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Church SoundAnother Perspective On Lousy Audio & Related Issues

Church SoundAnother Perspective On Lousy Audio & Related Issues

Without understanding the context, it's hard to know exactly what's really going on...

A few weeks ago I came across an old post at another blog that described a trend, lousy church sound. You can read the post here.

I'll warn you, there are a lot of things going on in that post, and it may take you a few passes through to get a handle on what he's saying. (I've read it five times and I'm still not 100 percent sure)

My intention is not to attack the author of the post, as I believe he makes some good points. But he makes some statements that I think are worth unpacking.

Pro Level Requires Professionals

One statement he makes that I'm in general agreement with is this: "They [churches] haven't yet realized they can't invest in pro equipment without hiring a pro to run it."

I've been saying this for quite a while now, and I've seen it happen at quite a few churches. They start off as a small church in a small room with simple, analog equipment that the volunteers figure out fairly well. As they grow, they build a new building and install a fancy new digital console and no one knows how to use it.

What the church needs is a technical director who can train the volunteers on the new gear and keep it running smoothly. Sadly, most churches discover this too late. There are a couple reasons for this failure.

1) Church leaders don't realize how complex technology is.
Marketers tell church leaders that all they have to do is buy the latest digital console and their problems will go away. This leads them to tell their integrator they want to go digital.

The smart integrator will talk about the need for training for the team, but in the interest of saving money (which is generally needed because the church is trying to build a bigger church than they can actually afford), the training gets cut from the budget.

After the grand opening, when the integrator has gone home, the volunteers stare at the new console like deer in the headlights and things go downhill from there. The reality is, digital audio consoles are complex devices, and they require someone who knows how to run them properly to set them up. Some are easier than others, but all are complicated. Without training and support, the team is set up to fail.

2) It always comes down to the people.
I'm always amused that churches are more than willing to pay a healthy salary for a worship leader and will put him or her on the leadership team of the church.

At the same time, churches will often expect volunteers with no training, support or guidance to manage incredibly complex AVL systems. If the church does finally see the need to hire a technical director, it will often bring in a part-time person or will only pay slightly more than minimum wage.

But in fact, the person behind the console is just as important to the overall sound and worship experience as the person on stage. If one is worth a reasonable salary and status, so is the other. Neither will do well without the other.

If you lead a church that is going into a building project that will include a whole new technology system and you don't have the hiring of a technical director on your radar, get on that. I can pretty much promise you will be disappointed if you don't.

At this point, you might think I'm down on volunteers. In fact, the author of the original article implied that volunteers cannot possibly ever run a complex digital console. However, I disagree.

Blanket Statements & Volunteers

The author's next premise is that volunteers will never be able to run a modern sound console. To wit: "Churches are discovering the complexities of modern worship. In other words, you can't have a new mixing console that resembles the cockpit of the space shuttle and expect a volunteer to (ever) be able to get it to work right."

I think there are two problems with this statement.

1.) First, the only console I can think of that resembles the cockpit of the space shuttle is the Midas XL8. And the few churches that have installed those have professional operators on staff because the consoles themselves cost more than a quarter million dollars.

2.) Second, lumping all digital consoles in with the complexity of an XL8 (or perhaps a Studer Vista X) is really unfair.

But volunteers actually can mix on digital consoles. I know this first-hand as I've trained people to do it. Because I know so many technical directors in churches all over the country, I know they also have teams of volunteers who do a great job mixing every weekend. I know of volunteers who mix on various Yamaha, DiGiCo, Allen & Heath, Avid, and even Midas PRO Series consoles.

The one thing that almost all of these churches have in common is that they have a professional technical director on staff who maintains the console and trains the volunteers. As technical production systems become more complex, this is almost mandatory if great results are expected.

When I was tech director at Coast Hills, I had a volunteer who got good enough mixing on the DiGiCo SD8 that most people in the congregation couldn't tell if it was me or him behind the console. Of course, I did a lot of the setup work that helped him be successful, but from an operating/mixing standpoint he could do a great job.

Great volunteer teams have a great leader. I've come across a few churches that have a great all-volunteer tech team, but they seem to be the exception, especially once the church reaches about 1,500 in average weekly attendance. By that time, the building is big enough to have pretty complicated production gear, and most volunteers simply don't have the time to dedicate to learning every the intricacies of it all.

The teams that do really outstanding work almost always have a staff tech director leading them, a person who takes the time to learn all of the ins and outs, develops processes and systems, and trains the team to be successful. So while I support the idea that it takes a pro to maintain pro-level gear, I reject the notion that it's impossible for volunteers to ever get it right. They just need the proper support and training.

It's also important to remember that really, all of the equipment we use for production in modern churches is pro-level gear. For example, my friend Norm Stockton is an accomplished professional bass player, and he plays MTD basses for a living. I've had the pleasure many times of mixing when he's playing. But this doesn't preclude, say, a math teacher with an MTD bass from putting in the time to become proficient enough to play well enough for a church service.

Likewise, just because the DiGiCo SD8 console is out on tour with more than a few bands, it doesn't mean that the console is too complex for a high school student to learn to mix on. As with anything, it comes down to time, dedication, natural aptitude and proper training.

Financial Aspects In Context

The author of the original article also said this of a new PA system: "One church spent $125,000!"

Here is where some context can come in handy. The exclamation point indicates to me that he thought that was a large figure. And to be sure, $125K is a lot of money.

However, it may not be excessive. In fact, depending on the room, that may be a good down payment. As church auditoriums get bigger, the amount of PA needed to cover the area well and with sufficient level gets expensive. In fact, spending $300,000 to $500,000 on a system for a 3,000 to 4,000 seat room would not be out of line.

Now, $125,000 might be a lot of money, especially if the room in question is 200 seats. On the other hand, $125,000 is about right for a 700-800 seat room. Unless of course, you're simply amplifying speech.

I talk with churches nearly every day about technology upgrades and very few have a clue about how much it really costs. After we walk them through the process, they get it, but few do at the beginning.

This problem is compounded by the fact that during a building project, the AVL integrator too often gets left out of the budget process. The architect might put an allowance in there for technology, but again, most times it's way low. When the integrator is finally brought in, they have to either work within the inadequate budget (more likely) or the church needs to raise more funds (less likely).

Back to our original $125K budget proposition, the author talks about how bad such a system sounded when he heard it. I wonder if he considered that perhaps it's because the church spent only $125K, instead of the $200,000-plus it may have really needed?

While I agree that spending $125K on a PA only to have it sound "10 times worse than before" would be disappointing, perhaps the fault lies with the church that in an effort to "save money" didn't spend enough. I've seen more than one system that wasn't done well due to lack of funds, and we usually take it out to put in a good one. As the saying goes, churches that can't afford to do it right the first time will almost always find the money to do it again.

Good People Should Be Paid Well

One more statement by the author that I'd like to address: "I know of one megachurch that just hired an excellent soundman away from another megachurch they're paying him $60,000 a year and he was making $30,000."

I can't tell if he thinks the $60k salary is excessive, but I'd say it sounds about right for an "excellent sound person," depending on what part of the country you're in. Out here in SoCal, that would be a good opening offer. And for the person making $30,000, I would say his previous church was very likely way underpaying himwhich is probably why he left.

Churches that pay a senior pastor $150,000-plus, a worship leader $90,000-plus, and a lead tech person $30,000 will likely be disappointed with the long-term results. Especially if they skimped on the system.

What's really required here is to look at the big picture. Whenever we throw out random numbers, we can incite shock and awe, but without knowing the context, it's hard to know what is really going on.

This is another reason why it's so important to have a relationship with a great integration company to help guide the process. Good integrators will help right-size the system for the room, budget and team. When they are brought in early and allowed to do their job well, everyone will be happy with the results. Skip this at your own peril.

Well, that was fun, wasn't it! Now that we know some of the reasons for lousy church sound, next week we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming on how to make it better.

Mike Sessler now works with Visioneering, where he helps churches improve their AVL systems, and encourages and trains the technical artists that run them. He has been involved in live production for over 25 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts.

Courtesy of ProSoundWeb Church Sound

TAGS: Audio
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