Pastors, choirs, musicians and guest speakers rely on a quality sound system to clearly carry and broadcast their messages during services and events. Technical skill is required to set up, maintain, and run church sound systems, as well as troubleshoot any glitches that might occur. Live sound environments like Sunday morning worship can present a multitude of challenges and issues that require a quick response.
So what happens when something goes wrong?
Fortunately, navigating challenges quickly and effectively is a skill that every sound tech can practice and learn. While it is true that troubleshooting (and avoiding) sound problems gets easier with more experience, there are several additional things that sound techs can do to quickly resolve issues, even if they are volunteers or at not overly experienced.
The Mental Map
Every sound tech and team member can benefit from a good overview and mental picture of how the sound system is configured to improve responsiveness. A “big picture” understanding helps piece together the physical components of the sound system in a logical order and segments the system into groups.
Learning and teaching this concept allows team members to quickly assess a problem and then go to the source of the issue. Every live sound system will have at least the following groups of components:
- Inputs (microphones & instruments)
- Mixing Console
- Processing (like main system EQ and Crossovers)
- Monitors (stage speakers or in-ear systems)
- Cables and Connectors
Some systems may have multiple categories included in the same piece of equipment, like a powered loudspeaker with built-in amplification or a mixing console with built-in processing for the main outputs. Regardless of the system, it is important to list out the equipment used and mentally arrange it so that it makes sense in terms of location, function, and importance.
It can be very helpful to draw a simple diagram or schematic of the sound system. Taking the time to do this one step can help the tech fix a lot of sound system problems very quickly anytime an issue comes up.
Action Item: List the main sound system components and draw a simple diagram to keep near the mixing console.
Go with the Flow
Once there is a mental map of your system infrastructure, it is important to understand how the signal is going from the inputs to the outputs. (This is why a schematic diagram can be helpful when troubleshooting.)
The basic signal flow of any sound system looks much like the list order above:
Inputs > Mixing Console > Processing > Amplification > Loudspeakers
There will likely be multiple inputs and outputs to manage, and the mixing console has its own signal flow to allow adjustment and routing of audio channels through the console.
Monitors for musicians and singers on stage are an added layer of the signal flow that is similar to the main loudspeakers, but they are mixed differently. It is important to understand how your particular mixing console routes signals to the monitors vs. the main outputs.
Digital mixing consoles can also have matrix routing or submix/group mixing options. Each console may handle this a little different, so be sure to read the manual and learn the way your specific console can route signals.
Action Item: Learn how the signal flow works for your particular console and make a mental map of what is happening as an audio channel travels through the mixing console. Make special note of monitor channels, routing, and effects processing in your mixing console. Are some channels using “pre” or “post” fader level sends? Are you using any groups or matrix sends?
Remember the Hardest Working Component
It is so easy to focus on the big and expensive pieces of equipment in the sound system and to forget about one of the smaller, yet most important parts – cables.
There are all sorts of cables involved in your sound system:
- Microphone cables
- Instrument cables
- Speaker cables
- Power cables
- Network cables
Each cable serves a specific purpose and has a particular connector type. Knowing the difference between the cables in the system and where they are used can help you troubleshoot a problem quickly and effectively.
Intermittent or “scratchy” sound quality often comes from loose or damaged connections on microphone cables. Buzzing can come from improperly grounded power cables or a broken shield on an input cable. And a lack of any signal often comes from a cable simply being unplugged (or plugged into the wrong spot).
Action item: Go through each stage cable in your system and test it for proper operation. Repair or replace any cables that are defective. Keep bad cables separate from good cables so that you can quickly grab a good cable when you need a replacement during soundcheck or mixing live.
The process involved in troubleshooting specific problems in a sound system may seem complex at first, but a solid understanding of how your system is configured and how each piece functions in the system will greatly improve your chances of fixing a problem.
- If you are a new sound tech, ask questions and take the time to get to know your sound system.
- If you are an experienced tech or team leader, invest the time in documenting your system and guide other team members through the infrastructure and signal flow used at your church.
Then, practice with your team to get better at setting up the system and responding to difficult situations.
Training Tip: A helpful group exercise is to have one team member create a problem on stage (like unplugging a mic cable or turning off a piece of gear) and allow the person mixing to go through the troubleshooting process until the solution is discovered.