Mixer: digital or analogue?

Are audio signals today better made up of zeros and ones - or do analogue faders remain the real deal?


Digital and analogue: this means touch screen vs. keys, preset file vs. industrial tape. Are there any rational arguments for analogue technology at all? We talked to singer and guitarist Nils Wittrock from The Hirsch Effekt and sound engineer Janosch Held about placebo effects and mixed feelings.

Mixers: digital is convenient and cost-effective

Digital critics must also admit that it's convenient to be able to save the current mix of the mixer and retrieve the exact same track one week later. With a digital mixer it is also much easier to record a concert spontaneously and listen to it again at home. Mixers based on digital technology also have a range of functions. For a relatively small budget, digital mixers offer features such as noise gates, basic effects, USB ports, tablet remote control and DCA groups.

Despite this, digital mixing consoles still arouse scepticism. A common prejudice: a digitized audio signal has less quality.

But real differences in quality can only be found in bad analogue-to-digital converters, says Nils Wittrock from The Hirsch Effekt.

 
Nils Wittrock, from The Hirsch Effekt

"It's rather a matter of pragmatism or mentality, not quality anymore."

That the conversions with a good AD converter from analogue to digital signals reduce the sound quality - that, I don't really believe in. High-quality digital equipment provides sound at least as good as analogue technology. I studied in Detmold at the college of music, where there is also a sound engineer training. There was a blind test: microphone signals were transmitted both via XLR and with different, digitally converted signal paths.

In no(!) blind test was the direct analogue signal perceived as the best sounding signal. And the testers were sound engineers, people with good, trained ears.

I think, provocatively put, that the biggest analogue fans sometimes just hear what they want to hear in direct comparisons. Or that there's some kind of placebo effect: If you're convinced the great full valve sounds better, it will sound better in your ears. And on top of that, there is the occasional belief that 'more expensive must sound better'.


 
Janosch Held: "It is worthwhile to critically examine one's own signal chain."

Realistically we can say, that there is almost no purely analogue signal chain any more anyway. Especially not in the live area. Sooner or later the signal will be converted somewhere. So why not use a high-quality analogue-to-digital converter as early as possible and then leave the signal digital? For example, there are also perfect, digitally modeled valve amp sounds, i.e. plug-ins - nobody can tell me that there is an audible difference between digital and analogue. Of course, there are both analogue and digital mixers that are manufactured cheaply and sound correspondingly bad.

The main arguments in favour of analogue mixers are their operability and feel

In the digital age, there is above all one strong argument in favour of analogue mixers: the principle of 'one knob per function'. As the console never changes in its potentiometers and buttons, the sound engineer can eventually operate it literally blind. You can get used to an analogue mixer faster.

With analogue mixers, sound engineers don't fall into the trap of getting lost on the different functional levels that a mixer with digital technology offers.

For those who want to save their settings, there are mobile phone cameras or tape to mark. Lovers of analogue audio technology also like to say: if you turn a real pot, you have a different access to the mix. It's a bit like the difference between an e-book and a real book: there are many arguments in favour of electronic books, but the feeling alone is decisive.

"To turn a potentiometer that resists slightly and then to immediately hear the effect of this hand movement in the mix is priceless."

— Janosch Held, sound engineer

However, Janosch Held would not want to miss analogue mixing consoles in the audio world for another reason:

 
Janosch Held: "Every mixer should have mixed with an analogue console at some point, just to improve their technical understanding."

Regarding valves and certain compressors, I do understand the love for analogue technology. It is like driving a specific classic car model: it's not better, but the feel and the interaction with the technology is simply a little different - perhaps more beautiful in a very subjective sense. With analogue mixing consoles, you can at times celebrate mixing more. However, here is the most important point: analogue mixers are perfect for beginners. Let me make it even clearer: everyone should start and learn on an analogue mixing console, not a digital one. Analogue mixers are very logically structured. If you want to have a compressor in the channel, you have to plug a connector into the right place by hand. Then you have to plug the other side into the input of the compressor. Then you take the compressor's output and plug it into the return path.

When I turn the pot X, Y happens. And if this plug is not plugged in anywhere, nothing happens. This is basic audio education, which I sometimes also miss in musicians.

What I mean to say is, it's craftsmanship. Sure, digital mixing is also craftsmanship, but because analogue mixing is a more tangible craft, you learn much more consciously. This is a bit like my advice to every driver to learn driving a manual car. Even if you only drive an automatic afterwards. Anyone who gets their driving license with an automatic gearbox will never fully understand what 'clutch' and gears are. In addition, analogue mixing consoles are also eternally repairable, solderable, durable. A digital mixing console works either completely or not at all. I would probably never have started mixing if everything had been digital back then. That would have been too nerdy for me.

The reason why I don't think analogue mixers are dying out is the price-performance ratio of very small versions. This is almost always better with 2 to 4-channel mixers.

These small mixers are very practical for keyboard players or singers directly on stage. So analogue mixing consoles must remain, for learning, for small mixing solutions and to maintain a closer connection to technology.

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Why Nils Wittrock always had an analog mini mixer directly on stage for a while, is explained in our article about good live sound.

Photos © The Bland