There are four major types: Analog, Hybrid, Digital and Software Consoles. On a side note the Glorious PC Master Race wins the Game Console Wars hands down, brou-ha-h!
Analog Consoles come in a range of different sizes and feature sets. They are normally highly reliable and for small to mid-sized boards they are the cheapest option compared to other types of consoles with the same amount of Inputs and Outputs (I/O). Also, because Analog Consoles are 'analog' they don't have any Analog to Digital Conversion latency problems.
All of the dials, faders, master out, groups, aux/effects sends, peak indicators, solo and channel mute buttons positions are all visible at once so you can see what is going on all at a glance and make changes to multiple faders and dials at the same time. They are also easy to learn on because the operator can see everything and it's easy to explain the features because nothing is hidden under layers (See Digital Consoles).
One of the down sides to Analog Consoles is that on cheaper and smaller boards manufacturers cut corners by merging or removing features. Take for instance the Mixer I have at church that was bought when the worship team was smaller. It has its mute and group button for each channel combined into the same button so you can mute or have a group and as a result when you use it in one mode the other becomes unusable.
Smaller Analog Consoles also tend to have fewer aux/effects sends and may have half of this section; of the console, restricted to Post Fader mode making them only useable for Effect Sends. Also be aware that they tend to have dedicated stereo channels that may not necessarily also have balanced XLR inputs and a full parametric EQ so even though a Console is 16 channels it might be 8 balanced + 4 stereo inputs. If you happen to drop an Analog Console it's probably not going to survive the bounce off the floor.
If you go into the large Analog Console category then they start to become very expensive because of the huge number of parts that make them up and combine that with the engineering and construction costs it makes for a very expensive product. There is a reason older recording studios don't replace their giant Analog Consoles. It is hard to justify spending $20,000 on a custom Analog Console that was bought 30 years ago and then to replace it with a Digital Console that can do the same things for a fraction of the price.
Analog Consoles are also not upgradable; so if you need to change to something with larger capabilities you have to buy new Consoles.
If your church or organisation puts on a lot different events you will also find your time being absorbed by re-setting you console after and before your shows because the setting of faders and dials cannot be saved which is why I don't think Analog Consoles would suit a church who put on a lot of community events that require sound reinforcement.
Hybrid Consoles are a mix between Digital and Analog Consoles and different manufacturers offer different feature sets. Some Hybrid Consoles have just programmable virtual effects emulation on board and the rest of the Console is an Analog Console. Other implementations have a recording interface built in and others are mostly digital but don't have moving faders. It all depends on what the manufacturer's goals when designing the Hybrid Console.
A Hybrid Console can be good to learn on because while Hybrid Consoles offer some features of a Digital Console they also are laid out similarly to an Analog Console which makes the combined learning easier.
Unfortunately Hybrid Consoles can be priced fairly close to Digital Consoles of the same size. Digital Consoles have some more advanced features which can make justifying a Hybrid Console over a Digital Console just a little harder.
Digital Consoles have largely been an expensive option. The first one I saw had 16 channels and it originally cost somewhere around $10 000; if I remember correctly. They have come down in price quite dramatically to $2 000 - $ 4 000 which is still fairly expensive, until you look at the flexibility they offer.
Most Digital Mixers will have built in programmable digital effects, which replaces a rack worth of effect's units so you technically save money there. You also get a good amount of scalability because you can add digital snakes which expand the number of inputs and outputs the Console can have which also means that you don't have to replace the Console when more I/O are required.
Speaking of Inputs and Outputs, most Digital Consoles will only generally have balanced XLR I/0 therefore DI's + Phantom Power are a must to connect instruments and unbalanced equipment. Like on a larger and more expensive Analog Consoles Digital Consoles normally have Phantom Power that can be assigned on a channel by channel basis. Most Digital Consoles will also double up as a multitrack recording interface. This feature also allows for play back of recordings which is handy for doing virtual sound checks.
Channels are generally layered, for example the visible channels 1-8 can be switched to 9-16 and 17-24 and the aux/effects sends and masters and groups and so on because the faders and dials are motorised and will all move to what is set on each layer. The faders may also be able to be switched into a mode where they change settings for the effects.
You are also able to save snap shots of all Parametric EQ, Gates, Compressors and Routing for channels and master outs, groups, aux/effects sends and effects either all together as a snap shot of everything or as a component save which allows for recalling during shows or set ups. This is handy for events like musicals where there are a lot of different people going on and off stage. The down side to this is that you can't see everything at once and have to go through layers to see the different channels on each layer.
This is also an issue if the Digital Console does not have a digital naming strip because you will end up with 3 or more layers of electrical tape with a bunch of different names under each fader to keep track of everything. On a lot of implementations there is only one channel strip, which in short means that you can only change the Parametric EQ, Gates, Compressors and Routing on one channel at a time.
With this design you have to select a channel to be updated before you start changing the settings for its Parametric EQ, Gates, Compressors and Routing on the channel strip. There is a small amount of latency because the sound is converted from an analog format to a digital format, processed and then converted back again to an analog format. This problem has become less and less over the years and is not a noticeable thing anymore.
Software based mixers have been around for a while but people always question if they actually work as described. The basic principle is that you have an audio interface added to your computer through a firewire/thunderbolt interface. USB interfaces are generally not used because its packet protocol is not fast enough but with USB3 that might change. For the most part this setup acts like a Digital Console.
The interface is then controlled via software but any processing of the sound is done on your computers processor. This unfortunately can lead to a lot of latency without a very fast computer and I'm sceptical if it really works. The other problem is that installing updates for drivers, operating system's software can break the setup so the computer that is used has to be dedicated to just running your software mixer.
The only implementation I've seen that might work is PreSonus' firewire interface that has low latency drivers and first party control software that is dedicated to using the interface as a Software Console. I'd like to get my hands on one of PreSonus' firewire interfaces to check it out but I don't have the disposable income to get one or the right connections to get a review unit. Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge!
Zach Radloff lives on the Gold Coast and is studying IT and Multimedia at university and is also a qualified Live Production, Theatre and Events Operation Technician.
Zach Radloff's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/zach-radloff.html