Church Sound Desk Upgrade – Part 1

Allen & Heath iLive T80 and IDR48 arrive at All Souls
Allen & Heath iLive T80 and IDR48 arrive at All Souls


It is always nice to spread good news, so today I would like to share some insight into an exciting project I have going on at work…

Our sound and video teams have been fighting valiantly for years to get good clean audio and video feeds into our church, with the process made quite difficult by the design of the building. In practice this has meant our sound team has been mixing in a space that’s furthest away from any speakers, and right next to the church organ. Given that this is used for much of the musical output used both for events and for church worship, the position has proved far from ideal. Meanwhile, the video and camera operators have been doing their work while facing another wall and therefore looking away from the action.

Clearly, as the musical styles have been modernised the audio systems have had to follow suit. Before this project commenced I had upgraded to bigger and better-built amplifiers (a story in itself), added a dedicated bass speaker and installed speaker management facilities to manage the sound quality, levels and timings to each speaker cabinet.

All this was not enough to prevent complaints from the congregation, however. Our distant mix position meant that we couldn’t hear the PA system clearly, leading to most sound mixers increasing levels slightly to compensate. Combined with venue acoustics that are already problematic, this lead to increased discomfort for many congregation members, as well as increased incidences of feedback. Many inexperienced operators became over-cautious in turning on speech microphones, such that they’d slowly push the fader up to the point where they could hear the speaker, or feedback occurs – thus we saw many services where someone would start talking and the congregation would miss their first words, or even complete sentences, before the gain levels and any EQ changes allowed for intelligibility.

So why not move the mixer? Until recent times, it has simply been too big and expensive a job to design a new workspace for our existing mixing desk in a new location. The space required to install our old analogue mixing desk and necessary ancillary gear would have been too great to make such a move acceptable to the congregation. Further, the analogue audio cabling required to make such a feat possible was too bulky to install in a way that is in keeping with the existing architecture.

A year ago it became clear that there are now sufficient affordable digital audio solutions that keep both the working surface size and control cable thickness to a minimum, at the same kind of expenditure (post-inflation) that bought us our current analogue desk some ten years ago.

Having agreed the necessity of the move, I arranged trials in our building with two competing digital mixing solutions/products that would have cost us around £10000 to install: the Roland M400 (with 48 channels in and 16 out), and the Allen & Heath (A&H) iLive T80 and IDR48 (offering 56 channels in and 32 out). We don’t need anything like the number of input channels offered by either system for our services, but having them available enables a great deal of flexibility, which will be covered in a later post. Having at least 16 outputs was a necessity, allowing us to drive main mix, monitor, recording and other ancillary mixes around our building. Having more than 16 outputs enables future growth and flexibilty, again to be detailed in a separate post.

During our trials I operated both systems in normal Sunday services, allowing a realistic assessment to be made as to how well each system would suit our needs. While the Roland system had some advantages in outward simplicity, it’s fair to say that the A&H system won out in terms of user interface and sound quality, despite it’s slightly more complex learning curve from an installation and deployment perspective. For me personally, the difference was subtle but important. The Roland system kept me looking at and thinking about what the desk was doing. The A&H system was allowing me to concentrate on what the musicians and the music were doing, and was otherwise immemorable from a technical operation perspective. That the prospective users from our teams perceived the A&H system as looking far easier to operate than the Roland product was a bonus, which has since paid off during training.

Needless to say then, that we purchased the A&H solution. Watch this space to find out how we’re getting on with it.

‘Til next time!


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