The Pros and Cons of Decoupling

Separating gear into its components gives you more control, but it also creates more work.

Please Remember:

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.

Question: If I gave you a mic pre, a parametric equalizer, a couple of splitter cables, an output selector box, and three volume pots, what could you make?

Answer: A basic channel strip.

Think about it – for all intents and purposes, the items listed above are the basic components necessary to construct an audio chain that behaves like a channel found on a simple console. What made them seem different is that they were packaged as single items, instead of all being attached to a circuit board.

They were decoupled from one another. Unbundled. Unboxed.

Decoupling pro-audio components can give you a lot of powerful choices, but it isn’t appropriate for everyone or every situation.

What The Heck Am I Talking About?

When I talk about “coupled” or “bundled” audio products, I’m referring to a device that houses multiple functions in one enclosure. Each function could theoretically be performed by a separate device in its own enclosure, but for various reasons the devices have been combined. For example:

  • “Powered” speakers, which stick an amplifier (and often, a lot of very carefully tweaked processing) into the loudspeaker enclosure. This is in contrast to “passive” speakers, which require amplification and processing from external products.
  • “Multiway” loudspeakers are even an example of bundling. Some people are happy to run entirely separate enclosures (and amps, and processing) for subs, low-mids, high-mids, and high-end. Lots of other folks are happy to combine everything above the subwoofers into one cabinet.
  • “Monolithic” mixing consoles, which put audio circuitry and/ or processing in the same case as the controls. I’m unaware of any analog console which ISN’T essentially monolithic out of sheer necessity. Some digital consoles, on the other hand, have DSP brains that are at least physically independent of the control surface.
  • System controllers, AKA loudspeaker management systems, are devices which combine equalizers, crossovers, and dynamics processors (amongst other things) into a single unit.

Each of these products presents you, as the buyer, with a choice. Accept the bundle offered, or decline it and construct your own solution. So – why pick one route over the other?

Conservation Of Responsibility

I don’t know if this is the biggest factor to consider when you’re thinking about whether to use a coupled or decoupled setup, but it’s the most generalized description that I could easily think of:

In a coupled solution, the manufacturer bears most of the responsibility for an effective configuration. In a decoupled solution, the responsibility shifts to the operator.

One of the best examples of this is the powered or “active” speaker, especially when the unit is biamped or triamped. The manufacturer of the speaker is the one who has to pick an appropriate amplifier for each driver. Not only that, but they have to include appropriate crossover processing at a minimum. Often, advanced driver-protection, driver-to-driver time alignment, and corrective EQ are “baked in” to the total solution.

If, on the other hand, you choose to go with passive speakers, you have to choose which of these functions are worth implementing, which products you’ll use to fulfill them, how to connect those products, and how to configure each unit.

The upshot is that there’s “conservation of responsibility,” in that the obligation of deciding how to put everything together is always present. Who actually gets most of that obligation depends on how much is packaged in one box. This is also true for the audio knowledge required when using the product(s). Audio gear that’s been bundled can reduce the knowledge demands for whoever is actually doing a show with that gear. Unbundled gear usually requires a more knowledgeable operator for maximum success.

Weight and Volume

Whenever you choose a bundled or decoupled solution to an audio-gear need, it’s helpful to have an awareness of the weight/ volume tradeoff that can occur (it doesn’t always happen):

All things being equal, “coupled” gear reduces the space required for deployment and transport, at the cost of each unit becoming heavier. Decoupled gear makes for lighter individual units, at the cost of more space being required for the entire system.

It’s important to notice that the above starts with “all things being equal.” In many cases, all things are not equal. For instance, if you replace a whole stack of PA management gear with a single Driverack processor, the weight AND volume of PA management equipment goes down. This is because all things aren’t equal – all the physical components of each piece aren’t included, because the functions are replicated in software.

In the same way, a powered speaker may not actually be as heavy as the passive version plus an amplifier, because the manufacturer will probably choose an amplification unit that allows for less weight (not to mention one that doesn’t require a hefty rackmount chassis).

Cost And Risk

Choosing coupled versus decoupled solutions in pro-audio influences both how much money you pay for things, and how many eggs you have in one basket:

Because of various “economies,” coupled products can sometimes be less expensive than their decoupled counterparts.

Powered speakers are another excellent example of this phenomenon. By the time you add up the cost of amplifiers, processing, speaker cable, and racks, creating equivalent functionality with a passive speaker enclosure can be more expensive than just buying a decent, pre-packaged, active box. If cost is a big factor for a production, coupled products can be a big help.

Because of tight, inter-component integration and dependence, the failure of one part of a coupled product can deprive you of the functionality of ALL parts of the product.

An example of this can be found with a loudspeaker management unit. All of the functionality of the unit (EQ, crossover, dynamics, etc) is tied to one power supply and one front-panel control setup. If either one of those is damaged or fails, everything “in the box” becomes unusable. In a decoupled system, the death of the crossover doesn’t deprive you of the use of the EQ. Bundled gear allows for each individual product to do more, but if there’s a problem you may lose ALL of that “doing more” in an instant. It’s just a risk that you have to be aware of.

Control Issues

The final point I want to make is in regards to the overall command that you have over coupled vs. decoupled audio systems:

Using decoupled products provides you with greater system flexibility and control than using bundled units.

I do want to be careful to point out that the above is NOT a value judgement. Greater control and flexibility are not an advantage unless you actually want them and will benefit from them. For instance, I’ve chosen to use a “decoupled” console, where the I/O, processing, and control all have some amount of separation. As a result, I have a ton of control over how the console behaves. If I don’t like some part of it, I can swap that part without losing my investment in the other parts. On the flipside, though, my console is not industry standard, it’s difficult to just “pick up and use,” and I have to be personally invested in making the whole thing work.

In the end, I definitely encourage audio enthusiasts to go for decoupled systems where it makes sense for them. For folks who just want things to work without much hassle, bundled gear is a great choice. I happen to use both kinds of pro-audio equipment, because I have to pick my battles. It all seems to be working out, so far.