This article was originally published in Church Production Magazine.
I have the distinction of being that freak who has crossed over multiple boundaries. I spent my time as a road dog, hired gun tech. I spent time as a studio grunt, later as a small studio owner. I spent time in the design and installation of sound systems. I also spent my time as a church tech, and later as the staff media director. I was the one who was responsible for all of it. The crew, the gear, the maintenance…all of it.
So, yes, I understand. I have been the clown on both sides of the church installations.
There’s nothing like that emotional event, as a church tech, when we begin the “upgrade” process. It might define mixed blessing like nothing else. We have the opportunity to fix all the things we hate about our current system. We can take all those demon possessed items into the parking lot and vent our frustrations on them. We can bless someone else with our old problems. We joyfully work out a wish list of all the things we need. We fantasize about sunshine and rainbows as we imagine a system with no gremlins living inside. Euphoric. Delusional, but euphoric.
When I was doing the sales/design/installation side of this, I was constantly amazed how people made decisions for an upgrade. I watched people borrow money, without even doing their research to know what they needed. They spent money on things that were new, but wouldn’t actually solve any problems for them. They treated a major gear purchase like they had won a five minute rampage in a toy store. Grab everything you can, quick, we will figure it out later!
For the unethical sales folks, this is a dream come true. For the guy who is trying to help, it can be a nightmare. Most pastors and decision makers don’t even know what to ask. They know they need something, but don’t know what. It’s even worse if they are the control freak type. That pastor who has to make the final decision on everything. The guy who doesn’t take advice well. Yes. I have met him.
The key to any upgrade, is in asking the right questions. Get the whole crew involved. Get input from the people on both ends of that mic cable. Upgrades are about solving problems. If you don’t identify the problems, how can you fix them? You also need a clear picture of what you want this system to do for you. If you don’t sort those two things out, you have almost no chance of doing this right.
And, like I constantly told churches who were beginning this process….
Do it right the first time. I have never seen a church do two major upgrades the same year. Whatever goes in had better be right, or you will have to suffer with it for a while.
Here’s a few things you will need to consider, in no real order of significance.
Number one. Get qualified advice.
If the guy giving all the advice, is the same guy making the commission, get a second opinion. Not calling all sales people crooks. But, most music store sales staff will receive bonuses for steering you towards specific gear. Maybe not the stuff you need, just the stuff that benefits them more. Not always, but often enough to consider it.
Don’t be afraid to pay the best tech in your area to do a full evaluation of your existing system and room. I honestly met plenty of people who would pay for gear they didn’t need, but not an hour of my time. They would pay for something tangible and useless, but not qualified advice. Don’t be that guy. Make good decisions from the beginning.
Number two. Look at the product brands.
In the production world, the phrase “you get what you pay for” is pretty much the story. There’s a reason that you can buy Chinese knock-offs for a fraction of the cost. There’s a reason that those respected and trusted components cost more. Remember this line, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” No joke. If something in our world is a best seller, it’s because people trust It. If you want disposable stuff, just go with the cheapest price tag. If you want something dependable, read reviews and ask questions.
Number three. Check the specs.
Bigger is not always better. Higher power is not always what you need. You want quality gear that performs well in your room. Can your spoken words be understood at every seat? Is every seat receiving fairly even sound levels? The right speakers, in the right position will make all the difference in the world. The right mixer has all features you need. The same logic works for the rest of this new gear. Make sure you know what you need and buy that. Get the right tools for the job.
Number four. Consider your operators.
Who is running this thing? What are the chances that random kids from the youth group are going to mix on it? How well trained is your crew? Are these strictly volunteers? Are these complex services and productions?
Your system needs to be user friendly, at least to the level of your operators. Don’t drop a digital mixer, or a ton of new technology, on untrained volunteers. Unless you plan for some legitimate training, keep it simple. Buy suitable gear for your room and crew. If they are a team of hardcore engineers, who read manuals and speak in tech code, sure… They would probably love the challenge. The probably need that awesome digital board. Buy what you need.
Number five. Look at how it looks.
Yes, this is an issue. I figured out, pretty quick, that every visible part of a system needs to be considered. Seriously. We had major changes on a few jobs, because the pastor’s wife hated the way something looked. Nothing like a last minute change because she had imagined white speakers, or a completely different setup. Be conscious of how all this technology looks in the room. I have had to retrofit some historical buildings with sound. The acoustics were a challenge. Making the system fit the look of the room was almost impossible. Just keep the final appearance in mind. Don’t guess about it. Know what this will look like when it’s done.
Number six. Balance your budget.
This is always an issue. I know. But, there are ways around it. You just need to know a few things. What is the highest priority? What absolutely has to be replaced? What is working fine now? What can we keep? What essential items can we buy as a foundation and add to later? Can we make repairs instead of replacing everything?
You can always add more microphones, spare cables and direct boxes as you need them. Things like snakes and stage boxes might be your highest priority. You need solid wiring and connections. The individual components might be ok to replace one piece at a time. Mixers, amps and speakers can often be replaced in stages. You don’t always have to eat the whole elephant at once.
One amazing experience I had, involved a small church on a tight budget. The pastor had gotten a $10,000 quote to replace his system. They told him that the whole system was trashed. He decided to hire me to do some repairs until they could raise the money. I went through his rig and made some repairs and a few adjustments. It tuned out he only needed a new crossover and a little wiring work. He ended up spending a few hundred dollars and the system sounded great. He was very thankful. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen without asking questions and bringing in outside help. His crew had done all they could. They were out of ideas. That decision saved them almost $10,000.00. Well worth it.
Another thing to consider is Number seven… Consider your integrity.
If you are getting several quotes, tell the tech that. If you want to have your own crew install everything, it’s ok to mention that, too, I watched several churches burn bridges with good techs who tried to help them. It doesn’t sit well when you call them back to service something they designed, but didn’t make a dime from. Don’t steal their plans. Have some integrity. That relationship is probably worth more than the few dollars you will save. Just because you can get it cheaper online doesn’t make it the best idea. There’s a lot of value in having a strong relationship with a local tech. The guys online aren’t going to come save you on a Sunday morning.
You have to keep in mind the fact that these are people. Churches grow by bringing in new people. That tech who is willing to go the extra mile for you. The one who spent all that time on your project, they might need a good church. They might be techs, but they are still people. If you treat them right, your upgrade might include bringing in new families and volunteers. That might be the best part of the deal.