- A candid discussion with the lead audio engineer for Chris Tomlin & Passion City Church
This past August, Chris Tomlin brought his vision of a powerful night of worship and prayer to three cities across America. For these events, several of today’s most gifted worship leaders and teachers shared the stage to lead tens of thousands in lifting the nation in prayer and worship.
With a high-profile list of worship leaders, musicians, and speakers, Tomlin needed to make sure he had an equivalent team of technical professionals off-stage – more specifically running the audio systems for the events. The vision of “Worship Night in America” had to translate from the leaders on stage to the audience in a way that would move the audience from just attending an arena-size concert to enter in to a deep and intimate worship experience.
He did not have to look far, as Tomlin knew that he could rely on his long-time audio engineer to manage the mix. Meet Jeff Sandstrom, who has worked with Tomlin for over eight years as his FOH (Front of House) audio engineer for his concert tours and Passion Conferences. In addition, Jeff has served at Passion City Church (Atlanta, GA), and mentored hundreds of sound techs through his ongoing involvement at training and leadership events.
The relationship between Chris and Jeff, as worship leader and sound tech, exemplifies the partnership that can exist between the creative leadership on stage and the typically tech-centric team sitting behind the sound board in the congregation. In this article, Jeff shares some of his insight for building and strengthening this relationship for worship teams in today’s contemporary church.
“Chris has done a great job making me feel like a sixth member of the band,” says Jeff, while taking a break before the worship night in Sacramento. “In the same way that the band is leading worship from guitars and keys and bass and drums on stage, my instrument is the sound board, and I take that responsibility very seriously – to lead worship from where I am in the room.”
However, Jeff explains that using his technical skills is secondary to the importance of working toward a common goal at each service as a whole team. “It’s important for everyone who is involved in worship, from the senior pastor to the worship leader to the techs, to have the same ‘bulls eye’ on the target, that is what it means to have a ‘win’ for the day. The senior pastor and worship leader may be discussing and praying for this throughout the week, and it’s extremely helpful for the worship leader to share this goal with the entire team (band and techs) as we prepare each week. This way, we all have a common thing to work on, as well as to evaluate for effectiveness following each service or event.”
Jeff understands that his role in achieving that goal works directly alongside the team on stage. “Chris knows that what the band and leaders are doing on stage needs to be communicated to the congregation using our instruments – in my case the audio technology – so he sees my role as facilitating what they’re trying to do as a band. And Chris has done a great job in setting the bar for my role as a worship leader – so I may not have the microphone, but he sees what I’m doing as helping to lead worship.”
Sharing this common goal, or vision, has been a significant part of building the camaraderie between Jeff and Chris and the entire worship team, and Jeff encourages churches of any size to also consider this approach. “I would challenge the worship leader to establish a vision for the whole team, not just the musicians on stage, that lets the team know that we’re all in this together.
“I think this starts at the very top—for the senior pastor or executive pastor to set the tone for what the culture of worship in our church is going to look like, and not just see the music as a prelude to the Sunday message. Let’s be bold and decide why are we doing these songs, why are we doing music in the first place, and let’s be strategic in the vision for that, so that the leadership is able to say to the whole team, ‘This is why this matters. We’re going to set the bar high because this is an opportunity for people to open their hearts to what God has for them in a way that nothing but music can do, and so we need to partner together to facilitate that experience for our people.’ And, of course, to then communicate that vision on down through the worship leader and production team, whether paid staff or volunteers, so that we all strive toward this same goal together.”
Understanding the vision, and the role the audio tech has in facilitating worship from the stage to the seats, is just the first step in building the relationship. Jeff explains, “Another thing I would say that helps is to have a sound team that is really prepared, because there’s nothing worse than the band walking in to see the sound team scrambling to get ready. And this is especially true for small and medium churches that don’t have full-time staff.
“In order for the sound team to be prepared, the worship leader needs to communicate in advance – not only the musicians and instrument requirements, but also the set list, keys, and ideally song recordings. And don’t forget about any notes for planned changes, for example ‘we’ll sing two verses instead of three,’ or, ‘we’ll extend the chorus at this point.’
“With this preparation, the sound guys can be ready so that when the band walks in, we’ve got everything plugged in, we’ve already line-checked, and we can actually spend a few minutes in a conversation: ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s your week? How’s your family?’ This is an extremely important time before getting wrapped up in the rehearsal so that we can spend a few minutes to build some of that relational capital. That way, when they plug in their guitar and they’re sound checking and something goes wrong, and we need some time to troubleshoot, at least there’s enough of a relationship to say, ‘Hey, let’s figure this out together’ – instead of the ‘it’s us-vs-them’ kind of confrontational relationship that could happen between the audio team and the band. Instead of being territorial and combative, it has to be a partnership.”
Solvent to Problems
Jeff emphasizes that as the relationship grows between worship leader and sound tech, that the minutes spent in healthy communication make things go far smoother when technical problems arise. “Too many times the sound guys come off as being rather opinionated, and we need to get to the point where there’s willingness on both sides to listen to each other. We do this by slowly building the relationship outside of the ‘heat of the moment.’ It’s important to know what each other is going through – I encourage church techs to find out something going on in your worship leader’s life that you can pray with them about, and let’s raise the bar to not just be there to follow a cue sheet but to also be a team that experiences deep community and relationship together.”
As a bridge based on relationship is built between the stage and the sound booth, the team can more easily begin to work together on hitting the “bullseye” for the service. Jeff shares that some areas where the sound tech can assist is in this is to use tools such as “virtual soundcheck” and wireless technology with the band, as he does with Chris Tomlin and his band.
“Virtual soundcheck is one of the greatest tools for any sized church to be able to record channel for channel and have the whole band come out and listen to the mix in the sanctuary. This capability has been really useful for Chris and the band as they start working on songs and arrangements.”
Jeff explains that without this capability, it’s hard for many church worship bands to realize what the sound tech may be dealing with in the mix. “You don’t have that experience at your fingertips unless it’s recorded, and I think that too many church bands think that they’ve done a good job because they all play the right chords at the right times. And so you’ve got this piano player who’s doing so much with his left hand, taking up the space so that the bass guitar player gets lost because it’s all washed out. Or this guitar player fighting for space with the right hand of the piano because they’re in the same frequency spectrum, and it’s hard to get any clarity. And then you put a vocal on top in that same frequency range, and you quickly have a sort of mishmash of notes and sounds that, as a mixer, you don’t know who needs to win.”
Helping the Band Hear
In contrast, Jeff explains how Chris and his band utilize the virtual soundcheck technology. “The thing that makes the synergy and cohesiveness so effective in Chris’ worship set is that the band is really good at listening to each other and figuring out how to keep out of each other’s way. The guys are really intentional about arrangements, parts, and working out ways to stay out of each other’s way both sonically and musically. Using virtual soundcheck, we can record everything, the guys can come out and listen, and quickly start thinking I need to simplify this part or I need to take the lead here, or even open up discussions as to how to best arrange certain parts of the song.”
Another technology that Jeff recommends for worship leaders is using a wireless transmitter for the guitar. “Our electric and acoustic guitars are wireless, so Chris or other worship leaders can come out off the stage and hear how it sounds. We can talk about the mix, and what we’re hearing, so that we again work together toward the final product.”
Through the relationship that Jeff and Chris have developed, and using his skills behind the sound board, Jeff can easily talk with the band and let them know during rehearsal if things are not working out or sounding the right way. “It’s important for the worship leader to have a person out front that they can rely on that has a thoughtful opinion and contributes to help everyone toward the goal.”
Jeff also encourages worship leaders, sound techs, and the band to improve consistency by using shared instrument configurations and mix workflows for their church. “Issues can easily arise, especially for small and medium churches, if gear isn’t consistent from week to week,” explains Jeff. “It may be that a guitar player insists on using a boutique, esoteric amp that sounds great for a Friday night gig or jazz band, but for the church the best thing may be to have an amp that everyone uses, that’s in an iso cabinet and always plugged in with proper mic placement. It goes back to setting the bullseye on the target for everybody, and you leave your ego at the door and come play our house stuff because that’s what works best for our room.”
“I’ve seen many churches quickly realize the benefits by establishing a house drum kit and keeping it tuned consistently and mic’d the same way as appropriate for the room and PA. It can really help, especially if you have volunteers who are rotating through mixing each week, when they don’t have to work as hard to get a good starting point, as gain, EQ and dynamics settings can remain fairly close, even when different drummers play the kit.”
Change Is Inevitable
Jeff is quick to point out though, that recalling the mix from last week (or even from the mid-week rehearsal) on the console may not always deliver the best results. “The worship leader and sound tech need to understand that many things can change from week to week – a singer’s voice may be recovering from a cold, or a different guitar may be used. Having a starting point, specifically a channel strip that’s saved for a particular vocalist or guitar player, is a good feature, but don’t let it become a crutch. Assuming that the saved template is always going to work is dangerous, especially if it has been periodically overwritten. Instead, have a baseline to work from – call it the standard Sunday morning patch – and use a copy to build the mix each week using the presets to help get started.”
It is also important to create a common workflow for the sound board. “Establish a consistent layout for the sound board, input list, patch sheet, sub-snakes, et cetera,” says Jeff. “Use a common label and color coding scheme, and patch things the same way, so that it is easier to prepare for changes that come up. In fact, leave some holes, or empty channels, in the ‘standard’ layout, to accommodate any surprises. For example, this week might be the standard setup, but what if next week an extra acoustic guitar or other special instrument is used? Maybe they don’t get used each week, but the consistency is there so that if one week a song uses a mandolin, there is already an extra strip by the guitar section with a place to patch it, plug it in quickly and get it going without the stress of re-patching the standard layout.”
Jeff continues his mixing duties with Chris Tomlin this fall and winter on the “Love Ran Red” tour and the just announced “Adore” Christmas tour.
About the author: Greg Kopchinski is a freelance audio engineer who works with several churches and production companies in Northern California.