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Audio for the Portable Ministry

John McJunkin • March 2019Sound Sanctuary • March 5, 2019

A console in a protective roadcase (such as this DiGiCo SD11) and a couple “speaker on sticks” mains provide the backbone of a good portable rig, but there are plenty of other considerations as well.

All churches face challenges related to technology, but portable ministries face additional struggles beyond those felt by permanently-located churches. Having lived both realities myself, I admit that I prefer having all the gear in place and ready to go every Sunday morning. When my previous home church moved into semi-permanent digs several years ago, I may have even shed a wee tear of joy upon walking in on that first Sunday morning, throwing a couple of switches, and having all the equipment up and running. I have identified three challenges that affect portable churches: provisions, personnel and process. And to be sure, some of these difficulties are felt by permanently-located churches as well, but the ones I’m addressing here seemto create greater struggles for portable churches.

‡‡         Provisions

A common reason for churches to be portable is a small budget. New upstarts or freshly planted churches commonly have yet to experience the growth necessary to fund a permanent space or high quality gear. Equipment is often borrowed, handed down, or purchased on a shoestring budget, and may fall a little short in terms of quality. There are some affordable solutions that can deliver reasonable quality (and quantity), and prioritizing some budget for it is worthwhile. Careful and considerate shopping for good deals on technology that properly suits the requirements of the physical space and the church’s style of worship can help stretch the audio budget. Permanently-located churches analyze the room to maximize quality and dispersion of SPLs, but portable systems can also be massaged to maximize quality.

‡‡         Personnel

Churches that can’t fund great equipment probably can’t pay professional audio engineers on an extended basis either, and even high quality gear won’t sound good if it’s deployed and used improperly. I would propose the temporary hiring of an experienced pro at the outset to establish standards, culture, and a process that can be followed by volunteers going forward. I note culture because whatever is established at the beginning of the process tends to remain forever, right or wrong. Many times I’ve been brought in to consult on audio systems and asked, “Why are you doing things this particular way?” and the response is, “Because we’ve just always done it this way.” It can be hard to change course after the ship’s been on the same (wrong) heading for a long time. Temporarily hiring an experienced pro to optimize the technology and get back on the right track is an appropriate solution if the ship’s gone off course.

It’s also helpful to identify volunteers who have an aptitude not only for audio and technology, but also for process. Consistent, correct setup each week helps to achieve quality audio, so bringing in a detail-oriented volunteer or two who will take ownership of setup and other processes can be surprisingly effective. Untrained volunteers can really struggle with inconsistent technology that’s different every week, so consistency is king. It’s also wise to limit the scope of volunteers’ work by tasking them on one thing they can do well. Don’t ask a volunteer to juggle audio, lighting, EasyWorship, live streaming and podcast recording — break these tasks up.

Another key is the human interface between musicians and tech folks. Again, due to our typical budgetary restrictions, there’s a good chance they’ll all be volunteers who lack experience in production environments. Seek patient, considerate volunteers who can maintain cordial relationships and avoid turf wars and deviations from established process without consensus. FOH mixers don’t want worship pastors telling them how to mix, and worship pastors don’t want FOH mixers telling them how to lead worship.

‡‡         The Process

Equipment storage is important and warrants consideration. Security, accessibility, proximity and electronics-friendly conditions are all important. Temperature and humidity-controlled environments are preferable, and close proximity to the meeting location is nice too. The person responsible for transporting the equipment to church needs to have consistent access — keys and entry codes. And of course, security is eminently important. Storing equipment in a box truck or trailer is convenient for the church (as it only requires one load-in/load-out cycle per week), but it’s convenient for thieves, too, so solid security is a must.

It’s also important that everything is carefully loaded into the vehicle. Improperly packed gear can be bounced around en route and damaged in the process. And load-in/load-out logistics are also important. For example: audio gear takes longer to set up than chairs and tables, so pack it in the vehicle last so it comes out first on Sunday morning, giving tech volunteers a head start.

It may be difficult or even impossible for volunteers to meet consistently like church professionals for whom such meetings are de rigueur each week. This can create both strategic and tactical challenges, and it is at the tactical level that problems caused by this issue are most obvious. We’ve all seen the chaotic trainwrecks that result from a decision to “just wing it” on Sunday, rather than to plan carefully.

Technology presents potential solutions when volunteers cannot gather: there are comprehensive church planning solutions available online, and Skype calls, online chat, or conference calls via telephone can help to accomplish at least some planning. Leveraging communications technology to “meet” is vastly better than just giving up on planning altogether.

‡‡         Conclusions

Don’t just throw money at technology — shop smart and right-size the system for your church and take good care of it. Start off on the right track or get back on the right track if the process and system have gone astray, and don’t be afraid to temporarily hire a seasoned pro to maximize audio quality based on the budget and to help establish effective, consistent, easily-repeatable processes. It can be hard to find volunteers at all, much less smart, considerate volunteers with patience, an aptitude for audio, an eye for detail, and the capacity and desire to take ownership… a seemingly unreachable task! Nevertheless, it’s worth doing everything humanly possible to land these amazing people. Our processes are executed and shepherded by them, and we can find ways to ensure sufficiently high quality gear, so at the end of the day, it really is a people issue. Prioritize getting the right people, and the operations of a portable church will be vastly easier and produce superior results.

John McJunkin is the chief engineer and staff producer in the studio at Grand Canyon University.

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