The Cost of Volunteers

What's wrong with the following statement?

"I know I'm not a Martial Artist today, but if I take a few lessons I'll be ready to compete with Chuck Norris."

In my opinion, there are two problems with this statement. First, desire alone is not sufficient to become a world class Martial Artist. I, for example, hold a 3rd Degree Black Belt. But I'm not going to ever challenge anyone to a fight. I have some skills, but they are not sufficiently advanced to allow me to think I can take on the big boys. Second, while I have some skills through education, I do not have the necessary "knack" to do well. 

Wait. Wasn't this supposed to be about audio in some way? 

It is. Audio Engineers need the same two things as Martial Artists. They need training (continuous training) and a "knack." If I can never hear when something is too loud, or not EQ'd correctly, I simply am never going to be able to become competent in the task.

Ask yourself the following question: "Why doesn't everyone who takes years of piano training become a concert pianist?" There is something behind mere mechanical skill. In fact, and I've seen this reported many times, some people without a god given talent, but exposure to years of training are absolutely boring to listen to as the mere mechanics do not make music.

Creating a pleasant audio mix is the same kind of skill set. You have to have a "feel" for the music. When I'm mixing I know what is going to come next, how it needs to fit in the mix, what is should sound like, when the musician is flat [and there is nothing I can do about it other than to try and hide it]. As I practice more I become more adept at doing the right things. But I don't become more adept at understanding the ebb and flow of music. That happens somewhere else in the grey matter. It is something that, I think, already existed in my genetics. And, like a lot of artists, I'm convinced about 90% of the time that I don't do it well enough. That's not just being humble by the way, I know when I don't do it right. And that's a lot. That's where practice comes in. 

If you meet an artist that is convinced that they are doing it right, they are likely to not be very good. To be a good artist means that you recognize what is not done "well enough" and you work hard to make it better. 

So what does any of this have to do with volunteers? 

I've done audio at churches as a volunteer. I've also worked as an audio engineer for churches. As a general rule of thumb - and there are exceptions - the sound is better where there is a paid audio engineer. Does paying the person automatically make them better? Absolutely not. But someone who has been hired based on an interview process and auditioning is likely to be able to demonstrate an existing skill set and the "knack," for lack of a better word.

I'm well aware that some churches must depend on volunteers due to budget constraints. If you do, you must also understand that you may be subjecting your congregation to a fairly unpleasant experience. This needs to be a conscious choice. That is, you can state: "yes, we know our worship is awful, but we're saving money." If that's ok with the congregation, then great. You can stop reading now.

What are the problems?

First, having done sound at churches for a long time, I can tell you that sound rarely generates complaints other than: "It's too loud." Unfortunately, that complaints happens at EVERY volume level. I've seen that complaint when the pre-service music bubbled up to 65 dB or so. I've also mixed at churches where there were routine 110 dB peaks, and received no loudness complaints. This seems to be just a euphamism for: "I don't like....." 

What does happen though is more interesting. A bad sonic environment leads to people showing up late. Have a church where 30% of the congregations shows up at the point where worship ends and teaching starts? This is probably a clue. There is also the loud congregation hanging out in the concourse phenomenon.  They are avoiding the worship segment. This should tell you something. 

The other clue I've witnessed is the "dead" worship. This includes very people singing along, no-one clapping or raising hands, etc. In my opinion, the church leadership needs to ask itself why this happening. There is a reason. Admittedly, sometimes it is just that the worship leaders are not very good. But that's a reason, and it should be looked at.

The second major problem I've seen over the years is a church leadership who believes that the "sound guy," "sound tech," etc. is just there to turn stuff on and off. Indeed, I've seen environments where this is the case. It ain't pretty. 

A qualified Audio Engineer is there to make the audio environment a thing of beauty. That takes time and effort. And skill. And the talent. But you'll never recruit someone who does those things if you don't know that the Audio Engineer is doing them. If you are in charge of worship at a church, you should understand what the various components do. You may not be able to do them, but knowing that there are being done is important. 

And now, finally, I'm going to get to the point. There are some great folks out there who are willing to volunteer. They often have great hearts and maybe even really like music. Many of them can be trained to do the right thing much of the time. But not all of them can. I know it's hard, but these folks who do not have the talent [the knack], really should be assigned to some other task. If you, as a church leader, don't' wish to make this evaluation, bring in a consultant and let them tell you what you already know. 

Let me put this in a different perspective. Suppose one of your worship team members is a drummer who is absolutely fantastic at showing up every week. But they can't keep time. Ever. Would you keep them? Suppose you have an acoustic guitar player who can't play a tune to save their lives. Would you keep them on the worship team? The audio "guy" can do much more damage than either of these folks. It needs to be the same decision.  

I'm willing, as are lots of other Audio Engineers, to do both training and consulting. However, I cannot guarantee that the recipients of one or both will then have the necessary knack to do the right thing. I can tell you if they do or do not have talent.

it is worth noting here that, in my opinion, about 90% of all churches have - at best - mediocre sound. I also realize that only about 5% of the population can tell if it is "right." But it makes sense to me not to do it "wrong." I suspect, at the end of the day, it also matters to your congregation. And, it matters to the musicians. Ask them.