It's not easy, being a church tech. We face a barrage of challenges, every time we enter the room. Most often, it's our diplomatic skills more than our mixing skills that keep us alive.
We must stay focused, and effective, while encountering one ridiculous situation after another. If you've mixed for more than nine minutes, you know some of the folks who seem determined to put you in a straitjacket.
For the church tech, it's different than the guy mixing clubs or concerts. Its going to be a different crowd than the one that bought a ticket or has a few drinks in them. The church tech is mixing for a room full of very diverse people. Many are easily offended. Many have old school ideas about music. We usually end up being far more conscious of sound pressure levels within the church.
Let me offer a few examples of classic control problems, and possible solutions.
The lead guitar player, stuck in the 80s.
Sooner or later, your guitar player will become a "gear junkie." He will want to recreate some effect or sound. It will require him to buy more stuff to plug his guitar into. Every piece he buys, takes up space on the stage. It adds more noise to the room. It consumes more electricity. Left unchecked, they will end up looking like Frankenstein in his lab, surrounded by flashing lights and lightning. Bringing some uncontrollable thing to life.
The last encounter I had, with this type, required heavy diplomacy. After agreeing to spend a Saturday afternoon, helping him adjust his tone, I finally cracked. I made him happy with his monitor, then made him use a wireless unit, and play in the middle of the sanctuary. After he commented that it sounded completely different, I induced logic.
"Yes, it does. That 15-inch wedge, six feet in front of you, will always sound different than a full rig, hanging 15 feet in the air. You are also being mixed with a full band and vocal team. Your tone has to find a place in the mix. One instrument is not going to dominate this room. You are at my mercy. You have to trust me. I promise your time and talents will not be wasted."
The Muppet Show-style drummer.
Finesse. What a magical word. It implies the ability to truly feel things, and adjust yourself to the situation. Many drummers just play like Animal from the Muppet Show. "Beat drums! Beat drums! It's their mantra. They refuse to finess their drums. Kick drums must cause headaches. Snares must cause hearing damage. Hi hat must cause the same emotional effect as a ticking time bomb. Yeah. That guy.
When the drummer is allowed to dominate the stage, it effects everything. Everything gets louder. Everyone is competing with those drums. Every monitor, every amp, every singer has to push past the level of those drums, just to hear themselves.
I once took all the cymbals off a drum kit, before a service. When the drummer freaked out, I told him to focus on keeping a beat and keeping it under control. I told him I absolutely could not make the house mix any better, if the stage noise didn't calm down.
The oblivious bass player.
One of the bass players from my past \had incredible talent. He could take a simple riff and walk all over the neck, making beautifully complex patterns. He had a great tone and solid rhythm. But, if he got lost or missed a note, he would just stop playing. Cold. Dead. Stop. Not a good thing, when the room is rocking with the cleanest subs you ever experienced.
I caught him one morning, before service and asked him about it. "Why do you just stop sometimes?"
He was terrified of playing the wrong note, so he didn't play any notes. I made him imagine the audience dancing. They are leaning into the music, they feel it. The subs are hitting hard and the room feels great. But, when you let go of the bass, it falls flat. You are propping everyone up. We are leaning into that sound. When you stop, we feel like we are going to fall down. The mix goes flat.
After that conversation, it never happened again. He would still get lost, once in a while. But he would keep something moving until he got back in. My mixes stayed full and rich.
The keyboard player from outer space.
So. We brought in a new keyboard player. He rehearsed with the band a few times. Played a few Sundays. Got into the groove. Then he did it. He exposed his true musician inside. He did one of the most ridiculous things ever.
He was waiting for me, early, when I unlocked the building. He was pulling a large rolling suitcase. No big deal. But, once inside. He began unpacking gear, all around his keyboard. Just before rehearsal began, he dragged two ten inch speakers out and stretched them to either side of the stage. Facing the audience.
Another actual experience. Honestly. I am not making these up.
In my most diplomatic tone, I asked him what those were for. He informed me that he didn't believe my mix was properly conveying his stereo image into the audience. He felt that they truly needed to experience the full presence of his sound.
So I unplugged his speakers.
Then I informed him that I had no intention of competing with a second sound system in that room. He got offended and pouted. I also told him that his keyboard, like every other instrument and voice onstage, would find a place in the mix.
And, for the record, I ended up being great friends with each of these guys.
Except the keyboard player. He left.
The backseat-mixing worship leader.
I have experience virtually every worship leader personality. The bone crusher, who has authority issues, demanding perfection. The micro manager, who wants to select the exact delay time for the secondary effect on the background vocals.
There's more. But it gets less comical as I identify them.
Over time, I developed respect for each personality. Not always to the point where we were going to hang out after service, but respect.
I remember rehearsing for six weeks, getting ready for a production, on Easter Sunday. Not really a show, just a strong choral performance with some powerful songs. Easter morning, an hour and a half before service, the worship leader walks into rehearsal and makes an announcement.
"I know we have been working on this song list for a while, but I want to change it."
Seriously. Just like that. An hour's worth of performance material was changed. We ended up doing a completely different set. The funny thing about it was, it worked. He knew his choir and he knew his congregation. It was a mix of old and new music. It worked fine.
I had to come to terms with my relationship, with worship leaders. After listening to some griping and complaining, about them, I made a decision. If I trust my pastor to speak into my life and help me make decisions, why wouldn't I trust their judgement on selecting a worship leader? They have been given a job to do. They are in their place. Just like I was chosen to do my job because the pastor trusted me to do it effectively.
I eventually made a point of openly defending our worship leaders and making sure everyone knew that we were on the same team. It made a difference in their micromanaging, once they saw me edify them to the band and choir. The backseat mixing ended once they knew I was in their corner.
Diplomacy usually does the trick, but we have to be concerned with what we are producing and allowing into our mix. We can't allow one musician to dominate the worship service because they are on some kind of ego trip. Get on the same page as the worship leader. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Don't be afraid to get involved and make suggestions. They need your input and assistance to bring the whole team together. That kind of communication creates greatness.
But hang on to the straightjacket, just in case.
M. Erik Matlock is senior editor for ProSoundWeb and has worked in a wide range of roles in pro audio for more than 20 years. He also spent several years as a production staff member and team leader for the largest non-denominational church in central Georgia. This article is an excerpt from Erik's latest book, Basic Training for the Church Audio Technician, available here.