Lousy Church Sound--Another Perspective, Pt. 2

This week we’re talking about lousy church sound. I’ve sure heard my share of bad church sound, as I’m sure many of you have. The impetus of this series is an article that originally appeared on Worship Ideas. Last time, we talked about the premise that pro-level sound requires professional operators—something I generally agree with. 

However, the author’s next premise is that volunteers will never be able to run a modern sound console. To wit: 

Churches are discovering the complexities of modern worship. In other words, you can’t have a new mixing console that resembles the cockpit of the space shuttle and expect a volunteer to (ever) be able to get it to work right.

I think there are two problems with this statement. First, the only console I can think of that resembles the cockpit of the Space Shuttle is the Midas XL8. And the few churches that have installed those have professional operators on staff because the consoles themselves cost more than a quarter million dollars. Second, lumping all digital consoles in with the complexity of an XL8 or perhaps a Studer X, is really unfair. 

Volunteers Actually Can Mix on Digital Consoles

I know this firsthand as I’ve trained people to do it. Because I know so many TDs in churches all over the country, I know they also have teams of volunteers who do a great job mixing every weekend. I know of volunteers who mix on various Yamaha desks, Digico SD-series, Allen & Heath iLive’s, Avid’s, and even Midas Pro-series consoles. 

The one thing that almost all those churches have in common is that they have a professional technical director on staff who maintains the console and trains the volunteers. As technical production systems become more complex, this is almost mandatory if great results are expected. 

When I was TD of Coast Hills, I had a volunteer who got good enough mixing on the Digico SD8 that most people in the congregation couldn’t tell if it was me or him behind the console. Of course, I did a lot of the setup work that helped him be successful, but from an operating/mixing standpoint he could do a great job. 

Great Volunteer Teams Have a Great Leader

I have come across a few churches that have a great all-volunteer tech team, but those seem to be the exception, especially once the church reaches about 1,500 in average weekly attendance. By that time, the building is big enough to have pretty complicated production gear, and most volunteers simply don’t have the time to dedicate to learning every the intricacies of the system. 

The teams that do really outstanding work almost always have a staff TD leading them. The TD can take the time to learn all the ins and outs, develop processes and systems and train the team to be successful. So while I support the idea that it takes a pro to maintain pro-level gear, I reject the notion that it’s impossible for volunteers to ever get it right. They just need the proper support and training. 

It’s All Professional Grade

It’s also important to remember that really, all the equipment we use for production in modern churches is pro-level gear. To look at it differently, my friend Norm Stockton is an accomplished, professional bass player. He plays MTD basses for a living and has played in many churches. I’ve had the pleasure of mixing when he’s been playing many times. But just because he as a pro uses MTD basses doesn’t preclude say a math teacher from putting in the time to become proficient enough to play well enough for a church service. Likewise, just because the Digico SD8 is out on tour with more than a few bands, doesn’t mean it’s too complex for a high school student to learn to mix on. 

Like anything, it comes down to time, dedication, natural aptitude and proper training. In both cases, having a pro doing the training will make it all go a lot better. 

Well, it’s the second in the series, and I have now said it does and doesn’t take professionals to get professional results. Where do we go from here? Let’s talk money. Next time…

Roland

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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 attack 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. 

In fact, 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 reasonable 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.

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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

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

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