By Grant Norsworthy
Any good chef knows that, to prepare a good meal, it’s imperative that they first have the highest-quality, freshest ingredients they possibly can. They may not always have the best – maybe never – but having the best possible ingredients will have a huge bearing on the success or failure of the meal.
In the world of live Church audio production, the same truth exists. If the “ingredients” you’re “cooking” with are sub-par, you will not be able to create a great sounding mix. A better desk, a top-end line-array system, your peerless mixing skills or anything else might help hide the less-than-desirable standards, but the sound in the room will never be great.
But you know this already, right!? As the Christian audio tech is prone to say (or at least think) as they struggle to craft a meaningful mix from the poor collection of sounds they are given, “You can’t polish skubala!” (By the way, the word “skubala” is in The Bible and a very useful term in the Church audio production scene. It’s Greek – σκύβαλα. Find it in Philippians 3:8)
“There’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the musician’s fault. They’re not good enough. The musical director doesn’t have the skills. Not my problem!” These sentiments are often expressed (consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously) by the audio tech as a way of avoiding culpability for poor sound.
But aren’t we in this together? Aren’t we all – singers, instrumentalists and technicians together as one team – responsible for crafting the sound? Together we prepare the meal – the best sound that we can collectively come up with that effectively invites our congregation to worship God through songs.
So here’s my point: A good chef who is presented with low-quality, or even bad or wrong ingredients, will do all they can to improve the quality of the ingredient before they start to cook! If a chef is happy enough to go ahead and make whatever they can with whatever they’ve got – and they continue doing this with every meal they make over and over again without any effort to improve the quality of the ingredients – they are a bad chef.
The attitude of, “They do what they do. I do what I do!” will not help improve the audio production quality. Thinking of your mixing console like it’s an “instrument” you “play” independent of those other instrumentalists on the platform represents a flawed approach.
No! Every sound comes from the platform, goes through your desk and is subject to your mixing. Every sound you are given is an ingredient that you are being asked to bring together with an agreed, important objective in mind. It’s my strong belief that the audio engineer’s perspective (even criticism if needed) of the raw signals from the band is an essential stage for best-possible audio production. Your input is required!
Don’t forget: You have the best position and the most objective ears for truly assessing the overall sound; far better than anyone else in the team – especially those who are on the platform producing those sounds.
Singers and instrumentalists are usually focused on their individual performance. They do not have the necessary position or perspective to know how they – individually or collectively – really sound in the room. If the ingredients are not what you need, take some responsibility and, with respect and love, make your concerns known. Work together to create a situation where the quality of your ingredients is on the improve.
But for your input to be received well, there are some prerequisites.
Hopefully the singers and instrumentalists on the platform are led by a Musical Director (MD). Ideally, that MD should often and openly be asking you, the audio engineer, for your input. Especially during sound check and near the end of a pre-service rehearsal, when I am in the MD role, I have made it a practice to ask the audio engineer something like, “Is there anything you’d like us to change with what we’re singing or playing to make it better from your perspective?”
From the surprised-yet-grateful facial expressions I usually see from audio techs, it would seem to me that not many MDs actually get around to asking such a question. Maybe they don’t yet realize what and incredibly productive exercise it can be!
So, to the prerequisites:
1) Have a great working relationship with the MD. Easy to say, I know. If you’re stuck here, you might need to find a different article from this one. Or a counsellor.
2) You and the MD should have an agreed sonic goal. I suggest the goal should be to craft the best sound you possibly can with the objective of warmly inviting your congregation to sing passionate, heart-felt praises to God.
3) Listen. Really listen to each individual sound, particular combinations of sounds and all the sounds together. Learn how to identify problem areas. What’s working, what’s not, and why?
4) When opportunities present themselves, give positive affirmation for what is working well. During sound check, rehearsal or after the service, be sure to give compliments! “The kick drum and bass are really locking together well in those verses. Makes my job easier!” “Your voices are blending well. It’s a good vocal sound out here.” Be known as an encourager.
5) When you identify problems, be forthright but kind. Find the right way to communicate so that your constructive criticism is most likely to be receive well. Respect the chain of authority. Always speak with the MD first. I would not suggest speaking directly to an offending electric guitarist about your grievances – especially with a booming voice through the PA from your talk back mic at the console for the whole world to hear. Always speak with the MD – preferably privately – about any concerns. Have the MD raise problem areas as they deem necessary. Be willing to accept that they may not share your concerns or may not be able to fix the problem straight away.
Let me throw out some examples of the sorts of things you might need to say to your MD:
“You may not be aware of this, but at times to me, the band seems unsure of where the beat is. There are some rather awkward, uneven tempo changes: A tug of war between the timing of the instruments. That’s tough to mix well and unsettling for the congregation. Is that something you’d be willing to work on with the band?”
“I’ve noticed that some of the electric guitar tones are very harsh and some patches are way louder than others. I’d like to be able to utilize electric guitar better in the mix, but there’d need to be some improvements there before I can do that. What do you think?”
“I’m struggling to nail down the vocal melody sometimes. It seems to switch unpredictably from one vocalist to another over the course of the set – or even within a song – and it takes me time to chase it down. Those moments of not having good, clear melody in the room is making it tough for the congregation to sing along. Is there anything we can change so that I always know exactly who is going to be singing the melody?”
“I’d really like to be able to mix stronger kick drum and bass guitar in the room – I know that’ll really help the congregation engage – but I’m finding that tough as they don’t really seem to be locked together well. I’m not sure they are listening to each other’s parts yet. Can you help them find a more solid groove?”
“I really think the congregation would more easily find their voice if we had fewer instruments constantly playing the mid-range chords of the accompaniment. To me it sounds like we have keyboard, electric guitar and acoustic guitar always playing very full, busy chords – each with their own rhythm. It’s too thick and does not leave enough space for the voices. It’d really help the mix if you encouraged the instrumentalists to find parts that left more space for each other and the singers.”
Maybe you can think of more.
Can you see yourself doing this? Stepping into what has traditionally been seen as the realm of musicians only? I hope you can. I hope you do.
Or does that scenario seem unrealistic? Forgive me. I guess I’m an idealist. But let me be a realist for a moment. In reality, yes, you’ll be doing the best you can, making the best mix possible with the players and singers you’ve got, with (possibly) varying degrees of success. You’ll be making the best meal possible with whatever ingredients are available on any given Sunday. Great! Be encouraged. Keep going.
It’s not perfection that we need to achieve. Who’s perfect anyway? But we should be the best we can possibly be.