Console Layout

Image courtesy of Jiahui Huang

Image courtesy of Jiahui Huang

Based on some of the consoles I’ve seen, console layout is something that doesn’t seem get a lot of thought. However, a properly laid out console not only makes mixing more fun, it can keep us from making big mistakes during a service. 

Legend has it that in the early days of mixing, as analog consoles got larger, engineers noticed that channels farther from the master had more noise in them. So it made sense to put the money channels—the vocals—nearest to the master. As the master was typically on the right, that meant the left-most channels became home of the drums—who would notice noise in the drum channels? 

Somewhere along the line, a somewhat common layout emerged: drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals. As consoles and input count continued to grow, we started seeing the master section land in the middle of the console instead of on the right. In that case, usually the band fell to the left while vocals and effects fell to the right.

Back then, where channels showed up on the console was completely dependent on what inputs they were plugged into Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader. But before we do any patching—digitally or analog—it’s important to spend some time thinking about why channels go where they do. 

Why You Do Is More Important Than What You Do

I’ve seen all sorts of...interesting...channel layouts on consoles. Drums spread all over the place, the lead guitar next to the pastor’s mic, vocal effects in the middle of the keyboards. It’s as if someone just patched inputs into the first open channel or floor pocket without any thought at all.

And while there are all sorts of ways you can lay out your console, the first consideration is to make sure you do it on purpose. Don’t just shove inputs into any old channel. Take some time to think about it and patch it in a way that makes sense. Keep all the drum channels together, and then keep the band together. Having all the vocals next to each other makes it a lot easier to find them. Put the channels you adjust all the time closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end every time. Think about how you mix, then organize the channels in a way that supports what you do.

For Example…

There is no “right” way to organize a console. But here are some ideas of how to do it. Personally, I like to start with drums (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads), then bass, guitars, keys, vocals and finally effects. Other channels like speaking mic’s, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console. 

I like my VCAs on the right, which puts my vocals right in the middle in front of me. My preference is to mix more on channel faders than VCAs, but I know others who prefer the opposite.

I also know guys who put the bass right next to the kick because they like to work those two together. I used to keep my bass in my guitars VCA; but lately, I’ve been putting in with the drums. Others dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass. 

Stay Consistent

When I mix on analog consoles, I still follow the same basic layout. The advantage of a consistent layout is that I can mix almost any band on any console and without looking know where the faders are. In contrast, I’ve watched other guys mix and spend half their time searching the board for the guitar fader, only to miss the solo. 

Regardless of how you choose to layout the console, once you come up with a plan, stick with it. Adapt and change as needed, but maintain as much consistency as you can.

Small Digital Consoles are Tricky

The current trend toward smaller mixers (i.e. fewer faders) with higher channel counts makes smart layout absolutely critical. If you only have 16 handles to deal with, you simply must be intentional about what you put where. In that case, I would most likely not use up the first 8 faders on the top layer for the drums. 

In that case, it might be more prudent to put a drums VCA on channel one and treat it as one instrument (which, arguably, you should do anyway). As you fill up your fader bank and channels spill into another layer, it is often a smart idea to duplicate a few channels on every layer. For example, you might want to have the worship leader’s mic on the same fader of every layer so you can get to it quickly regardless of the layer you’re on. 

The fewer faders you have, the more strategic you need to be with grouping channels into VCAs. How you group the channels will be dependent on your band and your workflow. 

I once mixed a 28-input CD release party on 12 faders. I built multiple layers that were very similar, but expanded various sections. For example, layer one had the drums as a single VCA. But layer two gave me all 8 drum channels. Layer three split out all my effects, which were a single VCA on layer one. Things that didn’t get used often were down on layers four and five, but the lead singer’s vocal and guitar were always in the same place on every layer. 

I spent about 30 minutes initially setting up the board, then tweaked my layout during rehearsal based on what I was doing. Of course, this is easier with a digital board than analog, but the principles remain. Think about your layout and adjust it until it makes sense and works for you.

Why Church Sound Is So Bad

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Last month, I came across a post on Bobby Owsinksi’s Big Picture Music Production Blog that really resonated with me. It was called Why Do Concerts Sound So Bad?. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and it was good to hear someone else put into words what I’ve thought. I’ve heard some pretty dreadful concerts, not to mention conferences and trade shows. But I also hear some pretty poor sounding church services and I think many of the reasons concerts sound so bad carry over into church. I’m not going to re-hash his post—he did a fine job with it—instead, I’m going to append five reasons why I think church sound can be so bad at times.

No Training

This is certainly one of the biggest reasons church sound is so bad. Sadly, it’s also one of the most easily remedied. I say sadly because it saddens me that more churches don’t bother to do it. I have received email after email from pastors and worship guys lamenting how bad their sound is, but when I suggest bringing a pro out to train them, you’d think I was asking for a gold plated Rolls Royce. 

Most pastors spend a few years in school leaning how to preach and communicate, and then it takes them 10 years of actual practice to really get good. Yet they expect a volunteer who mixes once a month, who has no training (other than figuring out that moving faders up makes it louder) to mix a flawless service. Mixing is hard. It takes time and effort to learn to do it well. And it takes some good instruction. 

Poor PA

Again, this is a common one. Traveling around to see churches all over the country, I’m struck at how many terrible PA’s I find. From line arrays hung up against side walls to the old “flying junkyard” to random collections of speakers hanging everywhere, I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas. Sadly, not all of it is old. I saw a post on social media where someone was excited about their newly hung speakers. Two subs facing each other in the center of the seating area, and full range boxes outside the subs pointing down and across each other. Side note, if that’s not immediately apparent why that’s all a terrible idea, please don’t ever hang speakers in your church.

The common denominator in these situations is the sound is going to be bad. A highly trained professional with a great band and a solid console might be able to make is sound tolerable. But it’s never going to be great. If you want great sound, you need at least a decent PA. And that will require hiring someone who knows how to design and install a decent or better PA. 

Sound Guys Who Have Been Trained Wrong

Bobby O points out that we have a whole generation of mixers who somehow got the idea that the kick and snare is the most important thing in the mix. Now, they are important, but they are not the most important. In live concerts he points out, the vocal is king. I would argue that the same is true in a worship service. Worship leaders are leading the congregation. However, the congregation cannot be led if they can’t hear the vocal. Believe it or not, the kick drum helps very little when it comes to learning a new worship song. Same for the bass and low toms. If I can’t hear the vocal, I can’t follow the melody and I can’t learn the song. It’s really that simple. 

Young guys hate it when the old farts tell them they’re doing it wrong, but guys, I’m telling you, if I show up at your church and all I hear is kick, bass and snare, you’re doing it wrong. 

Too Loud

Again, I’m going to sound like an old guy here; but I’m really not. I like volume and I led the charge at my church for years to get the maximum volume raised up. Under the right circumstances, volume can help create energy and engagement. Those are good things. But like the increasing reliance on the kick and subs, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. I recently received an email from a reader asking for help because their new, young sound guy likes to run rehearsals at 105-115 dBA. 

Precious few PA’s, rooms and bands sound good at that level. I guarantee theirs doesn’t. In addition to the hearing damage the engineer is inflicting on themselves and the rest of the crew, it’s screwing up their perception for mixing the services (look up Temporary Threshold Shift). 

Volume is relative. Larger rooms with better PA’s can stand more volume than small ones. But not all songs or worship sets require maximum volume. And if you crank it up, you better know what you’re doing to keep it from becoming so harsh it hurts. Or better yet, back it down a few dB. Chances are, everyone will thank you. 

The Band is No Good

So far, we’ve talked about technical systems and technique. But there is one other element that leads to bad sound in churches—bad bands. I’ve heard my share of them, too. I recall being at one church helping train their team, and I played back some tracks from my band at Coast Hills. It didn’t take much to get it sounding great, even on their mediocre PA. Then their band took the stage. The first question I got was, “What did you do to the bass? It sounds nothing like it did a minute ago.” I replied, “That's not my bass player Norm up there on stage...”

In fact, this bass player was terrible and yet had a pedal board bigger than some electric players I’ve seen. I changed nothing on the channel strip and the bass went from very solid (even on their less-than-stellar PA) to pretty much mush. The lesson is simple; sometimes there’s not much you can do. I worked at that bass for a while, and it never got better not good. It all starts at the source.

There you go. This is not an exhaustive list; I’m sure we could come up with some more reasons church sound—or concert sound— is bad. But this is what came to my mind. What else have you seen, and how can we fix it?

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Planning for Easter

Easter—along with Christmas—is one of the most highly attended weekends of the year at most churches. As a result, we typically pull out all the stops to make those services (or a special service) great. From a production point of view, Easter can take us way outside of where we normally live. This can be exciting as we get to do new things we don’t do every week. On the other hand, it’s fraught with peril if we don’t plan well.

As with most high production events, making Easter/Good Friday successful starts with planning. The best time to start planning for Easter is January. Yes, I know you’re still recovering from Christmas, but the earlier we get a handle on what we’re doing, the better we will be prepared to execute with excellence. 

Cover the Big Bases First

Start off getting a general scope of what the service entails. Once that is worked out, you need to get specific pretty quickly. I like to ask a lot of questions: What is the band configuration? How many vocalists? Do we have an orchestra, and what does that look like? If doing a drama, how many wireless mic’s will we need? How many pastors will be speaking? What other special sound effects might we have to do? Will we need tracks with a click fed back to the band? Do we need additional monitor mixes in unusual locations? Will the set pose any acoustical or set up challenges? Is there anything else we haven’t discussed?

In 2016, Easter is the fourth Sunday in March. That means you should have the answers to all or most of those questions by mid February. Once you know what you’re doing, you can start planning your technical and staffing needs. 

Book Rentals Early

For audio, start with an input list. That will quickly highlight any issues you have with mic inventory, input or mix count, and monitors. If you don’t have enough equipment, your choices are to borrow, rent or do without. When budgets are tight, sometimes you have to get creative. If you have the money to rent, remember to book your equipment early; Easter is a busy time for rental companies. 

If you are doing a dramatic production that will have different lighting requirements from a normal service, consider working up a lighting plot. A lighting plot is a drawing of your stage area along with each light and its location. Depending on the production, you may need to rent additional dimmers, fixtures or moving lights. To light multiple locations at different times, it may be more cost-effective to rent a few moving lights, as they are easily re-focusable. This is especially true if you are short on dimmers and power. As with audio, the same early booking policy applies.

Don’t Forget The Staff

Most Good Friday/Easter productions also require additional technical staff, and it’s a good idea to work out rehearsal and production schedules early and get those dates on your teams’ calendars. Palm Sunday is a bad time to discover that most of your team is planning on being out of town for Easter.

You may also find you need additional positions that don’t normally exist. For example, whenever I do a large dramatic production with many channels of wireless (especially when packs are shared among actors), I assign a wireless mic wrangler. That person’s sole job is to make sure the right person has the right mic—switched on—at the right time. You may need stage hands to help move set or prop pieces, or additional team members to run environmental projection computers, extra lighting boards or whatever. Lining those people up earlier is better than later.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As you can probably guess, the key to all of this is communication. It is imperative that you have many detailed conversations with your worship leader, pastor, creative director (or all of the above) to work out the specifics. Most of the time, those individuals will not be fully aware of the technical complexities created by their great and creative ideas. It is up to us as technical experts to figure out how to make things happen, and present realistic budgets. 

We have to be the ones asking the questions and making sure we get the information we need; don’t count on others to think about the technical requirements. Keep in mind your leaders are not ignoring you; they just don’t think about production like we do. That’s why we’re here.

Finally, when putting new equipment in your room, make sure to allow adequate time for set up, familiarization and testing. If you are renting gear, bring it in several days in advance of the service to be sure it works the way you expect. 

With a little (OK, a lot!) of planning, it is possible to create amazing and powerful Good Friday and Easter services that will have a tremendous impact for eternity and keep you and your team sane, energized and ready for the next big event.

This post is brought to you by Nemosyn. The guitar player practices, the keyboard player practices, the vocalists practice, how does a sound guy practice? Nemosyn record. Practice. Perfect your mix. Visit their website at Nemosyn.com.