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Gear and the Art of Mixing Relationships

gear art mixing relationships

Reprinted from the 2009 issue of the Worship Sound Pro Church Sound and Music Technology guide

New gear, with its crisply wrapped plastic begging to be torn away, is a fun part of worship ministry. Dealing with people, on the other hand, can be a challenge. Equipment responds to logical input with a logical output. People react with irrational emotion, often in perplexing fashion. The combination of gear and people on a worship team can create egos as large as Texas and relationships as complex as nuclear disarmament. However, even the best gear is useless without the right people involved in the process. A worship leader must balance the need to soothe the human element with the desire to solve technical problems. Achieving equilibrium between the techs and the musicians isn’t always easy, but the effort will be rewarded with markedly improved performance.

The relationship between the sound engineer and the stage team requires a nuanced approach. Since the stage personnel and the engineer interact continually, mutual trust and respect must be created and maintained in order for the relationship to flourish. Additionally, since the engineer is the only member of the team who is also a member of the audience, he or she must be given wide latitude in molding a mix appropriate for the listeners. Finally, since the interaction is multi-lateral, the engineer should cultivate a deft touch in dealing with simultaneous and conflicting requests from the stage. Fortunately, these idealistic goals can be turned into reality by following a few guidelines.

The Relationship Triad

From the engineer’s perspective, relationship management is a triad based on sincere concern for the team, desire to reach the audience, and personal drive to perform at the highest level. Mixing audio is a dependent task — it requires other people in order to occur. More succinctly, if the band doesn’t show up, there is nothing to do. Unfortunately, some engineers hold the opposite viewpoint. They contend their experience and golden ears should rule the day. The resulting conflict between the booth and the stage undermines the goal of providing an environment conducive to worship. Astute worship musicians understand the team’s role as servant-leaders to the congregation. In the same vein, the engineer’s job can be classified as servant-servant, in the sense that his or her responsibility is to undergird the team so that they can usher the congregation into worship. Therefore, an engineer’s empathy is more important than his or her ability.

Engineers must see issues from the team’s perspective in order to transform from glorified knob jockey to valued team member. As a practical example, if the vocalists complain about the monitor level, then walk to the stage, stand next to them, and listen from their position. It isn’t enough to stand at the console, AFL the send, check the headphones, and call it a day. True worship techs put the needs of others above their own. As in all multi-lateral relationships, though, the needs of the few must be balanced against the needs of the many. For instance, a guitar player’s “need” for an onstage tube amp is outweighed by the vocalists’ need to hear each other. As another example, the drummer’s task is to establish and divide time; it is not to play as loud as possible and leave it to the drum shield to abate the noise. Therefore, it falls to the engineer to discuss volume issues with the drummer in a mature fashion, explaining the vast impact the drums have on the overall sound and then guiding the team toward a consensus on the appropriate level for the drums.

Earning Trust

Trust is earned. When the worship leader asks for “more of me” during rehearsal, pretending to turn a knob or waving a hand across the console is not the answer. To develop the team’s respect, respond over the talkback mic, “We can work on that. What part of the mix are you not hearing? Is there something in your monitor I can turn down so that you can hear the missing part of the mix better?” As a rule, engineers attempt to push away from the precipice of feedback by reducing overall volume and specific frequencies. However, the typical worship band believes more volume is better and often fails to consider how reducing one part makes another clearer. Thus, engineers should engage the band in a positive manner, assure them everyone is working for a common good, and then suggest a more reasonable way to achieve the goal. Engineers must also be attuned to the stage hierarchy. If a bass player’s request contradicts that of the worship leader, fulfill the worship leader’s request first, then go to the stage and explain to the bassist why his or her need remained unfilled. In a spiritually mature team, the player will understand. However, when the player reacts negatively, the engineer can address the issue directly with the worship leader or, in a less confrontational manner, escort the worship leader to the player’s position and suggest a compromise solution, leaving the final decision with the leader.

How Does It Sound?

The band wants to know their vision is being realized in the seats. Honesty combined with tact is the key to success when it comes to interpreting the band’s impact. If the band failed to land a modulation or the vocals were garbled and the congregation noticed, tell the truth. If, however, it was only a minor technical or musical glitch, let it alone. If the audience didn’t hear it, then it didn’t happen. To quell conspiracy theories and to establish rapport, ask the worship leader to direct a rehearsal from the tech booth. The difference in sonic perspective will alert the leader to the challenges the tech faces, and it will build trust, since the worship leader can determine whether or not the mix is in line with his or her desire.

The Rehearsal Path

Every rehearsal follows a similar path: the band is herded onstage, the first song ends, and the entire team shouts demands to the hapless engineer. To improve this situation, establish a “round robin” priority system with the worship leader. Before the initial song run-through, have the worship leader perform a mic check and ask each member to approve his or her monitor level. Next, have the vocalists perform the same check, followed by keys, guitars, bass, and drums. Now, once the base levels are agreed upon, the chaos of the first song has been reduced, and the team should follow the same round-robin approach to tweaks, beginning with the worship leader and circling around the team.

Divide and Conquer

Chronic complainers can be mollified with a “divide and conquer” system. If three singers are sharing a mix and one vocalist declares the other two are louder, then walk onstage and listen from their perspective. If the levels are correct, ask the other singers to confirm your observation. Now, a three-fourths majority has established the validity of the mix, and the protester will acquiesce. When the objector is an authority figure, though, a different approach is required. If the request can be partially accommodated, then ask for permission to perform the function as far as possible without taking away from the others. In more dire circumstances, meet the immediate need and wait for a discreet opportunity to explain the harsh consequences of the request in a nonthreatening manner.

The Right Tools for the Job

For the engineer as well as for the worship musicians, the right equipment can make a difficult task much easier. Rehearsals proceed with fewer interruptions when the monitors are able to reproduce the volume and timbre the musicians need to hear onstage. High-quality microphones grant the singers a robust, immediate tone, which no amount of knob turning can replicate. Confidence grows when the gear is matched to the requirement. Sweetwater Sales Engineers are able to tailor every component to a church’s specific needs, allowing the team to perform at their highest level, knowing the equipment will not fail in a moment of need.

Mixing sound for worship is much more than turning knobs. It requires thick skin, a soft heart, a quick wit, and a sprinkling of political acumen. When performed correctly, though, it is one of the most rewarding ministries available in the church today.

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