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.

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.

Worship Leader vs. Tech Director

 
I have been in sound checks and rehearsals where the tension in the air was so tight that it was palpable.

 

Worship Leader Vs Tech Director.  Who leads who?

At a Leadership seminar I attended, Bill Hybels was talking about what he calls his 360 Leadership idea.

In a nutshell, you lead down, lateral, up and you lead yourself.  Hybels expanded on the lateral leadership part by talking about how, at many church seminars, big churches assume more self importance. They would come in and talk down to small churches, thus alienating them.  The relationship is a lateral one and should be treated that way, it is Pastor to Pastor, Leader to Leader.

The Sunday morning relationship between musician and tech can sometime get a little, shall we say, heated.

I have been in sound checks and rehearsals where the tension in the air was so tight that it was palpable.  When this happens, it is often the case where the worship leader has “taken control” and everybody must listen to him and follow him or else.

This dictatorship style leading can work well in crisis situations like fighting a fire or engaging in warfare combat, where there is no time or place for niceties or questions.

Sunday mornings should not be like this.

There is also the case where the sound tech is so rude and controlling that musicians will live with a terrible monitor mix, just because they are afraid the sound tech is going to fly off the handle and yell at them if they ask for a change.

Sunday mornings should not be like this.

What is needed is lateral leadership.

My interpretation of lateral leadership is where both the worship leader and the production team look to influence, help and serve each other.

For this to take place these 6 key things must be in place.

1) Respect.
If there is not respect between the worship leader and production team someone must leave or radical change needs to take place for this relationship to work.  I have been around too many ministries where there is the tech click and the musician click and they are both at constant odds with each other.  They talk behind each other back, complain among themselves about the “other guys” and keep walls up so communication is stifled.  For a team to function well and exhibit lateral leadership there has to be mutual respect.

2) Listen first.
Everybody has opinions and that is great, share your opinion, but as a rule not before the other person has shared their idea or opinion.  When we are extremely excited about something it is hard not to blurt it out.  It is also hard to really listen to the other person as you just want to spit out your idea.  You need to listen, really listen to the other person before you speak.  Really listening means that you are seeking to understand the person not just hear them

3) Extend trust/be vulnerable.
Give the other person the benefit out the doubt and be willing to share how you are feeling about things.  Until you decide to trust the other person and to be vulnerable, chances are they will also not be vulnerable or trusting of you.  Without trust there is no real relationship.

4) Create a safe space.

Be proactive about creating a space where opinions and ideas can openly be expressed.  Never put down a person. Never dismiss their idea in a way that makes them embarrassed for bringing it up or belittled by your response to it.  For the worship team and production team all ideas and opinions should be validated and encouraged.

5) Do not move on without consensus.
You might have to say something like, “George, I know you don’t necessarily agree with me on this, but can we move forward and can you do it with 100 percent effort? I know that it is not easy, and I appreciate you doing this for the sake of the team” Note, if the consensus required is always to get people to agree and jump in on your ideas, you are really operating under a dictatorship.

It may be guised as a collaborative group, but if you have conditioned everyone to be yes-men and women, or you are always convincing (manipulating) others to get your way, face it, you’re being a dictator.  Maybe a nice one and a crafty one, but still a dictator.

6) Understand Each other. 
Previously I have written articles on this.  “What Techs really want from a worship leader?” and What does a worship leader really want from a sound Tech.  I recommend that Techs and Musicians read both of them.  In Stephen Covey’s book on The 7 Habits, Habit 5 states, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Learn what “the other” guys really want or need, before you push yours.

Lateral leadership really boils down to serving, supporting and encouraging each other.

This article probably should have been titled “The service between a worship leader and a tech director” instead of “Worship Leader Vs Tech Director, who leads?”

 

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.

 

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.

Defining Good Church Design: Measuring Your Facilities’ Form & Function

Both form and function need to be equal partners – often at great tension with each other- that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

 

The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase; Form follows function.

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Louis Sullivan 1896

Sullivan is the creator of the modern skyscraper that started popping up in the growing large industrial cities in America in the late 19th century.  The great improvements in steel and also skeletal design at that time fueled the growth in popularity of the skyscraper.

A skyscraper is a good example where function (driven by the need to go vertical as cities grew) was a strong driving factor in the design of buildings in that era.

As we look at our church buildings, what is driving the design form or function?

A modern-day example of form winning out is the Crystal Cathedral (now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Garden Grove, Orange County, California.

Completed in 1981 it was touted as the largest glass building in the world.  The Cathedral was known for its terrible acoustics.  The initial $1.2 million sound system installed at the construction of the building was completely unintelligible. The system was 2,800 pew back speakers each row on a digital delay.  Three crystal clusters (custom built speaker clusters) also provided coverage.  Altec horns were added in the ceiling grid to get better frequency response.

However time and phase was not addressed, thus the sound was unintelligible.  The nearly 3,000 speakers were eventually replaced by 11 speakers that created a system intelligible enough to last the next 18 years.  But, it was still not a great place to hear a sermon because of the acoustics of the building.

A modern day example of function leading the way is the trend over the last decade to build black box theater type of worship centers.

In general, they are designed to be acoustically very dead, the ceilings are painted black and as the antitheses of the Crystal Cathedral there are no windows. These spaces were designed specifically to do production style of worship.  The dead acoustics allows for a studio like sound from the worship band.  The controlled lighting and video presentation provides the feeling of a concert.

As inspiring as the Crystal Cathedral was to look at, the black box theater style of worship space screams forget about the building watch only what is happening on the stage.

The two extreme examples above show that when the scale is tipped to heavily to either form or function there are great tradeoffs that end up happening.

My goal is not to say that the Crystal Cathedral or the Black box style of worship center is bad.  Rather my goal is say that both form and function need to be equal partners, often at great tension with each other that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

How can form and function translate to good design at your church?

Function

1. Traffic flow inside and outside

I have a friend who writes a blog and basically makes a living online.  He talks all the time about making interactions with his customers as frictionless as possible.  He posts multiple places, uses multiple social media channels and does direct email.

His reason is to make it as easy as possible for each person to receive and engage with his content.  Traffic flow should be looked at in the same way.

How are you providing the easiest way for your attendees to get in and around your building?  Have you ever just studied your traffic flow on a Sunday?  Often some minor changes to a building or some signage updates can greatly improve the traffic flow.

2. Climate, heating and air conditioning
If your attendees are not comfortable it is difficult for them to fully engage.

Do you have someone who is monitoring the climate control system?  They should be looking at objective data, temperature and humidity.  Everybody has their own comfort zone regarding temperature so the best thing to do is pick a standard and then stick to it.

If you determine temperature off how someone feels on a given service that person may have a cold and thus turn up the heat to try to create comfort for themselves. At the same time this puts many other into discomfort.  The key is consistency. With consistency people can choose what they wear knowing that they will be comfortable at a service.

A person that I know brings a sweater every Sunday (even in the summer) they know sometimes it’s a little too cold for them so they come prepared.

One other note you should check your system every 4-6 months.  I suggest doing it at the change of the seasons.  Check to make sure the system if performing optimally also check the temperature in multiple different spots in the room to make sure the temperature is uniform throughout the space.

3. Sound (lobby noise and sanctuary sound)
I argue that one of the most important parts (if not the most important) is sound.

This includes background noise in the sanctuary and lobby. If people cannot hold a conversation in the lobby because of all the noise created by other people having conversations, consider getting some acoustical treatment to help deaden the sound.

One of the main social functions of church is that people get the opportunity to talk to friends and meet new ones, so create a space that helps make those conversations comfortable.

I also argue that the spoken word is the most important element of a worship service. A poor performing sound system where people need to strain to hear, or like the original system at the crystal cathedral where you could not understand what was being said makes people uncomfortable and frustrated.

Form

1. Beauty
What are you doing to bring elements of beauty into your space, indoors and outdoors?  Take a fresh look and walk around in and around your building.  Would painting an accent wall or adding a piece of art bring beauty?  How about planting some flowers around the entrance and trimming the bushes well you are at it?

A question I ask myself as I visit and consult with churches is; does this space feel institutional or warm and inviting?

Then the important follow up question, Why?  Color, furniture placement, plants and many other things factor into the feeling a space gives.  What are the things of beauty in your space?  What could you change to make the space inviting?

2. Engaging
Along the same lines as making the space feel inviting, what causes engagement in your space?  I have seen artwork bring engagement as well as beauty.  People stopping to view a piece of art and reflecting on its meaning.

Architecture can also do this.  Is there anything on the exterior of your building that engages people?  A recent church I worked with was looking for a new home, the building that they chose to purchase was purchased impart because the industrial look of the building fit well with their brand.

3. Uplifting
We attend church to have an extraordinary experience.  I am not talking about the cool light show and production. The point is the overall experience should not be like our ordinary daily experience.

A building has a personality, it invokes emotion from those who come into contact with it.  Is the personality of your building uplifting?  Do people sense and see something out of everyday ordinary life that lifts their spirit?

Yes, Sullivan is correct when he says the form follows function.  The building needs to work well and suit the needs of the congregation.  It also should point us to our creator with beauty and form.

I contend that good design involves form and function working together to create an extraordinary experience.

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.

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

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.