Broadcast Audio vs Auditorium Audio: Allocating Resources Wisely

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

Recently Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon, announced that going forward they were only going to stream the teaching portion of their services. I respect their decision. I believe every church should be intentional with their use of technology as a reflection of their unique mission. I think Bridgetown’s new approach may, and should, inspire other ministry leaders to re-examine their own approach to streaming, and consider how it aligns with their ministry goals. This may be the beginning of a trend. As we all know, there are lots of trends that come and go in church world. Wise leaders discern the difference between what is a trend and what is simply trendy. Like most people in my worship arts community, I believe streaming the entire worship service is a good thing for most modern churches.

Looks like a nice place, but how does it sound?

Your live stream in many ways is your new curb appeal, albeit digital. Every church I know invests substantial resources into the appearance of their property, going to great lengths to present attractive entrances, well-maintained landscaping, and clean, well-lit parking areas. Creating pleasant and inviting spaces has become an important part of church culture. Statistics show that potential guests will view your online presentation multiple times before attending a service in person. 

So, along with all the other benefits of presenting well-produced online content, your live stream is often the first impression of your church. And just like in-auditorium worship, the quality of your audio has a major impact on the experience. To expand on my real estate analogy, your church doesn’t need Augusta National Golf Club landscape standards to appeal to the community. A simple, intentionally-designed, well-maintained property will do the trick. The same principal applies to your online stream. 

As we all know, audio is a key component in any church. Establishing and maintaining a professional audio presentation takes resources, both financial and human. That was true before online streaming became commonplace. Most established churches added broadcast studios to their existing systems once streaming became ubiquitous. In new church buildings and renovations, broadcast studios are now the standard. But churches of all sizes are still struggling when it comes to producing good quality broadcast audio. I believe many of these churches could see substantial improvement with some guidance and reallocating existing resources. 

Financial Resources. Advice from an audio guy….really?

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume your average in-person weekly attendance is 1,000 people, and you’re averaging 100 online views per week. That’s 1,100 people total; 91% in the auditorium and 9% watching online.

Depending on your church, location, and other factors, this may be great, or this may be terrible. In either case, only you and your leadership can determine what constitutes a successful metric, and if your investment in time and treasure are worth the result. Assuming these ratios are disappointing; Is it worth investing additional resources in the 9%, especially if the 9% shows no sign of increasing? 

Of course there are many components to consider, but perhaps the quality of your content is also a contributing factor to the lack of viewer growth. The question to consider here is, do you apply resources to your apparent successes or your perceived failures? 

Let’s extrapolate this hypothetical scenario and inject it with an unexpected $100,000 budget increase for production. Would the money follow the current numbers; $91,000 invested in the auditorium and $9,000 invested in the stream? If so, presumably the in-auditorium congregants would certainly enjoy an improved experience, while the online experience barometer has barely moved. 

I’m not attempting to provide financial advice here. I’m simply demonstrating that allocating funding proportionate to existing conditions is probably not the answer. 

Human Resources. The most important resource.

The financial component has a major impact on your ability to connect with, and develop an online community. But your human resources (both staff and volunteer) are even more important, once you’ve committed to build an online presence. 

There’s a great church I’ve worked with for many years consisting of a large main campus and multiple smaller campuses. Like many churches, they generate their online stream from the main campus. A few years ago they built a well-equipped broadcast studio. Up until then, they had simply been sending a stereo feed (aka 2 bus mix) from their FOH (Front of House) mixing console. Over the years, leading up to the renovation, they had outgrown their existing FOH console. So they replaced the existing mixer with a new one, along with the new broadcast console. We set up their broadcast with the ability to revert to their old style, by routing a 2 bus mix from FOH as a back-up, in case a broadcast engineer was sick or unavailable, which is essentially standard practice in the AVL industry. 

Everything functioned perfectly, as designed. However, due to the location of the church, they struggled when it came to finding someone who could serve as a quality broadcast engineer. Necessity forced them to constantly improve their FOH 2 bus mix which served as the broadcast audio most of the time.

Ultimately, they abandoned the broadcast studio mix altogether, in favor of their superior FOH 2 bus mix. The broadcast console was removed and placed into service at their newest campus, saving the church tens of thousands of dollars. This is not a failure! This is an example of a financially responsible church, blessed with the wisdom to properly allocate financial and human resources. 

Training Resources

Not all churches have made similarly wise decisions. Many have all the equipment they need for both FOH and broadcast, but continue to struggle with producing quality audio for the online stream. 

In my experience, it’s more difficult to train inexperienced people for broadcast than for FOH. 

Mixing live in an auditorium is extremely forgiving. The excitement of the volume and power of a big system can mask a multitude of audio engineering sins. Small mistakes or miscues are gone in milliseconds. Any criticism can only be someone’s opinion of something that happened (past tense) and can never be re-played.

In broadcast, everything is more intimate, revealing, and subject to whoever has an opinion. 

The good news is; once a church service is streamed on YouTube you can go back and view it many times and scrutinize everything about it.

The bad news is; once a church service is streamed on YouTube you can go back and view it many times and scrutinize everything about it.

I’ve been asked if mixing broadcast is a good training ground for FOH. Using your broadcast console to train someone or having them practice on it, can be very effective simply because it’s a smaller, more controlled environment. But based on the good news/bad news statements above, I strongly recommend against assigning an inexperienced person to perform an actual broadcast mix. 

Lots of churches have successfully trained volunteers to mix FOH. A common scenario is having a staff level audio person set up the console for each week’s services and implementing some of the more complex processing as needed for that particular week. Then a volunteer actually mixes the service. Of course volunteers have varying skill levels. Some are quite advanced and go on to become paid contractors, while others are essentially just pushing faders. This method frees up the staff level audio person to oversee other venues or campuses or fill the role of broadcast engineer. 

On the subject of pushing faders: Don’t underestimate the power and creativity of simply “pushing faders”.  When I mix, I spend as much time in preparation as I can, using virtual soundcheck whenever possible, to set up all my dynamic processing, equalization, automation, effects etc. Most of the hard work is done in advance. So if you ever sit with me on a Sunday in broadcast or at FOH, it would appear all I’m doing is “pushing faders”.  If the prep work is done by a knowledgeable staff person or pro-contractor, a competent volunteer, especially one willing to learn, can develop into a solid FOH engineer. 

Professional Resources

In churches where the volunteer talent pool isn’t as deep for audio production, the staff level Technical Director very often becomes the de facto weekly FOH engineer. This could be the result of a lack of trust in the volunteers, and/or the fact that the Tech Director is the most qualified audio person on the team. Then, unfortunately a volunteer gets put in broadcast. Back to my real estate/landscaping analogy, you wouldn’t want a newly hired, rookie crew member on the grounds team to be in charge of your main entrance to the church. You’d start him off somewhere less prominent…like the student building out back…way out back.

For churches in any of the scenarios listed above, I highly recommend hiring an outside contractor who is specifically skilled in broadcast for a season. Over a period of multiple weeks, have your pro contractor do all the broadcast mixing while mentoring some designated future broadcast people. Then, over another few weeks, have them oversee your team members as they implement what they’ve learned. Once your team graduates, schedule regular check-up visits from your contractor, to make sure you’re maintaining standards and not falling into bad habits.

I worked with a church once that had a substantial budget allocated for new FOH and broadcast consoles. Rather than following the industry standard of purchasing 2 identical consoles, they bought a flagship model for FOH and a slightly lower tier console of the same manufacturer for broadcast. That left enough remaining budget to hire a contracted broadcast engineer for a year. 

In some cases, you’re simply better off not trying to do a separate broadcast mix. On a good system with a proficient, conscientious engineer, a 2 bus mix from FOH will sound better than a poorly executed full broadcast mix.

Lastly, sometimes it is better to stop, regroup and possibly re-equip than to continue releasing bad content. Don’t be afraid to pull back (even temporarily) and just stream the teaching portion of your services. 

Who knows, maybe you’ll start a trend.

I look forward to hearing how your church is rising to the challenge of creating great audio online. Until then, don’t forget to listen!

Feel free to contact me at rcochran@worshipfacility.com.

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