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Volunteers and audio
Live audio is a difficult and nuanced technical discipline, and it’s a blend of both science and art. Many folks believe that the sound system should “just work,” and that an audio engineer is simply there to operate a few, simple controls.

Volunteers and Audio: Results Can Be Great, With Training

Live audio is a difficult and nuanced technical discipline, and it’s a blend of both science and art.

One of the most critical elements of a great worship service, to me, is excellent audio. A solid mix can greatly complement what’s coming from the platform, while a bad mix will be distracting and unpleasant for everyone.

It is usually advisable to have someone on staff with a lot of experience, who can then pass on their expertise to the volunteers.

I believe churches should highly value this part of the experience and be willing to invest the time and money, to do it properly. I realize that the money part can be a challenge for many churches, especially when it comes to personnel.

While I believe it is often best to have a professional audio engineer to mix your services, many times it is necessary (or preferable, to the culture of the church) to rely on a volunteer base for part or all your audio needs.

Today, I want to talk about how to successfully build that team.

Live audio is a difficult and nuanced technical discipline, and it’s a blend of both science and art. Many folks believe that the sound system should “just work,” and that an audio engineer is simply there to operate a few, simple controls.

Consider the way a professional chef, though, prepares a meal. The chef needs high quality ingredients, good tools, paired with their own talent and experience.

Great ingredients on their own won’t automatically become a great meal. High-quality kitchen appliances don’t produce great results on their own either. It’s really no different than creating an audio experience, because platform talent (the ingredients), room acoustics and the sound system (tools), and the experience and talent of the audio engineer are all needed, in making a great mix.

As you can imagine, great chefs aren’t made in days or weeks, but rather it can take many years to hone their craft. The same is true for an exemplary audio engineer.

I’m saying all of this, to help you have an appropriate expectation for what can be achieved with a volunteer audio team.

If you’re willing to put a lot of time into training your volunteers, the results can be great.

It’s rather unusual to get a great audio mix (or a great meal), though, from someone who has just been introduced to the art. This is why it is usually advisable to have someone on staff with a lot of experience, who can then pass on their expertise to the volunteers.

Alternatively, many churches bring in an experienced audio engineer as a contractor on the weekend to handle the mix, while simultaneously passing on their knowledge and experience to the volunteers.

A great place to start new audio volunteers is in a stage technician role. In this role, they will help wire up the stage as needed, assist the audio engineer(s) and band during rehearsal/sound check, and be available during service to help manage wireless microphones or troubleshoot issues that pop up.

The benefit to putting volunteers here first is that they will get a good sense of how everything operates behind the scenes, giving them an opportunity to get to know the band and singers better, and it will help you get a sense of their heart to serve.

Some of the key skills that volunteers should develop are properly patching microphone inputs, learning a general concept of mic placement, correctly adjusting microphone stands, troubleshooting a bad cable or patching problem, cable wrapping (the over-under technique), interacting smoothly with the band and singers, and communicating clearly with the rest of the technical team (to name just a few).

The next phase for a volunteer might be ear training. One piece of that puzzle is critical listening, which is the ability to mentally deconstruct what you’re hearing and analyze details.

Our brains tend to discard a lot of sensory detail as “unimportant,” unless we consciously focus on it. Forcing yourself to zero in on various details in a recording, for example, gets your brain used to the idea of paying attention to everything.

Another piece of the ear training puzzle is learning what instruments should sound like. It’s hard to make mix decisions, if you don’t know what the target is, so it’s worth spending time listening to both good and bad examples of various instruments, to learn what’s expected.

The final piece of ear training is learning what the target mix sounds like overall. It’s usually ideal to have a consistent worship experience service to service, week to week, so everyone who mixes ought to know the overall mix characteristics and volume level, that are your standard.

Equipment training is another important phase. Modern audio systems are quite complex, and there can be a lot to navigate.

Start the process with a general overview of how the whole system works, and how signal flows from a microphone all the way to a loudspeaker. That’s a basic foundation from which you can build up more specific knowledge in the detailed operations.

Don’t get too bogged down in individual console settings; those will naturally develop later. Be sure to spend plenty of time on troubleshooting techniques, so your volunteers can feel comfortable and prepared to handle anything that might pop up.

As you finally begin to train an audio volunteer to actually mix, perhaps the top tool for the job is virtual sound check. This term refers to using a multi-track recording of the band, to simulate them playing live.

Each of the individually-recorded instruments and vocals are routed back through the mixing console, to the same channel strips as the original live inputs.

In this way, you can give volunteers almost unlimited time to hone their skills and experiment with different techniques. It also allows you to frequently stop and critique the process.

This kind of hands-on time is almost impossible, when in the midst of a real sound check. Most modern consoles have the capability to do this, although it may require an additional option card. You may also need a computer, and possibly an audio interface, to act as the multitrack recording/playback platform.

Even if this solution requires spending some additional money, it is some of the best money you can spend in pursuing technical excellence.

One final note: not every volunteer will have both the technical and artistic talents to produce a great mix, and that’s OK.

Be honest with yourself, and with each of your volunteers, about what role is best suited for their strengths.

Building up a successful and talented audio volunteer team takes time, effort, and patience, but it is achievable if you’re committed to it.

Develop a training plan, set reasonable expectations for the volunteers and leadership team, and allow for lots and lots of training time.

Consider bringing in a professional on staff or on the weekends to mix and/or train.

Great results often aren’t easy, but they’re worth it, so keep at it!

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