What Makes A Great Church Sound Tech?

Pulling off great sound during a church service is no easy feat. It's not like a concert, where you can focus all your energies on getting a rock solid music mix. In the church setting, there are a ton of extra elements plus the added bonus of last minute changes. Getting it right takes a lot of work, and significant attention to detail. The rewards however, are significant. Below I present to you what I consider to be the 5 key factors in mixing a great church service. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but if you pay attention to these, other details will fall into place.

Pay Attention

Seems obvious, right? Except, how often do you see sound guys talking on the phone, texting, working on a laptop, talking to someone else, reading a book? Too often, I'd say. A typical church service is made up of many elements, and you're typically working with non-professional talent. This means you need to keep an eye out on what is going on. There are often last minute changes to the service; someone comes up to pray when they were not scheduled, a song is inserted into the close, the song order changes, whatever.

The point is, you need to watch what's going on and be ready to react to it. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in tweaking EQ or trying to find the perfect mix we forget to lift our heads up and notice that person stepping out on to stage to pray. Or we may get so focused on one element of the mix that we fail to appreciate how the people in the room are responding to the service. Being a great church sound tech takes concentration—the service is not the time to get caught up on relationships.

Plan for Contingencies

As the saying goes, "Stuff Happens" (I think it's more graphic than that, but this is a family friendly blog...). Things will go wrong during the service. Songs will get sung out of order, batteries will die, mics will suddenly stop working, monitors will get unplugged. Whether or not the problem becomes a distraction depends on how you handle it, and how you handle it depends on how you prepare. Having a spare mic on stage is cheap insurance in case the worship leader's mic suddenly goes out. Making sure they know it's there and what to do is also helpful.

What do you do if the pastor's mic suddenly stops working during the message? Again, having another one ready to go, near where he or she is standing is a super idea (and one I need to implement, come to think of it…). I know of some churches that double wire the speaker, just in case one mic fails. Not a bad idea. Take a look through your typical weekend and think about all the things that could go wrong. Then come up with a plan to deal with each one in such a way to minimize disruption. Someone running down the aisle, jumping up on the stage and changing a battery during a song set is not minimal disruption.

Watch the Big Picture

There was a great article in Live Sound a few months ago entitled Nice Third Rack Tom. It talked about a sound engineer who spend the entire sound check trying to get the tom sounding perfect, but ran out of time to put the rest of the band in the mains. The first time the audience heard the lead guitar was the first time he heard it too. You can guess how well that worked out.

Likewise, in a service made up of many elements, there is a tendency to focus on our favorite—getting the bass sounding sweet, tightening up the snare, dialing in a smooth vocal effect—and missing out on the big picture. You could have the most perfect sounding rack toms ever, but if the actors mic feeds back during the drama because you didn't get it dialed in, you missed the point. I like to work in layers, making sure each element is good before I make anything great.

I developed this technique while editing video under tight deadlines. First I cut the video together. Then I'll make a quick pass at adding needed graphics. Then a pass at sweetening the sound. Next I'll color grade. Then if there's time, I'll go back and tweak the edit, upgrade the graphics, make the sound better, really dial in the color. The end result is, if something takes longer than I thought, I still have a video. It may not be sweetened, or color graded, and the graphics may be simple, but there's an image on the screen.

We can do the same with sound. First get your gain set right. Then rough in a monitor mix. Next, rough in a house mix (you can actually do these steps at the same time). Then tweak monitors. Make sure you check speaking mics. After you have everything good, work on making it great. You may not always have time for greatness, but the truth is, most people won't notice if the kick is a little muddy. They will notice if speaker feeds back because you didn't get that mic rung out.

Think Ahead

This is similar to paying attention, but it goes one step further. You're in the last chorus of the last song of the song set—what's next? Does someone come up to pray, is there a video? What do you need to do to get ready for it? You shouldn't be surprised at what comes next. If your church doesn't do order of service documents, maybe it's time to start (check out the downloads section for what we use).

Today at Crosswinds was a great example. We went from a video countdown, to a live intro with the worship team to three people (including me) doing announcements from the tech and sound booths. To be ready to do the announcements, I had to make sure my mic was turned on, my script was on my computer screen and be sure the other two wireless mics were on. In the last measure of sustain of the song I had to mute the worship team (2 mute groups, vocals first, then band after the sustain), unmute the announcement wireless (but make sure only one fader was up), boost the level of the matrix mix to the TVs and Lobby, and get ready for the video that followed. And I had to be ready to deliver my announcement.

It was a tense few minutes. Last night, I forgot to turn my wireless pack on. I wasn't thinking far enough ahead. Today, I automated as much as possible and began preparing during the second chorus. I may have missed a few minor opportunities to "perfect" the mix on the song, but the service flowed smoothly. To make it work, I though through the sequence of events much the way a downhill skier visualizes his run from the top of the mountain. During pre-service I put my hands on the knobs and buttons to make sure it would work.

I'll admit to not thinking things through more often than I should, but getting this right is what separates the men from the boys.

Smile

I've met some pretty cranky sound techs, even in the church. At Crosswinds, we have a great group of guys who do a great job every week, with a smile. I often say, "We're worshiping God, it's supposed to be fun." A contemporary service can get really tense with all we have going on. But that's no reason to not enjoy it. That's why I'm so big on planning. Plan for everything that can be known ahead of time, and you'll have the bandwidth to deal with the unexpected with a smile. Not only that, how do you expect to recruit more volunteers if it doesn't look like you enjoy what you do?

So I propose that the best church sound techs are not neccesarily the ones who can mix the best. They are the ones who deliver a smooth and distraction-free service week in and week out. They make it look easy, even when there are hundreds of things going on at once. And most of all, they do it with a smile that makes people want to be around them. Those are my thoughts, what say you?