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Using the right tools
What if you didn’t know that paintbrushes even existed! As a result, you’d only ever have painted your landscapes with a toilet brush, because you thought that was the only type of brush that could be used for that job!

Volunteers & Audio: A Toilet Brush and Systems Engineering

Being a mix engineer and systems engineer are two different, but complimentary skill sets. Few audio engineers are great at both.

Can you imagine trying to paint a landscape, using a toilet brush, instead of a paint brush? You’ve set yourself up with a great view of a mountain range at sunset, got your array of colorful paints set up, along with a canvas on an easel.

I’ve come to realize that audio engineering is not just about mixing.

Instead of the controlled, intentional placement of color you need, your toilet brush is making a mess, one that does not resemble the scene you can see.

Let me push this (rather ridiculous) analogy even further.

What if you didn’t know that paintbrushes even existed! As a result, you’d only ever have painted your landscapes with a toilet brush, because you thought that was the only type of brush that could be used for that job!

You might give your best effort to capture the essence and beauty of what you see, but - no matter how hard you try - the results will always end up disappointing you.

Every Sunday morning, volunteer church audio techs are doing their best to “paint” a sonic “landscape” that will effectively engage the congregation. Far too frequently, the tools they have been given, are not up to the task. For example, their job is to mix the musical elements they are given - instruments and voices - but the audio system they are left with, is not capable of doing the job well.

On top of all that, often the volunteer mix engineer has very limited experience. Maybe they’ve only ever mixed sound in this one auditorium, through this particular audio system.

There’s nothing to compare to - no point of reference.

Your volunteers don’t know any different than trying to get the best they can, with the “toilet brush" they are using!

Trapped between feelings of inadequacy, not knowing any better, low expectations, and thinking that it’s maybe the band’s fault, a mix engineer can leave a congregation struggling to hear what they need, to fully connect.

Despite all this, the audio system itself somehow may never be seriously called into question.

In my role as onsite instructor with More Than Music Mentor, I regularly travel to churches to conduct training weekends for their singers, instrumentalists, and technicians.

While I believe I have a very good ear for what sort of sounds can be combined, to make an effective overall mix in a room (and what a good mix sounds like), I am not an audio engineer. I am a (somewhat technically challenged) musician and instructor who - over many years as a professional musician - has learned that the individual with the greatest influence on the success or failure of live music is not the lead singer, the drummer, nor the musical director.

It’s the audio engineer!

I’ve come to realize that audio engineering is not just about mixing. What has become obvious more recently is the need for audio systems engineering.

A number of years ago, I found that I often would conduct training workshops for churches on my own. During those sessions, I was able to help a lot in my areas of expertise - mainly heart, music and team unity - but would have to stop short, when dealing with the more technical side of audio engineering.

These days (whenever the church’s budget allows), I recognize the need for bringing along a pro audio engineer.  Beyond being a sincere follower of Jesus with a desire to serve the church, I make sure that my audio pro is a highly competent mix engineer and systems engineer.

Being a mix engineer and systems engineer are two different, but complimentary skill sets. Few audio engineers are great at both. In numerous situations, the value added for the engaging church has been undeniable.

Most church audio mix engineers - especially the volunteer variety - are not audio systems engineers.

“What’s the difference?” I hear you ask.

There can be overlap for sure, but the differences are significant! An audio mix engineer mixes sound. They’ll be behind a mixing console and, using the various sounds that are fed to that console, will engineer a mixture of those sounds.

While a mix engineer is using sound as their building blocks, an audio systems engineer is focused on the collection of components - the different bits of hardware - and how they are being used to produce those sounds.

Interestingly, most bigger touring artists’ audio crews will have both a mix and a systems engineer. The goal for the audio systems engineer’s is to provide the mix engineer with the tools they need to create a great mix. To accomplish this, there must be an audio system appropriate for the application, optimized for the room, installed properly, and set to deliver the desired sound.

Oh, and without malfunction!

A good audio systems engineer will understand many interrelated audio technologies and how to utilize them in concert with one another, to achieve the desired sonic results in your room. Starting from where the mics and direct inputs collect sound through to the front of house speakers that make the sounds, which then meet the ears of your congregation.

During my workshops from many years ago, I might come to hear the mix in the room and know something was amiss.

Now, whether I hear a problem or not, I know an audio pro will be able to solve it. I have been amazed with the sorts of problems they have discovered and solved in my experience - usually quickly, easily and with no dollar outlay - within their role as systems engineer.

One recent anecdote, which happened last month, was as I was setting up and starting a sound check, in preparation for a workshop weekend in Traverse City, Michigan. The church auditorium could seat maybe 900. To me, the PA looked quite new and professionally installed, and adequate for the room. My partnering audio pro, Josh Maichele (from Division 16 AV) was behind the console, ready to perform his mix engineer role.

My first sung note through the PA system, though, immediately set off alarm bells.

I’d heard big rooms before - bigger than this - but the messy, echo-y “sonic soup” Josh and I heard got our attention! From my position on the platform, I knew something wasn’t right, but Josh could hear the problem and very quickly knew what it was. The PA system was delivering sound with close to a half second delay after the source!

Setting aside his mix responsibilities, Josh put on his systems engineer hat, and quickly discovered that a mystery digital noise-reduction processor was causing the delay. No one at the church (including their regular audio engineer) had any idea that the offending box even existed, let alone how long it had been doing this.

As soon as Josh removed it from the signal chain, we immediately could all hear an improvement in clarity and sound quality in the system.

I could tell a bunch of other stories, from unplugged subwoofers, wildly unhelpful crossover settings, systems that had never been properly EQ’d for the room, compressors and limiters squashing sounds to within an inch of their life, to say nothing of things like blown speakers and broken mic and speaker cables that had gone totally unnoticed, for goodness knows how long.

The point I’m making is this: Before we sound check, the system needs to be checked.

My suggestion: Get your audio system checked by a pro from time to time. And not necessarily from the company that installed it years and years ago. 

Your audio system is made of many different parts. To make your system stand tall, all the different parts need to work well individually, as well as together.

The volunteer audio mix engineer might be passionate, conscientious, understand how the console works and even have a deep appreciation - even a love - for music and sound.

If the system is not working properly, not installed properly or is not suitable for the room, then you’ll need a consultation with a professional audio systems engineer.

Let’s make sure our mix engineer has a paint brush, not a toilet brush!

Book it. Now.

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