May 11, 2012, by Chris Huff
One of the hardest parts of our job is mixing sub-optimal sounds.
The frustrating part is when it’s the fault of a musician and you and I don’t have the authority to say anything.
Don’t misunderstand me…I’m not saying I demand professional level musicianship from the band.
I’m saying there are times when they need to be better.
Let’s back up…
Recently, some articles have been focused not on the technical aspect of your work but on the human aspect of what you do. The first was a guest post from my pastor on his view of church audio and the roles of sound techs. The second article focused on how you can enlist the worship team to help you after the service.
Keeping with the theme this week of purpose and teamwork, let’s look at working with problem musicians.
This month, I’ve received quite a few emails from people asking how they can deal with problem musicians. Mind you, these usually aren’t musicians who are intentionally causing problems. They are musicians, singers included, who have adopted poor habits or aren’t able to perform at the level expected of them.
The result is you and I have a harder time creating a solid mix and the congregation suffers.
But what can you do?
As the sound tech, you don’t have authority over the worship leader or the musicians. You can’t tell them what to do or how to do it. That is to say, not in the ways that are usually ascribed to those in leadership. There are ways you can help, however, as you’ll soon learn.
I’ve seen a few problem musicians myself. Thankfully, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any more. But looking back, all of the problems could easily be corrected when the right steps were taken while keeping in mind their emotional well-being.
The three typical problem musicians
There are three typical “problems” I have seen with musicians. Their hearts are in the right place but they don’t realize the impact of what they’re doing.
1. The amp lover. The amp lover is the easiest to correct of the three. The problem they present is insisting their amp be the source of their audio feed (mic’d or not) all the while having it pointed at their knees and cranked too loud.
They simply love their tone but don’t know how to make it work with the mix.
2. The stylizing singer. Singers are on the stage to do one of two things; lead the congregation or support the lead singer in the case of background singers. When they sing outside of their expected melody, then they are no longer leading or they are no longer harmonizing.
They simply sing more freely than they should and it’s hard on the other singers/congregation to follow along.
3. The double-duty musician. There are some musicians who can sing and play an instrument at the same time while doing both tasks very well. And there are those who can’t. A musician might say “God has blessed me with a great voice and a love for the [insert instrument] so I feel I should use both gifts at the same time.” Just because God blesses someone with two similar talents doesn’t mean he’s telling them to use both at the same time.
Their heart is in the right place but when their double-duty results in doing one or both tasks poorly, then their sound suffers, other musicians have problems, and the mix suffers.
How you can change all of this?
Let’s start with the amp lover.
Your first level of assistance is showing them how they can point the amp up at their heads for a better sound.
Considering I’ve listed them in this article, it’s not going to be that simple.
Let’s say the musician does move it but still cranks the amp. Or, they don’t listen to your recommendations. Then what?
Talk with the worship leader. Explain the effect of the amp on the overall sound and its negative effect on the mix.
More than likely, the congregation is already unhappy with the sound. Give them a week or two. If nothing has changed, record the next service and give them a copy of the worship set after the service. They will hear for themselves how the amp is negatively affecting the mix and they’ll take steps to get that problem resolved.
Next, the stylizer.
Working with the stylizer is a bit harder. I haven’t found anything that I could say that would help. It was only in going to the worship leader that changes started to take place. Much the same way as with the guitarist, give them a copy of the worship set so they can hear the impact of the stylizer.
I suggest you go one step further. Recommend bringing in a vocal coach who isn’t someone who attends your church. Have that vocal coach attend a few services and then have them work with all of the singers.
This way, not only will the stylizer have a professional point out their issue and show them how to overcome it but the coach can help the other singers… and can’t everyone benefit from some level of professional instruction?
Finally, the double-duty musician.
This is the hardest of the three. Their heart is in the right place. My recommendation is that if you are good friends, sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with them. A copy of the worship set might help but I’d focus on being honest with them.
You might say “whenever you sing lead for a song, your rhythm playing becomes inconsistent and the band feels it and the congregation hears it.” Or, “whenever you sing while playing, your singing volume is all over the place and sometimes, whether you realize it or not, you’ll not sing a couple of lines when you sing harmony.”
I’ve had to deal with this issue with a musician and it took a long time until they finally accepted it and committed to doing only one of the two for each song.
If you don’t think this will work, talk with the worship leader about it.
One other option
Sometimes problems don’t need to be solved directly. Sometimes it’s a matter of having the person in the right mindset to see what they need to change. Consider having a bible study with all the tech crew and the musicians together with a study on worship.
The result of the study can be an evaluation by each person as to how they work on the worship team to promote worship by the congregation and what they can do to improve.
Each of us, whether on the tech crew or on the worship team, are working for the congregation. Our goal is for them to worship completely and without distraction. Working behind the mixer is more than mixing and doing the technical work. It’s also about helping everyone reach that goal.
And, if you bring up one of these issues with the worship leader and it’s not dealt with over time, let it go. It’s their job to shepherd and lead the worship team, not yours.
Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians. He can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown.