By Chris Huff
Once the initial excitement of working in church audio production wears off, it leaves one with a few unfortunate realizations. I’m not saying audio work stops being fun. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still have fun. I only wish someone would have cracked open the secret envelope and let me see the truth before being up to my knees in XLR cables.
This post reveals these “secrets.” At the end, I’ll explain what can be done so everyone is back to having fun, albeit a lot wiser.
What They Don’t Tell You About Church Audio production
1. Worst-case scenarios really do happen.
If it can break, blow up, catch fire, power down or in any way outright fail at the worst time possible, it will. I’ve had a mixer blow a fuse. Just last week, a wireless mic battery failed mid-service for no apparent reason. Green light to DEAD—no red warning light in between.
Worst-case scenarios can force the tech to learn parts of the church audio system normally left untouched. Mix engine reboots, digital mixer configuration settings, understage cabling, whatever is normally taken for granted will eventually fail—usually during the church service.
2. Church audio production is hard work, and mixing is only part of it.
For some, this is a big revelation. Mixing is only a part of church audio production. Stage setup, battery replacement and cable maintenance are all part of the job. And if that’s not enough, see point #1. Oh, did I mention it requires working with people!?! (Only sort of a joke for some of us.)
Mixing isn’t always easy. For example, the church has two guitarists and a singer. That’s all they’ve had for years. Next weekend, they will have their first full-size worship team. Time for a new mixing strategy. This isn’t impossible, but it does require learning amp miking, drum miking and a new way of mixing.
3. It requires your A-game, AND there are distractions.
Live church audio is no place for slacking. Once, from the pulpit, a pastor called my name TWICE before I snapped out of a daydream. Talk about embarrassing. Focus is crucial.
Distractions will come. During a service, I’ve have congregants ask me questions. I’ve had to fix a video-production issue. I even had someone complain about the volume DURING a worship set. The sound booth is not a place free from distractions.
4. Great mixing doesn’t guarantee great worship.
There are days when the band is great and the mix is great and everything seems perfect. Yet, not everyone is worshiping and praising God. Good church audio production helps create an environment conducive for worship. That’s all it can do.
5. Converting the worship leader’s vision to a mix is uniquely important.
The worship leader (and the team) spends time picking songs and setting the arrangement. Many times, they have a vision for a song’s style or keep to their own style. They set a vision for what the congregation should experience, and the sound tech has the final control over that vision.
There are limits to what can be done with the given equipment. And three singers with harmonicas can’t sound like Hillsong. But when the worship leader presents an attainable vision, it’s up to us to make it happen.
6. People talk during the music. (DRIVES ME CRAZY!)
Sitting in the sound booth gives one the ability to watch people. Watch who comes in late and who leaves early. Watch who is texting, playing Candy Crush or checking Facebook. Watch the talkers. Sometimes, they are close enough to be heard. The band is playing, people are worshipping, and then a Mr. or Mrs. decides it’s time to talk.
I don’t mean, “Don’t forget to call your mother.” I mean, “I’m not sure what we should do for lunch today. I was thinking about seafood, but then Bill doesn’t like seafood, and then Marge, remember Marge? Anyway, she had that outpatient thing last week, and that reminds me, did you make an appointment with your endocrinologist? If not, it’s OK because when I stop by the bank on Monday I can … blah, blah and blah.”
Some people just don’t get it.
7. You’ll hit a growth plateau, and that’s when the real work begins.
Diving into audio production and learning as much as possible, the immediate return on effort is great. A comparison of your first mix to your 10th mix is like night and day.
But the 20th sounds much like the 10th. Another person mixes the same band in the same room, and it’s noticeably better. What’s up with that? Welcome to the plateau.
After learning mixing fundamentals, taking a mix further up the quality scale requires intensive study and practice. This is where the real work begins. It’s what separates the great from the good.
8. The Shure SM58 microphone makes a handy weapon.
Live church audio production is stressful. The schedule changes. Things break. Personalities clash. And, there are no do-overs. IT’S LIVE, BABY!
There will be days you want to walk out the door. Most every professional live engineer I’ve met has had such a moment. But they didn’t walk. Now, they are touring with top musicians and are highly respected amongst their peers. It can be stressful, but that comes with the job.
9. Compliments are not the norm.
For anyone who needs regular compliments, look for a different line of work. The band and the pastor hear the majority of compliments. It doesn’t matter if the sound booth was glowing with awesomeness, the production team typically doesn’t get the credit.
10. It’s disgusting (someone has to clean those).
Parts of every job are undesirable. I love working with the musicians. I don’t love cleaning out ear wax from their in-ear monitors. But if given a choice between working a desk job and working in live audio (dirty work and all), I’d pick the latter every time.