A Study of Digital vs. Analog Consoles

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Over the last five years I have had the privilege of teaching over 200 seminars on the use of audio in church. In every seminar, one of the topics has been the use of digital mixing consoles for live operation. Digital consoles, for many venues, have become the preferred console and they are finding their way into the church market in ever increasing numbers.

For the average church volunteer, digital consoles are often intimidating at the very least. Larger analog boards are scary enough for some. With all the knobs, buttons, faders and routing capabilities of a modern, large analog board, many potential volunteers take one look and decide the nursery is a much easier volunteer position to handle.

In this article, I want to explore the differences and challenges of the digital board vs. the analog board. It is not meant to be an exhaustive study, just a look to hopefully give you some insight into the digital world of mixing. I’m going to assume that you have some understanding of the terms associated with mixing consoles. If you are unsure of the difference between a gain knob and an aux send knob, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself with the terms associated with all those knobs and buttons. A good source is a manufacturer’s manual. If you don’t have one, it’s easy enough to find one at a manufacturer’s website.

Quality In Sound
I have been around live audio for over 34 years. When I was offered the opportunity to work with a digital console I had real reservations about what I was giving up in sound quality. You could say I went kicking and screaming into the digital world. I started using a Yamaha O1V as a main board in my classes and began to experiment with it in different live sound opportunities. I was looking for ease of use and reliability, which we will discuss later in this article, but my first concern was, “How does it sound?”

To be honest with you, I never thought I would really accept digital in the place of a good analog board. Before I even tried the console I was well armed with the mantra, “Digital is not as warm as analog.” And this is still one of the most often uttered objections to digital consoles.

So with hesitation and a nearly closed mind, I began my journey into the digital world. For months I listened closely to the console at each seminar. I would go back and forth between listening to digital and listening to analog. My ears at first told me it wasn’t as good. But as I listened closer I discovered it wasn’t my ears doing the talking, rather it was my own prejudices. I was only ready to admit that it was different. Not better, not worse, just different.

As time went by, I began to warm up to the sound. I was finding myself impressed with how clean it was. Not that it was better, just very clean. I would set up before anyone arrived and I would experiment. I would shout in microphones. I would listen to my favorite CD’s and cassettes. I have this one favorite song I use to tune systems with. I know the song extremely well. I would listen to it through the digital board again and again, expecting to find something missing, but it was all there. The nuances of the sax, the rich bass line, the intriguing keys, the interweaving of the percussion – all there in its magnificent glory. But was it better then analog? I wasn’t ready to say that it was, I was just beginning to admit that I liked it.

I started searching out opportunities to hear it in live settings. I would listen for how all the different pieces of the band and vocals were brought together by this different technology. I listened and finally I could admit that I actually thought digital console manufacturers were onto something here. The only thing that mattered to me was, “Did I like it?’ I finally had to say, “Yes I did.”

And then a few months later I did the unthinkable. I recommended it to a church. And then another, and another. Recently I had the opportunity to return to one of those churches that had installed one on my recommendation. North Stuart Baptist Church in Florida was hosting the Centurymen in concert and I had the privilege of “running sound” for their tour. They don’t use a lot of sound reinforcement, a microphone on the piano and microphones for three soloists. What made this night at North Stuart particularly interesting for me is the night before, at First Baptist Ft. Lauderdale, I mixed on a Yamaha PM4000 (one of the standard bearers in live audio for many years). So from the mighty PM4000 to a comparatively tiny Yamaha O1V I went.

I should mention here that the goal of the leadership of the Centurymen is to have a natural sound with no indication of reinforcement. This can be challenging when you are trying to get a soloist over the sound of 100 male vocalists. Through six concerts I used four analog boards and the Yamaha O1V and O1V96 digital boards (the 01V96 is the 01V’s new model). Both the O1V and its replacement, the O1V96, offered a natural sound and performed flawlessly. I was very pleased.

So what’s the verdict? The sound quality of the digital boards I have mixed on is more than just acceptable, it’s excellent. I would have no reservations about mixing on a quality digital console in even the most demanding environment.

When discussing digital consoles as a possible choice for a church, one of the questions that is often asked is, “What if it crashes?”

My personal experience with digital consoles has been primarily relegated to the Yamaha line of digital consoles. The last few years I have traveled with the O1V96 and before that, the O1V. I have been involved in the placement of digital consoles in churches from North Stuart Baptist in south Florida to Evergreen Community in the Seattle area along with many points in between. Out of the many consoles I have dealt with that have been used for countless hours every week in their respective venues, there has been no major failure and only three minor issues.

After I began recommending digital consoles, I nervously waited for that dreaded call on Monday morning— the one telling me that all the faders started moving by themselves during the service and they had to completely shut the console down. I am thankful that with all the digital consoles I have out there, I have never received that call.

My own digital console has now made no less than four trips around the country in the bottom of my motor coach. I don’t remove it except for seminars, so it sits exposed to all extremes in weather. It has been moved and passed through over 600 pairs of hands, touched and experimented with by countess people, dropped and abused (including one four foot plunge to a sidewalk), and so on. The grand number of failures has been zero, nada, none. When I first started with a digital console I kept an analog backup, just in case. I no longer carry the backup. In fact, the thought of a failure is not even on the radar screen.

Pro’s and Con’s
Let’s take a look at what a digital console offers you. First and foremost are the recallable scenes and libraries. In church audio, these features alone make us wonder how we lived without them. You can have three services in a row— all different styles with different instruments, different vocals, different gain, different compression, different etc. No problem! Store the settings and recall them at will. It is simple, efficient and reliable.

Have you worked on an EQ for the piano and finally got it just right? No problem! Save it to an EQ library and recall it to any channel. You can do the same thing with compression, effects and gates, along with a myriad of other parameters.

At two of the venues during the tour with the Centurymen, I used three different EQ settings for the soloists, all on the same channel. In one venue I mixed on a digital console, and at another, an analog console. It was effortless with the digital console. The analog board was not difficult to work with, but it wasn’t as easy or as precise.

Scene memory and recall also allow you to get back to a baseline if you or someone else has departed from reasonable settings. You can record an initial setting for each style of worship and always be able to get back to that point if needed. With church volunteer sound techs, I always set up a panic button on a digital console. It gives most church techs a level of confidence to know that if they really mess things up, and feedback is driving congregants to the exits while others are staring holes through the tech, absolute quiet is just one button push away.

Scene recall is also a confidence builder in other aspects of the service. It’s nice to know that when the pastor steps up to deliver the sermon, all necessary settings can be handled with a simple push of one button. Monitors turned down, all unused microphones turned off, compression set properly, aux send sent to recording, everything done with just one push.

So if digital consoles are so great, what’s the downside? Primarily – The learning curve. Some of the more expensive live performance boards are quite intuitive, but many of the ones that are being used in churches were actually conceived as post-production boards.

One of the reasons these post-production boards are less expensive is the number of motorized faders used is less then on the more expensive boards. As we increase the number of channels available on these boards, the number of faders remain constant. What changes is the increase number of functions any one fader has. For instance, let’s take a 56 channel console with 24 faders. The channel one fader is also the channel 25 fader, the channel 49 fader and the fader for each of the eight aux sends for each of the three channels that it controls. Therefore, that one fader actually has 27 functions, depending upon which layer of channels you are working with and whether you are working with the “Home” layer or one of the aux send buses. The appropriate layer and Aux Send or Home sections are chosen through buttons labeled appropriately.

In addition to the different layers, other operations such as EQ, effects sends and returns are less obvious on a digital board then on an analog board. For instance, to EQ a channel you have to be on the correct layer, select the channel and then make the EQ adjustments. The same knobs are used to EQ every channel and every output bus. You just have to make sure that you have selected what you want to EQ. Now this sounds cumbersome but it is actually quite easy to work with. It is different so it takes a little getting use to.

Another reason the learning curve is steeper is because it just gives you so much more than an analog board. Compression and gates on every channel, multiple built-in effects units and full parametric EQ for inputs and outputs are just some of the reasons it is more versatile than an analog board but also it is more difficult to learn how to take advantage of all the added benefits digital gives you.

I believe one of the keys to getting up and running on a digital board is great training. Make sure your vendor is well equipped to provide excellent training. The other key is proper setup of the board. Taking advantage of proper grouping can greatly reduce the need to switch between layers. The goal for multiple layer boards is to primarily work on the first layer. Proper setup can help you achieve this and reduce the stress level that can come in the early days of operation. We will look at this a little deeper in the next section.

Digital is more difficult to learn. But the pro’s far outweigh any negative perceived from the learning curve.

The other negative mentioned is that a failure in an analog board only means a creative work around since it usually only involves a portion of the board. A failure on a digital board is usually catastrophic. As covered in the previous section, failure for the better manufacturers is a non-issue and should not keep someone from going digital.

Ease of Use
So now that we are impressed with the quality of the sound and we don’t have to worry about sweating through each service wondering if the board will make it through without acting possessed, what’s left?

As mentioned earlier, the primary objection to digital that I hear is the difficulty involved in learning how to use the console. I must admit that this is a legitimate concern. Let me try to lay aside your fears.

First, you need to understand that there are basically two types of digital consoles. There are boards specifically designed for live use, and the boards that were initially thought of as only post-production consoles. The main difference between the two is the number of layers the user has to deal with.

For a live use console, most everything is accessible within two layers. In fact, when I had the opportunity to test drive one of the latest live digital consoles from a major manufacturer, it was so simple to use I was moving around it fairly easily in about five minutes, which is about the same amount of time it takes to familiarize myself with a large analog board. The manufacturer did an excellent job with providing an interface that allows an end-user who is familiar with an analog control surface to feel extremely comfortable in a very short period of time.

On the other hand a post-production board has many layers that must be mastered. For instance, using the Yamaha O2R96v2 as an example, the fader that is used to adjust volume for channel 1 is also used to adjust the volume for channel 25 – and for channel 49, and for aux 1 for channel 1, and for aux 2 for channel 1, and for aux 1 for channel 25 and for aux 2 for channels 25 and for – on and on, etc. Anyway, I think you get the picture.

Now the easiest approach would be simply to acquire an M7CL which is specifically designed for live use. But at just under $25,000 for 48 channels, most churches aren’t going there. Because of the many benefits of digital, there are many, including myself, who have decided that the post-production boards will work just fine in a live situation. The goal is to work on a single layer as much as possible and the key is training and setup.

Let me take you through setting up a digital console for typical church setup. For this example we will use a church that does two services, one contemporary and one traditional. The contemporary uses a total of 37 inputs with eight microphones on the drums, two guitars, one bass, five keyboards among two keyboard players, eight vocalists plus the worship leader, an announcement microphone, occasional use of the podium mic, pastor’s lapel mic, two overhead ambient mics for in-ear monitoring and two mics on an acoustic piano. Oh, I almost forgot, two mics on the brass section and two mics for the percussionist who plays a sundry of instruments. And of course there are the cassette and CD players that must be available from time to time.

Let’s say the console you’re working with has 24 total faders on the first layer. Any input can be routed to those faders.

Switching between layers is easy but daunting if everything is going wrong all at once. To make it comfortable and more akin to the analog board, we want to stay on that first layer as much as possible.

Let’s first take our drum kit. We will put seven of the mics on the second layer and one of them on the first and place it on channel 1. We will group them together and now the drum kit’s eight mics are controlled by the channel 1 fader on the first layer. We now have 23 channels left on the first layer for 29 remaining inputs. We can easily move the ambient mics to the second layer, 27 to go. Then if the cassette and CD are used only for music before and after the service, I can take their four channels to the second layer and presto, I am now working the service from one layer.

Then my service ends and I must get ready for the traditional with ten choir mics, numerous orchestra mics, the associated pastor’s lapel who uses a different mic then the senior pastor, a solo mic, announcement mic and the podium mic. I push one button and channel one now becomes one of the ten choir mics which is grouped with the other nine choir mics on the second layer. The associate pastor’s mic is now on the channel where the senior pastor was located during the contemporary service. All other necessary changes are made to make sure that most of my work is accomplished on one layer.

How can I move mics around so easily? Some consoles have an internal patch bay that allows any input to be assigned to any fader on any layer. Take advantage of that flexibility and life becomes instantly easier on your digital console. The key is to use the flexibility of the console busing and routing architecture to drive most of the changes and control to the first layer.

I would suggest that if you are in the market for a new mixing console, digital should at least be on the table. Although more difficult to learn than most analog boards, it is not a daunting task with a good instructor on your side. Once learned, it actually becomes easier to work with and provides many more benefits than an analog board.