13 Benefits of Using Digital Mixers (and a few negatives)


You may be an advanced mix engineer who loves analog equipment. Or, maybe you’re new to the world of sound and are looking at buying and/or working on your first mixer. In either case, you will eventually find yourself comparing the pros and cons of analog and digital equipment. In this article, we will look at 13 benefits of using a digital mixer.

What are the benefits of using a digital mixer?

  1. High Channel Count Possibilities
  2. Small Footprint and Lightweight
  3. Digital Snake Utilization
  4. Linking Multiple Consoles
  5. Input Channel Processing
  6. Output Channel Processing
  7. Internal Routing Options
  8. Effects
  9. Remote Accessibility/Control
  10. Show/Scene/Snapshot Recall
  11. Automation
  12. Multi-track Recording
  13. Low Cost

This article isn’t intended to be a Digital vs. Analog discussion about which is better or worse, but rather a list of benefits specific to digital mixers in comparison to the analog counterpart. Analog certainly has benefits of its own, but we’ll leave that for another article. So with that said, let’s dive right in!

Digital Mixers are Versatile

Digital mixers are quickly becoming (if they’re not already) the industry standard in the world of live sound. The best way to sum this up is that digital mixers are extremely versatile. We are now living in the digital age so it only makes sense that every industry would follow suit, and the audio industry is no exception.

The possibilities in the digital world of productivity are nearly only limited by creativity – if you can think of it, it can probably be done. We see this happening with digital consoles and many consider the benefits overwhelmingly positive. Let’s talk about them!

High Channel Count Possibilities

The first benefit of using a digital mixer is the possibility of utilizing many channels. Sure, you can buy a digital mixer with a small amount of channels – say 16 or 24 – but you can also get digital mixers that support up to 2,000 channels! The amount of space needed for that many channels in the analog world is just impractical.

Do you need that many? Probably not. But it’s not uncommon to need 32, 48, 56 or even 100+ channels. The more channels you need, the more it makes sense to use a digital mixer.

The reason high channel counts in the digital world are more practical is because how little physical space they take up compared to the amount of space the same amount of channels would take in the analog world. But we’ll talk more about that in the next section.

Small Footprint and Lightweight

Another benefit of digital consoles is their lightweight and (relatively) small footprint. As I mentioned in the last section, a 100+ channel digital mixer will take up significantly less physical space than a 100+ channel analog board.

This is because any processing done on an analog system requires physical space inside or outside of the console – e.g. EQ, compression, gates, etc…

With a digital console this is all done through a CPU just like a computer. So again, a 100+ channel analog board will have 100+ EQ units. Whereas a digital mixer will likely have one set of EQ controls and will adjust whichever channel you have selected at the time.

This workflow can take some time to get used to, but saves a tremendous amount of space and weight.

Digital Snake Utilization

Another perk to using digital mixers is the ability to use digital snakes, if desired.

Now, depending on your level of expertise, you may be asking yourself what a snake is. No, I’m not talking about the animal – (thank goodness). In the context of audio, a snake is a piece of equipment that passes multiple channels of signal down a single cable, or single bundle of cables, rather.

So, rather than running 32 individual cables from the instruments on stage to the mixer (which could be dozens or hundreds of feet away), you can use a snake in which you plug all the instruments into and a run a single cable (with multiple small cables inside) to the mixer.

What I just explained is an analog audio snake. We use these all the time in live sound, and they are very efficient! But depending on the amount of channels and length of the snake, they can weigh several hundred pounds!

Now imagine that same concept, but instead of a 500lb+ audio snake, we replace it with one or two 10lb ethernet cables. This means less space, less weight and faster setup and tear down!

That is how a digital snake operates and is a huge benefit of using a digital mixer.

Linking Multiple Consoles

There are many reasons one might want to link two or more consoles together. But the most common reason is to use one console for the front-of-house (FOH) mix and the other for monitors. This is commonly done with a split-snake.

If you read my description above about what a snake is, this shouldn’t be too hard to understand. A split-snake just provides more than 1 “copy” of each channel. So a 2-way split-snake would have two copies of Channel 1, two copies of Channel 2, etc… This allows 2 different consoles to receive the same signals, but work independently of each other.

There are also 3-way and 4-way split-snake systems. While each split won’t necessarily double the weight of a regular snake, it will increase it the overall weight drastically and the space needed to store and transport.

Using digital mixers often (depending on which digital mixer you’re using) eliminates the need for an analog split altogether. Since digital mixers are essentially just computers, they can be networked together to share data and snake I/O (inputs and outputs).

This is great for saving time and space!

Input Channel Processing

No matter how new or advanced you are, something that everyone will benefit from when using digital mixers is the input channel processing. This is the EQ, Compression, Gates/Expanders, etc…

In the analog world you are typically limited to the onboard EQ of the mixer. If you want a compressor on Channel 1, you have to buy a compressor and the cables to hook it up, not to mention have the space to store it.

Nowadays, most digital mixers come with an EQ, Compressor and Gate on EVERY single channel! And some come with even more. This saves a ton of space and money!

Output Channel Processing

The output channel processing benefits are almost identical to those of the input channel processing, but it is worth making a separate mention.

Many people think of audio processing as only happening on individual input channels. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, at least in the professional world.

It is true, most processing occurs on individual channel strips. However, output processing is vital in the eyes of most professionals. Output processing is used for a world of different things – e.g. fine tuning the FOH mix, ringing out monitors, compressing audio for a video feed, high-passing the feed for a church lobby or nursery, etc…

You may or may not know what all these things mean, but you soon will if you’re getting into sound. And when you begin learning about all these things you will be very grateful for the output processing you have if you’re using a digital mixer!

Internal Routing Options

The ability to do internal routing with digital consoles has been a game changer in the industry. It allows for much quicker work flow and much more flexibility.

But in case you’re unfamiliar with what routing is in the audio industry, let me explain.

In audio systems there is a term called “signal flow”. This refers to the path and sub-paths of the audio starting from the sound source all the way to the final output – usually speakers.

That path is called the “signal flow” and the act of creating the path is called “routing”.

On an analog board, if you want Snake Channel 1 to appear on Channel 12 of the board you must physically patch that snake channel to said board channel.

On a digital board, however, you can plug any snake channel into any board channel and make it show up on any channel you’d like – or even multiple channels. That’s not to say you should just randomly plug things in anywhere you feel like it. Organization is still very important.

The point I’m making is that you have the ability to do some very sophisticated internal routing with digital consoles. The benefits of this include multichannel patching, adding insert effects, quick troubleshooting, and more.

Effects

Effects are a very important part of any good (musical) mix. Effects such as reverb and delay can take a mix from just “sounding” good to “feeling” good.

Much like the analog processing we talked about (compressors, gates, etc…), analog effects units are usually a separate piece of equipment that must be bought and setup. There is nothing wrong with this, but as you’d imagine, it takes more space and money.

Modern digital mixers usually come with a slew of built-in effects units that run on nothing more than the built-in CPU – effects like reverb, delay, pitch shifters, compressors, distortions, and more.

The amount of effects modern digital mixers come with these days would likely cost you thousands of dollars and a ton of space for the analog equivalents.

This is a huge up-side to using a digital mixer!

Remote Accessibility/Control

Most digital mixers are able to be controlled remotely via phone, tablet or computer. Some people wonder why anyone would want to do this. But let me tell you, it won’t be long before you find a reason!

Being able to control an entire console remotely has become an invaluable tool for many engineers, including myself. This is often done in situations where you are working alone. And while you can never replace a good helping hand, having a tablet allows you to perform certain tasks much quicker when working alone.

Maybe you need to adjust a musician’s monitor mix. Or maybe you need to fix the EQ of some speakers in a balcony. Maybe you’re troubleshooting some bad cables underneath the stage. There are hundreds of scenarios we could discuss, but the point is the same. Having remote accessibility/control of your console is a fantastic tool that you will only get with digital mixers!

Show/Scene/Snapshot Recall

Having the ability to recall certain or all settings of the console has become expected in the audio industry. This makes it possible to have multiple performers back-to-back-to-back in such short periods of times, (hopefully) without any hiccups.

This just isn’t possible on an analog console. The closest you could ever get is taking a picture and manually dialing in every setting as quick as possible. But this would take at least a couple minutes to do, if not 10 or 15. And even then it’s not fool-proof… mistakes will be made.

On a digital mixer, you can store all of the consoles settings with the click of a button and then recall it in the exact same way. This means you could have dozens or even hundreds of snapshots for each artist that needed to perform and recall them in under a second.

This feature is used all the time at festivals, churches and theatres. Definitely a plus of going digital!

Automation

Automation goes hand-in-hand with the show/scene/snapshot recall functions. You can use those functions without automation, but you can’t use automation without those recall functions.

Automation features are normally controlled via Timecode. To keep it simple, Timecode is a very precise measurement of time increments measured in hours, minutes, seconds and frames and is most often used to sync media to video. However, it can also be used to sync different hardware equipment together in order to fire cues together and in perfect sync.

While there are some who do use automation in high-level music acts and churches, it is most commonly used in theatres when you have dozens or even hundreds of cue changes that need to be made in perfect timing.

This is a feature you will only get with a digital mixer!

Multi-track Recording

Multi-track recording is becoming a standard operation for live performances, especially churches. These live recordings are often overdubbed and remixed in post-production to a more professional standard and later released to the public.

This can technically be done with or without a digital mixer, but it is much easier with a digital mixer.

In order perform multi-track recordings you need a sound card with enough I/O (inputs and outputs) to hook up to a computer. This sound card converts analog signals into digital signals that your computer can understand and record.

If you have a digital mixer, this is already being done! All you need is a way to connect it to your computer. Many digital consoles have USB sound cards so all you’ll need is the USB cable. Other consoles have other connectivity options, but the principle is the same. The digital console is already doing the converting… you just need a way to connect it to your computer!

Low Cost

Last but not least, digital consoles are far cheaper than analog when you compare feature to feature.

You can get a 32-channel digital mixer with EQ, a compressor and a gate on each channel, built-in effects and more for $2,000 – $3,000. Whereas an analog system of the same caliber might cost you $30,000 – $40,000 and you still would never have some features, like remote control and snapshot recall, for example.

Don’t get me wrong, there are very expensive digital consoles that cost tens-of-thousands and even hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. But again, when comparing feature to feature, digital mixers cost far less than their analog equivalents.

The Negatives…

As the title suggests, there are some negative sides to digital mixers despite all of their benefits. Let’s talk about a few of them here.

Learning Curve

Digital mixers aren’t nearly as straightforward and easy to learn as an analog mixer. With analog mixers, what you see is what you get – there aren’t really any surprises to be expected.

Digital consoles on the other hand require an understanding of the analog world before much sense can be made. Digital mixers contain lots of menus and pages, much like a computer. Because of this, there is usually a fairly steep learning curve, especially if you’ve never worked on a digital console before.

Unpredictable

Chances are you’ve experienced problems and glitches with your computer or phone before. This is just a reality of digital products, and digital mixers are no exception.

Most digital consoles are stable for the most part, but it is inevitable that something will eventually go wrong. And it’s pretty much impossible to predict when and what will happen – again, much like a computer.

This could be anything from certain features not working to features working when they’re not supposed to.

Again, this is rare, but it will happen.

Troubleshooting

My last point brings us here – troubleshooting.

When something happens with a digital mixer, it’s generally not as easy to troubleshoot as an analog mixer. If something’s not working with an analog mixer is pretty safe to say that there a is bad component – it either works or it doesn’t.

Digital mixers on the other hand have so much more going on than what meets the eye. When a problem arises with a digital mixer, you must first find out whether or not it is a user error. This can mean lots of menu diving and searching for problems you aren’t even sure exist.

And sometimes after 30 minutes of troubleshooting you realize that simply restarting the mixer fixes your problem (ask me how I know).

If you understand digital mixers, and more importantly the one you’re using at the time, this process gets much easier. But it takes some time to get used to.

By now I think you see the point – troubleshooting isn’t nearly as easy on digital mixers as it is with analog.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many benefits to using digital mixers, as well as some cons too. I hope I’ve helped you understand those benefits and how they might apply to you. As I stated before, this article isn’t intended to be a digital vs. analog competition favoring digital mixers, but rather a specific look at the benefits of a digital mixer in comparison to analog.

Analog certainly has its own set of benefits. Maybe we’ll discuss those in a future article!

Thanks for reading and I hope I’ve been a help to you!

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