One factoid regarding technology that I witness time and time again is some will let technology drive vision. Just because there are newer/faster/better tools on the market does not make a need to upgrade to them.
Digital mixers are at or near the top of that list for some HOWs. Before jumping into the binary pool, there are some important factors to consider.
Financial cost is obviously at the forefront. The analog market, although shrunken a bit since the turn of the century, is still the more viable market when talking bottom line. I have experienced my share of the smaller-format digital mixers and yes, most work, but fall short when compared to their analog financial counterpart. Having a new digital board may also present the challenge of proper cabling and patch bays. The infrastructure required for a new system may not be compatible with the current infrastructure in the HOW. Compatible cabling and patch bays could easily take a large chunk out of the budget and should be carefully considered in the planning stages.
As with all major upgrades, be sure to plan and dream with a view of three to five years down the road. For example, if migrating to a digital board, why not take the plunge into in-ear monitoring (IEM) systems and get a board with built-in capability for an Aviom (or comparable) headphone system? Of course, this then requires the necessary cabling between FOH and the IEM brain, which adds to the expense.
If that is not on the immediate budget, it would be wise to get something with these capabilities, as the ability for future expansion is a clear benefit of going digital. Having the ability to add additional faders to a smaller system as the HOW grows or the ability to record digitally direct from the board may also be on the list. If you end up purchasing something that is limited to “just barely cutting it” in your current scenario, you very well could end up worse off than with a larger analog board.
Cost of Ownership
The cost of ownership is probably the biggest misconception and most overlooked element when considering the jump to digital. If the dollars and infrastructure are in place, the hardest cost to evaluate is the cost of ownership. “How difficult is this for volunteers to navigate?” and “will my phone ring on offhours because someone unfamiliar with a digital board is trying to route audio” as well as repair and maintenance questions are just a few of the cost-of-ownership concerns that should be considered before making the digital move.
Volunteers are probably at the top of a cost-of-ownership list. It is one thing to show a volunteer how to successfully navigate an analog board where every knob is locked into one function. Add in menus and pages with a multi-function knob, and the number of possibilities for error and confusion greatly increases. On the other side of that coin, digital does offer presets; with a push of a few buttons, the board is set. However, throw in one last-minute change, and the volunteer could be put in a tough position.
The Case for Analog HOW Mixing
Analog technology has been proven time and time again, and — at its core — there is really nothing new. This makes for more options when requiring repairs. It takes me back to the days when I could actually work on my own car without needing a USB port and computerized diagnostic equipment. Gone are the days for the engineer who likes to dig under the hood of the audio board and tinker with repairs once the switch to digital is complete. Firmware upgrades and logic board replacements could quickly become the norm when it comes to repairs.
Analog boards continue to develop and grow by adding improved features such as effective compression within each module, as with the Yamaha IM8 series. This particular analog board has even added a USB interface to make for easy recording; competing products have added similar features — USB and/or FireWire, even built-in digital effects, plus more.
The jump into digital can be an exciting and worthwhile transition, but only if all of the factors involved are considered and measured. If you don’t look carefully before you leap, you might end up in the shallow end of the binary pool.
Dan Wothke is the media director for Belmont Church in Nashville. He welcomes your comments firstname.lastname@example.org.