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Grant Norsworthy Blog Systems Engineering


By Grant Norsworthy

Can you imagine trying to paint a landscape using a toilet brush instead of a paint brush? You’ve set yourself up with a great view of a mountain range at sunset,got your array of colorful paints, a canvas on an easel. But instead of the controlled, intentional placement of color you need, your toilet brush is making a mess that does not resemble the scene you can see.

Let me push this (rather ridiculous) analogy even further.

What if you didn’t know that paint brushes existed! You’d only ever painted your landscapes with a toilet brush and you thought that was the only type of brush that could be used to paint landscapes! You might give your best effort to capture the essence and beauty of what you see, but – no matter how hard you try – the results will disappoint.

Every Sunday morning, volunteer Church audio techs are doing their best to “paint” a sonic “landscape” that will effectively engage the congregation, but far too frequently, the tools they have been given are not up to the task. Their job is to mix the musical elements they are given – instruments and voices – but the audio system they are using is not capable of doing the job.

Often the volunteer mix engineer has very limited experience. Maybe they’ve only ever mixed sound in this one auditorium through this particular audio system. There’s nothing to compare to – no point of reference. They don’t know any different than trying to get the best they can, using the “toilet brush” they have!

Trapped between feelings of inadequacy, not knowing any better, low expectations, and thinking that it’s maybe the band’s fault, a mix engineer can leave a congregation struggling to hear what they need in order to fully connect. The audio system itself may never be seriously called into question.

In my role as onsite instructor with More Than Music Mentor, I travel to churches to conduct training weekends for their singers, instrumentalists, and technicians. While I believe I have a very good ear for what sort of sounds can be combined to make an effective overall mix in a room (and what a good mix sounds like), I am NOT an audio engineer. I am a (somewhat technically challenged) musician and instructor who – over many years as a professional musician – has learned that the individual with the greatest influence on the success or failure of live music is not the lead singer, the drummer, nor the musical director, but it’s the audio engineer!

But I’m realizing that audio engineering is not just about mixing. What has become obvious more recently is the need for audio SYSTEMS engineering. In my earlier years with More Than Music Mentor, I would conduct training workshops for churches on my own. I was able to help a lot in my areas of expertise – mainly heart, music and team unity – but I would have to stop short of the more technical side of audio engineering.

But these days (whenever the church’s budget allows) I’ll bring along a More Than Music Mentor-approved pro audio engineer too! Not only do I insist that my audio pro be a sincere follower of Jesus with a desire to serve The Church, and be a “people person”, they must also be highly competent as both a mix engineer and a systems engineer.

These are two different-yet-complimentary skill sets. Few audio engineers are great at both – but my guys are. It’s an easy up-sale. In numerous situations, the value added for the engaging church has been undeniable – even over the top.

Most Church audio mix engineers – especially of the volunteer variety – are not audio systems engineers. “What’s the difference?” I hear you ask. There can be overlap for sure, but the differences are significant! An audio mix engineer mixes sound. They’ll be behind a mixing console and, using the various sounds that are fed to that console, will engineer a mixture of those sounds.

While a mix engineer is using sound as their building blocks, an audio systems engineer is focused on the collection of components – the different bits of hardware – and how they are being used to produce those sounds.

Interestingly, most bigger touring artists’ audio crews will have both a mix and a systems engineer. The audio systems engineer’s goal is to provide the mix engineer with the tools they need to create a great mix. To accomplish this, there must be an audio system appropriate for the application, optimized for the room, installed properly, and delivering the desired sound. Oh, and without malfunction!

A good audio systems engineer will understand many interrelated audio technologies and how to utilize them in concert with one another to achieve the desired sonic results in your room. Starting from where the mics and DI collect sound through to the FOH speakers that make the sounds which meet the ears of your congregation.

During my workshops in the past, I might hear the mix in the room and know something was amiss. Now, whether I hear a problem or not, I know my audio pro is onto it. I have been amazed with the sorts of problems they have discovered and solved – usually quickly, easily and with no dollar outlay – within their role as systems engineer.

An anecdote:

Just last month, I was setting up and starting a sound check in preparation for a workshop weekend in Traverse City, Michigan. The church auditorium could seat maybe 900. To me, the PA looked quite new and professionally installed, and adequate for the room. My partnering audio pro Josh Maichele (from Division 16 AV) was behind the console ready to perform his mix engineer role.

But my first sung note through the PA system set off alarm bells. I’d heard big rooms before – bigger than this – but the messy, echo-y “sonic soup” Josh and I heard was something else! From my position on the platform, I knew something wasn’t right, but Josh could hear the problem AND very quickly knew what it was. The PA system was delivering sound with close to a half second delay after the source!

Setting aside his mix responsibilities, Josh put on his systems engineer hat and quickly discovered that a mystery digital noise-reduction processor was causing the delay. No one at the church (including their regular audio engineer) had any idea the offending box even existed, let alone how long it had been doing this. But we could all hear an immediate improvement in clarity and sound quality when Josh removed it from the signal chain.

I could tell a bunch of other stories: unplugged sub woofers, wildly unhelpful crossover settings, systems that had never been properly EQ’d for the room, compressors and limiters squashing sounds to within an inch of their life, to say nothing of things like blown speakers and broken mic and speaker cables that had gone totally un-noticed for goodness knows how long.

The point I’m making is this: Before we sound check, the system needs to be checked.

My suggestion: Get your audio system checked by a pro from time to time – and not necessarily from the company that installed it years and years ago.

Your audio system is made of many different parts. To make your system work well, all the different parts need to work well individually and work well together. The volunteer audio mix engineer might be passionate, conscientious, understand how the console works and even have a deep appreciation – even a love – for music and sound. But if the system is not working properly, not installed properly or is not suitable for the room, you’ll need a consultation with a professional audio systems engineer. Let’s make sure our mix engineer has a paint brush, not a toilet brush!

Book it. Now.

This article was first published by Worship Tech Director of the WFX Network on April 10, 2019.

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