Most of my readers will know that I used to be a worship leader in a Charismatic-style church; we’d have ‘open worship’ with, as well as the singing, things like tongues, prophecy and other spiritual gifts. There’d be singing ‘in the Spirit’ too, and it was all most uplifting.
My particular setup was that I had an electronic keyboard/piano: a Roland JV-30, which at the time, and despite having only five octaves (thus limiting my pitch range capability), was pretty much state of the art.
The JV-30 does not have its own internal loudspeakers; it requires external amplification. In this case, and since we were using a public hall for our meetings, the keyboard’s output was piped over to a sound desk at the back, manned by a couple of teenage non-musician lads that we nicknamed (unsurprisingly) the ‘Sound Boys’.
We also had other musicians: three vocalists – myself, Fiona and Cathy; Steve, our bass player; and sometimes an acoustic guitarist. I won’t give any names for the guitarists because there were quite a few of them and we never really knew who we were going to get from one week to the next. And in addition to the keyboard, each of these ‘inputs’ – the microphones for the vocalists, Steve’s bass guitar, and my keyboard, plus any guitarist(s) we had (playing into an electronic pickup clipped to the guitar’s sound hole), also went into the sound desk, each input with its own dedicated channel, to be
dominated controlled by the Sound Boys.
The relationship between the musicians and the Sound Boys was somewhat complex, and often pretty fraught*. I usually felt that the Sound Boys had the volume of the piano turned way too far down; this was long before we had any ‘foldback’ (a loudspeaker set up facing the instrumentalist so that they can hear what they are playing) so not only could I not really hear myself playing, but I also had to trust the Sound Boys that the congregation was able to hear what we were playing. They assured us that they could, but I was never fully convinced!
Sometimes they even used to mute my output channel completely, such as during the sermon, or if there were some prayers going on; or if for whatever reason they ‘thought’ (and that’s being generous) that the piano was not needed at that time. It was almost as if they didn’t trust me to handle my instrument correctly, and to not do a huge bloody great big ‘dead body in the bath’ chord in the middle of the notices.
And so it seemed that, despite our best efforts, all that we did as a band was subject to the power-crazed whims of the Sound Boys and their all-powerful sound desk. Whenever you lead public singing, you need to have quite a bit of, well, let’s call it ‘authority’, but I don’t mean it in a domineering kind of way; more a practical way. When you are leading 300-400 people in singing, you need to be heard, so that they can follow your lead. For example, sometimes the congregation’s timing goes a little off so you need to lead them back into time again. To do this, you’d boost your volume to emphasise the timing and allow people to hear what you are doing and to re-synchronise. Or maybe they have drifted off pitch (out of tune), but this is actually quite rare. The problem comes when you can’t lead the music properly because your sound volume is turned wayoooh-doooowwwwn and you don’t have the oomph; thanks a bunch, Sound Boys.
And so, I had to develop a little trick to let me lead properly and thwart the best efforts of the Sound Boys. I called it the ‘Sound Boys’ Yo-Yo’.
Here’s what you do.
Set the keyboard’s volume control to about 30-35%, and do all your sound checks from there. Begin the worship with the same volume setting; the Sound Boys will have set you at a moderate volume for the opening song, and hopefully they will boost you once the congregation join in and the general volume in the hall increases. So far, so good.
But let’s say that after a couple of verses, you realise that the congregation’s timing is drifting (possibly because of the low lead instrument volume – who’d ‘a thunk it?!), so it’s time to ‘assert your authority’ as lead musician and bring it all back together again for them. Your piano isn’t yet loud enough to re-establish the rhythm, so you’re going to need more volume; trouble is that the Sound Boys don’t realise this is what you need to do, and if you gently nudge your volume up, they will correspondingly gently nudge your channel volume down in response, and to show you who’s boss of course. So there’s no net effect on the volume and things get worse for the song being sung.
So, you don’t do it that gentle way. What you do is to whack your volume control slider up into afterburner – say about 90-100% setting…
…and this allows you to use that increased volume to stabilise the song’s rhythm or whatever it is that’s drifted. Before long, of course, the Sound Boys will have rumbled what you’re up to, and will have reacted to your gross misbehaviour by drastically racking your channel volume fader right back down again. By that time, though, they’re way too late and they’ve proper missed their boat; you have brought things back into line again, in musical terms, like you wanted to do. And that was easy. Just doing my job.
However, at this point, of course, the Sound Boys have solidly put you in your place; your channel volume is a long way down and your keyboard volume is maxed out, although nobody can tell because the net effect on your piano volume as heard by the congregation is unaffected, and no-one’s any the wiser apart from yourself and the Sound Boys, of course. So now you need somehow to recover that reserve power so that you can use it again, possibly soon. And this is the clever bit, and the part that gives the Yo-Yo its name.
While playing, and in a reverse of the actions that the Sound Boys would perform if you boosted your volume gradually, you reduce your keyboard volume equally gradually, say by about 10% per minute. Maybe you could do this after each verse of the song you are playing, especially if you’re varying your song’s dynamics, which disguises what you are doing very nicely. One hopes that the Sound Boys will notice that your volume is getting a bit low, so they will (ideally!) advance your channel volume bit by bit until they can hear you better.
You continue doing this until your keyboard volume slider is back at around 30-35% and then you can use your afterburner again as required. You have now restored your ‘volume reserve’ and it’s available for use once more. Lather, rinse and repeat.
And that’s the the Sound Boys’ Yo-Yo, so called because you move your volume slider up and down like a yo-yo.
Granted, if you are an instrumentalist in a similar position and you’re thinking about using this trick, remember that your Sound Boys might have read this too, and therefore they will be wise to what you’re up to, but there’s nothing they can really do about it if they want the congregation to hear the piano at all.
Or maybe you’re extremely lucky and have Sound Boys that actually listen to you and provide the service you need. In which case, I envy you.
But it’s still a useful trick to have in your repertoire!
*Sound Boys, if you should read this, don’t worry, I forgave you a long time ago, and this is just humour, ok? 😉