A soundcheck is a short moment when the audio engineer is in control. This means that we have just a few minutes to shine, put our best foot forward and get the bulk of our work done. Musicians tend to learn over time how to provide a good soundcheck. Speakers, like pastors and hosts are not so keen. This is no fault of theirs. Their gifts are communication, theology and leadership. It is not their responsibility to be concerned with audio and technology.
There are 44 phonetic sounds in the english language. We get these from consonants, multiple sounds from our vowels and then combining other letters creating unique sounds like “th” or “sh”. In a 25 minute sermon, you are likely to come across most if not all of these. Some sounds can create deep, swelling mids while others pierce through with multiple kinds of esses and t’s. Maintaining control of these sounds in various environments call for the right EQ, compression and other processing.
As sound engineers in church we have the challenge of making the speaking pastor have a clear, comfortable sound so that the gospel can be heard with little distraction. Often, the sound check for the speaking pastor happens in a short moment, maybe 30 seconds if your lucky. The pastor is also not worried about their microphone (or at least they shouldn’t be). They are focused on their sermon, people they may end up in conversation with between services or the tough counseling session they have coming up Monday morning.
Hopefully we have a good starting point, particularly with newer digital consoles. However weather, mobile A/V systems, pastors getting over a cold, and mic placement can sometimes make us clear everything out and start from scratch. I have been looking for a more efficient way to sound check each Sunday morning and I seem to have found the weakest link in our process.
This is a call to ban the phrase “Check, 1, 2.” I will also include “Is this mic on?” Stop it! No more, a complete cease and desist. These two phrases contain only 8 phonetical sounds each. It is not enough sounds and not enough time get the EQ right, much less the right compression. In order to serve our churches as best we can we must commit to fuller, richer sentences. Try this sentence that includes almost all 44 phonetic sounds:
“The beige hue on the waters of the loch impressed all, including the French queen, before she heard that symphony again, just as young Arthur wanted.”
We could require all of our speakers to memorize this sentence which may actually work, but it still does not provide enough time to dial in all of the necessary parameters. I often ask someone to tell a joke and then fake-laugh at themselves. Laughing tends to push the speaker to hit their peak volume and I can set the compressor at a decent level. Even if they think they won’t hit this volume, at some point in their sermon they will.
The most challenging phonetics are the esses and t’s. You’ll be dealing with anything from 3k-10k htz. Often you’ll have harmonics like 4k and 8k. Getting these just right is a challenge and can’t be addressed without the proper soundcheck. I prefer this excerpt from Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish:
“Who is this pet. Say, he is wet. You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.”
Now we are working with something! Maybe set these up on the screen or print them out to give the speaker something to read. An easier ask is to have them recite their favorite scripture or poem. One of our pastors has the Lewis Carol poem “Jabberwocky” memorized. It takes him roughly 3-4 minutes and I can get pretty much everything I need in that time. Get them excited as they may have not quite warmed up their voice like singers do. Ask them about their Saturday. How do they feel about their current favorite sports team or the book they are reading right now? But no political questions, please!
The pastor will know that you care and that they will be heard that day. It’s a well spent 5 minutes.