January 24, 2013, by Charlie Moore
Having been directly involved in the professional side of audio for a long time, I’ve worked with countless church sound systems from just about every perspective: church member; sound operator/mixer; selling and installing design-build systems; and bidding, selling and installing consultant-designed systems.
What I’ve found is that regardless of the quality of a given system, they all share one huge variable: the users. So often, problems can be traced directly to the people using the system, the “talkers” behind the microphones. (Note that we term these individuals “talkers” rather than “speakers” to prevent confusion with the term “loudspeakers.”)
Most users fall into one of three general categories:
1) Talkers of professional caliber. Usually (but not always) this is a pastor or worship leader who has experience with speaking through sound systems, in addition to being open to taking direction from the sound operator and aware of any system deficiencies. These users continuously improve their technique, which in turn improves the sound quality of the system.
2) Talkers who are timid. Usually a layperson that is intimidated (and shows it) in front of an audience. These users mean well and are sincere, and would love to do better. However, they’re nervous - their voices tend to rise and fall, and they move around too much on the platform. Some are so timid that no matter how hard the sound operator tries, the results are disappointing.
3) Talkers who don’t seem to care. They won’t admit not caring, but their actions speak quite loudly for them. And it’s the most frustrating situation for the sound operator.
Note that considerate talkers, those who work hard at their craft and are willing to act as a partner with the sound operator, can help make even a mediocre sound system perform better. As a result, the congregation can hear without fatigue, and they won’t complain. (At least not nearly as much…)
Caring talkers are distinguished by several characteristics. They control the modulation of their voices over a narrow range of loudness, and use words and inflection - rather than volume - to add emphasis. They help the sound operator by doing a soundcheck prior to services. They work diligently at perfecting delivery and staying on the microphone (called “on mic” for short).
This also applies to music vocalists. The good ones also stay on mic, and if holding the mic, use proper technique to minimize things like proximity effect and handling noise. In short, they’re a joy to work with, and in turn, operators should be quick to compliment their behavior to reinforce good practices.
How It Starts
So, how do we help less-than-stellar talkers do better? It starts with practice, and if at all possible, practicing with the system and with the operator. A bit of encouragement can also go a long way.
They need to be instructed to speak clearly (but not shout), stay on mic, and don’t rock back and forth or side to side. Whether it’s a matter of reading scripture or giving a missions report or simply testifying, being prepared goes a long way toward being confident.
It also helps to have timid talkers read from a well-prepared script. Even if every word is “read” rather than “said,” and their heads are down for most of a presentation, it’s still better to be heard than to “look good” and have eye contact. The greater risk is always that the majority of the audience is missing most of what is being said.
Again, much of this applies to musical vocalists. Many times, even accomplished singers are intimidated by a mic.
Some of this is due to an “old school” musical position that “good vocalists” (whatever that means) don’t need a sound system to project their voices. Those facing this problem need even more practice with the system.
Sound system operators, pastors and worship leaders need to be cognizant of these folks’ deficiencies and help them through their difficulties.
But if there’s little improvement after everyone has tried their best, then with utmost respect, another place must be found for them to minister in the church.
Recognize The Signs
Now the difficult one: talkers who don’t seem to care. “How can this be?” you may ask, “This is the one place where there should be more care about everyone being able to clearly hear.”
It’s such a quandary, and one that needs to be concentrated upon by everyone involved with talking and singing at a church, starting with the pastor. But first, it helps to be able to recognize the signs of a talker who may not be giving it the best effort.
—Talkers who walk up to the pulpit or lectern, stand next to rather than in front of the mic, and begin by loudly saying something like, “I think everyone can hear me just fine without this” or “can everyone hear me O.K.?”
Of course, no one would think of shouting “NO WE CAN’T” from the back half of the sanctuary, so fielding no negative replies, these talkers proceed to move the mic fully out of range and talk at whatever level they please.
—Talkers who move about on the platform, in and out of the pattern of the mic. This is most common in “fan-shaped” sanctuaries, where talkers try to maintain eye contact with various seating areas, and in the process (if not wearing a lapel mic) are “off mic” much of the time.
—Talkers who refuse to wear a lapel mic (mostly in the case of men) at more than the halfway point of their tie or clerical robe. The further the mic is from the mouth, the harder it is to get any kind of acceptable gain (volume) from the system before it goes into feedback.
Cutting The Distance
Further, these talkers tend to bend their heads forward to read or pray, cutting the distance between the mouth and mic in half. The result is a very noticeable increase in level, but only until the head moves back up, straight and tall, with the level then decreasing again.
Of course, this is a nightmare for sound operators, putting them into frantic gain-riding mode as they try to compensate for the widely varying levels provided by the talker. And most likely, it leaves everyone straining to hear or wincing because of the constant threat of feedback.
What’s the solution? It comes back to awareness, practice, patience, cooperation, and if all else fails, for the pastor or worship leader to have no hesitation in correcting a situation that’s not getting better.
Anyone with the heart to talk or sing in services deserves respect and should be provided an opportunity. At the same time, they in turn must respect the opportunity, be open to suggestions, and work hard to do their absolute best for everyone who has come to hear a worship service.
Charlie Moore has been involved in management positions at various professional audio manufacturers and large installation contractors for more than 40 years. He also has first-hand experience in live mixing, system design and installation and has been active as a volunteer in a number of church sound system operations.