I used to think that successful church mixing in a high-impact environment was a mixture of two aspects: technical & artistic. In the KCC environment on a weekend, for example, I treat the first couple hours of rehearsal as technical mixing, getting EQs, compressors, and other band stuff happening and the console programmed so everything feels good. Then the second half of rehearsal, transitions into musical mixing.
I’m learning, however, that the importance of leadership, a “righteous confidence” of sorts, within the larger context often times gets lost in the audio engineer job description, especially in places like KCC where one engineer covers both the house mix and monitors. Over the years I’ve listened to lots of guys who, given good tools and enough rehearsal time, can make a good mix. But I’m learning it takes more than just being able to make a good mix to be successful in our church world.
In a normal band gig setting, a band leader or musical director runs the show and everyone looks to him – arrangements, tone, soundchecks, booking, morale, and on and on. In our culture at KCC, we are not set up to expect the same total leadership from band leaders – they are another piece in the larger puzzle and fall under the same direction as the audio engineer from the service director and technical director. It isn’t best or realistic to expect them to lead their own soundcheck or know what the audio guy needs in regard to getting the most from their rehearsal so the service is flawless.
I suggest it is the audio engineer’s job to be the band’s partner and advocate – the phantom band member – ESPECIALLY when one engineer is responsible for both stage and house. The engineer needs to provide consistency and leadership through setup, sound check, and rehearsal so the band has everything they need to feel confident and comfortable in their part of the service. Proper leadership naturally brings repore and trust between the band and engineer.
What does it look like to lead in this way? I think being vocal and present in the band member’s lives on stage during soundcheck, then knowing when to shut up as they transition into their rehearsal – when to give input, when to let them do their thing, when to ask questions over the talkback mic and when to go talk face to face. It is not enough to stay in the booth and make changes when requested with an amazing God mic voice! The band needs to see you on stage listening to them and their mixes, engaging with them personally both on the stage and in the green room, running back and forth between the stage and the booth, and SHOWING them you are busting your tail for their sake. No amount of pre-production and setup will negate the necessity of this role during the actual rehearsal.
The result of doing this right is that the band will play better because they can concentrate on the music and not have to worry about how they are being presented to the thousands of people who will listen to them in a given service. In fact, leading seems to take care of many potential troublespots all by itself because the attitudes of the band and tech are positive and filled with more grace. When the effective leadership elements are missing, band members naturally resort to the same negative forms of communication and leadership that they often experience in the outside band world since they likely feel abandoned and without an advocate.
It is important to note that what matters is what the band perceives as leadership. Someone can have excellent intentions and be doing all the correct technical steps to fix problems and take care of a band, but if the band doesn’t perceive the advocate, or they feel it takes too long to get an appropriate solution, if it’s even accomplished at all, the battle is lost regardless. The trick is to both fix problems, make things the best they can be, make everyone feel comfortable and also make sure the band can obviously see that when things go wrong you’re on top of it and working hard for them by being intentional in the process with them.
I used to think what was missing in so many sound engineers was mix/gear knowledge deficiencies, and of course this can be true in some cases. But I’m quickly realizing that the order of importance for responsibilities is leadership/personality, then technical mixing, then artistic/musical skills. Without leadership, someone who learns to have good mix chops will still be lost in the fast paced production environment at our church. The reality that there’s never enough rehearsal time, you must prioritize your mix, and a “good mix” is a moving target means the sound engineer must be the leader of the process.
The struggle for me as a leader with years more practical experience than many of the young sound guys I work with is how to teach and empower the leadership element in an effective way. I’m still wading through this and figure I will be for some time as the Lord teaches me and molds me. Teaching technical/mix knowledge is easy, quantifiable, and one-on-one. It can be done in pre-production work, by reading books and websites, and watching someone else run a rehearsal or service. Given enough time, someone gains what they need to be successful in this area. But it seems leading effectively can only be learned by doing – having successes and failures and learning and applying from both. There’s such a delicate balance of letting someone flounder and be uncomfortable when they don’t handle a situation in the best way, allowing them to learn in their discomfort, versus when to step in and solve the problem, teaching through that moment for the sake of the band and rehearsal as a whole.
I think there is great value in intentional mentoring to teach these leadership traits, but I also am learning that I believe they are spiritual gifts that must come out of our personal relationship with Jesus. It’s so easy to put the training obligation on myself and believe I must make them be what they need to be, but that is 100% the wrong direction for me to go. Just as my ability to perform at the level I do is an outpouring of the gifts God has given me and my continued strengthening relationship with Him, I need to be the head cheerleader for our young guys and encourage them to draw closer to the Lord and allow Him to grow them in the skills they need to be effective in their confidence and leadership.
Conclusion: technically or artistically perfect mixing is important and necessary, but blending those skills with successful leadership and personality really is the element that sets engineers apart in the church culture and is what I think we need to be focusing on in our mentoring over the coming months. Thank you, Jesus, for this lightbulb moment today!!!