The audio console market sector hasn't seen the same level of explosive growth that has characterized the sound system market in recent years, but it's not that far behind. A Church Designer exclusive report.
Looking out over a sea of advertisements and listings for audio mixers and consoles, one could be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed. The audio console market sector hasn’t seen the same level of explosive growth that has characterized the sound system market in recent years, but it’s not that far behind, with plenty of new brands and models to choose from. So here’s a bit of potentially good news right at the start: you probably won’t need to look at analog products. The audio mixing environment now has become virtually all digital. Analog remains a contender among audio purists for music recording, and since that’s still a major part of the content produced by houses of worship, analog desks will be around in their studios. But in the live-sound environments of churches, digital’s domination is now virtually complete.
"Remote mixing capability is one of those features that went from a luxury to a necessity very, very quickly. I can’t see a console not offering it going forward."
—James Godbehear, Marketing Manager, Cadac, Luton, Bedfordshire, UK
That’s a good thing, too, because, as Paul MacDonald at U.K.-based Solid State Logic (SSL) points out, the house of worship is perhaps the most complex environment for media of all types. “One day you’re doing a church service, the next you’re doing a concert and the next you’re hosting a conference,” he says. “Each application has its own particular requirements, so you need to think about all of that when choosing an audio console.”
Ease of use
Allen & Heath iLive-T112
There are several key areas that have to be addressed in this decision process. The first, for churches, should likely be ease of operation, with a strong corollary around ease of training. Manufacturers have been emphasizing simpler user interfaces in recent years, an acknowledgement that a much wider range of operators is standing behind their desks these days, as live music has become the music industry’s main revenue source. That’s paying considerable dividends for HOW users, who are very often eager but minimally trained volunteers. Touch screens are quickly becoming ubiquitous, from manufacturers including SSL, Digico, Cadac, Yamaha and others. This sort of graphical UI is not only easier to parse, but is also well suited to the incoming generation of users, who have been brought up largely on touch-screen devices.
Cadac CDC Eight
“The combination of touch screens and digital operation mean that console operation can be scaled to the abilities of the user as well as the needs of the environment the console is being used in,” says MacDonald. In other words, simple operational parameters for basic functions, such as access to level and basic EQ, for a small Sunday service or conference can be programmed to enable someone with limited skills to run the console for that event. As the scope and scale of events increases, so can the access to other functions, such as dynamics and effects. And in the process, training can be similarly scaled and stepped, with more functionality made available as the users’ abilities increase. Remotely Possible
An extension of that is the ability to apply the console’s capabilities through remote mixing and control via a tablet touch screen such as an iPad. Manufacturers including Allen & Heath, Avid, Behringer, Midas, Digico, PreSonus, Soundcraft, Yamaha, and others offer various app-based iOS extensions of their work surfaces. These allow the FOH mixer to roam the room, checking that the sound is reaching everywhere it needs to and is properly intelligible when it gets there.
“The way people mix is changing,” says James Godbehear, marketing manager at the U.K.’s Cadac, whose CDC8 includes remote mixing. “Remote mixing capability is one of those features that went from a luxury to a necessity very, very quickly. I can’t see a console not offering it going forward.”
However, when implementing remote mixing, be advised that robust WiFi in the venue will be imperative. Network Knowledge
Another aspect of pro audio that seems to have become deeply integrated into everyday operations is networked connectivity. Audinate’s Dante networking protocol has become the de facto industry standard, although a number of manufacturers continue to use their own networked environments, such as Calrec’s Hydra format. But even most of those now have Dante compatibility incorporated.
Marc Lopez, director of marketing, Commercial Audio Products, at Yamaha Professional Audio, says church designers and technology specifiers should spend time with both audio and IT teams at churches to get an idea of bandwidth needs and, as importantly, their cultures. “You want to find out who is responsible for managing bandwidth, because each side of that equation has very different needs,” he explains. “IT can work well with asynchronous networks, because if it takes a bit of extra time to download a file before putting it into the network along with other data, that won’t affect the quality of that data. But audio is real time, and uses a synchronous network with super-low latency, like Dante, that’s designed to be used by audio.”
Yamaha PM10 V1.5
There will be any number of audio devices on a network, but Lopez notes that consoles can affect them in unique ways. In networked audio systems where multiple DSP processes and user interfaces, such as mixing consoles, share the same inputs, head amp control becomes an issue. When one user interface changes the analog gain of a head amp to suit its related DSP process, the signal level to all other DSP processes changes as well. If the operators of the other processes are unaware of the analog gain change, this can cause troubles. So in general, the operators of the other mixing consoles have to clearly communicate with each other to adjust digital gains in the DSP process manually to compensate for the analog gain change in the head amp. Yamaha applies gain-compensation technology which can be used in systems with two or more mixing consoles that utilize the Yamaha R-series analog stage rack interfaces. In most cases, one console can be dedicated as the HA master console, the other as HA slave console. The master console controls the head amp in the stage box through an HA control protocol that flows through the same network as the audio. If the stagebox receives a gain change command (or a gain change is made locally), it executes it and sends an HA status back to the master console to update its analog gain display, and compensated audio to the slave console.
“Devices like consoles affect network performance in different ways,” he says. “In the decision process, you have to make sure there are ways those devices can offset or compensate for ways they affect the network.”A True System
The console as a standalone device is increasingly becoming a notion of the past. The console today is part of a larger audio system, and network connectivity has certainly accelerated that. But as SSL’s MacDonald points out, while the emphasis placed on speech intelligibility has been largely focused on PA systems and microphones, the console plays a large part in that, as well, with its ability to shape the sound through equalization. “Headroom and gain structure also play a part in shaping the sound quality of the console and, by extension, the entire sound system,” he explains. “You can certainly buy a console and a sound system as separate products, but you also have to understand that they will operate together in a much more integrated way than ever before.”
Thinking of the console as a node on a larger system also helps for planning future system expansions.
Record & Playback
Presonus StudioLive 32
Integrated recording capability is one of the newest wrinkles in console design, and it’s also quickly become a necessity. Some consoles have dedicated integrated DAW control built in, such as Avid’s S3 mixer, a 16-fader control surface that works with Pro Tools and other EUCON-enabled DAWs for recording and mixing music and audio post projects. In other cases, it’s a basic interface, such as a simple USB connection, Firewire 400 or 800, Apple’s Thunderbolt interface, or MADI that’s used to connect to any number of external recording platforms.
While recording services and music in the sanctuary have been staple functions of mixers in churches for decades, more recently the virtual soundcheck has become another capability that users find they can’t live without once they experience it.
Solid State Logic L500
One of the characteristics of digital consoles is a smaller footprint than those of analog desks, a result of the ability, among other things, to layer work surfaces. Matt Larson, vice president of sales in the U.S. for Digico, says that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what that means for church designers. For instance, he points out, processing racks are much smaller and can be kept close to the console instead of in separate rack rooms, thus reducing cabling. And leveraging the layered approach means that a single console can cover multiple applications; it’s not unusual for front of house and monitors to be mixed through the same board, and depending upon processing power and I/O availability, that could also be extended to a broadcast or streaming submix, as well.
Taking that logic a step further, Larson notes that the use of in-ear monitors could free up additional channels in a console’s monitor mix. “It really reflects the idea that you’re not just choosing a console, you’re choosing a system that the console is a part of,” he explains.
The takeaway here is that in the digital era, consoles are part of a larger audio system, and in the networked age they’re a node on a larger network. They need to be considered as a unit for the features each church might need, but also as a piece of a larger proposition.