Technology Showcase: Live Digital Mixers

As prices drop, feature sets grow. 10/01/2007 8:00 AM Eastern

Technology Showcase: Live Digital Mixers

Oct 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bennett Liles

As prices drop, feature sets grow.

Euphonix System 5-B

Is there a digital mixer in the house? Ever more frequently, the answer is, “Yes.” Digital boards have been around long enough to wear into the market, and they specialize well. Although they do have a degree of specialization themselves, analog mixing consoles can be, and traditionally have been, stretched to do many jobs. While it's not a perfect practice, it is still not uncommon to find an analog multitrack recording mixer in a TV truck doing ballgames or a TV broadcast board being used in a radio postproduction room. It happens with digital boards, too. In one rather painful case that comes to mind, there was actually a digital radio master control board with only two aux busses and no subgrouping selected by the chief engineer for the TV production control rooms of a $46-million broadcast facility, at $56,000 each.

The features available on digital mixers allow them to be specialized for specific applications. When a mixer is properly matched with the job it's intended for, the product can represent a very powerful and cost-effective solution. The general trend in dropping prices and growing features continues. Probably the most significant advantage of digital mixers is their ability to store setups for rapid recall. This has the potential to allow less experienced operators to quickly get back to where they were after twiddling themselves into trouble, typically with EQ settings. But lower-tech analog can still play an ace when there is a power glitch. Digital boards vary in the time it takes them to recover from power outs.

To make things more interesting, we now have “digitally controlled analog” products and analog mixers with digital effects. But for now, we'll have a look at fully digital mixing consoles primarily intended for front-of-house applications.

Allen & Heath iLive


The Allen & Heath iLive digital mixing console system is centered on the iDR10 stage rack containing 10 slots for 8-channel interface cards in analog and digital versions. The rack also features the iDR-64 DSP module putting 64 channels into 32 mixes that can be configured as aux sends, matrix mixes, sub-groups, and main outs. With Ethernet connectivity, the iDR-64 can interface with the company's iLive controllers, PL remote units, third-party units, or a PC. Control surfaces include the iLive-80, iLive-112, i-Live-144, and iLive-176. These include motorized faders, a backlit LCD on each channel, and an LCD touchscreen. For signal distribution, two low-latency Ethersound ports are available for mic splits to monitor boards and multitrack recorders.

Primarily designed for theater FOH application, the Cadac S-Digital console takes the popular J-Type analog product into the digital realm with all of the additional features expected there. The control surface — consisting of the input frame, the output frame, and the central control module frame — offers 72 input channels, 66 mix busses, and three stereo listen busses. The mix bus setups can be stored with a wide array of parameters, and the console may be expanded with additional S-Digital frames. The 10RU audio I/O racks house a user-defined variety of analog and digital I/O interfaces and/or GPI/O control cards that are all hot-swappable. In its 72-input-and-output configuration, the S-Digital console retails for around $400,000.

Calrec Bluefin consoles have the ability to process large numbers of surround sources. The system provides up to 480 channel-processing paths on one DSP card, with full EQ and dynamics on all channels, groups, and mains. This equates to 78 full 5.1-surround channels. In addition, the system provides a significant amount of delay to cope with increasing synchronization problems. Mixers such as the Alpha have fully redundant power supplies, DSP cards, and processing cards. All cards and panels are pluggable under power, and all hot-plugged cards initialize on insertion. PC failure or reset has no effect on the audio signal and accounts for a boot time, from cold, of less than 20 seconds, and a full control-system reset in less than 15 seconds with no loss of audio.

The Digico D5 Live console offers a work surface for front of house and a separate work surface for stage monitoring linked by fiber-optic digital split. The unique Gain Tracking feature, independently selectable on each input of either console, allows either operator to change any input gain without affecting the mix on either console. Mixer mirroring and remote PC control are available through Ethernet support. Snapshots, including all effects settings, may be stored on USB keys and loaded into any other D5, and the operator can swap inputs between physical faders and groups. The electronic scribble strips display input source labels, and they can be updated with a slide-out keyboard. The LED lighting behind the touchscreens and over the meter bridge is dimmable. The D5 Live FMX package can be split into two D5 Live 56 EX packages.

One interesting operator feature of the Venue D-Show console from Digidesign is that the rotary knobs for the digital encoders have a lighted outer circle that clearly shows the knob setting even in very low-lighting conditions. Accompanying the console operator surface is the front-of-house rack containing the mix engine, the stage rack with remote-controllable preamps, and the multichannel digital snake. These components offer up to 96 mic inputs, 16 stereo effects returns, 27 busses, eight mono matrices, and eight stereo matrices. The Windows XP D-Show software allows the configuration of any show to be done on a PC and loaded into a Venue system with a USB key. The system is also compatible with TDM plug-in effects architecture and Pro Tools.

The EAW UMX.96 provides up to 104 inputs and 44 outputs. In reducing demand for external processing, the system processor allows for onboard EQ, delay, crossover, and limiter algorithms. These can be fed by any output mix. The 3×12 integrated system processor features SmaartLive audio measurement and calibration software and an Intelligent Encoder, all navigated on a 15in. display panel. The SmaartLive input is selectable, and the touchscreen function is linked with a “tactilely dynamic” rotary control. Color-coded channel-assign buttons indicate channel-assign functions for mute groups, VCAs, aux groups, and internal effects. The system provides 24-bit operation at 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, and 96kHz.

The Euphonix System 5-B, primarily marketed as a broadcast console, has been placed into duty as a FOH mixer in some very prominent venues. The 5-B features dual redundant power supplies in the surface modules, Studio Computer, and DSP SuperCore. eMix software provides system setup, file management, patching, and diagnostics. PatchNet allows storage and recall of all patching configurations. All audio electronics are housed remotely, and the remote rack is connected to the control surface via Ethernet, permitting long distances between the units. The modular design enables up to 300-channel capacity with 46 mix busses, 48 group busses, 24 aux sends, and 72 external inputs in up to 48 different surface-layout configurations. Each input includes a high-resolution LED meter, and all console settings can be stored in up to 240 snapshots. The MSRP on the product is $200,000.

Among its unique features, the Harrison Trion live mixing console offers the Preview Waveform Display with History above each channel strip. This presents a 20-second visual waveform of the channel source signal. The Trion is bisected by a horizontal “live” line. The portion of the waveform above the line shows the history, and that below the line is a preview of the coming signal in the case of a prerecorded source. Multiple Trion consoles can share resources through fiber links to the Harrison digital engine. Each group of eight faders hosts a high-resolution TFT screen simultaneously displaying dynamics, EQ, input channel source, bus routing, panning, aux sends, input meter, and the Preview Waveform Display. The mixer interfaces with the IKIS control platform, a PC-based application for automation and control of the console and other devices.

The Innovason Sy80 maximizes custom configuration through Sensoft software with the ability to configure any of the 80 fader channels as mono, stereo, mixing bus (mono, stereo, LCR), group/subgroup, VCA, aux, master, or matrix. Offering up to 144 outputs, 48 mixing busses, 104 channels, and an embedded 15in. TFT screen, the Sy80 can be used alone or networked with other Innovason boards. The control surface features 80 motorized faders and 80 VU meters. For operator convenience there are four XLR light connectors and two talkback and headphone connectors.

In many control area situations, the placement of the peripheral equipment can make the operation of the mixer more of a challenge. The Lawo mc290 console offers a solution in that the functions of the master section can be copied to other areas of the control surface. Additionally, the various sections are modular so that a custom layout may be designed. Custom design extends to the color-coded fader channels and the ability to network up to 16 Lawo mixers. Lawo's Double Star technology connects the various panels to two redundant central processors, each using a star connection pattern. The routing matrix contains up to 8,192 crosspoints with 96kHz, 24-bit sound processing, and the board is fully networkable with external control systems. Targeted primarily at broadcast applications, the console's substantial customization make it a good candidate for live FOH apps as well.

At the lighter end of the budget scale, the Mackie TT24 provides up to 24 mic/line channels; eight line inputs; two CD/tape inputs; a talkback mic input; L,R, and C main outs; 12 aux sends; and eight group/matrix outputs. These capabilities may be expanded with additional I/O cards, and two TT24s can be linked to operate as one. The unit is a little heavier than comparably priced consoles due in part to the many onboard analog I/O connectors. One of the product's versatile keys is the flex group. Each of these consists of eight groups individually configurable as mono, stereo, or VCA-style groups. The only blue button on the control surface puts the mixer into aux mode, in which the 24 input faders become aux send-level controls, instantly turning the console into a monitor mixer. Other features include the Matrix Plus, a digital patching tool. The console also interfaces with the TT control software for PC control. The TT24 retails for around $6,000.

Midas XL8

The Midas XL8 live performance system is Linux-based, and it operates somewhat like a multi-engine aircraft. Each of its five bays runs with its own power supply, surface processor, GUI processor, and display screen. The only connection between the modules is an Ethernet connection to the network. Each control surface module incorporates three input modules, one mix module, and one output module. The console allows a high degree of customization through grouping and color coding, and it is designed to accommodate multiple operators. The 96-input channel board features direct outs for recording or monitor-board interface, but it can also be put into stage-monitor mode to generate up to 48 foldback mixes. As would be expected at this product level, there are 12 VCA groups, eight population groups, and external video in and out. Also featured are a dual-trackball controller, slide-out keyboard, communications panel, and KVM switch for external PC control.

For lighter applications involving small road-PA setups, the Roland Edirol M-16DX offers a digital mixing solution in a two-module configuration consisting of the 16-channel mix controller and the I/O module. These are connected by a 23ft., 15-pin D-sub cable. In addition to 24-bit/96kHz processing, the M-16DX features three-band EQ with a graphical display for tone shaping, COSM insert effects, reverb effects, two aux sends, and a USB interface for multitrack recording. An interesting concept is the board's Room Acoustic Control, which provides automatic analysis and compensation for room acoustics. The I/O module provides four balanced mic inputs with phantom power, four TRS jack line inputs, mono and stereo inputs, and aux returns. On the rear panel of the mixer, there are DIP switches for input sensitivity adjustments. The M-16DX retails for around $700.

In a more space-conscious version of its popular touring Vi6 console, Soundcraft has introduced the Vi4 with 24 faders in two fixed bands for access to 48 inputs. These are FaderGlow controls that change the color of the fader tracks to indicate the various modes of their operation. In the graphic EQ mode, the first 30 faders change to red and become a graphic EQ. A huge range of editing and special effects is available through the Vistonics II visual interfaces, each of which controls eight input channels with 16 hardware knobs and switches along with the touchscreen. A processor card slides into the local rack to add BSS and Lexicon processing. Other cards allow interfacing with CobraNet and Aviom's A-Net protocol. The MADI interface is standard and works with the Pro Tools HD recording through a third-party converter. Ethernet cabling allows a distance of more than 260ft. from the stage box to the local rack, and a fiber-optic interface can provide even longer distance.

The object that Studer had in mind with the Vista 5 console was to take all the functionality of the larger Vista 8 and pack it into a model that can squeeze into smaller spaces. The Vista 5's operator-friendly power resides largely in the Vistonics control interface, which senses a touch next to a hardware control and immediately displays the control parameters in graphic form right next to the knob, minimizing the traditional rapid eye scanning that can lead to operator errors. Each function also has its own characteristic color, which also helps avoid confusion. Momentary/latching buttons sense the push duration and function accordingly. Ganging allows the same control to be adjusted on multiple inputs simultaneously. The color graphical display controller allows easy drag-and-drop channel assignment, snapshot management, and patch control. Additional customization is available through the optional configuration editing software, and more sophisticated functions are available including audio-follow-video, cue-sheet generation, and external equipment operation through HiQnet Venue Recall commands. Depending on the configuration, Vista 5 prices range from $120,000 to $220,000.

Tascam DM-4800

Ideal for smaller performance venues and small- to medium-sized churches, the Tascam DM-4800 provides 24 fader channels for access to 48 inputs, 12 aux sends, 24 channels of TDIF, and eight channels of ADAT, along with 24 line/mic inputs with analog effects inserts and phantom power. A cascade port allows chaining of two DM-4800s, and each input strip features four-band EQ; compression and gating; aux send control; and LED ring encoders for pan, aux sends, and EQ. Built-in DAW control interfaces with Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, and MOTU Digital Performer. The optional MU-1000 meter bridge is also available. GPI and RS-422 connections allow control of external equipment. The DM-4800 can be found for about $5,000.

For somewhat larger applications, the Wheatstone D-12 compact 5.1-surround console offers a full array of functions in a very simple and uncluttered mixing surface. Primarily marketed for television control, the mixer has found a solid niche in live FOH applications due to the fact that it can be set up using sophisticated parameters and then operated easily in a small space, with 64 inputs taking up only 50in. in width. D-12 features include talkback communication (programmable); mix follows talent; logic follows source; 12 user-programmable switches (comm, salvos, triggers, etc.); automatic failsafe DSP/CPU card options; redundant power supply option; switched meters with systemwide access; dedicated master, group, and DCM faders (no fader sharing); motorized faders; pageable fader option; dedicated LCD display per function (EQ, pan, dynamics); and I/O sharing for multiple surfaces.

With the introduction of the LS9-16 and the LS9-32 digital mixing consoles, Yamaha aimed to make the most of the features heretofore expected only on the large-venue behemoths available on a line of very light and portable digital mixers for road work and small venues. The 100mm motorized faders share the channel strips with illuminated channel on/off, switching and cueing controls, and LED channel level meters. With the rear-panel Mini-YGDAI slots, inputs are expandable up to 64 in two fully patchable layers, and there are four stereo inputs. Channels can also be “Y-split” to appear on both layers so that one layer may be used for FOH, while the other is used for monitor mixing. There is also an eight-bus matrix for additional output needs such as extra monitor mixes or for different level and EQ settings in a distributed PA system. Other handy features include a USB interface and 12 user-defined keys for custom functions. The MSRP for the LS9-16 is $5,999, and the MSRP of the LS9-32 is $10,999.

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