A few simple queries can get you going on just about any console.
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Back when I was in school, we were introduced to “The Four Console Questions.” The idea behind the questions was that, if you walked up to a strange mixer, you could get answers to the questions and be able to get work done. Mixing desks come in many varieties, but there aren’t very many truly different ways to build them that make sense. In any case, all the basic concepts have to essentially stay the same. If a console can’t take some number “a” of audio inputs, and route those inputs to some number “o” of outputs, you don’t have a mixing console anyway.
With the growing commonality of digital mix systems, I feel that the essential “console questions” need some expansion and tweaking. As such, here’s my take on the material that was presented to me over a decade and a half (GEEZE!) ago.
1. Do I Know What I Want To Do?
You might say that this isn’t a console question at all, but in truth, it’s THE most important one. If you don’t know what you want to do with the console, then knowing a bunch of information about the console’s operation won’t help you one iota. The unfortunate reality is that many people try to engage in this whole exercise backwards; They don’t know what they want to accomplish, but they figure that learning the mixer’s whys and wherefores will help them figure it out.
Certainly, learning about a new feature that you haven’t had access to previously can lead you to new techniques. However, at a bedrock level, you have to have some preconceived notion of what you want to accomplish with the tool. Do you want to get a vocal into the FOH PA? Do you want to get three electric guitars, a kazoo, and a capybara playing Tibetan singing-bowls into 12 different monitor mixes?
You have to know your application.
2. How Do I Correctly Clock The Console?
For an analog console, the answer to this is always: “No clock is required.”
For a digital rig, though, it’s very important. I just recently befuddled myself for an agonizing minute with why a digital console wasn’t showing any input. Whoops! It was because I had set it to receive external clock from a master console a few weeks before, and hadn’t returned it to internal clocking now that it was on its own.
You need to know how to indicate to the console which clock source and sample rate is appropriate for the current situation.
3. How Do I Choose What Inputs Are Available To The Channels?
This is particularly important with consoles that support both on-board input and remote stageboxes. You will very likely have to pick and choose which of those options is available to an individual channel or group of channels. What you need to discover is how those selections are accomplished.
4. How Do I Connect A Particular Input To A Particular Channel?
You might think this was covered in the previous question, but it wasn’t. Your global input options aren’t the end of the story. Many consoles will let you do per-channel “soft-patching,” which is the connection of a certain available signal to a certain channel without having to change a physical connection. Whether on a remote stagebox or directly at the desk, input 1 may NOT necessarily be appearing on channel 1. You have to find out how those connections are chosen.
5. How Do I Insert Channel Processing?
In some situations, this means a physical insert connection that may be automatically enabled…or not. In other cases, this means the enabling and disabling of per-channel dynamics and/ or EQ, and maybe even other DSP processing available onboard in some way. You will need to know how that takes place, and with all the possible variations that might have to do with your particular application, it is CRITICAL that you know what you want to do.
6. How Do I Route A Channel To An Auxiliary, Mix Bus, Or The Main Bus?
Sometimes, this is dead-simple and “locked in.” You might have four auxiliaries and four submix buses implemented in hardware, such that they can only be auxiliary or mix buses, with the same knobs always pushing the same aux and a routing matrix with pan-based bus selection. On the other hand, you might have a pool of buses that can behave in various ways depending on global configuration, per-channel configuration, or both.
So, you’ll need to figure out what you’ve got, and how to connect a given channel to a given bus so that you get the results you want.
7. How Do I Insert Bus Processing?
This might be just like question 5, or wildly different. You will need to sort out which reality is currently in play.
8. How Do I Connect A Given Signal To A Physical Output?
Just because you have a signal running to a bus, there’s no guarantee that the bus is actually going to transfer signal to any other piece of equipment. Especially in the digital world, there may be another layer of patching to assign signals to either digital or analog outputs. Bus 1 might be on output 7, because six matrices might be connected to the first six outputs. Maybe output 16 is a pre-fader direct out from channel 4.
You’ll have to figure out where all that gets specified.
Obviously, there’s more to being a whiz at any particular console than eight basic questions. However, if you can get a given signal into the desk, through some processing, combined with other signals you want to combine, and then off to the next destination, you can at least make some real noise in the room.