This article originally appeared in Technologies for Worship Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
We teach sound training classes in churches all across America. It’s relatively easy to teach someone how to use equipment, it’s more difficult to teach him or her how to critically listen to what they are doing and musically create a good mix.
The key to a good sound mix is a good relationship with the worship leader and the band. It’s that simple. Successfully mixing sound on a fundamental level is all about trust. The only way you build trust is through relationships and repeated successful experiences. It’s easy for technically focused people to miss this (or in some cases, avoid this), but it’s a critical part of being successful.
Let me elaborate with one specific example – guitar amplifiers on stage. Almost every contemporary church struggles with stage volume. It’s a known and proven fact – if the stage volume is too loud, the main front of house mix will suffer. So, churches are always trying to solve this problem.
The problem is solved with relationships. In this example of guitars, once the sound engineer takes the time to get to know the guitar player(s) and spend time learning why the amplifier is so important, the two begin to develop a trust. You see, a guitarist usually wants the amplifier onstage because it’s a comfort. The artist KNOWS they can control the sound – tonality and volume – if the amplifier is right behind them. This is a trust issue between them and the sound engineer.
As the sound engineer and guitarist start to form a relationship, trust beings to form. The sound engineer starts to know the artist, but through this process, the sound engineer should also be trying to learn more about the artist in relation to playing the instrument. For instance, try asking, “What do you want the instrument to sound like?” You see, it’s not real important what YOU want it to sound like. It’s important that you make it sound like THEY want it to sound like. You can’t do this if you don’t ask (and really care). Remember, being a worship technician is truly about service. You’re providing a service ministry for the pastor, worship pastor and band.
As these relationships forge, the sound starts to mold into what the artist expects. The engineer starts to deliver a consistent mix in the house and in the monitors. The two begin to talk about it more. The two have lunch together. The two start to know each other’s families. And over time, you know what? The amplifier comes off stage because the two have a trust. There are other solutions found (such as isolation cabinets) and the problem is resolved. But note – it’s resolved first relationally and THEN technically.
In keeping with the relationship theme, the very first thing you should be doing as a sound engineer is discussing the sound with your worship pastor. Find out what they want it to sound like overall. Just like you ask the musician what they’d like the instrument to sound like, you ask the worship pastor what the overall mix should sound like. What’s important to them? For instance, a good starting point should be, “what is the primary instrument that drives worship”. If the answer is guitar, then the guitar should sit pretty high in your mix. It should be the primary instrument. This is critical.
LAYERING THE MIX
While there are many different philosophies on mixing live sound, I believe that mixing sound for Worship is very specific. Mixing live worship is about connecting with the congregation. The primary objective is to create a transparent environment in which people can freely worship. It’s very different than mixing a CD recording or even, in many cases, mixing a concert.
If people can’t hear (and clearly understand) the words that are being sung, they are not going to participate. So, it’s important that the worship leader (which might potentially change from song to song – or even verse to verse) be at the top of the mix. The vocal needs to stand out just a bit and have good presence and clarity to it. Now, don’t read into this – I’m not saying to overkill the lead vocal and slam it through the back windows. It needs to sit nicely on top of the mix with a comfortable volume level where people can easily hear and engage with it.
Next in the mix should be the primary instrument that’s driving worship. Usually this is fairly stable, but in some cases it could change from song to song. Typical lead instruments would be piano (or keyboard), guitar and drums. Whatever your worship leader chooses to be the lead instrument should sit just a little higher in the mix than the rest of the instruments. Again – I’m not talking about a drum solo – just a little higher in the mix than everything else. Actually, if you weren’t critically listening you wouldn’t even notice this instrument is louder than the rest of the band. It’s a very subtle finesse.
Next in your mix should be the praise and worship team (or choir). The vocals should be well blended, properly equalized and intelligible. After all, if people can’t physically understand the words that are being sung they are not going to participate and all your effort is for not.
Finally, the rest of the band should settle in a well-mixed arrangement under the praise and worship vocals.
With this arrangement, your worship leader stands out vocally so the congregation can connect and get audible cues for singing. The primary instrument is driving the sound, the praise and worship team are providing good background vocals that help people find the melody to sing and the worship band is coming though with a full mix supporting the entire mix.
Remember subtle is king here. Once you get the worship leaders vocal to the top of the mix, the other elements are blended pretty close. The primary instrument should be just a small touch above the rest of the band and the background vocals just barely riding over the main band mix. If done correctly, it sounds like a good overall mix – not several groups in different volume zones. What you are really trying to accomplish is pushing the vocals in the mix so people can easily engage and letting the one instrument drive the mix to build that cornerstone but not to the point that all people hear is the one instrument. So, take a minute and absorb this theory before you just start mixing .
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Many times church audio technicians get complaints that the mix is too loud. You have to realize that people don’t communicate well what they are hearing. For instance, a soloist (who is musically talented) says they need more piano in the monitor – but in reality, they need less lead guitar so they can hear the piano that’s already in the mix. The same thing applies to people in the church. Often times when people (who often ar not musically talented) complain about volume they are complaining about a specific volume. It could be an offending frequency or a particular vocal or instrument that’s annoying them in the mix. The general complaint is, “it’s too loud” – but the true source of the problem might be a frequency that’s hitting the eardrum repeatedly or one specific element that’s standing out.
Step back, be objective and try to hear the problem. Don’t just reactively grab the master and pull it down. Remember your relationships and be true to them. Your job as audio engineer is to serve the pastor, worship pastor and praise and worship team – in that order. Of course, by doing this, you are serving God, which is the whole point.
Another good practice is to scan the body language of the congregation. If people are leaning forward, odds are they can’t easily here. If they have a scrunched brow, chances are they can’t understand the words. If they appear disconnected, it’s a good clue that your mix isn’t transparent and people aren’t being swept into the throne room. If people are removing their hearing aides, you might be a touch too loud. The ways people react in worship are good clues to the quality of your mix. Use them to your advantage.
CONTROLLING ROOM ENERGY
Remember that you have to mix to the loudest acoustic element in the room. Being the sound engineer is far more than sitting behind the board and tweaking knobs all morning long.
For instance, if your primary instrument is the lead guitar, but you have an acoustic drum set that’s blasting 90db, the guitar now has to get over that acoustic volume. As a sound engineer, you need to dampen the acoustic energy of the drum. This might mean a Plexiglas shield or a full drum enclosure (always my vote).
Likewise, if you have a overly loud trumpet player you might need to suggest they use a mute or place acoustic material in front of them for them to play into.
Your technical job as a sound engineer is ultimately to control the acoustical energy in the room and blend with it the needed amplified energy to create a good mix. You accomplish this by your stage setup as well as your mixing skills behind the console. The two go hand in hand.
You must be proactive in your stage setup, instrument positioning and microphone choice and placement. You must run a good sound check and have all your ducks in a row. Know your thresholds before feedback, fine tune the instruments, move microphones – do whatever it takes to get yourself ready to mix well. Arrive early. Pray often.
REMEMBER THE BIG PICTURE
When your mixing, it’s real easy to get caught up in the details. Force yourself to stop and step back from the mix frequently and listen to the mix as a whole. Make sure you are hearing everything. Visually sweep the stage and look at each vocalist and instrumentalist. Make sure you are hearing them. If you aren’t sure, slap one side of a headset against your ear and PFL (or SOLO) that channel. You’ll hear that one instrument or vocal in the headset – this will help your brain filter that sound and you’ll then be able to hear it in the mix. Now that you’ve helped yourself identify the sound, objectively decide if it’s sitting in its proper place in the mix.
Finally, realize that your mix should create a buzz of excitement in the room. This means working with your worship pastor to understand what is driving the mix. In many contemporary services it’s the adequate presence of low frequency in the room. In a traditional service it might be a solid resounding choir filling the room.
Regardless of what that driving force is, you need to make sure it’s in your mix with presence. A good mix will bring an energy of worship into the room. It’ll engage people and they will naturally participate in worship. A dull and boring mix will do just the opposite. Likewise, a mix that lacks intelligibility will disengage people and they will become spectators or worse yet completely disconnect from the service. Worse yet, if the sound is continually bad people, might not return thus actually causing a drop in attendance. Your ministry actually affects church growth and attendance (no pressure).
As you can see, the job of the church sound engineer is far more than just that of a button pusher. You play a vital role in the success of the ministry of your church. Scripture asks us, “and how will they know if they don’t hear”. The passage is talking about the need for people to preach the Good News of Christ. But in today’s world, this also applies to the sound engineer. If your pastor, worship pastor and praise and worship team are doing their best, but your mix is impossible to understand, painful to bear or just difficult to hear – well… “How will they know if they don’t hear”?
Take every opportunity to improve in your area of ministry. It might be as simple as listening to a lot of music that’s similar in genre to your churches worship style. Maybe it’s attending a seminar, reading a book or watching a DVD. Perhaps you need to advocate for specialized training at your church. Whatever it is, always work on improving your skills and doing the best you can.
Mixing sound for worship is an exciting and exhilarating opportunity. While it is a task full of responsibility, it is also a ministry filled with reward. As you improve your mixing skills you learn how to really make a song pop. You learn how to pull emotion into the song and compliment what your worship team is trying to do. But remember – it all hinges on the relationships you build and caring enough to know the people you serve.