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Church Sound: Five Things I’d Say To Young Engineers

Some words of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me 20 years ago...
This article is provided by ChurchTechArts.

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in 2012, but represents a subject worthy of repeating regularly
A while back, Chris Huff wrote an interesting post about how musicians see sound techs. It’s a good, enlightening and sometimes hard read. I recommend it.

One of the comments that really got me was this one:

Do you give suggestions to the sound tech?

—All the time and he always dismisses everything anyone says.

That got me thinking and inspired this article series. I don’t know that I’ve attained the status of “old sound guy,” but I know I’m getting close. I realized this the other night when one of my new sound techs and I were making cables. I realized that I had been mixing longer than he has been alive.

That realization led me to think about some words of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me 20 years ago when I started. Probably would have saved me (and the bands I worked with) a lot of hassle.

What you’ll read here are some things I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make your career as a sound engineer more productive and fun.

#1: You Don’t Know As Much As You Think You Do

I’ve met and worked with a lot of sound guys over the last 20 or so years. One trend has stood out to me; the best ones are always learning and are always open to picking up new tricks from someone else. The “less good” ones seem to think they’ve arrived and have nothing more to learn from anyone. Oddly, the latter group tends to have a lot fewer hours at front of house than the former.

Just because you’ve figured out how to mix with subgroups doesn’t mean you have mastered the art of mixing. If you read the blogs and talk to the best FOH engineers out there, you’ll find they are always experimenting, always talking to other audio guys, always reading; always learning something new. They never seem satisfied with their competency, no matter how high it is. They’re always willing to share their knowledge and take suggestions; even from people who “know less” than they do.

A lot of younger sound guys I know seem to vastly overestimate their competence, and that trait does not serve them well. They often show up late for sound check, cop a ‘tude at a simple suggestion, and generally give off an “I’m the expert, leave me alone” vibe.

If this describes you, I have but one thing to say: Knock it off. You’re giving the rest of us a bad name. You’re the reason that musicians don’t like sound guys (and gals). You’re the reason the rest of us have to work so hard to build credibility with the bands we mix.

I’ve yet to feel that I’ve mastered this art. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but I have so much more to learn. Yesterday, one of my newest sound guys (who’s still a set-up tech at this point) made a suggestion about mic’ing cymbals that made a lot of sense to me. I’m going to try it this weekend. He’s a great example of how sound guys should act. Paying attention, learning and making suggestions. I expect great things from him in the coming years.

#2: Attitude Is More Important Than The Mix

Demonstrating a servant’s hear and going out of your way to make the band and audience happy will take you a lot farther than focusing exclusively on your mixing chops. I know a lot of engineers (especially monitor engineers) who were perhaps not the most skilled, but had a reputation for doing whatever it took to make the band happy. Those are the guys who never lack for work.

I found this to be an interesting phenomenon; when the sound guy can put the band at ease early in the sound check, the band plays better, the mix is better and everyone is happier. When the engineer gets defensive or argues with the band, the rest of the day doesn’t go well.

I’ve been surprised more than once by a band member telling me they thought the mix was great and they enjoyed working with me. What surprised me was that I felt the mix was anything but great, and I may have been struggling with it all night. But what I did do was take good care of them, and make them happy. The right attitude can make a mediocre mix sound great.

#3: Don’t Be Afraid To Say “I’ve Made A Mistake”

I was talking with our Jon, our worship pastor, the other day about various types of sound guys we’ve worked with. He commented about one who during a sound check accidentally grabbed the wrong gain pot (one he had previously set) and tweaked it all out of whack.

Instead of trying to cover it up, he said, “Hey, guys, my bad. I grabbed the wrong gain, we need to go back and re-do the bass.”

That really impressed Jon and said to me, “Who cares he made a mistake. It made the whole band feel better that he stopped, fixed it and went forward, rather than try to cover it up and blame something else.”

Here’s a potentially surprising fact: We all make mistakes. I have, on more than one occasion, turned up the gain on the wrong channel. Sometimes I’ve done the right thing and owned up to it.

Other times, I’ve tried to tweak it back to where I thought it was and hoped no one noticed. When I’ve done the right thing, it’s always been the right thing. No one cares if you make a mistake and own up to it. But if you make a mistake (and everyone knows you did), and don’t own up to it, that breaks down trust. Without trust, we can’t work well together.

#4: Be Prepared And Know Your Equipment

This is a big one for me. While it’s true that most soundboards have the same functions, the way they go about it can be totally different. Call me a geek, but each time I’ve started mixing in a new church, I’ve gone online, downloaded and read—cover to cover—the manual for the mixer. I also like to get with the worship leader and find out what the requirements for the weekend are. How many inputs, what type, monitors, special requests, all that stuff. I build input lists and make sure I know where and how everything is routed.

I don’t care how many services you’ve mixed at your current church or venue; walking into a new setting requires a whole new level of effort on your part to get things going smoothly and quickly. If the goal is to take good care of the band, you had better know the gear and how to use it before you get there.

Most worship leaders I know would be happy to spend some time playing and singing for you during the week so you can get comfortable with the equipment. Take them up on that.

Show up early, line check everything and make sure the stage is ready to go before the band arrives. Don’t underestimate the possibilities of things going wrong and overestimate your ability to fix them.

#5: Remember It’s Not All About You

Again, this comes back to a lot of young engineers overestimating how good they really are. The worship service, or club gig for that matter, is not all about you and how awesome your mix is. The picture is a lot bigger than that. If you think that the reason the band sounds so great this week is your mad skills on the desk, it’s time for a reality check. In my experience, if the band sounds really good, it’s because they are really good and my job is to not screw it up. I can help them sound better by setting them at ease and making sure they know I will do everything I can to make them sound great. FOH and the band work well as a team in that way.

I meet a number of people who want to join the tech team and start mixing next week. I intentionally make it hard to join our tech team, especially the sound positions. I find this saves me a lot of wasted effort in weeding out people who just want to be a rock star. I make new people fill out an application. I meet with them one on one during the week and talk with them about why they want to join the team and what experience they have. And long before anyone starts mixing, they start set up the stage and run cable. For a few months. Most wash out in the first 2 phases. A few more wash out during the setup phase. The good ones stick around and become good engineers. Those are the ones we want to keep around.

Back in my student ministry days, we used to try to recruit FAT volunteers—Faithful, Available and Teachable. I’d say those characteristics would serve any sound engineer well to this day. It’s true if you’re working in a church, a club, or touring. Perhaps especially the church—don’t ever forget Who you work for.

I should point out that each of these points still applies to those of us who are more, uh, seasoned. The last thing we need to turn into is the “cranky old soundguy.” Hmmm, could be another series. That will have to wait though because now it’s time to finish up this one.

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