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.

 

The Importance Of Regularly Testing Cables

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “The Importance Of Regularly Testing Cables”

Cut Down On The Noise—Simplify

“It’s been said many times but bears repeating: “Technology is best when it’s transparent.”

As I’m sure is the case with many of you, my life is quite hectic right now, packed beyond capacity with things to do. Most of them are worthy things that I want and/or need to do, but they keep me hopping.

In response, I’ve chosen a very simple motto: “Simplify.” I plan to live by this simple (pun intended) maxim through the end of the year—at least. Simply (pun intended again), simplify means removing some of the clutter from my daily life and the complications that go with it. Continue reading “Cut Down On The Noise—Simplify”

The Path To Worship Mix Success

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

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

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

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

Here we go…

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

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

Recruiting Church Volunteers: Knob Twisters or Team Members?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What does a worship leader want out of a tech?

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

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

The answers have been surprising, at least to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet consider these anecdotes…

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

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

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

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

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

Let me sum it up this way.

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

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

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

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.