Each week the worship singers, musicians, and technicians at hundreds of churches around the country come together for rehearsals and then gather for weekend services. Everyone has talents he or she brings to the table, and they all want the most impact possible throughout the worship, music, drama, and message. If only the sound and mix could be right for every service! After all, nothing has more bearing on how your morning goes than the sound quality of the mix and any technical problems that may arise during the service.
So, how do we get it right every time? The key is the soundcheck, where the system is set up and the mix is created. A great soundcheck will make for a great rehearsal and a great service. Embrace the following eight simple steps, and you can have a great mix every time your worship team takes the stage.
1. Keep it simple.
Unfortunately, mix emergencies rarely occur when you have loads of spare time to work on a solution — it almost always happens minutes before the service is supposed to start. While your sound booth may have racks of processors and sophisticated audio equipment, now is not the time to experiment with effects or to randomly start turning knobs. Focus on the bare minimum you need to get the job done. Leave the special effects for another time.
- Make sure all monitor wedges and speakers are facing toward the singers and musicians, not aiming out into the house.
- Use instrument amps as personal monitors, then take direct feeds or mic the amps for even and balanced coverage in the house.
- Keep the onstage volume low.
2. Use what’s already there.
Hopefully, your sound system is already set up, the cables and the snake are run to the mixer, and the monitors are tuned in to prevent feedback. Plug the mics into the mixer or snake in their usual positions. Try to use the same “old standby” microphones and other gear you usually use — again, now is not the time to experiment with new gear!
For the cleanest sound, use direct boxes where possible.
When mics are in use, position them so that they pick up only the sound you want. Do what you can to minimize onstage sources from “bleeding” into multiple instrument or singer mics.
3. Have a conversation with the worship team.
Explain to everyone that the regular sound person is not available and that help is required to have the service go well. This means guitarists need to turn down, drummers need to control volume, and so on. Explain that the monitor system may not be perfect — forewarning the team that everything may not be ideal will go a long way toward easing the process for everyone. At least they will know what to expect!
Musicians and vocalists: Play/sing your part at “real” performance level for as long as the sound technician needs to properly adjust your gain settings.
Sound techs: Set your main left/right output fader level, then set your channel trim/gain settings to the lowest setting. Now, bring the channel fader to unity (“0”). While the musician or singer is performing, slowly bring up the trim/gain until there is good level in the house. (You can also use PFL/solo/cue to meter adjustments.)
4. Turn it on.
Turn on the speakers or the amplifiers last; this prevents loud thumps and pops from coming through the system.
Be aware of proximity effect (bass boost caused by the mic being too close to the source) — it makes a huge difference in level and tonal quality.
Think about the frequency range of each instrument/vocalist. Start with the channel EQ flat. Adjust the highpass or the low-cut filter to clean up the bottom end and reduce muddiness in the mix. Then, make adjustments. Remember, a little EQ goes a long way!
5. Reset the mixing board.
Begin by pulling all the volume sliders (faders) down to zero. (Usually these are found at the bottom of each channel on the mixer.) Set the channel gain to a mid position (Usually this knob is found at the top of each channel on the mixer.) Next, reset all the equalization (tone) controls on the mixer to their center position, which is essentially off. Turn the auxiliary or monitor sends off. Make sure that mute or solo buttons are disengaged. (Usually these buttons are off in the up position.) Set the master volume fader to about 50%.
Use the channel faders for level adjustments and to balance sources in the mix — your trim/gain levels were set in Step 2.
Proper EQ will allow the various instruments and vocals to peacefully coexist in the mix. Create a clearer mix by “carving out” a frequency range for each voice and instrument to live in, rather than trying to turn up conflicting signals to make them louder.
6. Begin testing each sound source through the mains.
Have the main vocalist speak or sing into his or her mic. Bring up the volume slider until you can hear the vocals in the main speakers. Turn up the auxiliary or monitor sends until the vocalist can hear himself or herself in the monitors. As you verify that each mic or source works, pull its volume fader back down to zero. You can leave the aux (monitor) sends turned up so that the singers can hear themselves. To prevent feedback, don’t run the stage monitors too loud.
Use the aux/monitor send controls to set levels; do not adjust the channel gain/trim controls. Using the gain/trim controls will affect the house mix, which you already set in Steps 2 and 5.
Vocal monitors need pitch and tempo references — piano, guitar, vocals, and a touch of snare drum.
Band/instrument monitors should contain the other instruments and the lead vocal/worship leader.
7. Have the worship team begin to play a song.
Watch for red overload or “clip” lights on the mixer. If you see these, turn down the gain controls at the top of that source’s channel.
At least once during rehearsal, bring the main house level all the way down while the group is playing. Check the overall monitor/stage volume. If it’s overpowering the house mix, then the stage volume will have to come down.
8. Build the mix by bringing up the volume faders for the basics first.
Start with the bass drum and the bass guitar, turning them up to a comfortable level and balancing them against one another. You may need to adjust the level of the master volume fader to get the overall level to the right point.
Use headphones sparingly, just to confirm what you’re hearing in the house or to check for problems.
9. Turn up the volume faders for the vocals.
Now focus on the vocals. Set them to a comfortable level, balanced against the bass guitar and the bass drum. The lead vocalist needs to be the loudest, with the background or harmony vocals filling in behind.
10. Turn up the volume faders on the other instruments.
One at a time, begin turning up the other instruments. Start with the rest of the drums, then the guitars, the pianos, the keyboards, and any other instruments; adjust the volume as needed. Balance each one against the vocals, the bass drum, and the bass guitar. This is a place where you can err on the side of being conservative. The vocals are the main focus, and you want to ensure that they are clearly audible. Use the other instruments to fill around the vocals, without obscuring them. As you go, adjust the master volume fader to control the overall level.
11. It’s time for the equalizers.
Up to this point, we haven’t touched the equalizers (tone controls) on the mixer. If you find that the sound is getting too bassy or boomy, use the “low” or bass tone control to reduce the bass frequencies a small amount on instruments such as bass guitar, keyboards, and piano. Vocalists, especially male vocalists, may also need their bass reduced a small amount. To increase the clarity of a vocal or an instrument, add a small amount of treble or high frequencies by using the tone controls on that mixer channel. Be careful with the tone controls, as overuse can lead to feedback!
12. Fine-tune the mix and the monitors.
Adjust volume levels so that instruments and vocals are balanced, and adjust the bass and the treble controls on channels as necessary to prevent boominess, harshness, or spikes in sound. Ask each worship team member what he or she needs to hear from the monitors — one at a time so that everyone doesn’t speak at once — and adjust the auxiliary sends accordingly.
13. Don’t try to overtune the mix, and don’t make it too loud.
Set things up so that they are clean and clear, and at a comfortable, conservative volume level. Then stop! Once you get to the point where it sounds okay — this should happen fairly quickly — stop tweaking the knobs. It’s easy to lose perspective and get lost in knob turning, even though the goal has already been achieved.
14. Here’s a final tip.
When in doubt, focus on making the vocals, whether spoken or sung, clearly audible. The congregation is there to hear the message, which is contained in the words and lyrics. The music is inspiring and essential to a great service, but it plays just a supporting role in the grand scheme of things. Ensure that the vocals are heard, and the service will be a success!
That’s it! If you follow these eight steps every time you prepare for the worship team to take the stage, then you will have a great mix and great sound — and a better worship experience for your congregation every time!