Worship Audio: Our Road to Digital
By Dan Wothke
Twelve years ago, our house of worship -- Belmont Church of Nashville -- increased the level of commitment to media; we started with audio. This included contracting with Live Technologies on the complete renewal of our system -- custom speaker cabinets, power amps, processors, Furman headphone monitoring system and a new 48 channel Soundcraft K2 analog console. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was likely the last analog console we will ever have in our Worship Center.
Educating The Masses
We’ve all seen it: the subconscious proverbial eye roll whenever techies start talking about a new piece of gear that we “must have.” Fortunately for us, the gear spoke for itself as our jump to digital was primarily out of necessity. The faithful K2 was starting to have problems, which pointed to capacitors failing, switches wearing out and the like. So all the musicians, leaders and techies of our church knew it was time for an upgrade. The next step was to promote ownership from within the church body. Yes, it was in the budget but in a house of worship, people want to help -- they want to share in the ownership.
When confronted with this challenge, an immediate fundraising idea came to mind: a knob drive. What is a knob drive? I counted up the knobs on our Soundcraft K2 and with faders the total was just over 1,000. This was the plan: If someone made a donation, of any amount, they got a knob. Sounds quirky, but our creative team put together an entertaining and informative video explaining the knob drive and made a video with some fun ideas of uses for the knob around the house. You can view the video on our Facebook page linked from belmont.org. To comfort those who were concerned about value, I broke down the money spent on the last board. Our board, originally purchased for about $12,000 was used for 11+ years, or an estimated 1,872 assemblies, totaling just $6.41 per assembly. Then add in the hundreds of special events, weddings, funerals and classes, that number showed that we got our money’s worth. After showing the video, everyone was on board and, after four weeks, we raised over $5,800 in the knob drive. Then the manufacturer of the new board offered us $1,700 for trade-in of our old board (they didn’t care if there were any knobs). Utilizing the old board, we raised $7,500 (far exceeding it’s actual worth of $2,000. More importantly, there was an awareness about the new console.
The decision of which console to buy was based on three primary criteria for us:
- Sixteen physical channel faders with a total of 48 inputs/8 analog outputs minimum
- Seamless interface with an Aviom headphone monitoring system
- Cost in the $20k range
After looking at the boards that fit in that range -- which included Allen & Heath, Avid, Soundcraft and Yamaha -- with help from Spectrum Sound of Nashville, we landed on the Avid Venue SC48. The SC48 met all criteria, is a proven workhorse in the industry and our familiarity with TDM plug-ins combined with the option to upgrade was also an attractive feature.
Our headphone system -- the Furman HDS16 -- had served us well for 8+ years, but the decision to upgrade our console also led to an upgrade to an Aviom system. The expansion card for the SC48 cost the same for either analog headphone systems or the Aviom, but we really wanted to move to a more flexible digital headphone system so we decided to install an Aviom A-16D distributor and 10 A-16II personal mixers. We already had a pair of RJ45 jacks at each mic panel, so the new system could just drop into place without any infrastructure change. The only cabling required by the new board and headphone system was one CAT5 cable from FOH to backstage.
We did not upgrade to digital because our way of mixing or overall sound was broken; the workflow we had established and the sound of the room was great. So, our first goal was to take what we had in the analog world and use digital to replicate it. Then we would sprinkle in the more advanced features as we encountered challenges that it could solve. Ultimately, it was our goal not to have anyone audibly notice the new board, although sonics did play a part. The most common comment from those who knew of the board being installed was the increased clarity it brought to the mixes. I concurred with their assessment but felt the color provided by the K2 and external processing was missed. It took a few weeks to get things dialed in to our liking with the use of plug-ins and tweaks to the graphic EQs. The curves from our analog graphic EQ, compared to the new digital graphic, were more different than I expected with more dips in the 60 - 200Hz range and the anticipated dips in the 8kHz range and up. A major help in getting things dialed in was copying files from our weekend studio recordings into Pro Tools LE and interface with the Venue to create virtual mixes based on what the band actually sounded like. Each engineer did this as part of their training before being thrown into a live situation.
Why Go Digital?
There were some key reasons for us to go digital that have paid off time and time again, which makes me wonder how we used to do this in the analog domain. The Venue’s VCA channels have been worth their weight in gold. We’ve all been in the situation where someone gets up in the middle of worship and wants to share something. The band keeps their full intensity and it is hard to hear the person with the mic over the music. In the past, it was a game of finger gymnastics to pull down the groups while keeping their relative positions in order to get the spoken word over the music. Now, we have all of the music channels and/or groups assigned to a VCA as well as the singers to their own VCA. With the press of a button to get to bring the VCA channels to the forefront, the engineer can bring down just the VCA with the music while keeping their relative positions intact. Since the board has been installed, there has not been an event where this has not come into play.
Recently, in the span of nine days, we had performances from seven different worship teams interwoven. The time and headaches that presets and snapshots helped avoid was beyond effective -- and not just for the engineer, but also for the worship teams. Add in presets within the headphone system (and if a team had rehearsed) and we can have them back up and running right where they left off in a matter of minutes.
Less Is More
Going digital allowed us to eliminate one of our two external racks. The former rack that once housed twenty-two channels of gates and compression, three outboard effects units and four channels of graphic EQ has now been replaced with plug-ins. All routing is now done in the software, compressors and gates are built in on every channel, and in our current configuration we have eight discrete graphic EQs at our disposal. Add in the ability to save presets for virtually everything and the digital domain again scores big. Within Venue, we are starting to build our libraries for different musicians and vocalists. With some pre-planning, we can load the presets for their channels or specific areas within their channels and have a familiar starting point.
I will admit it takes a change of mindset when working with digital. First, to see tweaks represented visually on a screen can cause the end user to question, for example, “is the filter really set there,” or “that seems like a lot of gain applied,” etc. Mixing with digital should not result in letting our eyes taking over the role of our ears. The key is to mix with our ears and observe with our eyes.
Everything is customizable on the Venue, which can be a double edge sword. We are still working on having some things remain the same from week to week -- such as master compressor, graphic EQ presets and specific routing -- while still allowing the engineer the freedom to use what they prefer and work how they prefer. Digital adds an entire new level of challenges when training new volunteers, increasing the importance of planning ahead of time. On the flip side, with such planning, a preset can be set up so that a volunteer’s job is even easier than when working with analog.
A Well Paved Road
The decision to go digital has proven to be beneficial to all. The musicians have raved over the new headphone system and the clarity and usability it brings. The engineers have, despite the challenges at first, quickly adapted and really embraced the change. As for the congregation, we have been distributing the knobs which has, in some way, given our faithful Soundcraft K2 a respectable exit and raised the level of ownership in our house. Thanks to planning, educating, training and more planning, our road to digital was well paved.
Dan Wothke is Media Director at Belmont Church of Music Row, Nashville. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.