by Curt Taipale
A big reason to stay focused in our role as church sound system operator is so that we don’t do something really silly during a service. For example, we generally dim the house lights to a preset value at a couple of strategic moments during our worship services. The dimming system we use has a fader that determines how fast that fade up or fade down is. On occasion, one of our tech team members will hit the preset without checking to see where that dimming speed fader is positioned, and the lights will snap to the next setting. Now, that’s going to be obvious to any congregation member. Instead of a slow dimmer move from one setting to another, it’s a sudden change that could be a distraction to some.
If it happens often enough, it could even have some members thinking “There go those idiots in the tech booth again. Why can’t they get that right?” If it distracts even one person from the worship service, it shouldn’t have happened.
Here is my list of pet peeves regarding stuff that just shouldn’t happen in a worship service. Some of these may seem so silly, so expected, so taken for granted that they’re not worth saying. Yet you might be surprised how many times I’ve seen these mistakes made in other churches, or even by my own volunteers. And to be fair – how do I know about these mistakes? Because I've made them myself enough times along the way to learn from them.
Don’t miss microphone cues. We can’t afford to not have a mic turned on when it needs to be on. But if you come to one of my workshops, you’ll hear me talk about keeping the number of open microphones to a minimum. That is to say, if the choir’s not singing, don’t have their mics open. If the pastor’s not talking, don’t have his mic on. And so on. But we also need to stay focused so that the pastor doesn’t have to say stuff to the congregation like “Is this thing on?” What an embarrassment.
Turn off the mics before they hit the stand. It’s purely unprofessional to let a singer put a mic in the clip on a stand without having first muted that channel. If you don’t, the congregation is going to hear a loud thump over the system, or at least over the monitors. Hopefully the channel mutes on your console also mute the monitor mixes. That way all you have to do is mute each vocal mic channel, and they’ll be muted both in the house and in the monitors simultaneously.
Mute the guitar channels. Don’t you just hate the loud “bzzzzzt” that goes with a guitar cable being plugged in or unplugged with the channel open? If we can equate the word professional with excellence, then it’s unprofessional to not mute those channels in time to save the congregation from that moment. It’s a two-way street though. The sound guys aren’t mind readers, nor have they been assimilated and become one with the automation of the console. All that to say, the guitar and bass player in your worship team should give you a moment to mute their channels before unplugging. It’s just common courtesy, a recognition that we’re a team, that the tech support guys and the musicians are equal members of the worship team.
Teach your backing vocalists where to stand and how to use a microphone. Would someone please tell me why most backing vocalists stand so far away from their stage monitors? I don’t get it. After working with them, teaching them, showing them where they should stand and why, they seem to go back to their old habits. In one church I used to work at, our vocalists were very compliant and stood where we told them to stand - so they could see down the throat of the high-frequency horn in their stage monitor. Yet I’ve seen so many vocalists who run away from their monitor. You ask them if it’s too loud and they’ll say no. But they refuse to stand where it will do them the most good. Those vocalists I used to work with were also careful not to hold their mic to their sides facing down between songs. They simply held it about at their waist, still pointed up.
Think about it. If your vocalists drop the mic to their sides between songs, the zero degrees on-axis point of the mic is going to be aimed at the monitor, which is likely going to make it feedback. There’s nothing worse than 2001 eyes from the congregation looking at you when you did nothing to cause the problem.
Don’t create a visual distraction during a worship service. Investing your time and God-given talents in the tech support ministry is great. But remember that it’s an unseen, helps ministry. Do your best to keep it that way. If you need to walk out into the auditorium during a worship service, plan your route to offer the least possible distraction to the congregation. If you need to talk on the intercom, do so quietly so that others around you won’t be distracted. If you need to get a message to one of the musicians or singers on stage during a worship service, see if there’s a way to talk to them quietly over the monitors rather than sending someone on stage with a note. That’s another perfect reason for headphones instead of monitors.
Tighten up the fittings on boom stands. One day in college, I was helping set up for a jazz concert. As music engineering students, we were responsible both for sound reinforcement and for recording such events at the music school. And I had been given the responsibility of setting the mic stand with a boom arm and a rather heavy mic on the end of it for a guest saxophone soloist. At one point during the performance, of course during a saxophone solo, that boom arm started to slowly drop lower and lower. Guess who was sent out to fix the problem!?! (That’s another mistake I’ve not made since.)
Don’t stop mixing between songs. Remember the technique of bringing the worship leader’s fader up between songs so the congregation can hear what’s being said? Well, if your pianist or keyboardist continues playing between songs, go ahead and pull their faders or submaster down about -20 dB or so. They don’t know how loud they are in the house mix. Even if they’re playing softer, it may not be soft enough. It’s your job to maintain a great musical mix, even between the songs.
The details matter. If it needs to be miked, then put a mic on it. I once watched a church sound guy in the balcony FOH booth realize that he had forgotten to put a mic on an instrument on stage, and then decide that it was just too much trouble to bother going all the way back downstairs to add the mic. Hmm, not worth the bother?
Don’t forget to practice. It’s just amazing to me that musicians and vocalists – people who are used to practicing on their own – have to be reminded of the need to practice as a group. I’ve seen the same scenario repeated countless times around the world. All of this comes down to one primary point: Stay plugged in! It should be a given, but I’ve seen it happen to too many tech support volunteers – myself included. This constant commitment to pursue excellence requires vigilance on our part, but it cannot replace our relationship with God. If we get lost in the fun of twiddling knobs and playing with the gear, and in so doing forget why we’re doing this in the first place, then God won’t honor our service.
And try not to work every service. You and your family need time to immerse yourselves in the worship services as well.
Keep Up The Good Work
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always want to bother with the details it takes to deliver excellence in every worship service. But I can’t get away from the fact that we’re called to excellence in this ministry. We don’t have a choice but to give God our best. It honors Him. It’s a way to say we love Him. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s important. So keep studying. And keep giving it your best.
(The above section was originally published in November/December 1998 issue of TFWM.)