Tech Focus

Digital Revolution: Getting The Most From Digital Consoles

A walk through the evolution of the platform, tips for getting the most from a digital console, and more.

There’s no denying that digital mixing consoles have overtaken old school analog at all levels of the live sound industry; the recent slew of low-priced desks is completing the takeover that started at the highest levels and gradually trickled down.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the earliest digital consoles with their clunky controls, monochrome screens and audio quality which sparked into flame the raging fire that is the analog versus digital debate.

One of the very first commercially available digital mixers was the DMP7 from Yamaha, introduced in 1987 and designed as a recallable mixer for keyboard players. It was soon adopted by sound engineers and pressed into service as a live mixer.

Yamaha proceeded to plow a mostly singular furrow through the 1990s with a succession of digital consoles designed for different purposes while many of the other leading manufacturers looked on, either unwilling or unable to dip their toe into the digital arena. I can only imagine the amount of investment, in time and money, required to build a digital console from the ground up.

Now we’re in what can only be described as a golden age of digital live sound consoles, all of the leading manufacturers have models out, and many others not known for live consoles have also entered the crowded marketplace. This presents a new set of challenges to aspiring engineers.

Distinct Differences

The great thing about analog desks is that once you’ve learned to work one of them, you can pretty much work any of them.

The basic design was established in the early 1970s and has been reasonably consistent ever since, the only difference being scale. Another key feature of analog consoles is that every single function has a dedicated control, which means a quick glance across the control surface tells you everything you need to know about how many inputs and outputs it can handle as well as what degree of control you have on the signal path at every stage.

The Vistonics interface on a Soundcraft Vi Series digital console.

Digital consoles, on the other hand, are essentially powerful audio computers with custom interfaces, and it’s these interfaces that can differ dramatically from model to model as each manufacturer attempts to define the digital paradigm.

Thankfully certain commonalities of design have started to emerge and been adopted as common ways to make sense of the increasingly complex features offered by digital consoles. Most now have a screen (some of which are touch screens), single channel controls, fader banks (in layers) and some sort of master section.

However, if you’re not working at the level where you can either travel with your favorite console or at least specify which model is provided, then you need to be able to adapt on a daily basis to whatever console you are presented with. This can be quite tricky so I’ve got a few tips on how to make this process easier.

All manufacturers are keen for engineers to adopt their products so a lot of them provide some form of free training or access to their consoles.

Soundcraft, Midas, DiGiCo, Allen & Heath and SSL all provide free training in certain regions, Yamaha offers various seminars, and Avid hosts many webinars. So it’s always a good idea to check the manufacturers web sites to see if they do anything in your area. A quick search of YouTube should reveal a host of tutorials and demonstrations from companies such as PreSonus, Behringer and others.

If you can’t get near a desk you want to try out, another way to familiarize yourself with a particular console is to install the offline editing software. The software from Soundcraft, Midas, SSL, Avid, DiGiCo and Behringer all closely resembles the console itself so you can get a feel for how it works at home (even though you won’t be able to pass any audio).

The Yamaha RIVAGE PM10 provides an idea of just how far digital has come since the company introduced the DMP7 almost 30 years ago.

Yamaha is the main exception here as all of their offline editing software is based on the generic Studio Manager platform that presents a uniform interface which doesn’t resemble the individual desks (but will allow you to edit all parameters). However be aware that the vast majority of offline editing software is Windows only except for the Midas PRO series (which is Mac only) – most manufacturers suggest that Mac users utilize a Windows emulation program such as Parallels or Boot Camp.

The other great thing about offline editing software is the ability to pre-program show files. I’m a big fan of this functionality as it allows me to save precious time in the venue by configuring the console in advance, often while I’m traveling.

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