Imagine being about 10 years old, standing outside a candy shop. A kind looking old man in a red apron ushers you inside, and you marvel at endless rows of shelves stacked high with sugary treats of every type. “Go on,” says the owner. “Pick out whatever you want.”
If you can envision this, you have a good idea of how I felt when I was asked to describe my version of the ideal mixing console for this article. Truth is, I’m picky. I’ve mixed on almost every desk under the sun, and I always come away with strong opinions about what works for me and what doesn’t.
Obviously this is extremely personal and depends not only on the nature and scale of the gig, but also the engineer’s preferences. Despite debates to the contrary, there’s no such thing as the best console. There’s only the best console for you. The consoles on the top of your preferred list might be on the bottom of mine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why there’s such a wide selection of consoles on the market. In the words of virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten, “Gear is like clothing. Use what’s comfortable.”
There is no desk on the market that does everything I’d like a desk to do, but some come much closer than others. What follows is one engineer’s attempt to ignore the bounds of reality and R&D budgets. If the audio genie offered me one perfect console, this is what I’d ask for.
Sounds Good To Me
I can usually be counted on to shirk convention so I won’t disappoint here: to me, the ultimate console has nothing to do with sound quality. Gear that sounds inferior is by definition not professional gear. Now, there’s a lot of back and forth about the sound of this desk or that desk, but we’re forced to admit that modern professional gear sounds incredible these days. I believe strongly that any perceived differences between models are much, much smaller than most would think. If you can identify the console manufacturer just by listening to a mix, I’ll buy you lunch.
But O.K. – maybe you have golden ears and can hear these types of things. Fine. My question: have you ever missed a cue or pick-up because you were fader hunting? Ever accidentally EQ the wrong channel or mess up a monitor mix because you forgot you were in Sends On Fader mode? I have!
The audience has never, ever complained to me, or any engineer I know, about the sound of a preamp (they don’t even know what preamps are, most likely.) But bring up the wrong microphone and you can bet they’ll notice. Ditto for a messed-up monitor mix.
I’m far more concerned about getting to the right faders and controls quickly and simply do what I need to do, because those kinds of mistakes will have a far more immediate, noticeable, and negative impact on the sound of the show. You can’t EQ your way around a missed cue.
My most important consideration, therefore, is how the console lets me work and how fast I can react to changing mix conditions. If I’m banking through a thousand layers or digging around in menus, I’m not watching the artist. In this sense, the ideal console is one that doesn’t get in my way. It’s all about the interface.
Color My World
My number one criterion for console choice is how it presents my input faders and how I can work with them. My workflow centers on color coding and clear, concise labeling. Recognizing color is faster than parsing text, so I use colors to identify groups of inputs (blue equals drums, green equals guitars, etc.) and employ shorthand naming for individual inputs. This approach allows me to navigate the desk at a near-reflexive speed.
I love scribbles strips. They’re great. My ultimate console has large, clear, high-quality scribbles with adjustable brightness and contrast to accommodate standing, sitting, direct sunlight, and dark theaters. I’m aware of at least three manufacturers that offer a list of preset channel names to choose from for faster set up, but I need to be able to populate the input list with my own entries – and to use special characters (i.e., <$^>).
Color is critical for me. I won’t buy a console that can’t color code. I’d like a good selection of colors to choose from, plus black. I black out the scribbles for inputs I’m not currently dealing with. In theater this changes scene by scene, so I need a dedicated recall parameter for scribble strip text and color.
All The Right Moves
Also crucial for me is the fader navigation workflow. A Custom Fader Layer or User Layer is only useful if it can accommodate multiple instances of a channel (for example, to ensure that the “money channel” is always on the surface) and if I can recall the custom layouts per snapshot. For festivals and theater, I build scenes that include only the relevant inputs.
My dream console wouldn’t even bother with banking or layers at all, but instead use a navigation system based on groups and colors, constantly pulling the desired channels to the surface. If you’ve mixed on a Midas PRO Series desk this is familiar. When selecting a VCA group, the member channels spill onto the input faders – some manufacturers call this VCA Spill or Group Spill.
But sometimes I want to work with a group of channels that don’t inhabit the same VCA; for example, let’s say I want to see the frontman’s guitar input, vocal mic, and reverb return. A “POP Group” or “Spill Set” lets me recall these channels to the surface with the touch of a button. Now I can create a spill button (with colorable scribble, please!) for each band member; for com channels, talkbacks and oscillators; to deploy inputs for an acoustic set, etc. I don’t want to have to pull up a menu to configure these groups because I’ll assemble them as I go.
What seems to work well is the system many desks use for VCA membership – hold down the group select button and tap the desired channel select buttons. Bam! Done in seconds. With apologies to Emeril, I’m trying to avoid “Here’s one I’ve prepared earlier!” Sometimes there’s no chance to pre-program.
Now I’m shooting around the console with having without having to worry about layers or banks. Let’s make sure we have a full LED ladder signal meter on each channel – not just a clip indicator – and if there’s an LED for gate or compressor activity, make it blue, not red, so it doesn’t look like something’s clipping in the corner of my eye.
Master & Commander
I mix to a three-bus system – left, right, sub – so the ideal console has a full-featured mono bus, which I can mix inputs to at any level, not a group-style in-or-out, and certainly not just a sum of the main stereo bus. The main large-format ladder meters should show all three, so I know what my subs are doing
Although I absolutely need dedicated master faders, I’m not adjusting them during normal operations, so give me the option to use those three faders as an area B for the VCA and POP and Spill set groups, so I can always have my money channels close at hand.
Is This Thing On?
Most live desks use illuminated Mute switches, but some use illuminated On switches instead. This creates a disconnect (no pun intended) in terms of visual feedback of the console state, and can cause a moment of confusion.
Lit – On makes sense when most of the inputs are off at a given time (broadcast, radio, etc.) but Lit – Mute makes sense when most inputs are usually open (big rock concerts), so why not make this a user preference? Put a dual-color red/green LED in each switch and let me choose via software if they’re Ons or Mutes.