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. 

The reality is 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 reasonably 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

Creating a Healthy Volunteer Culture

Image courtesy of Morgan

Image courtesy of Morgan

Here at CTA, we talk a lot about creating a healthy staff culture. Just last week I wrote a post to TD’s encouraging them to do a good job of taking care of themselves. I really believe in that, mainly because sometimes, church staffs are not as healthy as they could be. As I was thinking about this concept, it occurred to me that we also have to be sure to build and maintain a healthy culture for our volunteer teams as well. 

I think this falls into two main categories. First is the larger church that has at least one paid tech person, who leads a team of volunteers. Second, is the church that is all volunteer-based. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they do have different needs. 

Leading Volunteers Well

If you are leading a team of volunteers as a paid staff member, you have a key responsibility. While it is important to get the job done, it’s more important to take care of your team. That means not putting them in a position where they are serving every weekend. I like a 3 week rotation, personally. I find that means people are serving often enough to get and stay good at their position, but still have plenty of time off. 

Sometimes, we come across those “super-volunteers” who just love to be there every weekend and at every event. I love those people. And I try to love them enough to send them home once in a while. Some people do have the capacity and time to be there a lot. And that’s great. But as I advocated last week, be sure they get at least one weekend off per quarter. Every two months would better still. 

I’ve talked to tech leaders who have had a high-capacity volunteer up and quit one day, seemingly out of the blue. But once we dig into it, it’s easy to see that there were plenty of warning signs that were ignored. Remember, your job as a TD isn’t just mixing. You have to pay attention to your team and make sure they’re healthy. And to do that, you have to get to know them. 

The All-Volunteer Team

If you are a volunteer leader of an all-volunteer team, you are in a doubly hard position. You need to stay healthy yourself, which means taking regular breaks, and you need to help your team. I really encourage pastors to help in this process, whether it’s the lead pastor or worship pastor.

In smaller churches, it’s tempting to think that once you have a tech position covered, you can relax and get back to the important things of ministry. The problem is, by not paying attention to the team, making sure they are healthy and getting the breaks they need, you will likely come in one Sunday and find your super-dedicated volunteer isn’t there. And he’s not coming back. That can be a real problem. 

We have to remember that a volunteer works a full-time job, may have a wife and family, and has friends and hobbies that they enjoy. If we ask them to commit every weekend of the year to serving, they will not last long. Or at least they will not be happy long. 

All this people stuff can be hard for technical leaders, I get that. I’m not the most relational person, and I am more naturally geared to staying in my own little world of mixing and system design. But ministry is about people. So even when it’s hard, we have to push ourselves to make sure our people are healthy. I think it would be great if the Church became known as the best place in the world to work and serve. We’re not there yet, but wouldn’t that be cool?

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.