It’s Sunday morning. Your congregants walk through the doors, ready for a worshipful and uplifting experience. At first glance, everything may seem to come together effortlessly, like a well-oiled machine. Yet those of us that are involved in worship arts know the truth – we are like a duck on the water – at the surface, we’re perfectly calm; but underneath, we’re paddling like mad. It is in this serene craziness that we hope to help you get the most out of your gear, find your mix, and give your musicians the best opportunity to thrive.
As worship team members and sound engineers, we have three areas we can direct our attention towards that can really improve everyone’s experience – Microphones, Mixing, and Monitors.
- Microphone placement and use are key (pun fully intended). So often, we see the struggle with getting vocalists and speakers alike to use a mic the right way. The best location for a vocal mic is generally an inch or so from the mouth, in line with the face. If your vocalists feel they can’t be heard in the mix, or say they can’t hear themselves, this may be the primary culprit.
- When it comes to drums, there are a number of preferred setups seen in churches today. Some churches have an electric drum set – and these provide an incredible amount of sound control, with varying levels of “drum authenticity.” Often, the drummer is in a plexiglass cage. In this case, the drummer can wail away with reckless abandon, and a good amount of the sound is contained. I think we can do better here. Sometimes we might be afraid to address the need for less sound from our musicians, to help create the best environment, but how can we grow without discussing it? Don’t be afraid to talk with your drummer about volume levels and dynamics. We’re all on a musical journey, and sometimes we just need to hear someone say, “less is more.” There are also a number of options for reducing drum (and specifically cymbal) bleed into vocal and other instrument mics that don’t involve complete separation. My favorite tools for cymbal bleed controls are drum baffles; they’re a great alternative to the full cages we might be used to. Then it is just a simple 3-mic setup of snare, kick, and overhead, and we’re on our way.
- When we start the morning’s sound check, we benefit from having an order that we approach all of our inputs. Once we know that everything that’s plugged in is giving us a good signal, we need to start with our central sound – vocals. While much of this is geared towards “worship team” style music, it is also true for choirs. If the vocals are buried beneath a wall of sound, your congregants will have a more difficult time hearing the text and will be less likely to join in. Don’t be afraid to lower the instrumental volume to make room.
- Stay in touch with the pulse of your pastor and worship leader as to what volume is… preferred. This is a conversation we have far in advance, to make sure expectations are voiced adequately and appropriately. There will always be the battle between “I can’t hear” and “it’s too loud.” Investing a little in a decibel meter can give you a reference point for your overall volume goals.
- If you grew up in a church in the 80s and 90s, you are likely very familiar with the “wedges” that many churches use for stage monitoring of sound. For monitors to be most effective, the person utilizing them needs line-of-sight, on-axis placement. If the monitor is pointed at your vocalists’ knees, they probably won’t get what they really need from them – hearing themselves, getting the timing right, and staying on pitch. In-ear monitors are becoming much more common, but the benefits (very little sound bleed and individualized levels) come with their own tradeoffs (cost, complexity, and learning curve). A good middle-of-the-road, full-featured option for “in-ears” is the Behringer Powerplay system. My church has used it for years, and it has been a durable workhorse.
- Especially if you’re using “wedge” monitoring, work to get the house sound set first, there are a lot of variables at play, and our worship team will be hearing a lot of sounds that has bounced around the room first. Let them work in that space initially, then reinforce the necessities with the wedges.
If you’re thinking you might need some assistance with your gear, or just aren’t quite sure where to start, consider contacting Church Matters, and consider reading Roger Byrd’s article “Are you Due for a Sound and Light Assessment?”