Church Sound: The Keys To Becoming A Great Technical Artist

February 05, 2013, by Mike Sessler

church sound
This article is provided by ChurchTechArts.

 

I’ve been having quite a few discussions of late as to what separates great technical artists from, well, less great ones.

More specifically, the discussions have focused on the reasons it’s hard to train people to be great tech artists, and why it takes so long. You see, it’s not enough to simply know how to use the gear. In most cases, that’s the easy part.

No, the real challenge is to know how to use the equipment in context and create a moment that would otherwise not be there.

Laying in bed the other night, I was thinking about this and six characteristics came to mind that seem to be present in the best technical artists I know.

This is not likely the definitive list; however, I do think anyone who aspires to be a great tech would do well to develop these characteristics in increasing quantity. This is going to be a series, and I’m going to attempt to present not only the characteristic and it’s description, but some examples as well.

These are not necessarily in order; indeed I’m not sure there is an order, as I think all are necessary, at least in some degree.

Characteristic One: Situational Awareness

I would define situational awareness as simply being aware of one’s surroundings, constantly taking note of what is happening in the room, what the other disciplines are doing, and of the general mood and feel of the people in the room.

I learned of this phrase years ago when doing some self-defense training. In that context, having high situational awareness would keep you from being mugged, for example. Paying attention to those around you—do any of them look out of place, shifty or potentially dangerous—and taking note of potential escape routes. I used to spend more time in a downtown area, and would always be on high alert, continually scanning my surroundings for potential danger.

Maintaining a high situational awareness in a production environment is a paramount skill. I know many technicians who are decent mixers, but often fail to miss subtle (or even obvious) cues that something needs to change—such as a pastor coming up to pray at the end of a shortened music segment.

It’s easy to get lost in our own little world when we’re mixing, running lights, presentation or directing video. After all, we have these really bright screens, knobs and buttons blinking and glowing in our face. But failing to look up and pay attention to what’s actually happening in the room is the downfall of many a technical artist.

When I’m mixing FOH, I try to keep my eyes up on the stage area as much as possible. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen very carefully to what’s happening in the room, and can almost always say, “Will you pray with me?” at the same time the pastor does at the end of his message (even if I’m working on an e-mail at the time).

We always have to be aware of where people are (are they walking out of the light?), who is speaking/singing (is someone else coming up to pray using a mic other than the one we put in the snapshot?), or what verse we are on (did the worship leader loop back to repeat verse 2, when we thought he was going to the end?). How is the audience responding? Do you need to raise or lower the volume or the lights?

Even during the times when you think you have nothing to do (the sermon for example), don’t check out completely. Be aware of where you pastor is both physically and in his message. Pay attention to the volume; is he too loud or too soft? Is he walking out from behind the pulpit into the congregation creating a potential for feedback? Don’t get lost on those things. Pay attention to your surroundings.

A great technical artist knows what is going on around him or her, and pays attention to what everyone else is doing as well—Situational Awareness.

Characteristic Two: People Skills

Now, I know that many of you technical artists out there are introverts and don’t consider yourselves, “people people.” I get that. I’m an introvert as well.

But one thing I’ve observed is that the most successful technicians are also pretty good with people. I know that it doesn’t always come naturally, and we have to work at this (I do, anyway). But work at it we must, because it really makes a huge difference.

We’ve all seen the classic “grumpy tech” who constantly complains, never comes out of the booth to talk to the musicians (except to grudgingly change a setup item), and generally gives the band or pastoral staff a hard time about, well, everything.

I don’t care how good you are at mixing, programming lights or directing video, if you can’t get along with people, you will never become a great technical artist.

We see this even outside the church; quite often the most successful (from a career standpoint) FOH and monitor engineers are not necessarily the most talented technically. However, they are committed to the artist 100% and they will do whatever it takes to make the artist comfortable.

Being pleasant to work with, and starting with “Yes” will get you much further than being the guy who always says “No” first. Years ago, during one of the webinars I did with Jason Cole and Dave Stagl, Dave made this statement (and I’m quoting from memory here), “You know, so many musicians are used to being treated like crap by techs, so they tend to come in on the defensive. Treat them like a human being, get them a bottle of water or help them set up and see how much better they respond.”

If you are a normally quiet and reserved person, I don’t expect you to suddenly become an outgoing, smiling, back-slapping, life-of-the-party type. However, it won’t kill you to walk down to the stage when the musicians arrive, greet them with a smile, handshake and a friendly hello.

And when someone asks you to do something, answering with a “Yeah, I think we can do that,” will get you a lot further than, “Well we could have done that if you had told me about it Wednesday.” Even if you can’t do it, figure out a way to answer with a no, but in a positive light. Perhaps, “Aw man, I wish we could do that, but we’re not really set up for it. I can work on it next week, and we could do it next weekend, though!” See the difference?

I would take 10 technical artists with above average people skills and average tech chops over 10 people with the opposite mix. Which one are you? (Of course, I would rather have 10 people who are above average in both people and technical skills…)

A great technical artist can relate to people, making them feel valuable and good about the service. When combined with Situational Awareness, we’re really starting to get somewhere.

Characteristic Three: Troubleshooting Skills

It seems fairly obvious but apparently it’s not; technical artists work with some pretty complex equipment and systems.

Sometimes (and sometimes too often), things go wrong. Cables are unplugged, or plugged in the wrong spot. The wrong file gets loaded, a patch is changed in a console, or a piece of hardware fails outright.

If you do this for any length of time, you will run into situations that require troubleshooting.

I’ve written an entire post dedicated to developing troubleshooting skills, and I’m not going into that much detail here. However, it is imperative that you learn how to figure out what to do when something goes wrong. Because something will go wrong. Not if, but when.

It should be noted that becoming a great troubleshooter takes time. A lot of time. One of the reasons I’m so good at it is because I’ve been doing it for a long time (almost 30 years). That big chunk of time gives me a huge database of troubleshooting situations I’ve been in that I can cross-reference against any new trouble I have.

My troubleshooting career spans many disciplines as well; I can usually come up with a solution to just about anything because I’m not at all afraid to taking things apart when they break. But I said I wasn’t going to go into how to troubleshoot. Really I want to talk about why. 

If you are a technical artist, you are in that role to make technical equipment work. Your senior pastor probably has no idea how to get sound of your digital console. It’s unlikely that your worship leader can program your lighting board. And let’s be honest, they shouldn’t need to know that—that’s why you have a job (whether you get paid for it or not is inconsequential).

Your job is to make that stuff work. Your leadership needs someone in that role who can “figure it out.” Yes, we all know things break, but the true test of a technical artist is how they pull the service off even when something is broken. Thankfully, for most of us, full-blown hardware failures are rare. Most of the time, the problem is fixable, and great techs can get things fixed quickly and get everyone back in operation with minimal downtime.

This trait is especially important if you are a leader of a technical team. Standing in the booth with your hands in the air while your team looks on does not inspire confidence. Figure it out! Start at one end of the chain and figure out where it’s broken. Get something working. Don’t give up. Developing troubleshooting skills takes time. But like investing for retirement, the earlier you get started, the more you have to work with as life goes on.

A great technical artist knows how to troubleshoot their system and get things back up and running quickly when things go awry. Combined with Situational Awareness and People Skills, and we have the makings of a top tech.

Characteristic Four: Musical Ability (Or at least Passion)

I don’t know many really great technical artists who are not musical, and/or passionate about music. So much of what we do revolves around music, and not having any idea or love of music makes it really difficult to be truly great at this game.

As I said, this obviously applies to sound technicians; we’re mixing music after all.

Years ago, I had a discussion with a volunteer at a church I was working at. The previous week, I was engaged as the stage cameraman for a Christian music festival. He was asking what I did, and what bands were there.

It was a pretty all-star lineup, with some really big-name acts that anyone who listened to any Christian music would know. As I rattled them off, his answer to each one was, “No. Nope. Uh uh. Never heard of them.”

Finally, I asked him what kind of music he did listen to. “Oh, I don’t really listen to music. I listen to talk radio.” And that explained everything.

He was a reliable volunteer—there whenever he was asked to be—and he had a good attitude. He even got the right faders up at the right time, most of the time. But his mixes were much less than desirable. Even though he knew how to use the equipment, he didn’t know how music was supposed to go together, and thus he couldn’t make it sound great.

Obvious for the sound guy, right? But how about the lighting guy? Lighting has to compliment the music, and cues need to happen in time with the music. Without an idea of how music works, it’s really hard to know when to build, when to dial it back and when to go for broke.

While a lighting guy could fake it, it’s really obvious when the video team doesn’t know or appreciate music. How many times have you been watching an IMAG feed of a keyboard player during a guitar solo? Or the director cuts to the drummer right after that really sweet one-bar fill. Video team members who are consistently a few measures behind everything either haven’t learned the music, or just don’t understand it. Camera people in particular need to know what sounds the different instruments make. Chances are, it’s not the bass player ripping that great lead solo during the bridge. Yes it’s a guitar, but it’s the other guitar.

Of course, we can’t forget the song words tech. A non-musical person can press spacebar when we finish singing the last word on the slide (which is probably too late, by the way). But a musician will know exactly when to advance to keep from breaking the the flow.

My daughter is a great example for this. An accomplished musician in her own right, I’ve seen her run ProPresenter for worship leaders who sang the song differently every time. If they doubled the chorus but the next slide was a bridge, she’d hear the first note of the chorus repeating and be back at that slide before I could even start saying, “Repeat… uh never mind.”

I don’t think you have to be an actual musician to be a great tech (though it does really help). I have taken various instruments at different times in my life, but never really enjoyed playing them. However, I’ve spent literally thousands of hours listening to music, both for pleasure and to analyze it to see how it works.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to an album that I listened to a lot in high school, but haven’t heard much recently. Between sentences, I’m tapping out the drum line, the keyboard line, or the bass line. I may not be able to actually play any of those, but I know them all by heart. And I’m noticing a distinct lack of high end in this recording. But I digress.

The other day I said I would much prefer a tech who has above average people skills to above average technical skills. I think the same is true for musical chops. Give me a musician or someone who loves music and I can help them become a great tech. But a straight up tech geek whose only exposure to music is the soundtrack in the video games he plays 5 hours a day? Maybe not so much.

Combined with the previously mentioned attributes of situational awareness, people skills and troubleshooting, we’re well on our way to becoming a truly great technical artist. But wait! There’s more! (as they say on TV).

Characteristic Five: A Passion for Excellence

People define excellence in different ways, and many confuse it with perfection. Shooting for perfection is tough, since we’ll most often be disappointed. However, excellence can be achieved, regardless of the quality of your equipment.

I consider excellence doing the absolute best you can with what you have available. Thus excellence will mean different things to different people in different situations.

We get ourselves into trouble when we visit the giga church down the street, look at their production and come home defeated because we can’t possibly replicate that experience with our outdated and broken down gear. And that’s true, we can’t.

However, we can still strive to continually improve our skills, our production and out teams. We can work within the limits of our equipment, utilizing it to the fullest extent. We can endeavor to create a seamless atmosphere of worship that is the proper embodiment of our congregation.

A great technical artist will have a passion for doing things well. He or she will always be learning, growing, increasing their skill level so that each weekend is just a little better than the last. He or she will encourage their team to grow as well, stretching their skills and providing them the greatest opportunity to succeed.

Some might think that excellence is expensive, but it’s not. Excellence is an attitude not a budget. I’ve worked to develop an environment of excellence in churches where my total annual production was less than my current supplies budget. In that smaller church, we took a somewhat defeated, half-hearted technical ministry and made it excellent, not by spending money but by changing the goals and raising the bar.

Sure we had to fix some things, we bought some new equipment and updated some settings. But most of the transformation was attitudinal, not hardware.

A great technical artist is not satisfied with the status quo, and can see things the way they should be. It may take relentless campaigning on your part to get there, but no one ever said being great was easy. The best technical artists I know are not content with the way things are. They are constantly looking for a better way to do something, a new skill or another way to challenge their team to get to the next level. They are motivated not from a fear of loosing their job, but internally, by a deep desire to continually get better at their craft.

And make no mistake; what we do is a craft. It’s something that needs to be honed, nurtured and grown. Not just anyone can do this; those that choose to have to put in the hard time to become great.

Characteristic Six: Technical Skill

Don’t get me wrong; technical skill is important if you want to be a technical artist. However, the key to being a great one lies less in the raw skills you have technically and more in the previously outlined traits.

With that said, I think it is critical to have a considerable amount of technical skill to be a great technical artist. The technical leader today is being called upon to do more than ever before.

As churches cut their technical staff, we’re seeing people go from being specialists in one area to having to oversee sound, lighting, video, presentation, and sometimes even IT.

I think we are in an incredible era in human history. Never before has so much information been so readily accessible. There is really no excuse any longer for not knowing your craft. Just 40 years ago, if you wanted to get into the live production game, you would have to start pushing road cases, and hope to find someone who knew just a little more than you did to show you the ropes. Most of the information out there was conjecture and opinion, with little hard science.

Today, there is a wealth of great information available at your fingertips (as well as a bunch of conjecture and opinion…). While it takes some effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s not that hard. We have a great network of technical leaders in CTL, and it’s easier than ever to continually expand your skill set.

That’s one of the things we set out to do with our podcast, Church Tech Weekly; bring you perspectives from the best tech leaders in the church today. Take some time and listen to them. End shameless plug.

The best technical artists I know are always learning, adding new skills to their toolboxes. It’s one of the reasons I pay to go to trade shows out of my own pocket—because it’s a great way to network, learn about new technology and talk straight to the people who make it. Yes it costs me personally, but when my skill set grows, I’m better able to equip those around me.

I think most people who are involved in live production technology have a natural bent towards tech (and if they don’t, well, perhaps they need to find a new area in which to serve).

However, technical skill is developed over time. It’s a continual process, not an event. I went to school for four years to learn this craft, and indeed did learn a lot. But that was not the end of my education. Just the other day, I learned how to install an app on my iPad without using iTunes or the App Store (did you know you could do that? Look it up!).

While it’s unlikely we’ll become experts in every single discipline of live production, we should at least have a pretty good understanding of them. I’m not really a lighting guy, per se. However, I know how to design a light plot, I can fix broken fixtures and I can program a service even using a lighting console I don’t like. And while I don’t like it, I keep learning it.

So while I think this is probably the least important characteristics of a great technical artist, I do think it is critical. You can be a great leader of technical people if you possess the first five traits; however without technical skill (and plenty of it), it’s really hard to be a technical artist.

Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts. He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.



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Church Sound: The Keys To Becoming A Great Technical Artist
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