Dorset Sound & Communications

Sound system design for the 21st Century

Sound Tips
Digital Mixers

This will be a difficult page to keep up to date. The digital mixer/control surface market is in a state of rapid change. Digital mixers have been the holy grail of many clients. Anything digital is considered highly desirable. Slow down and breathe. You have to understand the difference between project studio mixers and live sound mixers.

With preset scenes, on-board digital signal processing (DSP), computer interface and motorized faders. it would seem that a digital mixer would be ideal for a church. Presently there are only a few reasonably priced digital mixing consoles available for small facility live sound. Those are our emphasis below. The lowest priced professional Innovason console suitable for theater or touring is about $46,000. A Yamaha PM1D, PM5D or DiGiCo D1 digital console is similarly high priced - many over $100,000. They are getting very good performance reviews. Touring companies, big studios,  Broadway theater, Vegas showrooms and mega-churches can afford them. You can get an incredible analog mixer for much less.

Digital mixers promise many functions in a compact chassis. Just look at the popular compact Yamaha 01V96v2 project-studio mixer. It starts out a 16 channel mixer. It can be expanded to 32 inputs using an outboard digital preamp. Signals can be routed about a dozen dfferent ways. Each channel has full signal processing available - compression, gating, equalization, delays. The few multi-function surface controls are less intimidating to inexperienced operators. The biggest draw is digitally memorized preset configurations. It's a bear to learn. It's not always intuitive.  Clients have been enthusiastic until they found they have to use the manual and practice. They have tended to back off in fear or lack of initiative.

Recording mixers

The first affordable digital mixers available to  typical Dorset Sound clients have been oriented to small/home project studio work, such as the Yamaha 01V96v2. The project studio environment is a very laid back, forgiving environment. Deadlines are rarely set in stone. A mistake leads to a retake. Fix it in the mixdown.  A concept that digital mixers introduce is paging. You will notice that a digital mixer has far fewer surface controls. Those that are present are used for multiple functions controlled by the internal software operating system (thank God they don't run on Windows). Functions are determined by selecting control menus on the display screen. Often the menus have menus that you have to drill down through to get to the function you want to adjust. It can be sloooow and confusing.

Live sound mixers

Think about a live sound environment and a typical analog mixer. You are operating in real time. You see or hear something that needs adjustment, you have to be quick. Analog mixers do not have paged menus. All the controls are on top with instant access. Hear a slight ring, grab a channel equalization control and extingush it. Sure, not as many bells and whistles, but while most  may be desirable, they are not really needed for live sound. There are a lot of really fine analog live sound mixers available from Allen & Heath, Midas, APB, Soundcraft, and Yamaha. There are presently few comparable small digital live sound mixers. A digital live sound mixer has more surface controls and the best will have no more than one page level to get to any function. Most are quite expensive. A minimum of 3 times a comparable analog up to 10-12 times cost for premium models. The market will change over the next couple of years. Yamaha, Mackie, Soundcraft, Allen & Heath and Roland all have more reasonable digital mixers available or coming. The most recent models that are particularly applicable to live sound are the Presonus StudioLive and Yamaha LS9-16/32 models. The Presonus looks particularly easy to learn in the live sound environment. We may eventually see replacement of the lowest price throw-away mixers with limited function cheap digital mixers. Look at what happened with digital MP3 players. Dream on.

Latency is another issue that has to be addressed. Latency is the processing time it takes to convert an anlog sound to a digital signal, process it in the mixer and convert it back to analog to feed an amplifier. Two to ten milliseconds is not much of a problem for an audience. It can be a really big perception problem for a performer listening to himself in a floor monitor or in-ear-monitor. Latency has to be kept very short and that can mean some very sophisticated processing is needed. Latency can be affected by cheap circuitry, cheap or dated processors, by bloated operating software or by systems that just try to do too much. Every filter, equalizer, gate, compressor and effect through which you process your signal adds computer clock cycles.  Adding 2+2 on your laptop is instantaneous. Chugging through a huge spreadsheet with 10,000 cells and 50 formulas takes time to crunch.

A recent concern. Training. I have a client who "got a really good deal from an out-of-town friend on a digital mixer". It's a wonderful device. Wish I could have sold it to him. Wish I could have sold him something we could both understand. It will take me a week to dig into it...when I have the time, before I can train him. That they change time-honored terminology in the translated manual doesn't help. My client has never gotten the hang of his digital mixer. He is a lawyer and doesn't have time it invest learning. He cannot train his other operators. We are discussing whether to sell it and return to their much simpler analog mixer. 

If you buy a big touring or studio digital mixer for between $100,000 and $300,000, having factory training available, traveling across the country and paying for it is implied. It's part of the investment. There is no such training available for the typical church-sized digital mixer. You are on your own. You may get a thick owner's manual. You may be able to go to a website for some moronic flash instruction or slide show speil. There can be a heavy learning curve. The Presonus StudioLive digital mixer may be the best design yet to parallel analog operation and simplicity.

Folks still use tube amps for the warm harmonic sound they produce and still record albums on 2" multi-track tape for effect. I think we will continue to see an active market for good sounding analog mixers. Over the next couple of years analog mixers will remain less expensive, more rugged and easier to understand. But, digital is the trend. Try not to get ahead of the curve.

Company contact or contact about website keith@dorsetsound.com
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