Buying a New Mixer

Almost weekly, I receive an e-mail asking for advice on which mixer to buy. The answer, of course, is always the same; it depends. No seriously, that's the answer. Because there is no "one" right mixer for every church. There are quite a few that hit a sweet spot in terms of a performance/value ratio, but even those are not right for every situation. So what I thought I'd do is walk through a process that I use when spec'ing out a new mixer for a church. Keep in mind that every single gear purchase is a compromise. What we try to achieve is the best compromise for the situation, with some room to grow. So with that in mind, here we go.

Primary Objective of Upgrade

It may seem obvious, but a lot of churches are "convinced" they need a new mixer, but can't articulate why. "Ours is old and it's not doing the job," is not sufficient. What part of the job is it not doing? Does it lack inputs? Is it noisy? Do some of the faders not work? Too few outputs? Too big? Don't like the color scheme? 

Seriously, we need to consider what we are trying to fix before we can find a suitable replacement. And sometimes it really makes more sense to replace a few faders than it does to buy a new desk. Keep that in mind. But once we know what we don't like about the old one, we can decide what features and what kind of performance we need from the new one. 

Input Count

You might think that the digital/analog question might be first, but I prefer to save that for later. First we need to determine how many inputs are currently used, what the short term (ie. 2-3 years) growth plans are and then figure in some cushion. I like to start with this question because if a church only uses 3 microphones and a CD player each week, a PM5D is probably not the best choice, even if they can afford it. Nor is an M7.

It's important to note the number of mic inputs and line inputs. You also want to consider how many inputs you would like to be able use if you had them available. For example, if your current 16 channel mixer is full, consider what you would like to be able to do right now before you run out and buy a 24 channel. You may find that one full sooner than you expected. 

I always advise churches to count up their maximum ideal channels for weekly services (once or twice a year events are another matter), then add 8 channels to that. Start looking at consoles with that channel count at a minimum. If you end up with 30 as your ideal number (current use, planned upgrades plus 8 spares), you may find that going for a 40 channel board isn't that much more, and might make sense. On the other hand, 32 might well be sufficient. Think it through.

Output Count

Again, this might seem obvious, but outputs get used up in a hurry. Obviously you have the mains, which usually means 1-2. Then you have monitors, 4-6 is common on smaller boards, but think about how many you'd like. If you're still using wedges (I'll pray for you), remember that for each monitor mix you need another channel of amplification. If you're using ears, it's beneficial to get everyone on their own mix, and even small bands will max out the Aux sends of smaller boards.

Don't forget the "forgotten" outputs--cry rooms, record sends, lobby, DVD record, green room, overflow rooms--this list can get long as well. Think about how you are going to use those sends, and what makes the most sense to get them there. Sometimes, you need an Aux send, other times a matrix works better, still other times a group out makes sense. How many do you need now, what might you need, then add a few extra. 

For example, if you determine that you'd like to do 7 monitor mixes, a main left and right, a record send, a cry room, lobby and DVD record feed, don't bother looking at a Mackie Onyx 32.4, even if you don't need 32 inputs--you're out of outputs on day 1.

Tomorrow we'll consider a few other questions, and finally get to the greatest question of all--digital or analog.