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When Audio Disasters Happen: Four Steps to Follow

June 1, 2017 jill Blog
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By Chris Huff

Disaster strikes and it’s usually during the service. In the early days, I panicked. Now, I use a four-step plan that serves me well. As a quick note, if you’ve never experienced a production problem, your time is coming!

1. Relax

Mental clarity is the No. 1 weapon in problem-solving during tense situations. And it doesn’t come from freaking out or trying to direct blame. It comes when you allow yourself that moment to take a breath and remember you’re a skilled audio tech and there is a logical solution to the problem.

Some situations, like feedback, can be dealt with so quickly that you jump from relax to execute because you already have a plan. You know it could be a gain problem or an EQ problem or, worse case scenario, the musician is holding the microphone directly in front of a monitor – like when they drop their arms to their side. The more contingency plans you have, the easier it is to relax and the faster the time to execute.

2. Look Around

What’s changed? Is a wireless transmitter no longer showing connection to the microphone? Did you accidentally mute a channel (been there, done that)? Is a channel no longer showing a signal coming through? Or, is it the opposite? Is a channel peaking and therefore you’re hearing clipping distortion?

Gather enough information from what you hear and see to make a plan. Don’t forget to look at the stage as there are plenty of indicators of what might be the problem, such as a singer holding a wired microphone without a cable running into it.

As a tip, follow the signal from console to stage to determine where the problem could be. If the house sound for all channels is having a problem, check out the amps and work backward from there.

3. Plan

It’s just like mixing; if you know a frequency cut needs to be made in the low end, you reach for the low end EQ to make the changes. That was a plan, albeit a short one. But if you grab the mid-range and start moving it around in hopes of making the channel sound better, that’s not a plan at all.

Let’s take a problem I experienced at Christmas. The pastor’s microphone started crackling whenever he’d turn his body just a little. I took a breath, checked the LED display for his channel and confirmed all other channels were muted. Then I checked the transmitter for a signal. The channel signal and receiver signal were both showing the same problem, a spiking signal every time it cracked, but I also noticed the receiver was losing connection with the wireless microphone. So I made a plan that should work with minimal impact to the service. That last point is important.

4. Execute

This is where uncertainty creeps in. What if the plan doesn’t work? What if it makes it worse? These are possibilities. However, the more you know your system, how everything works together, and the more you think through the plan, the higher degree of success you’ll have.

In my Christmas situation, I communicated to the stage manager they needed to take the back-up handheld out to the pastor and not to bother with the ear-worn microphone he had on. As the pastor grabbed the handheld mic, I muted his headset microphone and unmuted the backup. Also, in the moments after I conveyed the information to the stage manager, I set the backup microphone to have the same channel gain and EQ settings as the pastor’s channel.

What about those times when the first plan doesn’t work? Come up with a new plan and execute that one. You might not have 30 minutes to examine the system for a problem, but you’d be surprised at what you can do in less than 30 seconds, sometimes sooner. For those of us who have been doing this long enough, it could easily be under 5 seconds. Regardless, I know it feels like an eternity!

If All Else Fails

You always need a back-up plan. If the first two plans don’t work, the third option has to work. It’s likely not optimal, but it will be enough to get through a service. For example, a wireless problem occurs with a microphone so you try another wireless only to find the same problem occurs, so the person gets a wired microphone.

I’ve had a time when the best option was to do nothing until after the service because the distraction in fixing the problem would have had a far greater impact to the service. This is why it helps to have plans for when things fail, not if they fail.

The Good News

Being proactive by planning for problems will decrease the time from Relax to Execute and improve your success rate. A simple fix might only take 3 or 4 seconds from when you notice it until when you fix it. The more difficult problems will take longer. It’s also important to be pro-active not only with planning but doing things like testing cables every month.

The Next Step

List out the potential audio problems possible during your next service. Next, write out plans for dealing with each one. And list a second option for each. Create this list and you’ll be prepared for whatever problems are thrown at you. And that means you’ll be better and faster when you Relax, Look Around, Plan, and EXECUTE!

Chris Huff is the owner of Behind the Mixer, a resource for churches and their research into sound systems,

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