Do you load in and load out your system every weekend? Does your church meet in a school, movie theater, community center, or other location that requires the church to provide the gear?
Portable churches have unique audio gear needs and the below highlights three custom systems, by budget range, and the reasons why specific gear is selected in each system.
This list was designed around budget and tech skill set. Some churches need to be portable out of necessity, not by choice, and that plays into their budget. Equally, there are portable churches just starting out that don’t have a ton of money to throw at a sound system. I’m also going to assume that the volunteer that’s going to run this has no experience with a sound system.
The Three Custom Audio Systems
There are three categories of portable audio system and there’s nothing wrong with being in the first one – everyone starts somewhere. Consider each a custom system:
- Bare-bones minimalist (1)
- Value-oriented (2)
- Future-growth optimized (3)
The differences between the 3 options are simple:
- Option 1 is geared to get something in the church with the knowledge that due to the extreme budget constraints, is only going to last until the church grows to the point where they can afford a proper system.
- Option 2 is geared toward a church that’s in the second phase of their development, which while having tithes coming in, doesn’t leave much room for equipment.
- Option 3 is for the decently-funded church that’s close to getting into a permanent space and wants to plan for the future or for a church that is looking to expand into a secondary venue.
You can make arguments that Option 1 and 2 are throwing money away but the reality of those churches in these situations is that if they didn’t get the most affordable option available they wouldn’t have a sound system. Also, keep in mind that as a church grows it will need more than one sound system so these options are geared to being re-purposed in different rooms.
OPTION 1: Bare-Bones Minimalist.
Budget: $1,000 – $3,000 (if you’re lucky).
Avoid purchasing used equipment. Used equipment means you’re rolling the dice. As tempting as it is to purchase, keep in mind that NEW equipment comes with warranties and you’ll definitely want those.
Portable Sound System (two types):
- All-in-ones such as the Fender Passport or Yamaha StagePass ($399 – $699)
- 8-16 channel Analog Board such as the Mackie VLZ, ProX, MIX, Yamaha MG, Soundcraft EPM, or A&H Zed ($299 – $499)
- Mackie Thump, SRM, QSC K, JBL Eon, Yamaha MSR, EV ELX
- Price range: $299 – $499 per speaker
- Rolls PM, Behringer HA, Art HeadAmp
- Price range: $25 – $39 per monitor. Don’t forget the cables to go to the snake!
- Elite Core Audio, ProCo RM
- Price range: $209 – $500
- Shure, Sennheiser, Samson (incredible bang for the buck), Audix
- Price range: $49 – $99.
- Audio-Technica AT, AKG WMS, VocoPro
- Price range: $199 – $499
- Rack-mountable Furman or similar power distribution unit. You’ve got a lot of expensive equipment to protect. Plug everything in the booth into this. Don’t use it for the speakers but get a Furman on-stage surge protector for those.
Brand and Model Notes
While I would love nothing better than to recommend pro-level manufacturers and models, the fact is cash-strapped churches can’t afford them. So, in the interest of outfitting these less-fortunate ones, I listed several brands and models can be found in any online or MI (music instrument) store – I have experience with them and while they aren’t near as good as the mainstream pro-level stuff, they are solid enough and quality enough that they serve this model of church well.
There are brands and models I deliberately avoid recommending, even if they are cheap, because the build and sonic quality are as cheap as the prices.
One other thing that porta-churches fail to consider is that someone is going to be humping all the equipment in and out of a building every week. Think of it like you’re touring and every week you’re setting up and tearing down. Compactness and lightness are your friends. Get solid road cases for everything so the equipment lasts. Don’t get a big mixer because someone knows someone who has a used one for cheap. Setting that up every week will get old really quickly.
OPTION 2: Value-Oriented
Budget: $3,000 – $10,000
At this budget level, you can still put together a decent portable sound system as above, especially if the needs are small (piano, spoken word, maybe a guitarist) and your room size isn’t huge. But, with a contemporary music structure with a band, you’ll need to go to this next step.
If you started with a system such as OPTION 1, then I would add the following:
1. House Speaker Management:
- dbx Driverack or Driverack PA. Pretty standard unit and easy to use. Decent build and sonic quality. Has house EQ functions, delay function, feedback suppressor.
- Cost: $299 – $399.
- A 15 – 18 inch model unpowered matched to a separate amp or powered models that match your top speakers. Try to keep the speaker manufacturers the same and better still keep the models the same, especially for powered models. They have built-in crossovers and amps that are specifically matched to the output characteristics of the sub. Probably don’t need more than one initially.
- Cost: $800 – $1,500.
Building a New System
You might be able to skip option 1 and go straight to this option. I would start with a digital board. I recommend one because of the functionality built into the board. Most digital boards allow you to save scenes, individual channel setups, have built-in effects, and a significant number of the value-oriented digi-boards allow the worship team to control their own in-ear mix through a smartphone app. Additionally, these boards also allow use of a tablet to remotely control the board from anywhere in the room.
- 16, 24, 32 channel digital board
- Behringer X32, Midas M32, Allen-Heath QU and GLD series, Soundcraft SI series,
PreSonus StudioLive series.
- Cost: Ranges from $1,699 – $5,000 and up.
- Digital Snake compatible with your digital board. The reason? 1 or 2 LIGHTWEIGHT CAT-5 STP CABLE compared to a 75 POUND STINKIN’ RECALCITRANT-WHEN-IT’S-COLD, BULKY analog snake. Trust me it is so worth the additional cost.
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS):
- Get a decent one. Tripp Lite, Cyber Power, APC are well-known brands in the server world and are designed to sacrifice themselves before surges get through. They will also have a battery that will keep your mixer running in the event of a power spike and provide a steady voltage stream going to your mixer.
- Depending on your situation the ones from Option 1 may be all you need. If you’re a full contemporary worship band that’s electric guitar driven you want more.
12 inch mains with subwoofer(s).
- QSC K or KW, EV ELX, Mackie SRM550, PreSonus StudioLive (especially if you have a PreSonus StudioLive mixer due to the unequalled integration)
- Aviom, Allen-Heath ME1, Elite Core, Behringer P16.
- This is another area that is rapidly changing. There are new contenders coming out every month so research and match them to your needs.
- Do not let the musicos use cheap earphones. At this stage you want well-fitting isolation-type high-fidelity earphones. Set up an ambience mic at the center front of the stage or a LR combo if you have a couple of spare channels.
- Wired and Digital Wireless.
- Shure, Sennheiser, Audix, Audio-Technica, AKG.
- Cost: $100 – $500
Brand and Model Notes
The X32/M32 are identical operating systems. The X32 currently delivers the best bang for the buck. With digi-boards things are constantly changing. So much so that by the time this article is 6 months old things will have already changed.
Powered speakers will help with setup and teardown and reduce the complexity and time. Keep in mind that you need an electrical source close to the speakers or that you use a heavy-gauge/heavy-duty extension cord. Plug them into a Furman on-stage surge protector strip. Do NOT plug them into a Furman or similar rack mount power unit. You’ll probably draw more power than the unit will tolerate without shutting down.
You can’t go wrong with any of these mic brands. Stay away from the bargain side of the models though. I read somewhere that 90% of all the world’s music facilities are tuned for the characteristics of the Shure SM57/58 models. They aren’t sexy but they are dead-nuts reliable and you should always have a couple in your mic locker. The Sennheiser E385 is another venerable mic. Try to avoid using a condenser or ribbon mic on-stage except for overheads. Condensers are extremely sensitive and while they can sound incredible they will pick up EVERYTHING around them.
Look to digital wireless microphones because digital doesn’t compress the signal and you get a wired dynamic range without the wire. They also operate in the 2.4Ghz range and are pretty interference free. It’s another area in a major state of expansion so do your research. Same brands are above.
OPTION 3: Future-Growth Optimized
At this level, most techs know what they’re doing and have a pretty good handle on the technical needs of the church. You’re either re-purposing parts of Option 1 or 2 are building a Pro-level system.
- These boards have corresponding digital snakes.
- Cost: $3,000 – $5,000
- Same as OPTION 2 (Aviom, Allen-Heath ME1, Elite Core, Behringer P16) but usually running in stereo mode. Quite likely you’ll be using the systems in conjunction with wireless in-ears from Shure and Sennheiser.
- Cost: $2,000 – $5,000
- Any Pro-level model. At this stage you should know what mics works for you.
- Cost: $100 – $900.
Take it to the Next Level
This article gives you a lot of great information but it’s nothing compared to the step-by-step guide:
A Final Note
My experience has shown that through evaluating a church’s expectations against their budget, these three outlined systems meet the common needs of most portable churches.
This list is by no means exhaustive but is meant as a general high-level guide to get you thinking about your unique needs. The brands and models I’ve mentioned are ONES I’VE USED OVER MY CAREER AND TRUST. There are other brands and models that are equally good that I haven’t used. So, do your own research and base your decisions on the facts and not the marketing hype. I’ve linked out to a few brands and models in this post to get you started.
The Next Step
For more details on the equipment, like the number of microphones and the reason for my digital mixer recommendations, check out: