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!