Stuck between a digital rock and an analogue hard place? Let Jono Buchanan and Andy Legg help you out of it...
Before the days of FireWire and USB-based DAW recording, the word ‘digital’ equated to ‘expensive’ and we were all charged a premium for digitally controlled signal paths and other digital features. However, over the years the cost of technology has fallen quickly so digital hardware is now more affordable than ever. Nevertheless, is a digital mixer right for your needs and budget? Well, hopefully that’s what the next three pages will help you to decide!
WHERE TO START
Generally speaking there are three mixer types to choose from:
• True digital mixers, which quickly convert input signals into a digital format and keep them digital throughout the mixing process;
• Analogue consoles with digital audio interfacing for a direct connection to your computer;
• True analogue consoles that offer no digital capabilities at all.
Start by asking yourself what you want your mixer to do. Some users want to record their bands through them, some want a mixer purely for live performances, other people buy MIDI hardware and want to route devices to their soundcards and monitors, while others need a hybrid solution to suit studio and live work alike. To help you put this in perspective, check the ‘Stuff to consider’ section below.
Most of us are on a budget these days, so there will inevitably be some compromises where you choose which items on your wishlist you can realistically afford, but remember that your mixer can play more than one role in the studio.
BENEFITS OF DIGITAL
There are two main types of digital console, designed for 'live' or 'studio' use, and whilst each usually contain a number of common features, they will also implement a number of application specific functions.
Almost all digital mixers offer a very high-spec channel strip when compared to an analogue mixer with an outboard rack. On a digital mixer you would expect to find the following features: gain, pad, phase reverse, pan control, frequency-conscious gate, compressor/expander and four-band fully parametric EQ. In addition, the architecture of a digital console allows for a greater number of auxes and groups than an analogue console. These can be configured on-the-fly to allow for mono/stereo operation and pre-/post-fader mixes, which is particularly useful on live desks where different gigs call for different arrangements of monitoring and FX.
On top of the dynamics and EQ, there are also normally a number of FX engines that can be inserted on a single channel or utilised across the desk by inserting them on an aux buss. One of the key benefits of a digital mixer over an analogue one is 'full recall'. This function takes a snapshot of the position of every control on the desk and allows it to be recalled at any time. This is incredibly useful, allowing you to rapidly switch between projects or mixes in the studio, save settings for different venues, or save mixes for different bands playing on the same stage, at a festival for example. You could even synchronise your scene changes with a lighting desk for theatrical work.
Due to the flexibility of digital mixers, the majority use motorised or ‘flying’ faders and continuous rotary encoders. This means that the footprint of the mixer can be kept reasonably compact by arranging the channels and controls in layers. For example, a console may only have 24 physcial faders but could have as many as 96 input channels arranged over four layers. It would also have further layers covering aux, group and output masters.
In the studio it’s worth considering the possibilities offered by a desk such as Tascam’sDM4800, which builds on the capabilities of the popular DM-24 model, which preceded it. This desk has 48 input channels as well as 16 returns, offering 96kHz/24-bit recording. It also provides DAW control, allowing you to drive your software of choice direct from the desk.
The TascamDM4800, like all dedicated digital studio mixers, offers full mix automation, meaning that the desk is sync’d to the timecode output of your recording system and records any adjustments made to the faders, mutes, pans, auxes, EQs, dynamics and FX settings in real-time. This can then be played back repeatedly and the settings tweaked to improve the mix. Should you wish to connect a computer to use it as a recording system, a DM desk-compatible card carries 24 channels of audio to and from the computer over a single FireWire cable, negating the need for an external audio interface.
Live digital mixers such as the Soundcraft Si Compact 24 differ from studio ones in a number of ways. They don’t offer mix automation and tend to have a simplified layout for rapid access in a live situation. This tends to mimic a single comprehensive channel strip from an analogue console to enable engineers to quickly adapt to operating the unit if they’re unfamiliar with it. Live mixers also have a greater number of analogue outputs than a studio mixer for use as monitor and front-of-house sends. These usually have a virtual 31-band graphic EQ built in and many have delay functionality for speaker alignment.
Expansion cards for live mixers cover a variety of long-distance, multi-channel formats, including MADI, Danté, CobraNet and Aviom. These connections allow all the audio to pass down an inexpensive cable from a remote-controlled stagebox, making bulky, expensive multicores a thing of the past, with the added bonus that there’s no signal degradation. These signals can easily be split to go to a monitor desk, recording system or outside broadcast truck.
As you might expect, these pro solutions come at a price, but when you consider the cost of all these features as standalone units and add the fact that you don’t have to lug around a huge rack of outboard or massive front-of-house desk, it suddenly begins to make sense! The good news is that the digital mixer market is competitive, so it’s easy to find a console that matches your needs. PreSonus’ StudioLive mixers offer an excellent feature set and the non-motorised faders save you money. The Yamaha 01V’s flexible range of features makes it a popular choice for studios, live arenas and theatres alike. These desks tend to come with four-figure price tags but the excellent EdirolM16DX shows that digital is available to those with a budget of £500, albeit with a more modest feature set.
ANALOGUE WITH DIGITAL
The second mixer type is a console that handles its internal signals in the analogue domain but provides digital audio interfacing at the output stage to allow for direct DAW integration. Fulfilling these criteria are desks such as the Mackie Onyx 1640i, which provides 16 inputs and six aux sends per channel, plus a 16x16 FireWire audio interface to let you send channels, groups and the mastering output to your DAW. It can also re-route 16 tracks of recorded audio back through the desk, aside from recording; really handy if you want to soundcheck at a gig before the rest of the band get there.
Another cool feature of the FireWire connection is the ability to use Waves’ MultiRack software. This allows you to insert pro-quality dynamics, EQ and FX into the signal path using your computer, giving you similar channel strip functionality to a digital mixer. If you’re concerned about the number of inputs, multiple Mackie 1640i's can be ‘aggregated’ to expand the number of available channels.
If integrated audio interfacing is your primary requirement, it’s possible to get this at an even lower cost too. Peavey’s PV mixers combine quality audio with USB interfacing from the master section, while the Alesis MultiMix combines these functions with onboard DSP effects. The Allen & Heath ‘Zed’ range and some Yamaha mixers also have this functionality.
If you’re already covered in terms of audio interfacing and you’re happy to rely on the effects processing of your DAW or effects rack, the functionality and increased cost of digital mixers might seem like overkill. Fortunately, analogue mixers remain a popular choice and, in studios and venues around the world, they’re used for recording and mixing bands or single instruments, or by those with a suite of hardware synths. Many of the same manufacturers mentioned above offer consoles with high-quality preamps and a range of input channels to match studio needs. For instance, Mackie’s VLZ desks run from four to 32 input channels and sound great.
If you’re multitrack recording with an analogue mixer, it’s essential to ensure that the channels have direct outputs to go straight to your recording device. Equally, if you’re looking for a live sound mixer that offers a fuss-free ‘set up and go’ approach, try the Yamaha MG series or look at Allen & Heath; a company with a proud tradition in this field and a vast range of options covering DJ mixers, hybrid live/studio consoles and products aimed more directly at live sound venues.
We have a wide selection of digital and analogue mixers in our showroom and online store. Call our expert sales staff (01202 597180) for advice on the best mixer for you!
STUFF TO CONSIDER
Bear these things in mind when you're about to buy a mixer:
• How many inputs do you need? Be generous as it's very likely to grow!
• What's the balance between microphone and line inputs?
• Do you need phantom power on every track? And does the mixer genuinely provide full 48V on every channel?
• How good are the onboard microphone preamps?
• How many sub-groups do you think you'll need?
• Will it be mainly for live or studio use?
• Do you need onboard effects?
• Do you need an audio interface built-in? If so, does it matter if it's USB or FireWire?
• What options does the master output section provide?
• What are the monitoring capabilities?
• What's the cost?!
PROS & CONS
(√) Huge feature set
(√) High quality, digitally processed audio
(√) Recall and automation
(√) Some digital consoles feature DAW control
(√) Integrated digital DSP effects
(√) Pristine signal quality
(x) Higher prices
(x) Occasionally less immediate to set up and use
[ANALOGUE WITH DIGITAL I/O]
(√) Feels like an analogue mixer
(√) USB/FireWire interfacing removes the need for a separate audio interface
(√) Lower cost than pure digital
(x) If you own an audio interface, do you need digital output?
(x) Ensure the mixer’s audio driver is compatible with your computer and OS
(√) Intuitive ‘set up and go’
(√) Onboard EQ and level adjustment
(√) Multiple outputs in master section for flexible studio/live routing
(√) Usually cheaper than digital
(x) Lack of audio interfacing
(x) Consoles tend not to feature integrated effects
• PreSonusStudioLive 1642
This 16-channel digital mixer is as powerful as it is flexible. It includes a 32x18 FireWire recording/playback engine and costs a chunk less than two grand.
• Tascam DM4800
This 48-channel beast is a favourite in many a studio and is also available bundled with the MU1000 meterbridge and FireWire expansion card.
You may also want to check out the smaller Tascam DM3200 and associated bundles.
This compact digital mixer with four stereo Lexicon effects processors onboard is a powerful solution for live mixing.
• Allen & Heath Zed12FX
For just under £400 the Zed12FX has six mono and three stereo inputs plus 16 effects and is ideal for use by small groups, both live or in the studio.
You may also want to check out the MackieZed10FX and the Zed22FX.
• Mackie 1604VLZ3
This modern update of the classic 1604VLZ is a fantastic example of easy-to-use analogue mixing and it's only just over £700!