Study Hall

Backstage Class: Strange Beasts

The "ancient art" of analog gear and ways that mixing has changed in the digital age.

As we bask in the all-enveloping glory of the digital age, it’s come to my attention that some intrepid live sound engineers are very occasionally coming across analog equipment as they travel to some of the dustier corners of the globe.

While many of us are old enough to remember these beasts, not everyone has had the opportunity to operate these relics so I thought it might be a good idea to write a guide to the “ancient art” of analog mixing.

The first thing you’ll notice when approaching an analog console is that it’s much larger than an equivalent-featured digital desk. There are also many more knobs and faders, which can be a bit daunting at first but you soon see that there’s a lot of repetition within the controls, especially when it comes to input channels.

Rather than a sensible set of single-channel controls that can be used to address any of the inputs, each individual channel has it’s own complete set of controls.

This may seem wasteful and excessive, but back in the days before digital sampling it was universally agreed upon as the “best” control interface.

What it means is that there’s no longer a select button, so rather than selecting the channel to work on and then using the single-channel controls, simply select the individual channel controls of the channel you want to operate on. It may be confusing at first but is reasonably logical and easy enough to get used to.

An obvious consequence of the unnecessarily detailed control interface is a limit to the number of available input and output channels, not to mention that the configuration is fixed. The only way to alter the number of input and output channels is to disassemble the console itself, which is not something that can be done in the heat of a live show! On the other hand, however, it’s easy to see how many input and output channels are available just by looking at the control surface (which are also conveniently numbered so you don’t have to count them).

As a matter of fact, a good deal can be learned from just looking at the vast array of knobs and buttons – there’s no need to be concerned with software, menus, screens or layers because everything is right there. Every individual function has a control so a quick glance tells everything you need to know about all of it’s capabilities. It provides the engineer with the unique ability to “see” the entire mix simply by glancing across the control surface, plus the abundance of controls enables you to quite easily manipulate the same parameter on two different channels at the same time.

Extra Components

The layout is also reasonably uniform from desk to desk. Virtually all analog boards conform to a basic design of a bank of input channels and a master section (which can be to one side or somewhere in the middle of the input channels). The master section contains sub groups, VCAs, output channel controls (auxes, matrix and masters), master meters, and anything else that isn’t an input channel. This standard design means that once you master an analog console, you can easily switch to another; the design is similar, it’s just the scale that changes.

But where are the gates, comps and effects? Well, back in the analog days when you bought a mixing console, that’s what you got – preamps, channel EQ, bus routing, fader controls… and that was it. Expensive luxuries such as graphic EQs, gates, compressors and effects had to be purchased separately (which of course meant housing and shipping them separately).

And so we arrive at the wonderful world of outboard, this being the name given to any audio hardware that exists outside the mixing board. (Clever how the term was devised, no?). These devices were housed in towering racks that taxed the backs of many a roadie. Even if you’ve never seen an actual outboard rack you probably already have an idea what they look like because a lot of digital console manufacturers lovingly pay homage to these past artifacts by mimicking the look of them in their software emulations, right down to the screw holes used to mount them. (Next time you fire up a Yamaha or Midas digital console, have a look at the effects and you’ll see what I mean).

Spare a thought for the analog pioneers of old; if they wanted a graphic EQ or a reverb they couldn’t just thumb through a menu and activate a chunk of code that does the job. Instead they’d have to buy/add single-function piece of gear, mount it in a rack, and then physically wire it all in – every single time they wanted to use it. Much more thought was given to what outboard was needed, and the cost would more directly influence just how much could be deployed at any given time.

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