The new normal of mixing with digital audio consoles
The landscape of live sound has changed dramatically over the last decade. The advent of affordable, reliable digital sound consoles promised a new era of efficiency and capacity. But has this really happened? And if it has, how has that changed the job of a mix engineer? I sought out the words of a few veteran mix engineers to find out.
“A lot has changed in how we set up consoles and where and when we do our programming,” says Jim van Bergen. “You can do a lot offline; you can change files at home on your laptop.” Although from Bergen’s resume you might be forgiven for assuming he never is at home. His sound designs include The Big Apple Circus, It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, Blue Man Group, as well as ART and True West on Broadway. He’s worked with clients ranging from the New York Metropolitan Opera to Pope John Paul II and he has more than dozen credits as a production mixer on Broadway, including RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles, Cats, Chicago, A View From the Bridge, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Seven Guitars, The Lyons, ART, Ch’inglish and more.
His mention of a laptop isn’t accidental, either. While he’s familiar with seemingly every pro desk out there—“DiGiCo SD7 and SD8, Studer Vista5 and Vista 8, Yamaha PM1D, PM5D, Midas Pro6, and Avid Profile consoles. That’s a lot of desks. If I had to choose one console, I’d probably want to go DiGiCo, but it depends on the size of the show and the show’s requirements”—he looks at them a lot less like a desk and a lot more like a computer, or, as he put it: a giant mouse. “You have to remember that today’s digital mixing console is just a massive, pretty remote.”
He’s quick to take advantage of the computing power behind those remotes, using the on-board internal effects processing as well as plug-ins instead of outboard gear—but some of the time he used to spend tweaking outboard gear is now spent doing IT work or interconnect maintenance on systems. “Having multichannel streams over fiber, MADI or Cat5 means that when something goes down, you lose everything, not just a single channel or group.”
He’s not the only one who sees the trend towards more IT work in the FOH position. David Bullard is a sound designer, systems designer and seasoned Broadway associate. His sound designs include Ninth and Joanie (LAByrinth Theatre), One Night Only: a night with Al Pacino (International Tour), Ghosts (dir. Emmy Frank) and he’s worked as an associate sound designer on Warhorse (North American Tour & Berlin), Sondheim on Sondheim and West Side Story (New York and National Tour). And he agrees with Bergen.
“A mix engineer now needs to have a decent amount of computer skills as well as mixing ability,” says Bullard. “It’s a bit unfortunate, but it’s part of the job now. It’s no longer just pushing the sound with your fingers; you have to consider what you’re not controlling too, and how to get to it.”
Bullard prefers to use the Vista 5 series from Studer, or the Soundcraft Vi series—not surprising since he helped create their theatre software. As part of that process he was able to influence the direction of digital consoles to allow mixers to do more “qualitative work.”
“In the past, an operator would often mark changes in their script to do EQs or faders,” Bullard says. “Sometimes you could automate, sometimes not. Sometimes, you didn’t know what you needed until it was too late, so the operator did many manual changes. Now, we can program all sorts of changes into scenes. Want to move an actor to a different area for imaging? No problem. Hat EQs? We can have as many as we’d like without filling up racks with outboard products. The best situation, though, is when the desk gets you to where you need to be to start, and allows the operator to finesse what they need as they work. It’s about taking away the repetitive tasks, and focusing on the art.”
Plus Ça Change
It’s important not to get too tangled up in the technical side of things, though. While you may be working on more computers and less copper wire, the job is still the same.
Jon Taylor is owner and lead engineer for Monolith Soundworks in Central New Jersey and has been in the sound business for almost 17 years. He is also active duty U.S. Air Force for more than 18 years (and counting) as an aircraft mechanic and handles audio and video for several larger events and the chapels for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst while simultaneously freelancing sound for several local bands, stages and events. While he can mix with anything in front of him he primarily uses PreSonus consoles, and can most often be found over on the Presonus forum as a member of the Mod Squad as well as answering questions about PreSonus systems for just about anyone.
“I don’t look at mixing any differently,” says Taylor. “Digital or analog, desks allow you to do the same thing. You take one person’s thoughts and get them to the audience. With a digital desk, you just click a button and you have it.”
“From the Broadway perspective, not much has changed with the onset of digital,” says van Bergen. But “Every other market has.” Thanks to increased power at a decreased price, lower-budget theatres are able to make significant changes in the way their shows sound as a result of digital technology and take advantage of a rise in educated engineers. “In the 1980s and 1990s you’d hear shows and wonder how a Broadway show sounded so perfect, when shows in the regionals didn’t come remotely close. Today there is more consistency of sound as the tools are inexpensive—allowing better gear across the all venues—and there are many highly trained people across the industry, and a lot of talented designers and mixers working across the world. A lot of that is a result of the expansion of the market with shows like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and their touring companies that spared no expense in doing what was needed to make the show sound correct. In the process, they educated local crews, producers and audiences—who all heard the difference and realized change was in the wind.”
Digital consoles have accelerated the need for a well-trained engineer, too.
“Many consoles have gotten so complicated you need a Ph.D. to make it go!” says Taylor. “So much is being crammed into a small space with a digital console. You have to have well trained people to get good results.”
Following the basic outline of Moore’s Law, digital audio technology has gotten faster and more powerful, while the price has gotten less and less expensive. And although a Broadway show may cost more than ever, technology’s trickle down has provided immense value for smaller budgets.
“Since the ProMix 01v 16-channel Yamaha console and the MiniDisk player, live sound has gotten better for less!” says van Bergen. And this doesn’t just stop at mixers. There are inexpensive amplifiers available built into speakers, speakers that do more in a compact size and a plethora of outboard gear sitting inside your virtual rack in the mixer. And it’s not just hardware that’s cheaper. Digital technology means time savings, too. “You can program offsite. You can re-build cues in your computer and play them during tech or rehearsal for the director, saving the massive amounts of time we used to spend after a rehearsal going back and re-building seven or eight options.”
Taylor is similarly bullish on what digital means for profits. “Setting up systems with 32 channels or more is hard to do yourself with an analog set up. So you have to hire help. That cuts into your profit margin for the gig. You make up the investment cost of digital very quickly.” Unlike other industries, though, increased automation doesn’t mean decrease in the labor force. “No one gets fired, you can simply take more work,” says Taylor. “When you make more money, you can have more people working.”
“Decisions are easier because all of your costs go down,” says Bullard. “If you are on a tour, you can dramatically effect the entire tour with a digital system. Just in the snake, you can make all of your cable runs with one or two cables. This saves time in load in and load out, the amount of space you need in the trucks, the weight of the trucks on the road improves gas mileage, etc. All of the side benefits are great. Producers are happy they save a little money in a lot of places.”
But producers also know this, now—which means the work load is creeping up. “We are being called upon to do more,” says Taylor. “Clients are reading about technology the same as everyone else. They know the basic capabilities of digital technology so they have more expectations. Clients know they can pay less for more.”
And don’t think that just because the consoles are smaller fighting for good mixing placement has stopped.
“One of the best things about digital consoles is that the FOH footprint has decreased significantly, which is a win for both designers and producers,” says van Bergen. “But we still argue over seat kills for console placement.”