Study Hall

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Backstage Class: Strange Beasts

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

Never in all of my years of using analog consoles did I ever come across a set-up where there was enough outboard gates and compressors to have both on every single input channel.

For instance, if it was a 48-channel board, there was probably up to 12 gates and 24 compressors, and unless you wanted to start crawling about inside the back of the rack and start chaining them together, it was an either/or choice, never both.

Engineers needed to think long and hard about where gates or compressors could be most effectively deployed, then someone would have to go around to the back and plug them all in to the correct channels; patching errors were common and cable faults became just another part of the job.

Many used subgroups to deploy parallel compression because they simply didn’t have enough to put one on everything that needed to be compressed.

(On the plus side we all got a lot more exercise, not just as a result of walking from one end of the board to the other but also from every visit to the outboard rack to make fine tweaks.)

Ups And Downs

Another key difference to be prepared for is that analog inputs are all located on the desk itself – there are no convenient stage boxes at the end of a single, easily deployed network cable. The stage box multi-core needs to run to wherever the console is located, which can have an impact on where you choose to locate the board.

Also bear in mind that due to the physical restrictions, there’s a limit on the number of auxes. So, for example, it may not be possible to run all of your in-ear monitor mixes in stereo, or if doing monitors from front of house, you might have to trade off the number of monitor mixes to the number of FX sends. Plus no one ever managed to perfect the complex mechanical mechanism required to flip the mixes to the faders, so you’ll have to use the rotary knobs provided.

The simple fact that digital models have all but replaced their analog predecessors should be all the evidence needed to conclude that the digital approach is superior in every way, but that’s not entirely true. Analog boards are widely considered to be sonically superior, with the electronics imbuing the signal with a “warmth” that is pleasing to the ear. This is often the result of non-linearities and harmonic distortion introduced by the components themselves – essentially a flaw in the system that we grew to like.

In fact, many digital console makers now seek to emulate this “flaw” in the interest of sounding more “analog,” which if you think about it is ironic. Analog is also a lot more forgiving when it comes to levels; you can “gain up” a signal to 0 dB and beyond, and chances are it will just get warmer (up to a certain point, then it will outright distort).

Added Steps

Finally, there’s one key feature we now take for granted, the absence of which strikes absolute fear into the heart of digital engineers: analog boards have no inherent recall ability! (I will pause and let that sink in for a moment.) When we purchased a new analog console, it always came with a nice printed manual that included an outline drawing of a bunch of input channels. We would dutifully make photocopies of the drawing; they served as our recall sheets.

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The sheets enabled us to physically write down the state of every single knob, button and fader so that when we returned to the board after other acts had performed, we could manually restore all of the settings to those established in the sound check. There were a few high-end desks that attempted to record the state of the controls, but it was still necessary to manually re-set every single control that had changed – there were no motorized faders or knobs.

We all knew that the chances of reproducing the exact settings from the sound check were nigh on impossible, but we all participated in this charade nonetheless. And our mixes still sounded good. Some might say it was because of the forgiving nature of analog, but I believe that our approach to mixing was different back then.

We usually built the mix from scratch every day and operated the console more like a musical instrument and less like a computer; there was less scope for precision and no ability to repeat previous mixes, so we were more inclined to go with the flow and respond in real time to what was happening on stage. This is not to say that digital engineers don’t employ similar techniques, but in the precise digital realm it’s so easy to get bogged down in the details and forget that live music is a dynamic and transient thing.

I hope that this guide has been useful for those who are emerging in the world of live sound with very little knowledge or experience of operating analog consoles and related gear. Always remember that at the end of the day, analog boards do everything their digital counterparts do, often sounding better while being less convenient to operate.

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