“It’s too quiet”
“It’s too trebly”
“It’s too boomy”
“All I hear is the guitar”
“I can’t hear the guitar”…Yada, yada, yada…
Is it a picture of a vase or is it two faces looking at each other?
Perspective and Perception
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve gone into a church and heard 3 or more different perspectives on the way things sounded I’d be pretty well of by now. Every church thinks that they’re unique in the sound problems that they have. I’m here to let you know that your church is no different than any of the other churches in the district. So take heart. This isn’t an unsolvable situation. In fact it’s a very common problem, not only in the church sound world but in the secular world of touring professionals. See, sound is very much a matter of perspective and perception. No two people will hear the same thing. It can be close but because hearing is one of those senses of ours that is in use every minute of every day, the environment that we’ve been a part of all these years plays a huge role in what we perceive in what we hear.
Likewise, the perception of what we hear depends significantly on the emotional impact of what we hear, especially when it relates to worship music. Because worship music, by its very nature, is designed to get you in the very dark recesses of your heart and soul, what we hear when we listen to worship music is very, very personal. What one person likes in a worship song performance can be totally different than what someone else hears in that same song.
People hear different things. You can play the exact same song through the same equipment sitting in the exact same spot and get different perspectives from every single person. As church technicians we’re used to thinking in terms of bits and bytes. This thing called sound throws us a paradigm shift in that we have to feel instead of think. We go from digital, 1′s and 0′s, black or white thinking to analog, wavy, lots of gray feelings. It’s a tough thing to do because of our personalities. But it is something that we need to conquer if we’re going to be good at what we do and bring the congregation into transparent worship.
Part of the uniqueness of the church environment is that volunteers are often thrown into the deep-end with the technical as well as the worship side. No one really knows what to expect from the other so they each form their own perspective of what they need, or feel that they need. After a while of back-and-forth (for want of a better word) wars between the two areas a perception appears that both sides don’t care about other side. From the perspective of the techs, the worship team is a bunch of prima-donnas that always want more of themselves in their monitors and don’t understand what the techies are trying to do. From the perspective of the musicians, the techs never listen to their needs and only want to hobble the worship team.
Neither perception is accurate. But because each side is only looking at the situation from their perspective, feelings get hurt, animosity builds and the transparent worship that is needed to draw people into Christ is lost. Solving this gets relatively straightforward. Here’s what I do when I have to intervene and help resolve the issues. Gather the team leads together with the pastors.
1. Pray as a team for guidance, unity and resolution. NEVER start a meeting like this without praying first. At the very least it helps to set the expectation that we’re doing this for God’s glory not for us as individuals.
2. Sit both sides down and listen to what each side’s perspective about the issue appears to be. With this step it’s important to have everyone be as honest as possible, knowing that only through honest communication can the issues be put on the table to be solved. The idea is to focus on the issues, not on the personalities. This is where the pastor can be a big help. He can help steer the conversation back to the issues so as to remove the personal confrontations. Each side needs to be respectful and just listen while the other side speaks. Remember this is about understanding the perspective and perception of the other side. I’ll usually make notes of both sides point of views.
3. Reaffirm the commitment to work this out as a team for the good of the congregation and for the glory of God. Whatever it takes to get to that point is what both sides need to agree on and being to work toward as their only goal. Without this level of buy-in the resolution is doomed for failure.
4. This is where the perspective aspect comes into play. I usually ask the question of the tech team, “Have you been on the stage listening to what the worship team is hearing while they are practicing?”. I ask the same question of the musicians, “Have you heard the full band play while you’ve been in the audience and in the soundbooth?”. 95% of the time the response I get is “No”. So the initial step in achieving perspective is to have the tech team go on the stage at each musician position and listen to what the musician is hearing, both from front-of-house and from their monitors. Then I have the musicians each come out into front-of-house and into the soundbooth to hear what the techs hear. It’s important that there is a replacement musician playing the same position as the musician who steps out so that they can hear what they would sound like.
By altering the perspective of the teams the perception starts to change. Now having “walked in their shoes” each side can understand the balance that’s needed between the worship team needing to hear themselves clearly and the tech team needing to have volumes on stage low enough to provide good, clear sound in the house without having to blast everyone out of their seats.
5. Here’s the fine tuning stage. Now that everyone’s perspective has been altered now they can start working as a united team to fix what’s broken for the good of the congregation. Turn everything down to zero. No monitor volume, no amp volume, no front-of-house volume. Have the band play a song that they are familiar enough with that they don’t need to hear each other. Get the front-of-house level and eq set first. Turn up the house a bit louder than normal. The reason for doing front-of-house levels first is that if you bring them up first the musicians also hear some of that mix so they won’t need to have their wedge monitors as loud as without the front-of-house.
6. Now start with the worship leader and his instrument. First make sure that his amp and monitor are set up so they point directly at his head. If he can’t see straight down the speaker it’s not in the right spot for optimum sound reproduction. Once the speakers are properly positioned have him bring up his instrument amp level until he can just barely hear it. Do the same with his vocal. Now eq the monitor feed to get the signal to cut through the mix. For every other monitor send bring up the worship leader vocal and instrument. Everyone needs to have that combination in their monitors. At this point step back and listen from the audience perspective. Is the house sound louder than the monitors? If yes, then that’s good. If the monitors are coming through more than the front-of-house then you’ve got issues with room acoustics or front-of-house speaker placement and that’s more than you can reasonably handle. Best bet at that stage would be to call me for advice.
7. Assuming that the front-of-house is sounding good, now we start with each musician and bring up what they need to hear in their monitor. You do not want or need to put everything into each monitor. My rule of thumb is only acoustics and vocals unless there are no amps or the amps are off-stage. Backing vocals only need themselves and the worship leader/instrument. Every other instrumentalist only needs the lead vocal/instrument plus perhaps their instrument. If they have an onstage amp it should be barely loud enough for them to hear. Remember the goal here is to provide clean sound to the audience. No matter what you’ve heard or been told, the front-of-house system is usually more powerful and better sounding than any of your amps or monitors. Along those lines, everything should feed into the sound board to let the tech team mix all sound signals together. Amps should not be used independent of the sound board because it muddies up the sound.
8. If you’ve done your job right here you should have a pretty good balance between the stage volume and front-of-house levels where sanity has been restored. Keep in mind I’ve geared this toward worship teams that are still using speaker monitors as opposed to in-ear monitors. This is also geared toward churches that have either electronic drums or drums treated with a drum cave where the drum volume is easily controlled.
9. Walk the room. Listen for any hot spots that may not have been noticeable. There will be areas where the bass will be substantially bigger than other parts of the room. That’s okay and it’s the nature of the frequency wave in rooms that aren’t acoustically treated. The goal is that the bass isn’t overwhelming the music all over the place. More importantly compare the sound at different parts of the room to what it sounds like in the soundbooth. You need to mix for the sweet spot in the room not for what it sounds like in the soundbooth and the only way to do that is to notice what it sounds like in the booth when it sounds right in the audience. Remember it’s a matter of perspective and perception. You’re not mixing for you. You’re mixing for the congregation.
10. Once you get things sounding properly and the pastor agrees, then have the worship team come out one by one and have them listen to how things sound using a replacement for the team member who’s out listening in the audience. The worship team’s perspective and perception of what things sound like when they’re playing and the levels are set properly is critical to getting them to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing in the booth.
The takeaway: Only by understanding the other person’s perspective, and by doing that, understanding their perception of sound, will you be able to achieve a harmonious working relationship between the worship team and the tech team. Each side brings unique talents to the table that the other side doesn’t. Respect that and work as a team and worship will become more than a sum of its parts.