Monday, March 03, 2008

Why Can't Hardware Recorders and Mixers Keep Up?

Every one of us who has been a musician or composer for the past ten years or so has seen and very likely participated in the rise of the software driven music environment. Software and the laptop has pretty much completely taken over music production in almost all aspects. With all of the convertors that are out there  are inevitably those, like myself, who just prefer using hardware. It may be the tactile working, it may be the ability to multi-task on equipment. Whatever the case may be even the hardware nuts like myself have still had the luxury of seeing most of our synthesizer and music production gear progress and evolve in parallel to the software world. That is except for the hardware recorders and the mixer industry.

I am not sure if you have really had an opportunity to look around at the mixer and harddisk recorder field as of late but if you compare the feature specs and the capabilities to any of the latest music interfaces on the market, they simply cannot compare. One of the most glaring deficiencies in both of these fields is the lack of stereo input channels and in general the lack of affordable multi-track recording.  Our software these days lets us record and mix unlimited tracks, IN STEREO that we can then pump out to the PA system generally for as low as a few hundred dollars, yet you would be hard pressed to find an analog or digital mixer even to this day that features more than four or five 1/4" paired stereo inputs for an affordable price.

Lets take a quick look at some of the most common mixers around and see where they stand.

Mackie 1202-VLZ3:   $300 a 12 Channel mixer that features only four channels (eight as mono) configurable for stereo. That means I can only plug in four synthesizers, samples, workstations in and have them feature stereo sound.

Yamaha MG166CX: $500 Sixteen channels again with only four configurable (again eight as mono) for stereo input.

Soundcraft EPM12:  $430   12 channels, none configurable as stereo.

The downfalls don't just seem to be there however. The recording platform equally has its shortcomings. If we look at a digital 8-12 track workstation in the likes of Tascam and so forth we will find that there are plenty of 8-12 track recorders available. However, again their flexibility comes up short with almost every single one featuring a lack of inputs and recording options. The Boss DR-1200 for example comes in at $895 and features only two track, mono simultaneous recording. The new Akai MPC5000 which comes in at $2500  only offers up to eight tracks and the powerhouse Korg D3200 at a price of $1300 only offers twelve mono tracks. Does it really cost that much more to run some analog circuitry for more inputs?

I suppose the run around to my point here is , why I can get such great innovation with the Elektron Monomachine, the Access Virus or the Waldorf Blofeld in the hardware arena, yet at the same time not even get evolutionary features such as the capability of receiving paired stereo 1/4" inputs on all of the available channels in a mixer?

Is it really too much to ask to just be able to plug in more than four pieces of gear as stereo using 1/4" unbalanced plugs?!?!?!


SIGHUP said...

You might be expecting too much for that price. Unlike software, hardware gets expensive the more stuff you add on. You'd probably need to look at the $1000-$2000 range. The Allen Heath Mixwizard WZ3:20S has eight stereo inputs and two stereo returns, and sells for something around $1600.

One of the problems is that most users aren't particularly demanding of their mixers. Like almost everything in budget music equipment, it's aimed at guitar players, and two guitar player can get pretty far on six mono channels. When a significant portion of the market is happy to pay $50 for whatever cheap Mackie knockoff Behringer has out, it gets pretty hard to innovate at a large enough margin to keep costs low.

M.A.S. said...

True, I can completely understand where you are coming from with the target audience being guitar players and the like. But for analog circuitry that marginal cost of adding the other pline ins I can't imagine is really that expensive.

As for recorders I can only imagine it is so expensive due to the proprietary OS/Firmware the manufacturer insists on using. If they took the route of using open software and standard computer parts the could probably build an on par standalone recording box to that of PC + audio interface.

J. Wells said...

I totally understand your argument, but I do see a counterpoint. So the editorializing continues. Ahem.

I think you have to remember who the companies are really designing mixers for-- the target audience of a multitrack mixing console is rarely the slick young electronica producer, who requires a copious amount of ins, outs and channels. Folks like us don't make up a large enough piece of the market just yet, unlike, say, the rock and roll folks. And all the rock and roll types, who truly do make up a huge part of the market for music hardware, and have done so for so long that they've contributed majorly to the various manufacturers' success, historically did not begin to rely on small "home mixers" until the early 1980's-- so their process doesn't make huge demands of their mixers. In the era of rock, if you wanted a huge crisp sound, you put a bazillion mics everywhere, on all those acoustic instruments and amps and whatnot, and plugged it all into a console so big it could only be in a professional studio. Everything below that was just practice, on the level of school talent shows and the like. It's only recently (in the last 10 years, I mean) that consumers have begun demanding what the industry still views as "home mixers" that are more and more versatile, even beyond the enormous dinosaur boards that dominated the rock era. Since a lot of rock is still (cough) completely fucking mired in that fantasy-history it dry humps so much, the old habits, expectations and methods persist (often for the sake of "purity" and "authenticity"), and mostly they haven't changed for a long long time. A lot of people who were making music before the 80's, when "home mixers" first came into their own, still view small mixers as pushbutton-operated, hopefully preprogrammed practice-only devices, and have been doing so for so long that's all they want and expect. No matter what we do, our demographic will be playing catch up for a few decades. That being said, I think the industry is doing a damn fine job of innovating right now. Take, for instance, my Alesis Firewire mixer. Twelve total ins (I actually use those mono's in pairs, panning knobs are your friend) routed into software that treats the incoming audio however you bloody like, putting it into as many tracks and channels and bloody vst wondermachines as you can run at once, then spits it back out any of the built-in outs you want it to, as well as anything you can put into your software, IE rewire, vst instruments, samples, etc. All for about $500usd. This way you get the best of both worlds with perfect functionality. And there are so many of these versatile, specialized devices hitting the market at (what are historically speaking) low prices for such a device, resulting in so many options, I think it's awesome.