Digital mixing consoles are now cost-competitive with analog mixers—and in some cases, more than competitive due to the increased functionality. The advantage of analog mixers has always been that all parameters you’re able to change, from levels to EQ to sends, are brought out to individual, hands-on controls. But that convenience comes at a price: the physical footprint gets bigger and bigger as you add more controls, and there are functional limits based on size and expense. For example, if every channel of a 24-channel analog mixer has 4 stages of parametric EQ, you’d have to pay for, and find panel space for, 288 controls (or use difficult-to-adjust dual controls to save space). And you also have to maintain all those controls—anyone for contact cleaner?
Digital mixers solve those problems, but they also provide some features and functionality that analog mixers will never have. Let’s look at ten important talents of digital mixers.
1. You can sell your rack of outboard hardware gear. Analog mixers have limited EQ, perhaps a compressor, and maybe some master effects. But digital mixers use digital signal processing to include complete channel strips of effects. For example, PreSonus StudioLive III mixers (like the StudioLive 32 Series III; see Fig. 1) incorporate a “Fat Channel” processor for each channel with high-pass filter, noise gate, compressor, four-band EQ, and output limiter. It’s also possible to load optional plug-ins, like different types of compressors or EQs, into the Fat Channel. (Furthermore, PreSonus includes the Fat Channel as a plug-in within their Studio One DAW, so settings can translate between stage and studio.)
Imagine how many knobs an analog mixer would need if it included this kind of signal processing on every channel. Instead, mixers like the StudioLive usually include a limited number of hardware controls for adjusting parameters; when you select a channel, those controls affect the selected channel. But maybe you won’t need to adjust the controls very much anyway, because…
2. You may be forgetful, but your mixer isn’t. With almost all digital mixers, you can save the current setup as a “scene” that you can recall at any time. This makes mixing theatrical productions, house of worship services, musical performances, seminars, panel discussions, or whatever so much easier: push a button, and the settings are exactly as you saved them. Not only can you usually save multiple scenes, but also, it’s typically possible to save settings for channel strips and sometimes even individual effects. Many manufacturers treat these types of presets as an important feature; QSC’s TouchMix-8 (Fig. 2) not only includes presets designed by professional engineers, but Wizards for anti-feedback and room tuning.
Of course, if you create a sweet preset for a vocalist using a particular mic, you can save it, name it, and recall it whenever you want—but even better, some mixers may already include a suitable preset.
3. Digital mixers satisfy your inner control freak. Many mixers have companion remote control apps for smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Imagine how cool it is to walk around a venue, mobile device in hand, and optimize the sound to work in a particular venue. Some mixers create their own network so you can hook up via wi-fi for control over long distances. There are even mixers that have no hardware control surface, only I/O, and can be controlled from an iPad—like Behringer’s XR18 (Fig. 3).
Because you control the XR18 via wi-fi, and there’s no control surface hardware, the price is very reasonable. Bonus coolness: with some apps, more than one person can control the mixer. For example, someone could be paying attention to the monitoring situation for performers onstage, while someone else takes care of the front-of-house mix.
4. Security is a beautiful thing. Another common digital mixer feature is being able to lock out the settings, or particular combinations of settings. When you need to take a break, lock down all the settings so that curious fingers can’t create any nasty surprises when your break is over.
5. Put those fat analog snakes on a digital diet. It’s great to have all your inputs on stage, maybe in a stagebox rack unit, and run them back to your mixer through a snake. But an analog snake is bulky, expensive, sometimes unreliable, and picks up noise and hum. A digital snake typically uses a svelte Ethernet cable that’s better in every respect, and ignores interference. There are even bundles to get you started, like the Allen & Heath Qu-24C Starter Pack (Fig. 4).
This particular starter pack includes the Qu-24C 24-channel digital mixer and the AR2412 remote audio rack, which has 24 XLR ins and 12 XLRs out. Connecting it to the Qu mixer with a single CAT5 cable allows positioning the AR2412 I/O up to 120 meters away from the mixer. Try that with an analog snake. On second thought…don’t.
6. Or, just get rid of the snake altogether. Remember how Indiana Jones hated snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Well if you hate snakes too, simply tuck away your rack-mount mixer electronics on stage, and control it remotely with an app—as you do with Soundcraft’s Ui24R (Fig. 5).
This 24-channel rackmount digital mixer, with an integral wi-fi router, allows for control from iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS, and Linux browsers. If you get nostalgic about snakes, though, you can also control the UI24R from up to ten devices over Ethernet—and this mixer even does multitrack recording.
7. Less can definitely be more. For units of approximately the same size and footprint, compared to an analog mixer, a digital mixer will offer more effects, more functionality, and maybe even weigh less. The compact nature of sophisticated digital mixers, especially units like Yamaha’s TF1 (Fig. 6), is a big deal for many applications.
The TF1 packs 17 motorized faders, 16 XLR-1/4” combo inputs (expandable to 40 inputs total), 20 aux buses, 1-knob compression, EQ, and a touchscreen (the “TF” stands for TouchFlow) into an under-30-pound package that’s 20.1″W x 23.6″D x 8.9″H.
8. Native multitrack recording. More and more digital mixer companies figure that hey, if the audio is already digital, why not capture it with a built-in digital recorder? The Midas M32 Live 32-channel mixer (Fig. 7) is a good example of this approach.
For recording and capturing live performances, the Midas M32 Live offers 32 bi-directional channels of live recording/playback on dual SD/SDHC cards, with up to 3 hours of 32-channel, uncompressed WAV file recording in one session.
9. Dante or AVB compatibility. Sometimes you need to run audio over long distances, like in a hotel, airport, megachurch, stadium, or other large venue. Dante and AVB to the rescue: they let you run scads of digital audio over inexpensive Ethernet networks. For more information about Dante, check out the article What is Dante Audio Networking? A Basic Overview.
10. Easier training. This is arguable, because it depends on complexity—a simple analog mixer will be easier to learn than a complex digital one. Regardless, there are several reasons why digital can be better.
- Digital mixers typically have a less “cluttered” layout than analog mixers, which makes them less intimidating.
- Younger engineers are familiar with computers, menu structures, and virtual devices. They can feel right at home with a digital mixer, whereas they may not have much context for a complex analog mixer.
- People can learn a section at a time. Mixers with presets let you store settings for future recall, so it’s easy to have a default setting where users can experiment as much as they want, yet always end up back at “square one” if needed.
Overall, unless you have very simple needs and a very constrained budget, you’ll often be ahead of the game with a digital mixer. And for large-format mixers, digital offers so many advantages it’s become the leading contender for mixers, whether for studio or stage.
Bear in mind that many digital mixers have some, or even most, of the features mentioned above—each mixer description touches on only some selected highlights. And the universe of digital mixers is way too big to cover in a single article! For more information about which product will best fit your particular needs, call your Full Compass sales guide for expert advice—we’ve been helping people choose mixers for over 40 years.