10 Best Practices For Worship Sound Techs

Perhaps no technical leader faces more challenges on any given Sunday morning than the Sound Tech. With demands from every side, opinions aplenty, an ear to the Pastor (the real head Sound Tech), an ear to the worship leader/band, and an ear to the Holy Spirit, this role requires a saint, a sound technician, and a servant – all wrapped up in one. Gleaned from some of the most skilled and great-hearted Worship Sound Techs I know, here are 10 Best Practices For Worship Sound Techs.

Worship is a dynamic environment in which God is meeting with people, and people are meeting with God. For that reason alone, the Worship Sound Tech must take their place – with active attention – among the worship leadership influencers in the room. [Note: In the age of digital boards, some things have gotten easier when running sound. With the push of a button, levels can be set. If you’re on a digital board, some of the following technical elements may not apply.]

1. Ride The Faders (Or, Never Set And Forget)

The worship environment is not a static environment, in which one can set all the levels then kick back in the booth. It is dynamic, and riding the faders as well as monitoring the congregation is a necessity for effective sound leadership. Imagine you are the conductor in an orchestra, and now that piano is highlighted as the band drops out, or a sweet violin solo now lifts from the music and is to stand out. Conduct, ride the faders, and make your sound work a dynamic ministry. You can help the band create dynamics. This verse is true about sound, and how it reinforces the message being shared: “… the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” (Acts 10:44, NIV).

Great, dynamic sound leadership can greatly enhance the effective hearing of the message, sung, spoken, visually expressed. or otherwise communicated.

2. Gain A Respect For Gain

Ever been in a hurry to get “sound done” and ignored getting all your gain levels right? Stop. Before everything gets going, set the right gain for each mic and instrument set. A friend of mine says, “I’ve seen gains change between shutdown on Saturday night and startup on sunday, even though nothing has changed on stage. If you don’t get the gain right, you’ll be fighting the levels all through the service.”

This may mean showing up early, getting yourself together, and being ready to go when rehearsal or soundcheck starts. Hustling at the last minute causes us to miss things.

3. Serve The Pastor, The Worship Leader, The Musicians, And The Congregation

There are no two ways around it; a Worship Sound Tech must be a servant to all, carrying skill and technical ability in one hand, and a real, living relationship with Jesus in the other. That combination creates Sound Techs who are asking how they can serve better, rather than insecure leaders pushing to get their way because people are acting like they know better. I’ve always told my Sound Team over the years that the Senior Pastor is the ultimately the Lead Sound Tech, and then the Lead Worship Leader (or someone they’ve assigned to oversee it). Why? At the end of the day, you and I will go home after the “event” – and the Pastor (and the worship leader to some degree) will have to deal with the effects of the experience – church growth, church shrinkage, people’s connection or lack of connection with the church. If the Pastor says, “Please turn that down,” or “please turn that instrument up,” or “please raise the volume and energy level in the room,” find a way to do it rather than resisting. It’s just good honor – and even if they’re wrong, it will come back as a blessing later.

Serve the musicians as to what they need, and then serve the dynamic in the congregation. Often musicians need training in “turning things down” in their monitors so that other elements stand out. Be a part of that training as able. You hold the reins on front of house; offer your best to see the best rise in the community.

4. Check Your Ego At The Door

Here’s the truth. People will look at you if anything is wrong with the sound. They just will. It takes a strong inner leader to carry that in a community. Technically oriented gift mixes, in my experience and that of many, can carry a subtle insecurity with them. When challenged, or asked to “please turn that up,” or “turn that down,” or “give me more monitor” (things are harder when no one is saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’), it’s easy to react with ego. Lay it down before Jesus as you walk in the church doors each morning. Know that the Lord has your back, and the more like Jesus you are to the pastor, the band, etc. – the more it sweetens the entire worship experience everyone will have that day.

In fact, try this. Ask the pastor and worship leader, after you’ve done sound, “How was the sound? Is there anything you’d like me to change?” The first time, they will faint because you asked. The second, they’ll feel an open door exists for ongoing interaction. It’s wonderful.

5. Walk Around The Room

With iPads and more at our fingertips (digital boards), it is now easier than ever to walk around the room, surveying the sound from various vantage points in the room and making adjustments. But even if you’re not on a digital board, make sure you are moving around to get a feel for what is happening in different spots. The sound can change radically space to space, and recommending to certain people where they should sit is not a bad thing.

6. Make Recommendations With Community In Mind

This goes with #4. Do research, give input, then open your hands to the decisions the primary worship environment stakeholders (worship leader, pastor) must make. Sometimes you may desire to cage the drummer, for example (and they may deserve it!), to get complete control of the sound. But there may be another priority brewing inside the worship leader, or even the pastor, to have the drummer not be enclosed for the sake of the visual experience, and people not seeing this as just a performance. In short, we have to live with some things, and sometimes we may discover someone else was right. That doesn’t make us inadequate – it just means that sometimes there is more than one approach to something, and various priorities must be considered.

7. Be Difficult To Offend/Easy To Work With

When leaders in the same area of expertise are working together, sometimes we exert ourselves to “prove something.” No need. Trust Jesus, and work hard to work with others. Be difficult to offend. Be easy to work with. Only hold your ground when you feel so strongly about something you would rate it an 8-10 in life, rather than if it’s really a 2-3 rating in importance. Having a “domain” is important to all of us, but we must share, compromise, and collaborate in Body life.

When working with musicians, sometimes they need some training, but from a humble posture (even if the musician is not acting humble). Teach them that asking for more in the monitor may not be the win, but actually having less of something else. “Turn it up” is the natural response to not hearing something (but then you hit a ceiling with the knobs and the room). Help them get the best mix for them, as they must respond well to the monitors to lead well (IEMs fix this part, but musicians still need training turning things down so other things stand out).

8. Learn From Everyone; No One Is Past Learning

Ask local producers, or sound techs in venues you respect, if you can sit in with them as they do sound. If they say yes, listen, learn, and ask questions. Also, research forums on the internet, looking for tips and tricks from a variety of people working through the same issues you are. A friends says: “I am continually learning new things about sound, new tricks on my board (makes me sound like a surfer), new ways to set up the mics or the _____.” Be a lifelong learner.

9. Get Help If Something Is Challenging – And Read The Manual

A friend of mine says this: “Don’t feel inadequate if you (like me) are not someone who can identify a sound frequency by hearing it. I have an ipad with an RTA, and when I’m dealing with feedback issues, I have no problem firing it up (and humming the frequency into it if the feedback has already died down). You don’t have to be perfect at everything to be a good sound engineer, you just have to be good at using the tools you have.”

And read the manual. Read the manual. Read the manual (that was reverb).

10. Make Mentoring A Priority

Mentoring is absolutely vital. Always have someone shadowing you (standing beside you as you do it, and talk them through what you’re doing). Especially a teenager or twenty-something, as musical styles and sound environment palates change over time. You want ears that are listening to more than you are, through a different auditory lens. Don’t release them too early; you want them to succeed. Create a loooonnnggg mentoring curve.

After they’ve shadowed you for a long time, you start to shadow them. Here’s the Mentoring Cycle: 1) I do it, 2) You watch me do it, 3) I teach you to do it, 4) I watch you do it, 5) You do it, 6) You teach others.

Conclusion: A Great Sound Tech Is After Transparency

A producer friend of mine says, “A great Sound Tech blesses the church by insuring that the communication of the ‘word’ (speech or music) is clear and understandable to everyone. The quality of sound during a meeting can be a major factor in how people are able to engage in the activities at hand. What good would it do for the best worship set in the world to be played, or the best teaching to be given, if the sound is so bad that no one can bear to listen to it? Bad sound can be a great distraction to those engaging in a worship service. At the worst of moments, the quality of sound can even hinder one’s ability to understand and engage at all. At the best of times, good sound provides an opportunity for clearly communicated material (music or speech) to be received easily.

When sound is then transparent, and out of mind, the ‘word’ can become the focus of attention. A prudent Sound Technician is key to achieving this worthy goal.”

Amen.

Oh, and get the pastor to assign you an intern to bring you coffee and doughnuts. Thanks for all you do.

::

Question: What best practices would you add to this list from your experience?

Resources: First, Is It Too Loud: Worship Accompaniment Vs. Worship Immersion Culture post seems to clarify some internal cultures challenging sound ministry in the local church today. Second, 7 Steps To Awesome For Worship Sound Techs offers more insights for Sound Techs. Third, Mike O’Brien’s Winning The Volume War Series is great for handling key sound elements (drums, etc.) in worship. Finally, this “heart” article, “A Great Sound Tech” by Nathan Rousu should be required reading for every Worship Sound Tech.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “10 Best Practices For Worship Sound Techs

  1. The sound that first reaches our ears defines where it comes from. In most PA systems that is the speakers. But with digital you have a chance to fix that. Even though the source is much quieter than the speakers, you can use that sound to bring more enjoyment by use of delays. In a large audience setting sometimes placing monitors behind performers can be used to the same effect.

    When you have great equipment and great sensitivity you mix sounds like there is no PA system, no microphone, no anything in the way. You help create intimacy and connectedness that amplifies the power of the message, and not just the volume. Whether you have old distorted SM58s or clear pure sounds from the likes of a Rode S1, your skill can always make a big contribution if you really listen well. If you ask yourself about things like imaging, transparency, depth, and emotional clarity. You hear the same sound as a seasoned pro with ‘Golden ears’ They have no magic powers to hear. What they do have is a good list of questions, and knowledge of what to do to achieve a better answer.

  2. The intention with my blog was to enable musicians and technicians

    For instance – controlling interference and hum and other electromagmetic interference
    http://philede.wordpress.com/supporting-pages/techie-stuff/avoiding-electromagnetic-interference/

    You mention the word gain (voltage gain is the ratio of the level of the voltage across the terminals of the loudspeaker to the voltage out of a microphon)e – here I try to describe the effects of room acoustics on feedback
    http://philede.wordpress.com/supporting-pages/techie-stuff/micing-up-quiet-instruments/

    Yo mention clarity of the word, spoken and inmusic, here I brainstormed the quation of getting a clean mix after a particularly challenging morning
    http://philede.wordpress.com/supporting-pages/techie-stuff/getting-a-clean-mix/

    If anyone needs to pursue any of these issues or ask questions they may leave a comment on the appropriate page and I will do my best to respond.

  3. Michael – there are many churches, especially here in the UK, that do not enjoy the benefits of a dedicated meeting hall with a fixed installation. These folks are faced with the biggest challenges.

  4. Great article. I like the servant hearted comment in item number 3. In over 20 years of running sound, that is one of the greatest attributes or the greatest hindrances I’ve seen. A great worship sound person must have a heart for Jesus.

    Secondly, speaking to item one in the list about riding the faders, I might add to be “in the moment” all the way through every song. If you are playing music, you don’t have the luxury of hitting a note and then disconnecting from the song. The next note is coming quickly. As a sound mixer, we must be in the moment as if we were actually playing an instrument. Not only that, but to really do it well, we need to know everyone’s musical parts. Is there an instrument that is up front on this song? Is there a hook? Who is playing it? The musicians may practice their parts to offer in worship and unless the sound person is aware of it, that part may get completely lost in the mix because we didn’t know who was playing what. We need to make sure each person’s musical offering is present and at the right level in the mix.

    Thirdly, I would mention that the sound person should understand each musician’s place in the frequency spectrum. Sometimes a song can seem to loud and people might complain that it is too loud when what was really happening is you had multiple instruments playing in the same general frequency. Since they are piled up on the same frequency, it sounds muddy and undistinguished and it comes across as too loud. A sharp sound person can spot it and suggest to the band to have one of the instruments play a different octave to achieve some separation. Often times this will clean it right up and without even touching the volume level, it doesn’t sound too loud anymore.

    Thanks for the article and the gentle admonition. I can always learn more:)
    –Mark

  5. Churches shouldn’t focus on sound, video or even lighting. They should take all those resources and help the needy. Churches with $100,000 sound consoles, $75,000 video projectors and $250,000 in lighting fixtures is an atrocity. I’ve been in many churches and to see the vast array of production equipment that the congregation from the church paid for is completely rebellious. All the followers are hard working individuals who make money so they can feed and clothe their families. Does this plate that gets passed around every Sunday so the church can buy the same video camera that ESPN uses for football games? Does the church need the “latest and greatest” equipment to make their church run? What if instead of school bus parked in front of the church, you saw the newest tour bus (with the churches name on the side of the bus) parked in front of the church? Would that up set you? Or would you be happy the church spent $750,000 on a bus? What if your pastor pulled up in a Lamborghini at the church, would that be ok? I don’t think Jesus would approve of all the money churches spend on their churches.
    Matthew 6:5. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
    Matthew 6:6. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
    There are children all over the world going to bed without food, clothing and shelter. Just remember that when you go to bed at night.

  6. Good feedback and thoughts in the comments here so far. Appreciate yours Michael, Phil, and Mark.

    Greg, I appreciate the heart behind your comment, and both agree and disagree.

    When the Jews built a Temple, overlaid in opulent gold and decorated far beyond basic functionality, they did so as commanded by God. Art, invested in, and viewed through the lens of furthering Jesus’ Kingdom in the world, can penetrate souls in a way that a cinderblock room and a prayer meeting may never be able to.

    However, you are right to call for discernment and wisdom in that process. Perhaps the story of the woman pouring out the expensive perfume can help us. (I like to think of great music, honed, well-produced and recorded, and passionately written, as perfume on Jesus’ feet.)

    Judas was angry, saying the money from the perfume being sold could have been given to the poor. Jesus responded that, for that time and place, it was appropriate to be lavish, non-withholding, and even wanton/careless with the gift.

    At the same time, Jesus was referencing one moment in time; the woman expressing her love. The metaphor here tells us that, at times, God calls us to irrationally lavish expressions of love (I believe great art and architecture are part of that). Simultaneously, there is a time and a place for it – and not everyone who wants to pour out perfume is obeying God with their resources.

    Thanks for the reminder to be faithful.

  7. In my experience, one of the best questions any sound tech can learn to ask of a complaint maker is “what was too loud?”. Too often those making the complaint are very general and “that was too loud” is probably the most common. By gently asking “OK. Thanks for that. Was there something in particular that was too loud, it helps the complainant to identify more specific problems. It may have been a particular song that was not ‘their style’ or a particular instrument they either don’t line or thought was out of place.
    By asking this, guys I have worked with have been able to identify that sometimes it is not volume, but too much of an effect. Sometimes it is simply a song choice that is best directed back to the music director. At the end of the day though, it is about giving people a chance to engage in the process rather than ‘bomb and run’.

  8. Mark – great point about frequency separation, I may add your thought to my blog page on sonic separation.

    Regards the term loudness,as I understand it, there is a disitinction between relative loudness, absolute loudness, and sound pressure levels.

    Sound pressure level is a measure of the peak sound pressure level in dB above a reference level, and is generally weighted to acound for difference in hearing sensitivity over the spectrum

    Relative loudness is a measure of the tightenn of the mix, and there is software available to measure this such as this http://www.orban.com/meter/ Commercial demands on secular music results in extremely high levels of relative loudness.

    The absolute loudness depends upon how high the listener sets the volume control. It takes both the above into account, and is a measure representing the subjective effect of the sound at a given sound pressure level. It accounts for the total acoustic power in the wave front at the point of measurement and is measured in sones and phons http://www.physicsclassroom.com/getattachment/actprep/act9ag.pdf

  9. Great article. If we approach sound with an attitude of service to others and service to God a lot of the personality and ego issues fall away. When we do it for God whether it’s sound, singing or as a musician it is sweet worship. If we begin to do it as a performance, that’s when the issues start. Nobody is perfect but if we go at it with the right heart and with excellence, The Holy Spirit will take that and magnify it and it becomes a beautiful thing.

  10. Maintain an “emergency kit.” Long ago I bought a tackle box and just started loading it up with inexpensive tools, adapters, and even non-music stuff: change for vending machines, coffee sweetener, batteries, pencils and pens, paper clips… one thing I used to do is: any time a “session” ground to a halt for want of something, I made sure I had one of those at the next session. A spare SD card if you record onto those, and three or four spare small flash drives. A few granola bars, some dollar-store reading glasses, wire ties, ear plugs, fingernail clippers, wire nuts, flashlights. A little New Testament (you’d be surprised…). I have an old AKG mic I got at a yard sale years ago, and I just carry it around… it’s not as good as our other vocal mics, but it’s better than a broken vocal mic.

    Just be the person who can keep the rehearsal/service in the air ’til it’s over. Even if you’re the sound tech, know enough about MediaShout (or whatever your church uses) that you can run the video show if the person doesn’t show up. And some basic written instructions in case YOU’RE the person who doesn’t show up…

  11. You missed number 11, which makes all the others obsolete.

    Go completely and utterly acoustic. No mikes, no amps, no speakers, etc. Seriously. Really. Seriously. Try it. Even in huge buildings like UK cathedrals, this is the way it is always done. No music is amplified in any of the daily pattern of worship. Ever.

    (Slight lie: In such cathedrals, the spoken parts are gently miked for clarity. But the music is never, ever miked at all at any of the routine daily services, whether they be evensong with 20 present or Sunday Eucharist with 1,000 present.)

  12. I 2nd everything you’ve written. Great job putting it together. My life modo and business model comes from running sound for many years: “Maintain a servants heart attitude and a spirit of excellence.” Keep the “why” in what we do, and the “who” we do it for, always at the forefront.
    Make The Message Clear!

  13. This is a wonderful article. I have been Sound Tech for years before stepping into the role of producer at our church. We also broadcast live over the local radio so that throws an extra element in on top of it. I can tell you that in my life before Christ that I worked with what I thought was some rough and challenging situations but there’s nothing like the Sunday morning challenge of something going completely bananas. To my fellow sound techs you know how this feels. All I can say is keep calm and pray (alot). God bless you all and Thank you God for allowing me to serve You in the best way I know how.

  14. I would add 1 thing to this list and adjust 1 already on it. Your sound tech(s) should always be at practice. If they’re not, they’re not doing their job. They should know what the worship team does, how they interract, and even watch for the things that make the team get excited which causes the sound person to have to make adjustments mid stream. This is vital to making it sound right.

    I would bring up at issue your item #5. Walking around is good, Should be done at every practice, however, if you walk around during worship service, you must be completely discreet so as to not disturb any move of the Holy Spirit. If you kill that, you’re done. People leave churches for that. If there isn’t an isleway to walk to the spot where you wish to check, then stay in that spot thru the service. Don’t make people miss out on the move of the Spirit. My entire worship team fights with sound problems every time we start, but we also know and respect that sound can be off a little and the Spirit will still move.

    You can have the best sounding worship team on the planet, but if the Spirit isn’t in it, you’re just playing church.

  15. I am part of a worship team in a small church of about 150, all together, for our size we have very talented musicians. The problem is with our sound people, they show up later than the team, so we end up doing most of the set up, so if we are told that practice starts at 8:30 Sunday morning, we, the team, spend 45 frustrating minutes setting up, with no help from the sound people. what are the responsibilities!? This is getting very frustrating! Our practice time is getting cut, and the team distracted from what I feel isn’t even our job! We have gone to leadership but seems they don’t want to make waves because one of the sound people have been there forever and no one wants to make waves, or hurt feelings, even though it is effecting the teams potential, and there for worship in the house. Please help!