Will live-event rental houses embrace compact digital consoles any time soon?

For any rental house, taking on new technologies while trying to serve the needs of customers is no easy task. While affordable, compact digital mixers from Yamaha, Mackie, Soundcraft, Tascam, and others have become ubiquitous in the project studio community, the live-event world hasn't been as quick to take up the format. Is this an issue of enough people developing confidence with a new approach to mixing, or do today's smaller analog consoles simply offer the familiarity, flexibility, and audio quality that most users desire?

Adopting new technologies hasn't just been a challenge for the audio industry. A number of years ago, lighting consoles began moving to the digital world, and users had to adapt their way of planning shows. While this meant that pre-production overhead increased, the invaluable precision of control and scene recall made the benefit immediately tangible.

The Midas Venice 160 is a popular and compact live analog mixer.

Likewise, automation, onboard dynamics processing, plus multiple layers of control and routing options helped make compact digital mixers attractive to the studio community. It also didn't hurt that other established multi-track media, such Alesis' ADAT and Tascam's DA88 formats, had already popularized working in the digital domain. Add to that the need for intuitive controllers for today's software-based recording systems, and digital mixers make even more sense.

However, all this flexibility hasn't necessarily translated into something valuable for the live mixing engineer. This is likely because the initial market for digital consoles targeted studio engineers, and console designs were driven largely by features, rather than audio quality.

Soundcraft’s Spirit 324 Live shares the architecture of its studio model relative, the 328, but is aimed at the small club and conference center market.

A debate still lingers over the sound of the best digital consoles versus the best analog consoles. Meanwhile, feature sets became the primary selling point into the studio market. And where studio engineers might slightly compromise on audio quality for ancillary benefits, perhaps live-sound engineers have needed to hear a clear improvement over analog sound to consider changing their work approach.

Options Available

No matter where you stand on the issue of sound quality, note that one of the most popular compact mixers for the live market is the Midas Venice, an analog board that incorporates design elements from larger, rider-standard boards. These elements include mic preamps with discrete circuitry modeled on the XL-4, mono input equalization based on the XL-3, and a sound signature that defines the console.

The Venice has also proven that a mixer with a small footprint doesn't stand in the way of a fat sound. With three models — the 160, 240, and 320 — listed between $3,000 and $5,000, the Venice is on the pricier side of small analog boards. In fact, the least expensive 160 is about twice the cost of the popular Mackie SR24-4 VLZ analog console.

The Venice line is comparably priced with several compact digital boards. These include the Soundcraft Spirit 324 Live console, which shares the architecture of the 328 studio model and lists around $4,800, without add-ons.

While mixers like Yamaha's O-series were the among the first small digital mixers to find their way into small clubs and conference centers, the 324 was tweaked to aim directly for that market. This meant eliminating some of the 328's subgroups, as well as its ADAT optical inputs, and adding a talk-back section and assignable Matrix outputs useful for driving fills, subs, or delays. Like the 328, all A/D and D/A conversion is 24-bit, the unit includes 3-band parametric EQ on all input channels, useful TRS inserts on all channels, dynamics processing, Lexicon effects, and “snapshot” scene automation. The latter is particularly useful for theatrical applications, or recalling complicated setups for each song in a band's set list.

While the sound might not have the “character” of a Midas, it's not supposed to. Its preamps sound clean, and perhaps more importantly to some, it gets the job done.

Proliferation Roadblocks

The bells-and-whistles approach is what we've come to expect and appreciate from the small digital consoles on the market. However, it has also contributed to one sticking issue: Most people renting consoles aren't interested in spending days wading through manuals to take care of the evening's gig. There's also the fear of getting stuck pushing buttons through menu layers when you're simply trying to eliminate feedback on a stage mic. Even if manufacturers have made digital console operation more intuitive for live use, this stigma will probably be around a while longer. Also, it's possible that smaller digital consoles haven't caught on because they don't offer as many features — things like “musical” EQ (a lovely, subjective term that means something different to everyone).

However, digital conduits are the future, and rental houses may have to take the initiative and make sure at least one staff member can help with the operation of any compact digital console the company has decided to include in its inventory. While my own informal survey of rental houses confirmed that relatively few compact digital boards currently go out for anything other than conference work, having a staff member in-house with hours logged on digital consoles is probably a good idea. It anticipates a time when more venues will be wired to support all-digital signal paths for live shows.

While this seems unlikely now, it's only a matter of laying enough cable, and enough people becoming early-adopters for the approach to gain a following. Then there will be more demand, cheaper technology, and hopefully, better converters. (With proliferation of 96KHz products on the market, it's likely fewer people will harp about sound quality eventually, but don't bet on it.)

This possibility probably sounds like a bad virus to some readers who don't look forward to the day when the only compressor in the building is the one they are seeing on an LCD screen. But what if it's intuitive to use, sounds great, and after a night mixing with it, you decide you never want to use anything else?

So will the live-event industry embrace these small digital boards any time soon? Probably not. It will take time for them to fit into the live world as seamlessly as they have in the project studio. Plus, the demand and infrastructure aren't there yet. But even if there are tons of analog options out there to add to your inventory, keep an eye out for at least one or two small digital boards. You never know when you might need one.

Alex Artaud is a writer, musician, and engineer living in Oakland, Calif. You can contact him at aartaud@earthlink.net