5 Reasons A Digital Soundboard Is Creating The Best Sound Experience

A digital sound board
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

At churches we are always challenged to create a great sound experience with little budget and time at hand. We made great experience with our digital soundboard and I will explain why I think you should go for a digital soundboard instead an analog version nowadays.

I will explain you why a digital soundboard helps you get more variety in your sound, how it helps you to continuously improve your sound, how you can separate duties, how a digital soundboard helps you train your people at sound and that it comes with a much better price.

A disclaimer: I’m biased for Behringer

The one and only digital console I knew at the time I was studying audio engineering was the Yamaha 01V. It was the first affordable digital console but its usability was just horrible.

At this time Behringer as a vendor was just seen as the evil one. They did cheap versions of existing devices. So when I first saw the X32 in a church I was really disappointed. But the Production Director at this time just encouraged me to give it a try. Which I did and I was really impressed and excited.

Therefore I can speak very well about the X32. We use it at Saddleback Berlin and we made great experience with it. It is a good price with a huge stack of features so I can definitely recommend it although there are a bunch of other great digital soundboards out there.

But now let’s start with the five reasons why you should choose a digital soundboard over an analog one. Let’s go!

(1) A digital soundboard brings more variety to your sound

There are two reasons why a digital soundboard brings more variety to your sound.

First, there is no direct connection between your physical inputs and your channels. This gives you flexibility in raising the same input signal for different purposes. There is also no direct connection between your physical output and your mix busses, inserts or matrixes.

Second, with the utilisation of scene files, presets, and cue lists you can influence the sound on the go and you can still ensure a minimum standard quality. Let’s dig a little deeper in these aspects.

(a) Reuse input channels for different purposes

With a digital soundboard you can route any input channel to any fader on your console. Some soundboards are more flexible in such configurations (e.g. Allen & Heath).

On the X32 you should not route too excessively because it can be very confusing to troubleshoot problems.

The way we make use of it at Saddleback Berlin is we like to reuse some of the input signals. For example, our announcer is using the same microphone as one of the vocalists. But of course a singing voice sounds very different then a talking voice and one person has a very different frequency spectrum and dynamic than another person.

So, using the same settings for equaliser, compressor, gates and effect devices would lead into one voice sounding great the other sounding awkward. And if you decide to go for a consensual setting both voices sound strange. Of course you can make use of a second microphone, but with a digital soundboard you don’t need to.

As long as you’re okay using the same microphone type for a singing voice and a talking voice you can just route the same input to another channel on your soundboard and use a totally different preset. When the vocalist is handing over the mic to the announcer you mute the vocalist and unmute the announcer and both sound great.

(b) Prepare an instrument for different situations

At Saddleback Berlin we love the acoustic guitar. Sometimes she plays alone, sometimes she is completely covered by the keys or by the electric guitar. It is nearly impossible to make a setting that works well if she is playing alone or the full band is playing.

With our digital soundboard we have established an acoustic guitar setting that works well with the whole band and we have another setting that works perfect when the guitar is playing alone.

So, if the environment changes during a song I can just bring one fader up and the other down. I can tell you if you do this well no one will notice it’s two presets they will just recognise the acoustic guitar is always present and always sounds great.

(c) Make use of scene files, presets and cue lists

A scene file (some soundboards call it show file) is a basic settings file for your soundboard. When you load this file you just go back to a baseline of your soundboard setup. The routing, the channel allocation, the settings per channel, the sends per channel, the settings for the mix busses and for the effects are just reset to the baseline you once declared. It’s your personal “factory reset”. It can be used for a general basic setup of your board or as a real show file for a certain tour.

In addition a preset file is doing the same for a single channel. You can just load the settings for your acoustic guitar to any channel you want. Doing this will reload those settings such as channel name, gain levels, insert configurations, dynamics, equaliser and auxiliary sends into the selected channel.

With a cue list you can create snapshots of certain aspects of your soundboard and then create a playlist order of such snapshots which you can then recall during the service in that particular order. So, instead of using two channels for the same acoustic guitar you can also load these presets into the same channel and create two snapshots which you then recall whenever needed.

I personally struggle with such cue lists because I don’t like the way it is implemented on the X32. I have more control when I use two channels instead of a cue list. But you will definitely benefit from using a cue list when you need to do a lot of changes at once.

(2) A digital soundboard helps you continuously improve your sound much easier

Just to make it clear: the Beatles didn’t have a digital soundboard neither did they have a lot of the effects and filters we are using today and they were great, creative musicians and build an awesome sound.

Nevertheless our ears are used to what we listen to on Spotify or on radio and thus certain types of sounds. When those ears are stepping into our churches it’s easier for them to connect and feel “at home” when they can relate to the style and sound of the music. We want our people to connect to God and this is just easier when they can relate to the music.

Learn why the Production plays a vital role for people to connect to God

That said it pushes a lot of pressure on the worship team and on us, the sound engineers. And I can tell you with the constraints we have to manage this is much easier with a digital soundboard.

Use and improve your presets

At Saddleback Berlin we reuse our presets every single Sunday. Now we have people who are not yet very familiar with all the settings of a soundboard. But that’s not critical. When we make use of those preset files we can focus on balancing the mix and create a good sound experience this way.

Some of our sound engineers are very experienced and they get to the soundboard prepared and willing to optimise one certain part of it. It might be they don’t like the current settings of the acoustic guitar or they want to check the mic position and the settings for the kick drum to get more kick out of it.

They play around with those settings and at the end of the service they conclude a certain sound is now better than before. These new settings are then stored in the related presets file and maybe also in the general scene file. So from next Sunday on this is our new reference.

This way we constantly improve our sound and develop a better experience at church.

(3) A digital soundboard can be operated by several people for different purposes

Most of the digital soundboards allow remote controlling and you should make use of it.

There are several use cases where this can help you improving your mix but the main one is that someone can take care of monitor mixes for the worship team and the sound engineer just takes care of the sound in the house.

At Saddleback Berlin given the time constraints we have this was a major milestone to optimise communication between the worship and the production team. Now the sound engineers were able to focus on the mix and were not distracted by any requests from musicians regarding their in ear monitor mix.

This remote controlling also allows another person to mix an overflow room, a nursery room or maybe the sound of a TV screen in the coffee bar area.

The only thing you need to make this happen is (in most cases) a Wifi router, which you connect to your soundboard, maybe additional Wifi repeaters so you always have a good connection wherever you need it. Then you need a tablet or a bigger smartphone where you install the app of your soundboard so you can control it from there.

(4) With a digital soundboard you can do virtual sound checks

“What is a virtual sound check?” you might ask. It means you record your service on a multi channel recorder and later you play it back into your soundboard and it seems like the band is playing live.

Those virtual sound checks are amazing for training sessions. You can replay the whole session wherever you want and your team can learn how to mix certain situations in a more relaxed surrounding.

But of course you can do those virtual sound checks with an analog soundboard as well. There is just the question how do you record the channels?

Most digital soundboards come with a multi channel digital output. That means you may plug your computer per USB or Thunderbolt cable, you start a recording application (Logic, Adobe Audition, …) and name your channels and here you are.

(5) A digital soundboard is more cost effective

I bet when you grow as a church or just in what you expect from your console, you quickly reach the point where the digital board supports you better and is also much cheaper than a comparable analog setup. Let us compare both setups to see the difference.

Let’s imagine a setup you might find a lot in churches: we have a band with two singers, one of them playing a guitar, someone who plays keys and we have a drum set which we take three microphones for. Additionally we have two people making announcements or the sermon itself.

We want the monitoring to be individual for every musician and singer. This way we simplify communication and improve hearing experience. Best case we even go for In Ear monitoring to ensure lower stage volume and improve control for the sound in the house. Although the monitoring system is not relevant for the choice of the soundboard, the number of mix or auxiliary busses we need to feed the monitoring has a huge impact on the soundboard we need.

A very detailed description on how you can optimize the monitoring system

If we take all of this we might have the following setup for both cases: two mics for the singers which can be reused by the announcers, a DI box for the guitar, two DI boxes for the keyboard, three mics for the drums (kick, snare, one overhead).

The analog setup

We search for a soundboard that has a minimum of 12 inputs and at least four mix buses or auxiliary channels. Those four channels are required for the four monitor mixes. This is a very minimal setup because it gives literally no space for growing and improving things.

The Yamaha MG20 XU comes with 20 input channels and 4 auxiliary channels, one of which can be used for the internal effect device. The mixer even comes with a compressor in every channel although you can just set a threshold, other settings are not given.

The mixer comes at a price of 649€.

This console is neat. It’s basically everything there what you might need for mixing in a church. On the other hand when you have more practice and you want to continue to improve the sound or your band grows you will probably miss some functionality.

You might then want 8, 12 or even 16 mix busses because you need more monitor mixes or you want to bring the signal to a nursery room or to an interpreter. You want more different effects on your mixes. Or you want more options for equalising or compression.

In this case you might choose the Soundcraft GB8-24+4 it’s worth 2.900€. This mixer brings four equalisers with two bands having a flexible frequency. The board comes with eight mix buses. It also comes with a compressor in every channel.

So now you have a much better mixer that gives you more flexibility and room for growth. Still you will experience the boundaries of having just two flexible equaliser bands and your compressors lack of options.

In comparison: the Behringer X32

I could take just another digital console but as I shared I just know this one the best. There are way better consoles but the X32 is definitely affordable for smaller churches and it comes with a great set of functionalities.

The X32 comes with 32 inputs and 16 outputs plus additional 6 auxiliary outputs. 16 mix busses will serve you well for a lot of cases. Every channel comes with four full parametric equalisers and a compressor with a full set of parameters (frequency, bandwidth and gain).

All of these components come with a reasonable quality and the soundboard comes with a price of 1.700 €.

You might think why should you ever need 16 mix busses? I can tell you this might not be relevant for you now as it was for us during the first two years. But then we grew in our attendance (which I’m praying for it will happen to you as well) and in our expectation for quality. And finally we utilised them all.

Conclusion on the price comparison

The analog Yamaha console for 650€ might serve you now but it creates boundaries just from the start and my opinion is your soundboard should never stop you from growing and improving.

The analog Soundcraft still has some boundaries. However it comes with a much higher price with its 2,900€.

In comparison the digital Behringer X32 with its 1,700€ comes at a reasonable price and a lot of inputs, outputs, mix busses and a great set of functionality. It will support you best to grow as a worship team and in improving your sound.

Conclusion

I’m really excited about digital soundboards, as you can tell. But I hope this list helped you to understand all the benefits you get with a digital soundboard.

With a digital soundboard you get more variety in your sound. It helps you to continuously improve your sound. It also helps you to let more people work with the soundboard at the same time and it helps you train your people.

All of this comes with a much better price than with the analog soundboards you find in the market. Yes, analog soundboards start at a lower price so it seems to be easier to start, but this comes with a trade off and I want to motivate you to steward your budget well and that doesn’t mean to buy cheap but to buy smart.

I love to see your comments or questions on this and I’m happy to answer them as best I can.

And now go and mix as best you can 😉

Production System at Saddleback Berlin ⛪️

Saddleback Church celebrating Easter
Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash

The picture above is from our mother church in California. This is how we celebrate our Easter services in California. Sometimes we still have snow here in Berlin, so we prefer to stay in the building. 😉

What is Saddleback?

Saddleback is a church in many locations. On the one hand we share many similarities worldwide and on the other hand we respond to our regional needs.

Our teaching pastors are Rick Warren, Tom Holladay and Buddy Owens. Each campus is led by a campus pastor, who is usually supported by a team of staff and volunteer leaders. Dave Schnitter started our campus in Berlin and still leads it as our Campus Pastor.

Our special challenges as Saddleback Berlin

Saddleback Berlin celebrated its first worship service in October 2013. We have been renting party and event locations since the beginning. At the moment we are in the Kalkscheune in Berlin-Mitte.

This means that every Sunday we set up all of our equipment, then rehearse once, check the sound and celebrate two services. Afterwards we tear everything down and store it in a storage room provided by the venue.

We must constantly balance between the different requirements.

Finding balance

  • We want to maximize the time for the rehearsal of musicians and the sound check.
  • We want to let our volunteers sleep as long as possible.
  • We want to take as little time as possible from our volunteers.
  • We want to rent the venues as short a time as possible.
  • We want to conduct our services at meaningful times and all guests should have the opportunity to participate in the service.
  • We want the audience to experience as little sound check and rehearsal as possible.
  • As a consequence, we want to spend as little time as possible on the setup.

Our conclusions and the reason for this series

As a consequence of the above challenges, we have made the following decisions:

  • We start at 8am with the setup of stage and technical equipment.
  • We optimize the technical equipment so that we can empty the storage room and set up the stage and technical equipment within 45 minutes.
  • We can then rehearse and check the sound for 90 minutes.
  • Our services start at 10am and 12 noon and last about 90 minutes.
  • We slowly start the teardown at 2pm and leave the event rooms at 3pm.

At first glance, it looks like we are asking a lot of our volunteers and that is difficult to refute. I have been responsible for production in many churches over the past decades. However, I have never experienced such incredible encouragement between the volunteers.

This results in us delivering a high-quality performance. I have never had so much fun in this role and I firmly believe that the whole team does.

Almost every Sunday I myself — a volunteer like many of the others — spend seven hours in our church. We don’t expect that from any volunteer, and I just want to be there because it gives me a lot of energy.

I studied sound engineering a few decades ago and never before has my knowledge and experience been so challenged as with Saddleback. I have never experienced such a dedicated and enthusiastic team before. This motivates me and many of the other volunteers.

Every Sunday Saddleback Berlin has about 350 worshipers (including children) divided into two worship services.

How is the production system organized at Saddleback Berlin?

We have set up our production system in such a way that we have achieved a good balance between the time available and the optimal use of this time.

The production system is divided into the following elements:

  • Sound Board
  • Presentation computer and video system
  • Translation system
  • Stage
  • Software systems

In the coming weeks we want to explain the individual elements in more detail. We hope that many churches can learn from them — small and large, mobile churches like us, but also churches that celebrate services in their own spaces.

If you do not want to miss any of the posts just sign up for my newsletter.

5 Concepts for a Great Mix

I came across a great video by Matthew Weiss (The Pro Audio Files), who explains in a nutshell what 5 concepts he keeps in mind when mixing. The 5 concepts for a good mix are: Clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion. If we strive to improve in these five areas, our overall mix will consequently improve.

5 Concepts for Getting a Great Mix from Matthew Weiss

Even if he talks about studio music in principle, these concepts can be applied wonderfully in the live area as well.

Clarity

Every element of the music should be audible. It is not always necessary to separate all elements from each other. Sometimes we want two or three instruments to form a pad sound together. The listener should then perceive them as such.

Sometimes we want the bass drum and bass guitar to sound like an instrument together. In the Daft Punk song Da Funk this is clearly the intention. In most cases we want to hear the guitar and the drums separately. We want clarity.

In the studio, for example, we can create clarity by distributing elements of a piece of music in the stereo image. In addition, we can separate instruments from each other by creating space in the frequency spectrum.

In the live area, it is not appropriate to distribute elements in the stereo image. If a listener is further to the right in the room, in the worst case he will not even notice an instrument that has been moved to the left. We can very well provide clarity on frequencies. If the keys overlap e.g. with the voice, we can take out the keys e.g. around 300 Hz and around 2 kHz and the voice is much clearer.

In live music, the sound system must be very well designed, otherwise the reflections in the room alone ensure that we can no longer create clarity. The goal must therefore be that every listener perceives the direct signal as much as possible and that the early reflections arrive much more quietly. Sound design is very complex. I can recommend a podcast by Nathan Lively, which is mainly dedicated to this topic — Sound Design Live.

Punch

Punch power is about not only hearing individual instruments such as the bass drum and the snare, but also feeling them. Punch gives our mix a dynamic touch. In live music it depends a lot on the type of event, but in many cases we expect more of this punch live than we are used to at home. The event area is bigger, maybe the stage is very big, so I want to feel more of the music. At a big concert you want to feel the bass drum in the stomach area.

However, this is not appropriate in all cases. It is worthwhile to carefully consider for which occasion you are mixing and to generate an impact accordingly.

Depth

Michael Jackson’s songs are very often filled with depth. Sometimes the voice seems to be right in front of us, sometimes it fades into the background. Bruce Sweden, Sound Engineer for Michael Jackson describes how he created this depth in this article.

In general we create depth with different techniques. We can place an instrument in the foreground, in the middle with almost no early reflections and reverberation. We could distribute the elements that we want to appear further back in the stereo field and create the impression through stronger early reflections and reverberation that the element stands further back in the room.

In the live area, some of the reflections already arise through the room. We need a very well designed sound system, so we get more chances to create depth in the mix. We want to have the possibility to play with reflections and to integrate different levels of reverberation. That’s how we create depth.

Character

Character is something that appeals to us. A boring mix becomes a great mix when we give character to the different elements. Does the bass guitar sound like any other? Or does she have something special, something unique? We can play something by adding overtones (by distortion), highlighting characteristic frequency ranges, rather lowering others, and so on.

Character breathes life into the mix. In the live area, it strongly depends on the mixing console how much room we have to give the instruments character. But there are also opportunities to create character outside the mixing console. How are the microphones positioned above and below the snare? Which effect devices does the guitarist bring with him? How is the microphone positioned on the guitar amplifier? Does it help to position a second microphone?

It is worth trying different things. Character makes a big difference. We have to be careful with EQ, because we can kill any instrument with it. But when used properly, we can also give it a new character.

Emotion

We want to transport emotions with music. This is the most important thing we want to achieve with music and thus the most important thing we want to achieve in our mix. What is offered to us from the stage in the mixer tries to create a certain emotion. Our goal in mixing should be to intensify this emotion. We might as well try to create something more cheerful in the mix out of a sad love song, but that will confuse us and the song will not get stuck. If we try to intensify the effect, the mix will reach the hearts of the listeners and remain stuck. It is the most difficult element in our mix and yet the most important.

Conclusion

When mixing live music, the 5 elements clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion can make the difference between a good mix and a great mix. With each adjustment I make, I should ask myself what I want to achieve with it. Can I get more clarity? Am I increasing the punch? Do I add depth to my mix? Does my mix get more character? Or do I bring more emotion into my mix? If a change does not pay into any of these five areas, that change is probably worthless. If, on the other hand, the change affects several areas at the same time, it’s great.

And now: Have fun mixing 😉!