Audio in houses of worship are requiring more skill sets, using more current technology, all while handling the single most important technical position during a service. That's because, if video goes down (unless you happen to be a video venue), or lighting stops changing lights, ProPresenter crashes, the COMs stop working, the service won't stop.
There has never been an age in audio in which we have been more perfectly prepared to train audio engineers.
However, the moment the audio stops, the service comes to a screeching, silent halt.
Often we see in larger churches, that the Front Of House, or FOH, engineer is a staff or contract position. The reason for this is that the largest churches, which often run very complex professional audio systems in very large auditoriums, may have several thousand attending their weekend services.
In that setting, they see value in having a consistent professional at the helm, to make sure the services run smoothly. When those rare glitches or fast changes occur, though, there is the sense that the professional can handle them with expert instinct. In all honesty, I think it takes far longer to become a really good audio engineer, than it does to become a solid ProPresenter operator.
So why would we take a volunteer, who hasn't made it their choice of profession, and place them in the audio ‘hot seat’?
There is so much pressure on the person in this position, to never make a mistake.
So then, why? It's because the mission of the church is to reach out into the world and replicate ourselves. If we bury our talents in the sand, then we have wasted a valuable gift that God gave us. As we raise up the next generation of believers, we also need to equip them to sustain the needs of the church.
Let's pretend for a moment there is no difference between large and small churches, when it comes to training volunteers. In large part, the only difference is the scale at which they do things. If you think about it, though, how you would develop your volunteers shouldn't vary. Hopefully these steps can set up a template to successfully get your audio training program well on its way.
1. Don't wait, get them started now
The single most frustrating thing for prospective volunteers is after signing up, or having a conversation with the lead tech person about volunteering, that they don't hear back from anyone for a month or longer. Or possibly don't at all. Volunteers will not stick around, if they are not valued and participating.
Begin by figuring out which tasks can be easily done by someone who knows nothing about audio. Have the mentality that if someone comes up to you asking to volunteer today, your response should be, "Show up this time, next week, for this long, and we will train you to do "
When they arrive that following week, sit down and talk with them. What are their passions? Also cover any questions your church may require for volunteer commitments, such as if they have any audio background, and explain to them the long road it takes to successfully become an audio operator. Walk them through some benchmarks and training aspects that you will engage them in, to help them get there.
Once you have them showing up and committed, put them to work. Make it simple for them at first, such as having a stage plot and explaining how it represents items on the stage. With the guidance of a stage plot, it'll help them to set out simple items: handling power cables and power strips, setting up wedges and plugging them in, placing music stands or mics stands, putting batteries in wireless devices, and knowing where they need to go.
If your volunteers want to hang out with you during events, let them! When you bring them to events, ask them to watch you, and give them suggestions as to specifically what to be watching for. Also be willing to be a tour guide of sorts, and verbally talk your way through a mix.
2. Virtual Soundcheck
There has never been an age in audio in which we have been more perfectly prepared to train audio engineers, than we are right now. Most digital consoles have the ability to use a feature called virtual soundcheck. It allows you to record tracks from your own band and play them back replacing audio from the stage. That offers the ability, without the pressure of a live event starring us in the face, to take our time and explore the console more. This single function of the digital console I employ the most for budding audio engineers as their starting point and for continued training education. It is here when they can begin to touch faders and move through the features of the console. There is no better learning experience than one that is hands on. Don't wait to get them on the console, get them on it as much as you can, right away.
Speaking of digital consoles, as you embark on the process of virtual soundcheck, you'll need to begin to train your audio volunteer on how to navigate it. I recently wrote about approaching digital audio consoles, “Digital Audio Consoles: A Look At Signal Routing to Workflows, Other Basics”, which speaks heavily on this topic as a precursor to today's piece.
Start with your trainees on a one-on-one basis, giving them a small lesson and area of focus, such as beginning to work on EQ methods, then leaving them to explore what you taught them. Come back and ask them what they feel has come together, and what they think has yet to be accomplished.
Continue to do this with them regardless of their skill level. As their skill level grows, the teacher in you must have the ability to challenge them further in a safe "make all the mistakes you want" environment. Additionally, volunteers as they begin to feel they have mastered more challenging mix skill-sets, will want to continue to refine those skills. Giving them the space for virtual soundcheck, will encourage this mindset.
Take your virtual soundchecks as far as you can. Use recording sessions from other bands, concerts, other locations, studio sessions, anything other than the normal band you've already been mixing. Also do your virtual soundchecks with the PA on, or the PA off, while using headphones. If you have other rooms with virtual soundcheck capabilities, have some time in there as well to explore other sonic spaces, and even other consoles.
3. Use Show File Templates
I have a very open "try anything" approach with virtual soundcheck. When it comes time that the volunteers are ready to start taking the reins during rehearsals or live events, I have these new audio engineers stick very tightly to the show file templates. This is because the church has become accustomed to a certain sonic sound. To deviate from it randomly or significantly will likely result in audio complaints and a loss in sonic cohesion previously achieved by the professional operator.
Teach your new audio engineer the workflow of the template. Think through your template, to make sure it's easy to find and navigate items. Give your audio engineer parameters as to what they can and cannot adjust. Afterwards, ask them if there was something that would have helped them get to something faster or better. It may also mean altering your template, once you discover that the newer audio engineers need an easier workflow.
4. Place your audio engineers in environments where they will succeed
The quickest way to chase off a potential volunteer is to place them in an environment where they not well prepared and are prone to make many mistakes. Keep track of their skill sets and make sure you are not placing them in environments that their technical or operational capacity cannot handle.
Keep track of their training progress and slowly pass off responsibilities, which could include prepping all wireless mics, programming the console or monitor desk, stage prep, input sheets, etc. Letting the new audio engineers loose to have ownership over areas means they are progressing, and it will give them energy to lean into their training even more.
Be a coach, stay as much hands off as possible.
Verbally cheer your engineer on.
Be with them as they start to mix with live bands on stage and coach them through fader moves, event transitions, and other techniques.
Most importantly, have the support of your leadership, as you introduce new volunteers. Part of everyone's success is by having the volunteers being stress free. Make sure your leadership knows to come to you (if you are the lead tech director or FOH engineer) for any tough topics that address the audio performance. It will be easier if you are the one verbalizing some of those changes that need to happen.
5. Don't be afraid to be a student yourself
I tell those that I'm teaching, "There are no dumb questions, you are dumb for not asking them." I further explain, "It's my joy, to help you learn." That includes answering the same question 10 times. By doing this, I have broken down the barrier to those who are a little self-conscious. Even if there is something they know they forgot, it is not only OK to ask again; it is encouraged.
The next thing I tell those I'm teaching, "I don't know everything, the reason I love your questions is that I love learning from different perspectives and observations." I love that I can process through a technical question or challenge with another. This encourages your audio engineers to be active contributors in a conversation as well.
One great story I would like to mention is one about bringing along a volunteer from the beginning. They came up to me while I was the staff FOH engineer at one of the largest churches in this country. He simply asked if I was accepting volunteers, and that it was a dream of his to do audio at his church.
This individual had tried in the past, but audio volunteers in the big room just didn't happen. I said, Sure, come back next week at this time and day.' The following week, I talked with him—while having him set the stage up for a large midweek event and began training him on the basics (yes, this is my volunteer interview process)—and he said his audio background was as a DJ. I know that for some of you, your eyes are rolling right now
Nonetheless, he showed up every week, set that stage up without fail each time, and we did virtual soundcheck training on a regular basis. It wasn't but a few months later that I placed him mixing FOH for a mid-week event. He is still to this day volunteering for that same megachurch, and he has been mixing varied events from mid-week to occasionally on weekends. So yes, even a DJ can mix FOH in the main worship center of a high profile megachurch.
I hope that this article encourages you to no longer look at those entirely new to audio as people to maybe steer toward other, easier technical volunteer positions.
Instead, it's my hope that reading this will encourage you to no longer wait, knowing that today, tomorrow, or a few days from now, you can be off and rolling in developing an entire team of budding, young audio engineers.
Yes, this single technical position does take the longest to develop. However, the faster you move on getting these people into action, the faster you will have full-fledged audio operators confident and knowledgeable to serve the calling that God has led them to.