The congregation will be the source of your greatest joys. They will be the source of your greatest frustrations. Guess what? That’s the way it should be. All of your work, from mixing to microphone placement, centers on giving to the congregation.
There are two areas of importance when working with (perhaps working for) the congregation;
- Meeting expectations
- Understanding needs
The congregation has expectations just like the pastor and the musicians. The problem is their expectations are unspoken. The pastor will tell you when you aren’t meeting an expectation. A congregation member will complain to friends, the pastor, or, if you are lucky, they will tell you.
There are five primary expectations of the congregation.
1. “I want a distraction-free service.” What does this mean as far as your work? It means you have microphones on when they need to be on. A person in the sanctuary chairs doesn’t want to be distracted because they didn’t hear the first sentence where he said “Turn in your bibles to Psalm 27.” It means you pro-actively prevent feedback so they don’t get knocked off their seat if it were to happen. It means you do everything possible so they stay focused on the pastor, the music, or whatever else is going on at the front of the church.
2. “I want to understand the pastor.” I’ve had a surprising number of people tell me they can’t understand the pastor at their church. Their common complaint is “he’s not loud enough.” However, it’s more than just volume. Referring back to the EQ process, specifically on EQ’ing for the spoken word, you can see how a person’s speaking voice can be enhanced so their words are easier to understand.
*Tip on EQ’ing the pastor’s voice; when the sanctuary is empty, playback a recording of the sermon and see how you can improve the sound using the EQ. The playback might not be exactly the same as you hear it live, but it gives you a place to start.
3. “Can I get a copy of the sermon?”
People are now asking for sermon copies as soon as the service ends. In the old days, a copy of the sermon would be available the next week in the form of a cassette tape. Today, modern technology allows us to not only record the service, but have it available for download as soon as the service ends.
* Tip: Digging a bit more into sermon/service recording, make sure the recording volume is set at an appropriate level. Hardware can have controls over the volume of the incoming signal. A signal that’s too low requires the listener to crank the recording on playback. This is bad for a couple of reasons; increases noise in the output and when they stop the playback and switch to something else, they could be shocked at the sudden volume hit because they forgot to turn the volume down.
4. “This porridge is too hot. This porridge is too cold.” The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a perfect illustration regarding appropriate volume levels. The congregation wants the volume “just right.” Be aware that the volume you think is right may not be best for the congregation.
*Tip: if the sound booth is in a balcony, take volume readings of the same sounds in the sound booth and then throughout the main level. Draw the sanctuary floor on graph paper and mark down your SPL meter readings. Also note the reading in the sound booth. Readings can be taken using the proper type of constant noise generator. If the booth reading is +/- 6 dB then you know you are hearing at significantly different levels than the congregation.
5. “The band should always sound good.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone utter those words, but the sentiment is very much implied. This means you need to do a few things; support the musicians and the worship leader so they can play their best, you can mix your best, and provide a consistent mix.
A consistent mix is best described as the song you mixed last week sounding like the same song you mixed two months ago. You can have improvements in your mix and subtle differences but as far as the congregation is concerned, it should sound familiar.
You might be new to church audio and if that’s the case, you should expect your mixes to change each week. How then can you mix consistently? In this case, you should be improving your mix each week. In time, you will settle into mixing a consistent sound.
Understanding needs of the congregation
During my college days, I spent time behind a different kind of mixing board – a radio broadcasting board. I discovered an interesting fact related to the broadcast audience. It’s this; they will call you, asking for information on everything from parade times to road closures to event locations, and they will expect you to have the answer.
In order to understand the needs of the congregation, let’s look at the needs of those radio listeners. They perceived the radio station broadcaster to be in a position of knowledge. I was the one reading traffic reports, weather reports, and urgent news alerts. Doesn’t it make sense that I would know when the local Catholic church was having their spring carnival? In their minds, yes, it indeed made sense.
Working in church audio production, you are perceived to be in a position of knowledge. The presumption is that because you work directly on producing the church service that you must also know;
- The location of empty seats when people walk in at the last minute.
- When it’s too warm or too cold and you have the ability to change the thermostat.
- The time that any church event starts, ends, and where it takes place.
You will find people asking you a variety of questions. You will have the answers to some, but not to all. And sometimes, you just don’t have the time to answer them. For example, the service starts in 30 seconds and you need to be ready to start.
When it comes to congregational requests, I deal with them in this order;
- Answer the question if I know the answer.
- Point them to people who can answer their question.
- In the case of first time visitors, I with call out to someone else or I will walk them over to someone who can help.
Be courteous and professional at all times. They might ask you a question at the worst time. No matter how bad the timing, remember you are representing the church and God so let that show through your actions.
Their need to vent
People need to vent their emotions. They can be upset over what the pastor said, the choice of songs, the volume of a song, or even over the smallest of mistakes. Maybe they are just having a bad day. They might even turn to you to vent. I’m an easy going person so I tend to listen and they give some words of encouragement.
If they are upset over something regarding the audio, then you need to start asking questions. Your goal is two-fold; expressing concern over their complaint and looking for the cause of the complaint.
Consider these statements and the follow-up questions;
- The music didn’t sound right. What was it that didn’t sound right to you? Could you understand the singers? Was it a problem with the volume
- The music was too loud. Was it all of the sounds or was it a particular voice or instrument? Where were you sitting?
- I couldn’t understand the pastor. Where were you sitting? Could you understand anything that was spoken by anyone during the service? How could you not understand it (was it a volume issue, was it unclear, etc).
- What happened with the feedback? This is a complaint or they are just giving you a hard time. You can either explain in detail what happened or say “I made a mistake, I’m sorry about that.”
Asking questions will give you answers as to why there was a problem. If they were sitting right in front of the speakers then it makes sense if they thought it was too loud. At one church I know, people were complaining about getting headaches. It turned out there was a lot of low-end frequencies that were gathering into a part of the sanctuary. Maybe you had the guitar too loud in the mix…maybe they just don’t like the style of music. Learn what you can and change what you can.
Asking questions also shows you care.
The joy you get from the congregation comes in a couple of ways;
- You overhear then say “the band sounded great.” You mixed the band, so take that as a huge compliment.
- They tell you directly, “you did a great job today.” This usually comes after a particularly crazy service that keeps you hopping. They see that you were able to keep up with all the changes and maintain your cool.
- You watch them worship. God used you to help build that mix, that sound, that feel. He used you to give the musicians what they needed.
- You heard them talk about the service. In short, they kept their eyes and ears focused on the church service. Take joy in that because it means you’ve done a good job.
The congregation will be the source of your greatest joys. They will be the source of your greatest frustrations. Guess what? That’s the way it should be.
Give them what they need. Treat them with respect. And take joy in the fact they are focused on the pastor, the music, and God.
Question: What needs/expectations would you add to this list? What joys?