House Of Worship

New Sound Technologies, Same Old Challenges

Although nobody wants ‘oopses,’ they can help us empathize together.

Digital sound technologies are used in houses of worship (HoWs) around the world. Today, we have digital audio consoles, digital stage boxes, digital line arrays, digital automatic feedback suppression, digital auto-tuning, digital wireless remote control and the list goes on. Wow! I love it! HoWs have hit the big time!

Today, HoWs are using sound-reinforcement systems that equal the sophisticated systems used by top-level touring groups. I’m happy that we are using gear that recreates crystal-clear sound, while also addressing multiple sound-related needs. I’m thrilled that we can wirelessly connect our laptops and tablets in order to make real-time adjustments during worship services. These mind-blowing advancements enable us to address a host of sound-related challenges by merely pushing a button or two. Think about that!

Just for fun, for those of us who can, let’s think about 10, 20 or 30 years ago, when we worked front of house (FOH) on what, at the time, we thought were amazingly futuristic analog desks. Remember how, back then, we felt like superheroes who had the awesome power at our fingertips to mute or unmute an entire subgroup? That was an awesome achievement back then. We learned that one button, when pushed at the right time, could make a performance grand. We also learned that one button, when pushed at the wrong time, well…you know. The key word in that sentence is “learned.”

I’m writing this article while working in Ecuador. Last night, I attended a celebration of a large ministry that uses the latest and greatest digital audio and video gear. Sadly, I squirmed in empathy when the production team missed many cues, and I agonized along with the audience when loud feedback disrupted the flow of the event. The mishaps led me to realize that, in spite of the sophistication promised by digital audio gear, we face many of the same old challenges we’ve always faced. The good news is that we can help this new generation of operators learn from our mistakes, and, in hindsight, we can laugh a little bit, too. What follows is my recounting of “the same old problems” that continue to occur in HoWs in this new digital era.

First, the pastor, who is wearing a wireless microphone, walks out to greet the congregation. You see his mouth moving, but you don’t hear anything. The FOH operator unmuted the channel, so what’s the problem? The batteries are dead! I believe that new batteries should be used in the wireless microphones each week.

Second, even the best FOH operators miss cues sometimes. When I see the pastor walking to the center of the stage to speak, I involuntarily hold my breath until I hear his or her voice. I feel empathy when an operator misses a cue, and I’m relieved when I hear the pastor’s words without interruption or delay.

Third, when the soloist raises the mic to his or her mouth to begin to sing, my belly becomes tight until I hear the singing. When the unmute is late, I feel sad for all involved because I understand the hard work that went into preparing for that moment, as well as the disappointment that the soloist must now feel.

Fourth, the soloist is set to sing to a music track being played back on a CD. The soloist is introduced and the spotlight illuminates him or her—but then the FOH operator plays the wrong track. While the FOH operator is fumbling to find the correct track, the audience feels empathy for the singer. A seasoned performer can use that moment to say something that draws the congregation closer together, which makes the subsequent performance especially effective.

Fifth, even the best technology often cannot overcome the bad acoustics found in many HoWs.

Sixth, the music portion of the worship service finishes. To maintain the flow, the pastor begins to speak. Suddenly, the bass player unplugs his or her instrument cable, which causes a loud noise that startles the congregation and the pastor. I believe musicians should never unplug their instruments while the service is taking place.

Seventh, some pastors prefer to mute their wireless bodypacks. Nevertheless, the FOH operator should always be observing the status of the pastor’s mic. Allow me to share a funny story, which helps to make my point: The congregation was engaging in a few moments of quiet reflection when, suddenly, everyone heard a toilet flush and the pastor singing as he washed his hands. The silence was broken as the congregants looked at each other and chuckled. The operators failed to realize the status of the pastor’s wireless microphone as he made a quick trip to the bathroom. Although such an error should be avoided, the error, in this case, actually energized the congregation on a sleepy Sunday morning. The result was a jovial pastor, because he realized he had the full attention of the congregation while he shared his message.

I believe digital technologies are amazing, and they enable us to create powerful worship experiences. Yet, in spite of all their glory, we nevertheless face—and we’ll continue to confront—many of the same old challenges. I am not sad that we experience a few “oopses” from time to time, however. Why? Because those “oopses” mean we are human and imperfect. Granted, the small imperfections can harm the moment; however, I also believe those imperfect moments can draw us closer as we empathize, agonize and laugh together.

That is what I believe. Please tell me what you believe.

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