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Sound Mixing Boards; Digital versus Analog for Live Music Shows

For most of the summer and the month of September, I have been observing and interviewing sound guys (“engineers”) and bands regarding the comparison of analog and digital sound boards. In this blog I present my findings. As with all of my blogs, I introduce a subject and encourage feedback. Many engineers play instruments or support live music in some way. I would welcome your input. Also encouraged are those of you using sound boards for recording in addition to those working live shows.

Displays in Digital Sound Boards are Providing More and More Information as Technology Progresses

Displays in Digital Sound Boards are Providing More and More Information as Technology Progresses

Prior to addressing the subject at hand, I want to talk a bit about my experience with live music. I live at the top of a canyon in the Rocky Mountains because there is live music in my town almost every night of the week. There is a venue here named “The Little Bear Saloon”. This venue is known around the nation. The saying is, “If you’ve made it in Colorado, you’ve played The Little Bear”. Eleven miles down the canyon on the edge of the plains sits a world famous venue named Red Rock Amphitheater. The saying is, “If you’ve made it in the world, you’ve played Red Rocks”. I attend live music at both venues whenever I can. Music is a big part of my life yet I’m just starting to really understand what goes on behind the stage in the sound booth.

In addition to being famous and known for its sound system, the Little Bear has a sound man that is recognized in the industry. His name is Lloyd Hoops and he has a trained ear that can make a good band sound better. I once asked Lloyd how he knew just when to come in with the reverb for the song lyrics “with the echoes from the amplifiers ringing in your head” in Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”.

Lloyd’s response was, “I just sit in the basement with a pile of albums and listen.”

Apparently he listens well as profiled in the magazine article written about him titled “Lloyd Hoops, The Man Behind the Curtain”. Another time a man said that nobody could make his flute sound good. He was correct because Lloyd made it sound great.

In addition to asking sound men about their sound board preference, I also asked Ryan Chrys, recent recipient of Colorado’s Entertainer of the Year. Ryan’s sound board is analog. His shows include those he provides sound for as well as venues that provide a sound board.

I questioned Ryan, Lloyd, and several other sound engineers. The internet search result on this subject was void of live music comparisons and appeared to favor recording engineers. Therefore, the majority of the input was focused on personal responses by musicians and sound people. They appeared to have a common theme regarding digital and analog sound boards. The common theme was that digital offers a way to compact functions into a smaller board however it has a ways to go in order to duplicate analog especially in quality and fast response control.

Incidentally, Lloyd Hoops responded to my inquiry regarding analog versus digital with, “Want me to get on my soap box?”

Lloyd presented a situation where an amp went out and he easily switched it over from his analog board. He stated that swiping through screens in a digital application would have taken him too long. The switch was so fast, the audience barely noticed it.

I experienced this myself in Boulder, Colorado when a lead singer lost her mic. I looked to the sound tent only to see the engineer covering his ears in confusion while trying to solve the problem. His digital board was eventually figured out. The delay however was very noticeable to the audience.

Ryan Chrys had a show delayed twenty minutes due to a sound man trying to “figure out” a digital board and the associated connections. The audience was upset with this and blamed it on the people in view on the stage who just happened to be the band. The sound man was the issue however being out of sight meant being out of blame. Getting back to Lloyd, he seems to know where every input from the stage is. He has developed a feel for the board to a point where he doesn’t have to label every associated control on his board. I can only imagine that trait is learned through experience. True a digital board can produce a labeled image. The question is can it all be displayed and reacted to in a respectable response time.

Modern Sound Boards Enhance Portability

Modern Sound Boards Enhance Portability

Lloyd uses an analog setup that is fixed in a building. Others that were interviewed used setups for outdoor concerts. The outdoor concerts are transitioning to digital for the advantage of portability. A minor complaint was made of the LED indicator lights and LCD displays being hard to view in bright sunlight when using digital versions.

Final comments about digital boards state that ”they’re ok if you get a good one” as well as “digital is getting there”. For now, it appears that analog is still the quality and response time choice whereas digital is the choice of convenience.

References

  1. “Lloyd Hoops, The Man Behind the Curtain”,” by Corey Colombin for Serenity Magazine, July 2014
  2. Ryan Chrys and the Roughcuts official website.
  3. Colorado’s Entertainer of the Year, By Colorado Country Music Hall Of Fame, Dave Herrera, Aug. 30, 2016, “The Trusted Ear”
  4. The Little Bear Saloon website
  5. Red Rock Amphitheater website

8 comments on “Sound Mixing Boards; Digital versus Analog for Live Music Shows

  1. Wirecutter
    September 28, 2016

    For speed an analogue board is very fast and if you have all the rack of filters and reverb it is probably still the best ( everything is always available) How ever a digital desk also has all the bells & whistles but you have to programme all possible eventualities in to it!

    And remember how to get them up in seconds before the angry Mob close in on you!

  2. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    September 28, 2016

    Thank you for your response.  The bells and whistles you speak of were also mentioned as advantages by those using the digital boards.  It's like any program or advanced gizmo we use such as a smart phone, we only seem to learn that portion which we use or at the very least, revert to our comfort zone of a small operating area.  The disasters that I mentioned typically occurred due to not having a thorough understanding of the device which can be boiled down to experience and training.  Learning on the fly is not recommended however it happens at times.  Crowds don't have the patience for it especially with the cost of concert tickets these days.  If camera lag is any indication of how a smart device responds to a “boot up” or reboot, I can say the digital delays are many based on the number of pictures I've missed over the years (mainly of wildlife or situations that are occurring live).  In general, a sound board is a multi-input device.  Although digital helps to consolidate the control, the resulting sound is at its best when human interface is a part of the control system.  Unfortunately, the more inputs, the more difficult control and keeping control is based on how the human brain works.  During a recording session, there are opportunities to retake the session.  That opportunity is not available during live performances.  I'm intrigued as to how these sound guys master the control and the quality while being able to react as the show must go on.  And as an engineer, it drove me to investigate the technology as to how the tool is currently perceived and how it is improving the act of mixing sound.  I wanted to branch out a little more on this blog as to how foot pedals, the ability to lay down background tracks live, and on stage smart devices are giving more control to the musician.  I also wanted to address whether or not this control meant an eventual replacement of a sound man.  Still, there are things that will never be performed by technology and will always result from human talent.  Case in point is watching Delbert McClintock restring a guitar while playing a song and never missing a note…..at least that I could detect.

  3. Stanley123
    September 29, 2016

    for a music buff like me, this update is timely!

  4. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    September 30, 2016

    I'm glad you found the article to be timely.  In reality, it's a snapshot in time as the technology advances.  I could most likely revisit this topic in a year or even a few months with a totally different view.  Then again, isn't that how technology controls business?  Technology advances to make your current product obsolete so that you buy the latest and greates.  Last time I checked, new phones were purchased every 18 months.  Sound boards hopefully go longer than that as they are pricey.  As much as I rag on the software engineers, buying a software upgrade for the hardware is almost always a cheaper alternative.  

  5. Victor Lorenzo
    October 2, 2016

    I had my own short time as a rithm guitar player for a small rock band many years ago. It was all analog at that time for us, maybe with the exception of my digital delay unit, made by myself and a collegue. Our worst “enemy” was always the audio guy, besides myself, surely the worst guitar player ever ;). No matter the time we spent equalizing and how good it sounded during the audio tests, the audio guys always managed to make things sound awfull. The way we found for making it sound half decently was based in two strict rules: 1) Be the last ones to equalize, and, 2) NO ONE TOUCHES A THING UNTIL WE FINISH…;D.

    Of course that was as expected for amateurs like we were, but it also hapends with professional players too.

    Not so long ago my son and I went to a Joe Satriani's concent in Barcelone. It was the most dissapointing and terrible experience for me, ever, that's for sure. With no doubt at all Satriani is one the best guitar players we can name, my favourite one and maybe the best in his class. But the audio quality was simply indiscriptible, just to be polite.

    The audio guys decided to destroy the concert taking out as much audio power as they were able to take from the amplifiers, but all that power came at the price of generating such a huge distorsion that in some points in the first three songs it was almost impossible to distinguish who was who and who was playing what.

    The instruments equalization and the volume balance between them was not only dissastrous, the audio guys did not take into account the accoustic characteristics of the theater for placing the speakers and it seemed like they even added extra echoes and reverb.

    Maybe inside the headphoes of the audio guys it was sounding great and that was enough for them for recording a new Live CD, who knows.

  6. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    October 2, 2016

    Victor, I have shared your pain.  A good sound guy can make a poor band sound good.  A poor sound guy can make a good band sound poor.  Many times bands turn it up louder to cover for their inabilities.  It works both ways.

    As for my friend Lloyd, he “walks around” listening to the sound in various areas of the venue.  He then adjusts.  You can often see him sitting on the staircase above the band, arms folded on the railing under his chin, and observing.  For the normal person, this is all easy.  Lloyd walks with a cane and limited movement.  He is often in pain.  This doesn't stop him as he crawls around the stage plugging in various instruments, amps, and mics while knowing the very knob that each one is hooked to when dialing them in.  Music makes him see past the pain.  Bands always acknowledge his efforts….most of the time.  There are certain egos you just can't get past.

    As for the major venues, even Red Rocks had glitches during the Sammy Hagar show on Labor Day.  Digital just can't cover the need for human intervention especially on the fly.

    As a final thought on musicians, I once heard a very relevent phrase, “A guitar player is either playing out of tune or tuning.”  

    It brings to mind one of my favorite Vince Lombardi sayings, “A man should pursue perfection.  In doing so, he will achieve excellence.”

    Unlike my paintings and patents that I write, a musician has one chance to get it right when playing live.  I fiddle with my stuff and “let it go” when it's to a certain level.  It's never really complete.  If I were to have to do it under the pressure of time and one chance to get it right, the quality would suffer.  Thus making music and mixing music live are truly arts that require talent.  I see this constantly and am in awe of the dedication it takes to produce a live show. 

    Former NFL coach John Madden once spoke of a lecture where Lombardi spent eight hours on one play, the famous sweep.  Now imagine musicians spending eight hours on each song.  If a song averages three and a half minutes and musicians play sets of three to four hours, then there must be a lot involved on the front end in order to perform on the back end.  All of this can be spoiled with faulty mixing and/or a subpar performance.  In this era of bar band, there is no loyalty as musicians move from band to band.  How they come together as a cohesive unit (along with the sound guy) makes it even more difficult.  They surely don't have the eight hours per song to get it right.  One must think about that the next time they shell out money for a show or a CD.  In reality you could throw fewer drinks down your gullet and instead throw into the tip jar.  We're talking bar bands here, not exorbitant concert venues where promoters suck the majority of the profits.  Don't EVEN get me started on that. 

    Keep playing, keep practicing.  Music rarely hurts and most often helps or generates smiles all of which thankfully hasn't been taken over by software like so many other things these days.

  7. jimfordbroadcom
    October 11, 2016

    Yes, a musician performing live has only one chance to get it right, which would make an amateur like myself nervous.  OTOH, I was talking with a friend years ago, a bass player like me, who played live in church all the time, and mentioned that I had recorded some tracks at another friend's home studio.  His eyes grew wide and he said, “Wow, your playing is recorded for all time!”  I had never thought about that before.  In either case, live or in the studio, preparation is key.  I had had the luxury of a few weeks of practice before going into the studio and was able to put down the tracks in 1 or 2 takes.  Biggest problem I had was starting at the right moment because the acoustic and electric guitar tracks had already been recorded.

    As far as live sound goes, I'm extremely disappointed with it most of the time, I assume because the “engineer” and the audience have damaged their high- and low-end hearing and the engineer compensates by boosting the highs and lows, forming a kind of “smile curve” on the equalizer.  To those of us with normal hearing, the sound is lousy!  I went to a couple of outdoor live shows in September, and earplugs were mandatory for me to enjoy them.  Constant fiddling with them, though, to let in just enough of the high frequencies.  And those were outdoor shows; indoor sound is next to intolerable with all the reverberations causing comb filtering.  Anyway, that's my rant.

  8. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    October 11, 2016

    Thankyou for your response and congratulations on being a part of recorded history.  Being “captured” for eternity is a double edged sword.  

    Sometimes I'll revisit work and say to myself, “I wrote THAT?”  

    This could be years ago, a couple of days later, or even the morning after a long night trying to finish up.  That's why it's best to walk away and reread the acid email before sending.  I was once told write as if it will be presented on the front page of a newspaper.

    By recording your work you give yourself a window into a time period.  This will allow you to gauge your progress.  I recently finished a children's book with 34 pictures of my sons growing up.  I wish I had captured more.  It seems you never take the time to capture the here and now.  

    As for the volume I would tend to agree that a lot of sound personnel crank it up a bit too much.  I myself believe the live shows have degraded my hearing a bit.  I once told a church sound guy at a rehearsal he was past the pain level.  He confidently told me he had been doing this for xxx years and knew what he was doing.  I said you might think so however you're not ruining my son's (the drummer) hearing like you've ruined yours.  He kept it cranked with a punkish attitude so I left.  As with anything, listening to the customer is best.  In this case it may prolong your ability to listen or at least hear.  This “pro” wasn't capable of either.

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