I was asked to explain the wave of interest concerning digital audio mixers and the benefits of digital versus the traditional and time-tested analog design types. Do they sound and perform better? Do they last as long as the analog types? Are they easier to operate? Should you switch over and buy digital? Hmmm… this got me thinking. Having used a few digital mixers during the past few years, I can say they have definitely benefited from new DSP & surface-mount component technology and offer many features that analog mixers just can’t technologically or affordably supply. But I must stress that ease-of-use has yet to be consistently address by manufactures of many digital mixers. And lastly, is there still a place in the industry for the knob-filled, channel-strip configured analog type mixers?
Let me start by saying sound is subjective. There is no better or best or correct sound to be provided by the sound system. We all seem to know when sound is really bad. When you hear someone comment that “those speakers sound bad or suck”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they do indeed sound bad. There are many variables to a live sound rig, with the speakers being that final link in a long chain. The speakers may sound bad because a Mixer, EQ, Compressor or Crossover have been used incorrectly or possibly setup wrong. Consideration also needs to be made to the amplifier and its effect on the entire sound chain.
I’ve heard many older analog mixers sound fantastic. Similarly, I’ve heard several newer digital mixers not sound so good. Why is this? I put most of the blame on the operators and engineers. You’ll find very few live sound engineers that will tell you that one technology sounds better than another, though each may have a preference. Often, sound company owners may say “this new digital mixer sounds better than anything we used to use”. But until that same user does a direct comparison against what they have used in the past, they are only basing their comment on features. Also many people assume that because a mixer uses new technology, that it must be better than the old stuff. This simply isn’t true. The same sonic debate still circulates (with no answer) concerning analog vs digital in the recording studio. Or, the 1980’s never-ending debate about if 33 rpm LP sounds better than a Compact Disc. Beyond its physics, I guess there are few definitive conclusions regarding sound or what “sounds good”. Maybe we can call it a draw and base more of our decision on other factors such as reliability, practicality, functionality or price. However, I feel that one of the most important factors concerns how you plan on using the mixer.
It’s seems clear that there are obvious uses for either mixer type when used in the correct environment. For a set it and forget it 4-input, acoustic act PA system, there are many fantastic small format mixers available at great prices. Soundcraft, Beringer, Allen & Heath, Yamaha and Peavey (and others) all have several model configurations available and some also include built-in FX and USB connectivity. Larger analog formats of up to 32 input channels and more are also available at great pricing and can be the perfect choice for clubs, regional bands or local performance venues where rider compliance is of little concern, but good sound is.
Clearly, the biggest benefit to many digital mixers is the all-in-one design concept. Frankly, it is surprising how many times I have heard it said that one of the main reasons for choosing a digital mixer instead of analog was because it allowed them to carry less gear. Rarely do I hear engineers comment on better sonic quality being the main reason for selecting a digital mixer. I would also argue that many regional or larger sound companies will purchase a specific mixer because it is “rider compliant” and sometimes give sound quality or reliability less consideration.
Practicality & Functionality:
I’m going to assume you have a basic understanding of live sound practices and some experience (otherwise…why are you reading this..?). To start, the general layout, user interface and dashboard of an analog mixer is typically very similar from brand to brand. If you use a Yamaha console at church you’ll quickly find your way through a Midas console at the local performing arts theater. The input, master and aux sections are all going to work in the same fundamental way. So you’ll have very little learning curve when presented with an unfamiliar analog mixer. I doubt there would be that much argument from anyone if I said it’s quicker to make an adjustment to an analog mixer than it is to fumble through menus on a digital mixer to get to the same control. I know, there are variables to my statement, but the concept is accurate. Plus analog boards with their many knobs, buttons, meters and lights, just look impressive.
But wait….! Digital is a whole different beast. The physical layout greatly differs from brand to brand and can also be different from model to model. Digital mixers use an interactive touchscreen display driven by model specific software. A physical user interface with a minimal amount of knobs, buttons and faders allows an entirely different approach to mixing control, EQ and outboard processing. This approach keeps manufacturing costs down and allows a vast amount of mixer signal processing capabilities to be housed in a small form factor enclosure. However, each manufacturer has their own way of designing how the software operates. Each brand has its own menu structure and flow, with each reacting differently to a change of a parameter’s +/- value. And oh ya, they all sound different.
So let’s use this scenario… you are a band’s chosen sound person. The band is doing a regional club tour and all sound is being provided. Chances are, you’ll be using a different (and likely unfamiliar) mixer and sound rig at each venue, with the potential of learning a different digital mixer (and its software) each night. Frankly, digital mixers follow the same design philosophy for all of today’s digital products. Phones, smart pads, game machines, TVs, lights or audio mixers are basically a computer attached to a hardware-based, user interface. From a manufacturer’s perspective, the ability to re-program software to manipulate hardware is good business. Allowing anytime software updates, remote operation, off-site diagnostics and other things that fit today’s virtual society is the norm. However, switching from an iOS product to an android can take some time, with very little knowledge gained from using one to help when using the other.
The best part of a digital mixer is that the need for those heavy EQ and processor racks at front-of-house can be eliminated because this is all built into today’s digital mixers. Configurable EQ types for mains, monitors, signal correctors and built-in FX are included. There is no need for patch bays and rack wiring, because it’s all done inside the digital mixer. So the size of your front-of-house footprint just got noticeable smaller and lighter, and eliminating the time for patching together all that gear is a definite plus. Though I guess we need to consider the cost if this digital board failed and needed to be repaired. Because the “show must go on”, that’s a lot of individual processor and mixer to replace while yours is in for repair. You’d lose your mixer, patch bay, FX processors, EQ’s, compressors, limiters. That’s your whole front end that has to temporarily be rented, wired and functional or at least find a like model board to rent.
Analog mixers have the advantage of years of design changes which are often based upon user feedback, trial and error and advances in component design and manufacturing techniques. I have a couple of Allen & Heath analog mixers that were first used almost 20 years ago, and have logged many hours with no problems. I am always confident when using these boards. Of course, proper care and feeding will help ensure the life of any product and proper maintenance is highly recommended.
Digital mixers have the benefit of a smaller amount of components. The less things that can break, the better. They are typically lighter than analog units and can fool you into thinking that their light weight means they are less rugged. In fairness, digital based audio mixers don’t have as many years of existence as analog, but that’s changing quickly. Other than the top of the line touring models from Avid, Yamaha, Midas and a few others, the biggest differences in all digital mixers deal with software operation and functional reliability. During the first couple generations of these mixers, there have been consistent problems with failures due to heat, software glitches and total system lockups (crashes, blue screen of death, SYS FAIL, etc.) that require an in-use re-boot. I’ve seen analog mixers fail (dead channel, or parameter), but never had to reboot one. Because most of the newer digital mixers can be connected to and be controlled by a smart phone or tablet, the expanded user control surface is great, but there are many stories telling of the problems trying to maintain a wi-fi connection between mother ship and satellites. So until these software glitches can be further subdued, I’m continuously leery of a possible system crash.
Whatever channel configuration or added features of a digital mixer, the flexibility and customization outweighs that of analog mixers. The ability to have on-board virtual processors for signal enhancement and correction, cat5 connection to stage boxes, wireless device control and flexible signal routing potentially keeps digital mixer models relevant for more years than ever before. With feature-rich products offered by Allen & Heath, Ashly, Soundcraft, Midas, Behringer and others, $2k can get you a 24-channel digital board with all the trimmings.
Since the arrival of low-cost (under $2k) digital mixers to the market, the street prices of most analog mixers have slowly dropped. The used market is full of choices and at rock bottom prices. There are also some quasi-digital, analog mixers that have various types of computer-to-mixer interface (USB), FX or user control that may be utilizing digital technology. There are lots of solid, reliable and great sounding mixers that are based on analog design criteria. Lastly, keep these things in mind when considering the purchase of a new audio mixer…
⇒ Consider what your intended use will be
⇒ Included mixer configuration and added features
⇒ Factor in your budget
⇒ See what brands/models of either technology are available
⇒ Reliability (read realistic reviews and look for real world road tests)
⇒ Which brands/models offer the best warranty and the repair service turn-around time