Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mixers: Digital vs Analog

Anything that's existed for as long as you have is normal; anything invented while you're between the ages of 15 and 35 is something you can profit from; anything invented after you've turned 35 is "against the natural order of things.   - Douglas Adams
That sort of sums up the way people feel about digital consoles.  The sound guy is typically a pretty superstitious creature, forming his opinions based on his own gigs, what he learned from the old wizard who taught him things when he was a young pup, and stuff he read in catalogs and spec sheets.  You can find just as many young guys who are against digital as you can salty old dogs though. 

I think the resistance to digital can spring from not fully understanding the benefits and also a healthy dose of superstition.  There's a lot to be said for not trading in your trusty old Midas or Soundcraft that you can mix on with your eyes closed.  There's also a lot to be said for being able to ditch your analog snake, patch bay, and bookcase racks full of processing.  You see the same thing with any technology though.  If you don't know what a VCA is, you sure don't know how it could benefit your mixing.  Once you find out though and learn to apply that knowledge, you'll miss em if you don't have em.

There's the argument that an analog surface is a lot easier to mix on and for that reason digi makers are getting better and better at emulating that work flow.  It'll never be the same, but paging through menus is largely becoming a thing of the past.  Yamaha, DiGiCo and Soundcraft are all companies that while they may not faithfully replicate an analog surface, have at least designed their workflows to be very accommodating. 

So what is it about digital consoles that guys love anyway.  There's always the argument that you can tweak two monitor mixes at once then bump a few groups and change an effect all in a flash on an analog rig.  I would hazard to say that a well practiced digi operator could manage all those things well enough such that it would make no difference.  Then the digi operator can turn around and say, "Hey, watch me re-configure 48 channels and 12 monitor mixes for the next event."  Click!  And he's off to dinner while an analog op would be squinting at tracking sheets for hours on end.  Clearly a plus in a multi-use venue. And until you've gotten used to a digital desk you can't know the joys of having a birds eye view of exactly what is going on processing wise with every single channel without having to look here to see what the gates are doing and there to see what the comps are doing and back to the channel to see the EQ.

Now let's take a look at some of the other things that a digi has to offer.  Consider that with a few exceptions you can patch any dynamic or effect to any channel with no restrictions.  There's no running out of comps, no running out of graphs for the outputs, and hopefully, no running out of extra mixes for additional IEMs.  If you tally up the amount of rack gear you'd need to make up the equivalent processing of even a small digital desk you're looking at close to 200 spaces!

Now let's get into digital snakes.  The idea of 64 channels of digital audio depending on one slender run of coax or Cat-5 cable is enough to make some quake in their shoes.  OK, so you have redundant lines and maybe an analog backup on the truck and off you go.  When you ditch that copper multi-core, you're also tossing away all the capacitance that builds up and all that opportunity for RF noise to get in your lines.  You start with a mic and a short run of cable on stage, then you hit a remote controlled mic pre at the stage box and you're off in the digital realm.  Same thing coming back the other way, digital returns that hit D/A converters in the stage box, then just a few feet of copper to the amp racks, or if you're lucky, digital all the way to them!

Now let's go one step further.  No snake! (WHAT?) Park your digi at the side of the stage with all the inputs plugged straight in, leave your monitor guy there.  Then you head out to the house with a wireless tablet and you can mix from any seat in the house.  No mix position taking up valuable seating space, no tent in the way at outside events.  OK, so wireless networks can leave you in the lurch but with a good antenna on your wireless router you can totally get away with it and I know people personally that do.  You can even scale it down to the bar gig, leave your mixer on stage where you can keep it (mostly) out of harm's way and mix from where ever you want with an iPad.  Pretty sweet.

I could go on and on about the clarity you can get out of a digital mix as well.  I recently had the opportunity to try out a Soundcraft Si3 in place of my Midas Legend 3000.  The difference was so immediate and so amazing that even people with tin ears were leaving positive comments.  There are a lot of digi desks out there that can give you a really clean sound but still not sound good, so you need to be careful in your choice and pick one that does sound good.

I can understand being afraid of a mix like that.  If you've ever mixed on a line array system you've encountered a similar situation.  When the gear sounds that pristine, you've got nowhere to hide.  It really separates the men from the boys and you've got to be spot on with your craft or everybody in the house is going to know where you're lacking.  To me it's a welcome challenge.  If I can stop making excuses for my gear and the onus falls on me, I've got to up my game.  I always want to be pushed to do better.

One last thing I'll bring up is presets.  Pretty cool when all those flying faders jump and the mix takes on a whole new shape.  There are some pretty clear boundaries that I'd set though before I just go automating all my mixes.  In professional theatre, or with a musical act that's spot on every time, I could see maybe going so far as to have the snapshots reflect pretty much everything I'm doing and be content to just touch things up.  But when moving from venue to venue, or having less than consistent performers I want to be the one doing the mixing, not the me that was saved two venues ago or four rehearsals ago, the one that's here in the space now with my ears open to the peculiarities of the present moment.  With that said I love being able to preset for new musicians coming in, I have a drummer that needs a perfect drum mix in his IEM and next week I'll have one that doesn't want any drums, click, done.  I have one bass player with an oldie-but-goodie Fender Jazz and another one with a super hot active bass, click and I'm done.  Well not done... but close.

I could ramble on and on (and on) about this but I hope I've covered enough items to give you something to think about.  I'll state firmly one last time that I'm not pro-analog or pro-digi.  I'm pro right-tool-for-the-job and I'll always seek the box that will best serve the performance.  Till next time by Brethren of the Knob and Fader, hit the comments box and tell me what you think.

Capacitance


4 comments:

  1. I think there is something universal about technology that your Douglas Adams quote captures well. People that know how to use existing tools really well resist the new ones because the methods they have developed over time to make great things come from their tools no longer apply in the same context. That is magnified intensely when it's a completely new paradigm like digital audio.

    The studio world is a bit ahead of the live world with respect to the digital revolution, and it only makes sense to me given the increased number of variables that affect a live show. Yet, nearly all of the big studio dogs who fought tooth and nail on this subject for years have come around to working "in the box", and many can't imagine being without it now. They had the same concerns guys in the live world have. In a short time, people will have blazed the digi frontier enough to share the secrets of being a digi-whisperer and we'll be better for it. The truth is that any medium we employ in this art comes with compromises, and the guys that best figure out how to use them to their advantage have the greatest success.

    To me, regardless of the tools we have available, there will always be a battle of wits to coax voltage into waveforms that are the most pleasing to my ears, and that, brethren of the knob and fader, is what puts the engineering into audio.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This wonderful comment turned up in my inbox but didn't post to the site, so here it is:
    I think there is something universal about technology that your Douglas Adams quote captures well. People that know how to use existing tools really well resist the new ones because the methods they have developed over time to make great things come from their tools no longer apply in the same context. That is magnified intensely when it's a completely new paradigm like digital audio.

    The studio world is a bit ahead of the live world with respect to the digital revolution, and it only makes sense to me given the increased number of variables that affect a live show. Yet, nearly all of the big studio dogs who fought tooth and nail on this subject for years have come around to working "in the box", and many can't imagine being without it now. They had the same concerns guys in the live world have. In a short time, people will have blazed the digi frontier enough to share the secrets of being a digi-whisperer and we'll be better for it. The truth is that any medium we employ in this art comes with compromises, and the guys that best figure out how to use them to their advantage have the greatest success.

    To me, regardless of the tools we have available, there will always be a battle of wits to coax voltage into waveforms that are the most pleasing to my ears, and that, brethren of the knob and fader, is what puts the engineering into audio.

    ReplyDelete
  3. To which I respond...
    I think it's great to move forward as technology develops but I also think it's good to know what foundation it's built on. My experience with reel to reel tape machines has served me well moving into the era of digital recording, for instance. I think even if I were to start out teaching someone mixing from scratch on a digi I'd step to an analog desk (or at least a pic of one) first to get them started.

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  4. Couldn't agree more. One thing I am really excited about is that rigs are moving beyond all analog or all digital and moving toward a hybrid that takes the best of both worlds and melds them together. The sonic benefits are great, and the analog knowledge remains very relevant. The API lunchbox and all of the 500 series modules is example of how great analog components can be integrated into a digi rig (even if it tends to show up in studios more than live rigs).

    And thanks for posting my comment, Jon. No idea why your awesome blog doesn't like me :)

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