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Choosing A Church Control System

More than ever before churches are embracing media technology to assist in communicating the Word and enhancing the worship experience. As the volume of installed equipment grows, A/V technicians face the task of orchestrating many technical details to ensure a smooth flowing service. Often the staff must juggle a handful of infrared remote controls while keeping up with the PowerPoint computer. Should they miss a beat with the sound or video system, the congregation’s focus is broken if only for a moment. Eventually a control problem will surface that has to be solved quickly, after complaints by pastoral staff or the congregation. Unfortunately there is generally no budget available to solve the control problem.

In the beginning, a church member gifted in electronics may create an interim solution to mitigate the problem. This may involve a universal infrared remote control, a gadget from Radio Shack or a home built black box with relays and lamps. The universal IR remote control reduces the complexity down into one handheld device. But what happens when your control requirements exceed the IR remote’s capabilities? For example, lighting control or setting audio levels in a multiple zone audio system. It soon becomes apparent that a more comprehensive control system is necessary in order to ensure a seamless interaction of worship and media.

So what suitable control systems are available to the church media staff to manage the media equipment? What will be the cost and effort required to install and maintain a control system? What will be the learning curve to learn the system operation? Will it be flexible enough to handle a variety of services and special programs? These are common questions faced by a staff contemplating a control system.

Typically an advanced control system with touch screen is what is first considered to manage more complex systems. However the cost of such systems is often prohibitive to the average congregation. Additionally, Church environments tend to be rather fluid with media needs changing from week to week or for special programs. This means that equipment may be placed in the system, taken out, or changed to accommodate these varied requirements. Many control systems require complex programming to enable these changes, which is typically beyond the skills of most church staff. And the cost of outsourcing such programming normally exceeds the available budget.

Small control systems with varying degrees of functionality and connectivity are being introduced to the marketplace. Depending on the manufacturer focus, the small control system may have a bent towards one particular type of equipment, often the video projector. Further control capability may require additional hardware for these systems. Small systems interconnect using wired cable, wireless, and most recently Ethernet. The Church A/V staff should carefully evaluate how each approach will operate in its environment. For example, wireless systems, depending on their installation can function well or suffer from reliability problems.

What is the optimum solution for a congregation that desires reliability, future expansion and the ability to easily reconfigure the system operation within a set budget? How easy will it be to use by the volunteers?

To begin with, a successful control system must have a well organized control surface whether it be a touch screen, button panel or control panels. An operator needs to quickly select a function and know where he is in any menu tree. The key to a control panel’s success is an easily understandable menu structure. Even with so many control functions accessible in the system, operators should be able to quickly choose a function without any confusion.

In evaluating a control system, one should spend time examining the control panel design. Are the menus laid out clearly to eliminate potential operator error and confusion? Is there good tactile response or feedback to confirm to the operator that a desired operation has taken place? This is especially important with functions that operate in a toggle mode rather than in on and off modes.

Another important question to consider is how easy will it be to install the control system and how much programming will be required now and in the future? And, what are going to be the ongoing costs of ownership and support? Highly sophisticated control systems designed to manage complex productions generally require some form of customized programming, which often has to be redone each time there is a hardware change to the A/V system. This can be expensive and time consuming to write and debug. The ability to easily configure a system without writing software code is a real plus. Using “point and click” software to modify system personality and change out or add new equipment in the system is a tremendous benefit. This approach drives down the cost to implement the system and will keep the ongoing cost of ownership low since it is extremely straightforward to change out media equipment in the future.

Ongoing reliability is key to any control system success. Several factors play into a system’s overall reliability–some related directly to the control system, others related to the equipment being controlled. It is important to understand the difference in order to optimize system design for the most reliable operation. Device control over a wired serial port is more reliable than using infrared emitters. Often infrared devices are susceptible to emitter placement, the number of times IR transmissions are sent, and a host of other factors. Whenever possible, it is preferable to utilize a wired serial port to ensure reliable control. Further, incorporating equipment utilizing direct control command rather than toggle commands will greatly increase system reliability. Direct control commands such as “Power On” or “Power Off” instead of toggling “Power On/Off” enables the control system to put the equipment into a defined predictable mode. Equipment may fall out of sync with toggle commands leading to unpredictable results such as the system powering on when the operator really intends for it to power off.

In summary, control systems add a great deal of flexibility to a church media system. Several technical and operational factors should be considered before choosing a system. During the design phase, one should determine how control will be implemented and how it can be used to simplify the overall media system operation. One needs also to determine the technical ability of those who will use the control system and implement control panels that are comfortable and intuitive. Finally, examine the overall cost of a control system along with ongoing support as the inevitable changes occur in the media system configuration. With that information, it will be easy to choose the ideal control system to enhance your worship service.

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