Sound is one of the most contentious and potentially divisive challenges we face. To paraphrase my take on live sound, it is kind of like a blender that mixes the sound coming from the stage, out of the P.A., and the inherent qualities of the room you’re in. Any shortcomings in one area will affect the overall result. The goal of this article is to kick start healthy (but frank) conversations about the gear you buy and your approach for doing so.
Before we go any further I’ll add that some of you may not agree with the suggestions presented below, and they may not be the right fit for your church. As always, I look forward to seeing your feedback on the web site and having a chance to see things from your perspective!
With that out of the way, let me start by saying I loathe big noting, and to date have never shared much about my background in this column or the magazine for that matter. Given the subject, I feel the need to do so for a point of reference and not ego.
As a professional musician, my work in the recording studio includes tracking my own sessions for Guitar Hero and much of an instrumental disc I put out on Steve Vai’s label. After a couple of years of touring behind that disc, I settled into full time ministry. Prior to working full time for [WM] I was the Worship and Creative Arts Director at a 150-person church. In addition to working with the worship and tech teams, my role included facility management since our venue was available for rent, as were my services as a sound tech. Much, but not all of my experience from the studio and stage side of things translates to mixing live sound. Here are a few takeaways that are pertinent to this conversation to share as ‘collective common knowledge’.
Venues like Portland’s Roseland Theater, the Ventura Theater, and the Baked Potato in L.A. exemplify three extremes of how much a room impacts your sound. The Roseland Theater is a square-shaped venue with cement walls that create a ton of reflection and standing waves because of their hard-parallel surfaces. The stage at the visually stunning Ventura Theater has the worst sound of any venue I’ve ever played. Between the mushy sound and murky reflections, none of my ‘fixes’ (turning up, turning down, more effects, less effects) have ever worked there. The Baked Potato is a small room that unlike the Roseland Theater has virtually no sound reflection, and is totally dead and requires the addition of a digital reverb to my rig to make things feel ‘live’. It is highly probable, that to one extent or another, I just described your sanctuary.
The placement of the stage, instruments, monitors, mixing console, and speakers all influence what happens in the room. Placing sound reinforcement equipment in a room that was never designed for live sound often exacerbates the pre-existing audio inadequacies of the venue.
While adding treatment can help reduce unwanted reflection or bass build up, I again remind you of the ‘sound smoothie’ in which the room is frequently as much a bigger ingredient than people realize. The problems you associate with your sound system may actually be room problems which acoustic treatment and the right sound system and placement can do a lot to address.
Ironically, as a touring artist my sound had a lot in common with churches who use backing tracks. The only way I could afford to tour was with tracks, which meant the sound tech only had to mix my guitar against a mono backing track, which I controlled via a Boss RC-300 Looper. This means that much of my source audio was pre-mixed and did not create additional sound coming from the stage, other than that coming from the monitors.
THE SOUND SYSTEM
Like the room, your sound system is one of the constants whose inherent character plays a giant role in your sound. The church where I served as the Worship and Creative Arts Director had a great digital mixer and excellent personal monitor mixers for the worship team. The speakers on the other hand had a ‘blanket effect’ whose murky quality got worse the louder you turned them up. While sound treatment and the number of people in the room will impact the sound, a bad set of speakers will sound bad even in the best of rooms, which gets us to the story behind this story.
Recently, I had an extensive conversation on church sound with several high-ranking employees at a major live sound reinforcement manufacturer. The longer they spoke, the more certain I became that I had to share their experience-borne insights in this article. As a frame of reference, prior to working for this manufacturer, these folks had decades of experience playing on worship teams, mixing sound, and putting together sound systems for churches. I encourage and perhaps even implore you to share this article with everyone who has anything to do with purchasing sound gear for your church and/or is involved with your building fund, if you have one. What we’re about to talk about impacts everyone at your congregation in two crucial ways – sound and tithes.
Based on their collective experience, these guys firmly believe that the majority of churches install three separate sound systems for every space they inhabit, and what I’ve coined the ‘rule of three’. Accompanying this disheartening of news and room of shaking of heads was a detailed set of reasons why this repeatedly happens from church to church…
LEAVE IT UP TO THE SOUND TECHS?
Noting that the sound techs are the ones who have to use the gear, it makes a lot of sense that they are the ones who choose what gear to purchase. However, there is an inherent flaw in this logic, that is frequently a factor in the ‘rule of three’. Sound techs tend to be more opinionated than not, and that also applies to their choice in gear. If a lead sound tech leaves, their gear choices stay behind, and frequently those are not the same choices the person who inherits their role and gear would make. And, once again, the ‘purchasing powers that be’ are presented with the gear the church needs to buy in order to solve the sound problem. And if that sound tech leaves, the church potentially comes face to face with the ‘rule of three’. Because of the elongated nature of this cycle, churches can easily miss the repetitiveness nature that drives this problem.
As a sound tech I believe the sound team deserves to have a voice in the gear purchasing process. With that in mind, we live in a time where sound techs aren’t just mixing for church, they are also ‘multi-purpose mixing’ for Podcasts and YouTube. Noting that an increasing number of people ‘audition’ churches online before they ever walk through the door, these secondary mixes are becoming increasingly important and are frequently married to video. Given the underwhelming audio experience I get when listening to many Podcasts and YouTube service broadcasts, I believe there needs to be more voices in the mix than just the sound team when it comes to sound system purchases.
WE GOT A DEAL!
Another ‘rule of three’ factor is the package deal that was just too good to pass up. A pastor friend of mine saw a great deal on a digital mixer package and jumped on it. Because he leads a set up and tear down church, the mixer is still in the box because they have not yet had an opportunity to train up the lone sound tech on how to use their fancy pants digital mixer. Not such a good deal after all.
THE SOUND TECH’S BUDDY
Having a friend to turn to for expertise is a great thing, but that is not necessarily the case when it comes to buying the right sound system for your team and venue. Another ‘rule of three’ factor I heard about was having someone other than a professional sound integrator become the sound authority. This can result in poor choices that once again give cause for the ‘rule of three’ when the inadequacies of the chosen gear present themselves over time.
As I mentioned before, we live and mix in changing times where audio is increasingly married to video, be it streaming or otherwise. Ironically, when churches buy video cameras they often don’t consider how they can pipe mixed sound into the camera so that the audio and video are married at the time of capture. If you’ve ever had to mix and synch video in post production, you’ll appreciate the huge amount of time this can save. Given how important getting great sound on Podcasts, YouTube, and streaming video is becoming, there has probably never been a time where churches could benefit more from some outside help.
Noting that I believe that the ‘rule of three’ is in fact true, the resounding ‘way to go’ I heard about in the aforementioned meeting was to hire a professional systems integrator and insist on references that someone at your church follows up on. Regardless of the size of your church or project, a simple consultation is a great first step. Many integrators are believers and have a genuine understanding of the unique array of challenges churches face.
KEEP YOUR SOUND TEAM IN THE MIX
Sound techs are actually engineers, and true to the name, they tend to be more than a bit technical in their approach. But don’t let that fool you, these dedicated souls feel things just as deeply as anyone on the platform. Their deep sense of responsibility can look like the need for control, and while that may be the case for some, most sound techs are really about serving and in general love to research and learn about gear. The great thing about involving them in the process of working with a systems integrator is that they tend to ask smart questions that spark important questions about sound. When it comes to the ‘sound smoothie’ I mentioned at the beginning of this article, no one in the room knows these ingredients better than your sound techs.
BIG CHURCH PROBLEMS
Ironically, big churches can make some of the same kinds of mistakes that smaller churches make, but with much bigger consequences. I’ve never met a single sound tech who was a professional architect – have you? In the same fashion that sound techs generally aren’t video editors and vice versa, architects tend to think about people filling space, not sound. Because of this, it is highly beneficial to get and keep a systems integrator in the mix before your church draws up any plans.
One of the churches I served at seated a couple thousand people, and was significantly wider than it was deep. Amazingly enough, the sound booth was not placed in the horizontal center of the room, which made it impossible to mix in stereo without using headphones. While every sound tech should own a pair of IEMs and/or closed back headphones, they should be used to monitor input instruments and sub-mixes, not compensate for the inability to accurately hear the stereo field from the mixing desk. As much as the architect liked the idea of being able to see the platform when you walked through the center doors, they created a mixing nightmare that never should have made it past the planning stages. That is the kind of fight that a systems integrator should be willing to die on their sword for.
I am believing that what I learned in the aforementioned meeting will serve many of you and your congregations for years to come. I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts and insights in the comments page for this article on the [WM] web site. God Bless!