Whether it’s a drummer who plays too loud or a sound tech who mixes their favorite instrument too hot, most teams have a chronic set of sound problems. Some, but not all of these problems are behavioral ones. Others, represent the battle of wills that can happen when the varied needs of musicians and sound techs collide. With the permission of my Senior Pastor, Mark Cotter, we’ll be looking at some of problems that my team encountered on Easter Sunday as a potential source of insights and solutions for you and your team.
While I’m not a big fan of two-part articles, I’m going to split this one into two parts. For Part II, we’re going to ask you to share some of the ongoing sound problems your team is facing in the Comments section for this article on our web site. In turn, we’ll follow up with suggested solutions from our editorial team! Sound like a plan?
REAL WORLD PROBLEMS
Each week, the 150-person church I attend meets in a school auditorium. I’m excited to say that our church is growing, but I will add that Easter Sunday revealed some of our growing pains. Again, with the permission of my Senior Pastor, I’m going to walk through the problems we encountered, and talk about the underlying causes. Then at the end, I cover some of the suggested solutions my pastor and I discussed to these very real-world challenges!
DECONSTRUCTING A ROCKY START
For me, the morning got off to a bit of a rocky start. This is well worth discussing because of the conflicting worship and tech team needs I mentioned earlier – and the fact that there is going to be a little conflict here and there. Learning to see things from one another’s perspective is key in terms of building and maintaining unity. Prior to rehearsal, I fired up my guitar amp, and our sound tech chimed in that I needed to turn down, even before we’d started sound check. Rather than chuck a guitar player hissy fit, I really wanted to understand why the sound tech felt so strongly about having me turn down. Even it if was before we really knew how loud I would be once the band joined in, there was something to be learned for me here. As I endeavored to look at things from their perspective instead of mine, I was able to understand why they felt so strongly and acted so quickly. Over a nice dinner a few nights later we were able to deconstruct the driving dynamics so they would not be a problem moving forward.
Sound Techs’ Perspective: A guitar amp in a small auditorium can make it really hard for a sound tech to have the ability to get the blend they’re looking for. It’s a real problem, and unity-minded musicians need to keep this in mind.
Musicians’ Perspective: Like mixing sound, playing an instrument is about responding in real time to what is going on musically. That said, my belief is that there are times techs underestimate how much musicians need to hear themselves in order to play dynamically.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Another growing pain that this interaction brought to the surface was the fact that we need to delegate who has the final say on stuff like this. As much as you want to find a unifying solution, there are times that everyone needs to know who has the definitive word in saying what’s to be done, and when it’s time to move on to the next thing.
Sound Techs’ Perspective: Given the engineer-like personality that many techs have, a lot of musicians miss the depth of emotion that most sound techs have… to feel the need to make things sound the way they envision them. Without clearly defining who is in charge, the strength of this emotion tends to drive sound techs to assert control. Understanding why is key to understanding sound techs – and unity!
Musicians’ Perspective: In smaller churches, sound techs tend to only be around on Sunday. Musicians on the other hand tend to invest a lot of time before Sunday, working out the role that each voice and instrument plays in the arrangements. When sound techs assert control, musicians can feel that their arrangements have been “commandeered”, which can fuel the emotional undercurrent that drives the “us vs. them” mentality – again, a unity killer!
PROPER SOUND CHECK
There is a big difference between a line check, level check, and sound check, and this past Sunday we really paid the price for not taking the time to do a proper sound check.
Sound Techs’ Perspective: A skilled sound tech can make a skilled worship team sound great without doing a proper sound check. They know to watch for input levels on meters, how to sweep EQ to find sweet and sour spots, and how to construct a mix that sounds great to their ears. Many techs operate from a perspective of, “If I can hear everything clearly, things are good!” which of course makes sense!
Musicians’ Perspective: If your team is using powered monitors and you don’t do a proper sound check, your team lacks a dynamic reference point. The monitors should be enough of a representation of what is happening front of house that your team can use them to recreate the blend and dynamics they potentially worked hard to achieve in their mid-week rehearsal. When it came time to do “the special”, the acoustic guitars were much hotter in the monitors than they were front of house, killing the blend we crafted in rehearsal because we underplayed to match the vocal level in the monitors.
CATCH OF THE DAY
We are blessed with a drummer who has a great feel, amazing time, knows how to play at a volume that is great for the room, and has a great attitude. That said, when standing next to him on the platform, I hear the transients of his cymbals and snare before I hear those from my guitar. This audio “masking” is another one of the things that drives stage volume for us.
Sound Techs’ Perspective: I’m pretty sure that our sound techs would welcome a shield to reduce the drum volume both on and off the platform. What techs don’t always get is that great drummers play the way they do because they are listening to what is going on around them, and drum shields do not discriminate when it comes to blocking sound from exiting or entering the area covered by the shield.
Musicians’ Perspective: Playing behind a shield is like being in a fishbowl – fish don’t seem to complain, but most drummers hate it for the reasons I mentioned before. It also creates a lot of reflection that comes back into drum mics if you’re using them. It can also drive the need to start using drum mics (we do mic the kick), which ads more time to your set up, sound check and tear down!
The first place I’d suggest starting is defining who has the ultimate say on Sunday morning. My suggestion would be the worship leader since they are the one who actually leads the congregation in worship.
If you’re not doing a formal sound check, here is the “Cliff Notes” version. After a quick level check, have the team loop the chorus of the loudest song in the following order: Drums; Bass; Drums + Bass; Keys; Drums Bass + Keys; Guitar; Drums Bass Keys + Guitar; Lead Vocal; Lead Vocal; Drums Bass Keys + Guitar; Backing Vocals with Keys; All Vocals with Keys; Everyone.
If drum volume is a consistent problem that can’t seem to be solved otherwise, let the drummers know that the shield is coming if they won’t play at the volume the room requires. This gets back to the unity factor. One person (or instrument) blowing the mix for everyone else is not OK, and does not breed unity in a team.
If you and your team can use unity as your guiding force for making these and other tough decisions, your team will flourish because of the value you place on the team and not the individual. This comes at a cost, but coming on the heels of Easter, it really hard to think of any of the solutions we’ve just discussed as a real sacrifice.
Don’t forget that we need your comments for Part II of “The Sound Problem” – see you next month!