‘Senior’ sound engineers - let’s say those older then 40 - remember when the multicore cable that connects the Front Of House (FOH) mixing console and the stage was a clunky ‘snake’, several centimetres thick, which comprised multiple pairs of conductors. The longer the multicore and the more channel pairs it had, the heavier it became, requiring several people to carry it around and roll it out. We learned to cope with the down sides of analogue cabling; longer cable lengths caused the signal’s high frequencies to be suppressed and required heavy per-pair shielding to prevent crosstalk.
They will also remember the modular analogue mixing console. Because analogue user interfaces have no ‘menu structure’ and need a dedicated physical control for every function, the functionality of even expensive, high end consoles was limited to just a few bands of EQ - some of them maybe not even parametric (PEQ) - and a limited number of mix buses. There was no place for more channel processing like additional PEQ bands, graphic EQs, compression and gating, so these had to be added in one or more ‘processing racks’ - offering a limited number of ‘plug-in’ processing chains. The racks, in turn, needed additional multi-way cables to connect to the mixing console. Because each channel needed a physical strip of controls, the channel count for a mixing console was limited and multiple consoles were often needed to do a large scale project. Finally, the majority of live mixing consoles had no automation. Some of the most expensive recording consoles did, but only for faders, and at the cost of adding VCA noise and distortion.
When Yamaha introduced the digital mixing console to the mainstream audio industry in 1995, with the 02R, many engineers were interested because digital mixers offer much more processing. This included multiband PEQ and dynamics for all input channels as standard, meaning processing racks were needed less, as well as increased audio quality. However, they were reluctant to use them because of the menu structure of the user interface. The digital mixer’s ‘selected channel’ concept allowed for a huge increase in scale and functionality, but at the same time made operation more complex and indirect - for example, tweaking a PEQ frequency required selecting the channel and then controlling the that channel’s parameter, which takes more time. In addition, there was no total overview of settings for all channels, demanding a different way of thinking.
After several years, the increased functionality, quality, channel count and - last but not least - the ‘total recall’ ability of the console to store every single parameter, tipped the balance. From 1995 to 2005 the live audio market slowly but surely adopted digital mixing up to the point where an analogue mixer became a speciality. Yamaha’s last large scale ‘PM class’ analogue mixer was the PM5000, launched in 2003 as a tribute to the last generation of ‘analogue’ sound engineers. By then, digital had already become the standard.
In 2010 - after a transition period using low channel count ‘digital snakes’ based on MADI, Ethersound, AVIOM (64 channels) and SuperMac (48 channels) - Gigabit networking replaced analogue and digital point-to-point cabling, increasing channel counts to several hundreds per cable and thousands per system, radically changing the way audio connections are made in live sound. Connections were no longer made by connecting physical cables, but by clicking a point in a software app. Networked connections are virtually independent from physical cabling, reducing that part of live audio systems to just a limited number of lightweight CAT5E or fibre cables and possibly some Ethernet switches. Once this has been set up, any connection can be made, changed and stored for later recall, using any compatible input and output on the network. These include all sorts of analogue i/o racks to connect microphones and other analogue sound sources, but also network-equipped power amplifiers and powered loudspeakers, significantly improving the system’s dynamic range compared to analogue connections.
Distances are also not an issue any more and connectivity can be fully decentralised; physical inputs and outputs can be placed anywhere where a network connector is available. The nature of networks is that information transport uses addressing, which leads to unique functionality without any hardware cost, such as for multitrack recording and gain compensation.
All of these innovations in digital mixing technology and gigabit networking have led to powerful mixing systems offered by many manufacturers with high channel counts and extensive DSP functionality. Because these systems have become very complex it’s sometimes difficult to compare their specifications to get a rough system ‘scope’.