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.

A Word To The Wise When Thinking DIY

I’ve seen and heard some really scary things done with a “do it yourself” AV systems approach

Often when I’m working with churches (particularly smaller congregations), the issue of installing things themselves comes up. It usually revolves around the church purchasing the equipment (hopefully from me – on occasions churches have taken a design I’ve done and then gone online and purchased all of the equipment to install, and then to top it off they call me and ask for advice when it doesn’t work) and then pulling the cables, hanging the loudspeakers and hooking it all up themselves.

I’m all for having volunteers working alongside a qualified contractor. By doing a project in this fashion, the volunteers not only learn a lot about the system, they also get some real “skin in the game” and thus some ownership.

However, based on a lot of years of experience, I’m not a fan of a church doing an installation without the assistance of a professional. Under this scenario I’ve seen and heard some really scary things.

Recently I was at a venue where the ownership had obviously decided to try and save some money on the design and installation of a sound system. It has two loudspeakers that must have been purchased from the local music store – they were a portable design with handles for lugging them around.

To install these loudspeakers, someone came up with the great (not!) idea of throwing a tow strap over a beam and tying each end of the strap to the handles (see the photo above).

In a way, it’s somewhat amusing, but it’s also disturbing and more than a little frightening, because these speakers are hanging 20 feet above an area that people travel heavily, thus creating a huge safety issue. A qualified contractor would never install anything in a fashion that would resemble these hanging weights ready to fall.

Further, the coverage is awful. The loudspeakers are almost 80 feet apart, and as I walked through the coverage, I also determined that they must have a 40-degree horizontal coverage pattern (as I traveled into coverage, then out of coverage, then back into coverage…).

And the sound coming out of these loudspeakers resembles a total “frown face” EQ setting – harsh midrange and not much else.

So, how can you make a DIY successful rather than something resembling this example?

1) Don’t do any part of an installation that you’re not 100 percent confident that you can do correctly. This seems rather obvious, but a lot of folks do not seem to be able to correctly determine if they are competent enough or not.

2) Pay for and use the advice and instruction from a professional. Don’t just try to pilfer information – be up front with them and ask them to provide you with a price to consult you on the project. Note not all contractors will be willing to help with advice only because they’re not used to doing business this way.

And perhaps more importantly, they may be (rightfully) concerned about the liability issues involved by dispensing advice on how to hand loudspeakers. My suggestion is that any part of an installation that could potentially lead to a safety issue should be left for a professional to do.

3) Select a qualified professional that will act as a partner. Choose a contractor that will work with you in dividing the tasks and responsibilities for the project. For example, the volunteers at a church could pull in all of the cable, with the contractor doing testing and termination.

Saving money and having some ownership in the installation of the system is a good thing, just make sure that you can competently (and safely) perform all of the tasks that you set out to do.

 

Getting A Handle On Church System Maintenance, Upgrades & Lifecycles

Get people on board, start the discussion early and have a plan.

Do you replace production/system equipment based on it being worn out or for new features and functionality?

When we get a new system or new piece of gear, often the last thing on our minds is repairs or the life cycle of the system.

In my view, churches are getting better at understanding professional A/V systems. I find that in general the market is more aware of the cost versus the expectation of the system, along with the willingness to spend the dollars to get it right (or at least as right as they can afford). I’m grateful for the improvement.

However an area where I see little or no improvement is in operation, maintenance and lifecycle replacement expectations.

It’s not uncommon for a church to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a great sound system and then never think about who is going to operate it, and just as importantly, who is going to be responsible for maintaining it. In fact, too often I see churches balk when one of the sound techs asks for a few hundred dollars to attend a tech training conference.

Another factor is the short(er) lifecycle of today’s equipment I don’t mean that stuff fails sooner; it’s more that technology keeps surpassing itself.

The church that I serve has been in a new sanctuary for only seven years. When the technical systems were designed and installed, digital consoles were in the early (and generally pricey) stage. HD video was being discussed but not widely adopted. Line arrays for permanent installations had just recently come into fashion.

All that said, my church has a great-sounding left-center-right main loudspeaker system, a premium 56-channel analog console, and a 12 x 16 rear-projection system that works well. Even so, we’ve started discussions on replacing some of our equipment. (Well, actually “repurposing” is more accurate, because the current stuff will be utilized elsewhere in the church.)

Part of the push to replace is based on age. The console is starting to have some minor issues (although nothing yet that can’t easily be repaired). But in reality, the big push is based on changes in both technology and expectations. We’ve started hosting concerts in the space, and the main system has a hard time getting over 100 dBA.

So with technology moving so quickly, what should you expect when purchasing a new system?

One.) Don’t expect it to perform at its best without having qualified and trained personnel operating it.

Two.) Do expect it deteriorate without regular maintenance. I suggest having systems checked annually by a professional contractor, even if there are not any apparent problems.

Three.) Don’t expect it to last forever. Be realistic about the life expectancy of the equipment, and more importantly, recognize that the technology in most cases will become obsolete before it fails. I’ve read that the average life expectancy of an A/V system is as little as three to five years (especially when you’re talking about video projectors).

Four.)
Do expect to need to educate the leadership at your church as to how and why the technology needs to be updated. Actually, this is an activity that needs to happen on a consistent basis – no one likes to be surprised with a big ticket purchase that was not anticipated.

How can you go about it?

1) Upgrade as you go, a piece or two at a time. This can be a great way to keep a system current. As new, beneficial technology becomes available, cycle out the older stuff.

For example, the system is working fine and sounds good, but the mixing console is coming up on 10 years old. So it could be replaced with a newer model, and at the same time, you can be planning similar transitions for loudspeakers, amplifiers and so on.

The main problem I see with this approach is that if the leader of the technical area is not the same person for a number of years, the upgrade process can suffer from lack of consistency.

2) Take the “big leap” and do an overhaul every 7 to 10 years. I’m currently working with a large church on a significant upgrade that has taken almost five years to come to fruition. Over that time span, the design has changed and the cost estimate has increased, but what has stayed consistent is the accumulation of money to do the project.

The key thing in making a significant upgrade happen is to have a vision, backed by a concrete plan to have the money available to do it. By outlining the project at the outset and then accruing a bite-sized chunk of the cost, year after year, the church has been able to do steadily accomplish its vision without having to do the typical fund raising, committee meetings and deacon approval.

To me, both ways work – it’s just very important that the discussion gets started early and that people are onboard in their commitment to technical system excellence.

Insuring Consistency From Service To Service

The benefit of keeping everything in its place and in working order

Talking with worship technicians and worship leaders, I often hear the complaint that from week to week, the quality of Sunday morning services varies.

Some of this stems from training, such as when there’s a problem and the tech doesn’t know how to fix it. Some of it is skill; for example, some sound engineers just have a better ear and command of the equipment than others.

The skill level of musicians may also vary, usually due to lack of experience and thus confidence. When they know a song, no problem, but when they’re unsure, they hold back and can become tentative.

But in my experience, there’s another primary contributor to the problem of inconsistency: equipment status and organization.

Example: It’s five minutes before the start of the service, and the sound engineer is sweating bullets, being told to set up for an additional four musicians that the worship leader hadn’t mentioned until just now. No time for sound check, no time for even a simple line check for these new players.

The mics and direct boxes are quickly located, plugged in, and positioned, and then the engineer high-tails it to the sound booth in time for the start of the service.

Rough estimates are made requiring the input gain and monitor levels, a quick prayer murmured, and the channels are unmuted for the opening song.

Then, and of course, “it” happens: that infamous bzzzzzzzz that makes everyone’s hair stand on end!

This particular time, the problem is the additional bass player’s direct box. Time for a split decision: mute the channel or quickly get to the stage to check find the cause, likely the line cord on the bass, or the direct box is faulty (or set wrong), or the direct box cable is bad, or…?!?

With so many potential trouble spots, and so much else going on during the service, the choice is likely going to be to mute the channel and be comforted by the fact that at least some of the sound coming from the bass rig is still being heard in the house, so the player’s efforts aren’t completely wasted.

Was this entire situation preventable? Of course! And, as usual, it’s the simple things that matter most.

There are at least five things that could and should have been done prior to this “sweat and bzzzzzz” fest:

1) Basic maintenance. All cables and cords need to be checked on a monthly basis. In addition, these should be treated properly (wrapped correctly) and organized (hung in a single, logical location). I recommend a peg board, where cables are sorted by type and length. This way, they can be easily found, even in pressure situation, and will work correctly.

There should be at least two spare cables for each variety of cables (and connectors) being used.

2) Organization. Staying with audio, it’s vital to know exactly how many inputs, and what type, will be required for each and every service. And all of these must be set up and tested ahead of time.

3) Communication. Techs should regularly interface with the worship leader and never be shy about asking if anything new or unusual is coming up. Do this early, and as often as necessary. It beats being surprised, and, it also beats having things go wrong on Sunday.

Still, last-minute stuff can and will happen. Working sound at my church recently, I noticed on the worship order that a missions report had been scheduled, and it would be delivered by someone we weren’t outfitted with a headset/lavalier mic. This was 10 minutes before the service.

So I walked up to the stage and quickly arranged for one of the vocalists, at the appropriate time, to hand off her vocal mic to the person delivering the report, and then to collect it when he was done. Nothing genius, but a last-minute solution that worked smoothly and well. When the time came, I was ready to quickly adjust that particular mic channel to adjust for the new person’s particular voice and mic handling.

4) Plan ahead, and always have a “plan B.” Normally the above scenario would not have been an issue because we always keep a spare “just in case” handheld mic on a stand on the stage (discretely out of the way). But at this particular point in the service, it was already going to be used by someone else on the worship team.

5) Have a party! (You didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Once every few months or so,  the entire tech team should get together to go through all of the equipment, making sure it’s all there, working properly, and organized. It really helps to make this a fun, festive event, with pizza and cold drinks and some time for everyone to “just hang.”

Keep these five things in mind, and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in consistency from service to service.

 

How Loud is Too Loud?

Your congregation’s perception of what is “too loud” during your services can be heavily influenced by quality of mix, sound system, acoustics and musical dynamics.

Sitting in the tech booth during a service on a recent Sunday, I had an “a-ha” moment. Not a big one, but still a good lesson.

We had traded worship bands for the day with our sister church. Our band was playing at their place, and vice versa.

One of our front of house people, Justin, traveled with the band to do the mixing. Just as our service began, I received a text from Justin that simply said, “Running a service at 85 dBA. A new record!” I glanced over at the Smaart app running on my iPad, and our levels were hovering around 88 dBA.

This was during a mellow song; moments later we were doing 90 to 95 dBA. Just then, Justin texted me again: “Update. I was able to get it to 80 dBA. It seems to have pleased the masses.”

This “conversation” (via text) got me thinking about the “how loud is too loud” conversation that’s a constant among church tech folks.

I realized this:

1) Since we’ve installed a new loudspeaker system and acoustical treatment, we’ve been running a bit louder yet haven’t received a single complaint (or for that matter, even a “suggestion” to turn it down).

2) Dynamics really do play into perceived level.

We all know that if the sound is pleasing, we tolerate more level. Think of your morning alarm clock at 90 dBA versus your favorite song on the car radio at 90 dBA—it’s a BIG difference in how you react to those sounds.

Watching as our meter hit 97 dBA, I thought “wow, it just doesn’t seem that loud.” Clearly, it was a combination of a good mix, excellent system, and the acoustical tightness of the room. (Lends credence to getting the the best system you can and mixing it loud!)

But the “a-ha” moment occurred when the band played a familiar song in a very different way. It usually starts out loud with a big guitar riff and big drums. However, this band began it with acoustic guitar only. I glanced at the meter and it read 72 dBA, and the sound was good and the level “felt” appropriate.

Then without warning came a huge downbeat, with everyone hitting it hard and then taking off. But the meter read just 86 dBA. What?! It had to be wrong, because it sure sounded like 92 to 95 dB.

The answer is obvious, however. The contrast was so great that the perceived change in volume was greater than the actual change. Kind of like when you walk out of a dark space directly into sunlight—once your eyes adjust, it’s not usually painfully bright.

The band used this type of dynamic very effectively throughout the service, bringing it way down for the quiet parts and then jumping on louder passages. They were quite skilled at it, and the new system was able to reproduce it very well.

When things got quiet, it still sounded full and rich, and when things got louder, the system responded accurately and without compressing or distorting. I watched the front of house mixer, Trevor, keep his right hand on the control group that we call program (basically everything but vocals). He wasn’t shy about riding the control group to also help accentuate the band’s change in dynamics.

So the lesson is clear: give dynamics more credence to add power and emotion to the mix.

I realize these observations aren’t earth shattering, but it’s a valuable reminder to mix to the appropriate level for the sound system. Don’t push it if the system can’t handle it. Also make sure that the system has enough headroom so that it can respond to these types of changes in level.

It’s also vital for us to bear in mind how we can best help accentuate the dynamics that a band is already producing on stage, to take advantage of that while resisting the temptation to overmix and overprocess.

Loud where it should be, soft where it should be—use the dynamics to make it all the more powerful.

 

10 Things Worship Leaders want from Church Techs

While nothing replaces knowing the tech side of the audio craft, there’s a lot more to being successful in the role.

Over the last 30-plus years, I’ve served on numerous tech teams at various ministries and have learned many things – many of them the hard way.

While nothing replaces knowing the tech side of the audio craft, there’s a lot more to being successful in the role.

Here are some things I’ve picked up along the way, combined with the results of an informal survey of worship leaders about what they want most from techs.

1. Pay attention. Attentiveness is the number one thing worship leaders value.

They want to know that someone cares and is looking out for them. When that’s not the case, it usually leads to animosity that manifests itself at rehearsal (worship leader yelling, “Hey, gang – down here. Yeah it’s me. I need more monitor!) and at services (frustrated look on worship leader’s face as he tries to discretely signal that he needs more monitor). It’s a recipe for disaster, resulting in frustration on both sides.
The solution is to stay consistently focused on what’s happening (of course) and to develop practices to make sure it happens. For example, learning to mix with your head up. Dave Rat, a top front of house engineer in the concert world, positions his console sideways in relation to the stage and even created his own console “Braille” system. This allows him to mix by touch, without continually looking down at the board, so that he can stay concentrated on the stage.

2. Positive attitude.

At one church I visited, all of the musicians were quite intimidated by the monitor engineer; in fact, he was so unpleasant that rather than interface with him, they were willing to live with horrible sound in their monitors, rehearsal after rehearsal, service after service. Don’t be this person!
It’s amazing how far good attitude goes. If the musicians know that you care about them and are working to make everything as good as possible, they’ll give you a lot of grace. And they’ll also be at their best from a performance standpoint.

3. It’s not all about you.

I’ve encountered several sound operators over the years who actually think the musicians wouldn’t be able to perform without them. Wrong. Someone else can and will step up. Being an accomplished tech is a wonderful thing, but the point is to be as useful as possible in supporting the efforts of everyone involved with worship. As top producer Quincy Jones famously said, “Check your ego at the door.” I call it “TnT” – Tech and Talent working together.

4. It’s not all about the gear.

A friend recently made this statement: “With great gear comes great responsibility.” His point is that with the right tools, there’s no excuse not to make it sound as good as possible. To this I add that no matter what gear is available, we still have you the responsibility to do our best. It’s easy to fall into the “equipment trap,” so avoid it.

I recently attended an arena event served by a million-dollar (literally) sound system. The first band sounded awesome. The second band sounded awful. The difference? The techs, not the gear (or the musicians). The first band’s tech team knew what it was doing while the second one did not, so a sophisticated sound system wasn’t going to save them.

5. Musicians are not the enemy.

Although at times, it can feel like they are. Some exhibit arrogance and condescension, unwilling to adapt while always ready with a snarky remark.

But it doesn’t matter. We need to make things work as well as possible for the greater goal. And the truth is, most of them want the exact same thing.

There’s no call to be a jerk in kind, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, a pushover. Be ready to kill them, but only with kindness. It takes two sides to go to war, so don’t complete the equation. (It’s also a war no one wins.) Speak to them with a calm, measured tone, and try to do so with grace and humility. Remember: none of us are perfect.

Further, communicate what you’re doing trying to do with their sound and why. For example, tell them you’re moving a monitor two feet to the left so that the output 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. This type of discussion can go a long way to diffusing tension and reinforcing that you’re indeed working together.

6. Constantly improve your craft.

Musicians rehearse, they practice at home, and then with others they play in advance of services. We need to take the same approach, studying our systems, increasing our understanding of how they work, reading and researching and then putting it into practice.

Another thing that really helps is advancing the material to be used at the upcoming service. I try to get the music in advance, and actually listen to it, critically, and then plan and prepare as to how I can best reproduce what I’m hearing

7. Sometimes it requires long hours.

Get over it.

8. Sometimes it’s a thankless job.

Get over it. Both of these points tend to go together. A tech role can take an inordinate amount of time and it’s rare when anyone notices all we do. We often seem to be the first ones there, then buried in making things work, and then the last ones left to turn out the lights. But that’s the situation, and it’s not about us.

Currently, Todd Elliot, formerly a technical director at Willow Creek Church, is hosting seminars for techs across the country, and I encourage you to attend one. They’re called FILO (First In, Last Out), with Todd offering a lot of helpful advice. The key is not getting burned out – get away as needed, spend time with family and friends, and rejuvenate instead of being a martyr.

9. Relationships are really all that matter.

This applies to the tech team as well as worship leaders, pastors, musicians, and others. More than anything, it determines your success and longevity. For example, I often get together for lunch with our pastor just to check in and see how he’s doing as a person. I also find out how he thinks things are going and can get a feel for what needs to change. And I have his ear to talk about what the tech team needs.

10. Sometimes we just have to say no.

Of course, knowing how and when is the tricky part. Most tech people are servants. We want to make things happen, we want to please, we want to be a hero. This leads to making it tough to refuse requests, no matter how difficult.

For example, someone wants to patch in an additional vocal mic five minutes before the service starts. This can probably be done, but it interrupts other prep and there’s no chance for a sound check. In other words, it’s a recipe for unnecessary problems. So just because we “can” doesn’t mean we “should.” These things also have a tendency to set a new expectation, and where that stops, nobody knows.

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!