Monday, December 12, 2011

Q & A: Audio Techs & Enclosed Booths For The Drummers

Hi Mathew, I enjoy reading your blogs. Very good commentaries and rebuttals on interesting topics. What is your opinion of church audio techs? As we all know, the skill level is a wide range of talent, depending on the church size, number of people performing, number of people who can actually run the sound booth, etc.

I am currently playing in a church situation where all the drums are mic’d and we have 2 overhead mics for the cymbals. The entire set up is enclosed in a plexi-glass cage so the techs can monitor the sound exactly. These audio guys make issue with the cage door being closed at all times, the mix has to be perfect – which usually means the drums are somewhat soft, etc. I get the feeling they think that just because there are drums in church, that automatically means the drums are too loud.

These audio guys want to be able to control every sound on stage. Yet I can walk into the nearest bar or other non-secular venue and find an excellent Blues band playing, the band is mic’d perfectly, yet one can sit 20 feet away and still be able to hold a conversation at normal speaking volume. The drums aren’t enclosed, the guitars all have amps, etc. No soundproofing on the walls. Yet it seems every church MUST have the drums enclosed, the guitars fed directly into the system, etc.

I must ask, in all of your experiences playing church venues, is this the norm? Or a better question may be what is the mindset of church audio techs? And I must be honest in telling you I’ve almost had a row over the drum sounds with one particular tech being too cocky / egotistical. We sorta have a difference of opinion in that area. And one problem I have with all audio people is that most of them are not musicians, trained or otherwise and can’t seem to grasp how a particular instrument works. Like drums and dampening and muffling the heads.

Thanks a bunch for your time and expertise!

David, thank you for your kind words. I have played in a dozen or so different churches over the course of my career and I have had similar experiences with the audio techs that you have had with a few of the previous churches I have played at. I don’t find it at all uncommon for there to be some tension between drummers and the audio techs. However, keep in mind that sometimes the audio techs are carrying out the policies dictated to them by the music director or the pastor and they may not be squelching out the drums on their own.

This is especially the case with enclosed sound booths. Designing and building this kind of booth requires a resource allocation and approval that would go far beyond the audio techs authority. The cost of an enclosed sound booth along with the micing system, plus whatever other ancillary sound equipment that would be needed, would be quite expensive. The people in the church who hold the purse strings would be the only ones who could approve that kind of purchase. In most of the independent denominational churches, it would be the pastor that would have that kind of purchasing authority.

I visited a church a while back where the set up is just as you described in your situation. The drummer is caged up inside a fully enclosed booth as if he was on display in some kind of freak show. I am surprised that they did not post a sign in front of the booth that says, “Please don’t feed the drummer.” I saw the crash cymbal move when the drummer hit it. However, I could not hear the sound of the actual crash itself. So I walked over to the sound booth and asked the tech if he could turn up the crash cymbal mics. He was not receptive to my request at all.

After the service, we got into a little argument and I asked him, “Tell me that you don’t see anything wrong with the drummer hitting the crash cymbal and not being able to hear the crash. Don’t you see anything wrong with that picture?” His only response was, ‘well I am just doing what I am told to do.”

Concerning the issue of drummers playing in enclosed booths, I don’t know exactly how common or widespread that is. If you watch Christian TV you will see that ever so often. I personally don’t like the concept of enclosed booths for drummer’s in a live audience setting. Now, if we are talking about a recording studio, that’s another matter altogether. The reasons I don’t care for enclosed booths for drummers are as follows:
1. The acoustics of the room you are playing can often times deliver pretty good mix of sound all on its own. The only time acoustical adjustments should be made is when you need to compensate for what the room lacks. For example, the church I am playing at now is an old church that was built back in the 30s. Playing in that room is like playing in a canyon. And of course, one of the ways we compensate for that is by having the drums behind a plexi-glass shied.
2. Enclosed drum booths potentially squelch out the coloring and texting that a drummer might do when he plays the soft songs in the latter half of the song set. By coloring and texturing I mean, the use of cymbal rolls and tinkle punctuations, chimes, rain stick or other devices and techniques that give a nice aesthetic ethereal sound that enhances the music and the mood of what’s going on at the time. The sound techs are usually more preoccupied with the overall mix of the vocals and rhythm section and they normally are not sensitive to coloring and texturing that the drummer or percussionist may be doing.
3. Enclosed booths are not generally percussionist friendly. If the drummer is in an enclosed booth then what do you do if you want to have a percussionist? Do you build a booth for him too? If the percussionist is not put in a booth, then that begs the question, why is the drummer in a booth and not the percussionist? If the percussionist is put in a booth, that would cost the church more money. A lot of praise bands view the percussionist as expendable and would rather not have a percussionist at all if they have an enclosed booth for the drummer. That way they won’t have to deal with that whole issue.

I played at a church where the leadership insisted on electronic drums for basically the same reasons other churches use enclosed booths for acoustic drums. I lasted about a year at that church before moving on. However, I had other issues with that church that figured in to my departure besides the edrums.

Like you, I too have experience playing with secular bands in secular venues where there was a good mix of sound with minimal intrusion by the audio tech. As a general rule, I have noticed that there are a lot of good business and technical practices used in the secular venues that seem to be ignored at the church level. I think it would behoove church praise bands to adopt some of these practices in their music programs. Some churches are better at adopting these practices than others. I think it depends and the background and experience of the music director and how involved the pastor is in the music program.

Of those pastors who are heavily involved with their praise bands in terms of dictating policy, I have noticed that the pastors who are also musicians tend to be more understanding of the needs of the band that those who are not. At the church I am playing at now, the pastor is not a musician and does not get involved in mirco managing the music program. He is smart enough to realize his limitations and he lets his music director run the show.

That is pretty much my perspective on audio techs and enclosed sound booths and I hope that it provided some insight.


  1. I know this is a "drummer" site so I should expect these type of comments but speaking from the "tech" side, in my opinion nobody gets exactly what they want. It is up to the Pastor or Worship leader. Every vocalist wants more of them in the monitors, the bass players think they should drive the low end and it's never loud enough unless they can FEEL it. The drummers have their take on how they should fit in the mix. Usually, if experienced enough, the guy running the board is best to make the mix fit given requirements. All will ask for more of something but the sound tech has to just reach for a knob and pretend things or changed or lower other volumes in monitors to let someone get the "more of me" effect. Everyone on stage has the thinking of just turn them up. That just leads to a mess. Who cares if the musicians can hear what they want if the house mix is junk. In a worship setting as opposed to secular, EVERY member of the team has to realize their role and what they are their to do. On drum shields/cages, many churches just require quiet stages to get the house mix right. That is what's important. It's great if the worship team is happy with their mixes but that is not the goal. Everyone has to give. You mention tech experiance well many times those playing instruments are fine when playing solo but have a lot to learn playing with a group. Many worship teams alternate players as well. Anyone can learn to play an instrument just like anyone can learn to run a board. Playing with dynamics is the challenge most are faced with...just like a sound tech has to develop ears along with just operating a board. Drummers are some of the worst and I just mean that in many have a hard time finding and staying in a pocket. The ones that do sound great. Some are just all over the place. Some leave no 16th note untouched. All this affects the house mix. The sound tech has a great responsibility to make it sound right every single time. I suggest in a worship setting, you find ways to work with your techs and not against them. Realize the one goal all must have. The sound tech is as much part of the worship team as the drummer or whatever. They should be respected just as any.

  2. Thank you for your input from a sound technician's perspective. I think all your points are spot on. I wished you would have identified yourself with your name and town.

    The bottom line is, how it all sounds out in the audience and not on the stage, and the sound man has the best vantange point for that. Good points. Thanks.


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  4. Drummers need to learn to play with dynamics...soft to loud. That's what i see in churches I have visited. No need of cages