Your Sound System: Partner or Nemesis? By Tom LeFevre tlefevre@soundandsong.com

Have you just installed a new sound system, and are brimming with excitement? Have you been using one for a while and are less than enthusiastic about it? Perhaps you are among the greatly blessed, whose church’s sound ministry is little short of "heaven-sent." Even if you don’t yet have a sound reinforcement system, but are thinking of one someday, these comments may help you to move forward with greater confidence and likelihood of success.

Short of having an organist with the world’s best intentions, but who hits about ten percent wrong notes, few things can be as frustrating as a chronically problematic sound system. It’s an arduous process to make a worship style transition, work through the trustees for funds, and persuade the congregation to accept those new-fangled speakers in the sanctuary. And it probably cost more than a little good will to reclaim half of a pew or two in the balcony for a mixing console–let alone on the main floor where it should be (these brave folks may have had to mortgage a piece of their soul). Now–appropriately so–you need to have it work. Then you’re not alone.

Technology Alone Is Not Enough

We are so conditioned as a society to "buying our solutions". (How did we come so far in this regard?) It’s not surprising that after a substantial expenditure, we expect to have no problems. Unfortunately, as those who own and rely on personal computers at work or home know (especially at home), life with new technology isn’t quite as simple as the television ads would have us think. Alas, it isn’t much different with a sound system, except that it costs a lot more, takes a lot more savvy to successfully operate the latter, and it can aggravate a lot more people when it doesn’t work as intended.

Important to Have Decent Equipment

We’ll talk a lot in this article about the "people" aspects of a successful sound ministry, but we need to stress that it’s important to have decent equipment in the first place. Like so many things, expecting to have first rate sound production "on the cheap" is not the most realistic of assumptions. On the other hand (I feel like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"), what is a church to do that has precious few resources? It is a puzzlement that requires good judgment and stewardship. But it is important to realize that the final sound product is only going to be as good as the weakest link in the chain. The system will never be a substitute for good singing and playing, nor for effective elocution in speech–but what a difference it can make when the right ingredients are already there!

Having a Champion

I’ve known churches where the senior pastor can run the mixer–and sometimes has to during rehearsals and "non-worship" times. I’ve also seen churches where a thriving sound ministry staffed by monthly rotating teams ensures coverage and backup at virtually all times. One thing is sure–if somebody doesn’t "own" a problem or a resource, then it’s not going to be managed as it should. Sometimes a church implementing a new layer of technology (such as a sound system to support contemporary worship) doesn’t simultaneously have a gifted individual step up to "own" its operation. This, too, is a puzzlement and a challenge–which must be addressed. A successful sound ministry–and it must be stressed that this is an essential ministry–often starts and unfolds from a single "angel" who happens to be both musically and especially technically inclined. The sound system is the final "funnel" through which all reinforced music and spoken Word flows, and the pressure to deliver can be excessive. It’s critically important that the congregation at large not be "scared off" by this "making or breaking" technology. A sound angel who really loves it, and wants to foster shared knowledge, training, and a pool of "cherubs." truly deserves a special place in the Kingdom.

Background of a Sound Angel

Perhaps someone in your church used to play in a band, and doesn’t quite feel up to being a regular musician. Having a foundation in the knowledge of mixing, and in the roles of instruments and voices in ensemble is very helpful. Beyond that, a back-ground in physics, electronics, or engineering can be a great benefit. As many have observed–not the least of whom was Leonard Bernstein–music is very mathematical, and these gifts often go hand in hand. Most important is a commitment to being generally available especially in the beginning–for worship times and rehearsal times. The sound manager is arguably the most important member of the musical and worship team. No matter how hard the musicians practice–nor how gifted they might be–nothing goes out any better than the sound person mixes. Sound isn’t a "set it and forget it" sort of thing. An instrumental or vocal solo may require special handling on the faders, and only rehearsal time will get you there together. Sometimes certain voices–speaking and singing–require special handling and equalization. Certain song styles and production emphasis, especially in the area of musical effects, require as much real-time concentration as from the players. So much for kicking back and drinking coffee while running the board.

Knowing the Tools

Let’s make a leap, and assume such an angel has appeared in your church. One of the first steps is for them to learn about their tools. Self-study on acoustics and the physical behavior of sound helps, but even more, they must master knowledge of the mixing console, microphones, production values of the worship and drama team (vocal and instrumental), and the speech styles and variations among the pastor(s) and other worship leaders. That angel can be trained in a seminar that specializes in such knowledge. (An example is that fostered by a group called Synergistic Audio Concepts.) Then the angel needs to foster sharing of that knowledge. One person can forge a pathway in the wilderness, but if the knowledge stays in only one brain, you’re already in trouble. The leader must also relish being a teacher. It’s well worth several hundred dollars to train your angel in specifics.

Documentation

We have the Word today because it was written down. The sound team leader must be the one who fosters broader participation and training by being a good documenter and teacher. Nobody wants to come onto a sound team and be thrown to the wolves without knowing what to do. Sometimes this happens, not by intention, but simply because there’s nobody else around. Try to avoid this at great length. In any aspect of Kingdom-building, we must assure that those helpful spirits who step forward to make a difference, don’t get fried, scourged, lynched, or otherwise abused. Start with a job or ministry description. Put together a glossary of essential terms and concepts. You may find one in the back of your mixing console book. A few key pages of your console owner/operator manual probably contain a wealth of information and pictures to make the functions of all those faders, mutes, and dials understandable. Your own procedures for normal operation can be summarized in a few pages. Each sound ministry team member should keep and maintain their own 3-ring notebook for documentation. Sound management is a subjective phenomenon (as proven by the number of different opinions we hear most every Sunday), but our best hope for uniform and consistent operation lies in common training, mentorship, and partnership with the preaching pastor and the music, drama, and worship teams.

Some Good Team Habits

The official chain of responsibility may be to the senior pastor, or to the facilities manager, or to the music director. Regardless, the sound team requires adequate time together for "breaking in" prior to going it alone on a Sunday morning. Sound ministry is a great opportunity for what is called "training the trainer" learning. If the team leader attends a seminar (to responsibly limit cost to the church), that leader should then be prepared to pass the lessons along through small classes on the subject. Team members come from the congregation at large, and may be the ideal place to plug in newcomers. A new worship style and new technology generates a lot of interest in a lot of new faces of different ages. The senior pastor has special "appeal opportunity" from the pulpit–stumping for servants. Often all you have to do is let people know there’s a need.

Special care must be taken to get enough team members to permit rotation. This is one of the best ways to prevent burnout. A monthly coverage rotation scheme works pretty well in many churches–knowing that some weeks just won’t work. A substitute can usually be found if there’s a critical mass of folks. The best teacher is experience, and a new person can be an apprentice on-the-job with a mentor to answer questions and explain whys and wherefores. This also builds rapport and "eases" someone into deeper water–while assuring they can swim.

It’s important to follow up a worship Sunday (especially if multiple services take place) with a brief meeting. In the theater, this is called "director’s notes," and it happens immediately after the performance–before makeup or costumes come off. Do folks in your church dash out for Sunday dinner within five minutes of service end? If so, you’re not alone. Many details and nuances are forgotten by the time a Monday or Tuesday meeting arrives. In more developed production services, typically a light team and video/ recording team also attend brief "notes" meetings along with pastors, music, and worship leaders. If you’re anything like me, you’re so hungry you could go to a pig roast by yourself after three Sunday services. So everybody pitches in to assure the meeting goes quickly. Detailed written summaries aren’t necessary. But a lot of glitches don’t have to happen over and over because the "right" people were together for just a few minutes. That’s why actors do it–even in a long-running Broadway play. If the service went especially well, you can reinforce the victory immediately. People need to know what they’re doing right even more than they need to know what’s wrong. This principle works well in any kind of management.

Some Sound Do’s:

* Do promote rapport, partnership, understanding, and communication among technology teams, pastors, and music teams.

* Do invest in quality "basic training" for your sound team leader. They then train the team.

* Do assemble a critical mass of team members–the number will vary as does your number of services, but six will permit serving (and it is servanthood!) for a month, twice a year. Eight is better, and assures effective substitutions.

* Do promote learning and insist on individual maintaining of documentation. Celebrate team members’ growth and accomplishment.

* Do foster a creative spirit in acoustic management, while insisting on adherence to standard procedures and principles. Too diverse independent behavior can create a result that varies profoundly with whoever happens to be working any given day. The lack of predictability will eventually make everybody crazy.

* Do have a primary source of interaction from the performing teams. Too many cooks only spoil the broth. This will usually be the musical director/producer/worship leader. That person must be able to step away from the ensemble and hear the sounds for themselves.

* Do plan out the schedule of team coverage far enough that the entire ministry team knows who’s doing what, and when. This way special preaching, musical, and dramatic requirements can be anticipated, rehearsed, and offered up effectively.

Some Sound Don’ts:

* Don’t put a cup of coffee on the mixer (or the piano for that matter.)

* Don’t rely on quick fixes to solve major technical problems. If you need a consultant to "tune" your sanctuary (multi-band equalize), bring one in.

* Don’t cut corners on inexpensive one-time items. If you need longer mic cables, more mic jacks, or high-grade pulpit mic "pop" filters, then get ’em. If you use wireless mics with 9-volt batteries, use fresh ones every Sunday. It’s not worth the risk of running low mid-sermon. Rechargeables often don’t seem to have enough juice. Consider it a cost of operation, and see that the church religiously maintains an adequate supply. If they can do it for toilet paper, they can do it for batteries. Even so, the astute sound person or musician will always carry a spare.

* Don’t ever, ever "tee off" on a sound person out of frustration. This stuff is not easy, requires great concentration, and usually precludes the sound person’s being able to participate in worship themselves. They are among our most important partners in ministry–and they’re working every week with stuff that’s invisible. God love ’em!