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Audio End-to-End for Worship

Apr 10, 2012 2:03 PM, By Bruce Borgerson

Integrating Paradigm Shifts

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Late last year, a paradigm shifted at the midsize mainline church in Oregon where I serve as volunteer technical director. Before the big change, our pastor was still preaching from a fixed pulpit, primarily because she likes to refer to a written text. Then came the Apple iPad. Now our pastor wanders about with her wireless lav, occasionally glancing down at the text on her iPad. Alas, whenever her head drops down, sound bounces off the iPad into the Sennheiser MKE 2 omni mic and causes a subtle yet perceptible change in her voice level and tonal balance. Oops. Time to retweak compression and budget for a headworn mic.

Granted, that’s a peculiar example, yet it illustrates an irreversible trend. Two paradigm shifts are underway, transforming the way AV integrators will design, configure, install, and troubleshoot audio systems for all but the very smallest and most traditional churches. These changes affect every part of the audio chain, from wireless microphones through loudspeakers and streaming media delivery. It’s an end-to-end proposition that requires rethinking how you approach your bid proposals, and what you must communicate to church committees and staff, who will come to the table with varying levels of technical sophistication.

Pair Of Paradigms

The first paradigm shift is the rapid emergence of what I call the “ubiquitous user interface,” or UUI. Apple’s iOS devices have become dominant in pro audio despite some inroads by Google’s Android. Wherever any level of digital control is accessible, these devices are hooking into it and taking over. The mixing console as we have known it may be fading into history.

Another endangered species is the analog snake. Multi-channel audio networking is moving to the forefront, slowed only by lack of standardization and a “wait until it gets even faster and cheaper” mentality.

So what follows is a whirlwind overview of church audio systems, end-to-end, highlighting issues that need to be raised in light of these changes. Expect a barrage of new questions from knowledgeable church staff members, and be prepared to raise them yourself if church folk seem clueless.

Up Front: Audio Sources

So far, the paradigm shifts have had only marginal direct impact on wired microphone selection and use in most church worship applications. Quality dynamic microphones like the ubiquitous Shure SM58 remain dominant for contemporary praise music, while modular condenser systems from Neumann and Audio-Technica take care of choirs and acoustic instruments. Miniature headworn condenser mics are replacing lavalieres for spoken word, as the modest investment pays off in better quality and easier feedback control. The move to a quiet stage, with drum isolation and in-ear monitoring, has made it less problematic to upgrade vocal and instrument mics to higher-quality condenser models, often with notable improvements in overall musical depth and transparency. All of these possibilities should be brought up in discovery sessions with your church clients.

Moving from wired to wireless microphone applications, we find the iOS revolution in full swing. New wireless apps like AKG’s free Wireless App 2.0 tap into nearly all programmable and monitoring functions, from frequency scanning and allocation to low battery alerts. Essentially, all the information and control that used to be only accessible at the wireless rack or plugged-in laptop is now available to anybody with an iPhone—and, of course, the proper password.

Snake To CAT

The paradigm shift in signal transmission touches every part of the audio signal chain between inputs at the stage box and the power amplifier, be it standalone or inside the loudspeaker. Thick bundles of multicore analog audio cable are giving way to thin, lightweight runs of network cable for carrying signal from stage to FOH mix and then out to drive racks, powered loudspeakers, multi-track recorders, and broadcast/streaming devices.

Every church must be made aware of this change and all the ramifications for further system upgrades in the future. Cost comparisons should be done in nearly every case. Some churches, being conservative by nature, may be wary and stick with analog for now, but if you’re installing new multicore analog lines, it would be foolhardy not to run redundant Cat-6A alongside to be ready for the inevitable. The primary sticking point now is, of course, the long menu of networking options and their mutual incompatibility. CobraNet, Dante, A-Net, REAC, EtherSound, and others all have relative advantages and drawbacks, and some churches are understandably reluctant to adopt different protocols to handle, for example, personal stage monitoring, stage to FOH, and console to power amplifiers. Roland Systems Group takes one tack by offering soup-to-nuts with its own REAC, while Yamaha plays the field by offering connectivity cards from several third-party providers. The emerging AVB standard promises some relief from the technobabble, but we’re not quite there yet.

Regardless, all these networks use the same cable, and every church audio infrastructure remodel should have it running—redundantly—everywhere audio needs to go. The smaller the church, the cheaper the cable runs, so no exceptions.

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