Ill Gotten Gain Part Deux

If you read my previous post, Ill Gotten Gain, the concepts here should be familiar. If not, scroll down and buzz through it real quick. It’s ok, we’ll wait. All set? Here we go. So, last time we dealt with setting up the gain for your sound console. This weekend I was reminded of another gain setting that is just about equally important (perhaps even more so), and that would the gain on the wireless mic the pastor is using. Here’s what happened.

I have been in the process of revamping our entire wireless mic family over last few months. The new mics (Shure ULXP’s, look for a review in the coming weeks…) have been really great. I’ve also been making the switch to new mics for said wireless systems (see below). The challenge is that we have some speakers who like the new mics, and one (turns out he’s the new Sr. Pastor) who doesn’t so much. Since he’s new, I’m cutting him some slack and letting him use a lav (for now…). And that’s the rub. We have one body pack that is “assigned” to the speaker for the weekend. Sometimes we’ll plug in a lav, other times an 892, and each mic has a different sensitivity rating; some speakers are loud, others are quiet. If you read Part 1, you know where this is going.

Just like the input gain on your console, the bodypack also has an input gain setting (at least it should – if it doesn’t go order a new one that does). Sometimes it’s a rather coarse “0”, “-10” switch; other times it’s a little control in the battery compartment that needs a tweaker; sometimes, it’s a handy thumbwheel on the side of the transmitter (like the ULXP’s – I like that!). The problem is, too often we sound engineers get so busy, we jack in a mic, drop in a battery and hand it to the speaker who is already running to the stage for a sound check. We crank up the gain on the board as he says, “Check one, two…are we done?” and hope for the best. It’s not until he’s up on stage at the beginning of the message that you hear the familiar crackle of some sound gremlins having a bad day. You check your console gain, everything is fine; you may even check the compressor, the EQ and everything else. Check the wireless receiver. If it’s a good one, it will have an audio level meter. A less good one will have a clip light. If you see clipping, or the meter is maxed out, you’re in a world of hurt. You’ve gone and done it – you’ve used up all the headroom in that little bodypack. And it’s not like you can run up on stage during the message, reach into the pastor’s back pocked, grab the mic and tweak the little dial down a bit. Oh no, you’re hosed.

Something I’m trying to get my engineers to be more cognizant of is the wireless mic gain. We used to put the mics in a tray and put them in the green room for the “on stage” folks to just pick up. Now, we're keeping them at the FOH console. That way, we can help them get the mic fitted properly, show them how to use it if it’s new to them and most importantly, adjust the gain on the pack before they’re 100 feet away on the stage (and while we can lay eyes on the receiver so we know what we’re doing!).

So here’s my procedure (which will soon become the law of the land at Crosswinds). Speakers and actors must pick up the mic at the sound board. Before they will strap on said mic while standing there and give us a realistic level while we adjust the gain on the pack. They will then proceed to the stage at the appointed time for sound check and we’ll do the gain trimming and level adjusting for the house (and monitors if necessary). At the end of the service, the mics will be delivered back to the sound board so that batteries can be recharged and so we don’t have to chase people all over the church looking for them.

Yep, that input gain control is the most important setting, whether it’s on the bodypack or the console. Getting this right just makes your day go so much easier. Get it wrong and you’ll hear, “Why was Jack all crackly and distorted for the whole message – it was really distracting!” And that, my friends, is not good sound (apologies to Alton Brown).