Sound Advice: Audio Mixers…Analog or Digital?

Mackie DL-1608 Digital Mixer
Mackie DL-1608 Digital Mixer

Probably, one of the most-asked questions I get today regarding audio equipment for churches and bands is the topic of analog and digital audio mixers.  So, I think it would be fitting to start my Sound Advice with tackling this subject and, hopefully, clarifying the issue to help you make a wise choice in your next purchase.

First, let’s start with getting some definitions out of the way.  An audio mixer can also be referred to as an audio console, a mixing console, a sound board, a board, and several other similar terms.  Generally speaking, they are all the same thing.  So, sometimes you may hear me use more than one of these terms, but generally referring to the same audio component: the audio mixer.  I’ve always referred to small audio mixers as mixers, medium sized mixers as boards, and the larger ones as consoles.  But, that’s just my thing.  They are generally all the same idea.

An audio mixer is usually the main component in a sound system, especially for live program material.  So, it goes without saying that a lot of thought, research and planning should go into purchasing a new or replacement mixer.  Traditionally, it has been said that a sound system will be no better than its weakest link, and that is still true.  But, today, in most cases, the weakest link of a modern sound system is not the actual sound equipment, but the acoustics, personnel, and/or talent [we’ll address these topics in upcoming articles!].  So, rest assured that most name-brand equipment will be of the quality needed for the typical church installation, traveling singing group, or youth band.  It’s performance depends on the environment where it is located and how it was installed, the sound technicians using it, and obviously the sources (vocalists, musicians, etc.).

Mackie 1604-VLZ4 Mixer
Mackie 1604-VLZ4 Analog 16-Channel Mixer

So, which should you buy?  First, let’s answer a basic question:  How many inputs will your audio mixer need?  Or, if you are upgrading an existing audio mixer, how many are you currently using, and how many more will you need in the foreseeable future?  This number primarily depends on how many sources you need to mix.  Sources are all microphones, instruments, and auxiliary sources (CD, iPods, computers, video, etc.).   A typical church would probably have a few choir mics, a few praise team mics, a band, and a couple of media sources, such as CD player, iPod, and computer.  This setup could easily be up to 24 sources, or more, for larger setups.  So, with 24 sources you would need an audio mixer that could accommodate, and mix, 24 inputs.  And, don’t forget!  You also will need room to grow.  So, if you have the immediate need for 24 inputs, I would not suggest purchasing a 24-input mixer.  A mixer with 32, or more, inputs would be on the shopping list.

Now that we know what size audio mixer we need (which is primarily determined by their number of inputs or channels),  we can decide on whether we need an analog mixer or a digital mixer.  And, my recommendation for most churches and bands would be…yep, a digital audio mixer.  Now, does that mean I think digital mixers are superior to analog mixers?  No, not at all.  What I do think is, for most applications and sound technicians, the digital mixer is going to be able to provide the most bang-for-the-buck in terms of audio “tools” (EQ’s, compressors, gates, delays, effects, routing, etc.) at the sound technician’s disposal.  With an analog mixer, outboard gear was, and is, required, in most setups, to provide the necessary tools needed to create a polished mix for the audience.  And, even with some of the best setups, compromises had to be made simply because of the limited number of tools available.  Your outboard rack may only contain four compressors, not enough to go around on many sources.  With most digital mixers, their are ample amount of tools to go around; enough to use on every channel or source, if needed!

Another advantage that digital mixers have is usually their small footprint and size.  This is especially important for many churches that need a high channel count mixer in a small space.  Some digital consoles can offer up to 64 input capability, or more, with a footprint the size of a 16 channel analog mixer!  This is especially good news to a church that is upgrading to a new mixer with many more inputs but doesn’t have much extra space available for a larger sized mixer.

And finally,  most modern digital mixers can be remotely controlled via computers and tablets, such as an iPad.  This gives capabilities and options that we have never had in the live sound arena.  As a matter of fact, some of the newest generations of digital mixers are only controlled remotely by a computer or iPad.  This changes everything about live sound mixing, while opening up new opportunities not available in the past.

So, I would be wrong not to mention some of the disadvantages of digital mixers over their analog counterparts.  In the world of analog mixers, most all of them are laid out in a very similar arrangement, regardless of size or brand.  This means that a competent sound technician that normally uses an Allen & Heath mixer could easily sit down to a Midas analog mixer and run sound on it fairly well with only 5 or 10 minutes to get acquainted with it.  Every channel had dedicated knobs and switches for all the features on that channel, and there were no menus to get lost in.  Digital mixers, on the other hand, can operate much differently than an analog mixer.  And, to make it more interesting, digital mixers by different companies can be totally different animals.  Like smartphones, they have an operating system and many menus and apps to change settings and apply features.  But, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to digital mixers.  This just indicates that moving from one brand to another (and sometimes different models by the same company!) is normally not a 5 or 10 minute getting-to-know-you period.  It’s a new learning curve!

Another disadvantage I sometimes hear is cost.  Some would argue that they are quite expensive, but I would argue that for what you are getting “in the box” the price is extremely inexpensive, compared to a similar setup using an analog mixer and outboard gear.  Let’s do some number crunching:  A typical 16-channel digital mixer currently available has a 4-band fully parametric EQ, dynamics/compressor, and delay available on every channel, as well as six 31-band EQ’s on the main outputs and auxiliary outputs, AND two effects processors.  The cost of this setup is about $1500.  Now, a typical 16 channel analog mixer is somewhat less, BUT when you add the cost of 16 compressors, 16 delay units, 2 effects processors, and six 31-band EQ’s, you are easily at $7000, or even more!  So, I would argue that for most applications, it’s hard to beat a digital mixer setup in terms of cost.

Allen & Heath Qu-16 Digital Mixer
Allen & Heath Qu-16 Digital Mixer

But, the main disadvantage to digital mixers is there are just so many to choose from!  And, they all are very different!  How do I know which digital mixer to buy?  That’s a tough one.  First, be careful with advice from others.  It’s easy for people to give their personal preference as the gospel truth, knocking everything else.  There’s nothing wrong with personal recommendations, but realize that what works great for one person may not be the best choice for someone else, or the best fit in their environment.  In reality, most all the name brand digital mixers are great:  Mackie, Allen & Heath, Midas, Presonus, Behringer, etc.  And, to some degree, you do get what you pay for.  Don’t expect a $999 digital mixer to perform at the level of a $20,000 digital console.  If possible, visit a music store where you can put your hands on one that’s plugged in and operational.  If that’s not possible, be sure to purchase one from a dealer that allows returns within a specified period, which is usually thirty to sixty days.  That will allow you to invest some time to see whether that particular mixer will fit your needs.

And, finally, please understand that whether you decide on an analog mixer or a digital mixer, they are both very much alike in terms of the who needs to operate them.  Digital mixers are not magical boxes that will make your current sound with an analog mixer automatically better.  They are simply a box of tools that require the hands of a craftsman [more articles on this subject forthcoming!].

Well, I could go on and on even more about this subject, but I hope this article gives you some basic answers to your questions regarding analog versus digital audio mixers.  In the next article, I’ll talk about some features found on the latest digital mixers and why you may need them.  Be sure to spread the word about my blog and have interested people sign up to receive notifications when new articles come out.  Also, feel free to post comments and questions below.

 

Prentice Tyndall

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