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Live mixing – digital mixer or not?

“I’m a live sound engineer, and in the past few years all of my studio friends have gotten digital mixers, and are encouraging me to do the same. I know that at least as of a few years ago, there were no digital mixers that were really well suited to live sound. Are there any reasons I should be looking at digital mixers for live applications?”This is a perfect question for your Sweetwater Sales Engineer because the answer depends on what is important to you and the specific way you like to work, which is all information a good sales professional will get out of you during a discussion. Since I can’t ask those questions in this forum all I can give you are a few generalities that may help.When it comes to live sound the general rub on digital mixers has been the menu-based system and the fact that some adjustments can’t be made as immediately as they can be made on a traditional mixer where each function has a dedicated knob or button. Fair enough. Having to press a button or two before making a critical EQ adjustment can sometimes be frustrating when you’re under the gun. But let’s look at all the advantages for a minute and then we’ll get back to that.Digital mixers are smaller, weigh less, often have very sophisticated processing and routing capabilities, and (let’s not forget) are programmable. As a seasoned live sound engineer I have to say this is a very seductive combination of features. Back when I was doing a lot of live sound I would have given my left arm for these features. Imagine being able to set up your mixer and your outboard gear so everything is set up perfectly for each song, and you can even make program changes as the song progresses (verse, chorus, verse, bridge, solo, etc.). This is the reality we are in today. Sure, it requires an investment of time up front, but the end result is so much better. And, if you can carry the mixer in under your arm it’s even better still.It’s at this point in the discussion that the aforementioned issue of access and menus comes up. Live sound engineers are generally afraid of having to dig through menus and find parameters in the heat of battle. This is a prudent fear because we all know that live sound is…well…live, meaning anything can happen. But let’s look at it practically. If you are working a show that is rehearsed and where you generally have time to do a decent sound check then there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be having to dig deeply into the menus night after night. Once you get the house PA system set up so it has a relatively consistent sound each night then you shouldn’t have to make too many unpredicted changes to the EQ of individual channels. Once you have the show down all you are normally doing is tweaking the mix and doing all the manual moves you have to make to keep up with the production (enabling aux sends at the right time, muting certain channels, etc.). With all of that production stuff automated it’s relatively easy to fine tune things on almost any digital mixer. Things like channel EQ are rarely more than one layer deep in the menus anyway, which generally means you press one button and then turn a knob to make the adjustment you need, as opposed to just finding and turning a knob like you would on a big analog desk. It’s probably hard for some of you to imagine, but a digital mixer actually makes it a whole lot easier to mix and develop a consistently good sound, once you get over the initial learning curve and get used to where things are.For churches a digital mixer can work very well. You have a fixed PA and in most cases are working with predominantly the same sources. You just need to keep a couple of channels ready for the inevitable guest musicians or whatever your church typically throws at you. Again, once you have everything else down in a way you can only accomplish with a total recall system like this it becomes easy to deal with a couple of unpredictable sources.For clubs there is the added variable that there is a new band each night or each week. Still you have the same PA all the time and can start with templates. So long as you have a decent sound check you should always be fine. If bands return from time to time you can leave their settings programmed.The main instance where a digital mixer falls short is when you are working in highly unpredictable situations where you have very little time to get a mix. The programmability of a digital mixer is much better suited to getting things perfected than it is getting a mix from nothing very quickly under pressure. If that’s your gig (and I pity you, I’ve been there) you are probably going to have to stick to the old one knob per function paradigm because it is faster at getting a rough mix from no mix.The final issue, intentionally avoided until now, is sound. The quality of preamps on mixers vary, and there’s more to the sound of a mixer than just the preamps. While most digital mixers excel at being quiet and precise (valued features in a recording application, but often considered less important for live work) they don’t all excel at being forgiving under duress. Most of us have heard digital distortion by now. This is not a sound you’d ever want coming out of your PA at 120 dB SPL. Further, just because a mixer is digital doesn’t mean it automatically sounds good. You can assume a minimum level of quality with digital, which frankly is already beyond where many analog mixers are, but all digital mixers do not sound the same. This is a whole other Tech Tip itself, but for now it will suffice to say this is not an issue that should be overlooked when making this type of decision.Why don’t more live sound engineers use digital or programmable desks? Actually many do now, but there’s something about old dogs and new tricks that applies here. Ultimately you have to consider what you are comfortable with and what makes you most effective. But be careful of having a closed mind. You may end up a dinosaur who gets left in the dust.

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