Mixers – Analogue or Digital?
One of the main differences between analogue and digital audio mixing consoles is the cost, digital being in general more expensive. In defence of the digital mixer, it often offers you many additional features such as compressors, gates, graphics and fx etc, on every individual channel. If you take these features into consideration, then the cost compared to an analogue mixer with racks full of external processing equipment, becomes much more balanced. So weigh up your options carefully and decide what’s right for you.
Ease of Use:
Analogue mixers are generally much easier to operate for the novice as well as an experienced professional sound engineer. With analogue, each channel strip from the audio input connector to the channel fader has it’s own controls for the likes of Eq, Sends and Channel Routing etc. These controls only operate on that individual channel. This means anyone who has half an idea of what a mixer looks like can usually operate any analogue mixer within a matter of minutes, however many channels it has, and even if he/she has never worked on that make of mixer in the past.
Digital mixers on the other hand are often a scary place to go, even for the more experienced sound engineer, as they are often very different from one to the next. You can for example often assign the input routing channels to different channel faders, which at first is very scary when you push up the fader for channel 1 and the microphone from say channel 4 input is heard from the sound system. They often have multifunction buttons and faders etc, which can be very confusing to the novice digital user. Having said that, once you learn how to use all the features, you are well away, and already wondering why you didn’t go digital years ago and get rid of all those racks of processing you had to hump around with your old analogue mixer. Remember though, it can take you days or even weeks to get your head fully around just one particular digital mixer, which can mean you have to spend even more precious time learning how to operate another manufacturers digital mixer from scratch.
A lot of the digital mixer manufacturers are now addressing the serious complexity issue of their mixers, as it is a major problem for hire companies who employ a lot of freelance sound engineers, who as stated above can run any analogue mixer in a matter of minutes, whereas with a digital mixer the sound engineer will often call you and ask ‘how do you fly this thing’ and that is not something we in the trade often have the time to deal with, as we are always on very tight schedules. Look out for some of the very latest digital mixers, as they are becoming much more user friendly.
Quality of Sound:
Sound quality is also a big talking point in the analogue v digital mixer debate. At the high end of the market digital has just about cracked it, and can now easily match a high end analogue mixer in terms of quality of sound. However at the lower end of the market, especially the sub £5k RRP region, you may often find analogue still wins hands down. It’s fine being able to store all your settings on a memory stick enabling you to reload straight into your digital mixer, and have several racks worth of processing taken care of, digitally processed inside your mixer, but if the sound quality is rubbish, it is defeating the object is it not?
You don’t get a great sounding mixer and great sounding processing for nothing, so give this some serious thought before you go digital, should that be your preferred choice. Once you’ve bought a digital mixer along with all it’s internal compressors, gates, graphics and fx etc and you then decide you don’t like the way some of these features sound, then unlike the analogue equivalents you are stuck with it.
There is another very important factor which is very often completely overlooked, which is the thorny issue of repairs, should your mixer ever require servicing. It is very likely an analogue mixer manufactured some 25 years ago can still be repaired, as the components used in it’s manufacture back then are still readily available today. As for digital, we have heard of mixers less than five years old from some well known manufacturers that have required repair, only for the owner to be told, parts are no longer in production and there are no spares available anywhere to action the necessary repair, and should you try to phone the manufacturer or distributor to ask why there is no way to repair a relatively recent product that cost you a lot of money to purchase in the first place, you are very likely to find no one available for comment.
The choice can only be yours… the digital route with all your eggs in one basket enabling a quick set up and less strain on your back, while perhaps taking a gamble, however small, that it won’t fail during your time of ownership or if it does ever need repairing, will parts be available? Or do you stick with the analogue option with everything separate, which means a longer set up time and more weight to hump around, but perhaps you will have an easier to understand modular system anyone can operate, which is easier and dare I say actually possible to fix if/when it goes wrong?