I wrote this post only to realize that it wasn't funny at all. Discouraged, I put it away and slept on it. How can you write a story about a bunch of church techies wearing their all-black outfits with gaff tape hanging from their belts and not have it be funny? Perhaps if they had something funny printed on their t-shirts like "...the quieter you'll end up." I think the reason the post was not funny was because, while writing it, I started getting upset again over the fact that most churches sound awful. While such cacophonies can sometimes be attributed to a church simply not prioritizing acceptable acustics, this is rarely the problem. More often than not, churches will prioritize the sound but hire the wrong people. Hiring the wrong people results in the wrong sound. A louder, more irrating sound.
Like a lot of people, I have spent plenty of time in churches. But unlike many, I have mixed concerts in hundreds and hundreds of churches around the world. This alone doesn't make me an expert. What makes me an expert is the response received from people in the majority of those churches. "Why can't it always sound as good as tonight?" I tell them that it can, they just have to prioritize it and get the right help.
If you are going to put a microphone in front of a singer, a guitar, or glockenspiel, and then take that audio to send it through loudspeakers, shouldn't the result be an improvement? If all this effort is only making it sound worse, do us all a favor and take the sound system out.
You can now see why this post wasn't very funny. One or two jokes then I start lecturing. This is my blog after all, so I can do as I like. Still, I promised jokes, so...
Q: Your ex-wife, your auto mechanic and your church sound tech are all drowning. You only have one life preserver. What do you do? A: Pull out your Flixter app and check movie times of course.
Ride the ChurchMix Bus
Six years ago I started ChurchMix.com. It is a place where churches can send their volunteers for some simplified online help at church sound. Many of the users on the site had asked if we held live conferences. We eventually took the plunge and began planning our first "ChurchMix Live: A Two-Day Techie Extravaganza." RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa, CA agreed to let us use their facilities if we agreed not to trash the place. Alex Magaro and his team at the church were actually happy to host the event so long as he could get free admission and donuts for his volunteer mixers. Scott Clement, my young audio doppelgänger, helped in the planning, taught a breakout session and did jobs that honestly I was not interested in doing.
We thought that perhaps a hundred or so people from local churches might be interested in giving up a weekend and entry fee to help their church sound better. Nearly 400 people surprised us and filled our space. We are not sure how many were there by their own desire, versus those that were tied up by their congregations, put in the back of a car and dropped off with a bag lunch. People came from all over the western states (the promise of 70 degree coastal weather in August didn't hurt our case to those in the desert states).
With a live band onstage and a mixing console front and center (where it belongs) we took the group through our own unique process to achieve great sound. I believe there is far too much technical instruction on decibels and megahertz, and not enough lessons on listening. If you can show someone how to really listen to a good music mix and identify the elements inside, they have a better chance at reproducing such a mix. If they learn that a lead vocal doesn't sound as big and full within a mix as it does on it's own, maybe they will not try to overload their mix trying to make their lead singer sound like Darth Vader.
Some of my favorite memories of the weekend were those after each main session. While I was feeling great about my lecture and ready to interview top speaking agents, my team would pull me aside and tell me everything I did wrong. "You moved your hands around a lot" was one of their favorite ways to put me in my place. Fair enough, but some of my favorite magicians of all time move their hands a lot.
Another favorite moment was when we discounted the Radio Shack db Meter. This is the dreaded $20 tool that churches use to keep the volume down. With the band playing, and an intentionally bad mix built by yours truly, we asked the attenders to raise their hands when it started to hurt their ears. This occurred around 90db. Expected. Then we pulled up a well-crafted mix and did the same test. Hands weren't being raised until nearly 100db. The church db Police needs a new beat to patrol. Loudness isn't the perp, bad mixing is.
One of the breakout sessions was "Help: My Church is Small!" This session focused on the unique challenges a small room can bring. It can be easier to achieve good sound in a large hall where the sound coming from the band's instruments is swallowed up by the space. We were able to share a host of tips and tricks to bring the most help to this environment.
After the event we began to get emails from church leaders that were not at the event, but who's people were. They reported that their volunteers had returned energized and ready to practice their newly acquired tools. Even better, we heard from leaders who months later told us that their church has sounded better every week since the event.
Many thanks to everyone involved in putting on CML. If the demand arises and the energy is there, I could see making this a tradition.