The single biggest question I encounter from most church worship leaders or technical directors is to how to successfully develop inexperienced volunteers into fully functional audio engineers.
Audio is often about identifying the bad, but it doesn't mean how we work with those we are training needs to be as well.
The answer I give them is a lot of intentionality and a lot of hard work.
Earlier this year, I outlined a framework to get those volunteers into a process to become an audio engineer. in the piece, Volunteers and Consoles: Placing Volunteers In The Hot Seat.
Today, I wanted to offer some detail into the most valuable of all areas that will be your greatest builder to your audio team: leveraging the use of virtual soundcheck.
Way back before digital consoles came along and virtual soundcheck came into being, we had (and some still do), analog consoles that were not capable at the flick of a switch virtual soundcheck. Audio engineers honestly practiced their craft as the soundcheck and event happened. This made it very hard for engineers who were not the primary mix engineers to get practical hands on time. Which therefore made it even harder for the budding audio newbie to get real mix time on a console.
One of the best gifts of the digital age is many of today's digital audio consoles have a process for multitrack recording the band from stage, and recording it to a local computer. Once you have that recording, you can then play back those recorded tracks through the console to simulate audio signal playing through the console. With no band being then required on stage, you have the room to yourself to take your time to listen back to the tracks and work with the audio console. No pressure from producers or band members to make quick mix adjustments.
This is your time now, just you, the console, and the tracks.
So now what do we do with all these recorded tracks?
Singers and musicians, often before their arrival to a rehearsal or performance, have spent hours already practicing their parts. Not only that, they spend countless hours weekly in general just getting better at their craft.
As an audio engineer, with virtual soundcheck, you now are able to practice your craft as often as a musician. If you are not employing virtual soundcheck on a regular basis to develop your craft, you are shorting yourself the ability to grow in your craft.
But you and many others might not know where to begin with this thing called virtual soundcheck.
Maybe you do know how to enable that function on the console, but don't know where to begin with a training program. Let's take an in-depth look at how to create a training program using virtual soundcheck. Bear in mind each digital console manufacturer has a different process, so check with your manufacturer to get the entire virtual soundcheck process up and running. Once you can make it happen, these training tips should apply to all console manufacturers.
1. Treat virtual soundcheck like a one-on-one music lesson.
Having a musical background myself, not only have I received one-on-one music lessons, I've also given them. Most of the time, it's hard to tailor an audio lesson to an individual, unless it's one-on-one. As a lesson instructor, I often have a small notebook to take notes of where this volunteer or student is at, things they are progressing on, things I feel need more attention, and things I set as goals to introduce them to. Also, in such instances, I have scheduled them on a regular weekly or biweekly basis without fail, depending on their commitment level to develop.
While I do see the value in doing overall team trainings, say in a demonstration atmosphere or a designed class course, large team trainings are not the way to go when it comes to developing individuals.
2. Make goals for the training.
Consistency, repetition, and goal setting is key here. If you have a complete newbie to audio, I often give them a combination of audio basics (which include signal flow, audio terminology, and console navigation) to have them to push the faders and listen to the audio. For those who are anywhere from novice level to advanced, I will introduce a few things and have them discover some areas that they are not familiar with, and begin introducing new elements from there. With intermediate or advanced mix engineers, often they know what they would like to work on.
Don't hesitate to ask a student what they would enjoy learning next.
I mentioned having a little notebook for each student or volunteer who you are working with. I highly recommend taking notes! It can be an app on your phone or a physical notebook. But I generally take notes on progress, what they are working on, areas they are excelling in, and typically by the time I finish a training with a student in a session, I have a good idea of where I should start them the next time they come in.
3. Stick to a focused topic for the lesson.
As you begin to introduce topics and areas of training, stick to one topic per lesson. If you begin to introduce compressors, spend the entire time on the basics of compression.
Try not to introduce sidebar topics, such as plugins, EQ, parallel compression, etc. Yes, compressors affect EQ, however, that is another lesson.
Work on one type or mix topic per each training session. When you feel the student or volunteer has progressed, add incrementally more advanced topics to the topic you began with. Eventually you will have a lesson that specifically covers compressions that effect the EQ of an input.
4. Give them autonomy to try things.
When I give a lesson, I always at some point walk away, so that the student has a chance to make all the mistakes they want. I will give the student the focused lesson on the topic for the day, and let them ask as many questions as they want. When it looks like they are off and going for it, at that point, I'll suggest they work on a specific item for a while.
People who are new to things can be self-conscious, and to complicate things, most audio engineers are introverts. However, I always give students the opportunity to mix without scrutiny. Oftentimes, I'll walk away and work on other things in another room or backstage. Some students will have the sound system off, and mix with headphones. Let them have some mix autonomy, regardless of their skill level.
I might come back after about 20 to 30 minutes to check on the volunteer or student. At that point, I'll ask them how they feel about what they have been working on. In addition, I ask them what they see as their successes and what they feel they could do better.
Very often, as a result of these conversations, I know where to take them in the next lesson. Maybe the student felt they struggled with the compression on the drum kit, for example. When you meet them again, it would make sense to take compression to the next level, and work on techniques for a drum kit.
5. Change up your virtual soundchecks.
We all can fall into the habit of familiarity. However, it's diversity that makes us grow as a mix engineer. When it's just me running a virtual soundcheck, often I pull up recordings from various bands and events. I don't listen to the same content each time. I'll also mix with a variety of audio sources, the sound system in the room, near field speakers, or with in-ears. If you are at a church with a few different rooms that can also play back tracks, change rooms with your students.
Just by taking on the challenge of mixing another band or in another room, will introduce a challenging element to your virtual soundchecks. Your students will enjoy it as well. Emphasize the basics when changing things up. Students often focus hard on just learning one thing well or learning all the features of the console. In the end, being able to pull up a good mix anywhere, because you understand the fundamentals of audio mixing is what makes you a successful engineer.
If you don't have recordings from somewhere other than your own facility, reach out to studio friends, other churches, the local audio school, anyone really. Ask to obtain other recording sessions for your trainings.
6. Stay positive!
Audio is often about identifying the bad, but it doesn't mean how we work with those we are training needs to be as well. It's totally OK to say, "Something is muddying up things," or "It sounds distorted." However, don't criticize mixes. Remember this is training, anything goes, and the event is not on the line.
I have a general rule of thumb with students: There are no dumb questions, and you are dumb for not asking. Also, I always invite them to introduce to me something cool they have come across. I mean, I might also learn something new and cool.
Always celebrate their progress, and complement them on their use of new techniques.
When I do encounter problems that need to be corrected in a mix, I tend to use phrases like, "How can we clean up the band mix to allow the vocals to cut through better?" I find most of the time if you ask the student where they think they can improve, they will invite you to instruct them to improve.
As you develop that posture of interaction, those budding self-conscious young introvert techs will find themselves becoming more comfortable around you to make mistakes and to explore them with you, in their endeavor to understand audio.
In the end, I encourage you to view this as the single greatest training ground you can make available to your audio department. Not only will you grow in your skill sets, but you can pave the way to introduce audio to generations to come.