Softly, the music rises from the orchestra pit, accompanied by a chorus of shiny faces singing the theme song of the theatrical production. From the sides of the theatre comes the sound of faraway thunder, building underneath the singing until it enters the main speakers and crashes out over the audience, enveloping all of us. I sit transfixed by the show, wondering how the multitude of audio cues could be mixed all at once through so many different speakers. With a fair amount of gear envy, I went to find out what and who was the wizard behind the scenes of this production.
On the day of my curious foray, a few years ago now, I found a digital console in this Broadway production, a technology previously used by a few engineers only when they had the time, budget, and expertise to use this complex machine. Since then, all the major console manufacturers have been offering a variety of affordable new digital consoles and I have seen them in live use in venues ranging from churches and sporting arenas to concerts and corporate theatre.
Our choices in digital consoles have recently expanded to include even the smallest budgets and engineers have been choosing these desks for a number of applications. With technology and processor speed now exceeding Moore's Law (that processor speed would double every 18 months), it is with good reason that engineers sometimes look at the digital console with apprehension. Personally, I'd use the word “anticipation,” because I can't wait to find out what innovations the manufacturers come up with to improve the array of products already available.
For many years we have been using digital effects processors, samplers, keyboards, guitar effects, digital crossovers, audio software — all kinds of digital hardware. It was inevitable that these desks would find their way into our mixing at one time or another. Still, advantages plague us on both sides of the analog or digital debate. I use the word “plague” because engineers have the choice of what they like to use, which can be neither right nor wrong, analog or digital.
In analog consoles, a long history proves the reliability and sonic quality of the desks. We know them and have been comfortable with their design from previous decades. Our comfort zone includes seeing all of the pots and faders at our fingertips, and we are used to reaching over to the processing rack to tweak the graphic EQ or adjust the threshold on a compressor.
Now that digital consoles are here to stay, and if we intend to use them, these comfort zones have to be established in a new environment, making use of all of the same existing technology in different formats. It's not like I didn't know how to use a parametric EQ before it showed up on my laptop interface!
With that said, I still sometimes choose an analog desk for certain events. I find that the guest engineer flying in for a day to set up and mix a concert event appreciates having a desk that can be dialed up quickly. Plus, we get to have our favorite external pieces of gear with the lights blinking at us on one side, relaxing in our comfort zone.
On the other hand, I mix in the corporate and special events world, and have the opportunity to use the newest digital consoles to make my life easier when mixing multiple microphones, video sources, audio cues, and entertainment. Gone for me are the days where I had multiple CD players and frantic scrambling to find the right media to play while still mixing the lavaliers onstage. Ever tried to run DAT cues on the fly? You know what I mean.
Now I arrive with laptop in hand, interface with a console, and play my audio cues combined with MIDI cues to automate the desk. We have also spent a great deal of time charting consoles to try and get the same mix back online after another guest engineer has taken the stage. I load up the parameters for each segment of the show and all of us get to operate joyfully without restrictions on what you can and cannot touch.
For those of you who need exercise, the analog consoles make you go around to the back of the console and racks to repatch the insert lines or change the inputs around. For those of us who like to stay seated in our comfortable high-backed chairs, we choose to reach over to the interface and change anything we desire in the patch. Please don't forget the time you have spent sorting through bad cabling or ground loop hums, which can be a thing of the past if you find yourself willing to step into the digital zone.
All these features significantly impact the bottom line of a company or production by reducing the cost of the console and outboard gear. As time is of the essence, the all-in-one consoles give us less onsite setup time (you still have to do the programming somewhere — it might as well be in your living room) and no heavy multicore snake cable to handle on the road shows.
Sometimes a marriage of the analog and digital makes the most sense, too. In a recent church installation, the engineer had to mix on an analog console, the lectern and altar microphones were required to be automated, and the church wanted to record the whole thing to a digital workstation. The analog console mixed the band while a rackmounted digital console auto-mixed the choir and lecterns, and then all inputs were fed to a compact digital recording station for eight tracks of analog to digital recording. They could mix the tracks down on the digital console and burn a CD for the music director to use later on.
The next step I would welcome in this world is the ability to record and play sound cues directly onto a hard drive on the desk and then burn it to CD. I want to be able to have my list of cues and effects accessible on the console with a Go button to play the cue and adjust the parameters of the desk at the same time. For the moment I can accomplish this through my laptop and MIDI connections, but wouldn't it be great to have it all onboard?
To be sure, the debate between analog and digital technologies will rage for years to come, with no one really winning the argument. The choice has to be from the engineer mixing the show, and what kind of desk is appropriate in the vastly different sound environments that we have to create for the enjoyment of others.
ATTENTION All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.