Training Audio Volunteers, Pt. 2

image courtesy of sergio_leenen

image courtesy of sergio_leenen

Last time, we started talking about how to train audio volunteers. We start with the system—getting them comfortable with how things are wired and connected. Then we move on with the basics of console operation; gain structure, faders and VCAs. Today, we start to get into the fun stuff. 

Ear Training—Listening, Deconstructing and Reconstructing

After set up and before the band arrives, we’ll pull up recordings for each of the songs we’ll be doing that weekend. By listening to the songs, we can discuss the leading instruments, the placement of the vocals, effects styles and the overall feel of the song. Then we talk about how we are going to recreate that with our band that week. By having the example recording fresh in their minds, it’s easier to build a good representation of it.

Again, virtual soundcheck is a great tool to use at this stage of training. On our training nights, we’ll do the same thing; playing back the original then recreating it with the tracks. I will start them off using my snapshots as a starting point, then as they get comfortable, change the playback levels of various tracks to help them learn to adapt to players playing louder and softer. Once they have a handle on building a basic mix, we move onto the next phase.

Advanced Skills—EQ, Dynamics, Effects, Plug-Ins

With more and more churches are going digital with their mixing consoles, it may be tempting to start off teaching new engineers all about EQ, dynamics and effects. I’ve found this to be problematic. Learning to mix is a bit like drinking from a fire hose, so I’ve tried to throttle it back a little bit and help them learn techniques in smaller, more manageable pieces. Only after they have a handle on building a mix do we start talking about the advanced stuff. Most of our starting EQ points are saved in our show file, so when starting off, the new engineers don’t have to do much anyway. 

As they gain proficiency, we start talking about EQ and how that relates to the mix. Again, virtual soundcheck allows us plenty of time to play with various settings using actual sounds without worrying about the effect on a service. If you have access to an RTA (Real-Time Analyzer), explaining the concepts of frequency distribution can be illustrated very visually. Dynamics controls and effects are taught the same way; lots of time on the console with tracks. 

While it is possible to train without virtual soundcheck, it is much more difficult. However, if you have a mid-week rehearsal, you can experiment quite a lot without affecting the monitor mixes. If you can do it, even recording one or two channels at at time will prove valuable as you teach how fast or slow compression attack times affect various instruments. 

Don’t Forget Relationships

Woven throughout the training process is an emphasis on getting to know the band. I tell my A2s, “Never pass up an opportunity to go talk with the band.” Some of the most successful engineers are not necessarily the best technically, but they have excellent people skills. By helping our trainees learn to relate to and communicate with the band, we do ourselves, the engineer and the entire church a huge favor. 

It’s a Process

I tell new recruits that it may take 3-6 months before they get much hands-on time with the console. After that it might be another 3-6 months before they’re mixing a service. Training an audio engineer is not like training an usher; it’s a big task, but one that comes with big rewards. Both the trainer and trainee have to be committed to the process and willing to spend the time it takes to make everyone comfortable. In smaller churches, this process can go much faster; larger churches may require more time. The important thing is to develop a process, then work the process. When done well, everyone wins.

DPA Microphones

Training Audio Volunteers, Pt. 1

Image courtesy of Nacho Torres

Image courtesy of Nacho Torres

Training new audio engineers is possibly one of the most difficult tasks the church tech faces. Mixing audio is half art, half science and half politics. Even in a mid-sized church, the audio systems can be quite complicated with plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. Having trained dozens of audio engineers over the years, my training process has evolved steadily into a fairly structured process that starts with learning the system, progresses to basic equipment operation, mixing and learning how to interact with the band. 

Start With The System

While I used to start people off right at the board, I’ve found a better long-term strategy is to first teach aspiring engineers how the system gets put together each week. In my program, new audio team members start off as A2s and learn how to set the stage each week. By getting the mic’s, DI’s, monitors and other equipment out of the audio locker and onto the stage, they are in a much better position to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because they are the ones actually plugging the mic lines into the snakes, making sure powered DI’s have power and putting batteries in the wireless mic’s, if something amiss is discovered during line check, they know how to fix it.

Here is a perfect example of this: The click track from our tracks computer was delivering a very low and distorted level, something we discovered during soundcheck. As we began troubleshooting, my A2—a high school student who had been on the team for about 8 months—suggested that perhaps the 1/4” wasn’t plugged in all the way into the audio interface. Sure enough, that was it. By actually doing the hard work of learning how the system is wired together, troubleshooting becomes second nature. As part of the training process, I would also set the stage up with a few things wrong and have the team troubleshoot and figure out what the issues are. We purposely build time into our weekend set up schedule to practice things like that. Once the A2 has demonstrated proficiency with the system set up process, we move them onto the next phase.

Learning Basic Mixing Controls

Let’s face it, once a mixing console gets beyond about 32 channels, they can be pretty daunting. For a new person, stepping up to a modern, digital mixer can feel a little like walking into mission control. So rather than try to explain every single function on the board at this stage, I work on a few basic functions—those functions will form the basis of a solid mix regardless of what console they would ever find themselves on. 

In the early stages of mixing training, we focus primarily on input gain, digital trim (if we have it available), faders and groups/VCA’s/DCA’s (varies by mixer). Getting the gain structure of the console right is the foundation for a good mix; and if the band is good and the system tuned well, everything else is decoration. 

We spend a lot of time getting gain structure correct. Following the time tested model, I’ll have them observe me run a sound check, then talk them through doing it themselves, and finally turn them loose on their own. Virtual soundcheck can be an invaluable tool here. By playing back tracks into the system, we can spend a lot of time with the A2s as they get comfortable with how loud things should sound (and where each input should end up on the meters). 

Building a basic mix is the next step, and for that we move on to the next phase; ear training. And for that, we’ll be back next time. Stay tuned…

Elite Core

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...

Roland