Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix

I just finished a conference call with a church tech director and creative arts pastor. They are having issues with the sound in their church and the two of them, together, want to make a difference. They are looking for suggestions as to how to take it to the next level. There was no shifting of blame or finger pointing one to the other, in fact, the worship leader was very adamant in his support for the tech team and how dedicated they have been in their quest to make things better. Refreshing!

Steps To A Standard Mix between Revolving Sound Operators

The conversation began with a discussion of the room’s shape and dimensions and what the surfaces were made of. If the room isn’t right, we would have to look at ways to acoustically treat it to make it MORE right. It will never be perfect. I told them that hiring an acoustician would be the best place to start. Acousticians are worth every penny. The advice you’re paying for should make the room behave acoustically, before we choose loudspeakers and where to position them. Don’t be talked into a system that promises to make everything sound GREAT if it doesn’t include a discussion of the acoustics in the room first.

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix - Church Sanctuary

We then talked about where the speakers were located.

I was told that there was a center cluster hung above in the vaulted ceiling, and more that covered most of the sanctuary. The sides needed some sonic assistance so they added additional side fills to cover the periphery.

I asked where they were in relation to the center cluster and it appeared from the description that they were 3-4 feet behind the main speaker, which was also about 20-30 feet above.

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix - Speaker Arrangement

I asked if the fills were delayed to the main and they had no idea what I was talking about, so we went over the concept of time–arrival, or phase coherence. Loudspeakers and other sound sources should be time-aligned, to arrive at the listener’s ears in a natural way, in time, in phase, for greater intelligibility and clarity. We achieve this with delays on the various components so that sound arrives at one time versus many. For more on this, refer to this article.

Let’s move on.

We discussed the style of their worship, which was more or less modern, but with traditional elements. Hillsong didn’t come to mind. The worship style described seemed to be appropriate for this space. They had made the transition to in-ear monitoring so the issue of loud stage monitors and guitar amps didn’t appear to be a problem and overall stage volume was reduced and wasn’t interfering with the house mix. Personal monitoring is not only a benefit to musicians, but also a great benefit to the house mix.

The worship pastor told me that he had taken advice I had made at a conference last fall.  It dealt with how to arrange the band so that the musicians would know where, when, what, and how to play their parts and how they have made the musicians more aware of the role each one plays in creating a unified musical sound.  It has helped them to listen to each other and to the environment in order to support the worship.

I will post an article very soon about arranging the band.

This was a great encouragement to me as, many times, the sound operator will be the scapegoat for a bad musical presentation.  You’ve heard the adage “Garbage in, garbage out”?  I’m not saying it’s all on the band, but this where it starts, at the source.  I know that when I run sound for a band that is very well rehearsed and has a lot of playing time together, I don’t have to do too much.  They are listening to each other, instead of playing over each other.  They’re in a sense, self-mixing.

We, as sound operators, can add a sense of depth, some spice and emotion with effects, make sure the levels are right, etc., but they are the first step to a great mix.

A band that doesn’t exhibit this kind of self -awareness will always be a more difficult animal to tame.

The next part of our conversation concerned the sound operators.

They, like many churches, large and small, rotate a team of volunteers who share the mixing responsibilities.

Some volunteers have more experience and skill.

Some are just beginning.

Some may be musicians, which is a huge advantage from my point of view.

Some are not. If you are not a musician, I pray that you have a passion for music at a minimum. If you don’t, I can’t understand how you would know what music is supposed to sound like or why you would enjoy mixing music.  It’s not purely a science requiring engineering or technical chops; there is an art side as well.

Let’s assume for this illustration that everybody on the team loves music and wants to mix, and wants to improve their skills to do their best for the church. Some will still have more experience, talent and knowledge than others.

How do we achieve a consistent sound/mix, week to week, so that our congregation isn’t subjected to varied or extreme differences between services, even with the same musicians?

If a musician wants to get better, he can play his instrument at home for as much time as he can devote to it. Time in makes us better! Practice makes perfect.

How does a volunteer sound operator practice his craft? I would suggest multitrack recording the rehearsals and services. The sound op can practice mixing by playing back the recordings anytime the church isn’t occupied. Many of the new breed of digital consoles have this ability and if you’re not utilizing this feature, you’re missing out on one of greatest benefits known as “Virtual Soundcheck”. It will definitely aid in making your sound team better.

I would then get all the sound operators together with the worship leader (the whole band can take the night off) and ask each op to mix the tracks in full view of the group. You’ll find that some have a heavier foot on the bass. One or two may boost higher frequencies to a level that hurts because of their own hearing loss (Hopefully every sound operator will undergo an annual hearing exam to see if they have suffered any loss and establish a benchmark for comparison year to year). Other mixes may be, OK but sterile and not musical, lacking depth or dimension. Others may have so much reverb added to the mix that everything sounds like we’re in a cathedral (or gyms, which you may already be in, so ditch the reverb!).

The tech director and worship leader would then critique each mix, constructively, encouraging each to move to a consistent sound that they have agreed upon. What we’re trying to do here is to set a bar that we can reach every week and every op tries to adhere to.  The goal would always be to raise it higher, over time.  We have expectations, but we need to inspect what we expect. This is not a one-time exercise. We will need to practice, check and practice some more to get everybody on the same page. Be patient. Encourage. Provide the time, training and resources and your team will start to function as a team.

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix - Learning As A Team

Recording individual tracks is great for personal and team practice, but to understand what’s happening in the sanctuary week-to-week, I suggest room recording of the service. This is a simpler method and does not have to be done through the mixer necessarily, although that is an option. Connect a pair of microphones (condensers) to a CD, SD or a hand-held digital recorder and record what’s happening in the room.

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix - Tascam Recorder

A stereo recording of the worship service will give clear indications of what needs to be done; what’s too loud: what’s not loud enough; what frequencies may be too harsh, etc.

Recording a copy of your main mix through your mixer to a recorder will always be vocal heavy, due to the fact that guitars and drums are typically louder in the room and don’t need to be reinforced as much as vocals do. Consequently, we don’t hear as much of the louder instruments in our recording via the mixer. If you use room microphones however, it becomes very apparent what the loudest and softest things in the mix are and when it’s that obvious, it’s easier to identify, address and correct.

All the time that you’ve been telling Guitar Johnny that he’s too loud is just wasting time. All you’ll need to do is hit the Play button on the recorder and it will become clear to Johnny and everyone else what needs to be done and you won’t have to feel guilty.

Our goal should always be to improve; to give God our best; to help the church enter in to worship for His glory, not our own!

Listen to the recordings as a group often.  In time you will start to hear the mixes from the various operators begin to sound similar and … better!

Worship MD’s Mission Is To Train Worship And Tech Teams.

I teach at over forty conferences and training events a year, all over the world. Churches will ask me to come and train their teams and, if I have the time and it’s close enough to home, it’s not a problem to schedule. However, many times I’m asked to train a church that is so far away that it becomes cost-prohibitive for the church to hire me. Over the last year, I’ve assembled (and it’s growing) a list of qualified technical ministers and worship leaders who love teaching teams and have hearts for service in this ministry and may live right down the street from where your church is. EMT (Educating Ministry Technicians) Network is a referral service for churches that need training in the tech arts that can be fulfilled by local trainers. This will get church volunteers the help they need at a much lower cost and provide local help long after the training has ended. If you’re interested in finding out more about EMT, please e-mail me at Doug@worshipmd.com.

Sound Operators: Steps To A Standard Mix - Worship MD EMT Network


DG-Headshot for church sound technicians articleDoug Gould is a veteran of the Pro Audio and Music Technology Industry for almost 30 years, serving in management roles at Shure, Tascam and E-Mu Systems and has been a worship leader, musician and tech at various churches for almost as long. He is CEO and Founder of Worship MD (Market Development), a consulting firm that helps professional audio and music technology manufacturers build relationships with the church through education.