Guest post by Ben Burrell at Sapphire Sound.
Analog vs. Digital Consoles – How to Choose?
The trend in churches (and all venues that produce live sound) the last few years has been to make the jump to a digital console. I’ve heard the analogy that ‘investing in a new analogue sound board is like buying a VCR to record your services on.’ It seems like the general consensus of techs in churches is to push for replacing their aging analogue desks with smaller, flashier, digital mixers. The exception to this trend is a much smaller group of people that are clinging to classic analogue consoles in a desperate attempt to save them from complete extinction. So – “what is right for my church – analogue or digital?”
There is no right answer. The fact of the matter is that digital consoles can offer huge advantages in regards to onboard processing and effects, scene recall, and size. Analogue consoles still have a solid set of benefits as well though – things like cost, familiarity, audio quality, and perceived ease of use. In this article I will break down the positive and negative elements of both sides in terms that the volunteer head of your church finance committee will be able to understand.
System Evaluation – Which boat are you in?
Before getting into the specifics of each console, I should mention that if your church is in the market for a new sound board, the first thing to do (after finishing this article, of course) is to have a professional audio integration company come in and evaluate your situation. Not all integration companies are the same, so finding one that you can trust is extremely important. Chances are that your church will be in one of three boats:
1) You don’t have anybody with enough knowledge or experience to make the decision themselves, or
2) You have multiple people who know what they are doing (or think they do, at least), each having their own opinions and preferences as to what the church should purchase or change, or
3) You have one person in charge of sound who knows what he/she wants and is largely responsible for all of the audio and video systems in the building
If you’re sitting in boat number 1, bringing an audio integrator into the picture is an easy move because there isn’t anybody to conflict views with. In fact, you will likely need an integrator in order to get any sense of what could/should be done in your building. Boat number 2 is a little bit trickier to sit in as you may have strong opinions from your sound people regarding what decision to make – some people suggesting any number of digital mixers, or perhaps a certain tech that’s been mixing for a while digging his heels in and insisting that you keep your current analogue mixer. In this case an audio integrator will be able to analyze the needs of the church and the makeup of your technicians and offer advise as to which solution will best serve the current and long term needs of your congregation. If you happen to be in boat number 3, most likely the person responsible for your audio/video has a good grasp on what you need to do to improve your system. However, for the boat 3 churches, I would still recommend getting a good integrator in before you make any decisions (you will need one to purchase the console from anyways). The iceberg threatening to sink boat 3 is that in a ‘one operator’ scenario, if you design your system around the current operator with too much personalization, you may end up with a system that isn’t easily workable by any future technicians if your current operator were ever to move to another church. I’ve experienced this in the past where the tech director at a church I worked with spent years changing his A/V systems out and putting in all the gear that he wanted. While this was all great for him while he served at the church, he did end up leaving. The new tech director didn’t like the way that he had set things up, so he spent the next year reversing everything that the original tech had implemented. At the end of the day it ended up being wasted time and money for the church. In any case, having a good integrator will save you a lot of headache and will help to ensure that your system achieves a level of future proof-ness while still meeting your budget requirements.
Sound Quality & Latency
Now, onto the specifics of analogue and digital consoles. Analogue desks comparable to what we use now have been around since the late ’60s. The largest arguments for staying in the analogue world are sound quality and latency. In addition, factors like cost, ease of use, and surface access to all parameters continue to drive some buyers towards analogue consoles. Sound quality in an analogue mixer (assuming it’s of at least relatively good quality) was certainly better than the original digital mixers and is arguably still better than many new digital mixers. Two streams exist in the sound quality debate when comparing a good analogue desk to a digital mixer: the preamp argument and the ‘classic sound’ argument.
Relating to the preamp argument, lower end digital consoles may use preamps (the circuitry which prepares your incoming audio signals to be mixed and processed) of lower quality in order to keep the overall console price down. If you are looking at a cheaper digital desk (without mentioning any specific brands) chances are that it will have sub-par preamps and if compared side by side to an analogue console you would be able to hear an overall loss in quality. Generally speaking, digital desks that aren’t the bottom-of-the-barrel cheap option will use good quality preamps and this issue will not be present.
Even with good quality preamps, many people still claim that they prefer the classic sound of an analogue desk. Some notice a warmer tone or a deeper sound on an analogue desk. Fans of digital mixers often compensate for this by adding analogue style effects to their mix or by integrating minor outboard analogue processing. Some digital users accept the tonal difference as a worthwhile tradeoff for the vast array of benefits that come with digital mixers.
The ABC’s of ADC’s and DCA’s
Analogue mixers typically feature lower latency than digital desks. In a digital mixer the incoming audio signal needs to be converted to a digital signal, a process which happens through an ADC (Analogue to Digital Converter) typically right after the preamp stage. The sound is then processed and mixed inside the console, and must be converted back to analogue signal before it is sent to your output devices (speakers, monitors, etc.). This is done by a DAC (you guessed it, Digital to Analogue Converter). The ADC and DAC inherently cause a very small time delay, called latency. In most digital desks the latency is not a noticeable factor, however in some older units and in some lower quality units it can be observed. In a good quality digital mixer the delay is typically less than 5 milliseconds, so it’s not heard by the vast majority of listeners and would likely not be an issue for the few listeners who do notice it. If you stay in the world of analogue and don’t have the signal pass through an ADC and DAC then you will be able to reduce the latency to nearly 0 milliseconds.
Often in the church world a big factor in the decision making process is cost. A good quality analogue desk certainly costs a lot less than a good quality digital desk. If you have a limited budget and are concerned about good quality sound, investing in a decent analogue desk is often a better choice than purchasing a cheap digital desk. Or if you’re looking at a major sound overhaul and have to sacrifice the quality of your speakers and amplifiers in order to go digital – items which are much more difficult to change out than a sound board – it may be worth sticking with your existing analogue console until a later time when enough funds are available to invest in the right digital desk.
Practice Makes Perfect
The discussion over ease of use is a very open ended one. To say that an analogue console is easier to operate would be incorrect. However a church that currently owns an analogue desk may find it easier to teach their volunteers how to use a new analogue desk more easily than it would be to transition them over to a digital mixer. In my experience, training a new person on a digital mixer is actually easier than teaching them how to use an analogue mixer, and I don’t often run into difficulties transitioning from analogue to digital, but some folks who are less tech savvy than others may find the change too much to handle. The other convenient part of an analogue console is that every aspect of control available on the desk is directly accessible by a physical knob, button, or fader. On a digital console, depending on the size, some functions may require the user to navigate through multiple layers of information in order to adjust something. This can be tricky if the person is not familiar with the console but is usually overcome relatively easily given time and practice on the desk.
The advantages of a digital mixer are huge. You generally have all sorts of processing that can be applied without needing additional hardware, you can pass your signal through a digital snake, you can reduce the size of the mixer while increasing the amount of inputs and outputs, and you can save and recall settings based on your needs.
Where’s the Easy Button
In the analogue world you typically have an audio console and a rack or two of outboard processing. Things like compressors, limiters, gates, EQs, effects units, and processors. Depending on how many of these devices you have or need, they can end up taking up a lot of space and costing a lot of money. In most digital mixers you automatically have compressors, limiters, and gates available on every input and output without having to hook up any external hardware. You also have built in effects units (usually four or eight) which can be routed to specific channels or mixes, and a more advanced EQ module on your input and output channels than those found on an analogue desk. These features allow very precise control over the volume and tone of your signal. They also tend to be easier to configure on a digital mixer as the user is provided with a visual representation of how he/she is adjusting the signal, rather than simply seeing a daunting rack of knobs to twist and not really knowing what’s being adjusted.
Watch Out For Snakes!
Digital consoles also make life easier by allowing your audio signals to pass through a digital snake. Previously you would be required to run a bulky analogue snake comprised of as many mic input cables as are required for your system. This takes up valuable conduit space and costs a fair bit in materials and labour to install. It is also subjected to interference from radio frequencies and power lines and tends to break down after a number of years. If you go with a digital console and digital snake, instead of the heavy analogue cabling you can simply run one or two inexpensive CAT5 or CAT6 network cables directly from your mixer to your stage and pass all of your audio inputs and outputs through it. It’s very small, easy to install and terminate, and inexpensive to replace if something ever goes wrong.
Keep it Simple
One of the downsides of digital mixers is that not all controls are directly available on the surface. This can also be an advantage though, in that it allows for control over more parameters and inputs than analogue consoles without taking up nearly as much space as it would in an analogue desk. Another advantage is that certain controls can be locked out based on the current user. For example, on a Sunday morning church service you have a tech who knows what he/she is doing, so they have access to all mix parameters. On Thursday nights you have a ladies group who meets in the church and only needs to be able to adjust the volume of one microphone and a piano, so you set the mixer to lock out all other parameters and only show the two channels for that group. This enables your knowledgeable people to have full control, but folks who don’t know as much don’t get overwhelmed with options or get themselves into trouble by adjusting parameters that they shouldn’t.
This also ties into the final major advantage of digital mixers: preset recall. On a digital mixer every parameter can be saved and recalled at any time. So if you have multiple worship teams that each require their own setup and adjustments they can easily be selected. Or if you have events throughout the week that require the sound board to be configured differently, a user can simply enter an assigned password and watch all of their specific settings be recalled automatically. After the event, the next user enters their login and the board reverts back to that person’s particular preferences. This is a huge time saving feature if you have a scenario like this, and is also a security feature if you’re worried about people adjusting things that they shouldn’t.
What’s Right for You?
Overall, both consoles have value in different situations. The positive and negative elements of each piece of gear need to be correctly weighed against your church’s current and future needs. As stated before, no matter how technical your volunteers or staff may be, the best way to make sure that you are making the right choice is to involve a professional integration company. They will work with you to decide which product is best for you, train you on how to use it, and support you if you experience issues in the future. Churches generally get the chance to do major upgrades once every number of years, so making sure that you are educated and informed is key not only in stewardship, but also because what you do will likely be around for a long time.
Need more info? Feel free to contact Ben Burrell at Sapphire Sound.
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