When Tech Doesn't Help

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

One of the advantages of working with churches all around our nation is that I have the opportunity to be in many different churches of different styles and denominations. Indeed, there is a lot to learn from our fellow believers. This particular Sunday was Easter and I had the opportunity to visit a church that was hosting a complete service involving music, video, and narration. This was not a show – it was a very cleverly crafted service that used production components. The pastor still brought the Easter message, but it was done so within a package that flowed and built upon itself.

The music choices were phenomenal. The choir did a fantastic job. The soloist were excellent. The visuals on the screen were dynamic and drove home each major point. All in all the presentation was well thought out and it was obvious that much time and effort had gone into this morning’s service. The church was packed – they were sending people to the chapel for overflow. The potential was huge. The tech was terrible.

Despite everyone’s efforts this Sunday morning was an example of technology not supporting the ministry. Visual cues were interrupted by switcher menus, the lighting was drab and dead – not at all what I would expect for a celebration Sunday, and the audio was lacking to say the very least. I wanted to take a moment to discuss what I saw, why it happened, and how it could have been avoided. What I don’t want to do is disparage anyone or point blame. All of us are at different points in our production experience and sometimes the obvious isn’t obvious. We must all be taught. Hopefully this article will inspire thought and creativity.

First, lets start with philosophy. As media volunteers (or paid staff) our job is simple – to support those who are on the front line of ministry. To support those who are sharing the Gospel message and leading the masses in worship. Much like Aaron and Hur who held up the arms of Moses during battle, our job is to hold those up around us during battle (and if you think Sunday morning isn’t battle – we need to talk). Simply executing cues or barely getting by is not acceptable. As a support ministry we must be striving to serve in whatever capacity we can – going the extra mile to do the absolute best job possible. With this in mind, let’s examine this Easter Sunday service.

Visual cues. This Sunday morning the church used DVD and computer video playback. Every time they switched inputs the projector screen would come up [INPUT 1] or [COMPONENT]. It was very distracting. Then the DVD logo would come up from the playback source after the DVD was stopped and before the [INPUT 1] message appeared on the screen. This should be avoided at all cost. Video switchers are available at very reasonable prices and most video converters offer a video mute selection on them as well. This is an example of details not being considered. The actual media used was fantastic – very well produced and fitting for the purpose, but the equipment menus detracted from the overall flow of the production and this type of distraction is not what we want when there is the possibility of a non-believer in the congregation.

The other terrible visual element was the wrong words on the screen at the wrong time. I know we all battle this frequently, but on a Sunday like this the congregation was scared to sing – this oversight de-habilitated worship – and that is huge. Many churches have moved into digital signage and forgotten about chorus books or hymnals. This means the production has to be perfect. When the text is wrong it terrifies the congregation and the result is that they stop participating.

Lighting. The lighting almost gets a pass here – but not quite. I found out that during a recent reconstruction project the church hadn’t completed the lighting install. This meant that fixtures were limited and circuits were scarce. I would argue however that for a special event where so much time had been put into preparation and so many visitors were present there should have been a solution found. Maybe you don’t have 100 light cues for the morning or 4 color washes, but you should make sure the set is lit properly. We are celebrating the key event of our faith – the fact that Christ is alive – this is not the Sunday for drabness. There are also other subtle factors that could have been incorporated such as the house lights dimmed or extinguished completely to draw focus on the alter and stage. Once again – details.

Audio. Finally, we get to the sound. I don’t think anything happened this Sunday that I couldn’t hear. So you’re probably thinking “So what’s the problem? You heard it didn’t you?”. The problem was that it was dead. There was no presence in the vocals, the music didn’t punch, the emotion of the audio did not carry through, and this was a dismal failure. Most of the sound was projected from the monitors – need I explain how that sounded? The music choices were powerful but it didn’t come through the system – and it wasn’t because of the equipment choices. Indeed, the equipment was top notch. The church was equipped with Renkus Heinze loudspeakers, Electro-Voice balcony fills, and a rocking Yamaha touring console. There was definitely the ability to rock the house. You could argue that technically the sound guys did their job – the message could be heard and there was minimal feedback encountered. I argue that they really missed the boat. The emotion and meaning of the production was lost because of the flat sound and minimal front of house speaker use. I will stress it once again – details.

Because of technical failure this production was average when it had the opportunity to be excellent. I believe that a lot of the punch of the production was lost because of the lack of technical support. I might sound harsh, but it troubled me because all the potential was there – this could have been an intense service with just a little tweaking here and there. I believe the problem at this particular church is not attitude but a lack of proper training and education. The technicians all seem to have great hearts and willingness to serve they just don’t know how to improve. Again, the intent here is not to point fingers, but to make a point in general – perfection is in the details.

So how could this have been improved? First, the video should have been on a switcher. Either a rented switcher or an inexpensive purchased switcher (this isn’t the national news – we just need to switch between sources without interruption).

Next, the lighting should have been augmented. The choir needed to be bright, the stage vibrant, and the house dimmed except when the congregation was involved in communion.

Finally the audio needed to punch. It needed to fulfill the excitement of the morning. This could have been done by actually using the front of house system and adding effects processing to the vocals. I am surprised by the number of churches who use no effects processing on the vocals. The record companies know that quality voices are created – not sung. Take any of your favorite singers on the radio and get them to sing in an interview without processing – it’s nowhere near the same sound. Processing will bring a richness to the vocals and smooth out imperfections. The key to processing is that a little dab will do you – this isn’t the place to go crazy, just layer a little on top of the voice. I prefer small delays, reverb, and chorus effects. You can also get incredible sounds on acoustic guitars and other instruments by introducing slight effects processing into the mix. Think of effects processing as the color in the painting – without it you just have an old black and white image.

There is feeling and detail that can be artistically crafted from a sound mix, video switch, or lighting design. It is these feelings that we should try to squeak out of everything we touch. Good tech is not about tech at all – it’s about art.