Digital mixing – missing the visual approach

PM5DI am not going to start any kind of analogue vs. digital debate here. I love digital desks for their recall, automation of repetitive tasks and their ability to deal with complex routing and patching without having to use a ton of XLR cables and remote boxes. I think the sound quality of the A-D-A converters is improving and latency issues are being addressed properly by manufacturers.

However I still use analogue for all of my teaching and a good deal of my gig and touring work. I don’t go spec’ing analogue desks for the sake of it but am happy if an XL3 or H3000 is either end of the multi-core.

I had not really given this preference any thought, given my fondness of digital for making complex patching and multiple IEM situations easier. But a show last weekend really made me question the use of digital control surfaces, for FOH mixing in particular.

I was running a PM5D for a fairly simple band set-up, an act I have mixed previously on analogue. Sound check went well, if a little rushed, but during the show I really began to struggle. I lost confidence in my mix, became distracted and spent a good 20 minutes of the set shaking my head.

Why? Well, it didn’t look right.

Let me explain. Good gain structure is a vital part of getting a good live sound. I am used to setting unity gain on my inputs, setting group, VCA & main outputs to appropriate levels, sitting back and letting the whole thing mix itself. The inputs mesh together and the board seems to ‘sing’. I have been mixing this way for so long that I have a visual ‘memory’ of the board, any board, how it looks and how the resulting sound should be. It looks ‘right’. It’s the same for me with graphic EQ inserted on outputs – I ‘see’ the sound in my head as well as actually analysing problem frequencies. ‘Seeing’ the board tells my brain that everything is knitted together. It looks ‘right’.

Looking at the control surface at that show last weekend was not the same. Yes I had channel output faders set to unity, I could select channels and see I had good gain on those inputs and that the outputs were not too low or clipping. And yet my head was telling me ‘this is a control surface. Your inputs are all separate from each other.’ It was as if I was ‘seeing’ a representation of audio that was removed from what was happening. I also then remembered that I have used a PM5D on monitors for whole tours and never had this feeling.

I have always felt that mixing for FOH is an instinctive process, based on emotional responses towards a more creative process. Mixing stage monitors requires a creative understanding for sure, but also demands a logistical approach. Which, given the complexity of a modern input list, is a good thing. But the creative process can be reduced.

This is probably why I never noticed digital desks do not look ‘right’.

2 thoughts on “Digital mixing – missing the visual approach

  1. “I have always felt that mixing for FOH is an instinctive process, based on emotional responses towards a more creative process.”

    Absolutely 100% true! In essence it is all physics of course. But it is influenced by so many variables that the physics behind it are too difficult to comprehend. So it comes down to the art of getting it “right”. Also the same reason why there are so many stories/fables on how to get a good sound.

  2. I agree to disagree,you can offcause see an digital desk but it looks different than analog,first of all dig.has a small hands on workspace & all different layers,I think to see a digital desk you have look in a wider spectrum & put all the layers together.

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