A Bad Workman Blames his Tools: Analogue vs Digital

I hear a lot of engineers (of all levels) discussing the age-old analogue vs digital battle, debating which is “better”, and professing their love or hatred of specific pieces of equipment.

At its core, a mixing desk consists of pre-amps – which amplify a mic signal to match line level sources; EQ – which adjusts the level of specific frequency range; levelling faders or knobs; and a set of outputs.

Obviously the more expensive the desk, the more expansive the features – and usually the higher quality the components.

Cost

Most professional mixers have at least 6 “aux” outputs, plus mono and stereo “main” outputs. They will probably also have groups (an extra bank of faders through which audio can pass to be bulk processed). Usually you’ll be able to insert external effects onto channels or groups as well. Once you’re past the basic “utility” level, the wide range in cost can be attributed to the quality of each component, and therefore the overall effect on the sound.

On a digital mixer, everything except the preamp stage is handled with software. Again the more expensive the desk, the better the software (and the hardware processors required to run it).

Horses for Courses

Debates rage about whether analogue is better than digital (it is, sometimes), whether digital is better than analogue (it is, sometimes), and whether Brand X is better than brand Y. Brand X and Y may in fact both be fine – but certain engineers will see brand A or B as ‘unusuable’, ‘cheap and nasty’, etc etc.
Some specs state “mixer must be digital”, “prefer brand X, will not use brand Y”, others simply say “I need 16 inputs and 4 outputs”.

With analogue, everything is laid out in front of you – it’s intuitive and user friendly. If something goes wrong you can physically see where the issue is, even if you’ve previously been busy looking at another part of the desk.
The main drawbacks are the amount of time it takes to set up every bit of outboard equipment you want to use, and the fact that you’re limited by the physical capability of the hardware. If you’ve got 16 inputs, that’s all you’ve got without getting another desk. If you’ve got 4 grpahics and 4 compressors, that’s all you’ve got without buying more equipment.

With digital, depending on the desk, you’ll have as many channels of EQ, graphic, gates/compression etc. as you can load until you run out of processing power. Each desk has its quirks and its limitations, and some engineers strongly prefer one brand over another, usually because of a) the sound and b) usability.

Cost

There’s a huge range in price of mixing desks, from £200 up to £20,000 and above!

“Budget” desks such as the Behringer X32 get a lot of stick in “pro” circles because they’re fairly limited in terms of how many FX units you can use, the EQ and dynamics stages sound relatively weak compared with something like MIDAS pro series or Soundcraft Vi, and the overall build quality isn’t as sturdy as the professional desks. However – a lot of engineers who complain about budget desks don’t pay for the equipment they use, and the huge savings in cost don’t factor into their considerations.

Ultimately, as long as you have enough inputs and outputs to run your show, the rest is fairy dust and glitter.

Meanwhile back in the real world

A good engineer can make anything work. Recently I was asked to run an event for a client who provided their own PA. The desk turned out to be a low-brand, small format analogue mixer with some basic built-in FX and no EQ/outboard. I ran the gig, and I wasn’t the happiest with the result, the sound coming out of the speaker, or the equipment I was using – but the client was very happy and we now have that night as a regular event.
I think it was the first time that anyone had used all the features on that little desk – set the correct gain stage, EQ each channel (to a very basic degree), use the onboard reverb, set the levels correctly and provide two separate monitor mixes with the 2 aux ouputs the desk had.

We are now using our Allen & Heath desks and our own PA. The client agrees that it sounds better – but they can’t tell me why, or what was wrong with the sound they had before!Big ticket gear is amazing, when you’re working big ticket events. When you’re mixing big venues, you’ve got to know that your equipment is up to the job – and a consumer mixer just isn’t going to cut it. However it’s a long way to come from the Dog and Duck karaoke, where the budgets are a lot tighter, and the quality of everything else in the signal path probably means you’d be wasting your time putting anything other than a basic desk in.

A good soundman will make anything work, and a bad soundman blames his tools.