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!

SOLUTIONS

DELEGATE AUTHORITY
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.

SOUND CHECK
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.

DRUM SHIELD
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.

UNITY
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!

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Doug is the Editorial Director for Worship Musician and Gear Tech + Recording magazines. WorshipMusician.com

24 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been playing in a worship band for over 25 years, and also working on the sound team for 5 years or so, so I get to see the issues from both points of view.

    First, regarding the drums – We switched to electronic drums about 15 years, and as a drummer I greatly prefer them in a church context, especially as we have a small venue. Yes they play differently, like an electric guitar is different to an acoustic one – but a good kit plays well, is dynamic, and also allows experimentation with non-acoustic sounds. But most of all it can be completely volume controlled, meaning overall sound levels on stage are much lower, no need for the hated fish-bowl, and no need to constantly be managing volume. When the big rock song is on I can pound away at 100% with no need to be sensitive to overall room volume.

    Most of all it means I can hear the other musicians, which leads me to a second point. As a band member I need to hear myself, yes, but I also want to hear everyone else. If I want to hear just drums I can do that at home by myself. On stage the real delight is not in how well I’m playing but in how well everyone else is playing, and how, ultimately, they make me sound good. When we switched to playing for each other, and not ourselves, we all ended up sounding better, and the overall result is better than each of us individually can do.

    From a sound-engineer perspective I’ve noticed we tend to fall into one of 2 groups. “Pure engineers” make a good mix, but it tends to be static. It’s “all there” and it’s clinically great. Musicians-doing-sound though tend to be more dynamic, doing a lot of volume adjusting during songs, with more of a feel for the arrangement – when there’s a guitar lead, when we pump the bass for a chorus just to create some light and shade and so on. It’s more like playing another instrument than creating the “one true mix”. Both are great but as a musician I like making the mix an extension of the arrangement where a clinical mix can sometimes work against the arrangement.

    • I really like the way you explained this Bruce. I am the worship leader, and often feel the need to correct balance within the sound booth when I have the opportunity to help, but what we hear on the platform is often not what the congregation hears, so we struggle to feel confident from the platform. You said it very well!

    • Hey Bruce! Love it – thanks for all the good stuff – ESPECIALLY riding the bass fader on the Chorus – the secret weapon for making things BIGGER without making things louder in the transient end of things. Also, figured I’d share this video from the Alesis site for the Command Mesh electronic drums that puts in music what you talked about – pretty amazing to watch these guys play http://alesis.com/products/view2/command-mesh-kit God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  2. What would happen if you opted for 100% acoustic, or at least a stage sound that was completely independent of the speech reinforcement? A 150-person venue is quite small and should not really need too much tech stuff, but as you add it (because we can!) you can end up with a far-too-complex situation. Or go into orchestra mode and try a conductor!

    • Hey! Hopefully my response will not sound confrontational or dismissive – it’s not. There are some vocalists who are either quiet, shy, or both and without a mic could hurt their voices when trying to compete vocally, or more probably fade into the background even more without remedy. The reality is that every style has its own way of doing things (nice way of saying bubble) and from within the bubble it all makes sense. In the spirit of your post there are things we do because that’s the way we do them that don’t always make sense. The concept of a silent stage is smart, but is it actually a more musical experience for both the team and the congregation – boom I said it:) God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  3. We too are about 150 on Sunday in a small room and a few years ago, we went to electronic drums, since a set was overpowering everything in the room. This helped some, but the stage sound was still bouncing off the back wall and reverberating around the room causing the mix to sound muddled. we just went to in ear individual monitors in January and the sound in the main is much better, but the feel on the stage is not the same at all. I’m not sure how to get a good balance, but appreciate this article and look forward to reading more.

    • Hey Myra! You are in so many ways “every Church”, or at least many. In my previous reply I almost talked about the fact that when you rehearse vocalists you almost always do that around a piano, and blend is EVERYTHING. Unless everyone is good at mixing their in-ears, blend is a hard thing to get on IEMs (in-ear monitors) – PAN is HUGE:) That said, with the exception of vocalists’ tendency to rush, putting BVs on a powered wedge and the rest of the band on IEMs is a way to keep the feel human but still leverage the many benefits of IEMs can bring while keeping it musical for the folks who most need the blend. The blended approach also helps keep volume down. Not saying this is THE way, but it is one option of losing some of the isolation-born sterility of the IEM experience. Another thing that can help is putting a dab of reverb in the IEM mix for the vocalists so it doesn’t sound like your sining in a room with carpet on every surface. All that to say, I totally hear what you’re saying! God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  4. I run sound for a southern gospel quartet. The baritone is old school quartet person, He wants to hear himself in the monitors. But he has pitch problems sometimes, so I (a baritone also) sing in my mic from the board, in the back, and give balance to the mains.
    The bigger problem is different venues each time, audience age, and if you can’t hear the message in the lyrics cause your instruments ( or tracks) are too loud, then the congregation isn’t going to enjoy your performance nearly as much as when there is a careful balance.

    • Hey David! You’re kind of the 5th Beatle (or something like that)! Love it! You hit perhaps the most important nail on the head – if you can’t hear the lyrics clearly, getting the congregation singing = entering into worship with their voices, then one could wonder if things aren’t a bit like an out of control locomotive speeding down the track vs. headed to destination where everyone gets there safe and sound. Love that word BALANCE! God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  5. I lead worship in a smaller church; 40 people on Easter. Our sanctuary is very small – seating capacity of about 60. The room is so small it would almost be better to go without sound reinforcement. We’ve had a number of sound techs over the years and a variety of challenges. One sound tech was effectively deaf and would create the house mix over headphones. He was pretty resistant to suggestions and I often would just have to live with whatever he did. It was very frustrating until I finally convinced him to let me control the monitor mix and give total responsibility for the house mix to him. That worked pretty well in our old church with a much larger space. Now, the space is so small that the monitor mix is basically the house mix. With our current sound techs it’s much better. We communicate a lot better and there’s not the power struggle there used to be. Now, our challenges are caused primarily by the small space and substandard equipment instead of personalities. I much prefer these problems.

    • Hey Tracy! You know, bigger isn’t always better, now is it?! Glad to hear that “the sound problem” is better for you:) God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  6. A couple things. First, I am both musician/leader and sound tech. I spend time arranging and organizing when it’s my scheduled week to play. Otherwise, I’m often looking after sound & lights. As a tech, I see myself as a part of the band in that how I mix and EQ is as much worship as it is arranging. My tools are my ears and being a part of the worship can help guide mixing decisions to bring out the most in a song selection.

    Having said this, my perceptions of what I’m hearing are entirely mine and completely subjective! What sounds good to me won’t necessarily appeal to everyone in the audience but this is true anywhere. The tech in me wants to jump into the booth if I’m somewhere listening to a band that hasn’t been mixed particularly well.

    One of the greatest challenges for me is working with electric instruments using stage amps (bass, guitar and sometimes keys). I too am often reminding performers to keep their levels lower than they would like and use the stage monitors to hear the mix. As well, it’s essential to use pre-fader levels to set monitor mixes! The acoustics of the stage are completely different than those for the auditorium and giving the band post-fader levels in their monitors can give them a false sense of just how loud (or soft) they are or need to be.

    Good mixing is all about CONTROL! Controlling levels before they become a problem is one of my first priorities. What this really means in the context of a band is getting everyone to play nice and work together. If everyone on stage is competing with the guitar or bass amp (or drums!), there’s not much left for the tech to do but sit at his mixing desk and pretend to look busy because the mixing decisions have already been made on stage. There are several solutions to this but I’ll give two of the easiest to implement:

    DI all electric instruments (ie. eliminate stage amps). There are so many stomp boxes that offer good tube emulation there is no reason to use amps; especially for smaller venues. A good set of pedals will cost about the same as an amp anyway and they’re much more portable!

    Move amps offstage to a separate room or closet. Set up a separate insulated cabinet for each and mic them all individually. This is surprisingly effective at giving everyone a really good indication of what the instrument with its amp really sounds like!

    The bottom line with any strategy is trust. The tech is really a part of the band. Kind of like a film director in that their decisions directly affect what the audience is seeing and hearing! Trust between the leader for the week and the tech is built on a shared belief in the roles each plays and guided by a mutual understanding of the role of worship in building faith and honouring God.

    • Hey Matt! I’m an avid Line 6 user – Helix and HD500 before that, so I will second that you don’t have to use a guitar amp, and in many situations it is arguably the best way to go for everyone involved if one were looking for a singular solution. That said, I’m also a beta-tester for their new POWERCAB powered speaker solution with XLR out and it affords the player (used it on bass this past week in addition to guitar in weeks past) the ability to have a volume-scalable resource for getting a little air moving up on the platform. It also has speaker and mic modeling per the XLR out. It’s pretty awesome, especially since you don’t need to turn it up to get it into the “tone zone” like you do with a number of amps. That said, I’m also an avid endorser for Radial’s SGI (Studio Guitar Interface) http://radialeng.com/sgi.php for banishing amps from the platform without losing tone in the process, and with the benefit of being able to turn them up once they are appropriately isolated. Here they are in use backstage at Hillsong United show https://www.instagram.com/p/BW2z8QqlxQ5/?taken-by=worshipmusicianmag – it was LOUD – but wow did it sound great, and totally out of the way of the FOH (front of house) mix. And yes, TRUST is everything! God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

  7. Additional issues: Facebook live and sound mixing — how do we accomplish that? Often there is one or two major voices, poor mixing on the instruments, etc. I cringed when I heard our latest sample. I’d rather not market our church at all than to have it marketed by what was heard there. How can we fix that?

    • Two things spring to mind here, depending on how your board is set up. For us the “computer” output comes from one of the Aux channels not from the mains mix. This makes recording the band close to impossible as it’s hard to mix that aux, even with good headphones, because the “mains” sound will affect what you hear there. (To be fair, we don’t record the band, so this is not an issue for us.)

      If we took the sound from the “mains” channel that would be better, but still probably not great. The mains gets a lot of sound from the venue itself – reverb off the walls, volume of the congregation and so on. It would at least be “mixed” but would would be mixed for “live” rather than “recorded” and so might seem a bit off when viewing a recording. This is probably still the most practical approach, but would require a good sound technician.

      Perfection would require the mixing desk to be in a separate sound-proof room so the “live” sound was not influencing the mixing person. Or recording each channel separately during the performance and post-mixing it later. Both of which are impractical for most churches.

    • Hey Melodie! So… you asked the million dollar question that many if not most of us are facing, but lets add the baby room to the mix as well. So sound teams need to start creating separate mixes for these separate audio “streams”, which comes down to strategy and headphones. Yes, I know that version of cringe all too well. The good news is that the digital boards from the likes of Allen & Heath, Behringer, PreSonus, Midas, and Yamaha (note the politically correct alphabetical order) make this a doable mission. If your team holds mid-week rehearsal where you do weekend services, this is a PERFECT time for your sound techs to get up to speed on this with time to fine tune via some worship team input BEFORE Sunday – amen! God Bless ~ Doug // [wWM]

  8. We have an issue where our sound person is trying to create sound dynamics by increasing overall volume where they want to hear intensity and decreasing when they think it should be quieter. These are not small changes in volume. My perspective as the worship leader is that it doesn’t always match what I feel God has led me to do in the song. I truly appreciate their efforts and I am in no way a sound tech but I feel that the dynamics should be left to the worship leader. That being said, I have not been at this church for a long period of time and certainly don’t want to offend or upset anyone. Looking for a good solution.

    • Hey Charisse! Yep, being new to a team is, um, interesting. Chatting respectfully with the worship pastor about this is a great and Godly way to approach this. They might be thinking it, and your input could be the tipping point. Once your roots are a little deeper there, if the culture permits, asking the sound tech why they do it is always a good starting place. Questions beget questions. Per one of the other posts on this thread, another way to get there is to use the Bass fader a vehicle for making things bigger on the Chorus. The bass player needs to be in on this strategy and also have the dynamic control to pull this off. Ironically, my first worship service was as an unsaved bass player sub – I’m a guitar player primarily, but have had enough experience in Church to learn that the bass player owns the subs. If you have the sound tech’s trust, you can REALLY make the band get big when you need to by how hard you hit the low strings. Balance and trust. Thanks for your post – great food for thought! God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

    • Hi Charisse,

      When I’m doing sound I “play” with the overall volume a fair bit, but I come from a place of having played for a long time in the band so I’m (reasonably) sure I’m on the same page as the leader. As much as anything it’s hearing how they are playing, and understanding where they are wanting the song to go etc.

      In just the same way that say a drummer gets to know the leader, and understands them, be it with signals or just the way they adjust their play, I think it’s good for the sound engineer to have the same feeling.

      At the end of the day the leader is in charge and the engineer is part of the team. So I would say it’s about clear communication – both before, during and after the service. Work with them so they know your signals, when you’re looking for big sound, when to be quiet and so on. Feedback after the service, when they did well especially, and gentle correction when they got it wrong is really helpful. I know when I started doing sound I got a lot of feedback, not just from the band (who mostly can’t hear what I’m doing anyway) but also from other musicians who were not on stage on that Sunday. That was really helpful because I knew they’d be honest (good and bad) but also helped me “tune” my ear to what other folk heard.

      While The musicians are of course playing dynamically, I don’t think it’s realistic (or desirable) for them to try and control “overall volume”. For starters they don’t get the same mix as the congregation so it’s not like what they hear is what everyone else hears. IMO musicians should absolutly pound away in the big bits, and be quieter in the quiet bits. But the engineer is ultimately responsible for the front-of-house mix.

      Of course that means they are part of the team, with the same goals, under the worship leader, so they need direction from the leader, and the sensitivity, and skill, to turn that direction into effective results. Just as you would encourage and direct and grow a new band member, so you can encourage direct and grow sound technicians.

  9. I have been running sound for over 25 years, and I honestly believe that if everyone practiced together it would fix many of the issues. A well oiled worship team (including the audio visual crew) will know each others needs, and be able to solve issues before Sunday morning services.

    • Hey Brian! That is pretty much the medicine thet would help solve many if not most of our problems, time being one of them. That said, I LOVE the idea of getting everyone on deck! God Bless ~ Doug // [WM]

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