April 30, 2011
It’s too loud!
I cringe when I hear these words and not because of the disparate views of how loud worship should be. What makes me cringe is the inescapable fact that it’s difficult to address volume issues AND make everyone happy. Therein lies the rub. How do we achieve the mystical and elusive volume balance that pleases our congregation while satisfying the needs of our platform musicians and singers? Ultimately we all desire a musical experience that frees our people to worship with no distractions.
Too loud detracts from worship.
In a perfect world, the audio engineer would have complete control of what the congregation heard while each musician would have complete control of what they heard. What is this lofty concept!? Why dear pilgrim, it is known as The Quiet Stage.
Ah yes, the quiet stage. Ponce de Leon searched many years for the quiet stage, finally abandoning this hopeless quest in lieu of the fountain of youth (having come to the conclusion that the fountain was much more likely to actually exist.) But we have something that Ponce did not have. Modern technology can provide us the control we need to achieve this aural dream.
The concept of the quiet stage is one born of necessity. The quiet stage is just that … a collection of technologies that allow us to greatly reduce the on-platform volume in a given worship or ministry situation with the end result being the placement of ultimate volume control in the hands of the soundperson. Or… stuff that makes the stage quieter. Audio engineers are often handicapped by the fact that stage monitors, drum kits and guitar amps on stage are so loud, they have to mix everything else above them. In the volume wars, he has already lost the battle. The concept of the quiet stage provides the weary audio engineer and the beleaguered congregation hope. Let’s take a look at two major benefits of the quiet stage.
1. The sound in the house is exactly what the audio engineer wants it to be and not a compromise between the main speakers and the on-stage volume.
2. The musicians and singers on the platform hear exactly what they want to hear at whatever volume they want to hear it.
Achieving these goals should provide an enhanced worship experience for our congregation and is easier than you think with the adoption of some or all of the following technologies. If we break the quiet stage down into its component parts, it looks like this. The source, the monitor and the mix. The source is an instrument or vocal on the platform. The monitor allows us to hear our performance while the mix controls how much of each instrument or vocal we hear in our monitors. Current technology allows us to address each of these components in completely new ways providing the means to realize the quiet stage. It may not be the fountain of youth, but it will cut down on cringing.
Modern musical instrument technology provides for a digital equivalent of almost any existing acoustic instrument. When making the decision to replace any acoustic instrument with its digital counterpart, there are things to consider. Does it sound as good as the real thing? Is it more convenient to use? Then there are the artistic concerns. Does the drummer want to play digital drums or the guitarist give up their amp? Does the pianist feel as comfortable on a digital piano as they do on an acoustic grand? Almost any of these instruments, when approached on their own unique terms, can provide flexibility and expression far beyond their acoustic counterpart. Plus, when all the sound an instrument makes comes out of a pair of ¼” audio jacks, it is a simple matter to control the volume on stage…and in the congregation.
In-ear monitors are the heroes of the quiet stage allowing us to replace our loud stage monitors with small, nearly invisible headphones that fit in our ears. They are essentially private and the audience never hears what the musician is hearing. This is the point at which the quiet stage is realized. When you utilize digital instruments that produce no acoustic sound along with in-ear monitors, you eliminate volume altogether. Vocals, acoustic instruments and the tap of drum pads is really the extent of what is heard on stage and usually poses no problem for the sound engineer.
Wouldn’t it be great if you, as a musician, were given ultimate and complete control of what you heard in your monitor system? Never having to try to catch the sound person’s attention to get more of you, or less of someone else? Personal monitor systems currently available allow you to do just that. Depending on how elaborate a system you purchase, personal monitor systems can provide each musician their own independent monitor mixer and volume control.
The combination of virtually silent digital instruments played by musicians with control of their own personal in-ear monitor mix gives you a powerful arsenal of tools with which to fight and win the volume wars. In the next issue, we will take a detailed step by step look at creating your own vision of the quiet stage.
April 17, 2011
Talk about your love hate scenario.
Digital drums are probably more prevalent in the church than in any other venue due mainly to the wonderful control of volume they bring. But does anyone like playing them? The answer is yes…just no one that you know. These instruments are a perfect “tools or toys” model. You will find two camps unyielding in their beliefs regarding the benefits (or not) of this technology. There are those that completely understand the power and versatility offered by these instruments, allowing for an unheard of pallet of sounds with performance capabilities that simply do not exist on an acoustic kit. Then there are those that will staunchly proclaim that digital kits do not “feel” the same, and more importantly, do not respond the same as an acoustic kit. They will proclaim these maple and birch and oak constructs musical instruments of the highest order, not to be considered mere rhythm keepers. These are melodic and textural contributors to any musical ensemble and should be treated with the respect and honor due any fine, hand crafted instrument. Both camps are of course correct. (Isn’t this fun!)
On one hand, I think that digital drums are treated as a necessary evil, and that is unfortunate. I truly believe that the reputations these instruments have earned comes from one of our on-going tools or toys mantras. Preparedness. Often when any technology is used right out of the box, you are right off the bat
April 10, 2011
There he was standing in the church kitchen preaching with all his heart. All the people are in the sanctuary. Why was he preaching in the kitchen? Makes no sense.
There he was sitting in the corner of the balcony mixing with all his heart. All the people are in the sanctuary. Why was he mixing up in the balcony?
Makes no sense either.
You may think this is a bit exaggerated and a poor analogy because the job of the audio engineer doesn’t really compare to that of the pastor. Well just how important do you think your pastor is? Ahh…that got the feathers flying, but that is exactly my point! If you believe your pastor has a message to bring that is worth hearing, why would you handicap the audio engineer whose responsibility it is to make sure it is heard? If you have invested time and resources into a praise and worship program at your church designed to enable, encourage and inspire authentic worship through great sounding music, why would you stick the person that can bring all of those music and vocal elements together against the back wall? Or in the balcony? Or off to the side of the room? (I don’t even want to talk about the poor souls that are trying to do this job from behind a wall sticking their heads through a little sliding window…)
Here is a fundamental and profound truth that all audio touring companies understand. If you want the sound of your program to sound right in the audience, you have to mix it from in the audience. A lot of our large contemporary churches also grasp this concept with high quality, high production worship that they want to sound right in the sanctuary… so they mix from in the sanctuary. Otherwise it is nothing but a morning of guesswork and compromise with your audio crew trying their best to anticipate what it sounds like where the people are as opposed to the very skewed and colored sound they get against the back wall or under the balcony. (Sound reflecting from nearby walls and from under the balcony can really distort what your audio team hears compared to what the majority of your congregation hears.) We would never put the lighting guys in a room where they can’t see. Why do we put our audio crews in places where they can’t hear correctly? It is interesting (and sometimes sad) to ask sound engineers in churches where their mix position is. Unfortunately, it is pretty rare to find anyone mixing from where they should be with the exception of the larger churches I mentioned previously. It seems a lot of churches design their mix position as an afterthought just sticking it in some convenient corner rather than taking into consideration how important correct placement can be to their congregation’s overall worship experience.
I am aware that there are some real world obstacles faced when considering the placement of your mixing console. It is sometimes hard to get people to accept that audio should be mixed from in their midst. Even building layout can be a factor and contemporary worship is very different from the worship that a lot of churches were designed for. Simpler instrumentation required much less of an audio engineer...if there even was an engineer, and the audio could be done from almost anywhere. It is interesting to note that sanctuaries used to be designed from the ground up around the organs they housed. Today’s sound system design should be approached with the same mentality. Unfortunately this is not always the case.
The fact is there is little difference between a church producing a contemporary worship service and a popular music act doing concert events. The production values are very similar and the call for high quality audio mixed by competent engineers is the same. But we are back to the same realization that you have to mix from where the people are if you want it to sound good where the people are. So what are some of these arguments that keep our audio crews from these prime territories? Are you so crowded on Sunday morning that you can not free up those seven or eight seats? With digital mixers providing many more channels in a smaller footprint than analog boards, it is much easier to fit your audio crew in a fairly small space. Sometimes people feel it is distracting to have the mix position in the midst of the people. One approach that is finding more and more favor in the theatre and church world is the Hollywood Bowl approach…to actually sink the mix position so that the audio staff is sitting at the same level as the rest of the congregation. Churches that have their mix position in the sanctuary will typically place it at the rear of one of their pew or seating sections on an aisle. It doesn’t need to be literally in the middle of the room. You do however want to get your crew into a position where what they hear is as close as possible to what the rest of the congregation is hearing.
Do not underestimate the value of high quality audio in your church service. It is the critically important bridge between you message, your music and your congregation.
April 03, 2011
Technology is a funny thing.
To some of us, it is a strange and powerful force, making otherwise sensible men and women seek a life of perpetual manual reading and ever increasing learning curves. An existence continually devoted to re-thinking, re-working, re-investing and re-wiring. (It also goes a long way towards making sure that we are never overly burdened with too much cash.) On the other hand, some of us have been so sheepish when it comes to the cutting edge, that we have denied ourselves some truly expressive instruments and problem solving devices for the sake of maintaining the status quo, or at the very least, our sanity. I for one count myself amongst the former – a techno junkie - guilty as charged in this area and in many ways, uniquely suited to expound the virtues of technology in all forms…. as well as the dangers. I speak of the dangers of technology specifically when addressing those of us with a calling in our lives to lead, or otherwise support, God’s people in worship. To most of the folks out there, technology represents a way of making life easier, or at least more interesting. But when is it too much? In the case of Worship, I think it is pretty easily defined. If a bit of technology enables or enhances the worship experience, it is good. A tool. If it in any way detracts, distracts or intrudes… well, that’s obvious. A toy.
I train thousands of worship leaders, musicians and technicians every year on the use of technology in worship. All over the country, all age groups, all skill levels and all denominations. For the most part, embracing a new technology is useful and rewarding, but every so often, a situation will arise where it is just not clear to me why a musician, an audio tech or a church is trying to incorporate a certain piece of gear or some cutting edge technology. It seems that we will sometimes try to incorporate technology for technologies’ sake with no clear grasp of its value as a tool in worship. Within these moments began to germinate the idea for this column.
Is that bit of technology a tool or a toy?
I thought a column dedicated to technology in worship would be easy to write, but truth be told, this has been a tricky column. It has required me to think and re-think a lot of things that I had come to believe about technology… and more interestingly… what I had come to believe about worship. From the beginning we had hopes of calling this column “Technology in Worship - Tools or Toys” since this seemed to provide a compelling line along which to divide technologies uses. I sincerely believe that the technologies that some of us find so indispensable can sometimes be nothing more than novel (and sometimes intrusive) toys, while other “scary” technologies, stuff we are apprehensive about incorporating at all, can end up being powerful worship enabling tools. There is no cut and dried answer to most of this and the bottom line is - One person’s toy can be another person’s tool. And you thought this column was going to clear things up for you!
But don’t loose hope there techno pilgrim. What we can do is look at some of these technologies and begin to understand what they can do in general, and more importantly, what they can do specifically for your worship or ministry situation. It will be our goal to cast each featured bit if techno babble in two lights. Both the creative and artistic ways to incorporate technology in worship as well as the corresponding ways to make every person in your congregation rue the day you were ever given the thumbs up to try something new. In upcoming issues we will explore as many of the different technologies out there as possible. We will tackle the hows and whys of digital technology as it applies to our audio systems and recording needs. Digital mixers, digital networks and all manner of digital recording. We will begin to unravel the mysteries of all those different digital keyboards and what they can do. And what they can’t. We will explorer some incredible cutting edge music technology – amp modelers, virtual synths, digital drums, alternate controllers etc. Why you need them…. and why you may not. I know this looks like a two sided and double minded way to approach a topic, but there is method to this madness. It would be our ultimate goal to provide you with the information and insight you need to make the tool or toy decision on your own.
My hope and desire is that this column would be looked forward to with excitement and apprehension. With the firm understanding that you may be asked to rethink or reevaluate some pre conceived notions and concepts regarding technology and what it may, or may not be able to provide. At the end of the day, will that new widget end up in the tool box… or the toy box?