Unlocking the Secrets of Church Sound
This is a guest post by Josh Cummings. For many years Josh served as the Technical Director at Elim Gospel Church in Lima, NY. Josh is passionate about all things audio & visual. His world includes wires, cables, buttons, knobs, computers, software, lights, speakers and a million other odd and weird knick-knacks. He is, by far, the coolest tech-dude I know.
You might also enjoy reading my other posts in this series entitled ‘Turn the Volume UP!‘ and ‘Turn the Volume DOWN!‘.
Poor sound can be extremely distracting. We’ve probably all been there: the worship leaders mic gives annoying feedback during the service, the preacher sounds like he’s underwater, or you can’t hear the lead vocals over the band during worship. Though it is often a thankless role, the church sound tech has the power to enhance or detract from the communication of the gospel in our church services. With that much depending upon one person, I thought I would give you a few tips on how to improve in this article on the art of mixing.
- Preparation will save you time and stress.
Before I tell you anything else, I want to give you the number one rule of using technology in church: Test everything. Trust people, not equipment. You’ve probably tried to play a video at some point during a church service and experienced the awkward embarrassing silence that follows when the video doesn’t work. With a little preparation, you can make sure that it doesn’t happen again (or nearly as much). Don’t blame the “demons in the sound system” when you could have prevented the problem with proper preparation. Take the service plan and go over every detail and press every button just like you would in a service. Years ago, we made a decision to rehearse our entire Sunday morning service, minus the preaching. We catch problems every single week and I know that it was one of the best things we have ever done to increase the quality of our services.
- Mic that kick drum!
Most local churches do not mic the drum set. If I were to only mic one drum, it would be the kick drum. This will add punch and rhythm to your mix and give your worship more overall energy. If your room is large enough, I recommend mic-ing the entire drum set, but mic-ing the kick drum is the place to start.
- Set gain levels first.
Gain is the master volume for each channel on your mixer, which affects the monitors, house mix (“house” mix is what comes out of the main speakers in your sanctuary), and more. Set the house volume fader to 0, and turn up the gain until the level is approximately where it should be in the house or slightly above. This gives you a good basic level for each channel. Do not mix with the gain knobs. Set them to the right levels and then adjust the house mix using the house volume faders.
- Set monitor levels.
If you’re not using in-ear monitors, I recommend putting as little as possible in the monitors while still supporting the worship team properly so that they can hear themselves. This will keep your stage noise to a minimum and give you a more intelligible house mix. A good method for setting monitor levels is this: do a basic mix for each monitor mix, have the band run a song, then adjust one channel at a time while band members give you a thumbs up or down to let you know how much they need in their monitors.
- Shape the tone with EQ.Please, please, use the equalization (EQ) controls on your mixer. EQ takes a specific frequency or frequency range and turns it up or down. You are a sculptor of sound and the worship team has given you a lump of clay to mold into a masterpiece. If you don’t use the EQ to improve the tone of your mix, your museum will be showing an ugly lump of clay on Sunday morning. This is a huge subject to delve into, and can immensely improve your mix if used properly. For example, your bass guitar will sound nasty if you don’t turn down 300Hz, the violin doesn’t need any bass in it, and you can reduce feedback by cutting the frequency that is feeding back. Just turn up the EQ gain, sweep the frequency knob, find the nastiest sound you can, and then turn it down accordingly to its nastiness. If you want to learn more, here is a helpful blog post on EQ.
- Regulate your levels with compression
Compression will cut down on all of those sudden loud noises from your vocals and instruments. When you cut down those spikes in volume, you can have a more consistent and less dynamic sound from that channel. If you use it on one thing, use it on the lead vocal mic.
- Enhance your vocals with reverbA tasteful amount of reverb can make a good vocal sound fantastic, but it unfortunately won’t make a terrible vocalist sound like Pavarotti!
- Highlight the lead vocals!In any context, the lead vocals should be the most prominent sound, but even more so in church, where the congregation needs to know the melody to sing along in worship to God. Don’t let anything overpower the lead vocals in your mix. Spend the most time getting the lead vocals just right compared to other channels in your mix.
- Mentally listen to one instrument at a time.
To create your mix, listen to each instrument one at a time. Mentally block out all of the other instruments, listen, then decide if that instrument needs to be louder or softer in the mix.
- Budget your mix.Just like your values will drive how you spend your money, you need to decide what instruments have the most value in your mix and budget your levels accordingly. For example, I will mix foundational instruments like piano and acoustic guitar a bit softer, and more interesting lead instruments like electric guitar or violin a bit louder. Those interesting lead parts have more value to me, so I make them more prominent in the mix. There are no exact rules for mixing, only guidelines. This is where mixing becomes an art.
- Mix around the same overall deciBel level every week.It’s amazing how easy it is to upset people with the volume levels of your church sound system. Make a team decision as to how loud it should be, and keep it the same every week. I would recommend purchasing a decibel meter if you can to ensure the consistency of your levels.
- Refine your ear by listening to high quality music.It is entirely possible that you or the sound techs at your church haven’t experienced high quality sound very much, or at least haven’t listened with an analytical ear. If you want to get better, listen to high quality recordings and concerts, and try to imitate the way they do things.
- Clear up your house mix by reducing stage noise.Stage noise often causes all sorts of problems with your house mix. I can’t go into all of the details in this post, but anything you can do to reduce your stage volume will create a clearer mix in the house. You could use a shield or an enclosure for your drum set, or you could use in-ear monitors for your worship team.
- Take yourself to school.Never stop learning. There is always more to learn about live sound. Connect with other church sound techs and learn what you can from them. Use Google to discover helpful websites like www.prosoundweb.com, www.churchsoundguy.com or www.churchtechtoday.com. Attend a How-To Sound Workshop. Keep seeking out more knowledge, and you will keep increasing in your skills as an audio engineer and your ability to serve the local church in this way.