When You Run Out of Inputs

As Christmas Season approaches, I'm sure many of you are planning for your big Christmas services or productions. Earlier this week, I wrote a post about what we're looking at for our Christmas production. It's going to be a big deal, and I woke up in a cold sweat the other morning realizing I had forgotten two mics and didn't have the inputs for them. As I plotted out my strategy to free up inputs where there seemed to be none, it occurred to me that many of you may be in the same boat.

Christmas and Easter seem to always stretch our audio systems. Whereas a 32-channel board might be fine all year, at Christmas you need 40+ inputs. Or in our case, 56 is typically more than enough; in a few weeks I need 64+. In previous churches, I've run into this issue many times, on varying scales. There are many ways to tackle the problem of too few inputs; I'll talk about three of them, in ascending order of cost.

Trim the Input Count

This may seem obvious, but I'm amazed at how many people don't really look at their inputs closely. Though you may have a "pulpit mic" channel, do you really need it for the big production? If not, you just freed up an input. Same thing for other "permanently" patched mics like those for baptismals, overhead choir, CD and DVD players, even audience mics. If you don't need them for the show, you can unplug them and reclaim the input. Just remember to label those ends so you know where all those unplugged XLRs go back when you're done.

Submix

When I was a Crosswinds in NY, I had a 32-channel board that was full most weekends. When Christmas hit, I was a good 16 channels short. I solved the problem there by swiping a board from the children's ministry room (along with all their wireless mics...). I routed all my wireless mics into the submixer, and sent that to the main board as a single mix. Two things to keep in mind when submixing: First take extra care with your gain structure. It's easy to build a smokin' hot mix in the submixer and overload the input channel on your main mixer. Watch that. On the other hand, don't send too low a signal either, or noise will increase dramatically. Second, use the submixer wisely. Don't stick the random extra guitar, banjo, keys and 4 additional wireless drama mics over there. Find a big chunk of similar mics and put those together into a submix. Ideal candidates for this are all your drama mics or the drum kit. 

Rent

Years ago, I was part of a church that ran a 32-channel SR-32 each week. For the big Christmas concert, we had 22 channels of wireless, a band and a small orchestra. Yeah, not going to fit. And there was no room in the booth for a second mixer (and it would have had to be at least 32 channels). So I rented a ML-5000 from a local sound co. One of the reasons I went with that board was that mute automation that it offered. We had so many scenes, back and forth between drama, music, more drama etc., that it would have been almost impossible to manage without some level of automation. We brought it in for a long weekend and it cost us a few hundred dollars, but it was money well spent. A few words of warning: If you're renting a board you're not already familiar with, make sure you get it in enough time to learn it well. Also, rentals tend to book up for Christmas early, so if you haven't booked a desk yet, you'd better hurry. Finally, if you currently mix on a small analog desk, resist the urge to go rent a big digital desk like an SD8 or a Venue series, at least unless you are really familiar with them already. Making that jump takes some time and you'll be under enough pressure already. Find a big enough analog desk and your life will be much easier. 

In my case, this year, I'm doing a combination of two of those. I've trimmed our some unnecessary inputs (one of my 4 video channels as I only need 3), and I made sure I had exactly what I needed for the band. I'm also bringing in either another stage rack or an 8-input card (depending on availability). The rack gives me far more extra inputs than I need and makes it easier to wire up the band, but complicates monitoring. The card is enough, just enough, but I'm a little nervous about having every input used up. But we'll figure it out. It's what we do...