By Rob Stam
Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of being a musical performer and worship leader, as well as a church sound engineer and technician. This has provided unique perspective from both sides of the platform; what I’ve learned on one side has helped me do better on the other side, and vice versa.
Through this process, I’ve noted several problems and solutions that apply to the technical side, the creative side, and both. I’ve refined these observations and practices into what I call the “Seven Deadly Sins,” and share the first four “sins” here. The remainder will be covered in my next article.
Deadly Sin #1: Messing with the stage mix. Few things are more frustrating for a musician than a bad mix on stage. We’re a picky lot, and further, when an acceptable stage mix is achieved, we don’t want it to change. Therefore, the first rule for the sound mixer is avoid adjusting input gain once a service has started. Even a slight adjustment can be a HUGE detriment.
Also, please don’t mess with monitor sends during a service. Certainly there have been times when the stage is too loud - often, we musicians tend to play louder when the adrenaline starts flowing. (Of course, others actually get timid and play/sing softer.)
Resist the temptation of making major changes mid-stream; not only will this distract the musicians, but also in all likelihood, changes will serve to make things even worse from a sonic perspective. Instead, work on preparation that will eliminate these problems before they start. Pay close attention to how things sound during rehearsal, how sound is reacting with the room, and project what will happen when the room is full for services.
And, pay even closer attention during services, making observations and notes about what’s happening at “crunch time,” when true performance characteristics are being exhibited and an audience is on hand.
Of course, this is easiest to do when you’re using the same system in the same room with the same musicians. In most cases, the first two variables don’t change, and with respect to the third, note the techniques and mix approaches that result in the most consistency, regardless of who’s playing or a particular style.
Observe, experiment, formulate and then act - in advance.
Deadly Sin #2: Trusting untrained “critics.” While serving as director of technical ministries at a large church, I had the privilege of working with a talented director of worship. However, he had an annoying trait of trusting an elderly lady of the congregation to provide critiques of my house mix and overall sound quality.
She would wander through the sanctuary during rehearsals, listen and then report back to him. My goodness - this is an individual who had no experience with sound or music and who couldn’t even make the cut during choir tryouts! Talk about demoralizing… The bottom line is that this person’s opinion mattered just like any other member of the congregation, but in no way was she qualified to serve as a reference. Her suggestions were useless, and actually would have been detrimental had I chosen to follow them
The lesson? Sometimes musicians and worship leaders find it difficult to trust the sound people. But please, let logic prevail. In most cases, leaders of a church technical staff have the necessary experience to do their jobs correctly.
If sound people seem to be lacking in ability and knowledge, they must pursue proper training. If it seems that they lack the “ear” to provide a properly musical mix, then they need to fill another role while others who do have this particular talent should be encouraged to put it to use. And church sound staff members must always be honest with themselves and constantly seek to improve their skills any way possible.
Deadly Sin #3: The word “no.” Musicians often possess a certain confidence that sometimes can border on arrogance. We get an idea or vision and we’re quite sure it can come to life, and with excellent results. This is simply a part of the creative process.
It’s up to the sound team to foster this creative spirit, not squash it. Therefore, the word “no” should fall toward the bottom of the response list. For example, if a musician asks for an additional drum microphone, the answer should not automatically be “no.” This suggests that the sound person has no care about the creative vision, no care about striving for improvement.
Instead, how about a response along the lines of, “I’ll see what I can do. And, if you don’t mind my asking, what do we want to achieve with this extra mic?” This is a positive, can-do attitude that’s supportive and can be infectious. Also, by inquiring further, the sound person may be able to help deliver a solution better suited to achieve the new creative vision. Maybe it’s not an extra drum mic that’s needed but another approach, like additional drum isolation.
The point is to ask, which begets learning, which begets support and collaboration, which begets a better performance.
Deadly Sin #4: Unqualified knob “twiddlers.” Musicians like knobs and blinking lights, so naturally, they want to fiddle with the sound system. The confidence/arrogance mentioned previously plays into this as well - we believe there’s no task we can’t be great at, regardless of lack of training and experience.
But the reality is that musicians usually know just enough to be dangerous when it comes to operating a sound system. The same goes for house and monitor mixing. The irony is that musicians indeed can be among the best “sound” people in the congregation, perhaps better than many sound technicians, due to their musical ear.
However, too many cooks spoil the broth. The solution is fairly simple and straightforward: someone is either a musician or a sound tech/mixer for a given service.
If you’re a musician, this means hands off the sound gear. If you’re the mixer, do the best job possible, and support the musician. One individual does one thing, the other does the other thing, and you meet in the middle with mutual respect and collaboration, striving together to make everything better.
It’s all about both sides functioning as one. Next time we’ll share information that can help take this concept even further.
In the meantime, let’s all listen to each other and encourage each other – that is the true spirit of worship!