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Simon Says – Don’t Talk to Me About Analogue…

When you’ve been around a long time, you have to expect things to change.  In my lifetime there has been loads of it – decimalisation, The Beatles, peace in Northern Ireland, man on the Moon etc.  I could go on.

If we have to discuss work,  I can think of a few things that have been equally as significant in the somewhat smaller world of pro audio.  The invention of electricity for one – thanks Mr. Faraday.  The realization that electricity is a flux of various forces that all interact with each other for another – thanks Messers Ohm, Volt and Ampere.  Without them we’d all be stacking shelves – in the dark because there wouldn’t any electric…

When I first started, the most complicated item of equipment in the warehouse (I say warehouse, more like a large shed) at the end of a Mitcham cul-de-sac was a mighty Midas 24 -channel console with the benchmark Pro-4 input modules.  If I recall correctly, it was actually a 40-channel frame but there were lots of blanks.  In those days it was possible to build up your console as you went along.  The flight case was just the right size to be a net for games of gaffaball played by myself and Chris Long at lunchtimes – basically it was tennis using our hands and a ball of gaffa tape.  We both got quite good at it.

My point here is that this console, at the beginning or the 80’s, was state of the art, and I used to long to get the opportunity to get to use it, once I had reached a stage where I could be trusted with it.  The build quality was excellent, the thing was mighty heavy, and if you wanted to get at all creative you had to use outboard equipment to polish your sonic turd.  Even more gear, even more cables, and it was very easy to forget things like power supplies and the right patch cords top make it all work.  Been there, done that on many occasions.

There were other tasty analogue consoles floating about too.  A Trident Fleximix for one, sonically lovely but fabulously unreliable because of its ability to accept any of the modules in the frame in any order, the consequence being that its big selling point was never used.  Then there was a Chilton QM3, which I used to use regularly on all manner of TV gigs.  This was interesting because it was built for broadcast – designed and built by the BBC – and had compressors across the main outputs, and all manner of funky routing possibilities that could properly mess with your head.  Here’s a picture of one, for sale on Reverb for about £11,000!  It was expected that you would handle this console on your own of course, in a flight case with no wheels.

Why am I getting all misty eyed about old analogue consoles?  It’s such a pathetic cliché these days that if I’m honest pisses me off.  I hate it when old sound guys (sadly very few female engineers around in the old days) get nostalgic for analogue, because it was in many ways totally ridiculous, and this lead me to the point of this piece. 

If you are a relative newbie in the industry, the concept of analogue systems of any scale is probably something you have had little or no contact with.  There are a few small, utilitarian mixers lying around that might get used for little gigs occasionally, but I would suggest that even this is rare these days., a Yamaha TF Rack or similar being the weapon of choice.

Digital is wonderful, and here’s why. 

Analogue means, literally, a copy – something that is seen as being comparable to another.  Analogue audio signals are directly comparable to the original sound waves they are formed from, being an electrical representation of the pressure variations that comprise those waves.  Positive pressure equals positive voltage, and the pressure variations over time (frequency) are represented by how fast the electrical signal changes between positive and negative charge.

This is all well and good, but the BIG issue is that these signals are often fragile, and susceptible to an endless list of possible problems that can mess things up, likes hums, buzzes and limited dynamic range.  And the other MASSIVE thing is that in analogue systems, any one item in a signal chain can generally only do one thing.  Consider this…

Here is a picture of FOH for a Leeds castle gig from the distant past.  Note the digital watch…gives you an idea of when this might have been.

The lucky chap in this pic is at the helm of two Midas XL4’s, bussed together giving a total of 88 mono and 8 stereo inputs.  A big channel count, but still not enough and very often there was another desk for the choir and military band.

What you can’t see are the racks of outboard to go with it, enabling things like stereo parametric eq for the various orchestra sections, some poncey reverb like a Yamaha Rev 1, an AMS 1680 plus system management – another 12 channels probably for that system, and if we were lucky some delays.  Thinking about it this was probably a BSS VariCurve system, which made life a little easier – it was digital control of analogue circuitry and had a wired remote that you could walk around with pretending to sell ice creams.  And then there was the cabling…. oh lordy.  The multis…just STOP IT.

These XL4’s were the absolute zenith of analogue mixers, featuring such wonderful things as a 16 x 8 matrix output section, high and low pass filters on every channel, and scene memories which enabled recall of routing, VCA assignment and mute states.  You could drive the inputs really hard, and they’d hardly break a sweat.  I was never convinced about the aesthetics of Midas consoles – there were many others that looked much cooler (Soundcraft Series 4, Yamaha PM 3000 for instance), but the sheer scale of a large analogue desk was certainly good for the ego, and Midas were the top of the tree.  That is until they went mad after Bob Doyle left and set up Digico – they ended up becoming a Behringer company.  The indignity.  The legacy of the Midas approach to using colour still holds on in the rather LGBT+ aesthetics of a Digico, but the fact is it works well, and the punters love it!

Now let’s take a look at a comparable digital system.

With 2 fully loaded SD racks an SD12 96 will do just that, accept 96 input channels.  On a surface that is just over half the size of one XL4, let alone two, and the XL4 external dual power supply probably weights about as much as the SD12 surface.  Oh, and the power supplies are internal on the SD12.

Need I mention that you don’t need ANY external outboard equipment?  You get a full suite of eq and dynamics on every input and output, and internal FX that will do a job if you’re not too precious (ahem…)

Why is this possible?  Without going into the ins and outs of Pulse Code Modulation, bit rate vs bit depth, can you hear the difference between 96kHz sample rate and 192kHz, it’s because when we go digital, we don’t process analogue signals.  All the dodgy analogue bit stays in the SD rack, which is essentially a big old analogue-digital-analogue converter.  So all you need to deal with 96 channels is enough XLR inputs to plug 96 mics into, and as we are dealing with bits of digital data and not audio, digital controllers can be multi-functional – i.e. faders can be assigned to multiple channels, knobs can be anything you want.  You just need someone very brainy indeed to work out the coding, and pretty much anything is possible.

Think about the implications of this.  One person can manage a complex mix on a single console.  I used to do shows in the 90’s that had four separate mix engineers, all on their own analogue console!  The task of close miking and actively mixing an orchestra becomes entirely manageable.  Complex mix changes involving large numbers of parameter changes can be automated to all happen at once with the push of a button, and any setting you can think of can be saved to a scene, or to an external storage device to be transferred to another console.

And did I say that there is no such thing as a crap sounding digital console?  The only thing that can affect the sound quality is the pre-amp stage before things get turned into digital audio.  Anybody who tells you that Yamaha consoles sound shite (EVERYBODY used to say this) is talking out of their arse.

So, the next time you are whingeing about the weight of an SD7 or an SD rack or moaning that your TF-rack doesn’t get you on Facebook, think on this….

How long did it take to load, unload, and set up?  How heavy was (or wasn’t) it?  How much did it cost compared to an equivalent analogue system?  How manageable was the FOH snake?  How many patch cables did you use?

Digital is great, and analogue is now largely irrelevant, and if some sad old fart in ill-fitting jeans, sporting a grey ponytail and smelling of cheap alcohol comes up to you and says something like ‘Hey dude, analogue sounds SO much better than digital’ …smile knowingly and walk away. 

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Category: Simon Says

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