Digital Discipline: Getting your mind around engineering on Digital Consoles

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

It’s interesting that many of us “old-timers” are often apprehensive about digital consoles, while our younger counterparts jump right in with gleeful excitement; the kind only often found on Christmas morning. Like everything else in our world, audio engineering has gone digital.

A lot has changed since that first digital console came off the assembly line. Today, digital consoles are usually user friendly. They offer us capabilities we could have only dreamed of a few years back at a price point that almost all of us can afford.

The first thing you need to understand about digital consoles is that the vast majority of them operate on “layers” or “pages” of faders. In the old days (like they were really that long ago) if you had an input channel, you had a corresponding fader on the front of the console. Likewise, if you plugged an input into ‘Channel 1’, the fader located above or below the screen-printed legend saying ‘Channel 1’ was what you used.

Digital consoles changed all that.

Now, a digital console with over 96 input channels can be placed in a standard 19” rack! The this is done is by placing 12 – 16 faders on the front of the console and then having several “layers” of faders underneath them all. So, lets say you have a 48 channel console with 16 faders on the face of the unit. If you want to get to channel 32, it’ll be the last fader on layer two. Likewise, channel 33 will be the first fader on layer three.

This is where most churches get into trouble. They keep thinking like an analog console engineer. Therefore, they are flipping between layers all service long – trying their best to keep up with which microphone is on what layer, and what layer they are on. When things get hairy, well… hang on! Now we have to figure out which microphone is offending us, which layer it’s on, how to get to that layer, then SELECT that microphone, jump to the right menu and adjust until the offensive noise stops.

That sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

However – when we start to think differently about digital consoles, we begin to embrace the power they bring us. Let’s look at some typical examples for Houses of Worship.

Choir Microphones – In many churches we have between three and 15 choir mics. However, in reality, we generally set those microphone levels and never really adjust them again (unless someone in a certain section stands right under the microphone and starts belting out of tune) – THEN we adjust individual microphones. But really, how often do we do that?

Acoustic Drum Kits – If you are making me happy, you’re mixing your drums with at least six microphones. But again, with very few exceptions, you are setting the individual microphones once and then bringing them up as a group. Every once in a while you might drive the Kick Drum or bring up a snare, but in most cases, we bring up the kit as a group.

In a typical analog console, both of these groups of microphones would normally be adjacent to each other. This alone could occupy as many as 20+ channels! So, you can see, when we take these analog ideals to the digital console we quickly use up all of our channels on a layer.

Start thinking outside the box. First of all, with digital consoles, ‘Input 1’ does not have to be ‘Channel 1’ on the console. Much like a lighting console, it can be patched to any spot on the input fader list of the console. So, for instance, let’s assume that you have a 48 channel console with 16 channels per layer. Let’s also assume you are using six microphones for your drums – one kick, one snare, one on each of two toms, and two overheads. Let’s plug those into the last six channels of the console – so the kick would be on 43, the snare 44, tom one 45, tom two 46, overhead one 47 and overhead two on 48. Now, let’s patch input 43 to channel 16. So, now the kick is on the last fader of layer one.

Now, during sound check, flip between layer one and layer four until you get the drums sounding like you want them to as a kit. When you are satisfied, lock all of those input channels together as a group. Each console does this differently, but virtually every digital console allows you to do this. Now, when you are on layer one and you unmute channel 16, the other channels (44-48) unmute as well. Likewise, as you adjust the volume on channel 16, channels 44-48 adjust proportionally as well.

Now, the way you are set up, the kit will all turn on, turn off and change overall volume at the same time, by only operating one fader. Each console does this differently, but usually by pressing one button you can now affect the individual channel independently of the rest of the group. When you let off that button, it goes back to acting as a kit. This allows you to change the level of one microphone without affecting the other – so you could, in this example, drive the kick drum for a moment, and then bring it back down to match the original kit sound.

If you like to adjust another drum microphone, perhaps the two overheads or the snare on a regular basis, you could patch that channel to the first layer as well. Then you’d have two microphones you could easily grab. But don’t overkill this. If you have a microphone you need to adjust, but not on a regular basis, you drop to layer four and adjust the microphone, then quickly return to ‘Layer 1’.

You see, by setting up your console this way, you are effectively spending 90% of your time on layer one. You’ve already made your mixing so much simpler.

Likewise, with our example of the choir mics, you’d to the same thing. Let say you have six microphones for the choir. Take all of these and patch to input 38, 39, 40, 41, 42 and 43 accordingly. Likewise, take input 38 and patch it to channel 15 (or another un-used channel on the first layer). Next, get a good mix during sound check with the choir and group these together. Now, they work just like the drums. The one channel on the first layer will activate the other channels on the fourth layer proportionally.

With some Houses of Worship – especially with volunteer engineers – I’ll recommend that they copy certain channels into each layer in the exact same place. This is another benefit of the digital console. Let’s take the pastor’s wireless microphone and plug it into input one. Let’s make sure ‘Input 1’ is assigned to ‘Channel 1’. Now, duplicate ‘Channel 1’ and save it into channel 17, 33, and 37. It doesn’t matter which layer you are on – if the pastor gets up to speak, grab the first fader on that layer and you are working with the pastor’s microphone.

Now clearly, some Houses of Worship will be too big to do this – you’ll actually need all the channels on all the layers. But if you find yourself with extra channels, think about how you can patch them so you can make your job easier.

Some consoles, such as the Digidesign SC48 offer a ‘flex’ channel. This is a channel that is assigned a duty and regardless of what layer you are on, that channel does that one duty. This allows you to do the example above without eating into channels. Other brands have more than one ‘flex channel’ idea while others have no provision for it at all.

When mixing on a digital console, you will find that the fewer layers you have to flip through, the easier your mix will be. This is why some consoles, such as the Yamaha M7CL has all the faders on the face of the unit – all within reach. It’s an analog feel to a digital interface. However, MOST consoles utilize layers. If you are smart in how you set them up, you will be mixing like a champ with little stress in no time!

Another great feature of digital consoles is the snapshot idea. This allows you to take a virtual snapshot of the console and save it. Then, when you recall the snapshot, everything resets to how it was when you last saved it.
Recently, we had a theatrical production utilizing 14 wireless microphones. The show had a five-piece band and four computer inputs for playback in surround sound.

The sound designer set up the console, and then proceeded to cue the show much like we would a lighting console. With every change – regardless of how minor – he recorded a snapshot.

Unlike lighting, a sound preset is not absolute. But it’s usually close to what the engineer needs. For instance, a snapshot could fly faders to new positions for volume, adjust EQ, monitors and mute channels. Basically, all the hard work of running a big production live. The engineer recalls the next snapshot when it’s ready and everything flies to position – right where it was recorded during rehearsal. Now the operator jumps on the live microphones and mixes as the room dictates for the evening. However, the unused microphones are off, the raw volume adjustments have been set and the monitors are tweaked. Now, the engineer is working with effects and volume, with the ever so rare EQ or monitor tweak.

When you start using presets, you can save yourself a lot of time and effort, even in a typical Sunday morning setting. For instance, let’s say you have four songs planned for worship. Ideally, each song has its own snapshot. If there is a point where a choir enters to sing along – that’s a snapshot. Now, by pressing one button and hitting RECALL (on most consoles) the choir is up, equalized, and proportionally set in volume. The next snapshot might dump the choir, bring up another wireless and raise the volume on a particular instrument for a solo. When that instrument solo is done, the next snapshot restores the original settings and brings up whatever is next.

This gives the operator more time to mix, and less time spent trying to find and turn buttons or knobs for presets.

When it’s all said and done, the digital console is really a computer with a human interface. It runs its own operating system, usually has its own hard drive inside and functions like a computer. When you learn to harness the power of a digital console you will likely never want to go back to analog consoles again.

Top Things to Consider When Purchasing a Digital Console:

• How user friendly is it?
• How many layers or pages will you utilize?
• What types of processing and effects come on-board?
• How many true inputs does the console have and what kind of connection are they?
• How many outputs does the console have?
• How flexible are these outputs? For instance, can they be assigned with great flexibility? Can you choose a pre/post fader and pre/post eq and pre/post gain for all or any of them?
• What type of outputs are they?
• Does it support your current stage monitor setup?
• Will it support future stage monitor expansion (such as AVIOM, Wireless in-ears, etc.)?
• How complex are the menus?
• How long does it take to re-boot the console in the event of a power failure?
• Will audio still pass through the system if the console crashes or needs to reboot (yes, it’s a computer – sometimes they do crash)?
• Are redundant power supplies available?
• Does it allow for User Keys and Lock Out Settings?

When it comes to digital consoles, realize that one size does not fit all. Whenever possible, use the console before you buy it. Go online and read user reviews – you’ll learn in a hurry what people think of the console. Most of all, don’t let dollars alone mandate your decision. Realize you are investing in the future. Make sure you buy big enough for today and at least four or five years down the road!