Church sound engineers rock in Norwich
2015: The most complex job in church on a Sunday morning is… sound engineer. And the most important part of the sound engineer’s job is not working the mixing desk. Ian Boughton reports.
These were just two of the challenging insights offered at a fascinating seminar held at the Soul Church in Norwich on 14th March, when the all-day session ‘A Free Introduction to Live Sound’ succeeded in drawing nearly a hundred worship leaders and sound-desk operators to hear Phil Adlam of the sound and lighting company Rock-Tech.
Part of this company’s aim is to raise technical standards at Christian events and local churches, and Phil Adlam has been on both sides of the problem – he has mixed sound at festivals for 50,000 people, and he has been a worship leader himself. So, he made it clear, he knows exactly what his audience have to face on a Sunday morning.
While promising to address the familiar problems of overcoming buzzes and feedback, he first invited his audience to approach their job with some lateral thinking, including asking the audience to define their own role – what is the church sound engineer’s job description?
There is more to it than the sound desk, he stressed.
“You are serving the band, the pastor, the congregation, God, those not in the room (through recording) and where you rent a hall, you are serving those who own it.
“The congregation wants an even sound everywhere, and an atmosphere of worship. The band want to hear themselves, and the pastor needs co-operation… particularly when he arrives at five past ten with a laptop and a YouTube presentation he forgot to tell you about!
“Those who are going to be listening to the recording of the service need you to produce a sound quality that is better than at any other time – because all the little glitches which get lost in the atmosphere of playing live, will all become very apparent in your recording.
“So – on a Sunday morning, you have to manage all of this, all the while, and worship at the same time. The job is basically impossible, and on a Sunday, it’s the hardest job there is.”
The key to getting it right, he told a surprised audience, does not start with a technical understanding of the mixing desk. It begins with attitude.
“On big tours, the best sound men are not the best technical engineers, but the ones who understand what’s needed and try to deliver it. This means that yes, God wants you to be an excellent sound engineer, but more, he wants you to do it for the right reasons.
“The big issues in this job are communication, diplomacy, confidence and trust. The trust of the pastor and the band is more important than the kit you’re using, and everything you do to build trust in the people you’re working with will pay you back big dividends –- if the band trust you, you are in a good position to get them to do what you want them to. If they don’t trust you, forget it.
“Isn’t it interesting – all these important things in your job description have nothing to do with the mixing desk!”
Having surprised his audience, Phil Adlam identified the practical issues they all recognised.
He clearly explained the differences between different types of microphone, showing why the relatively-cheap ‘dynamic’ microphones are the most reliable workhorse of all, how the more sensitive condenser mikes should be used, and discussing the fraught question of positioning. Sound from the mouth goes everywhere as soon as it comes out, he noted – so singers who keep moving nearer and farther from the mike will give trouble, no matter how fine the desk man’s technical knowledge. So, when a church has three singers, don’t just slap a mike in front of each, but think about the positioning of each microphone in relation to the individual singer… again, an attitude which is more practical than technical.
Predictably, feedback was the item which caused most audience discussion, and again Adlam approached it from an unexpected direction.
“This is the big issue that causes distraction and damages trust, but the first thing you do is – forget about the equipment, and think of your physical set-up.
“Physical solutions to feedback are often the best. Problems from sound bouncing off your back wall, or even sound from the house speakers bouncing back from the upper gallery, might be addressed by dampening the sound or by ‘changing the shape of the stage’. You may be able to site smaller PA speakers halfway down the hall, which helps everyone hear at an even level without feedback.
“You may even find that the hearing aid loop should be positioned somewhere else, not next to the guitars! So consider the physical set-up first.
“If it is at the desk, your problem may be of which channel is feeding back. If you’ve got a whole band going, and you can’t see a peak, you’re probably not going to identify it.
“What can help you is identifying the possible source of problems before the band goes on. Take the time to set up all the mikes that may potentially feed back, and note how much you can turn each one up before it does. There can still be things you don’t expect, like someone leaving a guitar against a speaker and walking off stage, but if you can work out in advance the limitations of your system and what might go wrong, you are better prepared to solve it.”
His practical illustration of mixing sound won absolute attention from his audience, not least because of his unusual ‘hmmm’ and ‘sssh’ strategy, and his demonstration of how to chart a band’s sound frequencies on a graph.
“There are eight kinds of sound frequency, from 50 hertz to 10,000 hertz. The key areas are 200hz to 5khz, and understanding this can help you mix sound, even if you have a hearing problem.
“Below 50 hz is too low to hear, and above 10khz is too high; the other six kinds of sound are described as ‘hmmmm’, which is around 100hz, ‘weer’, a kind of muffled voice, at 300hz, ‘orr’, which is a male voice rather like Elvis, at 750hz, ‘eeee’, which is most female voices, at 1,500hz (or 1.5 kilohertz), ‘sssh’ at 3.5khz, and ‘sssss’ at 6khz.
“Understanding these gives you a massive head start, because when confronted with a wall of sound, you know how to choose a sector for each part of the sound.
“Relating this to instruments, you’ll find that on the bass drum, the crack of beater against skin is a bit lower than ‘hmmm’. The snare drum is probably 100hz to 2khz. Cymbals, except for the bell in the centre, are probably 1000-ish and upwards.
“The low string of a four-string bass guitar is around 40hz, and the highest note on the top string is from 500hz to 1khz. An acoustic guitar will be 100-160hz on the low string, though pickup noise may be much higher. An electric guitar will not have as wide a range as an acoustic, but is between 100hz and 5khz. Keyboards can be anywhere, and the human voice is 100hz to 5khz.
“What all this means is that you have a very crowded middle section of sounds, from 100hz to 5khz. In church, the most important part of the sound will be the vocals, so you begin to see how you can reserve the ‘ssh’ area for the vocals, and build everything else round that.”
Using a slow track from Delirious as an example, he isolated the sounds, and showed how the engineer placed the acoustic guitar in the same general low area as the bass, and the electric guitar in the middle of the vocal sound. On paper, this can be turned into a graph in which it can be clearly seen which area of the frequencies each instrument occupies.
But, he stressed again, the skill of a church sound engineer is not just in technical understanding. It is in how the engineer handles their relationship with the band to create a situation in which the technical knowledge can be used.
“Seventy per cent of your great sound has to come from your attitude – as you don’t have a ‘stop guitar’ button on your sound desk, it will be your tact and encouragement which will earn you the trust of the band and then the right to ‘educate’ the band in getting the sound you want.”
Typically, he said, how does the engineer react when faced with the common complaint of ‘I can’t hear myself’?
“When someone in the band says ‘I can’t hear’, where are you going to answer them from? Not from the desk – I spent most of my time onstage or moving around the hall, so that I can understand what it sounds like in all these places.
“You solve a lot of sound problems with understanding and communication, not by sitting at the desk and turning something up and down. When the band trusts you to understand their problems, then they will accept your suggestions, when you say ‘can we position the drums over here?’
“And when the musicians are confident that you are totally on their side, it can give a sound engineer a lot of authority. When your pastor and band trust you, you’ll be surprised how much you can train them to do what you want!”
To see more about Rock Tech and the training section on their website please click here
Phil Adlam is pictured.