Audio Console Selection: Three Key Questions

Let’s start out this month’s edition of ‘Audio with Jeff Hawley’ with a clear disclaimer: I am the director of marketing for a major digital console manufacturer. So you’d think that my answer for which digital console you should buy for your own personal use or for use in your church would be a biased answer, right? Well, hopefully you can set aside the Allen & Heath logo on my paycheck and stay with me on this one, though — perhaps my answer will surprise you. The choice of which audio console to buy for most churches is a major decision and is sometimes a bit like choosing which baseball team or car brand to select in that there does tend to be quite a lot of brand loyalty and often a high cost of switching ‘teams’ down the road. It is also not an uncommon case to have self-avowed experts on the tech team who have some history with particular brands or types of consoles that bring their personal opinions to the selection process. Of course their input should be welcomed as part of the mix, but I’ve also seen quite a lot of turmoil caused when churches focus on a narrow set of brands/models or outright exclude others due to unfounded prejudices or simply wrong information. My goal here is to set out a few guiding principles and high level questions to ask as you embark on your hunt for the Goldilocks console for your particular scenario, and to highlight a few potential ‘gotchas’ that I’ve seen pop up around the console selection process.

Gathering Requirements:

This is probably the most important yet trickiest step in the process to get right. Seems simple enough, but it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what you need (or are eventually going to need) when you don’t know what questions to ask in the early phases of gathering requirements. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should get you off on the right foot:

1.) What purpose(s) or function will the console need to serve?


Will it solely be mixing live sources in an acoustic space?

Will it also need to provide a means to record the service?

Does it need to feed into a live broadcast?

Is there a connected (or might there eventually be a connected) monitor console?
Might there ever be a need to physically relocate the console? (Outdoor or special services, etc.)

2.) How many mixable inputs will the console need to provide?


What types of inputs are they? Line / Mic? Phantom power? Live tracks / multitracks?

Where will they originate and where would they terminate? (Map out the actual input plot)

3.) How many outputs will the console need to provide?


What types of outputs are they? Line / AES / Dante? Where will they originate and where would they terminate? (Map out the actual output plot)

While there are certainly other factors to keep in mind along the way that aren’t explicitly noted in the short requirements gathering list above, this should get you.

focused in fairly well on the sort of console(s) you may want to focus on during your search.

A few thoughts on Question 1:

Different Strokes for Different Folks.

This can be a deceptively difficult question to answer, especially when tasked with considering what the needs of the church might look like in a year, five years, and beyond. Do your best to look ahead and account for growth, but don’t necessarily get too hung up on mapping out exact needs for five years out if you can add a ‘needs to be able to expand to support broadcast needs in the future’ or a ‘may need to be used for annual outdoor Easter service’ catch-all for a requirement down the road. The goal is capture the general need in this first question, not to get ahead of ourselves and get locked into any specific preconceived console choice or system design at this stage.

One common gotcha on this step is to look at the church down the street and assume that since they have the latest and greatest (and most expensive) world-class  touring console at front of house, you should also have that same console. Every church differs in their messaging and theology and particular mission and relationship to the community, and every church out there differs slightly in their technology needs. Sure, I’d love to see a tricked out dLive rig powering the FOH position at every church out there, but for a big chunk of the HoW landscape that would be total overkill and not the best use of church resources.

A few thoughts on Question 2:

An input by any other name ...

Question 2 moves a bit more into the technical weeds and this will require participation from multiple functions within the church organization.How does church leadership see audio needs growing over time? Is there a vision for expanding the choir someday? A dream to pepper in more of the youth music team into the Sunday worship line-up? Don’t focus on crafting your input list needs only off of the audio lead or music minister, expand out the tent as you start to draw up your comprehensive future-state input list.

It is important to check that if you need 48 inputs (actual mics), the console on your list can process / mix all of those 48. Advertising a console as a “48 channel console” is unfortunately not always synonymous with “48 mixable inputs” and does frequently trip people up. And even within the Allen & Heath product line-up there is a difference in terminology between seeing sources on a network and being able to actively mix all of those channels. In this case it isn’t that we are trying to be tricky, but the total networkable or addressable ‘sources’ is a separate important spec in some console selection processes. For our basic purposes here, just watch out for the gotcha of consoles interweaving the definition of ‘inputs’ and ‘channels’ and ‘sources’ and ensure that if you need 48 inputs the console can simultaneously actively mix all 48 without any limitations or trickery that you might not be aware of.

A few thoughts on Question 3:

Let’s get out of here!

Getting back to the requirements gathering stage as it relates to audio outputs, let’s talk a bit about the idea of where the outputs need to exist. Until somebody invents Star Trek-style beaming of matter and/or insanely fast and 99.999% reliable wireless data transfer, we’ll have to rely heavily on physical cabling for various aspects of our audio transfer. Think about where those microphones and direct boxes should connect into the system. Are they cleaner and more efficient connecting at the stage? Is your space so small that the console is actually situated close to the stage and a separate stage box is not necessary? Are the amp racks and/or PA speaker inputs 100 yards away from the FOH mix position? This is where drawing up a current and potential future-state diagram of your system can help. Each of the answers above will point to slightly different system designs with features like an extensive I/O ecosystem, compatibility with AoIP protocols, number of physical outputs, etc. moving higher or lower up the wish list. “which console is the best?” My answer was always the same — “the one that best fits your needs and gets the job done.”

Closing thoughts

You’ll note that I haven’t included any mention of price in our requirements list. I think it is best to have a framework of ‘what you need’ before you worry too much about the ‘what you have’ in the budget. Like I said earlier, if money was no object we’d all have the top-of-the-line snazziest touring desks at FOH ... but we’d also have gone well beyond the actual requirements in many cases. I encourage you to walk through the requirements list with a thoughtful and careful approach and not let the ‘but what I really want is what they have at the church across town’ or ‘we should get the fanciest thing possible and spend 100% of our budget’ thoughts drive the process. “But Jeff, you’ll probably have a giant Allen & Heath ad on the next page after this article talking about how your consoles are the best,” you are likely saying right about now. True, but the pro audio world is quite large and while I do happen to think we make a wide range of cool products, I’d be crazy to think that we are always the best choice for everyone. For those who have completed the requirements gathering phase and consulted with other churches and professionals, I am hopeful that our products (and our ads!) speak to you and closely align to your needs. Back when trade shows where still happening on a regular basis 

Originally published in Worship Musician, February 2021.

By Jeff Hawley

Jeff Hawley currently heads up the marketing for Allen & Heath USA. Jeff has a diverse background as a musician, engineer and trendsetting industry executive. In addition to performing and producing everything from noise music to disco and Afro-Cuban jazz to avant-garde klezmer, Jeff has designed award-winning music industry products and accessories and directed the branding and marketing functions for a number of top musical instrument and pro audio brands. He enjoys ‘accidentally’ making his coffee too strong, analyzing works by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, and posting articles on LinkedIn.