Not so long ago there were very few digital consoles on the market. You may think the digital console is a relatively new advancement. However, they began to be developed in the early 80's. As the cost of computing power has come down it has made it much easier to get a digital mixing console into everybody's hands.
There are many things to consider when looking at different digital consoles. We will focus on a few;
One of the biggest variables in digital consoles is the number of channels they can provide. On smaller, budget consoles it may be very straight forward. For example, there would be one channel for every XLR Input on the back. When you move into the larger console realm, you start to see external input options. Many of the large consoles have very few inputs on the back and rely heavily on remote stage racks for the inputs. Large format consoles can handle a very high channel count that can range from 64 to 256 inputs. Put these consoles "on the network" and the channel count can go into the thousands (think Grammy's or Emmy's for instance). A newer concept in digital consoles is open architecture. In this format, you don’t have a dedicated number of inputs and outputs. Rather, there are a dedicated number of paths that you can allocate to inputs, outputs, auxiliaries, matrixes, etc.
Console size does not have to be dictated by the number of channel faders anymore. Many smaller digital consoles are being built into convenient rack mount sizes. There are now 32 channel mixers that can mount in a standard 3RU space rack. They have no physical faders and rely on an iPad for control. Larger consoles offer banks of faders. Instead of each channel dedicated to it's own fader, you may get a group of 8 or 16 faders that can toggle between many different functions. Many consoles offer the same features but come in form factors with 1, 2, 3, or more banks of faders.
Many consoles offer a method (or two) for getting inputs from various places, such as remote stage racks and computers, into the console. Many audio networking protocols have existed in the past, but there are a few that are prominent today. By far the most prominent is Dante which allows many channels to be sent over standard ethernet cable. Most audio manufacturers support this format natively or by use of an add-on accessory. Some consoles use MADI over fiber. Some us proprietary protocols. So, check to make sure the equipment you are working with all "speaks the same language".
Almost every digital console today offers some way to control the console remotely. Some rely on an external device for their user interface. Most support the iPad. Some support Android devices. Some even support logging in from a web browser. One area this has really become helpful is for musicians to take control of their own monitor mixes. Most consoles have a limit to the number of devices that can connect at one time, from 1 to 20+ so make sure your needs can be met. Also, many apps do not offer all of the features that you can access on the actual console.
Computing power has allowed many improvements in the effects processing area. Almost every digital console has a compressor and full parametric EQ on every channel. Some have a few effects, such as fixed reverb and delay, while others offer multitudes of options in many configurations. If you need effects for what you do, there is probably a console with what you need built right in.
Manufacturers are always trying to find ways to make their product stand out above the rest by adding features. Some of these include a built in WiFi router, multi track recording, or iPod playback straight from a USB.
In summary, there are plenty of choices, and the options seem to be increasing every day. There are solutions for your needs from small to large scale. If you are in the market for a digital console, make a list of the features you want and contact the Poll Sound Sales Department. They would be happy to help you find the right console to fit your needs.
Article written by Chris Dye