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A Forecast For The Future Of Church Audio

While some have told me they have everything they need in the way of equipment and support in the sanctuary, they are clearly not in the majority.

By Chris Huff March 9, 2011

Photo: Peter Dutton
This article is provided by Behind The Mixer.

 
The future of church audio is not all pretty flowers and sunshine. A student recently asked me my thoughts on the subject and the more I dwelt on the topic, the more I saw that the future is not pretty.

Here is my view, why the church is destined for that direction, and what you and I can do to change all that.

I want to start by traveling back in time, specifically to 1896.

Frank Humphreys, a clergyman in the 1890’s, wrote a book entitled “The Evolution of Church Music.” The focus of the book was music, not audio production, however, the insight he provides at the time most definitely flows across into the view of modern day church audio production.

“We are constantly standing on the threshold of new discoveries; we are constantly opening up new and unexplored fields, and new combinations surprise and delight us, proving the inexhaustibility and endlessness of the gamut of musical expression.”

“For the soldier there is martial music to cheer him upon the march, to excite him to victory, or to rejoice in his triumph; there is music which invites us to the joy of the dance; there is the music of love, pure and impure; there is mirthful music to make us laugh; and there is the solemn music with which we follow the dead.”

“All these fitly arouse and express the ever-changing passions of man. Shall the music of the Church be less adequate to its consecrated purpose?”

Frank nailed it. Go to any venue of the performing arts, be it theater, a concert, or dare I even say opera and what happens when the audio production is bad? We complain.

Everyone complains! Now let’s move to the church environment and what is the result of poor audio production?

At some churches, there might be complaining. In some churches, no one complains because “it’s church and therefore it doesn’t have to be perfect.” The church body and church leadership have just allowed for the “less adequate.”

This “less adequate” mentality is more than just in the quality of production. Also, it’s in the quality of the environment.

Worship music has changed a lot in the last 20-30 years but the environments in which it’s performed are, by-and-large, the same. Sanctuaries that once provided wonderful acoustics for choir and organ are now blasted with bass amps, electric guitars, and huge overhead speakers without regard to the acoustic properties of the room. The result is often a bad sound due to the lack of acoustical treatment and improper equipment installation!

The “less adequate” mentality permeates all areas of audio production in the church! We are faced with churches lacking proper acoustic treatment to meet the demands of the room. To make matters worse, churches are spending more money on equipment while ignoring training, and sound guys are left to the winds of fate.

The current state of church audio is not good.


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About Chris

Chris Huff
Chris Huff

Writer/Teacher/Author, BehindTheMixer.com
 
Chris Huff is a long-time practitioner of church sound and writes at Behind The Mixer, covering topics ranging from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians – and everything in between.

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Brent Handy, Advanced Sound & Communication says

This article is completely out of touch and incorrect.

What we all must realize is this:
1. The days of mega church growth are over.  Some of the pioneers have since written books stating that their methods failed.  Using audio, video. lighting and such to draw people does not work, because it puts the church in competition with the world.  That is not what the church is for or about.  The church is not a show.  The shows have yielded shallow observers, not engaged members that reproduce other Christians.
2. The average church in the USA is under 250 people and does not have a full time or even part time paid tech staff.  The fella with the largest home entertainment system, the electrician, etc usually gets the job.
3. The largest denominations that have the largest concentration of large churches (800+) are shinking as they age.

Church production is not getting worse.  Churches are upgrading all the time.  70% of Presonus Studio Live sales are to churches according to the NSR I spoke with.  Aviom, Roland, Yamaha, and many other companies have excellent sales in the church markets.  The church market is exceding the club market in the Kansas City area.  In fact, some of the churches here are more advanced than the performing arts centers here by a long shot.

I know this is hard for the A/V community to understand, but in the grand scale of things, all of this tech makes no difference on things with eternal value.

chris says

Brent, you and I actually agree on most of your points…
1. The church is not a show. I totally agree with that.  My point was that often in the church service environment, an audio-based distraction is acceptable wherein we should be presenting our best to create a distraction-free worship environment. 
2. Totally true again.  The article is meant as a call to all church sound guys, them included, to step out of their comfort zones and push to be better.
3. I never said it was getting worse.  I said it’s not improving like it should. 

Avion is a huge seller with churches - in fact our church uses them.  Shure and others see the demand.  The PreSonus Live is a great digital board to enter into the digital arena. But I’m not saying they aren’t buying. I had a church ask me about upgrading to a digital console.  All their sound crew was untrained and never even touched the EQ’s.  I told them they needed to spend the money on training. 

Writing about audio in the church community can put me in a place where it seems like I’m promoting audio production as a means to perfect church services wherein that’s the only way that God can work. 

I’ve joked with my wife that in order for me to stay humble, I remind myself that it was Jesus and the twelve disciples, not Jesus, the twelve disciples, and the sound guy.  If the spirit wants to work, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the audio production. However, as a sound guy, I want to use every bit of skill and talent that God has blessed me to provide a worship service without distraction and enable people to worship in the best audio environment I can possibly provide.

Brian Webber says

This is a great article! I completely agree with everything that has been said. I am a full time church tech, but I also work for a pro audio company on a contractual basis. Too many churches out there just have people at the sound board that know absolutely nothing about it and it is so sad. Not sad like it is their fault but sad that no time or effort has been put into proper training for them. What a difference it would make if every weekend warrior was trained in their area they have been called to be in!

Jim Potter says

Good article, but the pessimism isn’t justified. Quality audio in church varies considerably in my experience depending upon the nature of the congregation and expectations.  Seniors tend to like softer music but are also declining in ability to hear. Intelligibility is a problem for seniors. The younger set likes loud music. These audiences define extremes on a spectrum of acceptability.  It’s harder to please the seniors than the juniors. And, money is almost always, an issue. The big state-of-art stuff is very expensive relative to the other demands on the offering plate, and most small to medium sized churches simply can’t afford the good stuff. So they struggle and suffer with the occasional blast of feedback.  I’ve served/attended many churches where beloved old Fred the sound man is so deaf he can’t detect a breakout of feedback. And on it goes.  Furthermore, churches are experiencing a downturn in giving owing the the slower economy and the related demands upon folks in the congregation who lost their jobs and need assistance.  Better to run and fund a soup kitchen than a new sound system.  And on it goes. Keep the faith. The technology is there. The need is there. But patience is the watchword.
Regards/Jim

Anka says

Let me start by saying that, I really liked your article, with a few exceptions.
  First you keep calling on the ‘sound guy’ while we all know how many sound ladies are out there, so why not use a more adequate term, like the ‘sound person’ and the ‘sound people’. Working as a professional sound engineer and also serving every Sunday morning & evening in different churches, I’ve been training quite a few sound PEOPLE (many of each girls).
  In theory is true that many sound people in church, get that label not because they have any idea about sound, but because they’ve been seen as technical in any other area and therefore asked to mix, because ‘it can’t be that hard for a technical person, right’? I’ve also met many worship leader with the attitude that ‘well, this person can mix on Sunday, why can’t they setup a basic PA sound system for our outdoor event?’ which is quite silly to ask, but the reality is, most church sound operators have no idea of what running sound means and most importantly, they have no idea how to troubleshoot a problem, but they can turn on/off the sound system and mix levels ok. I’ve been taken on the role of the volunteer Technical Director for a church, trying to help them out in the mess they put themselves into, by not having anyone responsible for the AV department and the equipment (and we’re talking about very nice Yamaha/Nexo/Presonus/Shure/ Sennheiser equipment, that they invested A LOT of money into a few years back, before the economy went down).
So I volunteered to get to work, perform the overdue maintenance on their equipment, do inventory, train the worship team on how to use the wireless microphones and the in-ear system, train new people not just on how to run sound on Sundays, but how to setup a PA in a outdoor instance, how to troubleshoot and I put hours upon hours in giving them as much technical counseling as I could, in all my free time I had, aside from work.
I have to say with much regret, that it was mostly in vain. And here is why:

1.  No matter how much time and how much information you present to a volunteer, unless they’re really passionate about sound and they really wanna learn and take advantage of the knowledge you have, they will soak up only the minimum necessary to run that sound system for the everyday service, but nothing more. Everything else goes into one ear and gets out through the other one. The information and knowledge they get from you, lasts for a few days, but next time they run into the problem that you SHOWED them how to troubleshoot it, they will be calling you panicked because they don’t know what to do. So that’s how it goes with volunteers that are not interested in learning more than turning on/off the equipment and running faders. Compression, equalization, dynamics, processing etc - say what? I’ve done numerous practical and theory lessons with many volunteers, to learn that I can’t force anyone to learn if they’re not interested to. And most of them are not.

2. If you don’t have the support and attention of the pastors, it becomes so much of a struggle, that you’re better off not doing it at all. Yes, we all do it for the reward in heaven, it is true, but it’s also true that if your stress level goes up when you walk into that sanctuary, you’re better off leaving it all behind. That’s not what serving is about.

And regarding your point of having one of the pastors shadowing you during one service to see what’s all about, not a bad idea. But try convincing that pastor to do just that, when all they’re interested in is to know if they’re mic is on when they start they’re sermon. I’ve had discussion over discussion with the administrative council and presented to them documented procedures/maintenance plans & acoustical treatments (yeah, they invested a lot of money in great equipment, but not one cent into acoustics) and most of the time it will hit the wall, especially when the budget is not there. You think they will care about any of your documentation/cost scenarios? As long as I keep buying batteries out of my own pocket so they don’t run on dry during the service, and as long as there are people like me that still care about the technical quality of the service, they’re happy.
Only that people like me get burned one day and they decide to move on, because whatever how much you tell yourself that this is serving, you’re still a professional and still expect certain level of professionalism and quality, which when it’s completely missing it only makes you get high levels of acid reflex on earth and hopefully some reward in heaven. By faith.
So keep the faith, amen to that.

Robert Hendrickson says

I agree with most of the comment here with one thing to add. I am a volunteer sound person at my Church, but I take do this as a job for my Church, and try to do it well but I seemed to have reached a certain level and have peaked out. I need more training but the info I read or here is to geeked out for me to understand. Thanks

Steve Kennedy says

I agree with some of what you said, but i perhaps have a diferent spin on it.  I think bad sound in churches today is due to several factors you mention and one other that you give only passing credit to.  Yes operators are untrained, often lack motivation to do better, underfunded, sometimes unsupervised, and often not held to a high standard.  But the main factor that I see is one that you could have given more emphasis to.  The quality of the product is on a downward trend.  You mentioned bass amps, drums, guitars, etc.  Now please hear me, i have no problem with those.  I mix a 27 piece orchestra which has all those and more.  BUT we also have a large choir to go with them, and music is a congregational activity.  Too often in our modern churches, music has become a spectator sport, a show and not the act of worship it was designed to be.  As worship, I believe it is to be participatory.  It needs to involve a large segment (if not all) of the congregation - not just five guys with electronics and amps.  When it does include a large group, many of them will let the sound guy know when something goes wrong.  The sound guy will actually have something to mix rather than just a bunch of noise.  Congregants will want to hear the words, and singers will want to be heard over the accompaniment, which will tend to give the misuc leader the impetus to get the electronics put in the proper context.

I do think some of our churches have taken a route away from congregational worship.  I believe that pendelum will swing the other way some day - at least I hope it will.

Jim Crosby says

While I agree with most commments and lament the lack of budget etc. connected with most church media teams, I have tried to do something about it. As a veteran of 25 years of audio with a degree in Recording Arts, last year I finally put together a one-day seminar for church media folks (sound, lights)aimed at the basics:Signal Flow, Gain Structure, etc. and had 18 people come after contacting 90+ churches. This year only 6 people signed up and we had to cancel. I only charged $40 each and that included lunch. The problem is apathy - on the part of the sound guy and the church leadership. This has been true in every church I have been a part of. Although every one has a service built around comtemporary Praise & Worship, they are not willing to get their folks trained. I finally convinced my pastor to send my whole team for the past three years to a technology conference in Florida (a 9 hr. drive). What a difference in knowledge and attitude in the whole team. Pastors, TD’s, I beg you to please get your folks trained or eventually you will lose them all. Well now at least I feel better. Hopefully this will stir you all to grow and learn.

Dorin says

Well pointed. The Church sound guy statement!
Same situation we have in ROMANIA. But here we don’t have US budgets as our US fellows. Maybe that’s our bridle which keeps us spending money with nonsense.

Jim Crosby says

Unfortunately everything it seems falls back to the dollar. And it would seem a lot of churches have their priorities a bit mixed up. The Tech Team needs training. The carpet in the foyer is getting a bit tired. Which one do we do? Do we send the tech team to a conference so they can better do their jobs or do we make the foyer look prettier? Come on! People are way more important than the carpet!! Will the tech team appreciate it and work harder than ever to show you it was worth it? I have found they will. And it will show on Sunday morning! Train ‘em up and they will not depart from it!!(loosely translated)

Bob Houskamp says

Interesting article.  Closer to the truth, I think, than I am used to seeing in the print mags for church sound/lighting/video: those seem to have the 80/20 rule, where they spend 80% of the money in the industry and represent 20% of the users.  Our church is part of the 80%.  We have about 500 people on a Sunday morning; sound and video have one operator each; there is no paid technical staff; we struggle to get volunteers; old guys, like me, have been doing this for a long time, we finally got a few teens to grudgingly help; no females at all for audio, two for video.  No bands, or praise teams, thank heavens.  Just a large audience to satisfy, great classical music (choirs, organ, flue) and home-bound parishioners (DVDs are cut for them).  Other than the few mega-churches around, I think we are not at the edge of the envelope, but right in the center!  The professional mags don’t even know we exist!

Regards,  Bob

Jim Crosby says

Response to Marc about training. Yes there is a lot of training online but most are expensive. I would suggest ordering “SMS iCD”, Sound Made Simple. It’s on CD or DVD so anyone can use it at any time. I know the guy who produced it, Chuck Walthall, and he has a great reputation around the industry. You can find it at:
http://www.soundmadesimple.com. Yes there are others but this is a really good one.

chris says

Thank you to everyone for your comments regarding my article.  I wanted to make a few notes regarding these comments.

@Anka: I’ve gone around and around in my mind with the “sound guy/gal/person/tech” naming.  In the case of this article, I opted for “sound guy” for consistency.  I tend to use that or “sound tech.”  I even know of a church with an all female crew!  How about mix musicians!

People need to see church audio as a ministry - not as a way to play with electronics.  When they have that mentality, it tends to lead them to continual learning.  When they don’t, they should look to serve the church in other ways.

What if you stop buying batteries out of your pocket?  Simply say “we will be out of batteries in two weeks and the church secretary needs to place an order.”  Maybe that’s what it takes to get their attention.

I encourage you to keep up your great work for God!

@Jim: While age can define musical preferences, it shouldn’t define expectations.  No matter the age group, for example, speech intelligibility is always important.

@Brian:  I’ll just echo your words…“What a difference it would make if every weekend warrior was trained in their area they have been called to be in!”

@Robert: I encourage you to check out my site as I attempt to explain the technical terms in most of my articles.

@Steve: Great point about worship being a congregational activity.  The congregation is like a grand choir and when they don’t participate, the body suffers.

@Bob: Thanks for your comments.  Keep up the great work for the church body.  There will be someone to walk in your door one day that has the same desire!
 
@JimC: Thank you so much for your work.  It’s too bad more churches don’t participate.  If you ever want to try training again, drop me an email and I’ll see if I can get word around and drum up some business for you.

@Dorin: Thanks for your comment recognizing my article as a call to action (church sound guy statement) as that was my intent.

@Marc: Hmm…you’re on an island…would you pay for my airfare!?!  Seriously though, check out online resources like syn-aud-con and ownthemix for video training.

Chris
http://www.behindthemixer.com

Marc says

Very inspiring article - thank you. I am responsible for the sound team at a church in Mauritius, but my background is post-prod audio and I have very little FOH experience. We have a new expensive sound system and an amazing acoustically treated auditorium, but it’s rather discouraging as our sound just isn’t up to scratch, and we just don’t have the skills to take full advantage of the system. On this island it’s tough to get good training unless we fly someone in, and that’s slightly beyond our budget at the moment. Is it worthwhile doing an online course, and do you know of any good ones that we could sign up for?

Robert Hendrickson says

Thanks for all the comments, and please dont think I was angry, not that I just want to do an expert job. I work on big engines in my day job, they cost around $25,000.00 , a piece,and I do an expert job because I am trained. My Church sound system cost them about $200,000.00 and I am basicaly self trained. I have learned alot online and I will continue to do so. God bless the sound people.

jimmight says

While this subject can be very touchy for most people, my opinion is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do appreciate that you have added relevant and intelligent commentary here though.
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