While digital audio has become a relatively mature and ubiquitous technology in most circles, the field of live sound mixing – and church sound in particular – has remained largely an analog discipline.
That’s because the immediacy of live mixing lends itself far better to the tactile, one-knob-per-function nature of analog consoles, while the menu-driven interfaces of most digital consoles have always been better suited to the studio environment.
Recently, however, the introduction of large-scale digital FOH consoles like the Yamaha PM1D, InnovaSON and Digico D5 has prompted a gradual shift toward live digital mixing. Unfortunately, the price-points of these mixers have kept that shift generally geared toward the high-budget touring market. A mid-sized theater, church or other facility wanting to go digital was relegated to consoles designed primarily with recording in mind.
“The vast majority of churches have been slow to venture into digital consoles, for a number of reasons,” said Bob Holden, Associate Director of Multimedia Services at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. “Aside from the affordability issue, the intimidation factor has been a major hurdle. For people mixing sound, especially in a church setting where they’re frequently doing upwards of six shows per week, it’s a scary proposition to do a live show on a mixer that may not be all that user-friendly.”
A whole new generation of smaller scale digital boards – designed with live sound in mind -is making digital mixing viable for mid-sized houses of worship, and a number of churches have now been making the leap to digital.
Making the Transition
One such venue is the Northwest Foursquare Church in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Washington. This 540-seat sanctuary reopened in January, following a major redesign that included changing the room’s orientation and adding acoustical treatment.
Church leadership brought in the consulting expertise of CCI Solutions – a professional consulting firm and supplier of audiovisual products to houses of worship – to design the room’s new audio, lighting and acoustical systems. The audio system comprises several EAW MQ series cabinets, driven by a rack of fifteen QSC PLX series amplifiers that provide more than 3000 watts of power, with processing via a dbx Drive Rack.
When it came to the mixer, CCI Solutions wanted the church to install one of the first TT24 digital mixers from Mackie.
“We’ve seen growing demand among worship sound technicians who’ve heard about the flexibility and control that the new digital consoles offer, such as the number of inputs and the intuitive, powerful onboard features, and we thought the TT24 would be perfect for Northwest Foursquare,” said Jerry Lamb, vice president and retail sales manager for CCI Solutions.
While the church had always been interested in digital mixing, Audio Service Coordinator Justin Warbreck was concerned about ease of use, “We’d tried a couple of other digital consoles, but their interfaces were typically geared toward recording – too many multi-level menu screens and lots of button-pushing to reach parameters we use often.”
This same concern was echoed by John Boudreau, product manager and primary design force behind Mackie’s new digital board. “We spoke to a number of church sound technicians when we set out to design the TT24 last year. There was definitely concern among this group that many of the existing digital consoles use interfaces that are simply too complicated and therefore not optimal for live work. As such, we designed the control interface so that any primary mix function was accessible with no more than two hand movements. We also chose to eliminate any feature that was not inherently related to live sound. In the end I think that we have addressed their concerns quite nicely.”
If It Sounds Good, It Is Good
Beyond the “intimidation factor,” sonic quality was another major consideration for Warbreck. “Several of the digital consoles we tried were just too sterile sounding.” Fortunately, improvements in digital technology have begun to trickle down from the big-budget gear, and the current generation of mid-priced consoles exhibit a marked sonic improvement over their predecessors. “I was never really happy with the sound of the digital mixers we’ve had in here,” said Warren Henrickson, Northwest’s Worship Arts Pastor, “and I was really listening hard for that brittle high end. But actually, this mixer sounds very natural. The highs are clearer, and the lows are less muddy. It’s actually made mic placement more of an issue, in that we can really hear a lot of stuff that previously wasn’t clear.”
Feature for Feature
Indeed, the integrated processing power of the digital console is cited as a major selling point in the move away from analog. The ability to give each input its own unique compression, limiting and other DSP offers a range of possibilities, which were simply never viable using outboard gear.
With the growing popularity of in-ear monitoring, the enhanced bussing capabilities and ample processing power of digital mixers offer other benefits.
As more and more worship sound techs overcome their reservations and venture forth into digital mixing, they typically express surprise and relief at how easy the change has been. For Warbreck, the transition was far less intimidating than expected. “It took about ten minutes to adjust to the idea of not having a knob or fader for every function, having to remember to hit ‘Select’ first,” he said. “The small footprint is also a great thing for live work. I’ve got 48 channels right within arm’s reach, and don’t have to run from one end of the board to the other.”
According to Lamb, this is the start of a new era in digital mixing at worship facilities, and Henrickson concurs. “Churches don’t need to be afraid of digital anymore,” he observed. “A lot of smaller churches in particular have been intimidated by the cost and complexity issues, but it’s simply not an issue anymore.”