With the overwhelming array of audio consoles available today, let’s take a closer look at the most important purchase considerations.
I won't be making any specific console recommendations, of course, but major manufacturers like Allen & Heath, Avid, Behringer, DiGiCo, Midas, PreSonus, Roland, Solid State Logic (SSL), Soundcraft, Studer, and Yamaha all make products that fit a wide range of applications.
One must account for the important considerations, not necessarily the most fun ones. So we've got to make wise choices above all else.
What type of audio console would be the best fit for your church? The easiest specifications to begin with are probably channel count and bus count.
Some mixers don’t penalize you for the number of channels when using a stereo source, which has a tremendous impact on the real value of a given mixer.
Channel count is the number of actual inputs that a console can mix at one time. It's important to remember that this may not be the same as the console's number of physical input connections. Most mixers have more input connections than they can actually use at once, which allows you to have extra sources physically patched for use later.
When determining an ideal channel count, there is an important consideration in how the various consoles handle stereo inputs.
If a console feature list says that it can handle 48 channels, we need to know what that really means. For some mixers, that means that it can handle 48 input paths total. Knowing that a stereo source requires two input connections - and thus 2 input paths of processing in the mix engine - such a mixer could handle up to 24 stereo sources.
Some mixing consoles, though, are much more generous in their definition of an input channel. For those consoles, when using a stereo source, it may still only count for one console channel. Such a "48-channel" console will be running 48 inputs, each in full stereo, to where it's actually 96 input connections. This obviously has a tremendous impact on the real value of a given mixer.
The mix buses require the same consideration.
Mix buses, in case you're not familiar, are a console's way of providing specialized mixes for use in sending content to destinations like monitor wedges, in-ear monitors, "aux-fed" subwoofers, and effects processing, to name the most popular uses. To be fair, the main mix bus, usually called "LR", "stereo," or "main," is also a pair (left and right) of mix buses, although we often leave that out of the bus count conversation, since they're a given.
Normally when discussing bus count, the focus is on mix buses available for auxiliary sends or audio subgroups (and maybe matrixes).
A console offering 16 mix buses might allow them all to be either mono or stereo (thereby offering up to 32 output paths). Or it might require linking two adjacent mono buses together to create one stereo bus. This is particularly important, if you plan on doing IEM mixes, which tend to eat up bus counts very quickly.
Even if you're using personal monitor mixers for the band, it's likely that a number of things will still need to be submixed for convenience, and that requires mix buses. Please give some serious thought to the real bus count you need now and what you anticipate in the future (and, of course, how your potential console handles stereo buses), as this can be a significant and frustrating limitation with less expensive consoles.
Another major consideration is the way inputs and outputs actually get into and out of your console. In the "old days", the I/O (a mixture of XLR and ¼" jacks, typically) almost always was built into it. As a result, you'd use analog snakes to get to and from the stage. Now, it is possible to use a computer networking cable (Cat 5 or 6, or even fiber) to get an entire stage-worth of inputs and outputs to and from the console.
The device at the stage with actual input and output jacks is often called a "stage box" or "stage rack." Nearly every modern console offers some option for this, sometimes as a standard feature. Often, though, it serves as an add-on product (e.g., a series of different stage boxes with different I/O counts to suit your needs, as well as a card to insert into the console to provide the console end of the cable connection). If we want to pursue this convenience, we need to consider what method (or, rather, "protocol") is being used. That's because that affects future flexibility and compatibility with other products.
Among the different protocols, it looks as though Dante is becoming the most popular option for several reasons. First, it's a true networking protocol. This means it can travel over existing networking infrastructure. It also allows you to have wide distribution of your Dante-enabled products through existing network switches. However, I strongly recommend you do any Dante networking on a completely separate network for reliability whenever possible, but you certainly can integrate it with existing building networking, if needed.
Another reason Dante is so popular, is the wide range of products currently available, all compatible with one another. This allows you to scale your system easily, and distribute parts of it to different locations for convenience.
Audinate, the company that owns and licenses the Dante protocol, even offers an inexpensive driver for your computer. This allows you to record and playback up to 64 inputs and outputs via your computer's Ethernet jack. It's incredibly simple to combine this with free audio software to do multitrack recordings of your services. In addition, it provides a virtualized sound check (by playing back through your console) to allow audio engineers to practice and refine their mixes.
Some manufacturers have chosen to standardize around other protocols for getting multichannel audio over a single cable, for various reasons. One such protocol is MADI, and it offers the advantage of a long track record of being extremely reliable. The downside with it is that it isn't a network protocol, so it can't be interconnected via a network switch with other products for convenient routing.
Sometimes, however, robustness is more important. In a similar vein, AES50 exists to be a very stable, yet not networkable, protocol that some manufacturers have adopted.
The key here is to research what protocols your potential console supports, so you can understand your future options.
Since all consoles offer the same basic feature set (parametric EQ and dynamics on each channel, scene memories, built-in effects), you really have to just get your hands on the products that you're considering, to find out what feels right.
Don't necessarily let your initial sense of ease-of-use guide you too strongly, though. If you're able to operate a digital mixer already, you can learn a different one. The one time it may make sense to consider initial ease-of-use, is if you'll have several different volunteers on it. Otherwise, look at the practicality of the features vs. your needs. Try operating it for an extended period of time to see if it continues to feel comfortable.
Some consoles get annoying to use after a while, whether because of overall frame size, touchscreen behavior, or number of button presses required to get common things done.
One final consideration is remote control apps for phones and tablets. Not everyone needs this functionality, but it is really convenient to be able to wirelessly control the console from anywhere. This allows you to walk the room, and hear how the mix translates to different areas. It also helps if you want to hang out on the platform during sound check and have better communication with the musicians. Some consoles even let you have multiple devices connected, so that each musician can control their own mix.
I hope that this piece helps you navigate the purchase process a little better. Sometimes numbers (specifications sheets and prices) don't always immediately tell us the whole picture.
Take your time and be open-minded and thorough in the search for the right console; you'll be glad you did.