The massive cost benefits and flexibility that digital mixers have brought to the live sound industry has been huge, but has also created some real challenges for the manufacturers and users.The first generation of digital boards were deliberately designed so that seasoned operators would be lured off analog desks to the new paradigm of digital. That mean’t that the workflow and layout mimicked analog desks so as to be familiar.
In the analog days, a competent audio operator could walk up to any desk and within minutes get some sound out. In the digital realm, that isn’t necessarily the case. The operator has to have some training or familiarity of the device in front of them. Most manufacturers would agree that they are somewhere between their second or third generation of desk. All of them are still getting it right.
Now, a new generation of computer savvy users has come along, many of which have never used an analog desk. This increasingly means that the interface is evolving to meet the wants of the new users who don’t appreciate the push for analog feel and that has created some interesting issues.
For example, the unfortunate reality is that because the eq curve and other data is displayed on most new desks, many young operators are mixing with their eyes, not their ears.
Robert Scovill (Avid, Prince, Def Leppard, Tom Petty) conducted an experiment with a group of experienced operators where they used a classic Pultec analog equaliser to eq a source where it pleased the group. Using Smaart, he then did a FFT of the curve that the Pultec produced and displayed it on a screen. It looked crazy. Everyone agreed that it was unlikely that they’d do that curve on a digital desk “because it looked wrong”. That is, they would let what they were looking at drive their decisions rather than listening. This is such an issue that Midas seriously considered removing the eq curve display from their high end models.
Because old desks had knobs and buttons, they had a tactile feel. This means the engineer can look up whilst making adjustments which is absolutely critical. With touchscreen control, the operator must look down to see what they are controlling so cues are missed. I once watched a singer whose radio microphone was muted, attempt to get the sound engineer’s attention. When she could not, she literally left the stage and walked all the way to front of house to get the microphone unmuted! The entire time the engineer had his head down, deeply immersed in menus. There is a reason why it is illegal to use your phone whilst driving a car!
Sources within Digidesign (now Avid) have admitted that they stripped away too much visual feedback in their earlier desk software versions. Users were forced to stop and search menus to see what is going on. Now their approach recognises this and actively design out “stop and think”. They want their users looking up and mixing rather than navigating menus.
Are you comfortable mixing without faders? It seems most people prefer not, but manufacturers would love to get rid of them. To quote one manufacturer, “faders are a damn nuisance!”. Traditionally they are the biggest cause of reliability issues in desks. However, ergonomics is too important for heads up mixing so it will be a while before faders completely disappear, at least from the large format boards.
Is too many toys good or bad for engineer? In analog days, all extra effects had a real cost which mean’t engineers had to make value decisions. With digital, there is virtually no limit to the amount of effects and plugin that can be added to a mix. Engineers often bury themselves in a hole with too much going on so the mix suffers as a result. You cannot blame the tools for the results. At some point, the engineers made the decisions that led to the situation.
One feature of digital which is fantastic, is virtual soundcheck. The ability to mix previously multitrack recorded shows, learn from and build on them is invaluable. I’m surprised that we don’t see much more of this. It builds up the skills of operators and refines mixes without tying up the performers.
But when digital desks go wrong, they really go wrong! In the analog world, the main point of complete system failure in a desk was considered to be it’s power supply. That is, it was difficult for the entire PA to fail unless the PSU failed, you would still get some sound out, albeit a few channels or a side down. To mitigate this a second PSU was often deployed.
In digital, because everything is in a centralised processing and transport architecture, a failure can mean losing the entire PA system. Anecdotally, It seems that PA system failures are occurring more often, and it is no surprise. It happened to me last month where during an intermission, I lost connectivity between the desk and and digital stage box which rendered the PA dead. In 30+ years that is the first time I had lost an entire PA during a show! I had to power cycle everything to get back up running. Radiohead lost their front of house at Coachella for similar reasons. The rumour being that the AVB card in the DSP engine failed.
The reality is that we’ll continue to have these challenges because the professional audio industry is comparatively small, audio manufacturers have to rely on what is available in terms of digital signal processors and networking options from the mainstream IT industry. Audio networking is in the embryonic stages and wireless control is not robust enough for many applications.
Digital mixers are superb tools, but we still have a long way to go on this great journey.