This article initially appeared in a Ministry Tech magazine issue available here: http://web.ministrytech.com/issue-february-2017/
About 12 years ago I said “Why not?” to a Musicians Friend home recording starter kit. I had never even so much as sat behind the sound board in our church, but I foolishly thought, “how hard could it be?” 3 months and many sleepless nights later, our youth group band had a (bad sounding) EP and I had unintentionally begun the best music education journey of my life. Here’s three game changing shifts that happened through getting our team into recording.
It helped me embrace objectivity as a gateway to growth. In other words, through the painful, unbiased honesty of playback, I discovered my weaknesses. I was going flat on every high note I sang. I was strumming the guitar like I was trying to chop down a tree. Once I got over the initial “that doesn’t sound like me at all!” syndrome, I decided that instead of delving deeper into the digital tools that could somewhat mask my inadequacies, I was instead going to do whatever it took to actually make these issues get better. It’s been a long journey; you don’t become a better player or singer over night, but the truth of playback has been my greatest teacher in the process.
It helped facilitate conversations with the team. Almost everywhere I’ve been to work on a sound system or do a team training, there are elephant-in-the-room conversations that have been being avoided for so long they’ve become part of the team dynamic, like a who-got-murdered-here carpet stain that you stop noticing even though it’s never become less nasty.
“Our guitar player always leaves his fuzz, flange, and wah on for every song; no one likes it, but he’s the best we’ve got.”
“She is rarely on pitch during high parts, but we don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“Our sound guy mixes the vocals way too hot and the band way too low, but (unfortunately I’ve encountered this more than once) he owns the sound system.”
Within the next few years I’m sure Siri will be able to have these awkward conversations for us, but until then, what’s often needed most is a way to introduce objectivity into these situations. So many of the leaders I’ve met don’t want to end up in what would seem like a battle of preference, so…enter the always honest, never biased recording.
I don’t want to oversell this, it’s not magic. However something different, some kind of left brain/ right brain thing that I’m not smart enough to understand does happen when we’re listening rather than playing. After all, most of us can attend a live performance and agree on what’s good or not. It gets muddled when we’re the ones doing the playing.
In relaxed (usually one on one) contexts I’ve been able to have breakthrough conversations with team members by listening to our recordings.
Usually we would start with “let’s listen to this section that is really awesome. Hear how you and the other guitar player are really locked in and how great that is?” (listening to the kick drum and guitar tracks solo’d). Then once we’ve highlighted a strength or two, we listen to a section that’s needs some work and offer some practical tips on how to grow. When bad tone is the issue, I’ve found that the 45 seconds of isolated tracks you can listen to for free on multitracks.com is a fantastic education for the ear about what sounds work well together in the modern worship context.
I don’t think I’ve ever had someone get upset at me for challenging them in this type of environment (group contexts are another story). It seems that most folks I’ve worked with really do have a desire to grow to be their best, but are lacking clarity about how to move out of the rut they are in. And, (referencing point number 1), a great way to lighten the tension of sitting with someone listening to their mistakes is to point out some of your own. I’ve never had a hard time finding some.
The longer we practiced this discipline as a team, the more our conversations became collaborative.
The drummer and bass player would listen back and discuss improvements to the rhythm section. The electric player and the sound person would listen back and discuss tones. When we introduced original songs, we had a way of documenting different arrangement ideas before we settled on one. As we moved into having multiple leaders at weekend services, I was able to steal great ideas from the other teams! The team began owning the things they were playing in a different way; it inspired new levels of creativity and renewed desires for excellence.
It’s encouraging. When you play back something that you were a part of and it’s awesome, that’s supposed to feel really good. I’m no great theologian, but I’m pretty sure it was God who gave us the ears and the inspiration and designed us, spirit and body, to delight in this stuff. You put all this work in, you should enjoy it.
As much as the recording process will reveal that which is frustrating and highlight room for growth, it will capture moments that will remind you why you’re so darn passionate about this thing to begin with. They become markers of that season of life. Some of my favorite records are ones we made with dear friends who are with Jesus now, and they are gold to me. I even love the heck out of that kinda lame sounding EP I made with my friends in the youth group band.