The following was orignally published at Guitarists Praise and Worship on April 17, 2009.
Over the years I have gotten quite a lot of mail, calls and letters from frustrated church musicians. Browsing any church related forum you will clearly see musicians hit the net to vent their frustration when it comes to the sound people. Either it is too bright, too dull, too loud, too quiet or just a huge ole mess all together.
I have designed a 12 step program that might be able to help some of you sort out these matters before you all are absorbed by holy wrath.
Step 1 Know Sound.
A lot of churches are not blessed with people who actually knows what good live sound is. Actually, often they don’t know what bad sound is either. While most musicians listen to music and try to mimic sounds or styles, a lot of sound technicians don’t seem to pay any attention to sound quality at all. Many sound techs are more volume controllers than anything else.
I usually put together a CD with examples of good live sound and bad live sound. I then bring this to the venue and set up a date with the techs going over the different examples explaining what makes them good or bad. Usually I hand out a copy for each tech with notes. You would be surprised how many techs who never thought about clarity in a mix.
Step 2 Know Instruments
To be able to dial in a decent live sound, the sound technicians need to know the instruments, including the characteristics and diversities of the human voice. At this stage I usually bring in frequency charts as well as suggested EQ-settings as a starting point.
With the help from the band, we do instrument by instrument. Listening closely to each instrument finding what frequencies that makes a guitar sound like a guitar and so on, we build familiarity for the technicians. This will help them fix issues in the mix at a later stage.
Step 3 Know gear
For a lot of church sound techs, they have gotten the job because no one else wanted it. In other cases they are good at operating other technical gadgets without really having a clue about sound systems. I usually go over the in-house system and make a simple diagram over the parts and the functions.
In a lot of cases the problem is that the techs don’t really have a clue about what is on a mixer and why it is there. At this stage I usually go over the functions on the mixer and how it can be used. At a minimum you need to explain EQ-settings, AUX, FX and mute. There are a lot of good books on live sound out there, and if you lack the knowledge on how to get there yourself, I am sure the band would be more than happy to contribute with a couple of $’s each to get one for the sound guy or gal.
Step 4 Know the music
Ok so let us say that you are on your way here. The sound tech has understood the concept of good live sound, the difference in instruments and frequencies and has a basic understanding of the gear. The next step is to get the tech to know the songs.
A very helpful tool here is making up a sheet with each song on it. Write in who is doing lead and backing, what instruments are on, if there are any solos and so on. I usually make these sheets very, very clear by using different fonts or colors for each musician/ singer. This way the tech will know what happens and when it happens.
Step 5 Know each other
One of the main problems I see in a lot of churches is that a sound tech more often is that annoying dude who messes up the sound, rather than a friend. I think it is crucial for any band to build a strong relationship with their sound tech. The tech can enhance or destroy what you are doing and should be viewed as a part of the band.
As any musician needs to practice, a sound tech needs to practice as well. Of course you can practice at home by yourself as a musician so you know your part when you are meeting up with the band, that is however not that easy for a sound tech unless her or she has a multi track recording to practice mixing with.
If the band rehearses anywhere with a PA-system, the sound techs should be included at every chance possible to hone their skills. I used to attend a church in Stockholm years ago. The band and the techs hung out, set up and rigged down together. It was great as friendship allows you to be more direct and speak your mind, rather than calling a meeting to sort out differences of opinions.
Step 6 Know the room
Some people might be surprised that I put knowing the room as far down the list as Step 6. However there is a reason for that. Without knowing sound, gear, instruments, the music and the band, knowing the room would be pretty useless to church technicians.
If you have gotten this far, I believe that your sound tech should have some point of interest in making everything sound as good as possible. Why, because he or she is a part of a team doing an important job in the church. Knowing the room will now become pretty essential to make everything smooth and clear all over the room.
With the band playing or with a CD for that matter, I take a tour of the empty room with the tech to listen. I repeat this when the room is filling up and when it is full. People will alter the sound. With basic knowledge of main EQ, most of this can be fixed. It is also a good pointer for all over sound levels.
Step 7 Communicate
Communication is the key to any cooperation. However to communicate, people need to speak the same language. Sometimes it can be necessary to educate each other on what we actually mean by expressions that make perfectly sense to us, but appears meaningless to others.
A little more bass, less boxy, a bit more air in the mix, I lack some definition, a tad more kick in the monitor, are all things that could be easily misunderstood and overdone or even underdone. We need to learn how to be specific and explain what we need in ways the techs actually understand.
The more we communicate the easier it is to understand that the bass player might mean a lot when he says a little, while the acoustic guitarist means a little when she says a little. We all have different scales so let’s sort those things out.
Step 8 Record, record and record.
I am a firm believer of recording live mixes of several reasons. First of all it provides a good tool for the musicians to improve their playing, secondly it can give really good hints on needed changes in the orchestration and thirdly, it will be a tool to improve the quality of the live sound.
By having the mix “documented” you can go back and go over the good and the bad with the tech. By using heir sheets from Step 4 they can make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. I do not care if it is recorded to an old cassette deck or an mp3 player, as long as it is recorded. As the musicians need to evaluate their playing, the sound tech needs to evaluate his or her job.
Step 9 Keeping it interesting
I come from a family who has been into music and sound for decades. I wanted to be good at it because it gave me something. Someone managed to keep it interesting. I had my first sound tech job at 12 years old. It was a pretty much straight forward gig, 2 ole ladies with acoustic guitars and one preacher. I had been a volume controller for the pulpit mic for a while under my father’s supervision. Now I got to manage 5 channels as well as the mains.
The thing here is to let people grow with the task, setting realistic goals, keeping it interesting to learn more and handle more. Too much too quick will most of the time discourage people, while too little too slow, will most often bore p
eople to ignorance.
I have been to numerous churches and with very few exceptions I have heard people complain over sound. Funny enough I have never heard someone in a congregation say “Hey let’s send our tech on a weekend sound seminar”. Keeping it interesting is also about actually equipping people to become excellent.
Step 10 Gear up
Everyone loves unwrapping new stuff. A zillion kids can’t be wrong at Christmas. I have gone in and out of churches that get new chairs, new lighting, new décor, new coffee machines and what not, but still run the same ole PA-system year after year after year.
If you manage to get someone to take sound seriously, I think everyone will benefit from the occasional bone throwing. It doesn’t have to be the huge investments, but maybe a decent headset, a new chair for the tech or even a new mic every now and then. Making people feel that what they do is important often starts with small gestures.
What actually works like a charm is to have the tech explore different solutions on the bands needs. I watched one of the most hopeless cases I ever seen turn into quite a decent tech after he was given the possibility to impact decisions on what gear to get. Suddenly he found a trigger to learn more.
Step 11 Recruiting new talents
You might be going wooot, while scratching your head now. If we finally are having a sound tech who actually does a decent job, why go out and bring in someone else?. There are mainly two reasons for this.
First of all teaching someone something often lifts your level of knowledge as well, as you are forced to think about why and how from a new perspective. Secondly, your sound tech could get sick, move away or move on to another church, and you would be left with having to start all over. If you let the sound tech train an assistant, that job will be less stressful on the band.
Step 12 Acknowledge efforts
When I started out as a kid doing those kinds of 2 ole ladies with acoustic guitars and a preacher gigs, I was pretty fast getting credits for my efforts no matter how “easy” the gigs might have been. I felt welcomed and included. I am not saying that I did not get straightened out from time to time, but that always happened in private, while acknowledging happened in public.
The reverend was introduced, the singer, choir or band that was performing was introduced and the sound guy was introduced. That made me really want to do my best not only for the people on the platform or the ones sitting in the pews, but I wanted to do my best for God.
I probably messed up more times than I remember, but I got better, and so will people who are allowed to make mistakes but still receives acknowledgement for their efforts. You would be amazed how little cred most sound techs get at all. If the pastor or the band doesn’t do it either from the platform or after, the chance that the congregation does it, is slim to zero.
You might find this all to be interesting but a lot of work. Maybe you find this to be utter rubbish. I don’t know. What I do know is that patience, a will to share knowledge, an inclusive friendship and acknowledgement probably will get you a lot further than criticism, ignorance and hostility.
I see the frustration from both sides. I have been on both sides and I still am. I am not saying churches should treat sound techs like superior beings, but they should not be treated like necessary evil either. It is often very easy to praise those on a platform and forget about the ones who clean the church, the ones who prepares the meals, the ones who decorates and yes, the ones who manages the sound system.