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Knowing When You Need To Ask For Help

Blake Engel, All Church Sound

Recently I've spoken with many people who've told me of the sound system they put in their church. When I ask who did the design and installation work, they've been replying "oh, we did it all ourselves--we couldn't afford to hire anyone." After a little while they begin to tell of some of the problems they've got. "There are areas where you can't hear a thing and some spots it's so loud no one even sits there." "Yeah, we put in a mono cluster and then a left-right system for the music. It's funny though, there's a lot of comb filtering and it just sounds awful. We're planning on taking the whole thing apart and starting over." Or what about "We figured we could do the work ourselves to help save money. Some of the church members spent days at church soldering those pesky XLR connectors! Unfortunately, we've still got quite a few that just don't work at all, some that are intermittent, and some that pick up great hums, buzzes, and the occasional radio station."

Why do churches put themselves through these things? It’s as though it's better to save the money than have it done right! Now, don't get me wrong! This article isn't about self-promotion; it's about education and being humble. If you're not educated in something, you should be humble enough to admit it. Which is better--to spend the church's money on a company that knows how to do the job properly the first time, or on pieces of a system that are put in a jumble by the members of the congregation? There are plenty of knowledgeable men and women in every church. Plenty of them are familiar with electronics and possibly even sound reinforcement systems. These people should know their limits; they should know when to call it quits, they should know when it's time to call in someone who does this type of work for a living.

When the power goes out or the water gets turned off, do we all start climbing the electrical poles and digging holes in the ground? No, we wait (as patiently as humanly possible) for those people trained in such repairs to show up and do their work. When your air conditioner goes out and the repair person says you need a new compressor motor, do you argue with him? Do you say "well, we're going to wait and see if the system will work properly without it, thanks anyway."? Do you tell your car mechanic "oh, leave the dirty fuel filter in--I replaced it myself a year ago, I'm sure it's still fine (even though they just told you it isn't)"? No, we have the compressor motor replaced and we have the fuel filter changed. We admit we don't know anything about these disciplines and we let those that do know tell us what to do, and we follow their advice.

Then there's church sound reinforcement. We get a call that so-and-so's kids choir can't be heard and that the sound system just isn't working. We get to the church to find that the kids are standing in a straight line left to right on the platform, and there's one microphone on a stand 20 feet away. After explaining how the laws of physics don't allow for such an arrangement, the church then asks if we'd submit a proposal for "the right microphone and microphone stand that will do the job in this situation". No matter what's explained or demonstrated, the church is convinced there IS a way to make it work.

How about the church that has two speakers set up in a left-right configuration. The speakers are set on chairs at the front of the church. They complain that the people in the front pews get blasted by the loud volume, and the people in the back can't hear. The people in the middle say the volume is fine, but they can't understand half of what's said. We again explain the facts of physics and how having speakers in more than one location causes comb filtering and that of course people standing 5 feet in front of a speaker will complain that it's loud. The church says they understand all of these things; they say they understand why a cluster is better. However, when all is said and done, they add "oh, and our mixer isn't big enough, we'd really like to get a new mixer." After taking an hour to explain how their problems are speaker related, they decide the fix will cost too much, and so they want to buy a new mixer instead. "Hey, the car engine doesn't run, but boy did we get an awesome paint job done on the body!"

If you ever intend to fix your problems, you must do just that--fix the problems! Little upgrades here and there won't make the big problems go away.

So why do churches ask for advice, get it, and then not follow it? I don't know. It always hurts to see a church with bad sound problems after they've been told how to fix them. They still complain that it's bad, but they're unwilling to get it fixed. How many people are turned away because they can't hear? How many visitors walk out after their first visit and never return because the sound was so obviously awful?

In the secular community, sound contractors say a lot of their clients are churches. However, they also say that their worst clients are churches. Some churches are always looking for freebies, always expecting handouts. As a Christian business man, All Church Sound is part of my ministry. That doesn't mean it's free. Many pastors call their work their "ministry". This is fine--but many people think the word "ministry" means "free work". Pastors get paid for their work, don't they? In the same way, All Church Sound can be considered a ministry--a ministry that requires the financial support of it's clients to keep it running. We call that financial support our hourly rate. My time is precious. I would prefer to spend it in ways that benefit myself and my family and friends. I'd be happy to give freely of my time to help churches with their acoustical and sound system problems, but then I wouldn't have a place to live, food to eat, or a car to drive! One of my favorite quotes is "You get what you pay for". If you pay nothing, you get nothing. Another is "Anything free is worth what you pay for it." That is, if you pay nothing, it's worth nothing. It's easier to miss a free football game than it is to miss one that you paid $150 to see. It's easier to daydream and not listen to someone when you're not paying them to speak to you. As soon as they begin to charge you, you listen. This is true with every discipline. Information can be given for free or it can be charged for. Unfortunately free advice isn't worth much at all because people just don't value it.

Back to the original problem--How to know when you need to ask for help. Simple--if it's not your full time job or if you haven't been trained to do it, you need to let someone else do the work. Hiring someone to do the job will cost more up front than doing it yourself, but consider the cost of having to continually re-do it because it wasn't done right the first time. Some churches can financially afford to do that; most can't. For those that can--is this a wise way to handle your finances?

If you find yourself in a situation where you're not sure what to do, ask for help--hire a professional.