7 Advantages Of Using A Digital Mixer For Live Sound

If you’re running sound at a live show in 2024 – whether you’re mixing in a small club, a house of worship, or a music festival – you’re probably using a digital mixing console – and there are some very good reasons for that…

Let’s look at the features that set digital mixers apart from analog mixers, making them the primary choice for live shows of all sizes.

I’ll be using the TASCAM Sonicview 24 for the demonstrations in this video, but most of these principles apply to digital consoles in general.

Thanks to TASCAM for sponsoring this video and supporting audio education.

1. Shared Channel Strip Controls

As you might already know, analog mixers usually have a channel strip for each input. If you’re running sound for a band, for example, you might have a channel strip for the kick drum, snare drum, overhead, bass, guitar, vocal, and so on…

One drawback of this layout is that each additional input onstage will require a physical channel strip on the mixer, and eventually, you could end up with a giant console if the show requires a bunch of channels. This not only takes up a lot of space, but it also requires a lot of lifting.

With a digital console, on the other hand, you can fit many more channels into a much smaller footprint. That’s because the same knobs and faders can be used for multiple purposes. This console allows up to 44 input channels even though there are only 24 input faders. 

Rather than using channel “strips”, you just select the channel you want to adjust and the channel processing will appear on these screens. So, I can select the snare channel and adjust the snare EQ on this screen and the snare compressor on the other screen. Then select the kick channel and adjust those settings using the same screens and the same knobs. 

Alternatively, I can put the snare EQ on one screen and the kick EQ on the other screen. Not only does this method save space horizontally on the console, but it also provides the opportunity to include a lot of additional processing PER CHANNEL. More on this in a moment. 

2. Layers (Quick Access & Customized)

First, I want to mention that the FADERS can also be shared on a digital console, utilizing layers. Rather than being restricted to the number of physical faders on the mixing surface, digital consoles often have motorized faders, providing customizable banks that can be accessed with a simple press of a button. 

Over here on the right side, I can select one of these layer buttons to toggle between each bank of channels. Right out of the box, these are set up pretty logically. But once you get a hang of using a particular mixer, you can start creating your own custom layouts…

You may have noticed that there’s no need for console tape here. In this case, I can color code instrument groups, label each channel, and even add an icon for each input with the built-in LCD displays.

Maybe you want the drums on one layer, the vocals on the next layer, and the FX returns on another layer. Or maybe you want all of the essential faders for a particular show on a single layer. You can even set up DCAs that consolidate several channels to one fader for easier control of the (say) drum kit as a whole while keeping the individual drum channels on a different layer. 

These motorized faders also provide easy access to monitor and FX sends. While you could use these aux send knobs to create a monitor mix for each musician onstage (similar to an analog console), a digital console like the Sonicview allows you to turn the faders into aux sends. And once you get used to it, this “sends on fader” method can be a lot faster than using knobs. 

You can even put graphic EQ on the faders to quickly attenuate frequencies that are feeding back.

That reminds me – in addition to more inputs, you can also facilitate a lot more outputs on a digital console. This board has 22 output buses in addition to the main L/R bus. You just couldn’t expect that from an analog console of this size. 

3. Built-In FX

Over the last few decades, the amount of equipment needed to run a live show has dramatically decreased. And that’s a good thing for touring engineers and stagehands everywhere. 

In addition to the heavy, relatively low-power amplifiers and the large-format analog consoles, audio crews of the past also had to lug around big racks of outboard gear. 

In a typical live sound FOH rack, you might find outboard EQs, compressors, gates, digital reverb units, delay units, and each of these could only be used once. If you needed to put a gate on every drum in a 5-piece drum kit, you didn’t just load up the same plugin on each channel – you carried around a physical analog gate processor for every instance you intended to use. 

Plus, as I already mentioned, the channel strip processors built into a mixer required actual electronics, leading to additional weight, space requirements, and heat. 

Digital consoles don’t need all of those electronics – the EQs and dynamics processors are digital (and therefore, you can have one on every channel without sacrificing space on the truck). The time-based FX are also digital, and controllable right here on the mixing surface. 

This console has 4 stereo FX returns with built-in FX processors. And for each FX slot, you can select whichever reverb, delay, or modulation effect you want. For the same functionality on an analog setup, you’d need at least 4 RU of outboard rack space, plus the analog ins and outs. 

I’m personally a bit too young to remember the days of carrying around all of this stuff, so it’s easy for me to forget how lucky modern engineers have it… But when you stop and think about it, it’s incredible how far technology has come. 

Now I’ve got nothing against analog. Trust me. But the value for your money, the practicality, and the power of a digital console is undeniable – and we’re just getting started. 

4. Remote Control

Have you ever been stuck putting the FOH console on the side of the stage? This is a common scenario for smaller shows and corporate shows where aesthetics are often prioritized over audio quality. 

The issue is, of course, that you have to mix from a location behind the speakers – which makes no sense. 

However, some digital consoles are capable of wireless control with a tablet. In these cases, you just download the app, connect the console and tablet to a WiFi router, and now you can walk into the audience and mix from a sensible location where you can actually hear what you’re doing. 

This also comes in handy when you want to adjust preamp gain and graphic EQ settings on stage to ring out floor wedges, create a rough monitor mix before the performers show up, or tweak your mix to sound good in various locations throughout the audience.

5. Scenes, Presets, & Snapshots (Online Editor)

It can sometimes be intimidating walking into a show where you’ll be using an unfamiliar mixer… You can try to prepare as much as possible by looking at the physical layout online, but in the back of your mind, you may still dread the situation where the show starts in 15 minutes and you can’t even get signal to pass. I’ve been there. 

Luckily, more and more digital console manufacturers provide offline editors that you can install on a computer to experiment with the console’s interface (even if you don’t have the console there with you in the room). That way, you can at least become familiar with the user interface ahead of time, rather than showing up blind. 

But you can also take it a step further and create a template for your show that can be loaded into the console when you arrive on site. 

Even if you don’t go through the process of pre-planning a console file like this, the value of recalling settings on a digital console can’t be overstated. Think about it – all of those knobs on an analog mixer are not motorized… That means you’re pretty much stuck with a pencil and a notebook if you want to preserve the settings for a particular show or artist. 

Every EQ, every compressor, every control has to be manually adjusted in order to recreate a mix. Don’t forget the patching of all that outboard gear (and the settings on the outboard gear, too). With digital, as you might expect, this isn’t a problem. 

Not only can you create presets for EQs and compression, but you can also save and recall layouts, scenes, and snapshots of the entire mix. This is very useful for dialing in a mix for each band during sound check that can be recalled throughout the show or, if you’re touring with a band consistently, you can even go so far as to create a snapshot for each song. 

6. Digital Stage Boxes

If you’ve only been in the industry for a relatively short period of time, you may be unimpressed by all of these features because you’ve always used a digital console. I find myself taking this stuff for granted all the time – I get it… But remember – analog consoles and analog outboard gear used to be the only option. So consider yourself lucky the next time you’re stacking cases. It could be worse. 

You can also feel fortunate if you’ve been tasked to run the snake in a situation where the snake is just a mere ethernet cable or two… 

With analog consoles (and some digital consoles), every individual microphone has to be routed to a snake head on stage, which is connected to a snake head at FOH via a long bundle of analog cables, called a snake. Let’s say it’s a 48 channel snake… That means the analog snake that connects the stage to FOH has 48 individual analog cables in it (and that’s just the input side… you will also have a drive snake to send signals back from the FOH console to the amps on stage). Analog snakes are heavy, bulky, difficult to roll out, and difficult to clean up (especially after a 16-hour day). 

It’s by no means fun to run any kind of snake, but if you’re going to run one, you’d prefer it to be digital. Digital snakes are commonly coaxial cables or ethernet cables, which can carry dozens of channels of audio over a single cable. So they tend to be much lighter and easier to maneuver. 

If you’re using a Dante connection, which is how you connect the Sonicview console to this SB-16D stagebox, you can simply connect the console and the stagebox to a network switch with ethernet cables. Then, the console can route 16 channels in and 16 channels out of the stagebox (and, control the 16 preamps). 

Dante supports more than 16 channels though. In this case, up to 64 channels. Therefore, you could potentially use additional stage boxes across the stage. Each stagebox connects to the switch at the side of the stage via ethernet cables and a single ethernet cable connects the switch to the FOH console. Much easier than analog cabling. 

In addition to the ease of deployment and clean-up, digital snakes also offer some additional benefits. If you loom two ethernet cables together, you can create redundancy by utilizing the ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ ports on each Dante device, so the system can automatically switch over if one cable fails. 

You could even go a step further and use a redundant network switch. Now, if any of the cables or the network switch should fail, the Dante network will switch over to the redundant ports automatically. That happens so quickly that the switch is inaudible. 

7. USB & Network Connectivity

Some digital consoles will also have a USB port for recording to a flash drive, and some have a USB port that allows for multitrack recording to a laptop. This feature can be used to capture each microphone to a separate track for mixing later on. 

The multitracks can also be used for a virtual soundcheck. Let’s say you are touring with a band and you use the same mics every show. During the first show, you could capture a multitrack recording straight off of the board using either the USB connection or a Dante interface.

Then, you could arrive at the next venue the next day before the band even gets there to set up their instruments. You could play the multitrack session from your laptop and route the channels back into the mixer and dial in the mix using the input signals from the first show. The band shows up, you place the mics in the same place as you always do, and the show is mostly mixed. 

This is also a useful technique for newer engineers to practice mixing live tracks. Of course, there won’t be any chance of feedback in this scenario (as there will be during a real show), but it’s still a great way to get practice mixing when you’re not in front of a live audience. 

Let me know in the comments if you’d like to learn more about setting up a virtual soundcheck. 

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