The advent of the digital age has given us so much new technology that streamlines workflow in the studio and a live sound gig. The days of analog tape and massive FOH analog snakes and consoles are now mostly relegated to nostalgia, and digital consoles are here to stay. While digital consoles have been implemented into large scale tours for almost decades now, it hasn’t been until the past few years that compact, affordable, small-format digital consoles have penetrated the market. As much as most of us would love to always be working on a Soundcraft VI6 or an AVID Profile, sometimes the budget, the space or the gig just commands a simpler board.
Recently, we brought in four new small-format digital mixing consoles from some of the top manufacturers. We set up the Behringer x32, Soundcraft SI Expression 2, PreSonus StudioLive 24.4.2, and the Roland Systems Group M-200i all next to each other in our live room, and after mopping the drool off the floor, we got to work. Each of these consoles sits in the under $3000 price range, with the PreSonus mixer being the least expensive at $2499.95. So again, this comes down to what best fits your needs for your application. We could go into features, and what mixer has what knob, but then we’d be wasting your time with information you can easily find all over the web. Check out our resource center for product comparisons.
Now you might be thinking that it’s impossible to convey the differences between four completely different digital consoles in a video, but we were actually just as surprised as we hope you’ll be. To create a real-life experience on each console, we brought in a full band and a professional live sound engineer and put everyone through four consecutive sound checks (we cringed too!) and a single song performance.
Our engineer, James Dean, has done his fair share of work on several of the industry’s top consoles in his past decade of touring, but had never worked extensively with any of these digital consoles, so we gave him a few hours in the afternoon before the band showed up to familiarize himself with each desk. Rather than using the digital snakes that some of the consoles have, we kept everything analog from the stage. We set up one console in the mix position at a time and then just re-patched a different board to the same analog snake. Our input list and all stage patching stayed the same, so the engineer could digitally change the patching right at the consoles (minus the PreSonus mixer) however he wanted to fit his workflow.
Each digital mixer clearly had its pros and cons, and it was even immediately obvious that sound quality changed between each mixer as well.To be fair, the mixes certainly had differences but there were characteristics on the desks that still revealed themselves. Some had effects that sounded a little less authentic, while others sounded incredibly crisp and real. Additionally, some mixers had controls that were a little confusing to locate or identify, while others put everything right in front of the operator. James did have a few struggles as he learned his way around each but mostly in the form of new-user error.
With the Behringer x32, James had no problem getting around, but we observed the sound was a little harsh in the high-end. While the really large screen is a great asset, we did find ourselves wishing it was touch sensitive like some others. Fortunately, this is solved with the iPad app.
On the Soundcraft, the James had unknowingly cranked the makeup gain on the master compressor while he was thinking that he was adjusting the threshold. In a real live sound situation a solid engineer would have spent ample time learning the board in advance of the gig and and be more familiar with where to go for certain controls. After fixing the problem, we noticed immediately that the sound quality seemed more rich, clear, and full than the Behringer mixer.
During the PreSonus portion, our engineer really got everything dialed in quickly, but having not used the Smaart Monitor tuning Wizard, there were several instances of feedback during soundcheck. We also noticed that the gain had to be turned up a little more than some of the other consoles, but did not affect anything adversely. The effects sounded great, and all of the controls for every channel spill out across the top of the board when you select a specific input, so it’s easy to grab for a specific parameter and change it on the fly.
The final console, the Roland Systems Group M-200i, was the smallest of the bunch, but it almost packed the most punch. We immediately noticed the effects were incredible sounding! The only downside is that it is really intended to be used with an iPad to control a lot of the functions on this version of the console, but the app makes for a great system. James did fumble around at one point finding the pan for the channel, but again, just user error from not being completely familiar with the equipment.
Each has it’s own workflow, representation of effects, and style of mixing. All of them can be controlled with an iPad, and some truly needed it while others were just fine without it. When choosing a digital console, use something that you’re comfortable with. The last thing you need is to be fumbling around with finding a control in the middle of a sound check or performance. Live sound is all about fast paced work, and digital technology has really made our lives as sound engineers much easier. Here’s to the digital age!
To see the experience for yourself take a listen/look to the following video and let us know what you think! You’ll see the setup, hear some tracks, and get James’ thoughts on the overall experience working with each of these great compact digital mixing consoles. We hope you find it helpful and look forward to hearing from you.
We've had a number of questions about how to determine if the differences in "sound quality" heard in the video are merely differences in the mix. To address this, we prepared a post in the Sonic Sense Resource Center called "Presonus StudioLive 32.4.2 AI Vs. StudioLive 24.4.2" Within the post, you can find a SoundCloud playlist with audio samples we made in a more clinical fashion. There's a collection of 5 different consoles that we ran the same multi-track stems through. We ran 8 stems out of a DAW through our Apogee Symphony DAC into each console at unity gain with no effects or processing engaged. To compare the A/D converters, summing amps, and D/A converters, we recorded the two track output from the console back through the Apogee Symphony into the DAW. We have found that the audio characteristics heard in this comparison are consistent with the test we did above.