TFWM’s AUDIO ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION: Digital Consoles and Other Topics

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

We wanted to give you, the loyal reader, an opportunity to be a fly on the wall during a discussion about some pressing topics in the audio industry.

We asked questions of six different manufacturers, a consultant, and a church technician. Hopefully their collective answers will give better insight into what folks are saying about the audio industry.

at the table…

VANCE BRESHEARS, Acoustical Consultant, Sound Technology Consultants
Vance Breshears has a wide range of experience in worship facility planning, sound system design, acoustical analysis and AV systems design for churches, auditoriums, sports facilities and theme parks.

DANIEL CRAIK, Product Manager, Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems Inc.
Prior to Yamaha, Dan served as the director of Audio and Recording for the School of Performing Arts at CSU, Chico and Director of the Recording Institute of the Aspen Music Festival.

TOM DER, National Sales Manager, Soundcraft USA
Tom Der has spent the past ten years as Soundcraft USA’s national sales manager. He has also worked as a staff and independent recording and FOH engineer in Nashville, and possesses a BFA in Recording Engineering from the University of Memphis.

ROB FISHER, Director of Media Technologies, Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church
Beginning the ministry ten years ago, Rob Fisher has been in a full time Media position involving multiple analog and digital consoles and a/v equipment including Live Sound Reinforcement, Theatrical Lighting, and Video Production.

JAMES GORDON, Managing Director, DiGiCo UK Limited
James Gordon, MD, joined Soundtracs at the start of the company’s transition to digital. Since then he has been involved with the companies developments in Post, Broadcast, and more recently in 2002, the arrival of DiGiCo and digital live consoles.

MATT LARSON, US Sales Manager, Midas and Lark Teknik
Matt worked for several of the Midwest’s top touring bands, including Yanni, Prince, MC Hammer and also worked in a manufacturig and sales environment as Entertainment Industry Liason with Anvil Cases.

KEVIN MADDEN, National Sales Manager, Innovason USA
Kevin Madden’s background includes musical performance, live sound mixing and installation, as well as experience in national, regional and market development management for manufacturers serving pro audio and installed sound.

ROBERT SCOVILL, Market Manager for Live Sound Products, DIGIDESIGN
Robert Scovill is a 28-year veteran with experience across a wide breadth of professional audio disciplines. His work as a live sound mixer has garnered him numerous industry awards and accolades.

TFWM: There are young audio engineers coming into the field that have never mixed on an analog board before. What are the main things that these folks would miss out on by never mixing on an analog console?

Vance Breshears: One thing they might miss is the ability to visualize signal flow and gain structure that comes when looking at the physical layout of an analog console.

James Gordon: They will never really fully appreciate how cool analogue mixing is and what flexibility it provides – they will also not know what it is like to have a band on stage and have to create a monitor mix in five minutes from start to finish that sounds as good as last night…

Kevin Madden: A pretty big loss could be the skill of audible frequency recognition. It’s too easy to be brainwashed into hearing what you see on a screen as presented by a manufacturer’s GUI.

The analogue console was a pretty simple signal blending/sending device. Rather than simplifying the process most digital mixers cram a wealth of functions into a small foot print with page layer access to individual faders, function changing encoders and touch screens, et cetera. Is it really easier and intuitive?

Rob Fisher: The use of an analog console and an analog patch bay all provide a great replication of the flow diagram of the audio signal. It is easy to visualize the processing order on a single analog console. In addition, it provides access to the entire console on a single layer.

Dan Craik: Mixing on an analog desk gives one a very linear and visual way of thinking about the audio path. The signal flow is literally laid out in front of you on the channel strip. If the engineer has had some solid training and owns a deep understanding of signal flow they’ll have the best chance of success.

Robert Scovill: There is the obvious answer of never hearing what a great analog signal path sounds like. But you could also argue that they come to the table with no preconceived notions about what is possible in terms of routing, programmability and control. This can be a challenge for guys who are firmly routed in analog workflow. They often want to operate a digital console exactly like they operate an analog console. The person who is formed purely from the digital mindset is not trapped by those preconceptions.

Tom Der:It would have to deal with an engineer not knowing how good an analog input path can sound with analog EQ and Compression. Digital will get there but relative to audio history we’re still in the very early days of digital audio and there will come a time where we look back at the current state of digital audio as being pretty crude.

Matt Larson: I find, with engineers that have mixed on both analog and digital platforms, that analog experience gives them a better core understanding of the signal path, with the hands-on know-how to troubleshoot a system faster.

TFWM: In your opinion, do churches appoint folks to positions like “Audio Technician” or “Sound Person” in an effort to minister to them, even though these people may have no experience with audio?

Gordon: It seems to greatly fluctuate, some churches seem to have the most up to date, knowledgeable and experienced sound engineers, whilst others have incredibly enthusiastic volunteers.

Breshears: I have not seen that happen. Most of the churches that can staff a technical position have a real need for a person with skills. If it does happen, then I believe it is not much different from appointing a senior pastor who has no experience in preaching. Competent technical ministries folks are as important to any ministry team as anyone on the pastoral staff.

Craik: This probably happens a lot. But as well intended as it is, it could be a formula for trouble. In churches where the audio requirements are minimal it might work out depending on the aptitude of the person appointed.

Der:Certainly I’ve seen people with very basic audio knowledge in these positions but typically they’re doing it because they had some interest in audio or music and have stepped up to either help the church out and/or they would like to learn more about sound equipment.

Larson: Perhaps some do but, from what I’ve seen, churches typically need someone capable of handling their technical requirements for services, so they are looking for some past experience.

Madden: In larger facilities there is often dedicated, professionally employed staff to oversee or run the A/V & media/broadcast systems. In congregations of all sizes there are typically members with some kind music or production background that can grasp and learn operation of all or parts of these systems. A myriad of laypeople are often available and eager to answer their call to assist in this part of the ministry.

Fisher: I have seen both. Many churches are more than eager to get any volunteer willing to spend the necessary time to learn the process involved with the audio ministry. On the other hand, some choose to search for trained and experienced audio engineers and are not willing to take the time necessary to train other willing volunteers.

Scovill: I don’t think it’s necessarily with the agenda to “minister” to them. I do think it is a wonderful bi-product of the process though. I think it’s more a case of a person simply wanting to be a part of the worship experience and contribute as a volunteer. My bet is that in the near future, we’re going to see semi pro or professional audio staff regularly hired by churches, primarily as operators, for their events regardless of whether they are church members or not, until the learning curve flattens out a bit.

TFWM: Do you think it is easier for people to learn the ropes in audio nowadays compared to fifteen years ago?

Fisher: No, I do not believe that it is in any way easier. In fact, with the involvement of analog and digital equipment, there is more to learn now in order to get familiarized with the standards of the audio field.

Craik: I think we are getting there. Technology has solved many of the problems from the past. We now have devices with built in memories for storing and recalling settings. Many aspects of audio are made easier for user. While there are many advances in technology and training that can help the engineer with science of audio, the ART of mixing sound is something that has to learned by doing, and then come from the heart.

Breshears: Audio today is both simpler and more complex than it has been in the past. For example, a system might use a single digital signal processor that replaces a full rack of analog processors for speaker processing. The wiring is much simpler but the processor now needs a computer connected and operated by someone who has an understanding of the corresponding analog signal functions that are replaced by that processor. In some ways things now are simpler and more efficient, but there will always be a requirement for talented people with a complete understanding of all aspects of the business.

Gordon: No, the only hurdle is that some older engineers have to change ropes and that is harder.

Der:Yes, much more so. There’s really been a democratization of technology over the past 20 years and there are more structured learning paths through either colleges or training seminars plus there are some excellent textbooks on virtually any audio discipline and plenty of info on the web. That said, while there are a lot more “OK-to-Good” audio engineers, there may be fewer terrific ones, as some of the traditional apprentice system in both recording and live sound is no longer there.

Larson: In a lot of ways it is easier today because manufacturers offer complete turnkey professional audio and security systems so you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Even though these systems can be more complex in terms of technology and capability, their operation can be simplified by software.

Scovill: Well, it’s easier to acquire the knowledge. On the one hand, there are many more avenues out there to get real information on pro audio via the trade magazines, text books and audio schools, but on the other hand the concepts to be applied are considerably deeper and require more fundamental audio knowledge. Add to this, that the technology is considerably more powerful than it was, and in turn, much more challenging to master, and I think you’d have to conclude it’s not necessarily easier.

Madden: Yes and no. Learning how to operate a sound system and route basic effects and processing is something most people can understand BUT can they handle the psychological aspects of it? Being able to cook a great meal at home is a far different experience than being a line cook in a busy restaurant. In the past, learning analogue consoles meant being able to visually comprehend the routing of signal through a grid of knobs, buttons and faders. Today someone can be taught the basics of a particular digital board quickly but will most assuredly be lost and non functional on a different one because they may not have the analogue experience which at least provides a standard baseline from which to understand the purpose of the device.

TFWM: What in your opinion are three of the most important things someone needs to know about a digital sound console before they purchase one?

Gordon: Does it work? Does it sound good? Does it offer me room to grow and be flexible?

Breshears: First, they need to determine what they need the console to do. What features do they need? How many inputs and output mixes are required? What amount of on-board processing is needed? Do they want integrated feeds to a personal monitoring system? Second, they need to consider who will be using the console and what level of training will be required to develop competent personnel. Other pre-purchase considerations should always include equipment cost, budget availability, product reliability and manufacturer’s track record.

Der:It depends on what level of digital console they’re purchasing. Making sure that you and any operators/volunteers are comfortable with the control surface would be the number one thing. Many of the concerns of a digital console purchaser are similar to an analog console. i.e. does it have enough inputs and outputs to meet my current and foreseeable needs, does it sound good, does the company look like it will be around over at least the serviceable life of the console?

Craik: The main reason for going to a digital console is its ability to store and recall settings. The second thing is reliability. Does the console have track record of working every time and being “bullet proof”? Is it backed by a factory support team that can answer my questions? Other important questions: “How steep is the learning curve? “Can my volunteers learn and understand how to operate it?” and “Is there training available for this particular console?”

Madden: A) Is it accessible to the varying competence of operators?
B) Does the console match the fidelity criteria of the rest of the system (primarily speakers, microphones, and power amps)?
C) How flexible is the device to conform to a congregation’s particular needs?

Fisher: Reliability, Features, Ease of Use.

Scovill: 1. Can my staff or I quickly learn to operate it, 2. Is the platform reliable, 3. How will it actually improve the worship experience for the attendees?

Larson: Reliablity, Sonic performance, Ease of use.

TFWM: Do you think churches today are savvier purchasers of audio technology than they were 15 years ago?

Fisher: No.

Breshears: Generally I think so. I think that church staff folks are taking a greater interest in technology and are becoming educated on the issues associated with technology.

Gordon: They certainly do more research and investigation. They also understand the importance the audio can make to the service. We have a number of clients sharing racks and recorders to the extent of some world-class broadcasters. The end result is truly impressive!

Craik: Yes and no. For no, I have to qualify that answer by asking who has the final say on the purchase decision. Most of the time it’s the church board, and do professional audio engineers sit on the church board? In most cases, probably not. For yes, the really savvy purchaser contacts a qualified consultant or design build contractor who can guide the process. They can help the board take all of the needs, present and future, into consideration and illuminate other issues that may need to be dealt with.

Der:There are many more ways to get information on your purchase between church organizations, tradeshows, magazines such as TFWM, and on-line communities. Also audio technology has become much more prevalent in churches so there are more people out there to serve as a resource.

Madden: Now that so much of the system is binary in boxes, fewer on the purchasing committees can grasp all the variables. For example several versions of affordable digital studio consoles are being installed in worship spaces due to the grandiose list of capabilities on paper. But they are not live boards! They can do a lot in the relaxed environment of a studio but are not friendly for making changes on the fly. The savvy of the purchasing committee depends so much on the experience, common sense and integrity of the head tech, design contractor or consultant.

Larson: Today churches have full time technical staff that not only operate the equipment but also play an integral role in the design of additions or new campuses for the church.

Scovill: I may ruffle a few feathers here – and this is not meant to sound cynical because it IS getting better — but I’m going to have to say no. After consulting for numerous churches and their staffs over the years – right up to today, I still see a consistent mentality in play. Way more often than not, the problem is not with the gear or the guy – the problem is rooted in poor performances by the musicians, or more commonly, the building and stage are not well suited for amplified music or, it’s poor operation of the currently adequate technology. In many cases it’s all three of these to one degree or another. You can buy all the new consoles, speakers, processors and microphones in the world, but it’s not going to “solve” the inherent problem.

TFWM: What do you think are the most common mistakes churches make when purchasing consoles?

Madden: Contempt prior to investigation. The experience on other systems or from a good sales pitch may capture an A/V lead into only one or two options. The paradigm of this craft, secular and otherwise, can foster egos and produce “experts” when in fact fear can preclude a willingness to look unknowledgeable.

Fisher: First, they do not plan for further expansions. It is quite common for a church to purchase what they need now, not leaving room to meet their needs in the near future.

Der:The biggest mistake I see is that they do not take into consideration after sales technical support into the cost of their purchase and in making their purchase decision. Otherwise I generally see fewer mistakes in console purchases than I see in speaker and overall system choices.

Scovill: Believing it will make an average band, poorly constructed building, or poor PA design sound better.

Craik: Any purchasing decisions are budget driven. The temptation is to get the lowest price. Given that, some typical (and costly) mistakes would be:
1. Buying from a dealer that doesn’t offer support and training after the sale.
2. Buying a console that cannot be easily upgraded or expanded.
3. Buying a console that the volunteer staff will have difficulty learning.

Breshears: They make a purchase decision based on ease of operation rather than functional requirements of the console for now and for the future. Rather than require their staff or volunteers to become proficient in their area of ministry (audio), and make sure they receive proper training, some church leaders tend to make excuses and accept incompetence from the technical staff. Pastors go to seminary, musicians take lessons, why shouldn’t technical ministry folks train and become proficient at their craft?

Larson: Not understanding their current and future needs. Sometimes by being undersold. They are not looking into future needs that could be as soon as six months from the install.

TFWM: What type of technical training should be offered to churches that purchase consoles?

Larson: The best companies will offer on-site training to your staff as well as follow-up support with quarterly training sessions, because we all know that, even in the best run organizations, you have personnel turnover and need to retrain new staff and volunteers.

Fisher: When a church purchases a console, everyone who operates it should be provided with a complete training on console features and operating techniques.

Gordon: This varies from church to church but as the supplier I would say as much as required to allow the operator to see the possibilities.

Madden: On-site technical training may be a line item in pricing a system. I favor on-site training, paid for or worked into the system cost. Personalized demonstration (before or after the sale) as well as Q&A with a competent representative will provide the best retention for the church’s specific applications.

Der:Obviously they should be receiving basic operator training on how to best use the console from the dealer they purchased the console from. Manufacturers are usually happy to walk people through how to do stuff over the phone but this sort of thing can be accomplished much more effectively with on-site training.

Breshears: Training needs to have two facets. First, there needs to be product specific training where the console operator can develop a thorough knowledge of the specific console functions, features and capabilities. This should generally be provided by the entity selling the console to the user, or possibly the manufacturer. Second, there should be a program for ongoing general audio training. In the same way a worship team will practice, the technical staff should be working to further develop both technical and artistic skills. Attend training classes and seminars; purchase and read appropriate industry related books and magazines; be creative.

Craik: The type of training should include the basics of the console’s operating system, signal flow, hardware layout, features, navigation to, and use of, all of the functions and how the console will interface with the rest of the sound system. Ideally, the best solution is to have the church audio team trained on the console before it’s purchased.

Scovill: Better sound in the churches is based almost solely in education of not only audio staff and volunteers, but musicians and church leadership. As a manufacturer I feel that if we want our products to have long term success and breed customer loyalty – we have to not only educate them on how to operate our technology, but also teach them about fundamental audio principles at the same time.

TFWM: Has the rapid expansion of the HOW market influenced you to design specific products for churches?

Madden: Again–yes and no. We are offering Aviom interface as well as on board plug-ins very soon as well as universal analogue/digital o/p cards for simplicity. While originally conceived as a fast operation touring/production desk the Innovason systems have naturally found a niche in Church installation.

Larson: Our company has always taken pride in designing systems for our customer’s needs and always will. When we do market research for new products we invest time to understand the needs of today and the future for the specific markets.

Craik: Absolutely. The Yamaha M7CL and LS 9 consoles were specifically designed with the church, and the church volunteer staff, in mind.

Scovill: Well as I’ve stated in my recent AES keynote address, I think the HOW market is one on the verge of truly explosive growth and I certainly share that mindset with my team at Digidesign. We do indeed feel the influence of this market and try to address it in our product designs.

Gordon: We have made some S/W and H/W changes to make the console fit in with specific needs of HOW. In fact our strong connection with Aviom was born from the church market and is now moving into our touring systems.

Der:We do take needs of churches in consideration when defining feature sets, however we have typically found a well designed console will meet most applications equally well. It’s common for us to walk through the needs of a church when our product management team is working on a console specification, such as how are they’re going to get into their personal monitoring system (Aviom or Hear Back) or perhaps how they might accomplish an archival recording mix from the console.

TFWM: What do you feel should be the next “big thing” in consoles?

Breshears: Soon we will see a paradigm shift more towards networked audio systems. Right now we have networked audio between the output of the console to the speakers. Soon we will see networked audio on the input side.

Scovill: Safe to say it will likely be more and more powerful consoles as time goes on – in both smaller and larger formats. But the goal also has to always be to make them increasingly intuitive and simpler to use. The name of the game for live consoles is not only sound quality, but workflow.

Larson: How about a desk that monitors the mic’s, DI boxes and cables, setting off an alarm when the youth minister borrows them, knowing full well they will not be put back in time for Sunday’s service!

Craik: While many of the Mega churches have already adopted digital consoles, the transition from analog to digital is just getting started in the mid-sized and smaller churches. Many audio manufacturers have only recently launched their first digital desks for the church market. It will take some time and a lot of feedback from the end users, before we can really determine what the next step will be.

Der:Starting initially in higher end applications you will have the console and you will have a set of powered speakers with a piece of cable connecting them which carries digital audio and a digital control protocol. As part of this you will see integration of recording devices, outboard equipment, acoustic analysis software, speaker processing etc…into the console. You’ve already started to see this happen but five years from now you’ll see the console being, more so than ever, the user interface and central control point for the entire system.

Madden: Expansive networking abilities through digital transmission, complete system control and various remote capabilities. What should be the next big thing is simplicity! Systems need to be accessible to some standard of operation such that the PC generation can walk up to and run as we (older folks) walked up to and ran any old analog desk. It is not the job of an audio mixer to become a sound reinforcement IT manager handling a sensory mess of layers, touch screens, changing interface functions and holiday light displays but to just look, listen and mix. The console is an instrument. Their gift is playing audio.