There are many variables to consider when building a stage plot (or stage layout). Every venue and worship team is different so there is nothing set in stone, but there are general guidelines to keep in mind. Let’s go through some things you will need to contemplate from an audio engineer’s perspective, which may help you in your ministry.
First, there are other factors to examine before we dive in. You need to think about your team. How many vocalists and instrumentalists do you have and what instruments do they play? You then must determine how much of your audio is based on a reinforcement design, and how much on a mixing design. You can then learn how to best place people on stage.
Key Tips for Stage Placement in Worship
Audio reinforcement is an attempt to make the room more balanced by offsetting excessive stage volume and increasing the volume on softer instruments. When you have an instrument on stage that is disproportionately loud when compared to the other instruments, like an acoustic drum kit, the sound engineer has to turn down the drums in the house and turn everything else up in an attempt to combat the drum volume. But drums are not the only culprits of excessive stage volume. Electric guitar amps, bass amps, and vocalists’ monitor wedges are all areas where volume can get loud and spill off the platform and into the congregation. In the case of instruments that are softer, you may need a well placed microphone attached to the instrument so the volume can be turned up to match the louder instruments. The sound engineer’s goal is to balance, reinforce and clarify the sound to the audience as well as the worship team members.
Audio mixing is combining and processing (electronically) a number of audio signals together to create a mix that the audience or performers at a live event can hear. For the purposes of this article it is important to understand that in every situation where there is a sound person, they are indeed “mixing”, but when used in conjunction with reinforcement, a second definition comes into play. An audio engineer can only truly mix without reinforcement when in a studio. The difference being that in a studio you have total control over the sound. In the studio, everything is recorded in soundproof rooms, so when the engineer plays back through the speakers, he can pull the fader down and there will be total silence, no stage noise, no ambient noise from the room. In a live venue, an audio technician cannot truly mix in this fashion, but if the monitor wedges have been replaced with in-ear monitors, and the drums and amps have been placed inside isolation booths (you’ve seen where they place the drum kit behind a Plexiglas shield so they can regulate the volume) then you can have much greater control.
The majority of churches use a combination of these two methods. Perhaps drums are enclosed in an isolation booth, but your vocalists are still using wedges. Maybe you have vocalists on in-ears but the electric guitarist sets his amplifier in front of him, on stage. The end result when placing people on stage is going to be balanced, both visually and audibly, so there are a lot of practical considerations.
The Noisy Instruments
A first step is to take items that create stage volume and try to put them in a balanced position for the room. If the drums cannot be in an enclosure, they should be situated in the back center of the platform. That way when the drummer plays, there is even distribution of the sound in the room. If for example, you have two background vocalists who each use wedge monitors, it would be best to not place them side by side. They should probably be placed on opposite sides of the platform so when the sound of their monitors spill off stage, it does so in equal amounts.
If an electric guitarist with an amp on stage is on one side of the platform, a good idea is to have the sound engineer take the guitar signal and pan it to the speaker on the opposite side. This way the majority of the people in the room will hear the guitar coming from both places and it will feel balanced. The hope would be that the sound engineer would have a clear idea on how to balance the room using reinforcement of the house speakers.
When it comes to items that have little to no stage noise, like an acoustic guitarist who uses in-ear monitors, you can feel free to be as creative as you want and visually balance that person out with what you have already placed. In the previous scenario where an electric guitarist is on stage left, it would be best to visually balance him out by putting the acoustic guitarist on stage right. The truth is that if that person has an isolated signal and in-ear monitors, their placement on stage makes very little impact in the audio realm. You can place them wherever is visually pleasing.
The Softer Instruments
One last piece of the puzzle we shouldn’t neglect. There may be some worship team members who play the quieter instruments: flutes, violins, hammered dulcimers, etc. It is important to remember that their microphones are working hard to pick up as much signal as possible. So, when you have a special instrument that needs that kind of care be sure to place them in the quietest spot possible on stage where there is little to no stage noise. Don’t make the mistake of putting a flutist next to an exposed guitar amp.
The ideal scenario to minimize excessive noise and to have more control of the sound is to have very isolated signals. If at all possible, the drummer should be in a full enclosure, the electric guitarists should be in isolation boxes with their amps (or use in-ear monitors). The majority of the worship team should use in-ear monitors instead of wedges where possible. In-ear monitors and isolated signals allow the worship leader to be free to place people as he or she sees fit.
Of course you need to work with what you have. If you don’t have the budget for in-ear or enclosures, apply some of the other principles discussed above to improve sound quality. Also, look into purchasing used equipment, perhaps from another church who is upgrading theirs. It’s God’s worship team, pray that He would provide better equipment in the future through some unexpected means.
The focus of this article is on the sound engineer’s perspective, but there are other factors to consider. Know your team members. How much experience do they have? What is their comfort level? Perhaps you have a new acoustic guitarist who feels much more comfortable near the back of stage. Or maybe the worship leader needs the keyboard player out front where they can communicate better during worship. There is so much more to consider than just the optimum configuration for sound output or simply what looks best aesthetically. The worship leader, the sound technician, the technicians who set up the equipment should have discussions in advance about the best stage placement for your team ahead of time so you can best be used of God to lead your congregation in worship without distraction.