I used to call it “mixing in fear”. We were going through a difficult period in our church, trying to figure out what the “right” volume was. Our worship leader had one idea of how loud things should be and our pastor had another. It also seemed everyone else in the room had other ideas. And there I sat, in the hot seat; waiting for my pastor to come into the booth and tell me it was too loud. Every week.
It wasn’t any one person’s fault, really. It was a breakdown in communication resulting from a lack of clear vision of what worship should be at our church. At least half the problem was not one of volume at all, but style of music. When the style of music is wrong, no volume is right. It’s all too loud.
This is a problem that can repeat itself across all disciplines of the technical arts. To move or not to move the lights. Use haze or not? Produce clean story videos or use a ton of damaged film and lens flare effects. Should we use motion backgrounds or static? Without a clear vision of what the goals are, making those decisions is hard.
And that’s the rub. The poor pastor hears from everybody. My friend Van says that every person walks into church knowing two things for sure: their name and how to mix audio. So when something doesn’t sound right—meaning doesn’t fit the preference of the congregant—the pastor hears about it. Most of the time, when the pastor hears about it, we hear about it. And that can be very frustrating.
It gets even worse when there’s one faction complaining it’s too loud and another complaining it’s too quiet. We all know we can’t please everyone all the time, but pastors are in a weird position of feeling like they need to. As a result, we may find ourselves caught in the crossfire. What’s a tech leader to do?
Start a Conversation
It may feel right to react in the moment when we’re told to turn it down, move the lights, or change the background. But I can tell you from experience, it is rarely helpful. It’s much better to wait for the service to end, and perhaps even a few days to go by, before starting a conversation on the issue at hand.
I find these conversations the most helpful when we can get all the stakeholders in the room at one time and have a conversation. When I say stakeholders, I mean the pastor, worship leader, creative director and, if you’re brave, perhaps even a few representative church members.
It’s unlikely that one conversation will resolve all the issues. But it should get people talking and working toward a solution. If there is no defined target, it’s impossible to know if you’re hitting it or not. The goal of these conversations is to define the target.
Great Sound is Subjective
It’s probably hardest with sound, because what forms “good” sound is so subjective. It’s very preference-driven. And preferences vary quite a bit, even among highly skilled engineers. What I try to do is suss out what constitutes the right sound for our church. A big part of that conversation includes defining the right style of music. This, in turn, helps define things like volume, the amount of low end, and the balance of instruments.
The trick is to get everyone on the same page in the definition of those things. And this is where the wise technical artist can play a key role. By bringing in examples, talking about different ways to mix (or light, or shoot video, or whatever), and genuinely listening to the concerns of everyone, we can help direct the group toward the best definition of the target. We can even craft ways to maintain quality control to make sure we’re hitting the target.
Once everyone is on board and we all know/agree on what we’re trying to achieve, it’s a lot easier for the pastor to hold up under the pressure of alternate sides of the conversation. As long as the tech and music teams are holding up their sides of the bargain, the stress level goes down for everyone.
Right is Situation-Dependent
It’s important to remember what’s right for one church may not be right for another. We also have to keep in mind that our personal preferences might not always line up with what is right for the church. I tend to like music a few dB louder than what is comfortably accepted by our congregation. That doesn’t mean I’m right just because I’m the “expert”. In fact, what makes me the expert is my ability to set personal preferences aside and mix for my audience.
We also have to be careful to not argue a position based on what the church down the street or across the country is doing. Just because the big mega church has great success with a huge, in-your-face rock sound, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically right. Or wrong. Our job as technical leaders is to help figure out what is best for our local church and execute every week to the best of our ability.
When we do that, we’re doing what we’re called to do. And we don’t have to operate during our services from a position of fear.