This is the second installment in a series of posts on identifying and addressing the difficulties of mixing ampliied sound in reverberant spaces. It is a series of guest posts by Steve Bailey, Chief Sound Engineer at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church (Denver, CO), where he mixes both classical and modern (amplified) music in a traditional, hard-surfaced, reverberent room.
Last time we talked about the science behind why your room sounds the way it does. This time we’re finally going to start talking about solutions and the things you can do to get the most out of your room. Unfortunately I have some bad news: you may not like what I have to say this time around. But I can promise you that if you do nothing else that I am going to suggest in the coming posts but follow the advice in this one, your room will sound significantly better. Furthermore, if you do everything else I suggest and ignore this one piece of advice, your room will probably never sound as good as it could.
The Most Important Solution
You need to hire a professional sound engineer. I’ll pause while you catch your breath… I know, staff is expensive and you’ve got volunteers that do this already. But let me ask you this: would you let a volunteer with no professional experience remodel your kitchen, or work on the electrical system of your car, or perform surgery on you? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prideful enough to think that what I do is as difficult or important as surgery, but the fact is that audio engineering is a difficult and complex job, which requires years of training and experience to become proficient in. That probably isn’t your volunteer.
Why This Will Work
There is nothing wrong with volunteers. In fact, I suggest you keep those that you already have on staff to work under the supervision of this person. However there is a fundamental difference between a paid position and a volunteer. For one, professional people come with experience. This is a technical, and difficult job which is very easy to get wrong and can be daunting to people who don’t understand it. There is also far more accountability from a person you are paying than a volunteer. If a volunteer messes something up, it’s not a huge concern, but if a professional messes up they should take it much more seriously. Also, volunteers will do this because they want to, so if something more pressing comes up, they are often going to take care of that rather than your needs. A professional person should have the church as their highest priority while they are there. It is work for them after all.
As I said before, this is the best thing you can do for yourself. The truth of the matter is that a good engineer can make a bad room sound good, and a bad engineer can make a good room sound bad. This person will probably try and take care of other things that can help your sound improve as well, many of which I will be mentioning in future postings (this doesn’t mean you get to stop reading).
How to Do It
Start talking to people you know in this industry and tell them what you’re looking for. You probably want this person to work your rehearsals, your services, and a few extra hours a week fixing things and cleaning up, so they’re going to be part time. I can’t stress this next point enough: pay them competitively. If you want to have a professional level person working your board, you need to pay them a professional wage. To determine what a competitive wage is in your city, talk to people in this industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has a very complete job profile on their site. There’s also a lot of information in forums (like this one) and other sites on the internet, so give Google a shot too.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you look for this person: in this industry experience is far more important than a degree. A lot of really excellent engineers got where they are based only on experience and not on a college education (myself included). It’s very important that they have professional level experience with live mixing. Preferably in a setting similar to the room you’re in now. Not studio work (the two are very different animals), not gaffing and running cables, not lights. Definitely not “I do sound for my band,” and definitely not “I’m really good at hooking up stereos.”
This is a tough solution to get your head around. This is particularly true in churches, where we rely so heavily on volunteers for so much of what we do. In the long term, this will also probably be the most expensive thing that I am going to suggest you do. But the person in this position is really integral to your worship experience. This step is the most important step you can take to improve the sound in your room.