No one among us would dispute the impact that modern multimedia technology can have on the worship experience. Until fairly recently though, sophisticated systems were typically the province of larger churches with pockets deep enough to support not only the substantial investment, but a dedicated audio staff to maintain it. In the past year or two, the evolution of digital technologies has taken a major leap forward, making it possible for a growing number of mid-sized congregations to implement systems that until now would have been well beyond their reach.
The folks at Northwest Foursquare Church, in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Washington, were relatively early adopters of digital live mixing, taking delivery more than three years ago of one of the first available Mackie TT24 mixing consoles for use in their modest 600-seat sanctuary. Any initial trepidation on the church’s part that the digital learning curve might be overly steep was quickly overcome as the simplicity and performance of the system became apparent. The TT24 turned out to be a perfect fit, enhancing the services and making life easier for the audio crew.
Since then the church’s congregation has swelled to more than 2500 regular members, and services have expanded to two on Saturdays and two more on Sundays, with an adjacent chapel opened for overflow use. And as the church has grown, so have its media capabilities.
“Our first step was to set up a production suite adjacent to the main sanctuary,” says Donald Counts, the church’s audio director. “The room is equipped with two-camera video production capabilities and another TT24 console for live recording.” The Front of House and tech room mixing desks receive identical audio feeds, and services are multi-tracked live to a computer running Tracktion digital audio recording software. Audio and video are edited on the spot, and congregants can purchase a packaged DVD of the day’s service at the bookstore before leaving the church.
Learning to Teach
As Counts observes, one of the biggest challenges in running the media department for a mid-sized congregation is education. “I’m the church’s audio director, but I have no employees,” he points out. “I have an ever-changing staff, and I hold monthly audio workshops to teach volunteers about live mixing and recording. Our volunteers are what keeps the church running, and while that’s a wonderful opportunity for us and for them, it also creates what is essentially a perpetual training program, with different people at different levels of technological sophistication, with different needs.”
Key to keeping volunteers around is creating a learning experience that’s both interesting and accessible, and the simplicity of the church’s digital console has proven to be an asset. “When I first show a beginner the mixing console, there’s almost always a bit of an intimidation factor,” says Counts. “But once they see how simple it is to operate, they’re immediately drawn in and want to learn more. The ability to create and recall snapshots is invaluable. It means a volunteer can learn and experiment, but be able to get back to where they were at any time.”
As the church’s system began to grow, it was an easy decision to stick with the Mackie console. “We saw a tremendous benefit to creating a uniform environment, so people could learn just one mixing board,” Counts explains. “It’s been a blessing, because I used to have to run back and forth between Front of House and the other rooms any time one of the volunteers needed help. Now once they learn one mixer they can work in any room.”
Across the hall, the smaller chapel has been equipped with large-screen video feed and another TT24 desk. “In addition to being a separate space for smaller events, the chapel handles overflow from the main sanctuary, and we wanted to create an environment where people felt involved in the service, not like they’re off watching from another room,” says Counts.”
A Learning Environment
Downstairs in the basement of the church, the youth chapel is a bustling center of activity, with a fully equipped performance stage and band setup for kids to learn about making and mixing live music. Another TT24 recently replaced the room’s aging analog console.
“Before, we had an old analog mixer down here, and most of the kids were very inexperienced in running it,” Counts recalls. “The room itself is a bit of an acoustical challenge, so there was a lot of potential for minor disasters. Now if they have a problem, they can press two buttons and it’s all back the way it was.”
The youth chapel’s bulky multichannel stage cabling has been replaced with a Mackie DS3232 digital snake, connecting the stage’s digital mic preamps via a single Cat 5 cable. “The room is busy all the time, and we’re constantly changing the setup for one event or another,” says Counts. “The digital snake enables us to save microphone preamp settings as part of a snapshot, and that has been a huge time-saver. The system is simple enough for the volunteer staff to set things up on their own.”
Room to Grow
In the main sanctuary, a second TT24 console has been added to expand the Front of House input capacity, using a pair of Mackie U-100 network cards to connect the two desks via a single Cat 5 cable. Communication between the mixers and with the DS3232 digital snake is part of an integrated digital system Mackie has dubbed TT System32.
“The U-100 and DS3232 represent the first implementation of our U-Net digital audio and control protocol, a low-latency, high-bandwidth audio network that enables console-to-console communication, and communication with input and output devices like the DS3232.” explains Gilbert Perales, Mackie Product Manager. “U-Net is designed to be a true plug and play system, and every piece is designed to instantly find its place in the network as soon as it is connected. That’s invaluable with a congregation of this size, and where technical resources and budgets are limited.”
Configuring the systems thus far has been seamless, Counts confirms, with each new addition to the system smoothly integrating itself. “There’s been nothing about setting up the system that we couldn’t handle on our own,” he says.
“A lot of small and mid-sized churches have been reticent about investing in digital technology, and simplicity was a major consideration for us in designing the TT24’s user interface,” Perales adds. “Now, as we’ve continued to evolve the TT24 and our U-Net’s digital audio and control protocol, we’ve tried to maintain a focus on the issues that are important to the house of worship market. Our goal is to create a system that can grow with the church, to make their lives easier and empower them to do more with what they have.”
Counts reports he has recently connected the Front of House and tech room consoles via an external MIDI controller, allowing him to recall snapshot information remotely. “We have a lot of last-minute events, and sometimes we just don’t have enough people to cover everything,” he says. “Now, if we have no volunteers available to handle the live recording, I can basically be in two places at once.”
Getting Better All the Time
“For me, implementing this system has made my life infinitely easier,” says Counts. “If something’s happening, I can walk them through pushing the right buttons to recall a snapshot.”
Counts adds that for Northwest Foursquare, as for most mid-sized organizations, it’s also a matter of simple economics. “We keep coming back to the TT24 because it’s easy to use, powerful and affordable,” he says. “Now, as we’ve an increasingly larger and more complex system, the ability to configure a setup like this without having to hire a contractor or systems designer to put it together has been equally as important to us as budgeting for the equipment itself. It’s really been a wise investment for us.”
While Northwest Foursquare may not be working with the budget of a mega-church, they have already proven that by not merely adopting, but judiciously embracing digital technology, they have the ability to reach a level of sophistication and technological empowerment usually reserved for much larger houses of worship. In addition to the live recordings of their services, they’ve recently begun a series of video podcasts for their members, and are seriously looking into live web streaming of their services.
“In the space of a couple of years, we’ve progressed to the point where we can offer our members access to a lot of resources we’d never have been able to afford before,” Counts concludes. “For them, it creates a deeper, more inclusive worship experience. For us, it’s a way to give back to our members, and it inspires us to reach for goals we’d have never even considered. In the end, everybody wins.”