Selecting the Right Digital Audio Console
How do you select the right digital audio console?
According to churchproduction.com:
“With what seems like a never-ending stream of technology innovation, product announcements, and gear reviews, how is it that you are supposed to choose the next piece of gear for your ministry and do so without going batty?
“In this piece, CPM looks at these questions as they relate to purchasing a new audio console, which is arguably one of the highest profile acquisitions for a tech ministry to make. Not only is it a big decision, but it comes with a huge selection of providers, products and opinions.
“From the outset let’s acknowledge that, in the end, any audio console you consider for purchase must be able to support your ministry’s needs and anticipated growth. Console specifications will dictate much of this as you will ultimately need some combination of I/O, busses, processing capability, and possibly other add-ons such as IEM support, etc. However, once you have weeded out desks that don’t fit the budget or capabilities profile, you will still likely have four or more desks from which to choose. Now what?
First things first
“The easy option here is to simply go with what you know. If you are comfortable with your current rig or have a relationship with a manufacturer, its generally a pretty easy process to go back to the same brand and step up or down the product line as necessary. But is that the right move?
“While I wouldn’t generally suggest this to be the most beneficial way to approach the problem, in some cases it very well may be the best option. For instance, if your organization makes use of multiple consoles for production, post production, or is multisite, there can be a very strong value in staying within a manufacturer’s ecosystem. Doing so will generally make it easier to integrate your systems and make it easier to get effective tech support. Dealing with a single manufacturer who provided everything should be easier than mediating between two or more manufacturers when things aren’t going well. Additionally, having a homogenous environment will generally allow you to keep a consistent work flow for the sake of your operators. Most console manufacturers are doing a really good job of giving operators a consistent interface across their product lineup. If all of your desks have the same look and feel it will make it easier to train your people and make them interchangeable across tasks.
“If, however, you don’t have an overriding reason to jump straight to what you are comfortable with, it would be advisable to give due diligence to your options. If you consider that there was a different thought process that lead to each of the potential consoles that you are considering, then it makes sense that one of them might stand out amongst the others.
“From this viewpoint, one might suggest that picking a console is somewhat like picking a sports car. Two big questions to ask are ‘How does it sound?’ and ‘How is it to drive?’
“On the sound side of the equation it might surprise you to know that different consoles have different sonic characteristics and those characteristics appeal to people differently. While this was especially true with analog boards it is also true with digital boards. Some of the differences can be subtle, while others not so much. (It should also be mentioned that your PA itself will play a very large part in how you discern these differences; keep that in mind.)
“Different consoles will make use of different DSP and processing algorithms. These things work together to dictate how the final signal is mixed and processed, thus differences in the desks will create differences in their output. So what kinds of things should you listen for? The first thing to listen to is the clarity of the output signal. Most every console on the market today is going to produce a clean signal that is easily acceptable for the spoken word (where clarity must reign supreme). Some, however, may strike you as having a clearer or more open sound than others will. Take note if one of them really grabs you in this arena.
“Along with this, another thing to listen for is tonality. If you remember when analog technology was king, you may recall that many times it was referred to as being ‘warm.’ This ‘warmness’ was a result of additional harmonics and artifacts that the analog technology added with transformers and other nifty components. In the world of digital consoles, however, tonality can also be affected by the technology. This time around, however, the analog components have been replaced with computer chips that crunch numbers and use complex math. The differing ways that the number crunching can be done (to mix our signals and give us our EQs/compressors/etc.) lead to differing tonal characteristics of the consoles. While that might seem like rocket science, keep in mind that your evaluation of a console’s sound doesn’t have to be. The general question here is how does the console’s output strike you when you listen closely? Do you like it? What about it do you like or not like? And lest you feel bad because you struggle to articulate what it is that you are hearing, you are not alone. One of my favorite adjectives when describing a great reverb is ‘lush’ because, well, everyone knows what that means, right?
“Speaking of reverbs, one of the most important things to listen for while shopping for a new console is the sound of the onboard effects. Effects such as reverb, delay, chorus, etc., can be implemented in an infinite number of ways and the manufacturers really tend to show their individual distinctiveness in this area. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing how many different reverbs consoles offer you, but at the end of the day, if you don’t like how they sound it won’t matter that you have three of them. Something worth pointing out is that on-board effects are one of the areas where the myth that “something must be better if it costs more” can be shattered. I can think of at least one high dollar console whose on-board verbs are blown away by consoles that are less than half the cost. All of this is to say that you should make sure you take the time to listen to the consoles that you are considering for purchase. You may be surprised at what you hear.
“So the sports car sounds awesome, but what is it like to drive? Once you have listened to your candidates, from my perspective, it then really all comes down to workflow. And to be perfectly honest, for some organizations, the importance of workflow will trump the importance of tonal characteristics. Remember that at the end of the day your people must be able to use the desk to reliably and creatively make space for worship, make the teaching heard, and facilitate encounters with Christ. If the console’s workflow just doesn’t click with your approach or it requires expertise that your staff or volunteers don’t have, it will weigh you down rather than enable you. There is not much more stressful than hunting for a control that you can’t find when everyone is looking to you to correct a problem. If the layout doesn’t make sense, or the layering throws you for a loop, maybe something else will have a workflow that fits you better. Just like you want a sports car to fit you, you want a console layout and control arrangement that fits you.
“I saw an example of great workflow fit a few years ago when looking at consoles with members of my church’s tech team, all of us at differing levels of experience. While at a show we visited a manufacturer’s booth where the newest member of the team, with very little experience, walked up to a console and put a mix together in 15 minutes, with zero assistance. He was able to accomplish this never having before seen that console. That was a workflow that clicked. Ultimately, we ended up purchasing that console and we were able to introduce it to the organization with zero stress or hand-wrangling by our engineers.
“It’s fair to say that most people want to make the best decision possible when spending the church’s money, and as a result it’s easy to get bogged down with so many different products vying for our attention. So it’s wise to take your time, understand what your needs are, and then walk through your options to understand how they perform and how they will fit into your workflow. The process of choosing your next console doesn’t have to be a stressful one that reflects trying to find ‘the best’ desk out there, it just needs to be a methodical one that finds “the best” desk for you.”