TFWM recently caught up with Bill Thrasher, legendary consultant, engineer, designer, instructor, mentor… the list goes on. Mr. Thrasher’s ministry related work includes (yet is not limited to, by any means) projects with Billy Graham, The Gaithers and Pat Boone, and his experience is derived from positions at companies like Walt Disney World right through to being Principal Sound Designer for the Super Bowl.
Mr. Thrasher, gives us plenty of food for thought as he recounts his experiences, his predictions about the future and his overall philosophy on what it takes to be a legend in this intimidating and ultimately rewarding industry.
TFWM: How did you get your start in the pro audio industry? How did your career progress prior to founding your own company?
Bill Thrasher: After doing sound at my Church for a few years and working in a Recording Studio during my last two years of High School, I was offered the opportunity in the summer of 1972 to go out on tour as the sound-man with a Christian musical group from Mobile, AL, called “Truth”. I spent one year with Truth, transferred to another touring group, Derric Johnson’s “Re’Generation”, where I met and married my wife. We averaged 13 shows a week, 600 for each of the three years. After Re’Generation, I spent two years with Bill Gaither, the first year with “The Bill Gaither Trio” and the second with “The Gaither’s”. I then took a position for two years with a touring sound company, traveling constantly, doing industrials, Christian Festivals, and working with country and pop music artists. I also was privileged to work on my first Billy Graham Crusade during that employment.
By 1980, I was ready to get off the road, so that summer, I accepted an hourly recording studio tech position at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. After six months they promoted me to a salaried position as an Audio Specialist, working mostly with the entertainment division. I changed from full-time to part-time at WDW in 1985, when I became the first full-time staff technical director at First Baptist Church of Orlando, FL. In 1986, I started doing all of Mr. Graham’s Crusades and missions, and in 1987, FBC/Orlando allowed me to turn part-time, assisted me to launch my own business, which I then relocated back to the metro Atlanta area.
TFWM: Why have you chosen to focus your business on the house of worship market?
BT: Basically, for two reasons; First, during my time on staff at WDW in Florida, I was involved in the January 1984 Super Bowl XVII (18), Half-time show as the principal sound designer. I spent a number of weeks on that project and almost a month on-site in Tampa, FL. The half-time show lasted all of 7 minutes. For the next few days afterwards, I had a fairly strong reaction to the lack of real meaning of the enormous effort that went into that particular project’s work. It was really a pretty good show, but I found no real satisfaction that it had actually meant anything to anyone. I had experienced profound personal satisfaction on other very large events during my previous jobs and at WDW, like doing the Grand Dedication Ceremony for EPCOT Center, which I planned, designed, and mixed. The Super Bowl 18 half-time show was a philosophical turning point for me, and I decided that I wanted to seek work that had greater meaning and purpose. I am not at all against entertainment, I very much believe we are designed to enjoy experiences that are entertaining, but I wanted to be sure that I put my experiences & energies into projects that would have a greater degree of lasting meaning.
Secondly, during my time on staff at FBC/Orlando, I realized that I very much enjoyed working with Churches, and that by creating such a business, I could actually “work” for (really serve) a number of Churches, all at the same time.
TFWM: What were your initial goals in founding the company? How have those goals changed over the years?
BT: Simply, to provide a needed and quality service to my clients and to make a living. These are really pretty simple goals, and they really haven’t changed.
TFWM: Do you have a business philosophy? If so, how does technology tie in with that philosophy?
BT: Well, it was obvious from the 1986 initial formation of my own firm that technology was to play an integral role. Personal Computers and Computer Assisted Drafting & Design (CADD) were just becoming affordable, and they made it very possible for fewer individuals to be more productive and to produce a better quality of work.
We’ve become so spoiled with our dependence on technology, but I’m thankful and I still must credit my high school mechanical drawing classes with getting me started in drafting and in being able to communicate technological ideas into functional systems.
I continually question whether the “new” technologies are really an improvement with benefits, or just the latest marketing ploy, asking this question both for my business as well as for the systems that we design for our clients.
TFWM: From your start in the business to the present, what are the biggest differences you’ve seen in audio systems for houses of worship?
BT: There would be two significant technologies that I believe have really changed what routinely happens during Church services. The first would be wireless microphones. I experienced my first at my own Church in 1969. It was just horrible quality and reliability, but the Pastor loved it since he could move around, that is, when it worked correctly. When I got to WDW in 1980, we couldn’t get four wireless body-pack systems to work through an entire Revue show at the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon in Frontierland. At that time, very few audio firms, including the manufacturer’s of wireless microphone systems, actually understood frequency coordination and all of the issues and intricacies that are involved in using multiple wireless microphones. There have been enormous strides in wireless microphone technologies and education, and most Church musicians and technicians today think that 8 to 12 wireless microphones all working together in one place as no big deal.
Second, would be digital audio in general and more specifically, digital audio mixing consoles, with their innate capabilities to recall all of the settings, including all of the channel preamps, processing, & everything. Again, I have seen many changes during my working years. My first touring mixer in 1972-73 had tubes and only rotary knobs. My second touring mixer in 1973-76 was all solid-state (transistors!), it had EQ on each channel, one set of pre-fader aux. sends, and linear faders (it was a custom built live sound console using recording studio components). I started using Yamaha PM1000 consoles from 1977, and then the seven PM2000’s that were purchased for EPCOT. When I got to WDW in 1980, there were no digital reverberation or effects units available for touring, only very expensive models for recording studios. Today, I get to mix on a Yamaha M7CL-48 most Sunday’s as I volunteer at my own Church. It’s amazing the level of technology that is available to the average Church today.
TFWM: What have been the keys to that success and longevity in the industry?
BT: I believe that my staying actively involved in actually mixing shows and events, mixing at my own Church, and actively using professional audio products and systems, has been a critical factor in my providing a service that is the best value to my Church clients. I have listened to many other systems designers over the years make comments about “trying out” the latest new products or concepts in their next project. I am amazed at the quantity of audio systems designers that have never really had to make a living using the equipment or the systems that they design for a living. I strongly dislike the idea of experimenting with my client’s money. I want to be as confident as is reasonably possible that I am recommending products, systems, and ideas that will sound good, work reliably, and will give that client their money’s worth over the life expectancy of the products and systems.
I heard someone make the comment a few weeks ago that “If you had to be the individual that has to sit at the console, being responsible for the audio system and mixing of a large event, and if your future employment depended on what happened when you pushed the faders up, then you would probably become pretty picky (careful) about what all you did, and you would learn well what really works, what is just hype, and what just looks good on paper, but doesn’t really matter in the real world.”
TFWM: What changes in the house of worship market do you see having an impact over the next several years, either from a technology or business standpoint?
BT: I don’t really see anything in technology that is specific only to the HOW market, but there are many changes in all presentation technologies that will strongly impact the Church market, as well as theme parks, clubs, sports, and every other kind of live sound venues. I believe that digital audio is, in many ways, just getting started. I suspect that manufacturer’s are cooking up all sorts of new ideas to bring to market.
From a business standpoint, I believe that as these systems get more sophisticated and capable of self-diagnostics and detecting faults, that managing large systems should get somewhat easier. Those types of technologies will certainly drive higher initial and possibly long term costs, and I am not sure whether the Church market is prepared to increasingly invest in more sophisticated technical systems.
TFWM: In your experience as a sound engineer doing church projects, have you noticed an improvement in technical savvy from church tech crews over the past ten years?
BT: Frankly, I would have to say no. I hope that I don’t sound too negative, but I don’t see much improvement in technical understanding and know-how overall. While, it is very true that many Churches are growing and almost everyone is getting more and more complicated and sophisticated equipment and systems, I see an enormous lack of understanding of the basic fundamentals of the electronic, acoustical, and musical aspects of doing live sound. There are amazing and ridiculous myths that continue to be practiced, and passed from one tech to another, propagating through the Church technical community. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I personally know of a good number of very fine and committed Church audio tech’s, both volunteer and staff, that can mix well, manage their systems well, and troubleshoot and survive their day to day challenges, but that number is overwhelmingly small when compared to the number of Churches that are seeking reasonably qualified volunteer and staff people.
I believe that a major portion of this problem is the very popular but extremely incorrect belief that there is always an “easy-to-operate” technological solution out there that can fix anything that you hear and don’t like. If a vocalist isn’t as good live as they are on their latest recording, then you simply need a better processor, with automatic pitch correction, a multi-band auto-equalizing compressor, de-esser, limiter, AGC, do-hicky, and getting one of these latest “magic” black boxes (or “magic” software “plug-in’s”) will make the audio operator’s job easier and his mix so much better. Bigger and better toys mean better sound. So Much Baloney!!!
Better sound is really all about more rehearsals, more experience, making mistakes and learning, better musicianship, better microphone technique, better musical tuning, learning to listen and interpret what you hear, less dependence on toys and tricks. It’s really about people, individuals, working together, sharing their experiences, mentoring each other, and “Being kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; In Honor, Preferring One Another” (Romans 12:10).
TFWM: What would you say that church techs need the most as far as training?
BT: This question is so simple for you to ask and for me to hear, but the answer seems almost insurmountable in scale. We simply need a comprehensive and practical training system, covering the basics and extending to the most advanced state-of-the-art and leading-edge topics. There, that was easy, and it will be easy for your readers to read. Everyone will already know that this is not so easy to actually find or create.
I personally believe that Churches need to create and somehow put into action, a recruiting, mentoring, and training program, where almost anyone, including adolescents and young adults, can explore the technical arts and production services, and hopefully find a place to start serving their Churches, learning along the way, so that they can become technically mature and experienced. Could we create something that is similar to the way that we have historically had Children’s choirs, who grow up to become Middle School, and High School Choir members, and ultimately become Adult Choir members? I am sure that some readers will find my using Church Choirs as a very old-fashioned-sounding example. They will want a faster, more high-tech means of taking a volunteer, giving them a DVD to watch, and then next Sunday, that volunteer will be capable of operating the audio system or operating a television camera at an accomplished professional level. Well, in the same way that someone cannot watch a DVD and become an accomplished guitar player in a few hours, days, or weeks, I don’t believe that you can make a good sound system operator without knowledge, understanding, and lots of experience. The old joke was “How Do I get to Carnegie Hall”, and the answer is “practice, practice, practice”. That goes for the technical staff, as well as the musicians.
We must also begin to accept that being a good sound operator is not something that can be learned by just anyone. I personally believe that all individuals have gifts, talents, and abilities, and that only some can become excellent sound operators, in the same way that only some can become proficient performing instrumentalists or vocalists. I will never be a good vocalist. I like to sing in the car with the radio, and especially to sing to myself, when I am testing a big sound system. Sometimes I think that I am not really too bad, but I do absolutely know that if I were placed into the American Idol early auditions, that I would make the televised and hilarious out-takes reel. Singing is just not my gift.
Churches need to find a way to help individuals find their gifts, strengths, and talents, to develop them, and then allow them to offer them in service. If you can’t run sound well, then try lighting, cameras, graphic arts, stage management, and all of the other places that you could possibly serve.
TFWM: Do you think it’s more common for churches to set budgets aside for technical training now more than it ever was?
BT: No, I don’t. I understand that my observations are limited in scope, but in my opinion, most Churches don’t really understand that they are very dependant on the technologies and especially on the people that operate the technologies that they use every week. For the most part, Commercial Businesses understand that new employees have to be trained to perform their duties efficiently and effectively, and that new and better business systems and/or technologies will require ongoing training. They know that their businesses will fail if they don’t keep their systems and people current and competitive.
Churches, for the most part drop this ball in two ways:
First, Churches often still consider the audio, video, and lighting systems technologies as “necessary evils”. They don’t want to accept that they have become wholly dependant on these technologies for supporting their Worship Services. If the audio system had a significant catastrophic failure, most Churches would have to cancel or greatly abbreviate their services. They don’t seriously consider redundancy, spares, backup, maintenance, and scheduled replacements and upgrades, as “good stewardship”. I suspect that many Churches are going to have to learn a very difficult lesson.
Second, they don’t consider training people as a crucial part of the requirements for owning and depending on technology (those “necessary evils” again). The technology is only as good as the people who operate, service, and use it. Getting budgets for replacing old equipment is difficult, and more often, budgeting for training is, for all practical purposes, impossible. I have heard it said more that once, “You don’t understand, we’re a Church, we don’t have monies for all that ‘stuff’.” Well, my impression is that Churches appear to be able to find money for all sorts of technical equipment (sometimes really “toys”), leaving no money for anything else. I routinely visit Churches that have purchased a few, very cool, “moving” luminaires, but they didn’t understand the training and experience required for the lighting operators, nor did they plan for the routine maintenance costs and service time requirements. So their lights are rarely and/or poorly used, but don’t you dare forget: “We are very High-Tech, we have Moving Lights!”
TFWM: Tell us about your favorite experience mixing over your extensive career.
BT: Amsterdam 2000, Conference for Evangelists, held at the RAI Convention Center in Amsterdam, Holland, with 10,000 invited itinerate evangelists, interpreted into 80+ simultaneous languages, lasting about 10 days.
I found a very reputable sound hire contractor right there in Amsterdam, they had a very sizable inventory of powered Meyer Sound products. I designed a distributed audio system, with three rings of loudspeakers and subwoofers flown to cover all the seating areas. I set all the signal delays while they were using large forklifts to install the terraced seating, using the TEF analyzer.
The sound provider thought I was just nuts, the place was so noisy, but the TEF didn’t care about the noise. I recall only using one or two minimal EQ filters, just to resolve the LF coupling and buildup between two MSL4’s loudspeakers that were tight packed together, the only system EQ that I used. It was an amazing sounding system. The sound provider kept teasing me, wanting to find where I was hiding the secret EQ. He had never done a system that didn’t have nearly every filter in the rack set for something. With the distributed design, I had lots of gain before feedback, and the variety of music and presentations was stunning, with everything from South American Tribal instrumentalists to Contemporary Praise & Worship with singers and band.
10,000 participants, all singing together in their 80+ native tongues is an incredible experience. On the first day individuals tended to sit with others who shared their common languages and cultures, but by the last day, it became very homogenized. My audio control area was on the floor, and there was a row of seating about six or seven feet in front of me. On the last day, we all shared a Communion service, and my wife, Suzy, nudged me as prayer was being offered. Most of the individuals seated in that nearby row had put their arms around each other, and there was this amazing spiral ribbon of human arms of every color and tone wrapped around each other. Suzy whispered, “That is what Heaven will look like.” I am so ruined, I want that sort of Worship experience every Sunday. I am so fortunate to have had a taste of what is to come.
TFWM: Now tell us about your most embarrassing moment over your extensive career.
BT: I was mixing monitors for the New York City, Central Park Billy Graham Crusade in summer of 1991, and in the middle of the program, the production intercom station chirped (we had addressable call signals on our intercom stations), I answered, and the program director told me that “Billy is going to introduce Johnny and June Cash”. I stuttered, “What?”. Mr. Graham had never done that before. I laid the intercom handset down, and the intercom chirped again, and this time the program director told that “Billy will be using his lapel microphone”, and again, I stuttered “Are you sure?”, and he said “Yes”. Again, Mr. Graham had previously only used his lapel microphone for the message, and normally he went to the lectern for any talking prior to the message. Well, Mr. Graham got up from his chair, stepped forward, I turned the lapel microphone channel “on”, and everything started working without any complications.
It was when Mr. Graham introduced Johnny and June, and then turned around to go back to his seat, that things went awry. The reel-to-reel tape deck with the Cash’s prerecorded accompaniment track was located at my stage monitor mix location, so I reached over, hit the PLAY button, and nothing happened. I hit STOP, reached up and tightened up the tape, and hit PLAY again, and the tape started. The problem was that during those brief moments of panic, I had failed to mute Mr. Graham’s lapel microphone channel, and as he walked back to his seat, he passed very near to one of the platform party seating area wash monitor loudspeakers, and the resulting squeal of feedback was very sudden, very shrill, and very loud. As I reached for the channel switch to stop the feedback, I noticed that most of the seated platform party members were levitated out of their seats about 6 inches, including the Mayor of New York City, and a number of notable dignitaries and celebrities. After the Cash’s finished their song, the intercom chirped, and the program director said, “I guess that wasn’t such a good idea after all, huh?” I was still shaking.
To this day, I will aggressively fuss and do my best to make program developers and directors carefully consider the transitions between songs and program elements, and to be careful not to surprise any of the operators with unexpected and unrehearsed changes to these transitions. It’s always easier to make a mistake during transitions, and a last minute change to a transition is almost a guaranteed, very obvious, and probably very offensive, mistake.
TFWM: For up and coming church sound engineers, what in your opinion is the best advice they should follow?
BT: While I was touring with Re’Generation, we did about 70 shows over two weeks every winter at Walt Disney World, and the principal audio guy there, Mr. Tom Durell, became a friend well before he became my boss. When I first started lobbying Tom for a job, I made the suggestion one day that “you should hire me, so that I can do some of those small, boring, recording sessions for you”. I hope I never forget Tom’s response: “Bill, you don’t understand, every time I sit down at the console, I have a chance to learn something.” WOW, what a concept!
I have come to believe more strongly every year, the old proverb that states:
“Experience is not the best teacher, experience is the only teacher.”
If you want a job in the recording business, then find a recording studio, and take whatever entry level job that they will offer. Get into the business, and learn everything that you can about that business, preferably from the ground up. While going to a trade school may teach you some of the things that you will need to know, you will learn more, faster, and more completely if you go to work in that trade full-time, and learn it all from the lowest level up.
If you want to learn to do sound at your Church, then be willing to become the most junior assistant to the people that are doing it now. Take notes, get them coffee, read every manual that you can find, wear the headset, and help them with the order of service, help start the recording deck, be a second pair of eyes on the platform, & etc. Get involved in order to learn, and you will find that you can ask questions, study, read, make mistakes, learn from everyone else’s mistakes, and learn something about everything. Be willing to give of your time to learn. If your strengths or gifts are not mixing audio, don’t give up, there are so many other technical personnel needs at your Church, I am sure that God can and will lead to you to a position where your talents and abilities can be used to meaningfully serve His Church.
Bill’s expertise in the design and operation of audio systems is based on his personal mixing of over 2800 presentations for the entertainment industry, Churches and Christian Ministries, and his designs of many permanent and portable installations. This design experience includes indoor large and small room audio systems, outdoor systems, theme park systems, recording and broadcast studio systems, and portable touring systems.