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Ask Casey About Church Sound: Where Do I Start?

A list of key things to help worship audio "newbies" get off on the right foot.

Dear Casey – I recently agreed to run sound for a church of around 300 people. I’ve played in the worship band but that’s it for my experience with sound. The system is old and I honestly don’t know where to start. Any suggestions?

Paranoid Volunteer

Hey, Mr. Paranoid! No worries, you’ve come to the right place. If by an “old” system you mean it’s all analog but sounds good, you’re at the perfect place to dive into live audio. Most volunteers these days interpret audio as screen options to manipulate digital sounds. And you know what? That’s really a shame. To get you off to the very best start, here’s a list of key things to understand.

1) Study. Read everything about audio you can get your hands on. Here are some key topics to focus on:

     A) Signal Flow – it’s vital to understand the order in which an audio signal travels through a sound system.

     B) Gain Structure – one of the most overlooked facets of audio with beginners. It’s crucial because it affects signal-to-noise performance and available headroom within a sound system. And excessive gain settings can cause the audio signal to overdrive the electronics, resulting in severe distortion.

     C) Microphones – get to know the different types and their primary applications, and use that knowledge to properly select and place them. It’s a shame that modern church culture is going direct on almost every instrument; it’s a testament to choosing convenience over what actually sounds best. Capturing the essence of instruments on the stage via well-placed mics makes for a much more natural sonic experience.

     D) Cable And Interconnect – understand the difference between XLR and 1/4-inch TRS connectors? How about TRS vs TS connectors? What’s an RCA connector? And in cable parlance, “Cat” is not referring to the family pet. This all may seem trivial but it’s anything but – connections are the vital links that make a system a system. Another aspect that’s important but overlooked is properly cabling the stage.

     E) Consoles – it’s important to know at least most (if not all) functions of the board. For example, the marvelous mute button. If, all of the sudden during services, something comes through the loudspeakers that sounds like a possum being tortured with a cattle prod, the good ol’ mute button is your best friend. So’s high-pass filtering (HPF for short).

     F) Room Acoustics – if a room sounds terrible (as in very reflective) to begin with, you’re on an uphill climb down a dark ravenous hole of perpetual geriatric complaining. There are some strategies to be employed with the sound system that can help to a limited degree, but the real solution is usually getting qualified assistance from some who understands acoustics and acoustical treatment.

     G) EQ – a.k.a., “what’s 600 Hz and what do all of these knobs do anyway?” Equalization: learn it, know it, live it. Most volunteers I encounter have no real clue as to what they’re actually adjusting, and why. They treat EQ as “twisting knobs until it sounds OK.” At the very least, church sound techs should know what adjusting different frequency areas on each instrument will accomplish (or not accomplish). Here’s the real deal though: If you’re capturing a good-sounding instrument with the right mic in the right position, there will be very minimal to no EQ adjustments to worry about.

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     H) Compression – no one (at least that I know) likes a “pinched” sound that lacks a natural signature. The most common cause of this problem is misuse of compression. Here’s an awesome page that provides a solid start about learning compression in a very concise way.

2) People. There’s always a human element involved, no matter how we might think it’s just about tech. Always focus on being professional and courteous. Know how to communicate with those around you and on stage.

For example, let’s say that the bassist’s rig sounds really muffled. You could either say, A) “Hey Johnny, your bass sounds like gak,” or B) you could state in a more productive way, “Hey Johnny, can you give me a little more high end? It’s a little muffled, and I want to make sure your bass is heard in the mix.”

Or let’s take drums as another example: A) “Hey Susan, if you could actually learn how to tune your drum set, your snare wouldn’t sound like you’re smacking a tin can,” or B) “Hey Susan, I’m getting a slight ring from your snare, and I’m wondering if you can adjust that for us.”

3. Life. When you have a fantastic mix, compliments are rare, but when you have a bad mix, almost everyone will express their opinion. Just know that in the grand scheme of things, you have an audience of One.

For more solid advice, here are suggestions:

ProSoundWeb Church Sound In Study Hall, probably the best collection of worship audio reference articles to be found, written by veteran church techs and even top professional engineers.

“Sound Advice: The Musician’s Guide to the Recording Studio” by Wayne Wadhams is an excellent book. Even though the focus is on the studio side, the content is excellent for live sound as well.

— And, the “Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook” is not too shabby either. It’s out of print but copies are available at a reasonable price from outlets such as Sweetwater and Amazon.

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