Five Things the New Guy Needs to Understand


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First off, I am not making this up.

Someone once snapped at me, while I was running around, desperately trying to prepare for an event. “What’s so hard about being the sound guy? All you have to do is make it loud enough and keep it from feeding back.”

Yes. They actually said that to me. I couldn’t produce a response… Without saying something highly volatile.

Well. As the sound guy, let me assure everyone who isn’t… There’s a whole lot more to it than that. I didn’t waste my breath on this particular graduate of the Dale Carnegie course, but maybe I can spell it out for you guys. What are we really responsible for, as the sound tech? Specifically as church techs.

Most of you guys work with museum grade equipment, gymnasium grade acoustics and MacGyver grade survival skills. I applaud you. It’s the old line, week after week. “We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.” Yeah. I have been there. You guys absolutely deserve my respect.

You need to understand the basics of that rig. How does it work? What does each component do? What are acceptable practices and what aren’t? Just the basics. If you aren’t interested in learning and improving, there’s probably an opening in the nursery you should go check into. Just a thought.

Without excessive exaggeration, I have encountered hundreds of techs who don’t understand the basics. They are getting by, but only barely. Here’s a few critical issues you need to understand.

Cables. Learn to repair and test cables. Get yourself a cable tester, and learn to use it. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but I will assume that 95% of the service calls I ran were cabling problems. Bad cables, wrong cables, damaged cables, stuff like that. Eventually, you will recognized weird noises and just know it’s a cable. Radio stations, popping, dropouts, buzzes and hums. Almost always a cable.
Don’t put a damaged or suspicious cable back in service… Ever. We always cut one end off to make sure. It doesn’t take long to repair them and it’s just good insurance.

Feedback. Yes, you are responsible for this one. As simplified as I can say it, here’s what feedback is. Feedback occurs when the amplified signal begins to overpower the original signal, at the source. Once your monitors or mains begin projecting that mic back to itself, you are in feedback land. Yes, I know that is highly simplified. I don’t teach tech.
Your condenser mic are most sensitive, they are usually the first to go. Turn them off or at least pull them back when you don’t need them. The more open mics you have, the more likely you will get attacked by the “screaming dolphin of doom.”
You need to learn frequencies and learn to use an EQ. The fact is, some frequencies will break loose before others. Knowing which is which, will allow you to adjust the problems without murdering the entire mix

Gain staging. Understanding gain staging is critical to getting a solid mix. It’s the difference between mixing noise and distortion versus clean sound. My mixer always made it though soundcheck with the faders at zero. When you first connect an input turn the preamp down. Start with the fader at zero and the preamp all the way down. Bring up the preamp until you get a solid level. That’s the simple start to clean gain staging.
If I ever look at a mixer, and see a preamp turned up beyond 2 o’clock, I assume there’s a problem. Think of it like an electric guitar. Turn the guitar wide open into the amp, you get distortion. Turn the guitar halfway and the amp halfway, you generally get cleaner tones. Yes, simplified.

Compressions. Learning to operate a compressor puts you over the line. For whatever reason, that seemed to be the difference between a confused amateur and a serious tech. The guys who don’t know how a compressor works, or how to set one, really never seemed like they were serious. Learn to listen to it and use it. Know when it’s just enough to calm something down and when you are crushing the life out of it. Gentle compression will do wonders for getting a mix under control.

Effects. Yes, I am going there, too. This one is a sore spot for me. This one is one of the hardest issues to sit through when someone just can’t mix. If you don’t know how to critically listen to your mix, or adjust an effect, please just turn it off.
I compare effects to a woman’s makeup. Sometimes, it needs to be obvious and theatrical, but not normally. Sometimes you want that eternal delay and reverb to create a massive effect for a show. Not normally. Sometimes it’s cute to pitch shift a voice, when they want to sound like a chipmunk or Darth Vader. But. Not normally.
Like makeup, normally, if you can tell it’s there you have too much. Reverbs soften voices and make them pleasant. Too much sounds like they are yelling through a sewer pipe. Delays add subtle depth and pull them to the front of your mix. Too much will make you crazy because there are voices in your head. Subtle, simple and slight. Don’t go crazy with it. It’s still important to actually understand the words they are singing.

There are plenty of great writers out there who can cover tech better than me. Take some time, regularly, to read about the areas you struggle with. It’s understandable to have problems from time to time. However, it’s not acceptable to keep having the same problems over and over. Learn your trade.

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