to do, and you may wish to balance this against the loss of instant access to every control (although with most of the better current digital mixers you are usually only a single selection away from it).
However, if your event schedule includes (but is not limited to) repeat appearances by the same band, or regular returns to a specific venue or PA system, you will probably find the ability to save and recall multiple settings a considerable improvement on cue sheets.
If you are building a system from scratch, a digital mixer will typically cost less (and certainly weigh a lot less) than an analogue mixer with a well-equipped external rack. Also, it will have more processing facilities than the most comprehensively-equipped racks: you won't often see a rack with 48 channels of gating, 48 channels of compression, 16 channels of graphic EQ and eight effects units, and you certainly won't have room for one in the back of your car.
Most manufacturers have their own relatively distinctive hallmarks, so that feature-sets, layout styles and metering protocols remain brand-consistent from entry-level to stadium-class. All have advantages and disadvantages, as well as reviewers who will advise for or against them, but in general you probably won't go too far wrong with anything from the better-established manufacturers, including (in alphabetical - which means no particular - order) Allen & Heath, Digico, Midas, Soundcraft, and Yamaha. It is certain you will like some more than others, so it is well worth trying to get some hands-on experience before you buy one.
Some important variables are:
There is a trade-off between layers and the number of faders over console size: more faders gives you more working channels on each layer, while less faders gives you a more compact desk. Controlling a 48-channel band with 12 faders will mean constant layer-switching, which some engineers dislike, but whether you like it or not you will get more used to it in time. Bringing a 48-fader desk with you means you will probably need at least one extra crew-member to move it: the advantages of being able to carry everything you need in something little bigger than a suitcase are considerable. One potential problem in the multi-layer approach is that most of the desks that use it allow you to select a channel or mix on one layer and then move to another layer without de-selecting it. The point of this is that you can compare, copy/paste or assign channels and settings between layers. The disadvantage is that you can easily have something selected that isn't currently visible (making it relatively easy to apply changes to the wrong channel or mix). Manufacturers have different approaches to making you aware of which channel, mix or layer is currently selected, but some make it easier to see where you are than others.
It isn't necessarily a choice between all faders or all layers, but it is usually advantageous to get all of a typical band on a single layer of faders, so desks with 16+ channel faders are generally easier to use. However (see Assignability, below), a compact desk with assignable layout may allow several practical workarounds, like adding all the drums to a single VCA or stereo group and assigning its control fader to the primary layer in place of the individual channels.
On this aspect, particularly, it is useful to get some hands-on experience with a mixer before you buy it, as you will certainly find differences between manufacturers (and even between ranges from the same manufacturer) that will make one desk suit your own way of working better than another.
Being able to assign and locate anything anywhere you like on the control surface allows for considerable flexibility, but has its own drawbacks, principal among them being the fact that the same thing may not always be in the same place, which can impact severely on reaction-time in a live setting. It is also possible on most desks with assignable channels to remove a live channel from the control surface altogether, which may leave you hunting for a non-existent mute button (or worse).
Other advantages include being able to use your own personalised layout (and transfer it, via USB stick, to other consoles of the same type), allowing touring sound-engineers to keep the same settings (assuming the same console is available) from venue to venue. However, assignability comes at a cost, and you may wish to consider whether you want to pay for being able to change the layout if in practice you will always have input 1 on channel 1 in fader position 1. Also, many lower-cost mixers with fixed primary layers also provide a ‘custom-layer’ (the Yamaha LS9 and Allen & Heath QU-series are examples), which allows at least a degree of flexibility for situations where an alternative layout may be required.
Some mixers also include a library of names (usually allowing user-additions), so you don't have to type KICK, SNARE (BASS, KEYS...) every single time you need them. Electronic labelling adds to the cost of the mixer, and you may find the ubiquitous strip of PVC tape gets it done more quickly. However, it comes into its own during changeovers, as the names can be saved with everything else during sound-check.
The ability to name everything on the surface is of far greater importance if everything is assignable, and can be useful on any mixer. However, PVC tape has been used for channel-labelling as long as there have been channels (you can also use magnetic strips as an easily interchangeable write-on surface), and electronic labelling probably isn't enough on its own (although it probably won't be the only difference) to justify a substantial difference in price-point.
It is also worth mentioning, however, that without (recallable) electronic labelling you may be able to recall all of the mixer's settings from an earlier session or event, but you won't know which instrument is on which channel unless you have kept a note of it somewhere.
Most recent digital mixers have touch screens, and most users find these easier to use than those on older desks (for example, Yamaha's LS9) with button-operated menus. However, touch-screen sensitivity varies quite widely between manufacturers, and there is a trade-off between greater sensitivity (which makes them more prone to accidental presses or selections) and less sensitivity (so firm positive selections are required, which can mean you have to press the same thing repeatedly to get anything to happen). Many offer at least some sort of accuracy calibration or reset, which is useful. The screen surface is likely to need fairly regular cleaning, so ease of cleaning and sensitivity to scratching are worth thinking about: it is all very well for manufacturers to recommend avoiding solvents and only using a soft brush to clean surfaces, but even clean fingers leave a greasy residue (and fingers at events are not always clean) so a soft brush may be completely ineffective, while some solvents may damage the surface. ‘Baby-Wipes’ are usually fairly safe in an emergency, but check carefully before deciding to use one every time the mixer goes out. Mobile-phone screen-protectors may be suitable for some smaller screens.
Larger screens tend to be the province of newer, larger and more expensive consoles, and the number of things you can do on-screen gets greater as size increases. Small button-operated screens are essentially display-only (you get a visual representation - e.g. EQ curve - of what you are doing, but have to implement changes using off-screen controls). Some of the smaller touch-screens (Allen & Heath QU-16 and QU-24 are examples) combine this with on-screen selection, but still require off-screen controls for changing most selected parameters). Larger screens generally allow much more on-screen control (for example, parametric EQ frequency, bandwidth and cut/boost can be adjusted on-screen on Allen & Heath GLD screens), as well as having higher-resolution graphics and the ability to keep more things in view at the same time. Some (see remote operation, below) allow you to use your own iPad or other device as a control surface, in which case screen size and sensitivity are not limited by the mixer.
Having both options is ideal, as you can buy a digital mixer without having to replace your analogue multicore, and even if you do buy a digital multicore as well, you can keep analogue as a backup in case someone severs your cat-5 cable with a chair-leg.
However, a digital multicore is easier to transport, install and connect, and although relatively expensive (generally adding anywhere from 10% to more than 30% to the cost of the mixer) is such a useful extra that you may regret buying a mixer that doesn't allow you to add one later.
This certainly brings some advantages (you can set up monitor mixes from the stage, or adjust the main mix and/or EQ from anywhere in the room), but can also be problematic: losing connection is one common problem, and being unable to see the screen in strong sunlight is another. Generally, therefore, remote access is very desirable (if not a requirement), but shouldn't be seen or relied on as a primary mode of operation.
Another less commonly accessed aspect of remote operation is the ability to change and save mixer settings on a PC or other external device. With some (e.g. Digico mixers, which have a Windows OS) this is well-supported, and you can download an on-screen version of the mixer that is fully compliant with the mixer itself, allowing you to pre-program a show in your living-room. Even with those mixers that support it, you will need to be careful that firmware and software versions are the same on both PC and mixer. However, at the time of writing, support for this type of remote operation is patchy, so you need to look at manufacturer documentation carefully if this is something you would like your mixer to include.
Most only allow recording in a relatively limited number of formats and resolutions (e.g. the Allen & Heath QU-series will only record 48-kHz 24-bit WAV files), so you should check for compatibility if you intend using your recorded tracks with other software.
Most will also play recorded material from a memory stick or other external digital source, but many will only recognise a limited number of specific formats (some will only read WAV files, others only MP3, not many will read FLAC, and quite a few require a specific directory/file-path before they can see a file at all).
Any mixer you consider should allow easy access to and installation of firmware and software updates, as this market is evolving rapidly and anything that cannot evolve with it will rapidly become obsolete.
More generally, you should check it has: