February 06, 2013, by Gary Zandstra
With the plethora of new (and affordable) digital mixers on the market, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with features, options and pricing.
So how do you determine the right board for your situation? I use the same criteria as purchasing an analog console with just a few additional twists.
When purchasing an analog console, there are five primary aspects that I suggest looking at. (Well, six if you include price.)
1) Quality. I’m a big fan of “touching and feeling” a console. Being a tactile person, the overall construction quality can be useful in terms of determining reliability and lifespan. I’m also a big fan of listening before purchase. Some of the apparently well-built consoles have sounded just as rugged as they look! Touch and listen carefully.
2) Reputation. With the internet, it’s pretty easy to find out about a company’s reputation, which is a good way to start further informing your decision. I also rely heavily on the peer network I’ve developed over the years—the opinion of my colleagues matters greatly to me. If you’re newer to the craft, tap into some seasoned veterans via product reviews and by posting questions for the community on the PSW Church Sound Forum.
3) I/O. How many inputs and outputs do you need today? And how many do you anticipate needing in the future? My rule is to add at least 25 percent more to what you are currently using. For example, say you’re currently using 15 inputs and 4 aux/monitors. Look at the next step up from a 16-channel board, which is most likely a 24-channel board with at least 6 aux/monitors. A word of caution: not all manufacturers count channels the same way. My own methodology is to count the number of channels with preamps and consider that the total.
4) Busing. This ties closely with I/O when talking about the number of aux sends available. There should also be focus on what other outputs a console offers (i.e., matrix, control room), and what type of routing is available. Are there sub groups? Can I use an insert on a sub group? And so on…
5) EQ. How robust is the EQ section? Are there sweepable EQs? Is there a Q knob? Is there high-pass filtering? Also, listen to the EQ when making changes: does it sound responsive? Does it seem to overly color the sound?
I/O configuration. Digital consoles usually offer a digital snake and more I/O than analog models. The challenge is to figure out, physically, where you need the I/O. Does the console itself have limited I/O? Will you need to add a local input rack? How does the digital snake connect to the console? What configuration do the stage boxes come in, and where do you need to place them?
iPad/remote mixing integration. The majority of digital consoles now offer iPad remote mixing integration. This is an incredible tool! However, look carefully at how it integrates, taking into consideration things like the need to add a host computer or a router. This will increase cost and complexity.
I also wouldn’t get overly hung up on the actual app (unless you’re going to mix exclusively from an iPad). There are many scenarios where the iPad option is really helpful, such as walking around the room and checking the mix, as well as setting monitors while standing on stage.
But I don’t see many scenarios with a live band where I’d want to do the entire mix on an iPad because there’s just not enough surface area to feel comfortable (at least for me). That said, I’ve been mixing exclusively on consoles for decades, and with that experience comes the comfort factor of doing what you know.
Personal monitoring options. With the popularity of personal monitor mixing, it’s a good idea to find out options offered by digital console manufacturers, and also, to look at integrating third-party solutions such as Aviom.
Some console makers have chosen to use their own proprietary digital bus, so be aware that your existing personal monitoring system might not interface with your new digital console in a very elegant way. And if you don’t have a personal monitoring system, it’s still a good idea to understand future options.
Storage/recall/presets. Evaluate how the presets/snapshots work. Are they global, or can you recall individual channel settings separate from a global preset? There are several options of how this is done.
A friend who is new to the world of mixing purchased a board that gave him suggested settings for different types of inputs. He starts by simply recalling (per channel) the suggested setting for a particular instrument or vocalist. He loves this feature because it gives him a great starting point.
Recording. What type of recording software is available? Can you record multi-track? Is there a USB option that allows recording stereo right to a USB drive?
Onboard effects. I suggest not only evaluating the available effects, but also the EQ and dynamics sections (compression/gate) sections. Find out exactly how many things can be used at the same time. Some boards have limited processing.
Best wishes on selecting your new digital mixing console—mixing has never been more fun and never have so many tools been available in a console that most can afford.
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator with Parkway Electric and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 25 years.