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Opinion: Everyone’s A Sound Man

An effective house-of-worship audio engineer must regularly process the opinions, ideas, and criticisms of his congregation. In doing so, it's helpful to have an extra dose of humility and an open mind.

Front-of-house engineers always have somewhat of a target on them. Regardless of the circumstances and the justifiable reasons for any problems during a live show, the responsibility to make it work ultimately comes down to their “performance” as an engineer. This is the same for touring acts, performing arts theaters, and houses of worship.

The unique aspect of the house-of-worship “audience” is that most of the same people return week after week, year after year. Some of those people are our superiors, some are in leadership roles, some have sat in the same spot for the past 20 years, and some are brand new. A friend of mine who used to run sound at our church has a great quote: “Everyone has two jobs: their own and the sound man’s.” His quote was birthed from the neck turns of people in the congregation anytime something went awry and the manyvoiced opinions about how things should sound — because everyone can run sound, right?

The choir and band’s 2008 Christmas Celebration performance in the main sanctuary at Nashville’s Belmont Church. ©Randi Anglin Line of Authority

One weekend when I was mixing, a guy came up and told me it was 8 dB too loud. In my best cynical tone, I replied, “8 dB?” to which he replied “Well, 8 or 9.” I couldn’t help but to laugh for the simple fact that, number one, if it were 8 dB too loud. I would have been over 100 dB, which I know is a no-no; and, number two, if at that level you can tell the difference of 1 dB, then please, take over the mix.

Later, I was convicted about the tone of my response. Was the mix too loud? Probably. Not 8 dB, but probably too loud at that time. The response I wish I had used would be something like, “Oh, sorry, man. I’ll turn it down a bit.” It is easy to take on offense when someone comes to point out his/her perception of what is wrong or right with your mix. The engineer’s response and tone of response can either immediately remove any opportunity to escalate the situation, or the opposite.

Granted, this opens a can of worms: If we have to adapt to everyone with opinions, it will be a constant game of jumping through hoops to meet everyone’s expectations, which will ultimately end in our frustration. I have made this mistake both as an engineer and as the media director, overseeing multiple engineers.

So, how do we navigate these sometimes troubled and sensitive waters? Ultimately, I have found that someone has to be in charge, preferably someone with a basic understanding of the dynamics involved in our job and some of the technical limitations that we work within. This is no different in any other audio area: theater, touring, or even producing a record. If this is a constant issue at your church, I strongly encourage you to take this to your leadership and find that one person who is ultimately accountable for the sound.

Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

Many times, we are approached with valid suggestions or constructive criticism, where experience and credentials validate a person’s ability to voice such suggestions to us. There are also times when Joe the Plumber has a thought because he feels worship should sound like it does on his Bose system at home. In their own minds, both have legitimate points. However, we should view their concerns with different lenses.

For instance, I’ll often ask Joe the Plumber if he wants me to explain the differences between our system and his Bose. Not in a cynical way, but with sincerity, because if I put myself in his shoes, I would want a logical explanation. If they start to glaze over or aren’t interested in any technical jargon, I’ll simply thank them for sharing and agree that I, too, would love for it to sound like a Bose system, share a laugh and move on.

Then comes the guy or gal with the technical know-how to talk a bit of shop. And you know what I have found? Most, if not all, of these people would love to be called on to help out at their church. They get great value from helping out and being asked for their counsel without prompting. They are incredible resources for us to tap into and can ultimately make us better engineers.

Case in point: We recently had a children’s choir sing with our worship band. In itself, a choir presents unique challenges from an audio perspective; make it a children’s choir and those challenges are magnified. Basically, our setup is a couple of large boom microphones behind risers with two small pencil-style microphones hanging over top and one wedge for monitoring. The two mics did an admirable job on their own, but when you factor in our whole band playing, the choir was lost in the mix.

A few days later, a longtime member of the church who is also a very knowledgeable engineer approached me about the miking for that choir. He kindly offered up a Sennheiser MKH416 pair with wind screens for loan the next time we had a choir, and you know what? My defense mechanism crept up from the archives for a brief moment. But then my — ahem — mature humility kicked in, and I graciously accepted his offer. What could it hurt? Was I going to lose something by having a couple of additional microphones up there for a choir? Worse case scenario, I’ll bury or cut them.

A church member’s Sennheiser MKH416 pair: A key element in “the best choir sound” Dan has ever achieved. Jump ahead to our Christmas Celebration service, and we had an adult choir. I paired these microphones 2-3 feet in front of the front row of the choir and about 6 feet high and 3 feet apart to capture the sopranos and altos. They joined our small overhead microphones hanging over the bass and tenors. The end result was absolutely the best choir sound I have ever achieved. Was it solely on those two microphones? Probably not solely, but they played a large part in capturing the fullness of the choir, even with the band at full strength. I even had an elder seek me out to compliment the sound of the entire service. Edification is always a welcomed conversation.

The Point?

My point is this: I have learned that the majority of the people want to be heard and their concerns or observations validated. It doesn’t mean I am a bad engineer or I don’t hear things well enough; it’s just that they have ideas and opinions, too.

As we enter a new year and get wrapped up in all the technicalities of the job, I wanted to hit the pause button briefly and lend a bit of encouragement for working with those in our congregations that are not designed solely to be thorns in our side, regardless of what it may seem. If we take the time to embrace these people and gain from their strengths, ultimately our worship experience will improve. As iron sharpens iron, we are to sharpen each other. Now, back to loving the art of mixing.

Dan Wothke is media director at Belmont Church in Nashville, and he welcomes your comments