Lousy Church Sound--Another Perspective, Pt. 1

A few weeks ago I came across an old post at another blog that described a trend, lousy church sound. You can read the post here. I’ll warn you, there are a lot of things going on in that post, and it may take you a few passes through to get a handle on what he’s saying (I’ve read it 5 times and I’m still not 100% sure…).

My intention is not to attach the author of that post, as I believe he makes some good points. He makes some statements that I think are worth unpacking here. As I said, there’s a lot going on there, so it will probably take me a few posts to work through it. I’ve broken the post down to three main prepositions that we’ll tackle one at a time. 

Preposition One: Pro-Level Sound Requires Professionals

One statement he makes that I am in general agreement with is this:

They [churches] haven’t yet realized they can’t invest in pro equipment without hiring a pro to run it.

I’ve been saying this for quite a while now. I have seen this happen at quite a few churches. They start off as a small church in a small room with simple, analog equipment that the volunteers figure out fairly well. As they grow, they build a new building and install a fancy new digital console and no one knows how to use it. What the church needs is a technical director who can train the volunteers on the new gear and keep it running smoothly. Sadly most churches discover this too late. There are a couple reasons for this failure.

Church Leaders Don’t Realize How Complex Technology Is

Marketers tell church leaders that all they have to do is buy the latest digital console and all their problems will go away. This leads them to tell their integrator they want to go digital. The smart integrator will talk about the need for training for the team, but in the interest of saving money (which is generally needed because the church is trying to build a bigger church than they can actually afford), the training gets cut from the budget. 

After the grand opening, when the integrator has gone home, the volunteers stare at the new console like deer in the headlights and things go downhill from there. The reality is, digital audio consoles are complex devices, and they require someone who knows how to run them properly to set them up. Some are easier than others, but all are complicated. Without training and support, the team is set up to fail. 

It Always Comes Down To People

I am always amused that churches are more than willing to pay a healthy salary for a worship leader, and will put him or her on the leadership team of the church. At the same time, churches will often expect volunteers with no training, support or guidance to manage an incredibly complex AVL system. If they do finally see the need to hire a TD, they will often want a part-time person or will only pay slightly more than minimum wage. 

The reality is the guy behind the console is just as important to the overall sound and worship experience as the person on stage. If one is worth a reasonably salary and status, so is the other. Neither will do well without the other. 

If you lead a church that is going into a building project that will include a whole new technology system and you don’t have the hiring of a technical director on your radar, you need to get on that. I can pretty much promise you will be disappointed if you don’t. 

At this point, you might think I’m down on volunteers. In fact, the author of the original article implied that volunteers cannot possibly ever run a complex digital console. However, I disagree. And we’ll get to that next time.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Don't Forget the Basics

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

Image courtesy of The United States Army Band

One of the cool things I get to do is travel around to a lot of churches and conferences each year. Most of the time, I’m just hanging out and talking to people, which I really enjoy. But when the session or service starts, I typically migrate towards FOH to see what’s going on. What I have observed is a somewhat disturbing trend. Now, this may make me sound like an old guy and a Luddite, but I’m really not. OK, I am old, but I’m not a Luddite. But here’s what I’m seeing; with the advent of digital consoles at FOH everywhere, I see a lot of engineers spending a lot of time tweaking plugins, turning on all the compressors or playing with SMAART, but not a lot of time on getting a good mix put together. 

Now, to be fair, sometimes this happens at conferences where there is not a ton of time to do a full soundcheck, or at least not as thorough as one would like. That’s a different problem, and a different post. But, what I see is people focusing on the wrong things. So here are some suggestions based on lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years of mixing.

Start with Good Gain Structure

If you know you are going to be short on time for your soundcheck, get your gain structure right first. Before you start loading up the plugin rack or setting up all your cool parallel compression, get the gain structure right. Nail this, and you are 80% of the way there to a good mix. As I’ve said before, there is no plugin that will fix an overloaded and distorting input. And if you don’t have enough gain, you’ll be fighting noise the whole gig. 

It’s important to remember that for many, many years, engineers mixed with only a simple 3 or 4 band EQ on the channels, and maybe a few channels of compression. While I don’t advocate going back to those days, the point is they made it sound great by focusing on the basics. Start there, then dress it up.

Build the Mix First

Again, I see a lot of younger guys spending time trying out different plugins on the bass, when what they should be doing is bringing the mix together. Once the mix is sounding good, then go after the cool stuff. I remember hearing a story of a guy who spent all of soundcheck at a festival getting the rack toms sounding amazing! Problem was, he ran out of time and never got to the rest of the band. As a result, the show pretty much sounded terrible, except for those few seconds each song when the drummer hit the toms. 

Don’t get so enamored with all this cool new digital technology that you forget what you are really there to do—mix. When I am training volunteer engineers, I teach them to mix on a simple analog console first before letting them step up to the Digico. If they can demonstrate putting together a great mix on a GB16, I’m pretty confident they can do so on an SD8. 

When Time is Really Tight, Skip the Fancy Stuff

Sometimes we have to do events where we get a couple songs as a “soundcheck,” before the doors open. That is not the time layer effects, parallel compress or insert seven plugins on your lead vocal. Get your gain right, build the mix and go after big problems. Then when the lights come up, mix the show, tweaking as you go. Ideal? No, but it will sound good. 

Do we wish we all had time to record the rehearsal, then spend a full day tweaking every setting on the board and making it perfect? Sure, maybe. But we don’t all have that all the time, so we need to make sure we’re focusing on the right things when time is tight. Give it a go and I can promise you your mixes will sound better in less time.

Roland

Creating a Healthy Volunteer Culture

Image courtesy of Morgan

Image courtesy of Morgan

Here at CTA, we talk a lot about creating a healthy staff culture. Just last week I wrote a post to TD’s encouraging them to do a good job of taking care of themselves. I really believe in that, mainly because sometimes, church staffs are not as healthy as they could be. As I was thinking about this concept, it occurred to me that we also have to be sure to build and maintain a healthy culture for our volunteer teams as well. 

I think this falls into two main categories. First is the larger church that has at least one paid tech person, who leads a team of volunteers. Second, is the church that is all volunteer-based. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they do have different needs. 

Leading Volunteers Well

If you are leading a team of volunteers as a paid staff member, you have a key responsibility. While it is important to get the job done, it’s more important to take care of your team. That means not putting them in a position where they are serving every weekend. I like a 3 week rotation, personally. I find that means people are serving often enough to get and stay good at their position, but still have plenty of time off. 

Sometimes, we come across those “super-volunteers” who just love to be there every weekend and at every event. I love those people. And I try to love them enough to send them home once in a while. Some people do have the capacity and time to be there a lot. And that’s great. But as I advocated last week, be sure they get at least one weekend off per quarter. Every two months would better still. 

I’ve talked to tech leaders who have had a high-capacity volunteer up and quit one day, seemingly out of the blue. But once we dig into it, it’s easy to see that there were plenty of warning signs that were ignored. Remember, your job as a TD isn’t just mixing. You have to pay attention to your team and make sure they’re healthy. And to do that, you have to get to know them. 

The All-Volunteer Team

If you are a volunteer leader of an all-volunteer team, you are in a doubly hard position. You need to stay healthy yourself, which means taking regular breaks, and you need to help your team. I really encourage pastors to help in this process, whether it’s the lead pastor or worship pastor.

In smaller churches, it’s tempting to think that once you have a tech position covered, you can relax and get back to the important things of ministry. The problem is, by not paying attention to the team, making sure they are healthy and getting the breaks they need, you will likely come in one Sunday and find your super-dedicated volunteer isn’t there. And he’s not coming back. That can be a real problem. 

We have to remember that a volunteer works a full-time job, may have a wife and family, and has friends and hobbies that they enjoy. If we ask them to commit every weekend of the year to serving, they will not last long. Or at least they will not be happy long. 

All this people stuff can be hard for technical leaders, I get that. I’m not the most relational person, and I am more naturally geared to staying in my own little world of mixing and system design. But ministry is about people. So even when it’s hard, we have to push ourselves to make sure our people are healthy. I think it would be great if the Church became known as the best place in the world to work and serve. We’re not there yet, but wouldn’t that be cool?

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Same Gear, Different Results

A few months back, my daughter asked me to mix for her worship leading final. Of course, I said yes immediately. Then I discovered the venue. It was not ideal. That’s being polite. It was a big, hard box with lots of parallel walls, a poorly implemented PA and a mix position outside the coverage are of the speakers. Oh, and FOH was only accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Cool. 

The mixer was a little A&H analog deal, the speakers were forgettable and someone decided to mount the projector in a rack right next to the mixing position so the hot air exhaust blew on the engineer the entire time. I fixed that by flipping the door on the rack around to direct the air away from me. But that’s not the point. 

I ended up mixing not only my daughter’s set, but three others as well. When the class was over, four or five people came up and thanked me for being there and every one of them said they had never heard that room sound so good. 

Now, I say that not to blow my own horn, but to make the point that the gear is not necessarily what makes something sound good or not. I have heard terrible mixes on great PA’s and great mixes on less than ideal ones. 

You Have to Get Better at Mixing

I talk to some guys, especially at small churches with small or no budgets and they continually tell me that they could do a better job if they just had better gear. Now, that may be true to some extent. But the reality is, you can get better at mixing no matter what you have to work on. Every time I mix a gig on some really crappy gear, people come up and tell me how much better it sounded than they expected. Again, not to tell you how great I am, but to say that I have spent the last 20 years learning how to wring the most performance out of whatever gear I’m given. 

Sure, I’d rather mix on an SD5 with an L’Acoustics PA, but if what I have to work with is some old JBL cabs and an MG32, I’m going to do my best to make it amazing. It’s what we do.

Complaining and Blaming Equipment Won’t Get You New Gear

If I were writing a book, this would be a chapter. It’s easy to constantly complain that you don’t have the right mixer, the right mic’s, the right speakers, the right lights, the right whatever. But no one likes a complainer. You know what church leaders do like? Someone who knocks it out of the park every week despite the crappy equipment their given. Learn to do that, and you will eventually get what you want.

New Equipment Won’t Magically Make You Better

You have to get better. I’ve walked into churches with fancy new digital boards and listened the result and cringed. When I look at how they have it set up, it’s often a mess. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of gain structure, EQ and basic mixing, it doesn’t really matter how many on-board compressors you have or how many plugins you can rack up. In fact, those usually do more harm than good in inexperienced hands. Learn to mix on crappy gear, then move up the food chain. 

Remember, these are all just tools. It’s up to us to learn how to use them to their fullest capacity. Learn to do that and it won’t matter what you find yourself mixing on.

Roland

Today’s post is brought to you by Digital Audio Labs, The Livemix monitor system is simple for volunteer performers to use while providing professional tools for great mixes. Featuring outstanding sound quality, color touchscreen with custom naming, 24 channels with effects, remote mixing, intercom, ambient mics, and dedicated ME knob, Livemix provides more and costs much less than competing systems.