Thinking Out Loud

April 7, 2017

Ten Biggest Mistakes Made by Church Sound Technicians

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:51 am

Another lifetime ago, I worked extensively with both live auditorium sound and mixing in a recording studio or television studio environment. I wrote articles to try to make that world a better place, and there’s one — this one — that I always wanted to repeat here but couldn’t find the original copy. Today that changes. These aren’t written for the sound tech guy who is employed full time in a megachurch and oversees dozens of volunteers. Rather, this is for the guy in the small to medium church who does this on weekends and has to endure the “neck crane” stares of parishioners when something goes wrong.

Mistake #1: Failing to set the monitor level first.

If the platform or stage monitors are working at all, they can be heard from the console with the main speakers turned off. While musicians and speakers will ask for these be more finely adjusted, they can be set to a respectable level and the entire system tested through the monitors before the main speakers are brought into play. A two-person team is a better minimum crew, but you can get more done from the back than you realize.

Mistake #2: Failing to use ‘middle balance’ on equipment.

Microphone and media inputs need to be calibrated with the main output level so that equipment is operating best in the middle of the range available. Levels for multiple singers should be “matched” through proper attenuation even before the monitors and main speakers are turned on. If the whole system is running too hot, levels may appear to be low. Sometimes it’s necessary to go beyond the sound board and reconsider the main amplifiers levels, which are often at the level when the system was installed. If the system is too cool, individual channels have to be turned up higher. Professional operators like to keep things around “7” (not “5”) for better fade-ins and fade-outs.

Mistake #3: Channel clipping

This was often heard back in the days soloists would sing with soundtracks. The song would have a wonderful, professionally-produced sustained chord at the end, and the soloist would replace her microphone on the stand and the pastor would get up, and the sound person, in a total panic, would just cut the track. Not even a fade. Of course sometimes, you’d get the opposite, the person whose turn was next would feel they couldn’t move until the track played out and they’d stand there like a deer caught in the headlights. The point is that channel clipping still happens, especially with increased use of video clips.

Mistake #4: Misreading the house

This error falls into one of two categories: Either the sound person is placed in a part of the auditorium that doesn’t represent the acoustics the average audience member is experiencing; or the sound levels were set in an empty room and a now full house is simply absorbing a measurable portion of the sound. (In northern states and Canadian provinces, this actually increases if people bring winter coats to their seats.)

Mistake #5: Mixing by fader only

Anyone can turn up the volume. To do the job well, one has to listen to the tonal balance and set equalization positions on each individual channel. This is where a philosophy degree is helpful. For example, let’s say the soprano singer’s voice borders on shrill. Do you try to suppress that, or do you allow the tonal filters to let through what the music director must have liked when he auditioned her? You can’t just turn down her high end so she sounds like an alto. Some people were taught you don’t touch the EQ on the channels once the program begins. I disagree. Can’t hear the words? Try turning up the high end to enhance to consonants and make word-definition clearer. Use the mid-range to bring out the vowels. Turn up the bass to add richness and rhythm. Don’t make major changes in the middle of a song or sermon, but feel free to make small adjustments. Just make sure your speakers are handling this without distortion — especially with bass — and make sure fader levels are brought down when tonal filters are opened up. Also, have the overall EQ of the room checked every 3-4 months using whichever method you prefer, a white noise generator or a spectrum analyzer.

Mistake #6: Not explaining equipment to users.

Even a well-seasoned audio guy needs to be told as if he’s never seen the equipment before. When it comes to platform participants, this doubly applies.  It’s also good to go over basic care of the board and microphones, and reminding soloists not to point mics toward monitors, cup hands over mics, and not leaving mics on the floor. Do your mics have switches? Make sure they remember this. Does the pastor need to switch on his cordless mic? This often saves batteries, but so many times speakers are intent about their sermon content and forget this important step.

Mistake #7: Playing the wrong media.

Anything that needs to be inserted into a machine during the course of the program needs to be well labelled. Back in the day, tape machines had a zero-reset that could be used to cue things to the start point and avoid “dead air.” Digital media solves many of these problems, but introduces new ones. If the video isn’t going to be used until 24:00 into the service, the machine may shut down after 20:00. Furthermore, some media requires greatly different EQ-ing and balancing than other line inputs. The more video you have, unless you have a discrete channel and playback source for each, many things can mess up. I would argue you can’t do video clips in the modern church without an audio production assistant.

Mistake #8: Not balancing between singers and accompaniment.

We’re in the communication business. People need to hear what is being said, both through spoken word and through music. So you need to decide: Is the singer too quiet or is the band too loud? This is complicated often by the age and musical taste of the person doing the mix. Different generations have different ideas about what sounds right. Also, the modern church will often post the words on the screen, even for a solo. That doesn’t preclude getting the mix right.

Mistake #9: Failing to bring out the melody.

This combines with the mistake above especially if there is more than one singer. The melody (the tune if you prefer) must dominate over the harmony. In a higher class of music, sometimes the melody is passed from the soprano to the the tenor. You may need more detailed cue sheets for this type of song. Or better yet, have a musician sitting next to you at the console providing visual cues. Or best, attend a rehearsal.

Mistake #10: Not paying attention.

Details, details, details! (Some would say, Coffee, coffee, coffee!) You need to be on top of your game making sure channels are opened at the right time (and also closed when they’re not needed) and to do this you need be eying the platform like a hawk. If there’s a cue you need to see and you can’t because of lighting or distance, I wouldn’t eliminate having a pair of binoculars at the console.

…Years and years later, I was amazed that these ten rules still apply. True, I took out references to tapes, but overall the problems and challenges remain consistent. I also had an additional bonus ten, but surprisingly they didn’t apply. (The piece about misuse of Dolby was fun to read; and it did remove a lot of crispness from many singers’ soundtracks.)  There were however two things in that list I felt worth mentioning:

Concern #1: Keep sound consistent from week to week.

The only way to ensure this is with a decibel meter. Decide what your peak levels are going to be for music — you also don’t want it really quiet one week either — as well as the sermon. With sermons, there is a level at which the preacher is shouting and people don’t absorb what’s being said. Equally problematic however, is when the audience is straining to get the words because the level is too low. Don’t forget item #5 above as well with speakers. The high end (treble) will bring out the consonants and make the words clearer.

Concern #2: Don’t violate copyrights.

With every media source (video clips, etc.) ask, “Did we buy this?” Or, “Are we authorized to show this?” This applies with everything from short 2-minute illustrations to church movie nights. (No, you can’t always simply go to the Christian bookstore and buy the movie the day before and show it the next night.)

Concern #3: Keep the beast on a leash: The wonderful world of MIDI

Increasingly, the many pieces of your tech puzzle can interact with each other. The cardinal rule that applies here is: Everything you can control you must control.

Remember, the original document was written nearly 25 years ago. I’d love to hear from those of you who do this either as a volunteer in your church or professionally.

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1 Comment »

  1. When my church made me the sound technician, it was because I was there – I had no training and no idea what all the buttons and sliders were for. Basically, they wanted me to run the thing just shy of high pitched whiny noise and keep on turning it down.

    Comment by Jamie Carter — April 7, 2017 @ 6:59 am


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