good sound is subjective

[This is guest post from my friend Jonathan Malm. While we have only met once in person for about 30 seconds, we have done a lot of work together in the cause of making the process of doing church better. He is the curator at churchstagedesignideas.com, Sundaymag.tv, a blog about the creative process and Mopho.to, a photo resource for bloggers.]

“Good sound is subjective.” Have you ever heard that line? I used it often as a worship leader. The staff member responsible for the sound engineers used to pull that out all the time when I asked for specific mix requests.

What did you say?That infuriated me—and not just because I was a bit of a diva. Good sound isn’t subjective. Not when it means you can’t hear the lead vocalist or percussion clearly.

So one day I put aside my guitar and closed my singsong mouth. We liberated that staff member of their technical responsibilities and I took over. (No, we didn’t fire them. We literally just took something off their plate.)

For the first few weeks, I simply sat back in the booth and listened. I didn’t want to rock the volunteers’ world with sweeping changes.

I’d hear the sound engineers explain that so-and-so didn’t have the best voice, so they pulled them out of the mix. The bass player sometimes hit bad notes, so they kept him low in the mix. They preferred more traditional music, not rock music, so they kept the electric guitar very subdued.

You see, these sound engineers had been told that good sound is subjective. It’s not. They were confusing excellence for personal preference.

I made some pretty big changes. I wrote out a manual explaining rock music and its mix. I destroyed the myth that good sound is subjective. And my sound engineers excelled. They got really good.

So did the band. Once the bass player realized people could hear him, he started tightening up his quality. Once the vocalist realized she could be heard, she sang better and with more enthusiasm. As we began to trust the band, they began to trust us.

Good sound isn’t subjective. Good sound is when you make the musicians sound like they intend to sound. When you appropriately mirror—through the sound system—what’s happening on stage, you’ve achieved good sound.

Sure, there will be slight differences between each sound engineer. Some of that is preference. Some of it is technique. There will be differences. But it shouldn’t modulate between smooth jazz and rock and roll each week. That’s a matter of personal taste, not a matter of excellence.

This is true for all production techs. Yes, we are artists. We’re the last line of defense between the message, music, and visuals getting to the audience. We craft and tweak and sweeten each bit so it’s delivered with excellence. It’s truly an art. But we’re also co-laborers and servants. We aren’t the originators of the art. We’re the deliverers. We don’t get to change it to match our tastes.

We get to make it excellent.

If you aren’t willing to lay aside your preferences, the tech department isn’t for you. But if you want to work with a team of amazing artists and help them make something magic, tech can be an amazing calling.

I loved jumping into the tech department. I realized how much we could cripple the worship service if we wanted to. I also realized how much we could enhance the service when we did things with excellence.

I encourage you. Be excellent.

photo by: kc7fys
  • Elfamosobonfis Yomerito

    Very correct in its argument, the important thing is to get the message got to the recipients in the best way, even on the personal preferences of the sound engineers