May 02, 2012, by Mike Sessler
Almost weekly, I receive an e-mail asking for advice on which mixer to buy.
The answer, of course, is always the same; it depends. No seriously, that’s the answer. Because there is no “one” right mixer for every church.
There are quite a few that hit a sweet spot in terms of a performance/value ratio, but even those are not right for every situation. So what I thought I’d do is walk through a process that I use when spec’ing out a new mixer for a church.
Keep in mind that every single gear purchase is a compromise. What we try to achieve is the best compromise for the situation, with some room to grow.
So with that in mind, here we go.
Primary Objective Of Upgrade
It may seem obvious, but a lot of churches are “convinced” they need a new mixer, but can’t articulate why. “Ours is old and it’s not doing the job,” is not sufficient. What part of the job is it not doing? Does it lack inputs? Is it noisy? Do some of the faders not work? Too few outputs? Too big? Don’t like the color scheme?
Seriously, we need to consider what we are trying to fix before we can find a suitable replacement. And sometimes it really makes more sense to replace a few faders than it does to buy a new desk. Keep that in mind. But once we know what we don’t like about the old one, we can decide what features and what kind of performance we need from the new one.
You might think that the digital/analog question might be first, but I prefer to save that for later. First we need to determine how many inputs are currently used, what the short term (ie. 2-3 years) growth plans are and then figure in some cushion. I like to start with this question because if a church only uses 3 microphones and a CD player each week, a (Yamaha) PM5D is probably not the best choice, even if they can afford it. Nor is an M7.
It’s important to note the number of mic inputs and line inputs. You also want to consider how many inputs you would like to be able use if you had them available. For example, if your current 16 channel mixer is full, consider what you would like to be able to do right now before you run out and buy a 24 channel. You may find that one full sooner than you expected.
I always advise churches to count up their maximum ideal channels for weekly services (once or twice a year events are another matter), then add 8 channels to that. Start looking at consoles with that channel count at a minimum. If you end up with 30 as your ideal number (current use, planned upgrades plus 8 spares), you may find that going for a 40 channel board isn’t that much more, and might make sense. On the other hand, 32 might well be sufficient. Think it through.
Again, this might seem obvious, but outputs get used up in a hurry.
Obviously you have the mains, which usually means 1-2.
Then you have monitors, 4-6 is common on smaller boards, but think about how many you’d like.
If you’re still using wedges (I’ll pray for you), remember that for each monitor mix you need another channel of amplification.
If you’re using ears, it’s beneficial to get everyone on their own mix, and even small bands will max out the Aux sends of smaller boards.
Don’t forget the “forgotten” outputs—cry rooms, record sends, lobby, DVD record, green room, overflow rooms—this list can get long as well. Think about how you are going to use those sends, and what makes the most sense to get them there.
Sometimes, you need an Aux send, other times a matrix works better, still other times a group out makes sense. How many do you need now, what might you need, then add a few extra.
For example, if you determine that you’d like to do 7 monitor mixes, a main left and right, a record send, a cry room, lobby and DVD record feed, don’t bother looking at a Mackie Onyx 32.4, even if you don’t need 32 inputs—you’re out of outputs on day 1.
What types of new features are you looking for? More groups, VCAs, a bigger Matrix, better EQ, better metering, direct outputs, mute groups, and/or automation are all found on boards at various price points.
These are all great features…if you need them. If you don’t, it’s extra confusion for the people who run the board.
On the other hand, don’t skip over this step. Really think through if you would be better served with groups for VCAs, and buy accordingly.
It’s a fact that some boards sound and work better than others. If you can, get a loaner or rental board to try out in your room to see how it sounds, and how it works. Sometimes seemingly insignificant details can make the job a lot easier or a lot harder. It’s good to know that up front. Sometimes the new “upgraded” board doesn’t sound as good as the old one. If that’s the case, keep looking.
Also consider the warranty, local and manufacturer support. One thing I really appreciate about Yamaha’s higher-end consoles is their 24/7 support. If something goes haywire with the M7 at 9 pm on Saturday, someone will answer the phone and try to talk me through a fix. If necessary, they’ll put someone on a plane to deal with the problem ASAP. Depending on your application, that might be necessary.
I once had a console power supply go bad at 7 pm on a Friday night. Thankfully the local shop was open on Saturday and we got the board in for repair. It took a week and I had to borrow the board out of the youth room to make church happen, but we were back up and running the next weekend, and the services went on. That’s important. Find out if your local dealer is also an authorized repair center, or if they have to send it out.
Digital Or Analog
This is the first question most people ask, and it should probably be the last.
Without figuring out the previous list (and I haven’t been all-inclusive in the list, there are dozens of smaller questions), you really can’t make a good decision about this.
Going digital just because it’s the latest thing and all the mega churches in town are digital are not good reasons to do so.
Digital has a lot of advantages, but it also carries some baggage. It’s important to know if the trade-off is worth it.
First, consider your existing complement of equipment; your snake, outboard gear, patchbays and the like. What kind of shape are they in, do you have enough, how easy is it to pull a new snake? How many stage inputs do you have now, and are they enough? Will a new snake be more cost-effective than a digital cable? Sometimes it is, believe it or not.
Think about who will be operating the board. Anyone with a reasonable amount of skill and time behind an analog board can learn a digital one—at least the lower end ones. However, who else uses it, and how easily will it be for them to make the transition? Most digital boards have permission setting ability that makes it easy to keep inexperienced operators out of trouble. But is there someone at your church who can figure out how to program the keys?
Digital boards have a lot of advantages, but they tend to be more complex to use and set up. On an analog board, it’s easy to teach someone how to use the Aux sends or EQ. It’s right there in front of you and it’s easy to visualize. A digital board has a bunch of multi-purpose encoders and it’s easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention.
I’ve done a lot of mixing in my career, and once in a while I still adjust the wrong monitor mix on the M7 or select the wrong channel. Mastery of digital is by no means impossible, but it does take time. Are all the stakeholders (volunteers, leadership, board, etc.) prepared for that?
If you already have a significant investment in quality outboard gear (compressors, gates, FX, etc) and you have a decent snake installed, going digital may not make a lot of sense if all you really need are more inputs. On the other hand, if the snake is old and failing, you’re always short gates and comps and you really could use another 16 stage inputs, a digital upgrade can fit the bill perfectly.
Even with digital you have some choices. Some boards, like the Yamaha M7 and LS9 are hybrid boards; that is they are designed to be dropped into an existing analog infrastructure. You can get digital snakes for them, but they add significantly to the cost. The work great if you have an existing snake that does the job. Others, like the RSS M-400 at the low end and the Digidesign Venue and Profile at the high end, are based around a digital snake concept. Those are perfect if you need the advantages of digital and you either don’t have a snake, it’s not big enough or the one you have is failing.
Clearly, there are lot of questions to ask when buying a new board. I haven’t even tried to be exhaustive, but this structure will get you thinking. You really need to think it through. Then ask some people to help you think it through. Then go play with the board. Whether you’re spending $2,000, $20,000 or $50,000, it’s a big deal. That’s money that could be going to a dozen other areas of ministry, and it needs to be spent wisely.
We also need to invest for the long-term. Asking for a new board every 3 years because you chose poorly is not a way to win friends and influence people. So think it through…everyone will be better off!
Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog, Church Tech Arts . He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.