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Tech Vs. Talent - Looking at working relationships from both sides of the console by Daryl Porter

Every one of us who has been involved with praise and worship in the church for any length of time has experienced it—relational issues. That sometimes uncomfort- able feeling when it’s clear that two people on the team are not in agreement, and not really sure how to resolve things in a Godly fashion. Often, these two (or more) people are on opposing sides of the audio console. Let’s face it; musicians and audio engineers sometimes appear to be polar opposites personality wise.

A Familiar Scenario
The worship leader has a vision. He, or she, has arranged the songs and placed the right play- ers in the right positions. Often worship leaders have in their minds exactly how things are going to sound and look, and then the audio team is standing in the way telling them they can’t have what they want. On the flip side, the audio person or team has been hard at work preparing for the service. They have made sure that the systems are fully operational and the stage area is presentable with all cabling neatly dressed. They were there to support the mid-week rehearsal, have the console scene programmed and are all set to experience the sonic nirvana they have been prepping for all week. Then at the last minute the worship leader ask to add a couple of singers, or a percussionist he/she went to college with who happens to be in town. The sound person has to scramble to make this happen and is frustrated because there is no time to sound check the new additions. The poten- tial for lesser quality is huge, and the audio guy simply can’t understand why the worship leader can’t plan ahead. The worship leader doesn’t see why this is such a big deal; it’s just a matter of plugging in a couple of microphones, right? Sound familiar?

I’ve found that, besides good communication, there are other tools to help create a healthy, coop- erative atmosphere that is not only productive, but also fun for all parties to participate in.

Hiring a Professional
Let’s start by looking at the people on the audio team. Are they competent? Qualified to mix? What is their heart for ministry and why are they doing what they’re doing?

While larger churches can afford to staff this position with a professional, many churches rely on volunteers to perform the audio mixing tasks.

Which brings up a question: when should a church hire a professional? I receive calls from pastors and worship leaders all over the country telling me that their single biggest frustration is sound. The music is too loud and unintelligible, and sporadic feedback distracts the congregation during the sermon. As churches are becom- ing more and more tech savvy, they are put- ting in some pretty amazing audio systems, but are still relying on less than skilled oper- ators. When I meet with church leadership, I usually coach them that once they have reached 700 to 800 members, their next staff hire really should be an audio person, ideally someone with multiple skills to oversee the entire tech department of audio, video and lighting. This person must possess mix skills so that the main services are covered with a competent audio mixer.

Even megachurches rely on volunteers to mix some of their services, but every church should have one person on staff to train, schedule and oversee the volunteers. This will create consistency and put smiles on the face of everyone.

While it’s true that not every congregant can recognize excellent sound, they all know when it’s bad.

Training Your Audio Volunteers
Not every church is in a position to have a paid staff member dedicated to audio, but one thing they can do is provide training for their volunteers. There are many sources of excellent training. For a relatively small fee, the church can contract with a profes- sional to visit their church and spend some time with the tech team on their own system. This is extremely effective in improving their skill set, and also makes them feel val- ued as the church is investing in them. When I have done this type of training, one of the things I have found is that many volunteers have a lot of good questions, but have never had anyone available to ask. I have seen the fruit of this training, and it is a win-win for the church and the tech team.

Understanding Conflict
In situations where the audio person and worship leader are paid staff, there can still be conflict. Believe it or not, I have seen shouting matches, silent grudges and even near fist fights between the two.Many times, worship leaders play the “artist card.” They can feel like creativity is spontaneous, and if you plan ahead, you’re not being creative. So they pull the “artist card” and use it as a crutch to cover what may simply be a lack of discipline.

Please understand that I am not beating up on worship leaders or audio people. The bottom line is, we are all people striving to praise God in our own way. We all have to learn how to navigate our egos and different personalities while serving one another.

Several years ago, I worked a large church annual production that had been successful for many years. One year the producer, who had written this show, decided to replace several of the songs with original material that was written by members of the worship team. I found this quite refreshing, as the new material was quite good and since the script was original, it was great to move toward using all original music as well.

Weeks of hard work and countless rehearsals later, it was opening night. The performance went off without a hitch and was well received. But … after the show, one person, an elder in the church, spoke with the producer and voiced that they did not like the changes. The old songs were familiar and they were so disappointed as they expected to see the exact same production they had seen in years previous. This simply devastated the producer because he had such respect for this man. His reaction was to immediately dump all of the new songs and replace them with the ones from previous years. The real problem was, we had the second show the following night. This meant that I had to scramble to find the old tracks, load them into the show playback program and try to get a best guess mix for mains and monitors. Singers had to perform that night without a rehearsal of any kind. Many crowd scenes had to be re-blocked, and without a rehearsal, the actors were simply told at call time where they should now be.

As you can imagine, the second show was a disaster. Actors were just wandering around on stage, unsure of their mark. Singers forgot lyrics. Because scenes were re-blocked, lighting cues were now off. I was actually trying to recall audio cues on the fly, completely abandoning the show control program. What a mess. The technical people were frus- trated with the producer for making this decision, and the producer was frustrated with the technical people for not being able to pull off his vision.

I share this story to illustrate how communication could have been better. If the producer really had an understanding of what it takes from a technical perspective to execute a production like that, he would not have made such a last-minute decision that had devastating effects on the production.

On the other side of the console, technical people must be aware that, while they love to have a plan and stick to it, there are times when a service can take an unexpected turn. Expect the unexpected. I recom- mend that they always have a couple of channels set up for vocal micro- phones that can be implemented on the fly should the worship leader or pastor add something at the last minute or between services. And keep a good attitude. When one is asked to pull off something inconvenient at the last minute, that is not the time to berate the one requesting it about how much trouble it is. That is the time to fix the problem, not point fingers. You can always have a debriefing to address these issues after the service is over.

Creating Options
So, in creating a successful service we are all better served if the technical people consider the needs and desires of the worship leaders and try to present options. I like to think of it like this: there is no such thing as a “no” answer. In other words, when requests are made that are not practical, or even possible, instead of saying no, come up with options.

Worship leaders should really appreciate their technical team and try to have an under- standing of what they do. Give them as much information as soon as possible and include them in planning discussions. I know many worship leaders who stand on the shoulders of great men. The most successful ones are those who recognize it and show their appreciation. Many times, the best audio people are musi- cians themselves and may have valid input that worship leaders would be wise to hear. However, this input should only be offered up when asked for. I’m a big believer in protocols and chain of command, and I think everyone works better when they are sure of their role. However, wise leaders take advantage of the experience and expertise of those serving them.

The Bottom Line
What it all comes down to is this: we are all on the same team with the same goal—to help usher people into the presence of God and create an atmosphere of worship that the Spirit of God is pleased to inhabit. It’s all about rela- tionships—with one another and with God.❖

Daryl Porter is system design associate for Audio Analysts and served as chief audio engineer for a 14,000-member megachurch for 10 years. A professional musician and audio engineer, he under- stands what it takes to work from both sides of the stage to ensure a successful production. He has per- formed in a variety of venues either on stage, in the orchestra pit or at Front of House or Monitor World since the seventies and continues to contract audio consulting, teach audio classes to technical crews in churches and other venues around the country and still takes the occasional performance gig.