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Achieving a solid mix in a church worship gathering can be a struggle for a lot of worship tech teams. It’s difficult to find audio engineers with the knowledge, experience and most importantly, ear for the craft of mixing a worship band. Most churches cannot afford to hire a full-time or even part-time audio engineer. The responsibility of running sound is often left in the hands of well-intentioned volunteers who may be tech savvy but are novices to the art and science of mixing audio.
I recently sat down with Eric Olson, one of the audio engineers at Red Rocks Church. Eric started as a volunteer on the production team at Red Rocks, and over the past couple of years, he served his way up to being a contracted audio engineer. I have heard his mixing on numerous occasions since he works at the campus I attend. I have also played in the worship band at Red Rocks multiple times while he was running the front of house mix. To say he knows what he is doing with a mixer board is an understatement. He has not even graduated college, but he is creating a fantastic mix for the 3,000 people that attend the Littleton campus every weekend.
I asked Eric to share ten tips for better church sound. I wanted to create a simple guide for aspiring audio engineers or worship leaders responsible for training sound volunteers at their church. For those of you who are seasoned worship leaders and audio engineers, these tips will seem basic, because they are! I am convinced that church sound would be significantly better if more tech volunteers implemented these fundamental tips. Church sound can seem complicated and overwhelming, especially for those new to the responsibility. Keep it simple by taking Eric’s advice outlined below.
1. Know how your equipment works
Church sound engineers must be the resident expert on all aspects of the sound system. Understand what each piece of gear does by reading manuals or looking up tutorial videos online. Know the signal flow of your system. How does signal go from the front of house mixer to the stage for monitors, or to the main speakers? Parts of this system inevitably fail or malfunction. The sound engineer must be able to troubleshoot issues quickly.
2. Be a team player
The relationship between the audio engineer and worship and production teams is crucial. Often the audio engineer is the liaison between the band and the rest of the tech team. Over-communicate with one another. Use basic social skills. Be intentional about the tone you use as you communicate with the band. Remember you are on a team.
3. Learn the music
Audio engineers should know the music just as well as the worship leader. As a worship leader myself, I am super bummed when the guy or gal mixing the sound has no clue how the song should sound. If you are an audio engineer, you must be listening to the songs your worship leader has up on Planning Cetner. Listen for important parts of the songs like guitar solos. Know how loud the backing tracks should be. Know who is singing lead or harmonies. Listening to worship albums should be a part of your daily routine, not because it makes you super spiritual, but because you should be developing an ear for the genre of music.
4. Use your ears
With the rise of affordable digital consoles, the mixing experience has become increasingly visual. You can see all of your EQ, dynamics, and effects parameters on beautiful and bright displays. Remember that just because certain parameters look right on your mixer, doesn’t mean it will sound right. Maybe you found a Youtube video on how to EQ a kick drum. Don’t expect that copying the exact parameters will yield the same results in your church. Use your ears to fine tune the sound to your context, rather than sticking to someone else’s template.
5. Always be learning and evaluating
Being a lifelong learner is the key to success in every aspect of life. Continuously refine and hone your craft. Seek out advice and wisdom from more experienced audio engineers. Take advantage of online resources whether they are Youtube videos or podcasts on mixing.
6. Gain structure
The first step of sound processing as the signal from an instrument or vocal enters the board is setting gain structure. There are multiple methods and techniques for how you set gain structure that we do not have time to cover here. The important thing about gain is to make sure you have a strong enough signal coming to the board from your instruments or vocals, but not too high that it causes clipping and distortion. Learn more about gain structure here.
Affordable digital boards like the Behringer X32 come with a built-in compressor or dynamics control. When listening to professionally mixed music versus something you recorded on your phone with the voice memos app, you may notice that the volume levels of professionally mixed music are much more consistent whereas the levels on low-quality recordings are all over the place. Compressing vocals so that the lower volume sounds increased and the higher volume sounds decreased significantly increases the quality of a mix. In a live setting, your worship leaders vocals can drastically change volume if they move away from or toward the microphone, or if they a variation of vocal parts that are high and low in their range. A compressor smooths this all out. It’s also a hand tool to use on instruments like the kick drum so that the loudness of each strike of the kick drum sounds consistent. To learn more about how to adjust the parameters of a compressor or noise gate, click here.
Equalization plays a huge role in achieving an excellent mix. The key here is to reduce bad frequencies rather than boosting good ones. Use tools like the high-pass filters to get completely rid of low muddy frequencies on instruments that never need them. To learn more about EQ best practices, click here.
The most common effects you will hear in a professional environment are reverb and delay. Effects have the potential to both enhance and destroy a mix. Do not overdo it. If you are new to mixing, start with only applying a little bit of reverb with a second or two of decay. Eric has two types of reverb when he mixes. The first is his default reverb that has a one-second decay. It’s on almost all the time on the vocals. The second reverb has a four-second decay. He uses this reverb during appropriate climaxes of songs. Delay can also enhance a mix, but be especially careful with it. Most mixers come with a tap tempo feature to allow you to set the tempo of your delay to match the tempo of the song.
The most intensely debated aspect of church sound is volume. People in your church will inevitably complain about the volume. Some complain it’s too loud. Some complain it’s too quiet. Make sure you and your church leadership are on the same page about the volume and stick to that standard. Often when people complain about the volume of church sound, they are complaining about issues of EQ or some other mixing parameter that you can quickly adjust. EQ is probably the most common because poor EQ can make instruments sound harsh or piercing. Before you turn down faders, examine the other parameters explained above. A few additional notes about volume. Make sure the vocals can be heard above the instruments so people can sing along. As we already mentioned, know the music so you can make slight adjustments to instrument levels based on the style of the song.
I’m grateful for Eric taking the time to share these ten tips for achieving better sound. While this article is by no means a comprehensive guide to mixing sound for church worship services, hopefully, you can take away some valuable fundamentals for increasing the quality of your mix. Do not over-complicate this process. Keep it simple and always work towards refining your craft.