Keeping It Simple for the Volunteer Audio TeamContributor: Allen Sargent, Discipleship Coordinator at Christ the King Lutheran Church Fallbrook, California
Anyone leading a praise or worship team in a small or mid-size church has faced the challenges of an all-volunteer tech team. Many are called but few can face the fearsomeness of an intimidating soundboard or the possibility of the vocalist's mic dropping out mid-solo – especially without a background in pro sound.
Here Allen Sargent, a 20-year praise team leader, who is currently Discipleship Coordinator at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fallbrook, California, shares his tips for striking the right chord with newbies by keeping it real …simple.
As a leader in a mid-size church, I've found that volunteers are the most important resource, since there is rarely a paid staff member either in the band or running sound and video. Occasionally a trained person appears, but most commonly, the Worship Leader selects the music, leads the band, trains the audio and visual team, and is primarily responsible to repair or upgrade all equipment as required.
Volunteer recruitment is an ongoing project at all levels. Turnover in the audio/visual area can be high because it is the most thankless and pressure filled job on Sundays. No one will ever tell that audio person "Great work today, no feedback and all your levels were perfectly mixed and EQ'd just right!" No one will ever tell that video person "Wow, your lyric screens were not only accurate, but perfectly displayed right when we needed them!" No, quite the opposite! The only time an audio/visual person gets attention is when something is not working. It feels like everyone in the building has turned around and is staring. So, as the sweat rolls off the brow and seconds seem like hours, the Worship Leader is not just praying that a problem is fixed, but that the audio or visual volunteer will not quit after this day! It's true.
All Worship Leaders agree that the very best sound person is a musician – and that's why professional sound engineers often began their careers playing in a band. Band experience helps them set the right levels for the monitors and the room.
The average mid-size church is commonly be lacking in available sound volunteers with any experience. Even most reasonably-experienced people at our church rarely dive into technical aspects of what they do (comparing models, analyzing sound patterns, etc.). Also, there may be only one or two trained individuals in the church, and frequently I have had to place a last-minute saintly "sucker" in front of the soundboard - someone who is completely overwhelmed by the number of buttons and knobs. For that reason, and due to the real pressure and thanklessness of the task, and because of the lack of experienced individuals, I strive to find solutions that are simple. This is what I call Stupid Simple.
This is not a put-down, but really matching the volunteer's time and training level to that which equals the task required. How does a complete novice figure out which end of the XLR cord to plug into the mic? Or why does this 1/4" jack not fit into any of the slots on the snake? Where's the "on" button? If everything is on, how come I still can't hear anything? I thought you said our sound system plays CDs?
Experience has taught me this, and many are the times I have driven to the church before a wedding or funeral service ("that didn't require a sound person") to answer these questions and quell the hysteria - sometimes to unpress the mute button, sometimes to turn on the amp because someone (but who?) turned off each component separately instead of using the main power switch!
I have learned that instructions requiring more than three steps are too confusing. Instructions that do not include pictures may be ignored. And if directions are not visually obvious, or stated in everyday, non-technical language, the hapless volunteer will become easily and quickly confused.
Tips for Keeping It Basic
As stated: keep it simple.
Leave simple instructions at the board at all times.
Color-code your vocal mics and cords to match a specific channel on the board. Channel 5 is red. The mic has a red cover, the cord has a band of red tape at each end with the number 5 clearly marked, and the channel has a piece of red tape at the bottom of the slider. I try to use all the same Beta 58 mics and Monster® cables (for reliability and the replacement value). Cheap mics and cords that host a variety of mic styles will only confuse people.
When training someone new on the board, always overlap. A trained person will sit with the newbie during Sunday (and at rehearsal when it is possible, which it is frequently NOT).
Introduce one channel at a time, NEVER touch the EQ buttons, DO NOT use headphones but walk around the room to listen in corners, sides, front, middle and back. I encourage the sound person to stand on stage (when possible) to listen to what the band is hearing. I challenge the sound person to pick out each instrument and each voice in the mix, but that is a higher skill that will take time (I know, isn't that the job of a sound person?
In our church, sometimes it's good enough to have the person simply turn on the system, leave the levels where I have positioned them unless there's an obvious correction required, and to make sure any muted channel is unmuted when it's time to do so. Mixing a great blend is the added whipped cream. Having NO feedback today because someone is NOT playing with channel sound levels can be the cherry on top!) The reality of unskilled audio people managing sound during a service is all too common.
There are two ways to avoid dropouts:
1. Training is helpful - but experience is the best teacher. If someone feels the heat of a live issue, they're more likely to take corrective action or know how to handle a situation next time (assuming they don't quit).
2. Avoid distractions - having a 'friend' sitting at the board with them can be trouble; I encourage a sound person to sit by himself or herself in front of the board.
Twenty years of experience leading the charge each Sunday environment have told me that technical specifications are like binary code to a computer user - the sound person thinks "someone has to understand all this, but all I want to do is get this done without making myself look or feel like a fool".
Always remember that volunteers have a lot of responsibility and pressure thrust upon them and very little time to learn the skills required for the job. Phone apps (thank companies like Apple) are written to be very user-friendly and don't require programming skills to use them. Church audio needs to take a page from that playbook – and be simplified to a level so anyone can hit the switch and make it work.
About Allen Sargent: He has led praise teams for over 20 years, managing sound, volunteer recruitment and training in small and mid-size congregations. He has also been musical director for a private K-8 Christian school, writing and directing Christmas and spring musicals. Allen enjoys working with worship teams in different congregations and leads special event teams comprised of musicians from a variety of churches. He'll be returning to Camp Pendleton in Santa Fe this December to lead a rock band for the annual Santa Fly-In Christmas Family Day where the elves, according to Allen, are "pretty darn tough-looking".