True or false? “The sound system in your church is the same as the system in mine.”
The answer to this question seems so obvious, but most sound people have learned most of their audio knowledge with the sound system they work with every week. If this system is not properly set up from the start, the operator’s ability to provide good sound is immediately compromised.
There are FOUR elements to good sound in any venue:
1. The sound system.
2. The sound people.
3. The room acoustics.
4. The program material (which includes the instrument quality, the talent of the musicians, and the arrangement of the songs).
Let’s go through these one by one to see the reality.
THE SOUND SYSTEM
Most sound systems in contemporary churches were set up in one of four ways.
1. Components were donated from a band that is no longer together (or no longer practicing in their garage,) and their soundman (or lead singer) comes over, sets up the system, and in 15 minutes dispenses all his knowledge about how the system works. This meeting usually ends with him saying, “Good luck!” and BAM! – the church has a sound system. Note that generally, none of the microphones for the worship singers are the same model or even the same brand, and the system does not have any equalizers (except on the channels of the mixer, which are only fixed high, mid, and low).
2. The music pastor pours over industry magazines or mail order catalogues then takes a fateful trip down to the local music store where he or she buys not what they want, but whatever the store has in stock because “there just isn’t any more time” or the budget does not permit.
3. The pastor or a well-meaning board member picks a sound company out of the phone book, usually alphabetically, and has them bid a system based not on what will work for the church, but the budget. Usually in this scenario, the music pastor and the existing sound people are not once consulted, but expected to operate with this system and perform flawlessly at the next service.
4. One or two of the sound team members persuade the pastor and board members to buy the equipment, usually out of a catalogue or off the internet, hanging speakers wherever and using microphone cable from their favorite consumer electronics shack in the mall. This system never works correctly, but everyone is afraid to admit it.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? It has been my experience that all of these methods start out with the best intentions in mind, but end up causing friction and frustration in the music ministry, not to mention inadequate sound. Remember that the great Pastor Charles Spurgeon called his music ministry “The War Department.”
THE SOUND PEOPLE
This is the most sensitive part of the sound system. People are the deciding factor in the sound equation. Most people that volunteer for the sound ministry at church have a great heart of service. They are content to be behind the scenes and never be mentioned. They spend long hours at rehearsals and practices for worship, skits, plays, women’s dinners, coffee houses, youth rallies, and the like. They are also faithful to be at church, usually before anyone else, to set up the stage, and the last ones to leave.
They are the unofficial information center to direct people to the restrooms, lost and found, and the nursery. Most of the time, no one tells them when they have done a good job, but they are the first to hear about any problems, and not by one person but everyone that passes by the sound booth. The sound person is blamed for many things including, but not limited to:
- Singers who are flat, sing the wrong words, or don’t know the words at all
- Bass players who unplug during the prayer or before their channel is muted
- Guitar players whose amps mysteriously get louder and louder during worship
- Or pastors who put a cable knit sweater over their lapel mic and wonder why they can’t be heard.
Make no mistake about it, volunteer sound people are the unsung heroes of the church. The truth of the matter is that most sound people are professionals who work hard all week at their ‘real job’ and then serve in the sound ministry at night and on the weekend. Because of this, most people come into the sound ministry with a willing heart but not very much knowledge about music, sound, or sound systems. This lack of knowledge breeds either the ‘tweeker’ who is always turning knobs but doesn’t really know what changes are being made or the ‘petrified rock’ who never touches anything on the mixer because they are afraid of messing something up.
THE ROOM ACOUSTICS
This is an area that plagues most churches because little attention is given to it while the building is being built. Like the sound system itself, room acoustics become a big concern when the first service comes around. Most “good” rooms are designed that way from the beginning. A room can be “fixed” to a certain extent after the fact with acoustic paneling, bass traps, and decorative wall treatments. Knowing how much treatment is enough for your room usually requires you to hire a qualified acoustical consultant to help you with type and placement. The room acoustics absolutely affect the ability to have good sound in a room. Remember you can’t “E.Q.” the room unless you physically change the room acoustics. Carpet, fabric covered chairs, and of course people, can dramatically change the way the room and the system will sound. A big sledgehammer can also help the acoustics of your building and although you might enjoy using it, it is not recommended as a long-term solution, so seek professional help on this one.
THE PROGRAM MATERIAL
At most churches, each musician brings their instrument of choice and the sound person is expected to mix and equalize all and any instruments into a glorious blend of celestial music. It is a true fact that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In a later article, I will address the need for the music pastor/worship leader to set and keep a standard for musical instruments that are onstage. As your congregation grows, it is likely you will want the church to own the majority of key instruments you use on a regular basis such as drums and keyboards.
The other part of the program material that can make or break the sound of your service is the singers. I realize that I am walking on glass when talking about this, but it must be addressed. Which is worse: seven singers who are flat and not in key or three singers who are flat and not in key? You would be surprised at the number of worship teams where the singing was bad so the decision was made to throw more singers at the problem, but the bad singers only threw the new singers off.
The last part of this element is the quality of musicianship onstage. This is more than just talent; the sound of your band or orchestra is also very dependent on the servant’s heart to submit to the music pastor/worship leader as they submit to the senior pastor.
These four elements are the foundations for sound in any venue and they need to be addressed and incorporated into your church vision. It is very important that you never stop trying to achieve perfection in all these areas even though it may seem impossible. Pressing toward that goal will constantly improve the quality of all you do at your church.