How do I develop a tech crew?

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I get direct emails sometimes, asking how I would handle various situations. Some are simple, just one question. Some require more thought. I like to take the complicated or elaborate ones public. That way everyone can applaud my genius response, or figure out that I really am a knucklehead.

“I’m leading a team of volunteers at a church, who have been around for quite some time now. Several of the guys on our audio rotation are pretty good at what they do, but a couple are fairly new at mixing. A couple of questions for you if you have a few minutes:

1) How have you developed a team of skilled audio techs in the past, if you’re starting from ground zero?

2) What are some good resources for honing your craft? Most specifically, if I was developing a training resource, not just in book format, what are some references you would recommend for learning things like EQ, Compression, Gain structures, Effects tuning, signal processing, etc.

3) Any thoughts on paying audio guys versus completely volunteer-run?”

Thanks for any response.
-T

Ok, let’s look at this and see how many arguments I can provoke.

– How have I developed a team of skilled techs? Usually by absolute necessity. I ended up in a situation where I had an event that just demanded more than I was capable of managing with my current volunteers. In all honesty, my first choice was always the youth group. I looked for someone old enough to drive and young enough to be living with their parents. Mature enough to be responsible for a car and a license, but no big responsibilities like paying bills. Intelligent enough to take directions, but dumb enough to volunteer as a tech. Something like that.

I tried to bring in adults, but they never lasted. There were a few who were just always there. The guy who tricked me into volunteering originally. The guy who had nine hundred kids and pretty much lived there anyway. The semi-psychotic guy who was incapable of sitting in the audience and HAD to be at the board. They were all dependable as daylight. They were always there. But those guys came in to help. They usually got in by putting their hands on cables and the stage first. When they tried to put their hands on the mixer first, it was always trouble. Always.

Mixing is only a piece of this puzzle. But, it’s the piece everyone sees. It’s the most critical. Nobody takes that seat first. They get that one after they have proven themselves everywhere else. Be nervous when anyone wants to mix before they have done anything else.

The guys who come into that sound booth, eyeballing the gear, telling you how much they know, feeding you their résumé are almost alway a flash in the pan. They want to add something else to their list, be seen behind the board. They are willing to volunteer as long as it seems to make them look more important. They will last until it becomes work. The first time someone tells them “no,” they will find someone else to work with.

Even if the biggest names in live sound showed up, I doubt I would just step aside and let them mix. Not because they aren’t qualified, but because that room was my responsibility. My pastor expected to see someone he knew, and trusted, behind that board. He told me how much he needed to see me there. He knew I wasn’t going to fail him. There were others who had burned him so bad, he couldn’t stay focused on the service when they were mixing. He expected them to cause a problem because they had done it so many times before.

I think I did well because my people skills are kinda weak. I didn’t mind being the bad guy. I didn’t have an issue telling someone I didn’t need their help. I didn’t need them to like me. I was quick to put a new volunteer in a crappy spot and see how they handled it. I knew if someone got stuck rolling cables, the re-rolling them all because they did it wrong, they had potential. If someone was willing to babysit a mixer in children’s church, without falling asleep, they might last. If I could hand them the most annoying and monotonous jobs, the least visible positions and the menial, tedious stuff… Then they showed back up next week; I had a winner.

The only ones who ever did that were from the youth group. Several of those kids are professionals now. This blog was started because of them. I wanted to go back and cover the stuff I never taught them. I would do it the same way all over again. It took time, but paid off whenever I needed anyone to help.

– Good resources? Training manual? First, don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. Writing your own training manual should be about this complicated.
1- Treat this like a job, show up early, stay late, be here when you are scheduled. Call if you can’t.
2- Learn to roll and repair cables ASAP. You will do a lot of that stuff.
3- Everyone rehearses at rehearsals. Take that time to experiment with effects, compression, etc. Wear your headphones, listen and learn. Don’t play games on your phone when there is an opportunity to learn.
4- Techs live in the shadows. If they know you are here, it’s because you just screwed something up. We don’t attract attention to ourselves. We are here to serve, not to stand in a spotlight.
5- Our mission is to take the vision of our pastor and bring it to life.
6- Try to not screw stuff up. If you do screw stuff up, don’t do it again, the same way. Learn from it and move on.
7- If you don’t enjoy this stuff, feel free to step out. No hard feelings. Find your place.

Honestly, most guys who are in charge of other volunteer techs are there because they are dependable, not because they are expert techs. They are rarely qualified to train their own crew. They need to keep reading and learning as much as anyone. Everyone on the crew needs to go to Church Production Magazine, and sign up for the free subscription and the email newsletters. It’s free training from people who work this gear for a living. Make a point of reading the same stuff and bring it up in conversations. Make sure they are reading, too.

– Paid vs. volunteer? I never paid a tech, unless they were helping me get paid. Then they always got paid. I didn’t pay volunteers. I trained volunteers to see who could get paid. When they became dependable and knew enough to take on a gig, they got paying work. Within the church, I don’t know. I think it depends on the size of the operation and the level of commitment involved.

A church with 200 members and two musicians? Two or three services a week? Not a chance. Straight volunteer work. Get a few people and rotate them. Not a high demand slot.

A church with 2000 members and 20 musicians? Yeah, most likely. That is over the line. That is demanding more time and commitment. There needs to be a paid tech in charge of the operation. Not just a tech. Someone with management skills who knows how to delegate, train, organize and hopefully mix. That position will carry a lot of responsibility. It will be a full time job. However. Don’t think that that right person is going to last, if they aren’t paid competitively. A quality tech with,management skills is going to cost a lot.

Think about this. As a freelance tech, most of my work was on weekends, when there was more of an audience available. To lock down every Sunday, often meant giving up the whole weekend on paying gigs. When I was making $1200 on the weekend, that measly $50-100 offered for a Sunday was pretty hard to accept. Give up a good paying weekend for a tank of gas and a cheeseburger? Those techs will eventually be forced to choose one or the other.

When we learn to treat tech like a ministry within the church, it becomes more satisfying to the crew. They feel like they matter. Not like dogs who come back for a fresh beating every week. Treat your crew with respect and make sure they understand how valuable they are. This is a ministry of support. We matter. We are the ones who take this thing to the next level. We are the ones who make sure everyone sees the excellence within our ministry.

Usually, that’s worth more than a tank of gas and a cheeseburger anyway.

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