Tuesday, October 25, 2016

raise your hands

A couple of hundred years ago, and after much griping and complaining about the sound mix at church, the music leadership at my church decided some training was in order, and they asked me to do it.

This was actually quite a coup, because the sound personnel we had were constantly at odds with our musicians.  To better understand this, the musicians were all nationally known players and had both national and international credits for both studio and live dates.  Our sound folks were literally “weekend warriors” who had absolutely no experience outside of a Sunday morning service.  The musicians had started out asking for things politely, but they were honestly never attended to, and over time this relationship eroded away until it became an “us vs. them” scenario at every turn.  It was not healthy at all, and I will reluctantly admit that I played a part in furthering this division many, many times- I was not making things better. 

After a time, the leadership approached me and asked if I would be willing to offer an olive branch by showing the sound team a few “tricks” – what I really wanted to show them were basics like proper gain staging, the use of compression and eq, etc.  When the music leadership finally came up with a time and event to have me try, they put out the word that all sound team members should attend.  If it went well, we’d do this again, too.  The response was pretty lukewarm, and this made it doubly hard as this was a “church-in-a-box”, which meant that every single service required a complete sound load-in, and if there wasn’t help to do it, it would be tough.

The evening of the concert finally came, and I arrived to do the load-in.  Not one single sound team member showed up to help.  This meant that I had to rally the troops that were there to do the load-in, and we accomplished it.  I got set up, got the mikes and monitors going and we did a soundcheck- all was well with the band that had come in to back the concert.  (Different band by design.)

Just after the concert started, 4 or 5 of the sound team members appeared and quietly took up chairs on the opposite side of the soundboard where I was, making observation from them completely impossible.  This was by their design- when they hadn’t showed up for load-in, the music leaders had called them all at home and pleaded with them to come down, which they did, albeit grudgingly.  When they did arrive, they all decided to protest by sitting on the opposite side of the room.

When the musical leadership saw this, they were very, very upset, and joined me at the soundboard where I decided to show them what I was doing and why.  We went through things like what unity gain was, using the low-end rolloff filters and eq notching to make vocals more present, eq’ing the kick and bass and employing a quick side-chain for them both to provide space- and the leaders were pretty amazed that things sounded as good as they did, especially since I was using the exact same gear that was used on every Sunday morning. (The crew was always complaining about the equipment) We had a great time back there, laughing and talking, and everyone (including me) learned a lot that evening- for me, I came to have a much better understanding of what the leaders were looking for in a service (it wasn’t what I thought it was, either) and got to hear from them about some of the misgivings over organizing others.  It was a great night, actually.  But, I had to show them what “the next level” looked like.  I motioned to the music director:

“Check this out- I don’t know if you realize this or not, but a well organized and knowledgeable engineer can really make more of a difference during a service than you might think.”

“Really?” he answered.  “In what way?  I assume you don’t just mean volume.” he added.

In typical fashion, I had set up two Yamaha SPX90’s with hall reverb settings (that should tell you how long ago this was) and had them assigned into auxiliary returns and back to sub-mixes; one for the vocals and one for some of the instruments like snare drum, guitar and keys – pretty standard stuff.  This allowed me to decide how much reverb I wanted at any given time.

“I’ll show you.  Watch this.”

I quickly grabbed the aux send for the instrument reverb and added everything into it except bass.  Then, I raised the reverb levels into the 2 sub-mixes that they were feeding.  The room suddenly got a lot bigger sounding, and really smoothed out with the vocals swimming in a shimmering pool of reverb.

Instantly, every hand in the auditorium went up.  And, I mean every single one of them, including the recalcitrant sound team.  And one of the music leaders, too.

The guy I was talking to was amazed.

“That’s not the cool part.  Wanna see me make them put their hands back down?” I asked.  He nodded.

I took the reverb away. 

And, almost every hand went back down immediately.

Now, while that may sound funny (and it was) it shows that artistry exists in every facet of a performance, if you know where to look.  There’s no shortcuts to experience, either.  One has to embrace a couple of things to be an artist – whatever the medium – and paramount to that is to realize that there’s always someone who is better at your job than you are.   At the same time, all the training in the world for a given task doesn’t give anyone the right to say they know it all.  I had a lot to learn that night, and was changed by being willing to receive and acknowledge that.