Choosing a New Audio Console, Pt. 3

We’re in the home stretch! We’ve already covered my belief that for the most part, most modern audio consoles sound good enough for most churches. We’ve talked about how important expandability and usability is, and considered if it needs to be volunteer friendly or not (that may become another post at some point…). Today we’ll wrap up with some final considerations for purchasing a new audio console.

Ecosystem

As much as we’d like all components from all manufacturers to play nice together, the reality is they don’t. Even with common transport protocols like Dante and MADI, it’s not always possible to take equipment from company A and make it work with company B. To be fair, Dante is making interoperability easier, but that comes with it’s own set of complexities. 

Some manufacturers offer a complete ecosystem; consoles, stage racks, recorders, maybe even in-ear monitors. Going this route makes integration and support much easier. When everything is designed to work together, it usually does and works better than systems that were not so integrated. This isn’t to say you can’t mix and match, but you have to be a lot more careful.

Another way to look at an ecosystem is to consider how the systems scale. You may have a main venue that requires a big console, and two or three other venues that only need smaller desks. Does the company make consoles of various sizes that will work in both settings? Whenever possible, I like to keep consoles similar throughout the venue. This minimizes training time and makes it easy for operators to move among rooms easily. This isn’t always possible, but consider it when you can.

Support

Generally, most manufacturers offer pretty good support for their consoles. But some will offer reps who are in or near your town. Others may have a really great reputation for 24/7 phone support. Some do not. This is a good question to ask when shopping for a console. For those of us who work in the Church, we don’t usually have problems between the hours of 8-4 PM, Eastern time Monday-Friday. Our problems tend to crop up at 7:30 AM on Sunday. What happens when you pick up the phone to call? 

Sometimes, it will be up to the dealer to provide support. Again, this is a question you should ask before purchasing. 

Interoperability

This is similar to ecosystem, but I want to emphasize the console being able to work with existing equipment. For the most part, audio consoles will input and output analog audio, which is pretty much universally compatible. But let’s say you have a PA with a DSP that will take AES audio or analog. AES would be better, but how easy is it to get AES out of your console? Some have AES outputs built in, others require a card. 

You may have a dedicated monitor or broadcast desk. How easy is it to make all that work? It may be as simple as an analog split, which may already be in place, however, it’s not the most elegant. A digital split might be better, but will the new console be able to split with the other ones? It may be that you want to replace all the consoles eventually, but how do you bridge the gap?

Perhaps you have your heart set on a particular personal mixing system and you’re looking for options to translate one digital protocol to another. Sometimes that can work OK, other times, it’s a headache. Be sure everything in the system will talk and play nicely before spending money on the new console. 

There you have it. My non-exhaustive list on things to consider before buying a new audio console. It’s easy to get excited about new equipment announcements and articles about how great a given console sounds. But in my experience, the console is usually not the weakest link in a church sound system. Consider the rest of the system, the operators and even the source material. For the most part, most modern consoles sound good enough. Think through the rest of the system and make sure it meets all of the needs

Roland

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Choosing a New Audio Console, Pt. 2

Last time, we started a series on things to think about when choosing a new audio console. I probably already ruffled some feathers when I said that I didn’t believe sound quality was the only thing worth considering. In fact, I think for the vast majority of churches in the US, most consoles sound good enough. With that in mind, here are a few more things that I thing should probably be weighed heavier than sound quality. 

Usability

There are some consoles out there that sound fantastic but I find to be almost unusable due to their user interface. If I told you which ones I thought they were, I’d get a bunch of comments telling me I’m wrong. That’s because usability is a semi-subjective metric. I do believe there are very well designed user interfaces out there and some pretty poor ones. However, you can learn and become good at just about anything given enough time. I’m not entirely sure usability is equal, either. By that I mean, something that I find completely unusable you may find perfectly fine. We’re all wired a bit differently, so it’s important to find the right equipment.

My basic test of console usability is to walk up to and find out how much I can do without any instruction. If I can do all (or most) of the things I would normally do on a weekend without asking any questions, the console gets a high usability rating from me. If I can’t find basic functions, figure out routing, or get channels patched, we have a problem. 

Part of the challenge here is that audio consoles are getting more impressive in terms of what they can do, which brings increased complexity. And, in most church settings, you are not going to be the only person to use the console. Or the last person to use it. So we have to step back a bit and try to figure out what will be usable by the majority of people on our team, current and future. 

Again, this is subjective. Think about what your team knows already and what they’re comfortable with. What do you know and how do you like to work? Can you make the desk do what you want, easily, without consulting the manual? Keep in mind most manuals are worthless. How many button presses away are common functions? Think about how you work and how the console under consideration works. You may also need or want to change your workflow in order to become more efficient. These are all things to think about.

Volunteer Friendliness

This may or may not be a factor. Many churches have volunteers mixing their services, and for those churches, it’s important to choose a console they will be able to use. Back in the days when analog consoles reigned, this wasn’t such a big deal. Sure, a really large console would have a lot of buttons and knobs, but they were all labeled and it was generally pretty obvious what they did. In the age of digital, we now deal with fewer knobs and buttons, but many more layers, menus and screens. This can be intimidating to less skilled operators.

Some might argue that if a person can’t learn the console, they have no business mixing. That may be true, but not all churches have the luxury of having only highly skilled operators. Many churches need to get along with guys and gals who want to serve, even if they don’t know all the intricacies of the console. 

The fact is, digital consoles can be complex devices, and if your church is planning on buying one, make sure sufficient training is included in the purchase price. The last thing you want to do is buy a console that is so intimidating to your volunteers they all quit. Sometimes this can be eliminated with good training. Sometimes, a different console is needed. Choose carefully.

Of course, if a church has paid operators, either staff or contractor, at that point, it’s up to the engineers to learn the desk. In that case, volunteer friendly doesn’t matter. Know what works for your church.

That last line is an important one. It’s very important when buying equipment for your church that you know what will work in that setting. Buying gear you saw at the big church during the conference—or worse, gear your pastor saw at the conference—may not always be the best bet. It has to make sense for your church. 

Next time, we’ll wrap this up with the final three considerations for purchasing a new audio console

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Choosing a New Audio Console, Pt. 1

One of the things I really enjoy about my job is that I get to help churches choose AVL equipment. I am not that enamored with gear necessarily, but I enjoy the exercise of matching features and benefits with needs. We are in a golden age of equipment right now. There is a ton to choose from, and most of it is really good—or at least good enough. And we can do more than ever with it. 

With the recent introduction of new consoles from Yamaha, DiGiCo, Avid, Roland and more, it seems everyone is getting into the pick the “best” console game. The interwebs were alight with arguments on whether one was better than another. Honestly, I’m not sure it matters all that much.

I may take some flak for this, but in this series, I am going to assume that all modern consoles sound good enough. That is not to say that one may not sound better than another, though “better” is often highly subjective. My premise is that for the most part, in most applications, any console from any of the major manufacturers will give you an acceptable sound signature. By acceptable, I mean that the people in the pews won’t be sitting there thinking, “Man, I wish they hand’t bought that console, but this other one.” 

Again, it’s not that sound quality doesn’t matter, or that there is no difference. My point is that for the most part, I would weigh other factors heavier than absolute sound quality. Back when I was in college, we had an acronym we used often—AOTBE—All Other Things Being Equal. Now, if you can find two consoles that are equal in terms of all the other criteria you need and one sounds better, sound quality can become your tie breaker. But all other things are rarely equal and it pays to check out the whole picture before landing on a console.

What other criteria do I think are important, nay more important than absolute sound quality? Read on… This list is not likely exhaustive and it’s not necessarily in order of importance. That’s because the order of importance will change based on the situation. For some churches, how easily the console can be operated by non-professionals is very important; in others, not so much. As they say, your mileage may vary. But here are some things I think you should consider before buying an audio console.

Expandability, both Temporary and Permanent

Sometimes when I’m working with churches, they will tell me they need a minimum of 96 channels in their next console. I ask them how many they use on a normal weekend, and it’s surprising how many will say 28-34. Yet they feel they absolutely must have 96 channels because once a year they do a big production. Given that the price gap between 40-ish channels and 96 channels can be sizable, it may be more important to find a console that will do 40 channels most of the year yet give them the ability to rent in more channels for Christmas. Or maybe they just rent the larger version of the console for that week. Using less than 50% of the console all year long just so you have that capacity for on week a year may not be the best stewardship.

Sometimes a church is young and growing and they see themselves needing a higher channel count as the church, and thus the band, grows. In that case, we want to look for a desk that has an easy way to add channel count—or more correctly input count. This is generally easy for digital consoles, thought it assumes the mixing engine can actually mix the additional inputs. Again, this is where taking to someone with a wide understanding of current technology is helpful. 

Be realistic with your assessments here. You don’t want to buy a console that is full on the first week, but you don’t want to over-buy, either. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but the good news is most console manufacturers offer models that fit every use case. And many can scale up and down depending on what you need it to do. 

OK, that’s just one of the six characteristics I believe need to be considered before buying a new audio console. Next time, we’ll be back with a few more. Stay tuned!

Roland

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