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Mixers - Analogue vs. Digital

Updated January 1st, 2011

In today’s digital world, where ‘digital’ denotes the advancement of technology, there is a struggle in the sound industry between the analogue mixers of yesterday, and the digital mixers of tomorrow. This struggle has created many misunderstandings and debates between both experienced operators as well as inexperienced. The goal of this article is to attempt to bring a little understanding behind what we believe, and how we make our recommendations to churches.

In order to really dig into the meat of this topic, it is essential to begin by understanding the difference between ‘digital’ and ‘analog’ when it comes to your sound system. In a world consumed by high definition and the digital requirements of achieving that end, people are becoming quick to dismiss the idea of analogue without truly understanding the differences between the two. Also, these terms can carry with them a large variety of meanings among different areas of technology, which only helps to confuse the situation even more. Thus, the need to define these terms and how they apply in a church sound system becomes very important for this discussion. When it comes to a mixing console, the terms “digital” and “analog” refer to the types of signal that run through, and are manipulated by, the console itself. To better understand how this works, this article will now break down an example of how each signal would function typically.

ANALOGUE

It all begins with a simple input, in this example we’ll use a wired microphone. When someone speaks into a microphone, a signal actually leaves his or her mouth in the form of air pressure. As this pressure passes into the microphone, the signal is converted into an electrical signal, which is referred to as an “analog” signal. This electrical signal then travels through wires and into an input jack on the mixing console. Historically, the only way to manipulate these signals was with the use of an analogue mixing console. These mixers take the electrical signals in their original form and, using certain electronics, they boost, decrease, join, and manipulate them until they reach the desired sound. From there the signal outputs to a variety of possible devices for further alteration (i.e. an equalizer or a compressor), and is then boosted by an amplifier before continuing. The signal then travels from the amplifier through a wire to a speaker, where the electrical signal is then converted back into air pressure (a.k.a. the voice of the person who spoke into the microphone initially). All of this takes place literally at the speed of light, having no delay between what goes into the microphone and what comes out of the speakers.

DIGITAL

For the most part, no true professional microphone manufacturer is currently making any digital microphones; therefore, as we continue with this example, we will discuss the typical setup, which would use a wired handheld analogue microphone. The process begins in the same way as the analogue example – somebody speaks into the microphone, and his or her voice is converted into an analogue signal. Once the analogue signal reaches the mixer, it is then converted again into a digital signal. This signal is essentially the language known as binary; it is a language that computers use in their processing and functioning. This signal allows for a completely different interface than that of an analogue signal, as software is used to manipulate it as opposed to individual knobs and faders. In order to maintain a familiar interface for operators, digital consoles still have faders and knobs, however don’t be confused, as a digital signal no longer needs any of those to manipulate it. For example, you could simply use a computer screen with images of a mixer board and just click and drag your settings to whatever you want. The digital signal is manipulated to whatever output is desired, and is then output in either digital form, or more commonly is re-converted back into analogue at that point. The signal will be re-converted whether your mixer does so with the signal now, or an amplifier does so before sending it off to the speakers. An analogue signal is required as the ultimate output from the speakers, as our ears hear only in analog. One important difference to also note is that while analogue travels without delay, there is an unavoidable amount of latency involved with digital mixers. This latency (delay) is caused by the conversion processes between digital and analog, and can be measured typically in a matter of milliseconds. The less expensive the mixer or the greater the functions being used, the higher the latency tends to be; however, for the most part this doesn’t typically pose a big issue with your live sound. It does have the potential to cause issues for singers using in-ear monitors - who could possibly experience a disorienting delay between the natural sound of their voices in the room, and the delayed version that comes through the headset. Again though, this has become extremely rare.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN ?

A digital console opens up a new world of options for working with your inputs and outputs. Due to the fact that it is software driven, the user is really at the helm for deciding how they want to interface with everything. Most digital mixers are designed to look and have the ability to function much like an analogue mixer; they have faders, channel strips, and many similar layout features; the difference however, is that all of those items are programmable, and can be set to control whatever you want them to control. A digital console allows you to program everything, including levels, and save them for recalling at a later time, as well as allowing for a massive number of inputs to be connected - though you are limited as to how many you can quickly control once you’ve exceed the number of channel strips available.

On the analogue console, you simply have a fixed set of inputs, which have their fixed knobs and faders, which accomplish their fixed set of functions. The only ‘save’ function an analogue console has, is what is left the same from the previous Sunday or practice, or a sketch made of knob positions and fader levels.

There are certainly many other highlights and features to both types of mixers, but for simplicities sake and what this article is intended for, I’ve only mentioned some of the major differences.

SO WHICH DO YOU CHOOSE?

Digital consoles are more expensive, more time consuming and difficult to learn/master/teach, and carry with them an inherent potential to crash. That being said, they also allow for a massive amount of inputs, an incredible level of interfacing and control, a cleaner signal, and the ability to program settings for different purposes, save them, and recall them whenever you need them. In addition to this, with industry influence finally making its way to the manufacturers, and overall building costs decreasing with ramped up production overseas, there are now some more reasonably priced units that match-up better against top analogue mixers.

Analogue consoles on the other hand are dirt cheap in comparison, much simpler to learn/master/teach, and will only crash if the power goes out. Due to their inexpensive nature compared to digital consoles, you also get far more bang for your buck. The cons remain basic: analogue boards are unable to save their settings to be recalled, and they will always emit some minuscule amount of electronic noise that will be heard through the speakers (though all sound professionals will agree that this amount is typically non-existent to the human ear, and more noise tends to be emitted from the other electronic equipment used, like the amplifier for example).

Although a wonderful ideal for user interfacing and audio organizing, digital consoles still carry a premium price tag, and a requirement for your volunteers hold a higher level of technical know-how. A well-manufactured professional digital mixer, loaded with the necessary features, is not nearly as out of the budget as was the case two years ago, but they’re still complicated to learn. Due to this fact alone, a digital mixer should often be considered a last resort, and only if there is enough in the budget to pay the premium, and the volunteers to support the endeavour. There are exceptions to this rule of course, as these mixers are greatly suited for large churches with huge worship teams and production crews on Sundays, as well as throughout the week. In those venues, the cost factor becomes insignificant due to the fact that the benefits of a digital console become overwhelming. Those venues have a need for a massive number of inputs, and the ability to interact with them on a much more complex level; this is not the case with the remaining vast majority of churches. In many situations, an analogue mixer remains the best choice of consoles for a churches needs. They’re straightforward, cheaper, and are much easier to teach others how to use - which in a church environment is an absolute necessity for the majority of those able to help with sound teams.

Essentially, we have reached a point in time where the digital mixers are there at a fair price, but the learning curve presents the greater challenge given the constant flux of A/V volunteers. If your church were fortunate enough to have hired staff for these roles, then certainly you would want to consider this avenue. If not, which is the majority, then for the time being it remains your best option to consider analogue mixers for their value, and their ease of use.

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