Gain structure- Gain is not volume

I asked a friend of mine who is a sales person at a local music store what missteps he sees church techs make the most.  He has worked with a number of churches both big and small.  Churches come from all over the area to his store with the hopes of having a better weekend experience.  The sound, video, and lighting, play such a huge part in creating an atmosphere.  How can the questions my friend gets, help us create a better atmosphere?  Let’s get plugged into leadership and help answer those common questions that are holding us back and we do not even know it.

I was in my first job as an Audio Visual director at a church for about 1 month when I met Bob(not his real name).   Bob served on the sound team as a volunteer long before I came on staff.  Bob was a real old school kind of guy.  I learned a lot from Bob!  I was new, just out of school, and just off tour.  I thought I knew everything, and I thought my way was best!  I was the hired expert, wasn’t I?  Despite my pour attitude and my complete misunderstanding of what true leadership was I was able to learn from him.  One of the ways I learned things was watching people who knew more than I did.  One thing that Bob did helped me learn what not to do.

Bob ran once a month for a 12 person vocal group that led worship at our more traditional service.  I didn’t care for their style, but boy were they good.  Watching Bob mix was fun at times.  But one thing that he did always confused me was Bob would place all of the faders at unity or at U on the fader strip.  Then he would adjust the gain knob or the head amp at the top of the board.  This is how he mixed or balanced the vocal group.  It worked to get a good blend, but it is a misuse of gain.

“Setting gain structure involves optimising the various audio circuits in a system to provide the best signal-to-noise ratio while preventing clipping in the signal chain. Poor signal-to-noise is characterised by hiss and noise that is audible to the congregation. Clipping causes distortion and even equipment damage – it can shorten the life of your gear considerably. Both problems reduce intelligibility and that is the greatest problem of all. The purpose of a sound system in a house of worship, regardless of the denomination, is to carry a very important message to those in attendance. Vocal intelligibility is key for this to occur.”  –Pro Audio Central 

This is a really great description of gain structure.  Think of it like the water pressure coming into your house.  If you go to take a shower and you have low water pressure, it doesn’t matter how much you turn the knobs it will just trickle out.  Adjusting the gain is like having the right water pressure.  If there is too much pressure coming into the house, you could blow a pipe or get a major bruse or something.

As sound techs we want to make sure that we have good gain structure.  How do we get the ever illusive “good gain”?  This is a great question and the answer starts with the understanding that it is a team effort.

A great sound check is the first step. I have sound checked 1000s of instruments in my lifetime.  The most important thing is getting an honest or true sound from the person. This takes good people skills. You have to quickly cast the vision as why you need an honest sound from them. Often times there is a little passive aggressive game that goes on between musicians and sound techs.  You know it well. The one where you ask them to play or sing and they give you an emotionless, non-performance like type of thing.  Avoid this, by leading the musicians well, and coach them on what you need.

While they are making sound you should be setting the gain.  This is typically the first knob on the board.  Look from something that says, trim, gain, HA, Preamp or refer to the manual to locate it.  If you have never worked with the musician before I would set the gain a little lower.  Find the pre fader listening(PFL) sometimes label Cue.  This will let you see the gain on main meters on the board.  Adjust the gain up or down so the signal lights up the lights or moves the pin so it is somewhere below the 0 mark.  I tend to shoot for -12 to -18.  You will find that during the real set, that the gain they produce will be a little higher.

Reading this article is the first step in mastering gain.  Don’t stop here.  Continue reading, watching, and asking others to help you along the way.  You will be an amazing sound tech if you continue a learning attitude, and continue to develop your leadership.

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