Back in the analog (only) days, hooking up to a console was a rather simple process. Stage inputs ran through a copper wire snake that plugged into the front of house console’s inputs. Console outputs were run back to the stage through the same snake line’s returns or they ran through a separate “drive” snake that sent the line level output signals to the amp racks.
If you needed to insert a processor to a channel or group, you simply grabbed a TRS to dual 1/4-inch cable and hooked up the unit to a console’s insert jack. If you wanted to use a board microphone or an audio playback deck, you simply reached around the back of the console, parted the rat’s nest of cables and found an unused input to plug in to. Even if the system used multi-pin connectors, setting up and patching FOH took a bit of time as everything was point-to-point.
Another challenging aspect was patching the stage on shows that had multiple bands. Most of us old sound folks paid our dues playing “patch monkey” on shows that required us to swap out stage snakes and stage lines into the main snake head, while trying to get every signal into the correct snake channel. Trying to do it all in the short turnover times the promoters wanted is why many of us became grumpy old sound folks.
While it was – and still is – relatively simple to interface analog gear, digital consoles have been a boon. Many digital consoles have a way to connect to a digital snake system, saving our backs from having to deal with heavy multicore copper cables.
Another obvious benefit is the need for far less FOH racks, as well as not needing to patch all of that outboard gear into to the console. With built-in processing, digital consoles have lightened our trucks and shrunk the area required for the mix and control position, allowing promoters to sell more seats.
From a connection standpoint, the biggest caveat (at least to me) is that many digital consoles allow patching and routing of signals directly in the software. No more reaching into a pile of cable spaghetti to find an open jack while also trying to to accidentally unplug something. With many digital boards, you can open a set-up/patch menu and assign inputs and outputs to wherever you need. Routing effects, processing and audio mixes has never been easier.
Another great feature is the ability of many digital systems to record either directly to a USB connected drive, to a DAW, or to a stand-alone multi-track deck. Being able to archive shows and do “virtual” sound checks (where you play back feeds directly recorded from the band and use these signals to help set up and tune the PA at the next gig before the band shows up) has been a real blessing to many who work behind a console.
Connectivity is what it’s all about, and today’s digital consoles have really hit the mark with their routing, patching and interfacing effectiveness.
All of these features and benefits are not just limited to large digital boards – many compact models also offer quite extensive interface and routing capabilities, so let’s have a look via this Photo Gallery Tour, taking stock of the connections that are onboard as well as expansion capabilities they have in terms of inputs and outputs.
And because many of these models only hit the market recently, we’ll also provide some additional details on their overall facilities.
Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and is the owner of Tech Works, a production company based in Las Vegas.