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Sound Advice

Analog Vs. Digital Consoles For Live Use: Who’s Winning? by Fred Michael

In a way, of course, there is no argument here; digital consoles for live events are in use every day. What I want to discuss is the appropriate use of a given console type for specific applications.

Ever since the “lampies” started using digital lighting consoles around 15 years ago, sound reinforcement engineers have yearned for the day when they too could utilize snapshots and instant recall when mixing complicated stage setups. Today, we have sophisticated high-end digital consoles available from Yamaha, InnovaSON and Digico, to name the key brands that do all of that and more. In addition, there are a number of smaller digital desks – again from Yamaha, along with Allan & Heath, Mackie and Soundcraft – that have found favour, especially in live theatre. (Note: when I talk about digital consoles I am referring specifically to mixing consoles that have a fully digital signal path; there are many analog consoles that have varying degrees of digital control; I do not consider these digital consoles in the strictest sense.) Yet, when you walk into a concert venue be it a club or concert hall, you are most likely to see an analog desk from manufacturers such as Midas, Soundcraft or Yamaha running the show. So what gives? Is the dominance of the analog console diminishing, ever so slowly? What are the pros and cons of using these two breeds in live shows? Should a digital console be part of your mixing world?

As the “junkyard dogs” of pro audio, live sound mixers usually have one response to anything new: “Yeah, sounds great, but will it blow up and make me look like an idiot?” Our notorious conservatism – based, I’m sure, on raw survival instinct – has always shut the door on anything that smacked of gimmickry. This is the principal reason for the slow acceptance of digital consoles for live use; until just recently, there hasn’t been a console that was (A) fast and easy to use, and (B) reliable enough to instill confidence in seasoned pro engineers. But, now that the playing field is approaching level, we all need to decide where this is heading.

Here’s my thesis: If your programming repeats itself over and over, you’ll be going digital; if tonal colour and creative, “nuanced” mixing is your prime concern, analog is still king.

Here’s my proof: Digital audio consoles are essentially purpose-built computers and the reasons for using them are the same as for any computer: it keeps a record of everything you do; it saves your changes; it recalls whatever you want recalled; you can transfer the information to another computer, and so on. On the strictly audio side, these digital wonders have an incredible feature set: full processing on every channel and output; typically, a potential of 96 inputs in the space of 24; input/output fader swap everywhere, massive matrices and auxiliary outputs; digital snake capability with no ground loops on splits, state-of-the-art audio specs; plus lots more. Along with all this mixing power, however, comes one significant drawback: because there is usually only one “Master Strip” for individual channel access, you can only do one thing at a time.
While this sounds like a minor consideration, think of how often you have made auxiliary send or equalization adjustments with two hands; you’ve probably done it a lot more often than you might first think. (Note: the Digico console designers have attempted to diminish this limitation by having four active screens, thus, access to four channels simultaneously; however, you still have to select the channels of interest before beginning an operation.)

Digital consoles have memories and recall but ironically, the inherent plasticity or multi-functionality of these desks means your memory is tested a lot more during a show; for example, you have to remember what page you are on and whether or not the faders under your fingers are acting as inputs or outputs. This is fine if you are building cues for a theatre show but not so much fun when mixing live music. Sound mixers have come up with techniques for handling this, however, such as keeping all principal inputs on the top layer; in addition, console designers are improving the ergonomics with features like electronic title strips that follow the page changes. Generally speaking, the design goal is to keep all primary functions no more than “one click” away, but we’re not there yet.

With analog mixing consoles, their biggest limitation is also their greatest strength: almost all the functions are immutable, i.e., channel three is always that and never anything else, the same goes for outputs and auxiliary sends. Thus, the sound mixer, having set up his initial layout, is spared any more memory demands; when he reaches for the ‘solo violin’ fader, he does not have to remember that channel is on page two and, “Uh oh, I’ve got to switch pages and darn, the solo is already started.”

Those mixing live music for one-off shows have little to gain from using digital consoles; there is no point in saving settings or scenes when it will be a completely different setup the next day. Even sound mixers on long-running tours with fixed set lists use mostly analog consoles because they have already stored a fully re-callable and upgradeable version of the show – in their heads.

And then there is the question of sound quality; after all, at the end of the day, delivering the best possible sound is what it’s all about and many would argue that the premier analog desks still have the edge in that department, both operationally and acoustically.

Obviously, the digital option really shines when your mixing task involves a lot of repetition of settings, cues, and scenes. Live musical theatre and complex touring shows, with supporting symphony orchestras and the like, are two examples of situations where digital is a superior mixing medium. Analog takes over when you have a small number of inputs (under 16) or when the sound mixer’s involvement on a moment-by-moment basis with the mix is really critical to the performance, as is the case with a lot of touring bands. In this case, the operator is in the flow of a moment that will never be repeated in exactly the same way; what’s important is the ability to react instantly to what’s happening on the stage. Using a digital console doesn’t give the operator any advantage here, and can actually hinder him by demanding he pay too much attention to operational processes.

Ultimately, subjective personal preference plays a major role in any decision and, as a good ol’ Canadian boy – writing this while watching the first round of the Stanley Cup series – I cannot resist using Our Game to illuminate by analogy the thrust of this article: Some of us want to use a computer to play NHL 2003; others go to the closet to get out Dad’s table hockey game. It’s all the same, only different.

Go Canucks!

Special thanks to Rob Nevalainen and Fred Gilpin for their assistance and input with this article.

Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC. June 2003 marks the company’s 18th consecutive season as supplier to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Fred can be reached at fred@rmsound.com, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.

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