3 Keys To Success as a Technical Artist

Image courtesy of Virtue Arts. Yes, I know there are more than three keys there. Do you know how hard it is to find a picture of three keys on Flickr that is useable for commercial purposes? Just roll with me, OK?

Image courtesy of Virtue Arts. Yes, I know there are more than three keys there. Do you know how hard it is to find a picture of three keys on Flickr that is useable for commercial purposes? Just roll with me, OK?

I keep a running log of ideas for blog posts. At any given time there are probably 75 or so ideas there, some of which are terrible. Today’s post has been staring at me for a long time. It’s been there so long that I don’t know where it even came from. But every week when I sit down to write, I see the prompt. For that reason, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. At long last, it’s turned into a post.

I generally hate doing numbered list posts, I really do. Maybe because the internet has become full of six keys to this and five principle for that. Ten things you can do to be better at this and seven things your spouse doesn’t know you need. Blah, blah, blah. But in this case, these three words keep coming back to me. So for better or worse, here are three things I believe you need to be a better technical artist. 

Desire

Working in the technical arts of any discipline is tough work. The hours are often long, we tend to be unappreciated and the pay is not great. Thus, you really have to want to do this. To be sure, it can be incredibly rewarding. Putting up a great mix that empowers a congregation to worship their creator is an amazing experience; one I never tire of. 

Because getting really good at this gig takes so long, you really have to want to put the time in. To be really great as a technical artist is no casual endeavor. If you want to show up on Sunday, push the faders up and stick your hands in your pockets, that’s OK, but you’ll never be a great engineer. I love hearing from younger guys who discovered ChurchTechWeekly and went back and listened to every episode. That is literally hundreds of hours of time invested in furthering one’s skill set. That’s desire. Or someone who is a glutton for punishment…

Work

You’re never going to get far in this business without hard work. The guys I know who are killing it put in some long hours at times. This is not a sit around and wait for things to happen career. Of course there has to be balance, and we need to take time off to stay healthy. But when we work, we work hard. 

When I work with people who are half my age and who start complaining about it being a long day once we hit 10 hours during Christmas prep week, I am pretty sure they are not cut out for this. In contrast, the ones who are there before I get there and stay after I leave are the ones who I am quite sure are doing great things. 

Skill

This one is a bit tricky. You don’t start off with skill as a technical artist. You develop skill as you put in hours. At least that’s what is supposed to happen. I occasionally meet guys who have standing behind the soundboard for 20 years and are just as clueless as the day they started. They never bothered to learn—really learn—what they were doing. Sure, they could push faders up at roughly the right time, but that was about it. Doing the same thing over and over for 20 years doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve developed skill. 

Skill is a weird mix of experience plus knowledge. Both take time and energy to develop. For some of us, the technical arts come pretty naturally and we pick it up quickly. But it still takes plenty of time to really get good at what we do. It’s that whole 10,000 hours thing. 

Skill doesn’t just happen, though. It’s intentionally acquired. You learn from other people. You experiment. You read. You listen. 

Now, I’m not going to suggest these are the only attributes of a successful technical artist. However, they are traits that all the successful ones I know possess. Something to think about as you ponder your calling…

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Listen to the Music

Image courtesy of Gary Denham

Image courtesy of Gary Denham

About 1-2 times per month, someone emails me and asks how they can get better at mixing. I ponder this on a regular basis. To be sure, it can be a challenge to figure out how to improve on something when you only get to do it once or twice a week. If you were a guitar player, you could practice shredding at home during the week. If you were a singer, you could sing often and work on technique. But mixing is tricky. Not many of us have a mixing console at home, and for those in smaller churches, it can be hard to get access to the equipment, especially if you’re a volunteer. What’s an aspiring FOH guy or gal to do? This won’t be the only thing to do, but one thing I strongly recommend is to listen to music. A lot. 

The Beat Goes On

I still remember when I really discovered music. I was 10 years old. We had just moved into my grandfather’s house and my dad set up his Realistic Hi-Fi. I found his record collection and began listening. That summer, I mowed yards, raked leaves and did other odd jobs to save up money for a set of Koss headphones. I sat in our rocker/recliner for hours at a time devouring music. As I got older, my musical tastes expanded and I kept listening. Of course, I saved up for better equipment and by high school had already spent thousands of dollars on my set up. 

I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent listening to music, both critically and as background. I am sure one of the reasons mixing comes so naturally is that I know what music is supposed to sound like. 

Someone once relayed a quote from a sculptor—I believe it was Michelangelo. Someone had asked him as they admired one of his sculptures, “How do you know how to create that?” He is said to have answered, “I start with the big rock and chip away everything that doesn’t look like the result I have in mind.” 

Now, I probably butchered that quote, and it may not even be true, but I love the concept. He knew the result he had in mind; it was so clearly formed that it was a simple matter for him to remove what wasn’t supposed to be there. Mixing is very similar. If you know what it’s supposed to sound like, it’s a simple matter of using the tools at your disposal to make it sound like what it sounds like in your mind.

It May Not Be That Easy

To be sure, it’s not always that easy. One of the big handicaps church FOH guys face is the quality of the band is often not up to what you’d hear on a record. Having good source material goes a long way to making a great mix. Some Sundays you will be fighting to simply keep things under control—forget making it sound good. 

But if your band has even a modicum of talent, then you can pull together a good mix—if you know what it’s supposed to sound like. Just chip away the stuff that doesn’t belong there. 

Find The Time

Again, I know this is not the only step. You still need to figure out what EQ does, how compressors work and how to properly set up effects. You probably won’t get that from listening to music. But you will have a better frame of reference. And today, there is simply no excuse for not listening to lots of music. It’s everywhere. I recommend stuff made in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a great place to start, sometime before the loudness wars really started cranking up and limiting started squashing it all. But find stuff you enjoy and start listening. 

Listen critically, on decent equipment. Apple headphones don’t qualify. Spend $100 and get a set of Heil ProSet 3 headphones or spend a bit more and get some decent 3 or 4 driver in-ears. Or get some good speakers and break out the CDs. Start to pay attention to where sounds are placed in the audio spectrum. What is the relationship between the kick and bass. Where do the vocals fit? How do the keys and guitar stay out of each other’s way? Listen to how the mix is crafted. You’ll have a much better idea of what to do when you’re behind the console. Plus, it’s fun. And far more productive than watching another sitcom.

Roland

Be Prepared

Image courtesy of Orange County Archives

Image courtesy of Orange County Archives

One of my favorite activities is getting to meet with younger TDs from time to time. When someone asks me if I would be willing to have lunch or coffee with them, I always try to say yes—though it may take a few weeks to get it scheduled. Sometimes during those meetings, I will get asked, “What things should I be doing to be a better TD?” 

I think there are a lot of things we can do to be better, but one of the biggest is very simple: Be prepared. 

Remember the Boy Scouts

I never made it to Scouts, but I was a Cub Scout and a Weebelo (which is a really terrible name for a group of boys if you ask me). But I did go on more than one campout and earned quite a few merit badges. The phrase we heard over and over again was, “Be Prepared.” It’s good advice, especially for technical artists. 

Prepared for What?

The next obvious question is what should we be prepared for? Here’s a short list. The stage should be completely set and line-checked before the band arrives. If your band or worship leader is known for throwing extra inputs at you at the last minute, you should have some extra lines out ready to rock before the band arrives. It means having the wireless mic’s and IEM packs ready with batteries in place, checked and working, before the band arrives. The console should be set up and patched with all your routing set and ready before the band arrives. See a pattern here?

You should know what songs you’re doing this weekend, and the lyric files should be built and ready in ProPresenter (or whatever you’re using). Sermon notes should be ready before the service starts. The pastor’s wireless pack or mic should be tested and ready to go before he gets there and straps it on. 

You should have extra batteries ready to go, close to the stage in case one goes down. A spare mic is never a bad idea, either. It should be powered up, patched, checked and ready to go before service starts. Any videos that will be played should be played all the way through before the service starts. All the cameras should be powered up, running and working properly before the service starts. Same with the lights. If you program your lighting in cue lists, run through the entire cue list prior to doors to make sure you don’t have any weird cues or transitions. 

Basically, you should be as ready as humanly possible before everyone gets there. And that means one thing:

First In, Last Out

As part of the tech team, you are most likely to be the first one there. I usually arrive a solid 1-2 hours before the band shows up every weekend. We could do it in an hour, but I like the extra time to double-check things, fix any problems and just hang with the team. It also allows troubleshooting time in case something doesn't work as expected. Having that extra time saved us more than once; and the best part was no one else ever knew there was even a problem. 

Finally, I think it behooves us as technical artists to know the songs every bit as well as the band. So much of what we do is tied to the music, and we have to know lyric cues, instrument solos, overall feel and vibe and how to mix it. It bugged me to no end when my engineers showed up clearly not having listened to the music. That didn’t happen more than once or twice. 

So there you go. A quick way to get better. Be prepared. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll look to your team and to your boss.

Roland

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