Any mixer you buy will sound fine. Pick based on the features and how they work.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
If a console sounds bad – I mean, legitimately and unmistakably – it’s either broken or you’re using it poorly.
(If this post doesn’t kick the hornet’s nest, I will be very surprised.)
My point in this really isn’t to offend. It really isn’t to pick a fight. It really is to be very direct about what to spend your time and worry on when picking out a device to route and combine inputs.
I am by no means the most “well traveled” console operator on Earth. There are guys and girls who have had their paws on many, many more desks than I have, in several thousand more rooms than I’ve been in. At the same time, I have been around long enough to have gotten a pretty good sampling of what’s out there.
I’ve run signals through five-input mini-mixers.
I’ve done “coffeehouse” gigs on ancient monstrosities that I could barely lift. Hugely overgrown beasties which consisted of something like 12 channels, a heavy-as-a-bowel-movement class-AB poweramp (that probably managed a peak output of 400 watts/ side into 8 ohms), knobs and faders that someone with giant hands would have found comfortable, and which had “Peavey” silk-screened on the top surface.
I’ve pushed live audio through consoles that people would be embarrassed to own, and consoles that people would happily show off to some folks, and also through contraptions that nobody could possess but me – because I assembled the thing.
I’ve been on what Avid/ Digidesign would consider a flagship live-mix platform.
I’ve had the opportunity to do real, serious, hands-on, studio-environment stuff with large-frame analog units that would run you about $1,000,000 (in late 1990s dollars) when new.
Let me tell ya, folks,
They all sound basically the same.
Much like preamps, I have never been in a situation where I thought, “If I just had this one particular console, this would all sound better.” Never.
The Subjective Factor
Some of this has to do with how I work. There are sound craftspersons out there who are into the idea of “special mojo.” The magic of a certain preamp circuit. The plug-and-sweeten behavior of a very specific EQ design. The way the summing bus in a certain piece of signal-combining gear does this beautiful “something” when you hit it just right.
This is all neat stuff. When you’re sitting there, and you’re sure it’s happening, and it’s making your day, that’s great.
It doesn’t generally fit my reality, though. In my world, the time required to find the spot where the snare drum smooshes seductively into the harmonic distortion characteristics of a mic pre is time that would be better spent getting the vocals loud in monitor land. By my methodology, finding a console that gives you some extra forgiveness – or even sounds super-special – when you’re just tickling the overload lights is not a problem to solve. The problem to solve is why your gain structure is messed-up enough to have you bumping into the electrical limits of the desk.
On the flipside, you might be really into this kind of thing, which is fine if it’s working for you and the people around you.
The reason, though, that I point out that I don’t personally find it helpful is for the new folks. The guys and girls who are trying to buy things, and agonizing over spec sheets, scared to death that they’re not going to get enough bang for their buck. The bang is not in those tiny numbers.
What You’re Looking For
What my experience has overwhelmingly shown me over the past years is this: Any console which is basically capable of filling the needs of a given sound-reinforcement scenario will, at a fundamental level, have very comparable “audio circuit” performance to anything else capable of handling that scenario. Modern manufacturing of gear is such that pretty much anything, when run sanely and not engaging in transduction, will have low noise, imperceptible distortion, and transfer response that’s linear from direct-current to dog-whistles.
In other words, there’s no point in looking at SNR, distortion, and frequency response numbers on a mixer’s spec sheet, because it’s all going to be great.
It might not be magic, but it will pass signal in a straight line as long as a component hasn’t failed, and you aren’t hard-clipping the poor thing.
So forget about finding the unit with the best numbers.
Instead, get your mitts on the control surface (whether real or virtual), and figure out if you like how the thing behaves as a tool for intense, realtime munging of loud noises. Does the soft-patching make sense to a rational human? How about to an irrational human on the verge of panic, because something went wrong and the show is 30 seconds from downbeat? Can you make your common routing needs happen without getting lost? If you have preferred EQ setups that you like to use, can you dial them up without struggling? Is it easy to make any built-in compressors and gates act in a way that makes sense? If there are onboard FX engines, can you get the basic delay and reverb sounds you prefer?
These functional considerations are orders of magnitude more important than any subjective sound-quality difference you encounter, especially because they directly affect the “macro-level,” subtle-as-a-kick-in-the-face sound-quality that comes from really messing with an input. At least consider believing me when I say that you don’t actually care about whether or not one console seems to have “slightly deeper and more 3D” bass than another. First, it probably doesn’t – you’re probably just running the “better” console a little louder, or you moved a bit after patching your reference material into the different unit. Second, the tiny little worries evaporate in an instant when the real problem is a musician who “can’t hear the other guitar at all, dude.”
A miniscule difference in distortion characteristics won’t mean squat when the band is 110 dBC continuous in the back of the room without any help from the PA. A 2 dB better noisefloor isn’t worth arguing about when the space is filled with 100 people who are all shouting over each other.
Now…if you’ve got all the basics down, and you’ve found a few different desks that you enjoy using, you’re now ready to nitpick tiny, sonic details. If you’re into that, and you’ve got the time, and the money is all figured out, have at it! If you get a kick out of finding the special mojo, don’t let anyone stop you.
All I’m saying is that the “big mojo” of how comfortable you are with the console as an “audio wrench” matters a lot more. That’s what’s really and immediately going to precipitate what musicians and audio members are going to notice. As is so often true in this business, the ordering of your priorities list is critical.