Advantages of Digital Mixers
Before getting into the main features of digital mixers, let’s explore a few of the reasons why somebody might choose analog. Traditionally, analog mixers are a more economical choice (however, digital mixers are a far better value due to the onboard signal processing, which is absent in analog mixers). In addition, they are simpler in terms of features, which provide beginners with an easier understanding of how everything works. Signal flow is laid out in a logical manner; what you see is what you get and each channel is identical.
In some digital mixers, routing audio is so flexible that it’s not always as easy to guess where the controls are, as they might need to be accessed from menus within the mixer’s software interface. Many of the digital mixers sold by AMS have a fixed 1:1 signal flow but the output routing can be varied. This could lead to confusion if there are multiple operators on one mixer, and for this reason, analog mixers are sometimes preferred in schools and public meeting halls.
Better Sound Quality
In every sound system, noise is lurking. Long cable runs introduce it, microphones pick it up; it’s unavoidable whether the mixer is analog or digital. When analog signals are affected by noise, the change is irreversible which could result in distorted output. Since digital audio is just zeroes and ones, underlying signals are less affected by noise. Digital excels in the ability to resist noise and signal degradation.
One of the main advantages of most digital mixers is their ability to be pre-programmed. On-board memory allows the user to set the mixer up, and then save the settings for future use. This is a huge advantage to venues and banquet halls where the configuration may change depending on the type of event. Recalling basic parameters can be a great starting point and time-saver. Best of all, if somebody accidentally changes something, it’s easy to return to the previous state.
Audio remains in the analog domain at the inputs and outputs of the mixer. The digital conversion occurs in between these stages, and this is where the magic happens. Digital mixers have the ability to process audio in real-time with useful tools such as delay, reverb, equalization, compression, limiting, gating, pitch and modulation effects, and de-essing on every input channel (and often on every output channel as well). This is due to what is known as digital signal processing (DSP). While some analog mixers have DSP effects, they are generally limited in terms of capability. Also, digital effects in an analog mixer will increase the overall cost. In this respect, digital mixers offer superior economy. Software aids in additional processing and it is very flexible based on application. They also negate the need for external equipment such as compressors since everything is possible from within the console.
Room to Grow / Digital Snakes
Many digital mixers offer expansion capabilities such as the addition of digital I/O (USB, DANTE, etc.) for recording, or digital snakes. Dante (Digital Audio Network Through Ethernet) is a network protocol that delivers multi-channel, low-latency digital audio through an Ethernet cable.
Digital snakes are boxes full of inputs that can be placed on stage, which then carry all the signals in digital format (via Ethernet) to the mixer, which might be in the middle or back of the house. Having all the audio through one Ethernet cable negates the need for heavy and expensive, traditional analog snakes.
Digital snakes are usually specific to the manufacturer so make sure you research the particular mixer you’re interested in to see if they offer this accessory. A great feature of being digital is in the ability to control the inputs remotely, such as applying microphone gain to specific inputs. Not to mention, superior audio quality.
Function Switching Controls
On analog mixers, each button serves a specific purpose. Since digital mixers are built on software, each button can change function based on the application. This makes it possible to pack lots of features into a board that might be the same size as its analog counterpart. This holds true for channels as well. A digital mixer can have 64 channels with only 16 physical channel strips. This lends to a significantly smaller footprint.
In the analog realm, inputs are hard-wired and not changeable. On the contrary, digital mixer channels can be routed in whichever way the engineer desires. In addition, each channel can employ multiple effects, each with their own settings. Combine this with the ability to recall (such as remembering the equalizer settings for a specific singer’s microphone), and you can see why digital mixers are more versatile.