System Design With a Tight Budget

A week ago, we held a webinar with Jason Cole, Dave Stagl and Bob Nahrstadt of Next Creative media. The topic? System design. You can listen to the audio here. One of the main takeaways from that webinar is that most of the time, the best course of action for a church to take when considering designing a system is to hire an outside professional. Generally speaking, most churches lack key people on staff who can put together a really good system design that will work well for the long haul. I am in favor of that approach, even though I consider myself pretty good at system design. I've done a lot of it and have a lot of resources to pull from. Still, when it came time to come up with a new lighting system design, I called in a pro. I had a lot to say about the design, and my fingerprints are all over it; however, it is largely our lighting consultant's design.

With that said, sometimes you are backed into a corner by budget and you really have to put something together on your own. When you find yourself in that situation, what do you do? Here are few things I did when I was in that situation a year ago. We were getting ready to move into a 350 seat sanctuary and I had less than $50,000 to do lights, sound and projection in a space that had zero infrastructure. And that $50K was for all three, not each. All we had to start with was a few mics and DIs. Here is how I looked at it.

Get Wise Counsel

The first thing to do is get some other eyes on the project. Before going further, I'll say this; choose your advisors carefully. As Bob pointed out in the webinar, get advice from people who have walked where you want to go. Asking the guy with a cool home theater to help design an IMAG system is asking for trouble. However, if you become part of the CTDRT, you will have a wealth of people you can talk to who have done a lot of equipment installation and evaluation. Talk with them. Take them to lunch if they're local and pick their brain. In my case, I had a good audio guy and a lighting designer at our church. We spent a lot of time looking at options together. That was time well spent.

Evaluate Every Component

When budgets are tight, you simply must look at every piece of gear in the list. VGA DA is not good enough. You need to know if it's a 1x4, 1x6 or 1x8. Make sure you buy exactly what you need. Design on a budget is a series of trade-offs. If you have your heart set on a digital console, you'll have to trade out dollars somewhere else. When dollars are scarce, nothing is off-limits. You really need to look at everything to find the best options.

Source Every Piece of Gear

This sometimes doesn't go over well with dealers, but I multi-source everything, especially when dollars are tight. Often times I'll buy mics from one place, DIs from another, processing from a third and cables from a fourth. It all comes down to who has the best price. Sometimes you can get a package deal, but often dealers will give you good pricing on one component, then run a bit high on others. Again, you may have to shop everything to really get the most for your budget.

Consider Total Cost of Ownership

Sometimes the least expensive piece of equipment is not the best value. Video projectors are a great example (though by no means the only one). Projector A might have a lower initial price than Projector B; however, lamps and filters for A may be 2x the cost compared to B. Consider what it will cost you to own each piece of equipment for 3-5 years. Wireless mics are another example. Mics that run on AA batteries will cost less to operate over the course of a year due to battery costs. Keep things like that in mind.

Spend Big Money First

When budgets are really tight, make sure you spend the big dollars up front. In our example, spending $10K of our budget on a digital console might seem like a lot, especially because it would have meant we needed to skimp on a few other things and do without for a bit. However, it's a lot easier to find money in chunks of $500-3,000 than it is to find another $10K down the road. But I would rather do without moving lights for 6 months and have the right console for 5 years than the wrong console and moving lights right out of the gate. Think long-term.

Again, often times a consultant can be a huge resource when you have to spend money wisely, and I recommend you go there first. Even with a consultant on board however, these are good principles to keep in mind.