The future of church audio is not all pretty flowers and sunshine. A student from the Indiana University School of Music asked me my thoughts on the future of church audio. The more I dwelt on the topic, the more I saw that the future is not pretty. Here is my view of the future, why the church is destined for that direction, and what you and I can do to change all that.
I want to start by traveling back in time, specifically to 1896.
Frank Humphreys, a clergyman in the 1890’s, wrote a book entitled “The Evolution of Church Music.” The focus of the book was music, not audio production, however, the insight he provides at the time most definitely flows across into the view of modern day church audio production.
“We are constantly standing on the threshold of new discoveries; we are constantly opening up new and unexplored fields, and new combinations surprise and delight us, proving the inexhaustibility and endlessness of the gamut of musical expression. For the soldier there is martial music to cheer him upon the march, to excite him to victory, or to rejoice in his triumph; there is music which invites us to the joy of the dance; there is the music of love, pure and impure; there is mirthful music to make us laugh; and there is the solemn music with which we follow the dead.
All these fitly arouse and express the ever-changing passions of man. Shall the music of the Church be less adequate to its consecrated purpose?”
Frank nailed it. Go to any venue of the performing arts, be it theater, a concert, or dare I even say opera and what happens when the audio production is bad? We complain. Everyone complains! Now let’s move to the church environment and what is the result of poor audio production? At some churches, there might be complaining. In some churches, no one complains because “it’s church and therefore it doesn’t have to be perfect.” The church body and church leadership have just allowed for the “less adequate.”
This “less adequate” mentality is more than just in the quality of production. Also, it’s in the quality of the environment.
Worship music has changed a lot in the last 20-30 years but the environments in which it’s performed are, by-and-large, the same. Sanctuaries that once provided wonderful acoustics for choir and organ are now blasted with bass amps, electric guitars, and huge overhead speakers without regard to the acoustic properties of the room. The result is often a bad sound due to the lack of acoustical treatment and improper equipment installation!
The “less adequate” mentality permeates all areas of audio production in the church! We are faced with churches lacking proper acoustic treatment to meet the demands of the room. To make matters worse, churches are spending more money on equipment while ignoring training, and sound guys are left to the winds of fate.
The current state of church audio is not good.
What is hurting the growth of quality audio?
There are several factors hurting the growth of quality church sound.
1. The quality of the sound guy. I have to be honest, there are many in the pro sound world who laugh at people who claim to “know audio” because they run sound at church. Unfortunately, we’ve somewhat earned that image. The reason is that in the majority of churches, sound guys don’t get the training they need nor are they hired based on qualifications. “You’re good with computers; would you like to run sound on Sundays?” On top of that, the average church sound guy isn’t pushing to improve their knowledge and the overall quality of their work on any other day ending in “UNDAY.”
2. Expectations are incorrectly placed on equipment. The answer to getting a better sound isn’t always buying a better sound board or more expensive stage gear. A $20,000 mixing board won’t make up for a poorly trained sound guy or bad room dynamics.
3. The church music style has changed drastically but the acoustic space has not. Additionally, many churches are being built without regard to room dynamics.
4. Audio production is not a priority by church leadership. When the economy takes a downturn, it’s one of the first budgets to get cut. This past year, I’ve heard from a couple of technical directors who had to cut many of their paid positions and change them to volunteer positions.
5. No Source of change / mentoring. Each church is at the mercy of the one person in the church who has the motivation for always improving the audio quality. In churches where there is only one person like that, that person can have tons of drive but little experience or knowledge of how to proceed. When they don’t have a mentor, they are limited in how they can improve the audio because they are limited in knowledge. I’ve even been at a church with a 5-person audio team where no one had been trained and they behaved as “volume controllers.” No mentors and no push for improvement leads to zero improvement.
6. The “less adequate” mentality. What more can I say than to quote Frank’s words again; “Shall the music of the Church be less adequate to its consecrated purpose?”
Over the next ten years, none of this is going to change. As long as these six points are still issues in the church, the quality of sound production is going to suffer.
How We Can Change All of That
1. Quantitative analysis
The first thing that must be done is taking a survey of all aspects of your church’s audio. This means the quality of the room, the usability of the equipment, the views and criticisms from the musicians, the views of the congregation on the quality of audio, and an honest appraisal of your own knowledge of audio production. At this point, all the other points follow as means of goal setting and achievement.
2. Educate church leadership in the importance of what we do
In his essay, “The Cathedral: a School of Music,” the Dean of Norwich wrote, “...that [music] is the highest, truest, deepest expression of devotional feeling.” Music, being a subject of such value means that its creation in the sanctuary must be regarded as more than just the musicians but also the presentation which is where audio production comes into play. One pro-audio sound guy said it like this “if you are ever questioned on the value of what you do, turn off the system when the band is playing.” Educate church leaders by asking one to shadow you for a day. Then show them the differences between what is and what could be.
3. Hire professionals
Acoustic analysis and treatment is not for the armchair sound guy. By hiring an audio professional who works in these areas, they can recommend (and sometimes install) the treatment necessary and make changes to your house EQ that produces a better overall sound.
4. Require (Demand) training
Require training for anyone joining your team as well as existing team members. You train them yourself, use online courses, and go to training seminars. Be the best sound guy you can be and demand that of others.
5. Aim for a higher quality of your own work
Every audio event you work is an opportunity to improve. You might improve the music mix, the monitor mix, or even your methods for dealing with musician issues. Always be striving for improvement. In the pro-audio realm, they say you’re only as good as your last gig. Who are you working for? God, almighty so give Him the best you have each and every time.
6. Reaching out to area churches
Reach out to area churches for two reasons; find a mentor or become one. We can’t improve our churches solely from the inside. Let’s be the brothers in Christ we are called to be.
7. Establishing such a high quality of work that anything less is noticed.
The better the sound, the higher the expectations of the congregation.
8. Push for budgeting
I hear of churches that don’t even have audio budgets. Back at point #2 I discussed having a church leader shadow you for a day. If you don’t have a budget, it’s a great time to bring up the cost of maintaining your equipment and what happens when that doesn’t happen. Create a budget; even if “we don’t have money,” a budget is a great way to show the leadership the maintenance costs and the costs of replacement.
9. Train musicians in stage performance
Musicians have the ability to improve the sound in the sanctuary. Through better equipment usage such as microphones, monitors, and amp’s, they can give you a better sound for mixing. They can also learn the expectations of the sound guy and how you can work together. You can train them yourselves or let me train them for you.
10. Regard your work with the utmost respect.
If you and I are to change the course of audio production in the churches, we must regard our work with the utmost respect. Stay focused, stay motivated, be considered a role-model of a change agent.
I wish I could say churches across the country are spending money on all areas of training, equipment, and acoustic treatment. I wish I could say that in ten years from now, every church is going to be producing beautiful music. Today, I don’t see that on the horizon. But I am encouraged. I’m seeing more and more sound guys on web sites like mine. I’m seeing more and more people looking for training. I see people like you who have the desire to be change agents. And it’s people like you who I thank for your efforts every day in improving the quality of audio so the congregation can worship fully, completely, and that everyone can see the Glory of God in what you do.
Question(s): What do you think? Am I right? Am I wrong? What are you doing about it?
Foot note: There are exceptions to what I’ve said. Some of you tell me you have everything you need and the sanctuary is ideal for modern worship music. But you are not in the majority.