During my fifteen plus years on various church staffs, I’ve probably mixed audio for 2,500+ church services and events. No matter if you’re the musician or technician like me, we’re both striving for the end product to be the best it can be. And we both have a vision for how it should sound when the mix comes together. When it’s show time we want it to be great, rocking, and awesome.
If you’re a worship leader you’re probably chasing that “sound in your head” for every weekend service and event you plan. You have a big job, taking the pastor’s vision for that service and building a set list that supports it. You’re trying to unify your congregation for worship and get them teed up for the pastor’s message. Those you lead might have just had a fight with their spouse or kids, been recently laid off from work, or had a parent die. Whatever the situation, you are the one that leads them to “that place” and hands them off to the pastor. That’s no small task.
The “sound in your head” is realized though a complex construction of mind, body, spirit, and technology. And you’re more than likely responsible for the entire result at the end of the weekend – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So in this giant mix of ingredients, how do you get that million-dollar sound you’re chasing in your mind’s ear?
There are four elements that contribute to “the sound” in any live event:
- Sound system
- Sound people
- Room acoustics
- Program material (including the instrument quality, the talent of the musicians, and the arrangement of the songs)
Lets break down those ingredients and see how they not only add to and take away from the desired outcome, but how each component affects the others.
The Sound System
Most sound systems in contemporary churches were (unfortunately) set up in one of four ways.
- Components were donated from a band that’s no longer together. The system was not thought out and really doesn’t meet the needs of the church it was donated to.
- The music team pours over industry magazines or looks online, then takes a fateful trip down to the local music center where they buy whatever the store has in stock – because “there just isn’t any more time or money”.
- The pastor or a well-meaning board member picks a sound company online – usually alphabetically – and has them design a system based not on what will work, but on budget.
- The volunteer sound team persuades the pastor to buy the equipment – usually off the internet – hanging speakers wherever and using microphone cable from their favorite consumer electronics shack with their limited knowledge.
The Sound People
Most sound ministry volunteers have a great heart. They’re content to be behind the scenes. They spend long hours at rehearsals and practices for every church event. They’re at church before anyone else and usually the last to leave. They are the information center to direct people to the restrooms, lost and found, and the nursery.
Usually no one tells them when they have done a good job, but they are the first to hear about any problems from everyone that passes the sound booth. The sound person is blamed for many things, including:
- Singers that are flat, sing the wrong words, or don’t know the words.
- Bass players who unplug during prayer or before their channel is muted.
- Guitar players whose amps mysteriously get louder during worship.
- Pastors who put a double knit sweater over their lapel-mic and wonder why they can’t be heard.
Most volunteer sound people are professionals who work hard all week at their real job and serve in the sound ministry on nights and weekends. So many volunteers enter the sound ministry with a willing heart, but little knowledge about music, sound, or sound systems.
The Room Acoustics
Like the sound system, room acoustics play an enormous part in the sound of the music. Most “good” rooms are designed that way from the beginning. Bad acoustics can be mitigated to a certain extent, but it really requires you to hire a qualified acoustical consultant to help you. The room acoustics absolutely affect the ability to have good sound in a room. Remember you can’t EQ the room unless you physically change the room.
The Program Material
What makes up the mix, before it enters the sound system, is probably the most important bunch of ingredients in the mix.
At most churches each musician brings their instrument and amp of choice and the sound person is expected to mic, mix, and weave all and any instruments into a glorious blend of celestial amazingness.
Very often, bands are dealing with vocalists that don’t quite hit the notes. In an attempt to keep the bad notes from taking over, worship leaders often add more vocals. Unfortunately, bad singers only throw the other singers off and many times the new singers aren’t any better.
Finally, there’s musicianship. This is more than just talent; the sound of your band or orchestra is also very dependent on the servant’s heart to submit to the Music Pastor/Worship Leader as they submit to the Senior Pastor.
The Truth of the Matter
My wife’s favorite band is Chicago. For the first ten or so years of our marriage we saw them every year at Universal’s Amphitheatre. It consistently struck me how amazing they sounded – not just because of the sound system, but also musically. We sat behind the mix position several times and I watched their mixer. He was having so much fun! The thought occurred to me, “He isn’t working very hard.”
It’s true, there was a ton of preparation and years of experience that got him to that point, but the band was giving him something amazing to work with. He was mostly just turning them up. He didn’t have to make a mediocre band sound great. They were great.
Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t true in most of our churches.
So, what to do?
- You may need to set and keep a high standard for the instruments on your stage. You might want to buy the instruments as a church to ensure their quality.
- You could hire a pro drummer to tune and maintain your drums. He could consult with you on how to get best sounding drums for your acoustic environment – before it even hits the sound system.
- You could work with your guitar and bass players to get the tone you desire from their amp. Many players don’t know how to get good tone. And if it doesn’t sound good in the amp, the soundboard can’t fix it.
- You might need to keep your keyboardists from picking their own random sounds.
- You could set a standard for singers on the stage. Listen to how they blend when they’re off the mics. Then teach them how to blend.
It’s true, a sound engineer can hurt your mix. Inexperience and incompetence can ruin any mix. But you can help your sound engineer, good or bad, by getting the band and singers to sound as good as possible at the source.
But if all of that doesn’t work, you can always just blame it on the sound guy…