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What New Churches Need for Tech Success

What New Churches Need for Tech Success

Do it right the first time and avoid the "inventive" systems cobbled together by well-meaning folks.

Are you running sound at a small and/or start-up church?

If so, chances are you're struggling with the sound reinforcement system.

I've seen a lot of "inventive" systems cobbled together by well-meaning folks and believe it's time to toss out a life-line. As a result, I've put together a list of the essential pieces of sound reinforcement equipment for a small church.

Because most small churches don't have much of a tech budget, I'm not going to be specifying high-end equipment. That doesn't mean that you can't have pro quality and tour-grade gear. I want you to have good gear I'm not here to say it's OK to buy bargain-basement gear.

A quick note: some of these are personal preferences. Your mileage may vary.

The basic sound reinforcement components needed for a small church with a contemporary service are [drum roll, please]:

  • Mixer: 16-24 channel analog mixer with four or more auxiliary sends or a 16-24 channel digital mixer.
  • Cable snake: 16-24 channels with four or more auxiliary returns, 100- to 150-foot snake whatever gets you from the stage to the booth.
  • Two 15-inch 3-way powered loudspeakers for front of house (same brand and model line as the subs)
  • One or two 18-inch powered subwoofers (same brand and model line as the mains)
  • One 1/3-octave equalizer for front of house (not needed with a digital mixer)
  • One two-channel compressor for pastor and one other channel (could be lead vocal or guest mic) (not needed with a digital mixer)
  • Either four powered stage monitors or four in-ear monitor systems
  • Four to six vocal microphones
  • One kick drum mic
  • Four instrument mics
  • One pastor wireless headset mic
  • Mic cables
  • Mic stands (regular and "shorty")
  • One Furman power conditioner for the equipment at the sound booth

All righty then. Now that I've defined what I consider the minimum requirements, let me start unpacking why.

The Mixer

16-24 channel with four or more auxiliary sends analog mixer, or a 16-, 24-, or yes, even 32-channel digital mixer. Here's what a typical lineup of channels might look like:

  1. Kick drum
  2. Snare
  3. Hi-hat
  4. Drum overhead
  5. Percussion
  6. Bass guitar
  7. Keyboard
  8. Acoustic guitar
  9. Electric guitar
  10. Extra instrument
  11. Lead vocal
  12. Backing vocal
  13. Backing vocal
  14. Pastor mic
  15. Extra mic
  16. Computer

Even though I show four mics for drums (ch 1-4), I usually recommend just miking the kick drum and the snare in a live room. Now if you have a really dead room or you have a huge building then use all four mics. If not, you have three channels that are now open.

As you can see, there are enough channels for a typical contemporary band. If you have a choir then you may need more than 16 channels and may need to look at a 24-channel board.

Typical analog mixing boards I recommend are right around $1,000 for a new one. Soundcraft, Allen & Heath, Yamaha, and Mackie are pretty much bulletproof.

An analog board may have some built-in effects and possibly a recording interface (either USB or FireWire), but that's about the extent of the computer electronics. A lot of these brands (and audio boards) have been around for a long time and have proven their toughness on the road.

Analog mixers are inexpensive but in light of the dropping costs of digital mixers and the limited functionality of the analog, unless you have a lot of expensive and somewhat new outboard rack gear, a digital mixer is likely a better choice.

Analog vs Digital Mixers

Here's the difference between an analog board and a digital board. With an analog board what you see is what you get. That means that if you want to change a setting, there's a knob on each channel for it.

On a digital board, you have to bring that channel into focus since the function of the knobs on a digital board change depending on what you've got on the screen.

A digital mixer is a computer and is subject to the same issues that a computer has. An analog board has greater latitude in the environment it's operated in and can tolerate a greater range of temperature, humidity, and power variances.

A digital board has all of the effects, dynamics and individual channel EQs and front of house EQs needed, which means the above gear can be paired down. An analog board doesn't have the luxury of having all of that built in.

Consider the Allen & Heath Qu16, Behringer X32, Midas M32, and the Soundcraft Si Expression line. They are a decent chunk of change, but when factoring in the additional capabilities and what you'd be spending for a decent EQ and compression, it's about even. PreSonus StudioLive mixers have also been very popular but don't have the automated faders like the others.

Da Fat Channel

PreSonus, along with other companies like Soundcraft and Behringer, have digital mixers with a single-channel surface design. PreSonus calls it the Fat Channel design. This is where everything for a given channel is shown all at one time. No layers to wade through. It's not as intimidating as higher end digital boards.

It's important to note that digital mixers do not all have the same workflow. Demo several to find which works best for your situation.

Powered Loudspeakers & Subs

Why powered? Because in a relatively short time they've come a long way.

Powered loudspeakers along the lines of QSC K or KW Series have built-in amplifiers and crossover circuits custom tailored to the specific loudspeakers. Plug in the equivalent sub, hook up the mains, and you can rest assured that the subs will crossover at the optimum frequency and that each amplifier is designed to produce the maximum sound for the given loudspeaker. No additional amps or crossover boxes to wire in and fuss over.

Be aware that you'll need to have power receptacles located near the loudspeakers to plug them in, and that they're heavier than non-powered models. While they may seem more expensive, by the time you factor in the cost of the proper amps and crossovers, the powered direction comes out equal.

Powered Stage Monitors Or In-Ear

Monitor loudspeakers are the typical some say "old-school" way for musicians to hear themselves on stage.

What musicians need to hear is quite different than what the congregation needs to hear.  Most musicians want the lead vocal and lead instrument to focus on what they're doing. Sometimes they'll need to bring their instrument into their mix. Vocalists always need to be able to hear themselves.

Monitor wedges require the sound team to mix each musician's monitor mix from the sound booth. The problem is with more monitors on stage and multiple monitor needs, stage volume becomes a problem. This is especially true if the drums are right behind any vocalist.

In-ear monitors are pretty much headphones plugged into a box. They take the individual channel sends from the mixing board and allow each musician to create their own mix. By being on headphones, stage volume isn't a concern.

In-ears take some getting used to because of the amount of audio isolation. To compensate, it's common to have a microphone on the stage aimed out at the audience and mixed into the musician's mixes. In-ears are usually more expensive than monitor wedges.

Vocal Microphones

Whatever you do, please don't buy no-name (generic) mics. You'll regret it. While the specs may look similar to pro-grade mics like those from Shure, Heil Sound, Audix, Audio-Technica, AKG, and Electro-Voice, they aren't close.

There's a reason the Shure SM Series, Sennheiser 835, Heil PR20/30/40, etc. have been around a long time. Someone once said that every hall in the United States has been EQ'ed for a Shure SM57/58. That alone should tell you something.

Learn more about the latest audio products.

These mics are rugged, all-around workhorses that are still in use by major productions. Just about every concert that you watch on TV has at least one of these mics on something, whether a vocal or an instrument.

The Shure Beta 58 has the added advantage of having a titanium ball cover which means you can drop the darn thing and never have a dented ball cover. You can drop the SM57/58s on the floor, from the stage, and probably run them over with a truck and they'll keep working.

But don't drop them. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. (But you already know that, right?)

Drum Microphones

In small churches, I usually recommend miking only the kick drum and the snare. I've found many small churches don't have a big room and the rooms they do have are very "alive."

Now, if the room is really dead or the room is huge, then use all four mics; for example, Shure SM57s on snare and toms and a Shure Beta 52A on kick. Use a condenser for an overhead mic.

Instrument microphones

A combination of dynamics and condensers are good for instrument miking. Most of this type of miking will be for a piano or a drum kit. Other gear, like guitars and keyboards, can plug directly into the system.

Microphone Cables

No matter what you've heard, don't go spending $50 for a Mogami or Monster mic cable. Go to a place like monoprice.com and pick up quality mic cables for peanuts. They're lifetime warranteed and just as good as anything out there.

Wireless Headset Microphone

You get what you pay for. (Haven't I said that already?) Spend less than $500 for something other than a premium wireless system with a quality headset mic, and the regret likely will soon set in. A wireless system from any of the "big names in high-quality microphones" will do the job.

Quality counts in the wireless arena and high quality isn't cheap. Look for something in the UHF or digital frequency range. Stay away from anything in the 680 to 850 Mhz range if you are in the USA. As of July 1, 2010, this frequency range is no longer available for wireless system use. You shouldn't see them in the stores but watch for "a great deal on eBay" because it's not a great deal.

Also, in this price range models are frequency-agile, meaning they have dual antennas and can skip back-and-forth between frequencies to get the best signal.

Power Conditioner/Protection

Spend a little bit ($100 or so) for a Furman power conditioner/surge protector to protect the "really" expensive equipment. Furman gear is designed for protecting audio and computer equipment, and they're built like a tank.

Do not buy a $15 power strip and expect it to protect gear the same way. It won't. I have a standing rule: Anything that plugs in at the sound booth gets plugged into a Furman, or it doesn't get plugged in at all.

These conditioners are designed to sacrifice themselves in the event of a power surge, which means spending another $100 for a replacement if it gets friedbut the rest of your equipment will have been protected. Plus, Furman has a replacement guarantee on the remaining equipment if the conditioner doesn't do its job.

That's it in a nutshell a very big nutshell.

Brian Gowing has helped numerous churches meet their technology requirements. He works towards shepherding churches, analyzing their technical requirements, sourcing the equipment, installing the equipment, and training the volunteer personnel. Brian's now teaming up with Chris Huff at Behind The Mixer. This article courtesy of ProSoundWeb Church Sound.

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