No matter your opinion of their products, it's difficult not to give at least some credit for the massive democratisation of digital mixing to Behringer. When they launched their X32, back in 2010, they really did live up to their maxim of offering 'double the features at half the price', and while it's probably fair to say that the prices of digital mixers were inevitably going to drop anyway, the X32 certainly speeded up the process. By offering features such as digital‑audio networking, multi‑channel audio interfacing, an LCD scribble strip and a whopping 32 local XLR inputs, and doing so at a price below £$3000, they really shook the market up — and it's responded, with several companies now offering more cost‑effective consoles derived from their premium models. So now that there's a good choice at the lower end of the market, how do you decide between them?
As with anything as complex as a mixer, the choice of which one to go for comes down to a variety of factors — but pretty high up that list is features. The first question you must ask yourself is, what do you want the mixer to do? Some of them offer multitrack audio interfacing, while others go as far as to offer multitrack recording with no other hardware necessary. And while almost all digital desks have a vast array of processing options, it's worth investigating things like the number of graphic EQs each provides. If you require a graphic on all of your monitor outputs, for example, you'll want to be sure the mixer you get has the DSP to provide them.
Another important consideration is connectivity. Perhaps more so than with any other product, when you buy a digital mixer you're often buying into a specific set of protocols. For example, while almost all of the models on the following pages can work with so‑called 'digital snakes', they usually also only offer their best compatibility or full feature set when used with snakes from the same manufacturer — or, at least, those that use the same networking protocol (such as Dante, HiQnet, REAC, dSnake and so on). The same also applies to desks that have accompanying, or compatible, personal monitor mixing systems (read our September 2013 round‑up of such systems at https://sosm.ag/sep13-spotlight). For this reason, and if you plan to go down the digital snake route, it's well worth checking on the prices of stage boxes that are compatible with the mixers you're considering, as that will end up consuming a decent chunk of your budget.
Other things you'll want to look out for are the number of inputs and outputs on the desk itself. Even if you do decide to invest in a complete digital system, a good number of so‑called 'local' inputs (those that are present on the desk itself) can be extremely handy if you're doing a smaller gig and don't want to take out several racks of gear.
Last, but by no means least, is the mixer's interface. All the functionality and sound quality in the world isn't going to be much good if you can't access it properly, and unfortunately the only real way to evaluate a desk is to stand in front of it and have a fiddle. Although there aren't many shops that will have a selection of digital mixers there for you to try out in person, you can always pop along to one of the many industry trade shows, like NAMM or AES, where you'll usually find all the latest consoles and be able to have a poke around on them. It may seem like a faff getting there and paying for entry, but if you're splurging a few grand on a mixer it's worth making sure you're getting the right one!
Looking for a digital mixer that won’t break the bank? Check out our round-up of some of the current options.
This little mixer is the baby brother of Behringer’s flagship X32. It’s considerably cheaper, and aside from the smaller control surface it still has almost all of the original’s features. You can use it with Behringer’s digital snake system (for both stage boxes and the PowerPlay personal monitoring system), and it also functions as a 32-in, 32-out audio interface via USB or Firewire.
Derived from Allen & Heath’s premium GLD-series consoles, the QU16 has 16 local mic/line inputs, though these can be supplemented via RJ45 sockets that allow you to use the desk with the dSnake range of digital stage boxes. It can also record and play back multitrack audio to and from an attached USB drive.
Aside from the expected plethora of digital processors, compatibility with HiQnet digital-audio networking systems, scene recall and such, the Si Expression range also boasts the unusual Fader Glow system: depending on what the faders are controlling at any given time, they are backlit in different colours so you can tell at a glance whether you’re controlling an input channel, a bus, an effects return, and so on.
The StudioLive range is well established, and it places a strong emphasis on its ‘analogue-like’ user interface, which is intended to make it easy to drive even by people with little experience of digital mixing. The new AI versions have significantly expanded remote control potential, thanks to a suite of apps and computer software that let you control the desk from afar — even wirelessly, thanks to its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity.
This update to Yamaha’s long-running 01V96 has 16 analogue inputs (including 12 mic preamps) as well as ADAT connectivity, but it can also be expanded, via a range of interface cards, to provide various multi-channel digital I/O, in formats including AES and Dante. The built-in effects come courtesy of Yamaha’s renowned ‘VCM’ (Virtual Circuit Modelling’) algorithms, and when used with a computer the desk can also adopt the roles of multi-channel audio interface and DAW control surface.
Though it can be used quite happily on its own, the M200i is intended to be used with an iPad, where the physical controls present on the desk (faders, encoders and buttons) are supplemented by Apple’s intuitive touchscreen interface. As well as the standard analogue and digital I/O, audio can be piped through the desk via network cables using Roland’s REAC protocol. This allows you to make multitrack recordings to a computer simply by connecting it to your computer’s network port.
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