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How Digital Technology is Finding a Home in the Mid-Sized Church

Like most small and mid-size houses of worship, the leaders of Scottsdale’s Mountain Valley Church had long regarded the technologies of mega-churches like Willow Creek and World Changers as well beyond their means. For Mountain Valley’s congregation of 1300 and modest 600-seat sanctuary, the resources to create a worship experience on a par with much larger and better-funded churches was little more than a dream.

But serendipity sometimes intervenes. Mountain Valley is just down the road from Robert Scovill’s Scottsdale home. Scovill, a veteran of three decades as a live sound engineer, is also Market Manager for Live Sound Products at Digidesign, and has been a driving force behind the development of their D-Show system and console. He has long worked to dispel the conception that digital technology is too expensive and too complex for the average house of worship, and Mountain Valley was the ideal proving ground.

“The mega-churches get a lot of attention,” says Scovill, “but really, the vast majority of churches in America are in the 500 to 1000 seat range. I feel that those churches, many times to their surprise, can really benefit significantly by adopting digital technology, and the Mountain Valley experience really documents the positive effects of implementing that technology on the worship experience.”

Getting the Basics Right
The move to their current building three years ago had been auspicious, marking the first time Mountain Valley actually owned their own premises. “It represented a big step for us, and we really wanted to plan the approach to the new space properly,” recalls Chant Peck, the church’s Director of Audio. Peck, an experienced sound engineer and educator, handles Front of House and monitor engineering duties for Mountain Valley, as well as live recordings and production of special events. In his ten years with the church, he has seen the entire genesis of Mountain Valley’s audio history. “When I started, we were in a high school,” he reflects. “We kept the PA in a storage tank outside, carried it in and set it up every Sunday.”

Peck got together with Scovill, whose first priority was to address the large warehouse structure’s acoustics. Scovill worked hand in hand with well-known architect and liturgical designer Kevin Callahan, whose custom diffusers surrounding the room create a striking visual effect. “A big challenge for most mid-sized churches is understanding the importance of creating a good sounding acoustical space,” Scovill observes. “A great many churches are putting contemporary, amplified music into rooms that are often not acoustically suited for it. They’re implementing a high level of technology, and often approach it with the misconception that the technology will address the basic issues of the room’s sound. No amount of technology will make a poorly designed space sound good.”

“When the room was completed, we moved in with our existing sound system, which proved to be really enlightening,” says Eric Lauterbach, Mountain Valley’s Programming Director. “It was obvious immediately to everyone involved how much better that same system sounded in a properly designed environment. It also made it that much easier to convince our administrators to experiment with the console.”

The Move to Digital
With a good sounding room to work with, and the church’s approval, Scovill arranged for the loan of a D-Show system. Peck, an experienced Pro Tools user and collegiate level instructor, adapted quickly to the full potential of the system. “Pro Tools is ubiquitous in the modern recording world, but it’s not generally associated with live sound,” he says. “We were amazed with how useful a tool it can be for live production.”

Peck begins pre-production by preparing files containing the audio tracks and charts for the week’s songs, which the musicians can pick up on CD or download using the church’s Digidesign Digidelivery system. “We often use the pitch change plug-in to bring the tracks to the right key for the singers, and in turn give them MP3 files to rehearse with,” he says.

Each musician can use the tracks to rehearse their parts on their own time prior to the Thursday night group rehearsal. “It’s difficult for people to afford several nights a week of rehearsals,” says Scovill. “We’re talking about volunteers, and the way to keep volunteers happy is to not waste their time. This way, everyone walks in Thursday ready to go, and that really enhances productivity.”

As Lauterbach observes, the opportunities for preproduction extend beyond the musicians. “Denise Anderson, who creates all our ambient video footage, gets these audio files as well via Digidelivery. Having the tracks to work with has had a tremendous effect on her creativity, which in turn contributes to the overall presentation which enhances the worship experience.”

Building the Mix
Needless to say, the most dramatic impact has probably been upon the audio staff. Peck uses the Virtual Soundcheck feature to create a series of presets for the upcoming services. “We can record the band during rehearsal, with every input tapped directly from the mic preamp to give us raw audio data right into Pro Tools,” he explains. “When you play it back, it’s just like having the musicians there on stage. It gives us 24/7 access to the band. We can take each singer and audition a range of plug-in effects across multiple inputs, we can isolate parts, create and refine entire mix scenarios, and save them for instant recall. When the band plugs back in on Sunday, the mix is there. It’s a tremendous time saver and has dramatically improved the audio quality for our services.”

It also enables Peck to handle the unenviable task of running FOH and monitor mixes simultaneously. “With playback via Virtual Soundcheck, I can build a monitor mix independently of the house mix, which allows me to get a clear representation of how that monitor mix is affecting the house mix. Both mixes are cleaner and more articulate, and the monitor mix we create is more meaningful on stage.”

Matt Gibson, the church’s current Worship Leader, agrees. “I used in-ear monitors for five years,” he says, “and when I first came to Mountain Valley I assumed it would take Chant at least half an hour or so to get a mix in the wedges that would work for me. I walked on stage and he had a mix dialed in almost immediately that was literally beyond my expectations.”

“The technology has proven to be a valuable educational tool for us too,” adds Lauterbach. “Volunteers can use the Virtual Sound Check tracks to familiarize themselves with the console, the routing and the effects. It gives us the opportunity to train them in the nuances of live audio in a relaxed environment, without the stress of plunking them down in the midst of a live service.”

Sharing the system has also become easier. Like most churches, the sanctuary hosts a wide range of other events during the week. “If there’s a wedding, a funeral, or some other special event, it used to mean someone coming in, setting up the mics and whatever else they needed, and reconfiguring the console,” says Peck. “Now it’s no longer an issue. We can build a special scene in, for any event, and still recall the Sunday service settings with the touch of a button. I haven’t had to zero out a console in months.”

Mountain Valley also maintains a small music production facility on the premises, where Gibson works with the congregation’s musicians and Lauterbach creates many of their music beds using Ableton Live and Pro Tools. “The ability to move projects back and forth between here and the sanctuary is something we’ve really been availing ourselves of,” he reports. “We can use the studio to do serious multitrack sequencing and create tracks for use in the services. We can also do post production and mixes for the services and offer it on CD immediately afterward, as well as posting the podcasts.”

“The ability to tie the service in with a production facility is another important factor with regards to future growth,” Scovill observes. “In Mountain Valley’s case, they’ve got a small production facility right down the hall. But we’re currently exploring options including potentially intergrating our ICON mixing platforms into the current Pro Tools and topology in the facility, and in turn what that would mean for the congregation and for Mountain Valley.”

The Message is the Winner
In talking about the impact of their move to digital technology, the most often cited benefit is that of confidence. “There’s been a marked change in the quality of our services, and it’s a direct result of the confidence we as participants in the service have in the presentation,” says Lauterbach. “The pastor walks up on stage confident, the musicians are confident, and that ultimately reflects positively on the impact of the worship experience.”

“That issue of confidence is particularly important in the church market, where the majority of musicians are not professional performers,” Scovill observes. “If their confidence is interrupted on stage, their anxiety is going to be that much more visible compared to a seasoned professional. The true victim of that distraction is always going to be congregation members ablity to receive the message. If we can provide a level of confidence for the musicians and the pastor, it enhances their ability to deliver dramatically, and that means that we, as a team, can create a worship experience that is meaningful and on-message, without being distracting.”

Worship leader Matt Gibson concurs, “my goal is to come in and give my full attention to leading the congregation in worship. My head shouldn’t be focused on sound and technical issues, but rather on the worship experience and the people around me. Being able to achieve that degree of focus is just invaluable, not only to me, but to the congregation.”

“I don’t have to think about “surviving” Sunday anymore,” adds Peck. “I come in and I just know it’s going to work. If something changes, it’s easy to recall a setting. If someone has to fill in for me, we load up a show file and it’s all there; no second guessing. You can’t overstate the importance of that level of comfort and reliability.”

“On Tuesday mornings when I have my meetings with the pastor and the other people who help analyze the service, the feedback is no longer about bad sound or missed audio cues,” says Lauterbach. “There’s a clarity to the audio that is undisputed across the table, and the sound remains consistent from one service to the next. We plan something and it happens. That sounds simple, but in the context of a live service, it’s had a profound effect. We’ve stopped obsessing about mundane technical problems, and are now able to focus on creative, big picture issues.”

Hard to Say Goodbye
All good things must come to an end, and eventually Scovill informed the church it was time to return the loaned system. Not surprisingly, that didn’t go over well with the production staff. “We had allocated a budget to replace the speaker system,” says Gibson, “and Rob had actually suggested we do that first. But we talked it over for several weeks and everyone agreed purchasing the (console) was a higher priority.”

“Once we began looking at all the different ways we were using the technology, and realizing the dramatic impact it had been having, on so many levels, it would have been very difficult to go back to the way things were,” adds Lauterbach.

Selling the church administration on the investment was a challenge, but far from insurmountable. “We had a lot of conversations with them, educating them on the capabilities of this technology,” says Peck. “They’re all pretty technologically savvy, which made it a bit easier. Of course, their first reaction was that it was out of their price range. But when we showed them the immense capabilities of what they were getting, and how much outboard gear it made obsolete, it simply made sense in terms of value.”

“Mountain Valley’s experience is pure evidence that there’s a place for digital technology in the mid-sized church,” concludes Scovill. “These are the people that can see the most dramatic and noticeable change in adopting these tools, even more so than a larger congregation. Their presentation is stronger, their worship experience is deeper, and the message is clearer. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”