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.

What Techs Really Want from A Worship Leader

Tech and talent combined can lead to an explosive situation. Learning what each side needs to bring to a production can help the whole team make beautiful music.

 

I recently published an article with the title “What does a Worship Leader REALLY want in a sound person?”

In the article I pointed out that Attentiveness and Attitude were the traits in techs that worship leaders desired the most.

I received statements and requests related to what a sound tech wants out of a worship leader.

There were jokes about things like more talent on the stage and less demands for more of the worship leader in the monitor, but what I gathered out the comments and my own experience led me to the following qualities that us sound people desire in a worship leader.

Before we dive in let me state that just as a worship leader expects the sound person to know the gear. The sound person expects that the worship leader has talent and knows how to bring a team of quality musicians together.

So with the expectations out of the way, what is it that a sound person REALLY wants from a worship leader?

First and foremost, every sound person I know desires RESPECT from the worship leader. 

This should be a given and respect should be a two way street.  In a healthy relationship both the worship leader and the sound person will respect each other.

Nothing is worse for a sound person than being humiliated in front of the band or worse yet in front of the congregation.

A friend recently told me about and event he was a guest at many years ago.

The event was a private concert with Bon Jovi (okay he is not a worship leader but stick with me). There were less than 1000 people in attendance at the club and my friend was lucky enough to be invited in by the front of house engineer. He actually was able to sit at front of house and enjoy the show.

During the first song he noticed that there seemed to be a few missing lighting cues.  As he looked over to the lighting desk he saw the lighting director (LD) flirting with a girl. Obviously this was distracting the LD as he kept missing cues.

After about four songs Bon Jovi made a statement between songs to the thoroughly jazzed and engaged crowd.  He said something to the effect that their normal lighting guy must have had the night off and he apologized to the crowd, then saying that this current lighting guy, who he thought was a fill-in, would be fired.

My friend inquired to the whereabouts of the regular LD.

The front of house guy responded, “Oh, that is the regular LD, or at least it was.” Now the LD was obviously shirking his duties, but I am sure the public rebuking was biting and hurtful.

A recent example of this was when Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, cursed out and threatened not to pay for the sound system during a rally (WARNING:  Video contains offensive language). Now in both of these cases, the operators had failed but the failure could have been dealt with in a less public, and most likely more productive fashion.

I personally worked an event where the worship leader stepped side-stage, between sets, and expressed his displeasure of what was going on sound wise. He asked that the producer of the event fix it.  The producer, who happened to be an audio guy, handed over his production responsibilities to the assistant producer and went out to front of house.

At front of house he was able to coach and help a fairly green sound person who had gotten in over his head.  The producer finished out the show coaching and co-mixing with the tech.  It ended well and most importantly is was handled very respectfully on all counts.

Now if the front of house guy couldn’t pull it together, I am sure the producer would have had him step aside and would have taken over. I am certain it would have been done professionally and with dignity.

Respect also means not talking bad or complaining about someone behind their back as well. I too often end up in situations where the worship leader or the sound guy will say disparaging things about the other people on the tech or worship team.

A second thing that sound people want out a worship leader is ORGANIZATION.

In general most sound guys are a bit nerdy and love structure and organization.  Nothing drives a nerd personality more nuts than chaos. Rehearsals should be orderly, musicians should show up prepared, there should be a worship order and sequence that is followed and most importantly everyone should show up and be ready at the slated time and the rehearsal should also conclude at a scheduled time.

Really this relates back to respect. Respecting everyone’s time and effort that is being put into making worship happen weekly.

The third thing that a sound person wants from a worship leader is INCLUSION. 

The sound person is part of the worship team. Make him or her feel that way.  Include them in the group, involve them in prayer times. A worship leader should make the effort during rehearsal to go out to the booth area and listen to the mix. After listening appropriate praise and critique should be given.

I heard the story about a worship leader that decided to honor his tech crew and privately asked the musicians to show up 2 hours before rehearsal. The musicians put all of the instrumentation, monitors and mics in place (as best they could).  When the tech team showed up an hour ahead of time to set up they were greeted with a stage that was 80 percent set up and ready to go. They were also surprised with hot pizza and some cake to top it off.

I am sure they felt blessed and included by knowing that musicians recognized they extra work that the techs did each week to set up.

If you are around me for any amount of time you will often hear me talk about TnT (Tech and Talent) and how explosive it can be.

When a worship leader respects the techs, is organized (i.e. shows up on time) and includes them as part of the team some beautiful fireworks take place!

What does a Worship Leader REALLY want? in a Sound Person?

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. Continue reading “What does a Worship Leader REALLY want? in a Sound Person?”

Sometimes You Need To Be Able To Dance As Good As (Or Better) Than You Mix

What can we do to sort it out, meet needs, and help them put on the best performance possible?

The venue where I serve as technical director has recently had a number of touring acts come through.

With each tour, there are always special technical requirements that the artists need, particularly in these tight economic times where few of them are able to travel with everything they need.

The last three events, the venue was responsible for providing the entire house system, and for two of them, I served as the front of house engineer.

When a tour group comes to a venue they never know what they’re going to get. Yes, the rider said six separate wireless in-ear monitor systems, but the venue only has two and is unwilling to rent any more. Yes, the rider said the PA needs to hit peaks of 110 dBA, but the installed system can only hit 95 dBA. I know, I know… Continue reading “Sometimes You Need To Be Able To Dance As Good As (Or Better) Than You Mix”

Taking Care Of Business

Avoiding unnecessary bumps in the road through careful planning, maintenance and teamwork…

Talking with sound technicians and worship leaders, I often hear the complaint that from week to week, the quality of Sunday morning varies. I’ve determined that some of this is from training, such as when there’s a problem and the tech doesn’t know how to fix it. Some of it’s skill; certain folks simply have a better ear and command of the equipment than others.

On the same hand, the skill level of the musicians may also vary. I’ve found that with inexperienced musicians, the level at which they’re playing can fluctuate greatly. I attribute this primarily to a lack of confidence. When they know the song they “bang” it out, but when they’re unsure, they hold back.

Today I’d like to focus on another contributor to the problem of inconsistency: equipment status and organization.

Example Time
It’s 5 minutes before the start of the service and you’re sweating bullets as you have to set up 4 additional players that the worship leader never told you in advance were “joining in with the band.” You’re thinking, “Great, no time for sound check, much less a simple line check!”

You dutifully plug in the mics and direct boxes, and position them as best you can. You then high-tail it to the sound booth for the start of the service. Thankfully you make it with enough time to guess at the input gain and monitor levels, say a quick prayer, and unmute those channels for the opening song.

Then it happens: that infamous bzzzzzzzzzzzzz that makes everyone’s hair stand on end! You throw on your headphones and determine it’s the direct box that the bass player is plugged into. This is when you’re forced to make a split decision as to what to do.

You decide rather than race to the stage to see if the line chord from the bass is bad, if the ground lift on the direct box needs to be switched, or if your mic chord is bad, you’ll just mute the bass player’s channel and work on the mix. Plus you’re thinking that at least his bass rig is working and that output will spill into the house.

So, how many times has this, or something like it, happened you? Was it preventable? Of course it was! As I always say, it’s the simple stuff that kills us. So how could all this have been prevented? Continue reading “Taking Care Of Business”