Saving considerable hassle and expense later with a well-considered present plan...
March 12, 2014, by Rob Stam
Over the years, in my many encounters with church building committees, there’s often a common theme: The desire to build a room that can be utilized for a multitude of functions, including worship, special events, dinners, receptions…the list goes on.
It’s a discussion filled with looking toward the future, and one that necessitates compromise in order to accommodate any number of issues.
For example, wouldn’t it have been nice—25 years ago—if the building committee had considered that there might be need of more than a “roamer mic” and organ at the platform?
Today when building or remodeling a church, every future idea should be considered now as it relates to sound systems, since it’s much less expensive to install cabling that may not be used for five years rather than trying to retrofit it later when the cost will undoubtedly be five to 10 times more costly.
Of course, when addressing these subjects, caution should be exercised since we may be dealing with some of the same committee members who helped make the initial decisions with which we are unhappy today.
That said, the committee members who were present when the initial construction or installation took place may also remember the subsequent funding needed for more conduit and floor boxes for the platform, including cutting up the concrete floor to get the job done.
Meanwhile, the sound crew regularly trips over a bundle of mic cables and faces the unnerving challenge of tracing a bad cable to the soloist five minutes before the service begins.
All of this points to the fact that we need to be thinking about cabling and connectivity as it will affect future generations, perhaps long after we’re gone.
What can we reasonably estimate to happen in the next 15, 25, or even 50 years? We start by listing what will currently and likely could in the future-be needed on the platform. Such a list may include singers, pastor(s), pulpits, baptismal pool or fount, communion table, piano, drums, guitars, organ, bass, strings, brass, musician’s monitors, and so on.
A clear, relatively cable-free platform. (click to enlarge)
Next, the question becomes location. Can we really anticipate the exact position of each of these items in the years to come?
One answer is yes - we can anticipate positioning because we will control it with a well thought-out platform design. This is a popular option among larger churches, but can also be useful for the small-to-medium church. This approach means designing the platform or the front of the church with reasonably fixed choir, piano, organ, orchestra, monitor mixing, and other positions.
The result is superior sound quality in addition to consistent entrance and exit to various areas on the platform by those playing instruments, singing, or speaking.
The other answer is no - we can’t possibly anticipate everything accurately. In reality, this is the case in the majority of situations. But let’s back up. When discussing systems, I always have two perspectives: talkers/musicians and technical staff.
The musician side of me wants an area that I use to be free of cables, with plenty of space to interact with other musicians and the congregation. I want the ability to plug in any instrument at any realistic place on the platform.
For example, if the drummer in the praise group is in the back, the technicians should be able to mic all of the drums if required. The technical side of me wants easy cable runs, clean signal, and happy musicians.
The easy answer: Provide an excess of wire and conduit from the platform to the control area(s). Not just to the mixing console, but also to video rooms and studios, if they already exist or if there is discussion about having them in the future.
This is not to say that you should have 400 mic lines running all over the place. (Who’s to say what type of mic lines will be standard in the future, anyway?)
But build in the flexibility to run individual lines, snakes, fiber, data, or whatever else may be encountered now and in the future. Make sure there are several empty conduits planned for your new or refitted auditorium; it’s cheap to do it now, but very expensive to add later.
Note that not all wires can be next to each other. Some electrical contractors may ask if it’s okay to use PVC instead of steel conduit, and the answer is use steel. Steel provides magnetic shielding for electrical wiring. (PVC does not.) Using steel goes a long way toward eliminating nasty buzzes and hums.
However, if the budget dictates PVC, make sure it’s located as far as possible from electrical and other wiring (yards and yards, not feet! Don’t let the electrician use the argument that two trenches in the sub floor will be needed.
Route different kinds of cable as far apart as possible if you must use PVC. And, always keep mic, loudspeaker, video, data, and whatever other cabling in separate conduits, whether they’re PVC or steel.
Conduit choices—steel or PVC. (click to enlarge)
Floor boxes are your friends, and wall panels and plates can be a welcome substitute for floor boxes as long as cables running from the wall plates to the location where they are being used won’t create tripping hazards.
My recommendation has been boxes/panels placed strategically around the perimeter of the platform. Install as many as possible, but keep them invisible from the seating areas. Also remember that it’s important to be able to get cables outside of the “performance area” as quickly as possible.
Now, let’s fill those floor boxes/plates. Each box generally contains 6-12 jacks. Keep things organized with simple numbering: Box “A” jacks are numbers 1-12, Box “B” are numbers 13-24, and so on.
Floor pockets on the platform reduce long cabling runs and help keep things much cleaner. (click to enlarge)
You can have literally hundreds of sound system inputs at the platform, divided between the boxes, without being excessive and without confusion. Jacks can accommodate a variety of inputs and output s for other systems/uses as well, such as AC power, video, data, etc.
Drop snakes can also serve useful purposes. A drop snake simply takes the inputs in each box and links them to a new location on the platform. With a multi-pin connector-style snake, you place a multi-pin connector in each floor box that duplicates the input of that box. (A multi-pin connector puts all of these lines into one connection, locking into place via a connector of the opposite “gender.”)
Thus, all lines go through a single snake to a box on the other end, which breaks out each line individually again. This approach makes each input available at the box, and at the end of the snake.
But it’s crucial to never plug into both the input of the box and the same input on the snake. Bad things will happen!
The goal is to gain the option of connecting a mic cable to the floor box for input or running the mic cable to the end of the snake, not both.
An alternative to multi-pin snakes are fan-to-box snakes. These plug into each line individually, so the snake jacks coincide with the floor box jacks.
This approach is more time consuming but much safer. Either approach saves time and cleans up the platform. (I generally recommend snakes ranging from 15 - 75 feet in length.)
Let’s say we’ve got all these items plugged in at the platform at various floor box/wall panel locations.
For example, drums are on channels 9-15, vocals on 74-82, lead guitar on 4, and bass on 63. We’re using a 32-input mixing console posted at front of house/operator position.
Wait a minute - our math doesn’t add up. More inputs on platform than at the console! This is where we encounter patch bays, which allow the sound tech to simply take any input on platform and assign it to any channel on the console via a short patch cable. Think of an old-time telephone switchboard in terms of look and function.
Subsnakes can also be a big help. (click to enlarge)
Patch bays can be our best friend, but they can also present problems and turn into your worst enemy. First, a quality patch bay may cost as much as $1,000. And even at that rather lofty price point, they can still be one of the first things to go bad within a system.
The best way to avoid patch bay problems is proper installation, and as a result, we recommend that only a qualified contractor perform such installs. It’s a detailed, labor-intensive process, which adds even more to the cost, but without proper installation you’re just setting up for a waste of dollars.
Another option is the “poor man’s patch bay” - a snake box, linked via its snake to the house console. The box is usually mounted at a location off the platform out of sight, ready to accept inputs running from the platform. You then simply take the platform inputs and plug them into the box as needed - easy and flexible switching of inputs.
Patch panels are a solution, but come with some downsides. (click to enlarge)
Keep in mind that while a 32-input console may be in use now, there may come a day when it makes sense to expand to a 48 or more input console. Use a snake big enough to accommodate this growth, simply covering the extra inputs until they might be needed.
One note is to be cautious - don’t allow anyone the opportunity to plug into channel 32 on the snake box if console channel 32 is being used for a CD player or other fixed use application.
Some of this may sound pretty basic, but the issues covered here come up with every project, time after time. You may be using a 16-input console/mixer now, in time need a 32-input console, and further down the road, you may need a 48-input console. Plan ahead, and run a snake and box big enough to allow for growth.
While a qualified AV contractor should be able to accomplish these requirements, it’s important to understand the concepts and to be able to raise questions and propose approaches that work best for your situation - now and in the future.
Rob Stam served as an A/V system designer and installer for more than 15 years, and has long been active as both a musician and a sound operator.