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Who Operates Your Church Sound System

Blake Engel, All Church Sound

Church sound system operation can be broken into two different groups: systems that are just turned on and off (with everything pre-set), and systems that require a dedicated operator. Pre-set systems are typically found in more traditional churches. They can be simple systems with a few microphones connected to an automatic mixer or small very flexible systems that were well designed (and therefore don't require an operator). Now, "flexible" doesn't mean complicated–it simply means the system can be used in many ways and has been designed such that it can accommodate many different needs. Automatic mixers are typically used in situations where there's a concern of feedback or where the sound system seemingly adds reverberation to a room when too many microphones are turned on at once. This suggests an acoustical or design problem. A system well designed in a room with proper acoustics should work well with a standard mixer that can be set and left with two or three microphones turned on. Having such a mixer installed allows for expansion in the future and will accommodate special events the church may have that are above and beyond the normal scope of a typical church service.

Systems that require a dedicated operator are found in churches of all denominations and are used for all types of worship. A traditional church may have several microphones that need to be turned on and off; a more contemporary church may incorporate music playback or even a band during the service.

For all types of sound reinforcement systems, someone is operating it whether they're just turning it on, or if they have a role in its operation during the course of the service. If the system is only turned on and off (not adjusted by anyone), just about anyone can "operate" the system. However, in larger systems that require an operator, the person or people operating the system must know what they're doing! They need to know how to operate the equipment without having to consult the instruction manuals during the service.

As with any piece of equipment, if you don't know how to use it properly, you shouldn't be using it at all. "Playing around" with the controls often does more harm than getting things to work the way you want them to. Some churches have resorted to putting locks on the equipment so only people with keys can get to it and operate it. Locks also help defer theft and vandalism (churches are not exempt from theft and vandalism). So what happens when there's a wedding or a kids music rehearsal and no one has a key? Often a set of master keys will be kept in the church office and someone will get them–then everyone stands around the sound equipment trying to figure out how to "make it work". The outcome is usually a bunch of controls adjusted in improper ways and still no sound coming from the speakers!

A few churches have written a list of qualifications that need to be met before you're allowed to operate the sound system. Qualifications such as being chosen by the music minister to be on the team, passing some sort of sound "exam", having been through a training session or two, or even having been a sound apprentice for several months. Some of the lists of qualifications are short and to the point while others may be several pages long. Why is this needed? Why must you meet a list of qualifications before you operate the church sound system? Simple–the church leadership realizes the sound system is an expensive piece of complicated technical equipment, and they want only people who really know how to use it running it. You need a drivers license before you can legally drive a car. To get that car license you need to meet a list of qualifications–often a written test and an on-the-road test. Passing these tests means you've met (at least) the minimum standard qualifications for driving a car. This doesn't mean you'll always do well, it doesn't mean you won't have accidents, it doesn't mean you know everything there is to know and you'll never have to be trained again. It means you've met the qualifications that state you know enough under the present conditions. (I bet many people would fail an on-the-road test in winter when there's snow and ice on the ground!) Your driving license can be taken back if you fail to follow the rules. Many of the churches that have incorporated a list of qualifications will also disqualify people if they continue to fail meeting certain criteria. If you're always a half-hour late for the service, you'd be disqualified. If you were always goofing off or not paying attention like you should, you'd be disqualified. Having a list of qualifications helps the church lay down some rules that keep things in the best interest of the entire church.

Once the sound system has been used, it needs to be closed up and cleaned up properly. This includes setting all of the mixer controls and knobs back to their normal positions, coiling cables and packing them away, packing away microphones, monitors, and mic stands, etc. This helps the next person use the system because they’re starting with a nice clean slate–they don't need to figure out how the system was last used and what needs to be changed for their event.

Finally, the people who operate your sound system are the ones that should keep tabs on the equipment. Is it all working properly? What cables are bad, do you need to purchase more microphones or microphone stands? Is the sound system being left in good condition when you come in to use it? These problems should be reported to whoever heads up the sound or technical ministry at your church. That person should then do whatever needs to be done to fix the problems.

The person or people who are in charge of operating your church sound system should know how to correctly operate the equipment and what to do when the system isn't working right. The sound system isn't just a big home-stereo system–it's a complicated product that needs to be treated right.

Take a look at your sound system–how complicated is it? How much training and knowledge is required to successfully operate it? Would you have a smooth church service if an untrained or under-trained person were running the sound? These questions should help you determine whether your church needs to establish some qualifications for operating the sound system.

So, who operates your church sound system? Are all of those people qualified to do so?