Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Bruce Borgerson
A rarity only a few years ago, digital consoles are gathering momentum across a wide range of installed sound applications, and the change is easy to see. People have long been accustomed to installations featuring a console with dozens (if not hundreds) of knobs and switches, usually flanked by racks with various and sundry signal-processing boxes. Now similar installations show a much smaller console with a fraction of the user controls, accompanied by only a few external processing units — if any.
Digital consoles look more elegant than analog units and offer a variety of functional advantages, as well:
Automated recall capability
Digital consoles remember what you do with them. All have “snapshot” memory of static settings, and most have dynamic automation that recalls fader moves and other dynamic changes as a programmed scene progresses through time.
Flexible I/O, grouping, and matrixing
Most digital consoles can be reconfigured internally, so the same hardware inputs and outputs can be assigned to different functions depending on the needs at hand.
Remote stage boxes and digital “snakes.”
Many upper-end consoles allow the I/O boxes and the digital mixing engine to be placed apart from the console control surface. This eliminates many grounding headaches, reduces noise, gets rid of bulky multicore snakes, and usually cuts installation costs.
Integrated signal processing
With rare exceptions, digital consoles offer integrated digital signal processing (DSP) for dynamics (compression, gating, and so on), parametric equalization, input effects and output EQ, and delays.
External control interfaces
Again with rare exceptions, digital consoles allow a great degree of control (normally using MIDI protocols) of external devices or control of the console itself by an external computer.
With so many obvious advantages, why aren't digital consoles already dominant across the entire marketplace? The truth is that analog consoles still have the edge in some respects, though their digital counterparts are gaining ground in every instance.
For good or ill, analog consoles at the low end have become a throwaway commodity. If you need a lot of channels with basic functions and you're not extremely picky about performance, you still get more for less with analog.
Here I must distinguish between reliability questions and reliability problems. Actual problems have been few, but years of digital doubts (reinforced perhaps by Windows crashes) have engendered a wait-and-see attitude. Today, after a few years of commendable reliability, the issue is fading away.
A new paradigm for operators
This is the last sticking point. Most contractors I've talked to are ready to use digital consoles more widely. But they're not sure all their customers are ready, particularly in school and church installations, which rely on multiple and minimally trained operators.
The problem boils down to an essential difference between analog and digital consoles: with analog boards, what you see is what you get, and with digital boards, you usually get more than what you see. Much of what's going on with a digital mixer is hidden, and sometimes functions must be accessed through menus. Console makers are addressing this problem to some extent, but merely adding redundant controls to mimic an analog setup adds to costs and can defeat the advantages enjoyed by experienced operators.
In the long run, it's largely a matter of training and, even more so, cultural evolution. As more computer-savvy kids move into the ranks of operators, the necessity of dealing with digital technology will be a foregone conclusion. To them facing redundant rows of potentiometers will be confusing.
Before proceeding further, I should establish a working definition of what exactly I mean by digital console. For the purposes of this article, a digital console is an integrated hardware system (albeit with software components) that performs all audio mixing, matrixing, and signal-processing functions internally and entirely in the digital domain. This leaves out digitally controlled analog consoles (an increasingly rare hybrid) and mixerlike interfaces for controlling separate digital audio workstations (DAWs).
Also, this article will focus on digital mixers for live applications (performances, events, and meetings) as opposed to recording. Therein lies a problem. With some digital consoles, the answer to the question, “Is it for live sound or for recording?” is “Which would you prefer?” In this article, I will focus primarily on consoles with standard feature sets, supplemented by available options that make them suitable for a wide range of live sound applications.
Finally, the consoles will be grouped in broad price categories rather than by manufacturer. This should prove useful to most readers because of the great disparities in price, performance, and feature sets between entry-level consoles and those designed exclusively for high-end applications.
One final note: digital consoles are, by their very nature, complex beasts. In this general overview, brevity is obligatory and, thus, many details must be omitted.
LESS THAN $5,000
Though priced competitively in comparison to their fully professional (“nonthrowaway”) analog counterparts, all these entry-level products offer the basic advantages of digital technology, including snapshot recall of settings, integrated dynamics control and effects, and four bands of parametric EQ on all channels.
Priced at less than $1,500, the Allen and Heath DL-1000 stands out as the most affordable entry into the marketplace and the easiest to use. Intended for basic applications in schools, smaller churches, and commercial A/V, the 2-bus DL-1000 offers six mono mic/line inputs and two channels for either mono or stereo inputs. Various parameters can be stored as “song memories,” with a sequence of song memories programmable as a set for instant recall during a production. Five output pairs are offered, as well as a dedicated mono output, with various assignment options for the main AB outputs, each equipped with a 10-band graphic EQ.
Next up the price ladder, though not terribly far, is the Yamaha 01V96. As with most Yamaha mixers, this is a dual-personality product with extensive recording features (integrated DAW control, surround panning, ADAT optical interface) that wouldn't be used in most installed applications. On the other hand, these are practically freebies, because a wealth of other features is crammed into this rackmountable unit. For starters, you get 24-bit/96 kHz performance, as well as full static and dynamic (moving fader) automation, as many as 40 mixing channels (in layers) with flexible assignment to as many as 20 buses. Twelve analog inputs are standard, but you can easily add more using Yamaha's plug-in expansion cards. Two internal effects processors are available at full 24/96 resolution and up to four at lower resolution.
Soundcraft's Spirit 324 is a solid entry at the top end of this price bracket. The 324 design starts out strong with 16 analog mic/line inputs, digital and analog stereo inputs, as well as 16 tape returns on T/DIF digital connector (as many as 16 more analog inputs are available by connection of optional rackmount interface units). On the output side, it offers four aux outs, four matrix outputs, and two freely assignable floating outputs. The user interface features a nifty horizontal “e-strip” of rotary controls that can work in two ways: they can be all the controls for one selected channel, or they can control a single function (for example, aux 4 send) for all 16 channels on the currently active fader bank (the banks are in four layers: analog, digital or connected optional interfaces, master buses, and MIDI controller levels). Internal effects are borrowed from Lexicon, Soundcraft's sibling company, and dynamics functions can be configured as gates, compressors, limiters, or combinations thereof. Snapshot automation and signal monitoring are tailored to the needs of live sound, including peak LEDs for the input channels in the nonactive fader bank.
VERSATILITY: $5,000 TO $20,000
Here is a region that is neither fish nor fowl, because the consoles in this category, all from Yamaha, are generic production mixers with a wide range of live and recording applications. Consequently, features like surround monitoring and DAW control are included as standard, whether you need them are not. Also, all three of these consoles offer Yamaha's newest 24-bit/96 kHz audio performance, extensive integrated effects processing, and a wide range of add-on I/O options.
Note that after professional setup, these mixing consoles could be used by nonprofessional volunteers in day-to-day operation, but a bit of training would be necessary, along with strict instructions on what not to touch.
At the top end of the price range is the DM-2000, an amazingly versatile all-around production tool. It offers 96 inputs accessible in 4 layers. The base version includes 24 high-performance analog inputs, with additional analog inputs and digital inputs (in several formats) available through expansion modules. Other features of interest to the live/installed market include sophisticated scene memory and dynamic automation using touch-sensitive faders, extensive digital patching capabilities (30 buses assignable to any available output connector), a stand-up meter bridge with 48 assignable LED meters, SmartMedia memory card data storage, six graphic equalizers assignable to any of eight buses, and extensive matrixing capabilities.
Hovering just above the bottom end of the price break is a brand-new downsized sibling, Yamaha's rackmountable DM-1000. It's a chip off the old block or, more accurately, a chip off the old chips, because it shares the same internal processing structures and functions as its older sibling. Much here is the same, only there's a bit less of it, though not much less. The DM-1000 still offers 48 channels of mixing, with 20 analog inputs (16 with mic preamps), 8 freely patchable aux buses, 2 I/O expansion slots, and 16 meters on the meter bridge.
Smack-dab in the middle of the price range is the O2R96, a fully reworked version of a veteran console. This version upgrades all the DSP chips to 24/96 operation and also imports many of the software features of the DM-2000/1000 — albeit most are for recording and post-production applications. For live production purposes, the O2R96 offers 56 channels of mixing in 3 layers, with the base model including 16 analog mic/line inputs with 32 more available through the 4 expansion slots. The extensive scene memory and snapshot automation features closely match those of the DM-series consoles.
BIG TIME: $20,000 TO $150,000
This category brings a marked change in utility, mixing architectures, and targeted applications. The consoles in this group are designed specifically for upper-end live sound applications. Here rather than stacking fader banks three or four deep, the most you would do is move down to a second layer to access as many as 96 input channels. Also, these boards have facilities (standard or optional) for placing some or all of the analog inputs in a stage box, with only digital signals going to and from the console mixing surface. In addition, the LED/LCDs are much, much bigger.
The French company Digigram was the first to enter this market segment and essentially dominated it for the first few years with its InnovaSon line, now distributed in the United States by Sennheiser. All InnovaSon consoles incorporate extensive dynamics processing, EQ, and output delays but eschew internal reverb processors (at this level, most front-of-house [FOH] engineers carry their own favorites anyway). Also, rather than layering the fader banks three or four deep, InnovaSon chose to keep them all on the same level. That accommodates familiar practices such as labeling of each input (by traditional pen or included LED display) but also allows for sophisticated digital patching — each fader can be freely assigned to any input and, with the latest software, to virtually any function. All InnovaSon consoles employ a highly modular architecture, with multiple input/output options. This construction strategy offers an easy upgrade path for both hardware (DSP engine included) and software components.
InnovaSon's Compact Sy40 and Sy80 are the latest generation of mixers to implement this laudable approach. Housed in a chassis built for the rigors of the road, the Sy40 supports 40 input channels using analog or digital input modules, which may be located in the console frame or in the remote stage box. Connection between console and stage box is through lightweight coaxial cables. The stage box allows expansion to 72 inputs and 48 outputs. The Sy40 also offers 27 mix buses and flexible output assignments with available parametric EQ, dynamics, and delay.
The brand-new Sy80 ups the ante by offering 80 inputs, 80 outputs, and 48 mix buses, all in a chassis that weighs in at 176 pounds. The new Sensoft 8 software allows any fader or group of faders to serve any function. Rather than layering, InnovaSon offers what it calls “development” or “deployment” by flexibly reconfiguring for specific applications. The Sy80 package also offers the option of a fiber-optic connection between the stage box and console.
InnovaSon's familiar Essential Live and Grand Live remain in the line, as well — at least for the time being. The Essential Live offers 48 to 56 inputs and 24 outputs. The Grand Live is designed for larger events, with 72 inputs, and includes the stage box as standard.
Topping out this category, though comfortably under the limit in most common configurations, is Yamaha's flagship PM-1D. As the “PM” designation confirms, this is no hybrid production mixer: it's strictly for doing live and doing it at a high level of sophistication.
To begin with, the PM-1D takes basic hardware architecture one step further. In this case, system inputs and outputs and the core DSP mixing engine are all located in a rack that is normally placed near the performance area. The “console” itself is essentially a control and display unit; the only audio signals that go back and forth are for local FOH monitoring and any equipment in the FOH rack, which, considering the wealth of onboard processing options, are normally not large in number. That means that even if the control surface were to become totally disconnected or lose power, the audio would continue uninterrupted and unchanged until control is restored.
All PM-1D systems comprise a rack and control surface, but a number of options are available in the basic 48- and 96-channel versions. When expanded to the limit (with a second DSP engine), the PM-1D can offer 384 inputs, 192 mixing channels, and 96 mix buses. The list of standard features is lengthy, but it includes 24 output matrices; 8 multi-effects processors; 24, 31-band graphic EQs; “virtual” input channel for programming; offline data storage; and a big display with VGA output for an even bigger one.
Compared with an analog board with comparable features, the PM-1D is a bit more difficult to learn. But once mastered, the power and flexibility are far greater. Users I've talked to say that after getting the hang of it, they never want to go back.
Although these consoles could find a home in the most sophisticated performance hall installation, they are really designed for top-level concert tours. If you're not prepared to bid on the next Rolling Stones tour, you're probably not ready for them. But take a quick peek anyway.
The D5 Live from DigiCo is the buzz of the touring sound industry and for good reason. The four touch screens (showing analog-style strips), big knobs, and simple layout make it easy to learn and easy to fly by the seat of your pants at crunch time. Audio is pristine, with 96 kHz sampling-rate conversion and 32-bit floating point internal processing. Naturally, all the EQ and processing functions are top of the line, and the mix architecture accommodates 24 VCA-style control groups. Surround mixing, monitor modes, and direct recording are fully supported, as well.
A last giant step up brings me to the Harrison by GLW LPC-D. This console was developed in partnership with Showco, a leading tour sound provider, and it simply pulls out all the stops. The LPC-D offers Harrison's powerful, proprietary IKIS event-based automation for instant recall and reset of every function of as many as 10,000 console setups. The powerful 40-bit SHARC-based mix engine can handle 768 channels per core unit, and each input offers three mic inputs and one line input. All other features fall in line at this level, and if you want one for your upcoming Stones tour, be prepared to shell out around a quarter million.
The following consoles were designed principally for recording and, unlike the dual-use models mentioned previously, offer few if any options to make them more adaptable for live sound use. Nevertheless, they could be pressed into duty for applications where multichannel recording is necessary and the P.A. functions largely as a big studio monitoring system.
Behringer's DDX32-16, listing around $1,800, packs a lot into a small footprint, with 32 channels in two layers, 12 mic inputs, 16 internal buses, 8 aux sends, and 4 onboard effects processors.
Mackie's D8B is a proven performer, now with enhanced software functions, expanded metering views, and some nice new EQ and dynamics algorithms. At around $7,000, it's known as a studio champ, but I've seen it in at least one theater installation.
Soundcraft's 328XD is a kissin' cousin to the 324 Live and, for a few hundred bucks more, offers upgraded audio chips and a bevy of recording-oriented features. Despite the studio slant, I recently spotted one backstage in the monitor rig for a veteran '60s rocker on tour — albeit with only a five-piece band.
Tascam's DM-24, at about $3,000, falls into this category, as well, although again you're paying mostly for sophisticated recording features. That's probably somewhat less true of Roland's VM-7100 and VM-7200 mixers, which can be expanded up to 92 channels with add-on rack modules. These compact units are still available from some retailers, though Roland appears to be moving in the direction of integrated mixing-recording systems as befits its primary market.
UP HIGH AND ON THE EDGE
Two more high-end systems lurk on the periphery. First, Level Control Systems offers the extremely sophisticated but highly specialized CueConsole line. CueConsoles are highly modular systems that can be expanded to 200 inputs and 512 outputs and are designed primarily for complex theatrical, special event, and theme park systems.
Then there's the MTP+, a highly regarded digital production console from England's Solid State Logic — a pricey board found primarily in world-class television post-production facilities and remote audio/video remote trucks. But Céline Dion's mixing engineer decided that the MTP+ would be ideal for FOH mixing in the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Dion's new home for a three-year run. (See S&VC's May 2003 issue for a complete story about the Colosseum installation.) Technically, yes, this is an installed sound application. Practically, however, the whole Céline Dion production is likely to occupy a class by itself for quite some time.
Bruce Borgerson — principal of Wavelength Communications in Ashland, Oregon — is a technical writer, consultant, and weekend FOH mixer.
For More Information
Allen and Heath
Harrison by GLW
Level Control Systems
Solid State Logic
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