The Art and Science of Audio

Just what is the real art and science of great audio? The author narrows the discussion down to a one-word solution.
One of my favorite sayings: “Audio is an art that everyone thinks is a science,  and audio is a science that everyone thinks is an art.”

There’s no doubt that delivering an accurate (not to mention good-sounding) mix without missed cues is the right blend of both art and science.

Knowing the science helps in setting up the mix and making sure that everything is routed properly and the right things plugged in to the right parts of the system.

Knowing the art
helps to creatively bring all of the various sounds from the instruments and singers together to deliver a pleasing sound without any distractions.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Not so fast…

I love the title of the book written by audio’s beloved patriarchs, Don and Carolyn Davis, “If Bad Sound Were Fatal, Audio Would Be The Leading Cause Of Death.

If that title were true, I would not be here writing this, and the unfortunate thing is that I would be dead from self-inflicted wounds!  Over the years I’ve found that I can usually attribute the reason for the bad sound that I’ve mixed to one word: anticipation.

On the science side, anticipation means:

1) Being generally prepared, having the right tools, and being aware of what is going on at the event.
2) Check over the system to make sure everything is working.
3) Check all the inputs to make sure they are working and patched correctly.
4) Visually reviewing the board, making sure things are routed were they are supposed to be, the channel EQs are on and aren’t set too crazy, etc.
5) Having a backup emergency microphone on stage that everyone knows to go to if his/her particular mic fails.

And on the art side of things:

1) Thinking ahead, planning to boost the levels for solos.
2) Keeping my eyes on the stage to make sure mics are turned on ahead of people speaking.
3) Having my headphones handy so I can pfl channels to check anything, and quickly.

4) Being in tune with that is going on so I can react quickly to any changes that occur.
5) Having my cue sheet or order of service right next to me and then read ahead and mentally prepare for the next event on the sheet.
6) Listening to the worship songs ahead of time to hear what the original recordings sound like.
7) Knowing where the backup emergency mic is patched and being prepared to use it for any surprise events (unplanned testimony) or mic failures.

Obviously anticipation alone doesn’t guarantee a great mix – you still need to have the fundamentals down. But it does greatly increase the potential of having an error-free service or event.

So there you have it. The real art of audio, or, I mean the real science of audio, is… well, in both cases, it’s anticipation.

7 Steps to Great Worship Audio

Producing great sound in a worship service can seem as elusive as finding a soloist who always sings on key. However, this doesn’t have to be.

 

Producing great sound in a worship service can seem as elusive as finding a soloist who always sings on key. However, this doesn’t have to be.

Many factors influence the quality of sound: room acoustics, sound-system design and performance, operator experience, and quality of musical performance.

Here are some practical tips on how to tie all of that together toward an optimum result.

1) Understand The Basics

To get the most out of a sound system, you must first understand how it works. Basically, acoustic energy, or the sound you make, is converted to electrical energy via a microphone, then colored or equalized via a mixer.

The mixer sends the sound through processing equipment (crossover, equalizer, signal delay), then to amplifiers to enhance the signal. Finally, the amplified signal goes to speakers, where it’s transferred back to acoustic energy.

The key components of sound—processors, amplifiers, and loudspeakers—should be professionally designed and set in a church, then left alone. The mixing board is where you should make adjustments in tone and sound levels.

2) Build A Team

A sound system won’t run by itself. It needs a trained, motivated crew to function to its true potential.

I like to recruit one-on-one, much like a hunter who goes to the woods looking for a specific target. The hunter may see ducks, squirrels, and turkeys, but he sits tight for a certain kind of deer. When he sees exactly what he’s looking for, he pursues it with vigor. The same can be done when developing a sound team. Decide what kind of people you need, then recruit them vigorously.

You can also try the fishing-pond approach. That means recruiting candidates from a select gathering of people.

For example, when Marty O’Connor was at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL, he and his video crew offered a yearly seminar on how to make movies with a video camera. After the seminar, the crew would bring out their studio cameras and invite seminar attendees to try operating one of the “big boys.” All the while they’d look for people in that “pond” with special aptitude for working on a video crew. Then they’d recruit them.

3) Grow A Team

The acronym TEAM—meaning “Together Everybody Achieves More”—particularly applies to a sound crew. To be truly effective, team members must grow together on the job in knowledge and experience as well as in spirit and emotion.

Make sure that you provide spiritual, emotional, and technical food for sound-team members. Every week, I spend about 30 minutes in prayer and devotions with my sound crew before our hour-plus sessions in sound training. That time helped unite us and focus our work.

It’s also important to keep the team informed of what’s happening in the sound industry, such as regular visits to ProSoundWeb and reading other industry publications and sites.

Finally, to encourage ownership and 100-percent participation, every sound crew member should be welcome to make suggestions about the sound system. I take seriously crew member suggestions on equipment purchases.

And thank the team! Saying thanks is powerful, but showing thanks is even better. My favorite way of showing gratitude to crew members is to send thank-you notes to them and their spouses.

4) Aim For Consistency

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle once wrote. “Therefore, excellence is a habit not an act.”

Doing everything right with sound in a performance is hard enough, but repeating it can seem impossible, especially when different volunteers are involved.

To raise the percentage of success, standardize the layout of your mixing console, label it, then get everyone to conform to it. Example: I always lay out my mixing console with drums on the left, followed by bass, electric and acoustic guitar, then keyboards, and finally vocals. The lead vocal is always in the farthest right channel next to the subgroups and masters.

I’ve been doing that for the past 20 years, and my team follows this layout consistently. But how you lay out the board doesn’t matter as long as it’s logical and everyone follows it. The advantage is that when something goes wrong or there’s feedback, they know instinctively what to grab to fix it.

Aim for consistency also with equipment storage. Organize cables, stands, and mics so that even with last-minute changes, such as having to work with five singers instead of the four you had planned on, you can secure the proper equipment to keep a rehearsal moving.

5) Preparation, Preparation

When I was a sound technician, I was blessed with a worship leader who provided worship service outlines weeks in advance. I used to kid him that the Spirit moved in him two weeks before it hit the congregation.

One lesson I learned from him is that someone who is well prepared is able to respond much better to last-minute complications than someone who wings it. I’ve served as a consultant to churches that supposedly had sound system problems, only to discover that the real problem was poor preparation.

Example: A sound team shows up at 8 am to set up for a 9:30 am service in a temporary facility. By 9 am the sound system is set up, and a CD is playing. Musicians begin arriving for a last-minute rehearsal.

The service starts seven minutes late. That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that there’s been no time for sound checks and input testing. The service proceeds, accompanied by hums, cracks, pops, and a lousy mix. Ninety minutes later, the crew is exhausted, the musicians disgusted, and the pastor fed up. He decides to call in a sound expert…

He needn’t have spent the money. Preparation would have alleviated most of the problems. Preparation means sending information to your team well in advance of a service. Distribute the order of worship for the Sunday service to crew members early in the week so they can get a jump-start on what they’ll need to do.

Preparation also means doing sound checks with musicians prior to the service and testing all mics. Even if the same person leads worship every week, he or she may have a cold or feel insecure about a piece of music and need the sound turned up.

The key is to show up early, anticipate the unexpected, and be prepared. You can’t be too prepared.

6) Provide Training

Offer ample opportunities for your team to grow in technical knowledge. Find an expert you respect and hire that person to come in two to four times a year to train your crew.

Team up with other churches to sponsor a regional conference on sound, led by consultants such as Marty O’Connor or Curt Taipale.

Further, send for brochures and guides, and reprint articles on sound for your crew. Many manufacturers, such as Shure and Crown, provide free guides, and often, these are posted online for convenient download. Encourage your crew to participate in focused online discussions about sound with online communities such as the Church Sound Forum here on PSW.

And lead your team by example. If you want the crew to be on time, be on time yourself. If you want others to keep the sound booth and related areas organized and clean, keep your areas organized and clean.

7) Encourage Relationships

To do its work well, a crew must work in harmony with musicians and presenters. All too often there’s friction between sound technicians and performing artists. Some of that could be eased organizationally by including sound technicians in the church’s fine arts or music ministry.

The lead person of the technical team should report directly to the worship leader or minister of music—no one else. They work things out, striving for communication and harmony.

Example: I saw how that could work at a sound seminar, where David Sheets, minister of music at Central Wesleyan Church, Holland, MI, and his worship team participated in a session I led titled “Mixing a Worship Team: A Live Demonstration.” We purposefully had no rehearsal or sound check before the seminar. We merely tested the inputs to make sure they were working.

During the seminar, a conflict arose between the piano and synthesizer players. The synthesizer player wanted more synth in the monitor, and the piano player wanted less. The problem: they were sharing a monitor mix.

David let me know about the problem, and I told the players that since there were no more monitor mixes available, they should work out a solution together. He led the players through a quick trial on the monitor until the players reached agreement. They reached harmony in less than three minutes.

Tip: The key was David’s willingness to tell me about the problem, and the opportunity I had to explain the set-up limitations to the players.

I’ve discovered that when technical people are given the opportunity to explain a problem, performers are very cooperative.

Of course, technicians must never abuse that trust by blaming their mistakes or ignorance on equipment, or by refusing to listen to a musician who needs adjustments in a monitor.

Trust can also be destroyed by performers or technicians whose egos get in the way of working with others. In the sound booth or in front of a mike, the motto should be: “Check your ego at the door.”

I also know how important a good relationship can be between a technician and artist. I spent four years working with Jack Lynn, a worship leader. We had such rapport that we could communicate from sound booth to platform via hand signals.

When Jack put two hands on the mic, I knew I had to put more piano level in the monitor. Two hands with a raised index finger meant he wanted more voice. A step back from the monitor meant it was too loud. The signals worked well because I kept my eyes on the platform, and Lynn always made eye contact before signaling.

Bonus: Serve Others First
If we serve others first, we have far less friction between sound technicians and performers. Here are some ways sound people can serve others to enhance their ministry to the church. Show up early to set the sound equipment with enough time left to pray with speakers and singers before a service.

Provide little extras for platform participants, such as a glass of fresh, cold water near the lectern. Take the pastor and/or worship leader out to lunch in appreciation for their support. Tell them how much you value their contribution.

Explain to singers or speakers what you’re doing to adjust their sound and why. For example, tell them you’re moving a monitor two feet to the left so that the sound from the monitor is in the non-pickup area of the microphone and will thus give them a purer sound with less risk of feedback.

The Ultimate Goal
The sound ministry is like custodial service. When it’s done well, few will notice. When done poorly, everyone will notice.  Work as a respectful team, and you’ll find that your sound is consistently excellent—and you’ll have a great time to boot!

 

Getting the Biggest Change in Sound Quality for the Smallest Investment

“How do I get the biggest change in my sound quality for the smallest investment?”

I’m often asked this question from cash-strapped churches that need a sound system upgrade but don’t have the funds to accomplish it all at once.

If it’s the sound operator who approaches me first, his goal is usually to get a new mixing board. If it’s the worship leader, he’s usually focused on microphones and/or monitors.

Then there’s the pastor, who’s most often interested in the solution that will get everybody else to stop bothering him.

So what’s the answer?

I go about solving this dilemma by looking at the number of people who can potentially benefit from each upgrade. With that in mind, what follows is a suggestion of how you can determine your next “best” upgrade.

First, look at what I call the “heart” of the system. That is, loudspeakers, amplifiers and signal processing. Not only are these usually the biggest ticket items (though the mixing console may compete), they’re also the items that in most cases will bring the most significant improvement to a system.

In surveying the heart of your sound system, first check out the loudspeakers to ensure that they’re working properly. Are there blown drivers? Hear any rattles or other strange noises?

Do some research to find out the coverage pattern of the loudspeakers, and map that coverage over your seating area. Is the coverage adequate or are there zones that are being missed? (You can also hear this by slowly walking through the coverage area with the system playing tracks.)

Continue your research and determine the frequency response of the loudspeakers. If they roll off at 180 Hz, it’s not likely that they’re producing the nice “thump” out of the kick drum or any of the deeper lows from the bass guitar.

Next, find out power handling of the loudspeakers and match that up with the power available from your amplifiers. If you don’t have enough “headroom” (available “extra” power), the system will always sound mushy and like it’s being “pushed.” (As in pushed too hard.)

Finally, give the signal processing a good look. If it consists of a number of analog devices (EQ, crossover, delay, etc.), it could be time to upgrade to a quality digital processing unit. Even better, have a new digital processor implemented by a qualified professional who knows how best to use it to maximize the performance of your loudspeakers.

And that leads me to an important point. If you find any of the above aspects lacking during your research, consider bringing in a qualified professional to help make the most of what you have.

While you may be able to address some of these aspects adequately, it’s not a game for amateurs. Quite often, the use of professional assistance, combined with a new component or two, can make all of the difference in the world while still fitting within the confines of a tight budget. And it’s almost always money well spent.

Once the “heart” of the system is taken care of, feel free to move on to mixing boards, monitors, microphones and other accessories.

I look at it this way: the best sounding microphone is only going to sound as good as the loudspeakers reinforcing it.

Sound System Upgrade From Good Enough To Great

Why do so many churches talk about middle of the road when it comes to system upgrades?

Why do so many churches talk about middle of the road when it comes to system upgrades?

I’d like to share two experiences, unrelated on the surface, that really got me thinking.

The first happened at a church that was talking with me about upgrading their sound system.

If you’ve ever been through the process of updating a system, be it sound, lighting or video, you know it’s a chore—or actually, a set of chores.
There’s the pursuit of determining what’s needed, soliciting proposals, selecting a proposal, getting the church/committee to sign off on it, overseeing the install of the new components, and then figuring out how to operate them.

I could talk at length about any one of the steps, but based on my recent experience, let’s start with a question (actually two): Why upgrade, and what are the expectations?

My meeting was with the head sound tech (volunteer) and the worship leader. We were primarily focused on switching to a new digital console and main loudspeakers. The existing stuff is almost twenty-years-old, still works fine and sounds pretty good (twenty years ago it would have been considered a near-premium system), but it is showing increasing signs of age.

As we talked the sound tech made a statement that I hear way too often. Paraphrasing it, he said, “We’re not looking for something excellent, or top of the line, but more middle of the road.”

Every time I encounter statements along these lines, I want to reply, “Sorry, I’m not the guy for you. Please see one of my competitors because they have the whole ‘doesn’t suck too bad’ thing nailed down.”

Of course, what I really say is “Well, let’s see what we can come up with” and then I start questioning them about their goals and needs, working to steer them to the best solution for the budget they have available. And if they don’t have a budget, I gently push them to establish a reasonable one.

My question: Why do so many churches talk about middle of the road?

My own experiences, both as a church member and as an A/V pro, have shown me that most/all churches striving for excellence are growing, while the ones doing the “mediocrity thing” are stagnant or shrinking.

The specific church I’m discussing here did its upgrade 20 years ago in an excellent fashion. They invested in the best they could afford at the time. (I remember it because I was involved with the project.) The minister of music (as we referred to them in those days) solicited a couple of proposals. It was a growing church, the place was pretty full, and he laid out the system needs while stressing that he wanted top quality. “I want these speakers to be hanging here 20 years from now,” he said, prophetically.

My proposal sought to meet his challenge. My competitor tried to go the middle of the road route. Of course, the minister of music did not want to settle for that.

A couple of years after we did the install, he said to me. “I never thought we’d get to use your company because you’re known as the provider of ‘Cadillac’ systems, but it turned out that you were less the 15 percent more than your competitor—and we knew with you that we would get something that would serve us well and stand the test of time.”

With that context and memory in mind, I move to my second more recent experience, where I was working front of house at a seminar at a mid-sized church. It was a very simple event, a headset mic and a handheld mic. Doing EQ on a mid-level console (only one band of sweepable EQ), I listened closely to how the system sounded. It was “just OK,” and there really wasn’t anything else I could do to make it better.

During the event, a church member who serves on the sound team stopped in to pick something up, and in passing he said, “Keep your hand on the fader—every once in a while the system just doubles in volume for no real reason, and if you don’t catch it the feedback is painful.”

Nice!

So now as I paid much more attention to the board, keeping my finger on the fader, I also began mentally adding up the cost of the system.

My conclusion was that for maybe 10 percent or so more investment, the church could have purchased far better equipment. Sound quality would be higher, and more than likely, they wouldn’t be having issues just five years after the installation.

It really does seem that with most things in life, it’s that extra 10 percent that takes things from good to great.

Something we all need to keep in mind when we’re thinking about system upgrades, because it can very much pay off in the long run.