Digital Audio Consoles: A Look at Signal Routing to Workflows, Other Basics

Digital Audio Consoles: A Look at Signal Routing to Workflows, Other Basics

Walk a console operator through five basic areas, and it's likely they'll be well on their way to being successful with their console, regardless of the manufacturer.

With digital audio consoles, some of the traditional thinking involving layouts and workflows has really become as creative and varied as our imagination.

I remember when some of the first digital consoles hit the market, some of their layouts, feature sets, were bound by analog thinking. However, we've seen an evolution by many manufacturers, where they have developed and designed the next model of audio consoles to go far beyond those imitations and bounds of the analog console.

For an audio engineer to succeed, aim to have them obtain familiarity with the audio digital console quickly.

Truth is, we are only bound now by our imagination to design, program, and consume new software, hardware, and workflows. To repeat what I've heard many times, some of these new digital consoles look like we are piloting a spaceship.

I see quite frequently starry-eyed volunteers and students (and yes, even the pros) who look at an unfamiliar large digital console, and just look lost. I encourage focusing on teaching them to identify the common key areas that they need to command an audio console. Most can learn to identify these key areas of a console. Once they can do that, they know they will be able to get to work quickly with a good amount of confidence.

So let me share with you some process that may help you form some common approaches: as a touring engineer, system tech, technical director, student, or volunteer of varied skills levels.

I find if you can successfully walk an operator through these five basic areas, there is a good chance they are well on their way to getting to a successful relationship with their console, regardless of the manufacturer.

1. Walk Them Through the Basics of the Console

First and foremost, is my desire for the audio engineer to succeed. For them to succeed, they need to obtain familiarity quickly. Familiarity then leads them to rapidly access what they need to adjust.

Start with audio basics. That's right, the very basics, I'm talking signal flow. From patching inputs, to gain structure, to on channel processing and right on down the line to the LR mix. Making sure the operator understands how to get to the basics is critical.

Every digital console may very likely have a different approach to where items are accessible. Some consoles require you to click through a few things to get to some items. Clearly go through both in software and work surface access areas for basic functions.

2. Console Fader Layout

This can drastically vary, based on the user and what type of content you are mixing. But this may become the single biggest key to your success on any console.

I was reminded of this recently, while working as a system tech with a console I know inside and out as I set it up for two front of house engineers mixing events for that week. One engineer has had only one mix experience with this console, while for the other, this would be their first time on it. While I did set up a template for them to use, very quickly the engineers' preference to fader layout differed drastically. What the console did do, is it excelled at creating custom fader layouts very quickly, in abundance, all at a quick touch of a button.

Depending on your console manufacturer, you may only have one layout. On an analog console, this was definitely true! So placing your channels in a logical and consistent order is a must. However, you may find that some channels you come back to more often than others. Do you want access to all your vocals, speaking mics, FX returns, VCAs all on one layer? Will creating such a layer be specifically beneficial to the event you are mixing?

If you can, take advantage of customizing your fader layouts. You will find you will get to what you need faster and effectively mix your event more successfully.

3. Internal Console Signal Routing

Most digital consoles have built in internal routing. It's highly likely you will need to route audio to a reverb, delay, 31-band EQ, or possible external hardware. This may be one of the more advanced features of a digital console to teach any level of engineer. The reason may be that different manufacturers approach internal routing very differently. Some manufacturers make it as easy as choosing a simple insert. While other consoles can allow you to take audio literally as many places as you can conceive.

I'm going to make it fairly clear right here, because digital consoles have the ability to do some fairly intricate internal loop-d-loops, walk through the proper routing process several times with your operator. Allow them to have a clear understanding to accomplish their routing successfully.

4. Monitor Send Workflows

While we could write several articles about specific monitor workflows, I do think explaining the aux send or bus signal flows are key to any engineer's success to working with a band on stage. Some digital consoles have as many as four different ways to adjust and send signal through auxes. Some have just one. I would encourage you understand the two most common approaches to sending signal to your aux sends. And I'd say most digital consoles have this workflow.

The analog approach: Select the channel you want to send signal to, then locate the designated encoder to adjust level to the aux send. By doing this, you work with one input channel at a time sending to your selected aux. This tends to be an easier way to introduce volunteers to mixing aux sends and teaches them to work one channel at a time.

The digital "sends on fader" approach: You select the aux send mix you wish to make adjustments to, and your input faders now flip to a mode that allows the inputs, send to the aux to be controlled by the input fader. The thought process here is you work not on a one channel at a time approach, but work on an entire aux mix at a time approach. The caveat to this, is teaching your operators how to successfully get in and out of this mode. More importantly so, have them understand that the faders are now NOT the main LR mix when using this mode.

5. VCAs, Groups, Matrixes and the LR

Now that we've trained our operator and given them a tour of their digital console, we need to get the audio ready to leave the console so that we can hear it. We have a few steps we need to take to ensure we have the control we want and the signal going to the correct outputs. All consoles will have assignment switches or selections to get into any of VCAs, groups, matrixes, and LR. All of these areas I'd put on my list as "must show your operator" as a critical component to knowing your console.

Most digital consoles will allow to you to assign any input channel and group directly to the LR. For the most part, that's where you want to end up as that is the final mix bus before heading out of your console to your PA. You don't know how many times I hop on a new console and can't find right away how to send a channel to the LR.

Some people prefer to use a matrix to send to the PA or delay speakers. There isn't a right or wrong way here, it's just a different workflow. But if you do, this is a must to teach your operator. I know many don't know what a matrix is on a console, and to sum it up very shortly, a matrix is a smaller sub mixer within the console.

The final culmination of most mixes will take you to the VCAs and groups. Most advanced engineers use a rather intricate combination of the two to achieve an advanced sound. They will categorize their inputs and create a set of VCAs (or in the digital world DCAs) to sub mix their inputs. Other operators prefer to do this with groups. What's the difference? VCAs by design don't actually pass audio, they only control the assigned members’ input faders. Where as a group actually has signal passing through it, therefore allowing you to apply group processing in the form of dynamics, EQ, and other processing needs.

Despite the varied differences in digital audio consoles out there, they all do still have a common workflow that comes from their analog predecessors. Most audio engineers can hop on a variety of manufacturer consoles because of this. However, I hope that this breakdown can help teach your engineers the basic areas of operations of a modern day digital audio console. From there, this can help them know what to look for or ask questions to get them there and master the basics of a new console quickly.

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