Digital Mixers Demystified

Mike Lawson • Technology • June 14, 2016

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Digital mixers have been around for several years now, and have evolved rapidly in form, formats, and types of product offerings.

A decade ago a digital mixer may have been a traditional- style mixing console in large or small format, allowed for connection of digital recording 

Mackie DL806 Digital Mixer

devices such as the TASCAM DA-88 or Alesis ADAT, later evolving to connect via ADAT lightpipe to hard disk recorders, or digital PCI cards installed in computers for control of the audio tracks recorded on them. They often could automate your movements of faders and memorize them, saved for each time you opened a particular project, and many also included digital effects and signal processing.

As those recording formats became obsolete, digital mixers began to adopt the Firewire and USB input/output format (I/O), allowing direct multitrack recording to computers and the digital audio workstation (DAW) software they run such as Cubase, Pro Tools, Studio One, Digital Performer, GarageBand, Logic, and other DAWs. While this feature remains constant in today’s product range, another new twist has developed the last few years with the advent of apps for mobile devices that allow you to control the complete workings of the mixers remotely via WiFi. These digital mixers physical faders are motorized and move in response to their digital app counterpart running on the Android or iOS platforms. This is an amazing step forward in mixing your program.

QSC Touch Mix-8Mixing audio from the stage for an audience out front is very difficult. Ideally you want to be sitting at the “sweet spot” in the audience to make sure the sound is properly balanced for the room in which you are performing. If your mixer is on your stage, being mixed by your performing group members, you can’t turn the knobs while hearing the sound check performance and adjust levels accordingly. The new mobile device apps working with these mixers allows you to still place your mixer on stage with your group, but to then take the iPad or Android tablet or smartphone and walk out to the sweet spot in the audience to adjust the sound while your group performs.

This is a big deal. You no longer need a dedicated sound system operator, provided you have a good ear and have familiarized yourself with the workings of the digital mixer on the app. You no longer need to run a snake from the stage way out into the audience to connect the microphones to the mixer and take up space in the audience with the sound equipment. You can walk to every corner of the performance space with the mixer app in your hands to hear how it sounds and make adjustments accordingly.

PreSonus Studio Live 16.0.2In addition to mixing the front of house position with your mobile device, you can stand in front of any stage monitor speakers you have and mix the sound you want going into them, while you stand in front of them. That’s a huge improvement over standing in front of the monitor and telling the sound system operator what to add to the monitor, how loud something should be, et cetera. Its all in the palm of your hand.

Some of these new digital mixers that marry mobile devices with WiFi require you to attach them to a WiFi router to create a private network for the mobile device. Some newer models now include their own WiFi router. Simply join the network the device is connected to, turn on the mixer app and you should be instantly in control of your state-of-the-art-this-week digital mixer.

Line6 StageScape M20dI wrote about this a little in last month’s editorial on shopping for a PA for my band. These mixers not only come in traditional mixer formats, but some are now being sold in rack-mountable formats containing only the I/O connections with all mixing and digital signal processing (DSP) features being done via the app. Benefits to getting a traditional style digital mixer with physical faders and knobs is the likelihood of a longer shelf life of the investment if and when the app is no longer supported. Benefits to getting the non-traditional rack-mount style I/O mixer include a typically lower price point and more inputs/outputs than a comparably priced traditional- style digital mixer. With either style, you can still connect the mixers to a computer and capture a multi-track performance recording of your group if you have somebody willing to operate the software while you perform and conduct. 

Along with Soundcraft, PreSonus, Mackie, Line6, Allen and Heath, QSC, and other manufacturers make digital mixers with iOS/Android app control software. These mixers can get really expensive, costing thousands of dollars. But surprisingly, you can get into this technology for as few as $299 (street price) with Soundcraft’s Soundcraft Ui12 Digital Mixer. That simpleto- use mixer allows for eight microphone inputs via XLR connection, with Mackie 1DL32Rfour of the inputs being combo-connectors that can accept ¼” cable connectors or XLR microphone cables. It features a stereo XLR output you can run to today’s powered PA speakers or to a power amp that connects to old-school passive PA speakers. In addition it sports two “Aux” outputs (auxiliary) which would be used to send two different monitor mixes out to two powered monitors or monitors connected to a power amp channel. It has two headphone ¼” jacks, a stereo RCA connection for running a cable, say, from your mobile device’s earphone output, allowing you to play recorded music over the system, plus a USB port allowing you to record to a thumb drive. It also has built-in WiFi transmission along with digital signal processing for reverb, delay, compression, EQ and other effects. For an additional $100, you can move up to the 16-channel version, with four Aux sends, eight XLR inputs and eight ¼”/XLR inputs.

For a street price of around $539, you can step into a Mackie DL806 Digital Mixer with eight Onyx preamps, 24-bit Cirrus Logic digital converters, DSP processing, and support for up to 10 wireless iOS device connections, provided you want ten people able to change the mixer settings at the same time. This mixer has four Aux sends for sending to stage monitors, stereo XLR outputs to the PA speakers, but does not include built-in WiFi transmission. Instead, it has an Ethernet port, which you would connect to your own WiFi transmission device to create a private wireless network.

Coming in at around $850, QSC’s entry point into digital mixers has its own touch-screen interface along with mobile device control. The QSC TouchMix-8 is a 12-channel digital mixer with 4 x mic inputs, 4 x mic/line combination inputs, 2 x stereo line inputs, built-in DSP FX, and remote app control via built-in Wi-Fi transmission. All of this is in an ultra-portable desktop format.

It’s the next small jump in price that leads us to a more traditional- style mixer with physical faders, in the PreSonus StudioLive 16.0.2. At $899 street price, you get:

• 16 channel inputs (8 mono input channels and 4 stereo channels) with 60mm faders

• 13 Class A XMAX solid-state mic preamplifiers (12 channels + talkback)

• 4 auxiliary buses (pre/post-fader send) and 2 internal FX buses

• 2 stereo 32-bit digital effects processors

• QMix wireless aux mix control software for your iPhone and iPod Touch!

• Fat Channel signal processing on all channels and buses:

• 3-band semi-parametric EQ

• Dynamics: gating, compressor, downward expander, and limiter

• Stereo, 31-band graphic EQ on the main bus

• 16-in/16-out FireWire recording interface (24-bit/44.1kHz and 48kHz)

• Scene and individual settings store and recall

This type of mixer gives you the option (as does the QSC series) of not using the mobile mixing apps if you want to manage faders on the mixer itself. Various features enhancements across several Studio Live models lead up to the $2,299 (street price) PreSonus StudioLive 32.4.2AI model.

Coming in around $1,499, the Line6 StageScape M20d 20- ch digital mixer with touchscreen interface, auto- sensing inputs and outputs, built-in processing, USB/SD Card Recording, and iPad remote control packs a lot of features into this small box, including easy recording to thumb drives via USB or an SD card. It features 12 XLR inputs, four line inputs, four Aux sends, among its I/O offerings, and has a nifty feature that allows you to record 20 seconds of a sound source to play back while adjusting the live sound without having your group perform over and over while you adjust the part.

At $1,800, you can go back to the rack-mounted style we first talked about here with the Soundcraft, but get Mackie’s top of the line Mackie DL32R 32-channel digital rack-mounted mixer, a 32-channel Touch Software-controlled rack-mounted digital mixer with 28 Buses, 14 stereo-linkable aux sends, 32 x 32 USB 2.0 audio interface, 32 Onyx+ microphone preamps, multitrack recording/playback, and onboard digital effects.

I’m going to stop right there for the typical SBO reader, as we’ve hit the higher-price-point of the digital mixers that allow for remote control via mobile devices. As you can see, it can get very expensive, or be very affordable to get into this technology for your group. Take a look at these models online and compare them, read the reviews, and make your decision about which new style digital mixer is going to help you improve the quality of the sound your groups project, while providing you with ease-of-use and small learning curves.


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