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Simply Logical: A Straightforward Approach To Mixing Console Layout

I’m a big fan of standardization. It makes it a lot easier to move between venues and host different sound techs if everything is more or less the same. So, what is the standard board layout?

Somewhere back in the paleolithic era of live sound, mixing consoles were noisy. That’s because they were made of stuff. Look inside a modern digital console and what you’ll find is a few ribbon cable connecting the fader/encoder banks to a small motherboard. All that computerized digital magic has made audio mixers very, very quiet.

But early mix engineers worked with hand-built (and small) mixers where noise was a problem – resisters, diodes, potentiometers, capacitors and other electrical bits conspired to create a hiss that discriminating engineers most just couldn’t abide. So, they came up with a solution.

They discovered that the further a channel was from the master fader – which was typically on the right side of the mixer – the noisier the channel was. And if you turned up the gain on said channel for something like a vocal microphone, there was also a bunch of noise.

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on someone that putting the louder channels – acoustically louder, requiring less gain – further away from the master, meant the vocals could be closer to the master and were thus cleaner. And thus the standard mixing layout was born.

The story may be apocryphal, but it makes sense. I’m a big fan of standardization. It makes it a lot easier to move between venues and host different sound techs if everything is more or less the same. So, what is the standard board layout?

It goes like this: Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Vocal Mics.

In many churches, there are extra categories: Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Vocal & Speaking Mics, FX, Playback

Now, there’s some flexibility in the last three, but drums through vocals is pretty standard. Of course, drums take up a number of channels on their own.

That usually looks like this: Kick, Snare, Hat, Toms, Cymbals/Overheads

But it could look like this on a big kit and you like to use too many mics: Inside Kick, Outside Kick, Bottom Snare, Top Snare, Hat, Tom 1, Tom 2, Tom 3, etc., Crash, Crash, Ride, Overheads

There are a lot of ways to mike a drum kit, so it’s necessary to adapt your kit and mics to the general layout. And if you want to put outside kick ahead of inside kick, no problem. Just don’t stick the bottom snare in the middle of the tom channels, or the inside kick between the two overheads. That’s just confusing and makes it harder to mix.

Moving Along

After the drums, bass is next, as bass and drums go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Then, guitars – generally electric guitars followed by acoustic guitars. Breaking it down further, normally it’s lead electric, rhythm electric, additional electrics as needed, then acoustics, and if the worship leader is playing acoustic it goes first. Breaking this down further still, I like to put guitars in order on the board as I see them on stage, at least within their group.

To recap, lead electric is first, followed by two rhythm guitars, laid out as they stand on stage. If the worship leader is playing acoustic, that one is the first acoustic channel, followed by the other acoustic channels as I see them.

Keys come in after acoustic guitar, and like guitars, if there are two of them, they’re going to lay out as I see them on stage except if the worship leader is playing one of them. As a general rule, the worship leader’s “stuff” will be the first in each category. Their vocal is first, even though they’re probably in the middle of the vocals. If they play guitar, they’re first, regardless of where everyone is standing.

Backing up a bit, it’s drums, bass (always like that), guitars (WL first if applicable), keys (WL first if applicable), vocals (WL first). There’s some flexibility here; if you want to mix the worship leader’s guitar in with the others in stage order, that’s fine. For me, I find it easier to keep the worship leader first in each category and thus easier to locate while mixing.

For the remaining categories, I’m putting speaking mics after vocals, followed by FX and then playback. There’s an argument to be made for putting FX after the vocals because that’s what they are likely on, but I’ve always mixed FX with my right hand, so that’s further right on the console. And when I say playback it means video playback and walk-in/out music. Tracks are a whole different thing.

Where do tracks go? Well, it depends. Back when I was mixing weekly, we ran four to 16 channels of tracks that were mixed down to a stereo pair. I put them after the drums because they were run by the drummer.

Today, some churches are running more channels of tracks than they have musicians on stage, and in that case, I mix them in with the live musicians in the appropriate groupings. So if there are four guitar tracks and an acoustic on stage, put the guitar tracks after bass and before acoustic.

The same for keys. Keyboard tracks are first followed by live keys. (Or vocals next if you don’t have live keys.) It’s more important to think through a logical layout than following my hypothetical order.

Added Considerations

All of this presumes that there are sufficient channels on the mixer to accommodate all these channels on one layer. In modern digital mixing, we often have fewer faders than mixable channels, and that means we have to do some layer management.

What does that look like? Let’s say there are 12 channels of tracks, live drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, a stereo keyboard and four vocals, plus two speaking mics, three channels of FX, and two stereo playbacks. That’s 36 channels or so – but there are only 24 faders on the mixer. What to do?

In this case, tracks all go on their own layer, are assigned to a VCA or Group, and that VCA/Group lives on the main layer with the live channels. If there are only have 16 faders, drums goes on layer two, assigned to a VCA, tracks on layer three, assigned to a VCA, and the rest live on the main layer.

Finally, monitors. Like everything else, my worship leader is going to be monitor 1 and everyone else will be laid out according to stage position. If there are both stage wedges and in-ear monitors, I usually do wedges first followed by IEMs.

None of these are hard and fast rules, and if you have a different layout that’s orderly and makes sense, we can still be friends. But if your board layout looks like this: Worship Leader Vox, Kick, Vox 2, Electric Guitar, Snare, Bass, Hat, Keys, Vox 3… we need to talk. Happy mixing!

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