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…