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

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