Why Church Sound Is So Bad

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Photo courtesy of osseous. I can't say whether this show sounded good or not, however.

Last month, I came across a post on Bobby Owsinksi’s Big Picture Music Production Blog that really resonated with me. It was called Why Do Concerts Sound So Bad?. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and it was good to hear someone else put into words what I’ve thought. I’ve heard some pretty dreadful concerts, not to mention conferences and trade shows. But I also hear some pretty poor sounding church services and I think many of the reasons concerts sound so bad carry over into church. I’m not going to re-hash his post—he did a fine job with it—instead, I’m going to append five reasons why I think church sound can be so bad at times.

No Training

This is certainly one of the biggest reasons church sound is so bad. Sadly, it’s also one of the most easily remedied. I say sadly because it saddens me that more churches don’t bother to do it. I have received email after email from pastors and worship guys lamenting how bad their sound is, but when I suggest bringing a pro out to train them, you’d think I was asking for a gold plated Rolls Royce. 

Most pastors spend a few years in school leaning how to preach and communicate, and then it takes them 10 years of actual practice to really get good. Yet they expect a volunteer who mixes once a month, who has no training (other than figuring out that moving faders up makes it louder) to mix a flawless service. Mixing is hard. It takes time and effort to learn to do it well. And it takes some good instruction. 

Poor PA

Again, this is a common one. Traveling around to see churches all over the country, I’m struck at how many terrible PA’s I find. From line arrays hung up against side walls to the old “flying junkyard” to random collections of speakers hanging everywhere, I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas. Sadly, not all of it is old. I saw a post on social media where someone was excited about their newly hung speakers. Two subs facing each other in the center of the seating area, and full range boxes outside the subs pointing down and across each other. Side note, if that’s not immediately apparent why that’s all a terrible idea, please don’t ever hang speakers in your church.

The common denominator in these situations is the sound is going to be bad. A highly trained professional with a great band and a solid console might be able to make is sound tolerable. But it’s never going to be great. If you want great sound, you need at least a decent PA. And that will require hiring someone who knows how to design and install a decent or better PA. 

Sound Guys Who Have Been Trained Wrong

Bobby O points out that we have a whole generation of mixers who somehow got the idea that the kick and snare is the most important thing in the mix. Now, they are important, but they are not the most important. In live concerts he points out, the vocal is king. I would argue that the same is true in a worship service. Worship leaders are leading the congregation. However, the congregation cannot be led if they can’t hear the vocal. Believe it or not, the kick drum helps very little when it comes to learning a new worship song. Same for the bass and low toms. If I can’t hear the vocal, I can’t follow the melody and I can’t learn the song. It’s really that simple. 

Young guys hate it when the old farts tell them they’re doing it wrong, but guys, I’m telling you, if I show up at your church and all I hear is kick, bass and snare, you’re doing it wrong. 

Too Loud

Again, I’m going to sound like an old guy here; but I’m really not. I like volume and I led the charge at my church for years to get the maximum volume raised up. Under the right circumstances, volume can help create energy and engagement. Those are good things. But like the increasing reliance on the kick and subs, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. I recently received an email from a reader asking for help because their new, young sound guy likes to run rehearsals at 105-115 dBA. 

Precious few PA’s, rooms and bands sound good at that level. I guarantee theirs doesn’t. In addition to the hearing damage the engineer is inflicting on themselves and the rest of the crew, it’s screwing up their perception for mixing the services (look up Temporary Threshold Shift). 

Volume is relative. Larger rooms with better PA’s can stand more volume than small ones. But not all songs or worship sets require maximum volume. And if you crank it up, you better know what you’re doing to keep it from becoming so harsh it hurts. Or better yet, back it down a few dB. Chances are, everyone will thank you. 

The Band is No Good

So far, we’ve talked about technical systems and technique. But there is one other element that leads to bad sound in churches—bad bands. I’ve heard my share of them, too. I recall being at one church helping train their team, and I played back some tracks from my band at Coast Hills. It didn’t take much to get it sounding great, even on their mediocre PA. Then their band took the stage. The first question I got was, “What did you do to the bass? It sounds nothing like it did a minute ago.” I replied, “That's not my bass player Norm up there on stage...”

In fact, this bass player was terrible and yet had a pedal board bigger than some electric players I’ve seen. I changed nothing on the channel strip and the bass went from very solid (even on their less-than-stellar PA) to pretty much mush. The lesson is simple; sometimes there’s not much you can do. I worked at that bass for a while, and it never got better not good. It all starts at the source.

There you go. This is not an exhaustive list; I’m sure we could come up with some more reasons church sound—or concert sound— is bad. But this is what came to my mind. What else have you seen, and how can we fix it?

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Planning for Easter

Easter—along with Christmas—is one of the most highly attended weekends of the year at most churches. As a result, we typically pull out all the stops to make those services (or a special service) great. From a production point of view, Easter can take us way outside of where we normally live. This can be exciting as we get to do new things we don’t do every week. On the other hand, it’s fraught with peril if we don’t plan well.

As with most high production events, making Easter/Good Friday successful starts with planning. The best time to start planning for Easter is January. Yes, I know you’re still recovering from Christmas, but the earlier we get a handle on what we’re doing, the better we will be prepared to execute with excellence. 

Cover the Big Bases First

Start off getting a general scope of what the service entails. Once that is worked out, you need to get specific pretty quickly. I like to ask a lot of questions: What is the band configuration? How many vocalists? Do we have an orchestra, and what does that look like? If doing a drama, how many wireless mic’s will we need? How many pastors will be speaking? What other special sound effects might we have to do? Will we need tracks with a click fed back to the band? Do we need additional monitor mixes in unusual locations? Will the set pose any acoustical or set up challenges? Is there anything else we haven’t discussed?

In 2016, Easter is the fourth Sunday in March. That means you should have the answers to all or most of those questions by mid February. Once you know what you’re doing, you can start planning your technical and staffing needs. 

Book Rentals Early

For audio, start with an input list. That will quickly highlight any issues you have with mic inventory, input or mix count, and monitors. If you don’t have enough equipment, your choices are to borrow, rent or do without. When budgets are tight, sometimes you have to get creative. If you have the money to rent, remember to book your equipment early; Easter is a busy time for rental companies. 

If you are doing a dramatic production that will have different lighting requirements from a normal service, consider working up a lighting plot. A lighting plot is a drawing of your stage area along with each light and its location. Depending on the production, you may need to rent additional dimmers, fixtures or moving lights. To light multiple locations at different times, it may be more cost-effective to rent a few moving lights, as they are easily re-focusable. This is especially true if you are short on dimmers and power. As with audio, the same early booking policy applies.

Don’t Forget The Staff

Most Good Friday/Easter productions also require additional technical staff, and it’s a good idea to work out rehearsal and production schedules early and get those dates on your teams’ calendars. Palm Sunday is a bad time to discover that most of your team is planning on being out of town for Easter.

You may also find you need additional positions that don’t normally exist. For example, whenever I do a large dramatic production with many channels of wireless (especially when packs are shared among actors), I assign a wireless mic wrangler. That person’s sole job is to make sure the right person has the right mic—switched on—at the right time. You may need stage hands to help move set or prop pieces, or additional team members to run environmental projection computers, extra lighting boards or whatever. Lining those people up earlier is better than later.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As you can probably guess, the key to all of this is communication. It is imperative that you have many detailed conversations with your worship leader, pastor, creative director (or all of the above) to work out the specifics. Most of the time, those individuals will not be fully aware of the technical complexities created by their great and creative ideas. It is up to us as technical experts to figure out how to make things happen, and present realistic budgets. 

We have to be the ones asking the questions and making sure we get the information we need; don’t count on others to think about the technical requirements. Keep in mind your leaders are not ignoring you; they just don’t think about production like we do. That’s why we’re here.

Finally, when putting new equipment in your room, make sure to allow adequate time for set up, familiarization and testing. If you are renting gear, bring it in several days in advance of the service to be sure it works the way you expect. 

With a little (OK, a lot!) of planning, it is possible to create amazing and powerful Good Friday and Easter services that will have a tremendous impact for eternity and keep you and your team sane, energized and ready for the next big event.

This post is brought to you by Nemosyn. The guitar player practices, the keyboard player practices, the vocalists practice, how does a sound guy practice? Nemosyn record. Practice. Perfect your mix. Visit their website at Nemosyn.com.

A Healthy Christmas

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

It’s Wednesday, December 30. Christmas Eve was just a few days ago—which means one of two things for the average church technical artist. Either you’re feeling rested, refreshed and ready to take on the new year, or you’re still sitting on the couch in your pajamas eating peppermint bark and watching The View. The Christmas season can take its toll on the church tech if we’re not careful. My last Christmas as a full time TD ended in a vastly better place than the year prior, and there are reasons for that. Hopefully some of this will be helpful if you’re still crashed on the couch. 

Christmas Gone Wrong

One Christmas in particular was tough for me; my ATD had left for a better gig and I wasn’t able to bring a new one in. All my contractors had also left town, and my volunteers weren’t ready to make a huge contribution to audio yet. We launched into a whole new Christmas Eve service that was supposed to be simple, but was anything but. I had also hurt my back at the beginning of December, which slowed me down a lot. By New Years Eve, I was still lying on the couch, only I had finished all the peppermint bark and had moved on to the wretched Russel Stover variety pack. It was a dark time.

It required the better part of 10 months to figure it out, but I think I finally came up with a plan to help avoid that post-Christmas malaise. And believe it or not, it’s not too early to start planning.

Remember How You Feel Right Now

Humans have short memories for pain. Normally this is a good thing (think childbirth). But when it comes to unhealthy behavior, it’s easy to forget how bad we end up feeling when we fail to prepare properly. One of the key things I did that year was to write an e-mail to myself using FutureMe.org. I considered posting that e-mail here, but then I re-read it and remembered this is a family-friendly blog. I had that e-mail delivered a week before Thanksgiving, enough time to course-correct. It was a vivid reminder of what happens when I overcommit, fail to plan and take on too much. If you did any of those things this year, document it, and have it delivered to your inbox in November. You’ll thank me later.

Now is also the time to come up with a plan to do next year better. Chances are, while it’s still fresh in your mind, you can think of things that you should have done to make life easier. Write that down. And don’t forget to look at it in October. Yes, start working on Christmas in October and your December will be much more pleasant.

Plan to be Better

Here are a few things that I did better this year that has left me in a much better place. I don’t want this to sound like I’m bragging, or have this all figured out; instead I hope this list can serve to spark some ideas on what might help you next year. 

Start Earlier: Thankfully, Christmas Eve service changed little between years, so I knew what we were getting into. By Thanksgiving, our input list was mostly done, my starting show file was complete (including starting snapshots for all music), the set was designed, and the schedule for December was in order. All the rental equipment had been lined up and new equipment purchased. 

Three weeks before Christmas, we built the set. Two weeks out, we hung the cords for the lights and set up the Christmas tree. By Christmas week, all we had to do was put bulbs in the cords, hang the walls and set the stage for audio. It made for a good week. We even took Thursday morning off, and when my ATD got sick and had to go home for a day and a half, it didn’t kill us. I didn’t get my Friday off (like I hoped), but it wasn’t a crazy long day, either.

Enlist More Help: The previous year, we were severely limited in people to help. I resolved to delegate more, and not take on too much. I intentionally let a few things go that I normally would have put a lot of time and energy into (though they are not really my job), and I backed off on how much we tried to accomplish. I also had an ATD around, who could tackle a myriad of tasks while I was working on other things. Of course, my LD was there a lot to help as well, and we had a great presentation and video team that committed many hours to making the service great. 

Let it Go: Like I alluded to, I let a lot go that year. Mostly, it was stuff that either wasn’t my job anyway, or high-investment details that no one would notice. At times, we TDs tend to obsess over details that only we notice. Sometimes that is admirable, sometimes it kills us. Learning to discern the difference is an important lesson. I could have spent twice as much time refining my mixes as I did, but given our poor PA and acoustics, I would have been the only person that noticed. That may have made me feel good in the moment, but it was time I didn’t have, and being worn out on Christmas Eve would have left me more grouchy and less in the spirit. How much is that worth?

I decided to simply relax and try to enjoy the season more. I found that by lowering my own crazy-high standards to a level that still surpassed everyone around me, I was able to rest more, spend more time at home, spend more time talking with my volunteers and the band, and feel a whole lot better about the long day when it was done. 

I didn’t resent Christmas, which is a big deal for me. I still have a way to go when it comes to keeping a proper perspective, but these are a few ways in which I improved. Hopefully, this will be a catalyst for you if you find yourself in a bad place in the post-Christmas recovery. If you do, get some rest, spend some time in prayer and reflection and come up with a plan to not repeat those mistakes again next year. You’ll be glad you did! And don’t forget, Easter is early this year...


The End of the Moving Sidewalk

Photo courtesy of Nick Fisher

Photo courtesy of Nick Fisher

I love moving sidewalks. Whenever I’m trucking through an airport trying to get from A13 to B47 as quickly as possible, I always take the moving sidewalk when available. I love the feel of the wind at my face and that sense of superior speed and time management I feel when I blow past others walking on the non-moving walkway. I walk quickly normally, and I always walk on the moving sidewalk (stand right when I’m coming, OK?), so I can really make some tracks. 

But like all good things, the moving sidewalk eventually ends. Dismounting the moving sidewalk requires skill and balance, lest you face plant into the now stationary terra firma. Christmas week (or the few weeks leading up to Christmas, depending on your church) is a lot like walking quickly on a moving sidewalk; especially for church techs. We move pretty quickly all the time, but come Christmastime (and Easter, for that matter), we really get up a head of steam.

Then, just like the end of the moving sidewalk, it all comes to a halt. Today is the Monday after Christmas, and I suspect most of you feel a bit like I did—face planted into the no-longer-moving ground. As an experienced church tech, I’ve lived through this before; and I’d like to share some survival tips for you. 

First, however, I want to give you permission to feel tired, used up and generally spent. I also want you to feel free to not do anything productive for a few days. I know that goes against your very nature; you’ve been running so hard over the last few weeks that doing nothing—yes nothing—feels entirely wrong today. It’s OK. Sit down, relax, and don’t try to do anything. It’s harder than it sounds, but completely necessary.

To help with this, I want to give you a list of things I enjoy doing—or not doing—the week after a big push at church. You don’t have to do (or not do) all of these things, but consider this a starter list to give you some ideas. Here goes: 

The Top Ten Things To Do (or Not Do) During Christmas Break

Sit on the couch and watch TV.

This is one of my favorites. I love to binge-watch an entire season or seasons of a show on Netflix.

Lounge around and listen to music.

Cue up some of your favorite tracks, sit back, relax and take it all in. So peaceful.

Take a nap.

Sure, it’s only 9:30. AM. But take a nap anyway.

Go see a movie.

We always get movie tickets for Christmas. It’s nice to go every once in a while.

Take your wife out to dinner.

You don’t want to cook, and she could use the break. And you probably haven’t seen each other in two weeks anyway. It doesn’t have to be fancy…

Go to the beach.

OK, if you’re in the midwest, this can be tough. But there’s something about the action of the waves that’s very calming.

Take a nap.

It doesn’t matter that you just woke up from your 9:30 nap. Take another.

Have lunch with friends.

There is something restorative about sharing a meal with friends. 

Go shooting.

Almost every year between Christmas and New Year’s I head to the range with the pistols. It’s both exhilarating and relaxing. 

Take a nap.

Hey, we’re tired. Get some rest.

Consider this post official permission to not do much of anything productive this week. Rest up, get recharged and you’ll be in better shape to thrive in the New Year. 

What do you do to relax this week?

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