When writing many of the articles for Worship Tech Director over the past few years, I’ve often been challenged to write to the lay person, while equally aiming to be informative to the more experienced, or professional, who may read the piece. Ideally, there will be something offered here that will help everyone make an informed purchase decision for their worship facility.
The audio mixing console is the foundational component of the sound system.
For this conversation, I will use various terms in referencing audio mixing consoles, such as “mixer,” “mixing desk,” or simply “console.” I will also attempt to differentiate between ”high-end” and ”low-end” audio mixing consoles, as a way to define a correlation between cost and features, as well as small and large format consoles.
The audio mixing console is the foundational component of the sound system.
It is the centerpiece of the sound system, whereby the complete audio signal that needs to be heard by a congregant, passes through.
A quick note about a thoroughly overused phrase: “state-of-the-art.” For the past several years, this phrase has almost been synonymous with digital electronics, in contrast to analog electronics. We will discuss both here, without deference to either.
Having worked for ministries and houses of worship of various sizes, I have had experience overseeing audio budgets ranging from almost nothing to more than $1 million. From those experiences, I have an acute awareness of the importance of seeking the best quality, while doing so under budget.
Since there is a myriad of audio mixing consoles on the market to choose from, let’s talk about the most important aspects.
Generally speaking, all audio mixing consoles should have the same basic features, including input, output, and equalization sections.
Input and Output Sections
Input and output sections are fairly standard, but there are a few variables relative to “high-end’ and ”low-end” consoles.
Each individual (vertical) channel strip on an analog console is identical, consisting of (from top to bottom) an input gain knob (rotary knobs on a console are also sometimes referred to as a “pot,” short for potentiometer). The section of the channel strip below the input gain is usually the equalization (or, "EQ") section, followed by the routing section for Dynamic Control. Finally, sliding “faders” are used to further control increasing and attenuating the audio signal, on both the input and output sections, of the mixing console.
Digital mixing consoles normally have what is commonly referred to as a “master channel” that contains everything an analog channel strip would have, including equalization -- but also dynamic control (gating, compression, limiting). To control the audio signal on an individual channel, a channel is selected, and then the master channel is used to make the adjustments.
Equalization sections of ”low-end” analog mixers can be very basic, offering control over fixed high, mid-range, and low frequencies, or perhaps the mid-range may be “sweepable,” meaning you can select a mid-range frequency that you want to either boost or attenuate.
The EQ section of a digital audio mixing console will feature a robust four-band parametric EQ, with each band being sweepable. Additionally, each band of EQ is represented as high range, hi-mid range, lo-mid range, and low range on the frequency spectrum.
Routing for dynamic control is typically accomplished by using auxiliary, or aux. The aux channels are part of the output section of the console, and are routed to outboard gear, such as gates and compressors. The aux routing section of the console can also be used to mix stage monitors from the front of house, or FOH, mixing console.
The audio signal is then routed out of the outboard gear, back into the console and often added to a group section of the console, and from the group section to a Voltage Controlled Attenuator (VCA). The audio signal is finally routed from the VCA to the main output of the console.
In considering an audio mixing console, you should first figure how many channels need to be accommodated, which is usually determined by how many microphones and line level instrument lines are needed for the band.
Small format audio mixing consoles (e.g., Behringer X Series, Yamaha TF, CL, and QL Series) have limited space for multiple stereo inputs. If you are in need of multiple inputs on a console, and the audio budget isn’t large enough to invest in a large format console, that can be resolved by utilizing a digital stage input box, such as the Yamaha Tio 1608-D and Rio 1608-D2 and 3224-D2, or the Behringer SD 16 and S32. The Yamaha digital stage input boxes are compatible with the Dante audio standard, for CAT 5 connectivity, eliminating the need for a multichannel audio snake between the console and the stage.
Nevertheless, the features of the small format audio mixing consoles should be suitable for most houses of worship, because they’re capable of handling the number of audio channels that are typically needed for small to medium size worship ministries and congregations.
Large Format Audio Mixing Consoles
Audio consoles typically used for large concerts and touring artists are generally too large - and considered overkill - for a large number of houses of worship. However, megachurch-sized facilities (those with an average weekly attendance of roughly 3,700 persons or more) could find large format mixing consoles as an ideal fit for their needs.
Megachurches often attract large performing acts to their space, and are likely to have large choirs, background vocals, and a full band, all of which could easily require a 48-channel stage box or more.
Some of the more preferred large format live audio console manufacturers are DiGiCo (SD Series), Avid (VENUE S6L and VENUE Profile), Solid State Logic (Live Series), Yamaha (CL and Rivage Series), and the Midas (Pro Series). Most of these manufacturers also have small format options of their large format consoles, but they are often priced beyond the budget of many smaller ministries.
Another challenge for ministries to keep in mind when considering the purchase of a large format console, is that because they are designed for a professional setting (concerts and tours), there should be the expectation that a professional and experienced sound engineer operate them.
Generally speaking, most large format audio mixing consoles are not intuitive enough for the average volunteer to step up and mix a worship service, without a fair amount of training and hands-on time spent behind the desk.
Now is probably a good time to mention plugins, a feature of some large format digital mixing consoles. Audio plugins are defined as self-contained code that can be “plugged in” to digital audio workstations. There are several audio plugins available on the market today, but Waves plugins are the most compatible with live sound mixing consoles, and in some cases, offer a dedicated server to manage DSP. The most popular plugins offer signal processing (EQ, compression) options, as well as sound synthesis and analysis.
Another popular feature that digital consoles have on board is the Virtual Soundcheck. If your digital console is capable of multitrack recording, as many of them are, you can switch the console from ”input mode” to ”output mode,“ and play back a worship service or rehearsal that was previously recorded.
While playing the recording back in your worship space, you can then tweak EQ settings, compression, etc., and the band or vocalists can take advantage of this playback session to play or sing along with the recording or use the music tracks, if the band is not present, for example.
In closing, my advice to any ministry looking for an audio mixing console for their church, is to look for one that serves as the best fit for the space, comparing audio console features with ministry needs - at a price point that fits your budget.
In the end, keep in mind that there is an audio mixing console on the market today to fit every ministry size and budget.