Survival tips for brave front of house engineers
Everyone has stories, from squirrels in consoles, to power supplies getting struck by lightning. In this feature we wanted to draw from all these scenarios to learn from them. There’s nothing worse than bearing the brunt of irritated looks from congregants who have craned their heads to glare at you for ruining a perfectly good moment with a shrill shot of feedback. Even though some mistakes are unavoidable (stuff just happens), you may be able to ward off some of the major wounds with a little preparation.
Audio Newb – Troubleshooting 101
In the event that someone is thrown behind the sound board to mix the worship band- and they are without the benefit of prior experience, what are some quick essentials they need to know?
Basically, you need to know who is on what channel. Having the console properly labeled is critical. Prior to that, knowing how to turn it on is even more critical. You’d be amazed how often the scenario happens: someone gets sick, and another someone gets thrown in the middle of the mix, and they don’t even know how to turn on the console.
The church needs to have a sequence. The trained engineer (or the closest thing to it) should take notes and make a cheat sheet for the prospective pinch hitter. They also should label everything very clearly, including the ‘on’ switch, at the risk of being presumptuous. Proper labeling and a little set of directions can save someone a lot of aggravation.
The same also applies if your church is fortunate enough to have access to a digital console. If you have presets saved, a digital console can be a lot easier, because you can recall a preset for the band’s mix. Of course, you open a can of worms with that too, because the person may not know how to make an adjustment then save it anytime they make a change.
The master faders and the position of the master faders come into play here because not everyone is taught where the master faders should be, in relationship to the actual channel faders. Picture a recent scenario where a church in North Carolina went through an Easter morning service without sound because the engineer couldn’t figure out how to turn the master fader up.
So, given that, let’s look at some of the most common avoidable mistakes that sound people make?
Even experienced operators can forget to turn a component on that’s in the chain of signal pass, which causes the system not to operate. So, making sure the red light is on is essentially Troubleshooting 101. Digging further, when you talk about gain before feedback – you need to know how far up you can push the faders. By the way- this is not a Sunday morning thing, it’s to be experimented with during rehearsal. Unless it’s an emergency situation, you should avoid having an operator come up behind the console that has never been there before. Spending some time behind the console during rehearsals to mentor someone is usually the best course.
Having a couple of people shadowing whoever it is that’s running the console in the event they get ill, coupled with a little handbook and clearly labelled board, will give you the fundamentals to get things going. In tech departments, the shadowing process is even more essential because you can’t learn everything in one or two Sundays. In fact, it takes the same amount of time to learn to mix and do it well, as it does to learn guitar well, or to play the organ well.
Possible Boo-Boos: The Mystery Tech
A church out in Oklahoma was having a wedding service. The family had paid a lot of money to use the church, and the church had told them they had to use their in-house technician. However, the family was unaware that the church ended up using a different technician for the rehearsal than the one who ran the actual wedding service.
At the rehearsal, the technician gave the guest pastor his body pack with wireless lapel. During the service, the body pack and wireless lapel were left in a drawer in the sound booth. The replacement technician gave the pastor another body pack and lapel. During the wedding – the pastor didn’t know the difference, so he picked up a lapel mic that was sitting there waiting for him. He put it on, and the replacement technician tried frantically to put the mic up, while getting feedback after feedback. Of course the mic he was turning up was sitting in a drawer!
Given all the political ramifications of a high profile wedding, it turned out to be a very, very bad situation for the church, one that someone ended up getting fired over. Basically, it was just a simple getting back to labeling, it goes further than just the faders on the board and the inputs/outputs; every musician, worship leader and pastor needs to be aware what equipment they’re going to be using for the rehearsal, and especially the main event.
A workable scenario is to give the senior pastor their own body pack, and label it for them, so no one else ever uses it. Then you can have an extra body pack for guest ministers. The problem with the aforementioned situation is that there wasn’t enough communication between techs. One guy doing sound check and another doing the actual service is rarely ever a good thing.
More of ME!
When you have a singer or musician on stage who can’t hear themselves, a first inclination would be to keep bringing them up, when the problem may actually be that someone else is way too hot in the mix. Try correcting with less as opposed to just turning everybody up.
EQing is the same concept – if you feel like you don’t have any highs, people will be cranking up the highs on their EQ when they actually need to be pulling out the lows and leaving the highs where they are, essentially they’re creating more problems. A very big problem with amateur sound engineers is that they are just trying to go with the demands of the choir leader, who just wants to be turned up. A severe over-compensation thing starts to happen when the musicians are also turning themselves up. Clear communication is obviously a major key in this equation as well.
Keep in mind also that under-the-gun mixing is not for everyone. Some people catch on quickly, and some people have a hard time understanding certain concepts. Seeking out the right people, even on a volunteer basis is key.
Just because someone wants to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the aptitude to do it. The goal should be to set someone up to succeed and not to fail. Unfortunately, in ministry, many people are set up to fail, unintentionally. That really hurts people emotionally. It’s a pressure-point job behind the board; running the sound and working with pastors, ministers and musicians. The person accepting the job needs to be ready for the task.
Ins and Outs
So, getting a bit more technical, what about arranging inputs and outputs?
Essentially, there’s a production method, and there’s a church method. The two are pretty much in reverse. On the production side, customarily the kick drum is always fader # 1, and then you have snare, hi-hat, toms, drum overhead (cymbals), bass guitar, rhythm and lead guitar, keyboards and background vocals. Then you bring your vocals closest to your master section. That’s a pretty typical layout.
In a church application, it’s just the opposite. Fader # 1 and 2 is usually pastor and pulpit, and then 3 and 4 might be handheld wireless, and vocals in the next section. Then come keys or piano, guitar, bass, with drums last. If an engineer has been out on the road, then they usually want the production setup, but if they have never mixed anywhere but church, then they will set it up the church way. As long as everything is labeled correctly, there is no true real way or wrong way, but if you have a difference of comfort between your engineers, then it may become an issue.
Now- let’s say one of your microphones isn’t working, what do you do?
If it’s a wireless microphone, you have to look at the inputs on the console so you can know if it’s a problem before you get to the console, or after. For the amateur engineer, often if the problem is after the console, they’re finished- unless it’s the on/off problem we discussed before.
If you make sure the light is on, and make sure the mic isn’t muted, and you still aren’t getting a signal or any sound, what should be the next step? Try looking at the receiver at that point and make sure those LED’s are lit (receiving signal).
On some systems, the body pack is the transmitter, and on the body pack there’s a mute and an ‘on’ button. Then on the receiver there’s an ‘on’ button and it usually glows to tell you it’s on. It should also tell you whether it has picked up a signal. Most wireless systems today will have an indicator on the front that says whether or not it’s even picking up the signal. Once you’ve checked that, then you need to look at the console and make sure you are getting a signal there too.
Obviously, batteries are another scenario. Sometimes a mic will work with a dead battery, but it will sound distorted, and people will think that something else is wrong. Make sure your batteries are fresh, no matter how new you may think they are.
What happens if you’re in a scenario where the mic just isn’t working, and you’ve gone through all of your routine troubleshooting? Follow it all the way through: you pick up the mic, turn it on, make sure it’s not muted, make sure you’ve got a good battery. You still don’t have sound, so you look at your receiver and you’re getting the signal, the receiver is turned on.
You’re still not getting sound, so you look at your console and you look at your input (some consoles have a meter that has an input level). If you’re getting an input level and you’re still not getting sound, then you look and see if you have your fader muted or turned up. If it’s turned up and not muted and you’re still not getting sound, then you look over at your master fader – is it turned up? Is the channel assigned to the master output? Are you getting other sounds through the console and it’s just this one channel that’s not happening? Think in a logical progression all the way through to the speaker.
And if it’s turned on and everything looks like it’s right, then there’s probably something wrong inside the console, or something wrong between the wiring and the amp or the amp and the speaker. You’re getting more into the hardcore troubleshooting at that point. So, the other two big questions are – is sound happening anywhere else on the system? If the answer is yes, then you may have a problem on that one channel.
A simple rule is out to in, out to in, out to in, in to out, in to out, in to out and so on. When you’re looking at your cables, you want to plug outputs to inputs. If you plug outputs to outputs, then there goes your signal.
Of course, you’re not really going to have the luxury of doing this if you’re in the middle of a service, which brings back the point about having rehearsals.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say you’re faced with a scenario like having to troubleshoot during a service. What’s the most graceful way to get out of it?
Try to have a standby wired mic besides the pulpit, as your backup microphone. If you can’t get the wireless mic working, then go to the wired mic. Even if you need to walk up to the pastor and tell them to go to the wired mic, that’s better than losing the message.
A very common problem is phantom power, as well. When the pulpit mic is not working or the choir mics are not working, check your phantom power switch. Some mics need phantom power to operate. That’s another thing that could be added to the labelling category- knowing which mics need phantom power and which mics don’t. You could chart the pulpit on a piece of paper – where the mic positions are and mark which of the mics need phantom power.
For the future- we would love to pinpoint and delve further into multiple different scenarios. We’d love to get questions from you to find out what challenges you are facing. Send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org
Audio Ethics is a company that develops campus wide technology systems for ministries world wide, where Donnie Haulk is President and Jerry Temple Sr. Vice President of Operations.