Category Archives: Serving

Sound Advice: on (church) audio support

I am continuing a series I am calling “opportunites for improvement (OFIs).” These are mistakes I see often in (church) sound system operation. My experience is that successful audio support is not entirely an art or a science. In my experience it is more of a practice.

I’m a listener. Throughout my years, I have experienced some incredible gatherings of people when I have lost myself in an experience. One of the reasons I have gotten lost is because I didn’t even think about how well I could hear. The audio operator did such a superb job of attending to the medium — the thing in the middle — between the message and me, that I lost myself in the message.

On the other hand, one of the most distracting elements in a worship service or other gathering can be poor audio support. Included in an audio-supporting sound system is the operation by a human resource. The operator’s job description is one of support. If the only time the operator is noticed is when s/he is thanked for a job well done, they have succeeded. If listeners have to think about what or why they cannot hear, what the ringing sound is, or what is about to ring, then there is some room for improvement.

For some reason, a man standing behind a sound console full of knobs is a very territorial creature (ladies don’t seem to share this condition). This can be true from a volunteer working a very small gathering to a professional standing behind rows and rows of knobs. I have seen sound operators in church events treated unkindly and impatiently when being asked to do something simple by an individual making a small request in an unreasonable and even angry tone. Likewise, I have not been spoken to as disrespectfully at any other time, as by a sound operator when I made a simple (and warranted) request. I don’t know all of the sources of our intensity–there is certainly some defensiveness in the mix, but the world/church could use some servanthood in this supportive role. I think a primary source of stress is poor training. Often we put someone with limited or no training in a fairly visible role and then we ask the improbable of them. There are varying levels of success with this kind of recruit-and-ignore strategy, but I think the odds are against success.

What follows is a draft of my list of opportunities for improvement, 12 so far. These are not for you or for the guy at your church, but maybe you can pass this along under the heading of “tell this guy named Ron what he missed.” If I have been in your church, you can rest assured these are not written with any one person in mind. The challenges seem to be somewhat universal and this list is the result of observations of repeated behaviors, so I am REALLY not talking about you. I would like to hear your comments and opinions, so jump in the conversation.

Here is the first draft of my list:

  1. Creating noises in the soundbooth — talking, dropping things. Under the role of support, you could include being seen and not heard. If there are flags being waved in a soundbooth, you might be causing a visual distraction as well.
  2. Allowing feedback, that all too familiar ringing sound in your ears — big distraction, big no no.
  3. Allowing “almost-feedback” — a signal functioning right at the level of feedback, if there’s a pre-hint of feedback coming, that shifts focus away from the matter at hand.
  4. Not paying attention to or not knowing what is coming next. If someone steps up to a microphone, (whether printed in an order of service or not) have it on in anticipation of the sound. This can also happen if you are tardy or miss a soundcheck. The first note of a song or word of a speech are as worthy of being heard as the middle.
  5. Poor training — Not having a working knowledge of signal flow in your particular setup is a problem. This would include every knob on the soundboard (I have a story here for another post–“have you seen how many knobs are on this thing?”), knowledge of what each piece of gear does and how sound flows from input to speaker. For instance, feedback is caused by sound at any give frequency or pitch (or several) flows in a loop. There are work arounds, but in general never point a microphone at a speaker. Troubleshooting is impossible without knowledge and knowledge is improbable without training. Know the quirks of your system: rarely does everything work – there’s usually a weak link–a bad cable, or a bad channel on the board or a bad wire input mounted on a wall somewhere, or a bad speaker, etc. You don’t have to spend top dollar, but cheap gear will probably give you cheap sound… you get what you pay for. Continuously evaluate the weakest link in your system/equipment chain. For example, if you have a bad microphone, your output is only going to sound so good.
  6. Not listening — Mixing for the auditorium (literally – a room for hearing) or “front of house”–(FOH) with headphones on, is a mistake. Your ears are your best friends when you are supporting live sound – this is where the art comes in. If you’re not listening to what the audience is listening to, you might miss something really obvious. You can achieve the same result with over-reliance on pre-marked settings – like stickers or pencil markings left by an expert about where levels should be. This can work against success as much as it works for it. Appropriate use of headphones might include monitoring a broadcast signal, a recording mix, a monitor feed, or input from a specific channel. If your situation includes recording, ignoring either the room mix or the recorded mix leaves someone out in the cold.
  7. Remaining at the soundboard – assuming the room sounds the same everywhere. This goes for “front of house” and for monitor mixes. An occasionally walk past the stage monitors can be a really informative trip. I have a friend who mixes church sound with a full size monitor speaker right by his board. He often checks each monitor mix as it is being produced on stage.
  8. Using the attenuation/gain as a volume control. Turning this knob, (the result of not setting this level prior to operation) changes all signal levels flowing into and out of the channel, including the monitoring system that musicians are relying on. This level can usually be set with a meter (using the pfl/solo button), rather than waiting for the level to peak and then backing it down. This is the most often made mistake I witness from poorly trained church volunteers. When setting the attenuation/input gain, use the meter and adjust the volume so you have a strong signal, but allow enough headroom for the signal to get louder.
  9. Running stage monitors post fader – If monitor sends on individual channels are not pre-fader, then changing the level of an individual channel in the auditorium mix or house (FOH) for the listeners also changes the levels for the musicians and people speaking. This creates a big obstacle/distraction for leaders who are working on focusing on the task at hand and can shift their focus from the message they’re trying to communicate to compensating for the changes they are hearing.
  10. Overuse of effects on vocals – this strategy is often used to enhance or even mask the quality of a vocal sound, but you can only help so much.
  11. Poor equalization (bass/treble). Certainly there is a large degree of taste or preference that goes into choosing how an input sounds, but an instrument should only sound so thin. Good EQ can go a long way toward eliminating feedback. If you cannot understand what the person speaking is saying, all the volume in the world will not make up for poor EQ.
  12. Wireless problems – Wireless systems can be a great thing. Using a different system every week, we tend to shy away from wireless systems because often the wireless signal has to be attenuated on the microphone. This is a variable we choose to eliminate from our lives. If you have the same source of problems every week, this may be an issue for you. This is at the last of the list because it is not necessarily a problem.

Okay, I am done… Share this with a friend, or not. Jump in and tell me what I missed or where I got close.

I’m listening, Ron

Serving our Children

I was recently doing some work with a friend and in the course of our conversation he said, “I’m trying to figure out how I can best serve my son.”  That got me thinking…

I’m not sure exactly why the phrase “serve my son” caught my attention, but it did. Celia and I have been in the Nashville area for about 15 years and we have spent a lot of time with songwriters. Songwriters are always listening for their next song. Writers of country music are always on the lookout for “the hook.” That’s a phrase or idea that sticks with a listener (for any of a variety of reasons) enough to write a song around. Maybe I’m becoming a bit of a wordsmith myself or at least an attentive listener. I don’t think I’m looking for the next hook, but I’m paying attention and here’s a little more about what I heard in that interaction.

First, a little background about my friend Nick (not his real name). Nick  is a really bright guy who’s the father of a couple of elementary aged kids. He does great work and he takes the dad role very seriously. He did some work for us about 10 years ago and every year since then we probably work together an average of a day a year. There’s always great conversation and we enjoy catching up about the water that’s passed under the bridge since our previous workday together.

So about a week ago, we’re working together on a project and Nick gets a phone call from the elementary school principal. I like school principals and even call some friend, but it’s hardly ever a good thing for a parent to receive a call from the principal and this was no exception. It seems Nick’s son had been involved in a scuffle at school before the bell rang in the morning. To his son’s credit, he was defending a victim from a bully, but he could’ve made a far better choice about how he chose to get involved. His choice resulted in disciplinary action. How he chose to be involved was far enough out-of-bounds to overshadow the rightness of stepping in on behalf of a victim.

A day later Nick and I were on a phone call following up on our work and I asked about his son. Nick had learned some additional details about the incident. Nick’s son had some schoolwork that he should’ve been working on at the time of the incident. There was a specific pre-existing paren’t-child agreement about the work that was supposed to be in-progress at the time in question. Had the son been doing that work, he would not have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and the incident would’ve been avoided completely. After Nick learned about these additional details, he and his son were on an errand together. Nick left the car to pick up something on the errand. He said that the few moments away from his son gave him some time for Nick’s anger to subside and to allow him to get in a better frame of mind. Nick said that by the time he got back to the car, he had cooled off and had gotten to a place where he really wanted to figure out how to best serve his son. (He didn’t say it with any emphasis, I added the bold letters, in an effort to let you know what jumped out at me.)… how best to serve his son… to me that was a big deal!

If only Nick and I had communicated a few days earlier, I’m sure I could’ve gotten a higher grade on my own parenting performance at a particular “opportunity for discipline” (OFD–discipline is about teaching, right?) that I was presented with this past Thursday. The situation looked something like this: number 2 son (first grade) was performing in a program at school and number 1 son (third grade) did NOT want to sit (still and quietly) in the gym. Number one’s continued requests to leave met our continued parental insistance for compliance and nobody was giving an inch. Number 1 son wanted to go see a friend outside and we wanted him to support number 2 son. As Celia and I wrestled with how best to survive/parent the situation, I’m afraid that my thoughts were not on “how best to serve” my child. I think I’m generally pretty good about playing the long game where discipline is concerned. After a couple of decades of working with teenagers and watching them head off to college to make many of their own often unsupervised choices and even mistakes, I think I parent with a picture of the end in mind, but not that particular day. Our parental embarassment and frustration at the distraction our interaction created for our little section of the bleachers in the elementary school gymnamsium removed any perspective we might have had for the long game. I’m confessing that there might have even been (ouch) a hint of wanting to win this particular showdown, and it didn’t get terrbly ugly, but nobody won.

Up until now, I can’t remember approaching an OFD and asking myself how I could best “serve my child.” I do remember learning several years ago that “spare the rod, spoil the child” might be better thought of as a shepherds’ crook that guides, than as a stick intended for a backside.

Don’t get me wrong, personally I’m all about the concept of service. I’ve taken thousands of adolescents on service events. I’ve washed more feet in worship services than I care to think about, but I can’t remember ever making a connection between “serving my child” and the discipline/art/science/practice/craft of parenting. For the last couple of days, I’ve been reflecting on the connection that Nick made for me. Service… that brings into the process several things: a dose of humility, a recognition that I don’t have it all together, the recognition that we’re in this together and an appreciation that my children have incredible value just as they are (even prior to correction).

Another thing that I walked away thinking about was that Nick took some time away and was giving his response plenty of thought, I mean continuing to wrestle with it. From our limited interactions through the last decade I can tell that Nick has lots of brain power to harness and that some incredible options will come out of his time spent wrestling with it… I want to be parent with that kind of intention.

So now I have a mental picture of Jesus taking up the role of servant as he wrapped that towel around his waist in the presence of a group of disciples who likely sat with confused looks on their faces. I invite you to join Nick (and more recently me) in picking up a towel, wrapping it around your waste, maybe seeing a confused look on your children’s faces and wrestling with the question “how can I best serve my child” especially in a situation requiring discipline.

Enough about me, you talk about me… just kidding, please jump in here and talk about you.

In some twisted way, I think I’m kinda looking forward to our next showdown. Maybe I’ll handle this one a little better. I’ll keep you posted… Ron