Are you running sound at a small church or a new start-up church? If so, chances are you’re struggling with the sound reinforcement system. I’ve seen a lot of “inventive” systems cobbled together by well-meaning folks and believe it’s time to toss out a life-line.
I’ve put together a list of the essential pieces of sound reinforcement equipment for a small church. Because most small churches don’t have much of a tech budget, I’m not going to be specifying high-end equipment. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have pro-quality and tour-grade gear. I want you to have good gear – I’m NOT here to say it’s ok to buy bargain-basement gear.
A quick note; these are personal preferences. Your mileage may vary.
The basic sound reinforcement components needed for a small church with a contemporary service are [drum roll, please]:
- Mixer: 16-24 channel analog mixer with 4 or more auxiliary sends or a 16-24 channel digital mixer.
- Cable snake: 16-24 channels with 4 or more auxiliary returns, 100-150 ft snake – whatever gets you from the stage to the booth.
- 2 15-inch 3-way powered speakers for front of house (same brand and model line as the subs)
- 1 or 2 18-inch powered subwoofers (same brand and model line as the mains)
- 1 1/3-octave equalizer for front of house (not needed with a digital mixer)
- 1 2-channel compressor for pastor and one other channel (could be lead vocal or guest mic) (not needed with a digital mixer)
- Either 4 powered stage monitor wedge speakers or 4 in-ear monitor systems
- 4-6 vocal mics
- Kick drum mic
- 4 instrument mics
- Mic cables
- Pastor wireless headset mic
- Mic stands (regular and shorty)
- Furman power conditioner for the equipment at the sound booth.
All righty then. Now that I’ve defined what I consider the minimum requirements, let me start unpacking why. Below, I’ve highlighted details behind some of this gear. It contains a good bit of brands to avoid and highlights a few for consideration.
16-24 channel with 4 or more auxiliary sends analog mixer or a 16, 24, or yes, even 32 channel digital mixer.
Here’s what a typical lineup of channels might look like:
- Kick drum
- Drum Overhead
- Bass Guitar
- Acoustic Guitar
- Electric Guitar
- Extra Instrument
- Lead Vocal
- Backing Vocal
- Backing Vocal
- Pastor mic
- Extra mic
Even though I show 4 mics for drums (ch 1-4), I usually recommend just miking the kick drum and the snare in a live room. Now if you have a really dead room or you have a huge building then use all 4 mics. If not, you have 3 channels that are now open. As you can see, there are enough channels for a typical contemporary band. If you have a choir then you may need more than 16 channels and may need to look at a 24 channel board.
Typical analog mixing boards I recommend are right around $1,000 for a new board. Soundcraft, Allen and Heath, Yamaha, some Mackies (in that order of preference) are pretty much bulletproof. An analog board may have some built-in effects and possibly a recording interface (either USB or Firewire) but that’s about the extent of the computer electronics. A lot of these brands (and audio boards) have been around for a long time and have proven their toughness on the road.
Analog mixer are inexpensive but in light of the dropping costs of digital mixers and the limited functionality of the analogs, unless you have a lot of expensive and somewhat new outboard rack gear, a digital mixer is likely a better choice.
Analog vs. Digital Mixers
Here’s the difference between an analog board and a digital board. With an analog board what you see is what you get. That means that if you want to change a setting, there’s a knob on each channel for it. On a digital board you have to bring that channel into focus since the function of the knobs on a digital board change depending on what you’ve got on the screen.
A digital board is a computer and is subject to the same issues that a computer has. An analog board has greater latitude in the environment it’s operated in and can tolerate a greater range of temperature, humidity, and power variances. A digital board has all the effects, dynamics and individual channel eqs and front of house eqs needed which means the above gear can be paired down. An analog board doesn’t have the luxury of having all that built-in.
Consider the Allen & Heath QU16, Behringer X32, Midas M32, and the Soundcraft SI Expression line. They are a decent chunk of change but when factoring in the additional capabilities and what you’d be spending for a decent eq and decent compressor, you’re about even. The PreSonus StudioLive mixers have been very popular but don’t have the automated faders like the others.
Da Fat Channel
PreSonus, along with other companies like Soundcraft and Behringer, have digital mixers with a single-channel surface design. PreSonus calls it the Fat Channel design. This is where everything for a given channel is shown all at one time. No layers to wade through. It’s not as intimidating as higher end digital boards.
It’s important to note that digital mixers do not all have the same workflow. Demo them and find which works best for your situation.
Powered speakers and subs
Why powered speakers? Because in a relatively short time they’ve come a long way.
Powered speakers along the lines of QSC’s K or KW series have built-in amplifiers and crossover circuits custom tailored to the specific speakers. Plug in the equivalent sub, hook up the mains and you can rest assured that the subs will crossover at the optimum frequency and that each amplifier is designed to produce the maximum sound for the given speaker. No additional amps or crossover boxes to wire in and fuss over.
Be aware that you’ll need to have power receptacles by the speakers to plug them in and they are heavier than non-powered speakers. While they may seem more expensive, by the time you factor in the cost of the proper amps and crossovers, the powered speakers come out equal.
Powered stage monitors or in-ear system
Monitor speakers are the typical – some say “old-school” – way for musicians to hear themselves on stage.
What musicians need to hear is quite different than what the congregation needs to hear. Most musicians need the lead vocal and lead instrument to focus on what they’re doing. Sometimes they’ll need to bring their instrument into their mix. Vocalists always need to be able to hear themselves.
Monitor wedges require the sound team to mix each musician’s monitor mix from the sound booth. The problem is with more monitors on stage and multiple monitor needs, stage volume becomes a problem. This is especially true if the drums are right behind any vocalist.
In-ear monitors are pretty much headphones plugged into a box. They take the individual channel sends from the mixing board and allow each musician to create their own mix. By being on headphones, stage volume isn’t a concern.
In-ears take some getting used to because of the amount of audio isolation. To compensate, it’s common to have a microphone on the stage aimed out at the audience and mixed into the musician’s mixes. In-ears are usually more expensive that monitor wedges.
Whatever you do, please don’t buy no-name (generic) brand mics. You’ll regret it. While the specs may look similar to pro-grade mics like Shure, Sennheiser, Heil, Audix, Audio-Technica, and ElectroVoice, they aren’t close.
There is a reason the Shure SM-series, Sennheiser 835, Heil PR20/30/40, etc. have been around a long time. Someone once said that every single hall in the United States has been eq’ed for a Shure SM57/58. That alone should tell you something. These mics are rugged, all-around workhorses that are still in use by major productions. Just about every concert that you watch on TV has at least one of these mics on something, whether a vocal or an instrument.
The Shure Beta 58 has the added advantage of having a titanium ball cover which means you can drop the darn thing and never have a dented ball cover. You can drop the SM57/58s on the floor, from the stage, and probably run them over with a truck and they’ll keep working.
But don’t drop them. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But you already know that, don’t you.
In small churches, I usually recommend miking only the kick drum and the snare. I’ve found many small churches don’t have a big room and the rooms they do have are very “alive.” Now, if the room is really dead or the room is huge, then use all 4 mics. Use Shure SM57’s for snare and toms and a Shure Beta 52A on the kick. Use a condenser for an overhead mic.
A combination of dynamics and condensers are good for instrument miking. Most of this type of miking will be for a piano or a drum kit. Other gear, like guitars and keyboards, plugs directly into the system. A Shure SM57 is a good dynamic microphone and commonly used for snare drum miking.
No matter what you’ve heard, don’t go spending $50 for a Mogami or Monster mic cable. Go to monoprice.com and pick up their mic cables for peanuts. They’re lifetime warranted and just as good as anything out there.
Wireless headset microphone
You get what you pay for. Have I said that already? Spend under $500 for something other than a Shure, Sennheiser, or Audio-Technica wireless system, with a headset mic, and the regret might soon set in. A wireless system from any of the “big names in high-quality microphones” will be good. I’ve just listed a couple in case you’re new to buying equipment.
Quality counts in the wireless arena and high quality isn’t cheap. Look for something in the UHF or digital frequency range. Stay away from anything in the 680-850mhz range if you are in the USA. As of July 1, 2010, this frequency range is no longer available for wireless mic use. You should not see them in the stores but watch for “a great deal on eBay” because it’s not a great deal.
Also, in this price range models are frequency-agile. This means they have dual antennas and can skip back-and-forth between frequencies to get the best signal.
Spend a little bit (around $100) for a Furman power conditioner to protect the “really” expensive equipment. Furmans are built for protecting audio and computer equipment. They are also built like a tank.
Don’t buy a $15 power strip and expect it to protect gear the same way. It won’t. I have a standing rule. Anything that plugs in at the sound booth gets plugged into a Furman, or it doesn’t get plugged in.
Furmans are designed to sacrifice themselves in the event of a power surge. This means spending another $100 for a replacement if it gets fried but the rest of your equipment will have been protected. Plus, they have a replacement guarantee on the remaining equipment if the Furman doesn’t do its job.
It’s a wrap
That’s it in a nutshell – a very big nutshell. Post a comment below if you have questions about your situation or thoughts on this list.
The Next Step
Check out the three levels of portable systems depending on needs and budgets – lists out our gear recommendations: