Thinking about working in church audio in 2015? Perhaps you started this year and want to accelerate your skills. This post is for you!
Church audio production (all live audio production for that matter) has two paradoxical characteristics:
- The work and processes never change.
- The work and processes change.
For the people who believe only number one, the quality of their work eventually stagnates and they won’t be the star audio techs they used to be.
For the people who believe only number two, they’ll be so caught up trying to be cutting edge or learn every new piece of gear or DAW plug-in that they’ll forget – or never learn – the fundamentals of audio production. Their mixes will suffer. The last two years produced a huge number of technological advances that would drive a person to focus on number two. And that’s important as you’ll soon read.
It’s both and a whole lot more.
That being said, there are important things you must know about working in church audio production in 2015.
What’s different about audio production in 2015?
May 3, 2011, I wrote on the future of church audio. It wasn’t pretty. Based on what I saw at churches and heard from audio techs across the globe, the future of church audio looked bad. I predicted that unless there was a massive improvement in how seriously volunteer techs took their jobs that there was going to be a decline in the quality of audio production in the church.
I took it a step further and provided steps we all needed to take to prevent the decline and turn church audio into a respected ministry.
The article was shared, re-tweeted, re-posted, syndicated, and mostly without my prompting. It was a call to action and people heard it. I’m not saying the article changed the landscape of church audio today but I do believe it had an impact, like touching the first domino so it causes hundreds of others to fall.
What is different about working in church audio in 2015 is that excuses are no longer allowed!
- I can’t find an online tech community.
- I can’t find a church audio guide.
- I don’t know where to go for help.
- I don’t know who to ask for help.
- I don’t know what gear to buy.
- I don’t know how to fix a problem.
- It’s only church audio – that’s never an excuse for sub-par work.
Several years ago, things were different. Today, the only thing that limits your talents and skills is your desire to be better.
Things to know for 2015
1. Continual learning is still your best bet.
I placed this at number one because people don’t do it. I have shaken my head more times at the words spoken by know-it-alls who stopped learning about audio in the 1980’s.
This isn’t limited to technical topics. Yes, you could spend all of your time trying to become the best at mixing contemporary Christian music or Gospel or whatever your church has. You could, but if you don’t know squat about working with people, leading a team, or fixing equipment problems then I’d rather not have you on my team.
If you’re new to audio, then don’t think you need to buy books like The Design of Active Crossovers. While I do have a copy, it’s a very niche book and not one most church techs need.
Look to magazines to start, with easy-to-digest articles, available online or via print. They also include articles on new gear and that’s another topic I’ll cover later in this post.
2. The fundamentals of audio production are still the most important thing.
Talking with other experienced techs, we found digital mixers were not the best for training new audio techs. The reason is the student would get so focused on what they could do with a specific software plug-in or advanced setting that foundational mixing techniques were ignored or viewed as “the old way.” It’s like they could throw up three-pointers into a basketball hoop but didn’t know how to dribble the ball.
Audio production is the worst job if the person doesn’t know the fundamentals of stage setup, microphone usage, cabling, and building a mix. And like I mentioned in number 1, it’s way more than just technical.
Pardon the promotion but this is exactly why I wrote a guide on this very subject. It’s been purchased in over 50 countries and often recommended by other techs for a reason – it outlines everything you need to know surrounding those fundamentals and a good bit more:
3. It’s time to re-consider your stage setup.
In 1994, I took a drastic step. I pushed the stacks of paper on my desk to the ground. After four weeks of pulling out papers only when I needed them, I tossed the remaining papers in the garbage reasoning if I didn’t need it after four weeks, I didn’t need it at all.
Do the same thing with your stage. Clear everything off. Just because equipment has been in the same place for years, it doesn’t mean that was the best place for it, or that it is still needed. Make a stage plot so whatever is on the stage is there for a reason and it’s set up the best way possible. Seriously, when was the last time you checked the drum mikes?
And for all that is good in the world, dust off the equipment. I see the dust on your amps and organs. Dust be gone!
Ok, so being the new person, you aren’t likely able to say “clear the stage” but you can clean it up and talk with others about good placement of instruments and other things. See the link below to see what I mean.
- Stage Plots – Scroll to the Pro Tip section.
4. Know how to mix personal monitors.
That’s right, the personal mixers the musicians use. You need to know how to mix those. It’s come to this; musicians can now mix their own monitors BUT THEY AREN’T AUDIO ENGINEERS, THEY ARE MUSICIANS. They need to learn what goes into their monitor mix. By using a headphone splitter, you can dial in their mix so both of you hear it.
The other part of personal monitors is the audio isolation caused when they use the in-ear headphones. They will complain and may even refuse to use the personal mixers just for this reason. This is where you have to have a plan. By adding a channel with an ambience microphone or using the unique tools on the personal mixers (like the reverb controls on some systems), they can have the feeling they are hearing live music instead of that isolated sound.
Check out this article on Church Production Magazine:
5. Avoid the quick fix.
Have you ever seen a car with a muffler held up by a coat hanger? Have you ever seen the same car driving on the temporary spare tire for over a month? This same simple-fix mentality has no place in audio production. It can lead to mid-service failure, fire, or electrocution.
Don’t be that person.
I’ve been in old churches where, after one look at the electrical work, I was ready to run to the nearest exit. The safety of everyone in the room is in your hands. You’ll never want to hear a fire investigator say, “So you knew there was a problem with the equipment and you tried to fix it…are you a certified electrician?”
6. Stop looking for simple answers to complex problems.
There is a time to call in professionals or, if money is tight, devoting the time to learning that aspect of audio production. This isn’t to say you can produce the same level of results but when money is tight…
Most problems do have simple answers; fuse blew, cable wasn’t properly seated, channel was muted, etc. But when it’s more than that you MUST be willing to educate yourself. Maybe you do hire a professional to fix a problem. Find out how they fixed it and how they identified the source of the problem.
I love reading your emails and helping solve your problems but there are some emails that ask too much. And these are usually focused around loudspeakers. The question usually amounts to, “what type of speakers should we buy and where should we hang them?”
We can give product suggestions and general recommendations for placement but because of the unique acoustic properties of the room and the manner in which they will be used, we can’t give the perfect answer. It’s a matter of system design and optimization, considering the need for acoustic treatment, and other factors that are specific to every sanctuary.
If you really want to get serious about loudspeakers and placement in a room, check out this book (one I own and often recommend):
7. Make connections.
Be it small conferences, online forums, twitter, or facebook, there are a lot of other techs out there who have the same problems, have conquered the same problems, or are ready to help others any chance they get. In 2015, there is no excuse to not be part of a tech community.
You need technical support, you need emotional support, you need a place to hang out with fellow techs – people who get it.
Here’s a list of places to start:
- Twitter: Connect with me and the people who follow me – 99% are audio techs.
- Facebook: Sign up for the newsletter and join our private discussion group.
- Discussion Group: CSC Discussion Group
- Forum: Church Technical Leaders
The best way to know when tech conferences are happening is via twitter. There is a growing number of regional and city conferences so be alert.
8. You must stay current on the latest in gear.
Not only is it good practice to know the new technologies because you’ll be upgrading equipment sooner or later but musicians and even pastors are reading the pro audio magazines. A month ago, my wife ran into a pastor-friend who said “I saw your husband’s article in a church tech production magazine.”
You must be able to talk with musicians, pastors, church staff, and others about new technology because they will ask you about it.
- Do you think we should get the new dpa ear-worn microphone?
- What do you think of the new Yamaha PM10 digital mixer?
- Would a new Radial Stagebug DI eliminate the hum?
Check out the magazines I mentioned earlier. Also, check out ProSoundWeb.
9. You’ll be challenged by your pastor and church staff.
The down side of becoming an audio tech is at some point you are seen as the expert in everything audio regardless of your level of experience. This is when you get challenged to do things you’ve never done, from picking new speakers to fixing room acoustics problems. Would you believe this is a good thing?
It’s too easy to become the weekend sound tech. Walk in, mix the service, and walk out. Pick an area of study and focus on that for a few months. Learn all you can about microphones, then loudspeakers, then room acoustics, then something else. Don’t expect to master each topic but do expect to reach a level of knowledge where you can have a discussion on the topic.
To get an idea of working at an advanced level, check out these blogs:
10. You must have a TEAM mentality.
The sound booth is not a fortress. It’s not a place where you stand and give orders, ignore requests, or protect yourself from talking to other people (we are mostly introverts). The technical production team and the worship band and everyone else involved with the service are all part of a team with a common goal. Miss this and it hurts everyone, including the congregation.
Speaking of introverts, this book has been recommended by a couple of church techs:
11. Plan time away from the mixer
A danger of being a new tech, especially in a small church, is trying to work every possible service. It’s great you want to gain experience and practice but a few things can happen:
- Your family will miss you at church – “you never sit with us for a service.”
- You’ll start seeing church as a place of work, not serving and worship.
- You’ll be on the road to burnout. Oh, the first year is great but three years down the road…
I’ve seen people burnout and quit. I’ve heard from techs who still work in production long after burning out because no one else will take their place. Check out the following article that hits burnout in depth. Don’t avoid it because “it will never happen to me.” Read it because one day you could be that person. Be pro-active.
12. Accept that mistakes and disasters will happen.
As a rookie, I would become frantic when something unexpected happened. It would take me longer to fix the problem and my obvious emotional state would be a worry to the pastor and the congregation. Today, a disaster becomes more of an annoyance. I work through the problem, solve the problem, and keep my cool throughout.
Problems will occur. Keep your cool and work through it. A tip on that, if you can fix something in just a few minutes, then fix it, otherwise go for a plan B. And you should always have a plan B – if the mixer goes out, what will you do, if a wireless microphone dies mid-service, what will you do. Plan for problems and have solutions at the ready.
As for mistakes, expect to make them as a rookie. I still make them, though on rarer occasion. Did I ever tell you of the time I accidentally muted the pastor’s microphone mid-sermon? Anyway, as I heard it once said, “Don’t let your mistakes define who you are.” Accept that they happened, forgive yourself and move on.
Mistake or disaster, there are four questions to ask;
- What happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What can be done to prevent it from happening?
- What did you learn from it?
13. You are placed in an area of great responsibility where God works through you to affect the hearts and minds of others.
Read that a few more times.
What would you say to techs before they mix in 2015?
Got some experience under your belt? What would you tell someone new to audio production? What changes do you see coming in 2015? Do you disagree with any of my points? Please leave a comment.