When Bad Things Happen to Good Church Sound

These 10 backup strategies just may salvage your service.

No one should drive a car without insurance. When cooking, you turn on a timer to make sure you don’t burn dinner. With computers, you back up to hard drives (you are doing that…right?). Airplanes have manual overrides because, well, stuff happens. And stuff happens during worship services that can put a quick end to even the most inspiring sermon.

It’s not possible to avoid all potential problems; mechanical and electrical devices will fail, some sooner than others. But being prepared for these problems can make the difference between a disaster and a minor annoyance. You may already be doing some of the following, but now’s a good time to evaluate your House of Worship’s system, and start putting plans in place on how to cope with gear emergencies.

#1. Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Clichés about this abound: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a stitch in time saves nine, and failing to plan means planning to fail—but they’re clichés for a reason. Before doing a sound check, do a line check to make sure all elements of a system (mics, mixers, speakers, processors—everything) are working properly. Make sure the connections are tight; grasp the end of every connector, and check that it’s seated properly. Shake cables with audio going through them to expose any intermittent issues, and of course, verify that all the power outlets are functional, and all AC connections are solid. You may also want to check the lights and video as well, because the audio person often gets the blame when anything with wires isn’t working (been there, done that—right?).

Another useful exercise is to run through disaster scenarios in your head, and come up with solutions. For example:

  • The wireless mic dies: Have fresh batteries on hand, and a backup wired mic and cable.
  • Something’s making noise, but you don’t know what: Draw a diagram of your system’s signal flow so you know how your system is patched. This will help you track down the source of the trouble faster and more efficiently.
  • The PA speakers go silent: Know where to find the reset or circuit breaker switches. Have a megaphone or battery-powered PA (Fig. 1) as backup—it will come in handy anyway for other things).
The Mexavox 2 portable PA with Bluetooth
Figure 1: The MegaVox 2 portable PA includes Bluetooth and a dual wireless receiver.

#2. Be Organized

If you’re in a situation where you have to find a replacement for a failed device or faulty cable, time is of the essence. It’s important to be able to locate what you need in seconds, without having to hunt for it, or remembering where you put it last.

Now, I’ll admit I’m not the most organized person in the world. But, at least I know that—it’s never good to pretend you’re something you’re not. If you don’t do “organization” well, try to find the most OCD person in your church, and recruit them to be the Equipment Coordinator. This will pay big dividends when trouble comes looking for you. There are products for hanging cables, plastic drawers for adapters and replacement parts, and plastic tubs for holding bad cables that you plan to fix as soon as you get the chance. Even something as simple as cable ties (Fig. 2) can make your life easier.

Bongo Ties 10-pack reusable cable ties
Figure 2: Bongo Ties’ D5-01 is a 10-pack of reusable ties for organizing cables and other unruly items.

 

Turn your Equipment Organizer loose on your gear—it’s okay to let this kind of person go crazy with labels. They may keep things so neat it makes you nuts, but on the other hand, you’ll always be able to find what you want, when you need it. These people are a blessing.

#3. The Joys of Manual Labor: Know Your Gear!

When the pressure is on and something goes wrong, that’s not the time to start learning the finer points of your new digital mixer or finding out what the “Auto” button does on your compressor.

Take manuals home and study them. Manuals, and manufacturer web sites, typically have troubleshooting information for the gear you’re using that lists symptoms, along with possible solutions. If possible, obtain the service manuals for your gear (this may be as simple as an online download, or as complicated as begging the company because they don’t want to upset their service centers).

Keep the manuals and phone numbers for service accessible—like right next to the mixer. Your Equipment Organizer may even have put your manuals in three-ring binders (I told you these people are a blessing). Also note that PDF manuals are great, because you can store a ton of them in an iPad’s bookshelf—even ancient iPads that refuse to run any modern apps can have useful lives as the ultimate “3-ring binder.” If possible, find a local pro who really knows sound gear, and get a cell phone number.

You need to know your gear like the back of your hand so that when something isn’t responding properly, you’ll know how to correct it. Sometimes, even experienced techs will run up to the stage with a spare microphone, only to realize later that the channel was muted, the gain had been altered, the microphone was a condenser type and phantom power wasn’t applied, or it wasn’t assigned to an output. (At least that’s what I’ve heard—I’ve never actually had anything like that happen to me. Really. Ever.)

And an associated tip is don’t panic when something goes wrong. Spending a minute or two contemplating the problem, and prioritizing the most likely problem sources to check first, could save you much time going down rabbit holes that don’t fix the problem.

#4. Have Plenty of Spare Cables

Keep extra cables and equipment in storage when not in use, and replace or repair cables when they start to wear out. If you suspect a cable has a problem, tie it in a knot to differentiate it from other cables. My friend Jeff Barnett is a big proponent of using a pegboard to store cables, separated by type and length, so he can lay his hands on the right cable in seconds.

Remember that AC cables are even more important than audio cables, because if the power goes, so does everything else. Retractable AC cables can be wound up into a container (Fig. 3), which allows keeping long cables in small spaces.

TecNec ECR-2 Retractanble extension cord reel
Figure 3: TecNec’s ECR-2 retractable 25 foot extension cord reel also has four outlets on the side.

 

Also, don’t forget adapters—if you don’t have a replacement cable, you may be able to add adapters to a “wrong” cable as a workaround. But, don’t trust adapters long-term—when you get a chance, fix or find the appropriate cable. It’s better to have the right cable for trusted connections.

#5. Have Backup Microphones

Have you ever forgotten to put fresh batteries in the pastor’s wireless microphone before the service? Uh-oh! It’s happened to me more than once. If a wireless lavalier mic fails, a wireless or even a wired handheld mic is great to have as a backup. But don’t hide it away—place it unobtrusively on the platform before the service, and make sure that the key people (pastor, worship leader, etc.) know where it is, how to turn it on, and how to use it. Also, consider having a stand to the side of the platform that you can bring up front in a pinch; not everyone wants to hold a mic in their hands.

My buddy Greg Hearns, a System Designer/Audio Guru and educator at Northwestern University in Kirkland, WA, also has an important warning: “If you’re not using the wireless, take out the batteries. If a $1.50 battery leaks acid, it could cost you $350.00 to replace the wireless. I’ve seen batteries leak after being in the wireless for a week.”

If you use rechargeable batteries, make sure you have a system in place (hey Equipment Organizer!) that ensures they’re fully charged (Fig. 4).

Ansmann PL-6+2 battery charging station
Figure 4: When you need to organize charging for lots of batteries, Ansmann’s PL-6+2 charging station handles AA, AA, C, D, and 9V NiMH and NiCad rechargeable batteries.

 

In my experience, the best rechargeable batteries are made by Ansmann. It’s also handy to have an inexpensive battery tester, like the Ansmann HyCell tester (it can test over 12 different battery types).

Always have a spare set charged and ready to go; and remember that batteries lose their charge over time, so it’s a good idea to “top off” batteries after a while, even if you left them fully charged.

#6. Backup Powered Speakers

A powered speaker or two on stands can save the day if there’s a problem with the main speakers or amp, and once moved into place, you can probably be up and running in under a minute. If you don’t have extra powered speakers, you may be able to repurpose floor monitors used by the band, by facing the monitors toward the audience (the band might complain, but the audience won’t).

For epic fail scenarios when an entire system goes down, you may not have time to isolate and fix the problem. Having a small mixer and powered speakers, ready to go at the flick of a switch, will give you peace of mind. Vic Thomas, a former tech director at Cathedral of Faith in San Jose, CA, and now a veteran sports broadcast engineer adds: “Even on big sporting events, we have a backup in case the TV truck goes down. We always hook up a battery-powered mixer with the announcer mics into it, independent of the truck. The output feeds the master control via an independent phone line, and it’s always on so if we lose the main feed, they never lose audio. At least we can keep broadcasting. “

Brian Peterson, a sound expert from Southern California, has additional practical advice: “In our main building, we keep two powered 12″ speakers, with a spoken word preset already in it, just behind the stage with a wired hand-held and a wireless receiver for the pastor’s pack. There’s also a wireless mic set to that same frequency and channel and frequency, just in case. In the gym 40 feet away, we keep a portable PreSonus RM16 (rack-mount digital mixer; see Fig. 5) with powered speakers and sub-woofers for that room and outdoor events. It has cables, a snake, and gear for our mobile gigs. We run in from our big worship center to the room, just in case we go down hard.”

PreSonus Studiolive-32R
Figure 5: The PreSonus StudioLive-32R is a good example of a rack-mount mixer; it can be controlled remotely via smart phone or tablet, and connects to networks via AVB.

#7. Uninterruptible Power Supplies, Power Conditioners, and Generators

Recently, lightning hit a church that was hosting a conference where I was teaching. We all saw a blue flash and a loud bang in the sanctuary. It literally took out the lighting board and some other components, but the good news is they had surge protectors that prevented other components from damage. Some churches even have generators for backing up systems when power is lost.

Uninterruptible power supplies are becoming increasingly important, due to computer-based mixers and other gear that have a boot-up time when you first turn them on. Even a momentary loss of power could mean these types of devices are useless until after they’ve booted, which could take a minute or two. And this isn’t just about sound—as Brian Petersen explains, “Our church has 500 members. The front floor pocket power has a big power conditioner/uninterruptible power supply hooked to our backup battery system for the exit lights. That’s a luxury I guess, but it’s on all the time.”

Power conditioners don’t supply backup power, but they can be useful in preventing spikes and other issues caused by “dirty” electrical lines (which can even contribute noise to a system). The ideal solution is an uninterruptible power supply with some outlets that provide power, and some that have only surge suppression—you can use the latter on gear that doesn’t have boot-up times, and won’t dump its memory if the power goes away.

Power conditioning prices depend on how much power you need to supply, from a bit over $100 to thousands of dollars. They are typically available in rack-mount (Fig. 6) or tower-type enclosures.

furman-f1500-ups-e-uninterruptible-power-supply
Figure 6: Furman’s F1500-UPS includes surge suppression, but unlike most uninterruptible power supplies designed for IT applications, also provides AC line filtering designed specifically for sensitive audio equipment that’s susceptible to AC line noise.

These devices can protect not only the equipment but can sometimes allow the service to continue seamlessly, without interruption. You may even want to consider a generator if power failures are a common occurrence in your part of the world.

#8. Fire Drills

Practice and drill the team on the emergency procedures you’ve established. Rehearse the drill a few times a year, and get the failure-to-backup time as short as possible. Create some disaster scenarios, and see how the team recovers.

 #9. The Department of Redundancy Department

In major concert systems, there are typically backup or redundant systems running alongside, just in case. If something goes down in one, the other one takes over and the transition is so seamless the audience is unaware of any mishap. This is especially true when lights, sound, preset changes, and so on are synced to a controller by a computer. For any tour beyond the basics, you’ll find a second computer synced to the main one, and ready to switch over at a moment’s notice.

Of course, most churches don’t have the budgets of major productions. However, ensuring redundancy for the most crucial elements could help avert total failures or disasters. If your church is streaming or recording the audio, it’s wise to have multiple cameras, and a redundant device recording at the same time as you main devices, as well as alternative methods to distribute the content—just in case. What’s more, if nothing does go wrong and you have multiple cameras, then you have automatic B-roll if you’re recording the sermon. Redundancy is important, or stated another way, redundancy is important because of the importance of redundancy.

#10. Keep It Simple

Gear is tempting, but don’t use any more gear than is necessary. Unnecessary elements in the system can be confusing, and as they say, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Remove clutter. Try to keep the setup consistent from week to week. Simplify your workflow, because the fewer potential pain points you need to check in a failure, the faster you can resolve the situation—and that’s what being a pro is all about.

If you found this article helpful and are looking for more guidance and the latest gear, visit the Worship page at fullcompass.com or give their friendly and experienced staff a call at 800-356-5844.

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