Sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, forty-eight, analogue, digital, set-it-and-forget-it...
If this string of lingo rings a bell with you, then you may have been considering a new mixer for your sound system at your place of worship. Before you make your decision, allow me to weigh in on a few things I think you should consider before making a purchase.
First let’s make a generalized statement that worship services are generally one of two categories; either traditional or blended/contemporary.
We’ll discuss traditional first.
Typically there will be a pulpit mic, an altar mic, a lectern mic, a wireless on the pastor, and perhaps a feed from a digital piano. Chances are this type of system has been in place for quite a while, and the mixer is likely mounted in the rack and offers only volume control for the various inputs. The rack is stuck out of the way in a back closet somewhere, and some of us refer to this design as “set-it-and-forget-it”.
If this mixer needs to be replaced, a similar analogue rack mount mixer with level controls only and a good equalizer (properly tuned) can create a reasonably acceptable result. The downside is that there is no individual EQ for the various input devices, so all channels will have to compromise with the EQ needs of the other channels.
If you would prefer better results and have the financial ability, a digital rack mount mixer is a great way to go. Once installed, the system tech hooks up a laptop to the mixer, and via system software uses the digital output equalization to give the sanctuary as close to a flat response as the speakers and the room itself will allow. Doing so will allow pre-recorded music to sound as natural as possible.
After having done that, then the tech will set the digital EQ for each individual input device to get the most pleasing possible result for that specific channel. No compromises necessary.
Secondly, a very simple touch-panel can be provided at a remote location chosen by the client. This touch panel will allow for several types of adjustments by the user without the possibility of damaging the speakers or causing feedback. All upper limits are set and saved by the tech in both the computer and in the digital mixer.
When all is done, the tech and his computer can leave the building and all non-destructive adjustments can be made by the church. By “non-destructive”, I’ll point you back to the analogue solution for a moment. Imagine the building custodian is vacuuming the sanctuary. Imagine the building custodian likes to listen to heavy metal music while working. Imagine this person puts in the CD, and turns the CD channel volume from “3” to “10” and commences vacuuming. About 2 minutes into the process, all music stops (amp clipping blows speakers), and our custodian is now out of a job and the church is replacing speakers. This is a real-life scenario that I have witnessed, and the use of a digital mixer with user-friendly control options will preclude this sort of mishap in addition to give vastly better audio results.
Moving along to the subject of blended/contemporary services, you’ll need to consider a mixing console with a system operator highly recommended.
The size of the mixer will be determined by the channel count that you currently need, plus future growth channel needs, plus a few more for good measure. Mixers are still one of those products that follow the rule of “you get what you pay for”. There are inexpensive mixers that are really quite good. There are also absurdly inexpensive mixers that we can realistically refer to as “cheap” and typically they are really not good. Frequent failures and no repair parts available is a common complaint.
The other end of “you get what you pay for” can also be a pitfall. I know of a church that wanted a “really good mixer”, so an unscrupulous contractor sold them a $16K console, knowing full well the church did not have the need for the kind of signal routing that this piece could provide, either now or in the future. The church got what it wanted (a really good mixer), but they could have had ample routing opportunities in another choice and left the other $12K in the bank. Buying quality is always good, but don’t purchase quality beyond the demands of your application.
The system operator is another large key to the decision-making process. If you have an engineer in your congregation who is able and willing, you can quite reasonably consider a mixer with greater capability because that individual will know how to make the best use of its features. Life is all about change, so be aware that your operator may well someday have other callings and you should enlist a trainee to observe, absorb and take over when the experienced operator leaves the church.
It is entirely possible that your church wants and needs a good mixer with a good set of features, but no operator exists. This is when an experienced contractor can be invaluable. In my small-town Midwestern world this scenario is extremely common, so we sit down to discuss the needs of the church, and determine which mixer make and model will best serve those needs and the available budget. Upon arrival of the mixer, it is installed, the system is re-tuned, and the volunteer operators are given a training session by yours truly.
I have trained young teens, octogenarians and every age in between. Assuming the trainee ears and brains are still working, and assuming the trainer uses descriptive language any layperson can understand, most volunteer operators are quite confident by the end of the session. Of course, questions will always arise and this is when you email your contractor the specific operational question and you should get a specific answer (assuming you have selected the right contractor; a list of previous clients is worth its weight in gold).
In years past, the consideration and use of digital consoles was largely reserved for those with a high degree of skill and a reasonably fat checking account. I am pleased to report that those days are gone. Additionally, the control surfaces of early digital mixers were definitely not intuitive. Menus were several layers deep, and analogue operators were a bit shy about making the transition.
Currently, at least one mixer that I am aware of (the Presonus StudioLive) has an extremely user-friendly control surface. Any person with minor analogue mixing experience could look at this unit and successfully complete basic mixing operations without even opening the owner’s manual. There are a few very good reasons to select a digital mixer that might help you to justify the additional expense. Digital platforms allow for a dedicated offering of EQ and dynamics to every single channel (in addition to scads of other operations). Just the dynamics alone would take up several racks of space, miles of cable, and thousands of dollars.
Secondly, digital desks can save “scenes” so that specific settings may be recalled instantly at the touch of a button. At the very least this feature would be a tremendous benefit to the pastor who needs to conduct a funeral service or simple wedding ceremony mid-week without benefit of a system operator. In churches where the first service is traditional, the second service is blended and the third service is full-blown contemporary, individual mixes that are appropriate for each service can be saved as scenes and recalled from memory instantly when it’s time.
Although I do several training sessions every year on analogue consoles, I rarely have teenagers show up to learn the ropes. A friend has posited that perhaps the teenage turnout would be higher if the console were digital, as that is the world these young people have grown up in. Screens and menus are not scary at all, but hundreds of rotary knobs and sliding faders look too daunting to the younger crowd. Hmmm…..it seems like a possibility worth considering.
I will make one final point in conclusion.
I have met with churches that made the decision to purchase a new mixer because they were hoping to improve the audio they were experiencing in the sanctuary. Sadly, the money was spent but no improvement was realized. If you are experiencing less-than-acceptable sound in your sanctuary, it may well not be the fault of the mixer. Every single component in the signal chain has an impact upon the results, and so does the physical placement of mics and speakers.
Additionally, if the system installer did a poor job tuning the system when it was commissioned, a new mixer (or any other piece of gear) may not provide any better results. Unless you have a highly qualified audio engineer in your congregation, ask a qualified contractor to come and review your system design and tuning.
If you have questions, please contact Jon at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (319) 351-2000.