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Training Volunteers 11/19

John McJunkin • November 2019Sound Sanctuary • November 12, 2019

Tory Cole of Compass Christian Church (Chandler, AZ) with Avid Venue S6L-24D at the Valley Churches Production Ministry gathering.

We meet and discuss the development of our audio and video and lighting systems. We debate all the pros and cons and we shop around for the best deals and we acquire excellent technology and get it all assembled together. We tweak and tune and touch it up, and the expert consultants and systems contractors put it all through a shake-down cruise and get it 100 percent ready to go. But one question remains: After all the professionals and consultants are gone, who will operate all this technology? We may have a hired gun or two step in and mix services, and we will also likely have unpaid volunteers who contribute to the process. Obviously, volunteers will require some training if they’re to be entrusted with the proper operation, care, and feeding of our technology. But even professionals must be brought up to speed on our system, with all its idiosyncratic quirks.

‡‡         Making the Investment

Training is an investment just like any of the technology we acquire. Its costs may not be counted in dollars and cents, per se, but time and effort must certainly be committed to ensuring that those who handle audio for our services are prepared to do so. Not only do we want our services to sound great, but we also need to protect our technology from potentially crippling disasters at the hands of people who don’t know their way around the system. By way of analogy, I am not going to turn my 12-year-old loose driving my 600-horsepower European supercar. (Okay, I don’t really have a 600-horsepower European supercar, but I would NOT let my 12-year-old drive it if I did.)

It can be tempting to teach people like trained seals — in such a way that they don’t really understand what’s going on under the hood, but are capable of pushing the right button at the right time in order to receive a treat. This may even work for some churches — particularly if the worship service is exceedingly simple and does not substantially change from week to week. If it’s literally just a case of unmuting and muting mixer channels, a child can probably be trained to push the right button at the right time. In fact, by leveraging mute groups, the process can be made so simple that no sound person is needed at all — the person handling Pro Presenter or lighting can reach over and hit the proper mute group button at the appropriate times. This level of training can indeed be sufficient, however, the percentage of churches where this works is probably in the single-digits. The reality? Highly simplified systems like this are fine until a gear malfunction or unexpected occurrence arises. A button-pusher with no knowledge of the topology or setup of the system will not have the capacity to troubleshoot any such unforeseen aberration from the usual process.

That said, it’s usually wise to prepare folks at least a little more. But how much is sufficient? Do they need to understand the Nyquist theorem? Probably not. Do they need a fundamental grasp on troubleshooting techniques? Almost certainly so. Here, we are not training experts — we’re training operators, but it’s nice if our operators have a cursory handle on how audio works in general. So how do we accomplish this?

Shadowing may seem to be a good way to prepare folks for handling audio, and it is an invaluable part of the overall process, but it is insufficient by itself. I’d rather not fly on a jet piloted by someone who has only ever observed someone else flying the plane. A more formal and systematic training program is necessary, and shadowing should be part of it. The program should have realistic expectations — mixing is both art and science, and it can’t be taught or learned in a weekend. If the trainee is a rookie, months of training may be necessary before they’re deemed ready to handle a service solo. It’s necessary to develop a curriculum with clearly defined objectives. We need to spell out clearly-defined skills that can be objectively measured. At the top of this list is audio signal flow. Our trainee must clearly understand signal flow from microphone all the way to loudspeaker. This includes mixer and system signal routing — auxiliaries, VCAs, DCAs, submixes, matrixes and so on. The distinction between input gain and channel output level is a commonly misunderstood concept that should be covered in detail. A key goal in live sound is feedback prevention, and this is another area that requires special attention during training.

Once these basics are covered, it’s time to move on to the mechanics of mixing … the deployment of equalization, dynamics processing, busing, reverb, etc. Although this domain is more subjective than pure signal flow, it still requires an objective understanding of EQs, compressors and other mixer components. Beyond actual mixing is another essential skill — and one that must be learned by rookies and pros alike: the standard flow of the church service. Situational awareness is key here, along with the ability to comprehend the layout and sequence of the service. Effective communication with team members is another important skill — the trainee must learn the proper terminology, and must be ready and willing to ask questions, and ask them of the right team member. Mixing requires critical listening skills, and there are both formal and informal ways to develop these.

A proper training program has mechanisms that directly (and correctly) teach these skills. Patient, understanding instruction is also important — sending a timid rookie in to try to comprehend a fire hose of knowledge and experience from a battle-tested 30-year-veteran may not work out well. The program must facilitate evaluation of both the student and the training — formal written exams and performance evaluation. Once the trainee has been through the course of study and has passed evaluation, then a mock run-through is appropriate. Run-throughs are not training, but are a means by which newly-acquired skills can be put into action, helping the trainee to develop confidence in flying solo. As we can see, audio training for house of worship sound cannot be accomplished in a slip-shod, informal way, and if it is handled properly, can produce operators who will create excellent results.

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

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