When Our Tech World Is Turned Upside Down

Sometimes things can be going so well and then when something goes wrong. well…

Most of us who have been involved in church production have had at least one mistake or failure during a service (I have many), where you just want to disappear in the booth.

One of my most egregious mistakes took place a number of years ago. It was so significant that I still wear the scars from it.

Back in “the day”—when video projection was almost nonexistent because of the huge cost of projectors—I was serving on staff at a large church that used 35 millimeter slides for the visual presentation elements of the service. All of our worship songs, hymns and even the sermon notes were made into slides and projected on a large rear projection screen centered on the wall behind the worship platform (we didn’t dare call it a stage in those days).

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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.

Evaluating Our Abilities And Starting Fresh In The New Year

As the new year draws near what challenges will you face?

 

I’m not rally a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, primarily because when I make them they tend to last about 1 – 2 weeks.

However I do like to take the opportunity at this time of year to re-evaluate, re-focus and re-energize what I’m doing in anticipation of the coming new year.

As I do this and reflect upon over a quarter of a century of experience of doing live production in some fashion or another, I find a desire to return to the absolute basics.

1. Just smile
No matter how frustrating, how intense or how upset I am at the time, just smile and walk away.

Every time I don’t do this I end up regretting how I act and what I say in the heat of the moment.

If I smile, listen and then walk away, I have the opportunity and time to process the information and take some of the emotion out of the situation.

2. Admit my mistakes
Every time that something goes wrong and I try to pass the blame on to someone or something else I end up asking myself “why didn’t I just own up to it?”

It can be difficult, because on one hand I want to be the leader, in charge, the one who makes thing happen. However, when things don’t go as planned, I don’t always want to be the leader and accept the responsibility. I want to blame someone or something.

In the end, it’s always best to admit our mistakes.

3. Build others up…all of the time
I have this habit of avoiding confrontation.

In doing this, I will sometimes not mention to a person that I am bothered by what they have done. That alone isn’t good, but it’s even worse if I were to go around and complain to someone else about what the person did to bother me.

I see this happen very often, and regrettably, have participated in it many times.

4. Improve my craft
Musicians rehearse, they practice at home and then with others they are playing within advance of a Sunday morning service.

What do I do to practice at my craft?

I do participate in some rehearsals but they are usually sound checks for the sound team and a quick run thru for the band.

One thing I can do is to get the music in advance, and actually listen to it, critically. I can listen and then plan and prepare as to how I can best reproduce what I’m hearing.

5. Further embrace digital
OK, I admit it, until fairly recently, I was a little intimidated by some of the digital consoles out there.

Part of the reason is that I had long used a premium analog console, so I didn’t have to mix on a ton of digital boards. I liked where I was and didn’t want to “embrace the change.”

Who would have thought that the kid, of so many years ago, that fanatically embraced digital processing would have been intimidated by a little ol’ digital console?

Eventually, I came around—in part, and perhaps a bit ironically—because of a New Year’s resolution a couple of years ago. If you’re in the same boat, perhaps this is the year.

 

The Importance Of Regularly Testing Cables

Why let one of the least expensive aspects of a system be its weakest link?

Operating the sound system from the mix position during a recent Sunday worship service, it all began when the first note from our grand piano was distorted. Hmm…

We’d checked the piano channel and sound prior to the service, and all was fine. My first reaction to the distortion being produced was to reduce the gain on that console channel, thinking perhaps the piano player was nailing the keys very hard. Yet the problem remained.

Next, I did a pre-fade listen (PFL) in my headphones – yes, it was definitely distortion on the piano channel, no question about it.

To capture sound from this grand piano, we use a magnetic pickup from Helpinstill Designs, which sends the original vibrations of the strings (the source of the piano’s sound) directly to the mixing console. (If you’re struggling to reproduce a full, natural piano sound, these pickups are definitely an option to consider.)

Anyway, my next thought was that someone had accidentally bumped the pickup so that it was hitting some of the strings. Oh well, nothing could be done until the service ended, so I just did my best to work around and minimize the problem. But a quick look immediately after the service showed that the pickup had not been disturbed.

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The Path To Worship Mix Success

A great mix is the sum of a whole lot of components in addition to pushing faders and twiddling knobs…

After mixing sound at worship services for more than three decades, and teaching dozens of others along the way, I’ve formulated these “10 steps to worship mix success” that have proven effective.

None of this is rocket surgery or brain science (or vice versa), but rather, a straightforward playbook that if followed will produce the results that you and other members of the tech team are seeking to deliver at every service.

And note that a lot of what I’ll be discussing is not about hands-on mixing. That’s because a great mix is the sum of a whole lot of components in addition to pushing faders and twiddling knobs.

Here we go…

1) Be prepared.  Being prepared means “being all there,” ready to engage and do our best. Sound checks and rehearsals can be tedious, but they present us with the opportunity to get off to the right start.

For example, it’s a great time to make sure all tools and “stuff” are available and accessible, right down to the board tape to label the console. And if you know you’re going to get thirsty, have a bottle of water handy ahead of time. Continue reading “The Path To Worship Mix Success”

Recruiting Church Volunteers: Knob Twisters or Team Members?

Explore motivational strategies in recruiting people who will prove to be creative, engaged and committed.

I was recently thinking about a something I watched take place several years ago – the official “school count” day.

Specifically, a very large school district here in the state of Michigan was providing free meals and giveaway items in trying to “lure” attendance from every student possible.

This was taken from the school district’s official website:

Free breakfast and lunch
The Office of Food Services will offer breakfast and lunch to every student at no charge.

Great prizes
Students who attend class all day on count day will have a chance to win a 42-inch plasma flat screen TV, laptop computer, iPod nanos, or an American Express gift card through a Radio One contest.

From what I’ve read, 75 percent of school funding in our state is based on the fall count day, and 25 percent is based on the winter count day.

Something about this recruitment “approach” just didn’t sit right with me. Numerous studies have shown that the best results do not necessarily come when award-based incentives are given.

Now, perhaps if you’re just looking to fill a seat on a particular day, this tactic might prove somewhat successful.

But if you’re trying to inspire and motivate someone to attend school on a daily basis – and not be a delinquent or dropout – the results may actually be worse than if you never offered the incentive.

What drives people to engage long term is not “prizes” but rather their own interest in the program or activity, along with the belief that they’re making a difference.

We like to be involved in things that are “bigger” than we are, and this type of environment can encourage us to stay with it.

Daniel Pink provided a fascinating look at what motivates people in a presentation at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2009.

Daniel describes how if you want to motivate workers to do a “non-thinking” repetitive task, then incentives like cash and prizes can work.

However, if you want people to be committed, creative, and engaged, these types of incentives will not work.

How does this apply to recruiting church sound/worship production volunteers?

  • Seek out those with a genuine interest
  • Provide the opportunity for those involved to grow and expand their skills
  • Entrust them with as much responsibility and flexibility as possible
  • Allow them to experiment and to offer suggestions on equipment and procedures
  • Foster an environment where they really feel involved with something much bigger than just “twisting knobs and pushing faders

Look at it this way –  if these five tips don’t work, you can always revert to the “prize” model.

It could go something like this: “if you show up on time, don’t goof around or cause any problems, I may just honor you by letting you carry my guitar (or keyboard, drum sticks, gold plated microphone – whatever) around for me, and also associate with me.”

Hmm… I guess it all comes down to our concept of a good volunteer: are they a knob twister or a team member?

 

What Does A Worship Leader REALLY Want From a Church Tech?

Recently, I’ve been doing an informal survey on this topic, asking worship leaders for their views on working with techs at their churches.

What does a worship leader want out of a tech?

According to worship leaders, what are the most important aspects of being a church sound operator?

I’ve been doing an informal survey on this topic, asking worship leaders for their views.

The answers have been surprising, at least to me.

For example, to this point not one of them has mentioned that a sound operator should have musical talent. Nor have they brought up the value of having a critical ear when it comes to music.

Maybe it’s my own biases, but I thought these factors would at least rate a mention.

Here’s another one that hasn’t come up: knowing how to properly operate the equipment and system.

Perhaps the worship leaders I’ve surveyed are assuming that a sound person should already have these skills, and therefore haven’t mentioned them.

Further answers I’ve received in the survey—although they’re not at the top of the list—include the ability to mix well, keep volume under control, and function as “an extension of the worship team.”

Regardless, the number one answer I’ve received? Attentiveness. As in paying attention, or focus.

Number two? Attitude. As in always having a good one.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, because it seems—to me—that both attentiveness and attitude should be givens.

If you’re helping with ministry (providing sound in this case), bringing a good attitude should be a no-brainer, and because in some ways the sound operator can “silence” the word of God being preached, you’d better be paying attention!

Yet consider these anecdotes…

One worship leader told me the story of a volunteer sound operator who’s been serving for 18 years, and is a great guy, easy to work with.

However, this fellow has a consistent flaw: a soloist can walk out of the choir, go to center stage, stand behind the mic for several seconds, and still, the mic isn’t turned up until the third or fourth word of the solo. That’s definitely an attentiveness problem…

Another leader told me that one of his sound operators is so gruff that the worship team dare not ask him for anything. The result is that on any given Sunday, there might be no vocals in the monitors, or a mic is not provided for a performer, and so on—and yet no one speaks up because they’re afraid of getting their heads bitten off. Talk about an attitude problem…

These two stories reveal even further problems. In the first case, the sound operator should be asked—kindly—if he might not better serve by volunteering his time elsewhere.

In the second case, someone with such a nasty disposition should be asked—kindly—to modify his behavior, and if that doesn’t work, he should be asked—kindly—to step down.

Let me sum it up this way.

If you’re at a concert and the mix is pleasing, and there’s no feedback or missed cues, you’d likely think (and would be right) that it’s a successful event, at least from a sound reinforcement point of view.

But if you’re at a concert and the mix is pleasing, but there are occasional squeals of feedback and some dropped cues, you’d likely be at least somewhat disappointed.

The moral of the story: sound operators should be able to mix musically and operate their equipment/systems competently, but these worship leaders make a very persuasive point: it all can be negated by lack of proper attention and by not bringing the right attitude to the gig.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T “just a little bit” between Tech and Talent

I had the privilege of doing front of house sound for a sitting President of the United States.  It was one of the simplest and easy gigs I have ever done.  It was also one of the highest paying gigs I have ever done. You can read about it here

During the 4 hour warm up (The President was over 2 hours late) one of the Presidents detail handed me a few CD’s for pre-music. It was they typical stuff of that day U2, Madonna, Bon Jovi and even Kenny G.  During the wait the famous song RESPECT by Aretha Franklin came on. I have to admit I chuckled, thinking yeah respect, I don’t agree with the Presidents Policies or morality.

I was struck somewhere during that song how wrong my attitude was.  While I did not agree with this man, He was in a position of authority and was the reigning leader of the free world. I am called as a Christian to respect the office of the Presidency and at least honor this man as he was placed in this position.

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The Kick Drum Is Too Loud? Says Who?

Sometimes my first reaction to something isn’t always my best reaction.

Recently I was mixing a group that I’d handled a few times before, and after about 30 minutes of rehearsal, the leader walked out in to the house to listen to the mix.

What happened next is where I thankfully took time to process rather than react. After a few minutes, the leader shouted, in what I interpreted as a rather curt tone, “The kick drum is way too loud!”

My passive aggressive nature was screaming from me to either shout back or turn up the kick even more.

But fortunately, in my case, a bit of wisdom has finally come with age. So rather than elevate the conflict, I did the smart thing and turned down the kick. Doing so also allowed me to think a bit more rationally.

My thoughts, not in any particular order:

1) The leader knows the band and what the mix should sound like.

2) The leader is an idiot. Everyone likes to feel the kick drum (notice I said I was only a bit more rational).

3) I’m a professional and know how to mix (OK, so I’m not always rational).

4) Maybe the kick is a little heavier on the main floor (I was mixing from a balcony position).

5) The average age of the audience will be somewhere between blue hair and retirement home, so the leader is probably just asking me to mix to the audience.

6) I’ve been accused before about having too much kick in my mixes.

7) Perhaps my mix is not matching the musical performance.

That last thought, number 7, is the one I settled on as “most” valid and most likely what the leader intended: the sound of the performance should match the music of the performance. Bill Gaither music should not sound like rock. Rock should not sound like classical. Classical should not sound like there is a sound system present. Etc…

I was thankful I didn’t take his “suggestion” as a personal attack and do something stupid, and I was able to provide a mix that better represented the musical performance. Win-win.

Later in the rehearsal, I went down to the main floor to hear how it sounded overall, and to specifically evaluate the kick. I thought the kick (and drums overall) sounded O.K., maybe a little light, but I asked the leader to join me and share what he was hearing.

His take was that the drums, overall, were a little too loud. It was his show, he had written all of the arrangements, and he leads this band all of the time, so he knows the sound he is looking for. It was my job to make that happen.

The morals of this story:

1) Be slow to speak and react.

2) Don’t take things personally. Just because someone makes a suggestion, don’t get offended.

3) Our role as sound mixers is to best represent what’s happening on the stage and to mix to that style of music, not how we personally like it.

4) The leader has the final say. He (or she) has either written or picked out the arrangements, secured the musicians, and has an opinion on how it should sound.

The Extra 10% Really Matters

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

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