By Paul Wilkinson
Another lifetime ago, I worked extensively with both live auditorium sound and mixing in a recording studio or television studio environment. I wrote articles to try to make that world a better place. Years and years later, I am amazed that these 10 rules still apply!
- Failing to set the monitor level first
If the platform or stage monitors are working at all, they can be heard from the console with the main speakers turned off. While musicians and speakers will ask for these to be more finely adjusted, they can be set to a respectable level and the entire system tested through the monitors before the main speakers are brought into play. A two-person team is a better minimum crew, but you can get more done from the back than you realize.
- Failing to use “middle balance” on equipment
Microphone and media inputs need to be calibrated with the main output level so that equipment is operating best in the middle of the range available. Levels for multiple singers should be “matched” through proper attenuation even before the monitors and main speakers are turned on. If the whole system is running too hot, levels may appear to be low. Sometimes it’s necessary to go beyond the sound board and reconsider the main amplifiers levels, which are often at the level when the system was installed. If the system is too cool, individual channels have to be turned up higher. Professional operators like to keep things around “7” (not “5”) for better fade-ins and fade-outs.
- Channel clipping
This was often heard back in the days soloists would sing with soundtracks. The song would have a wonderful, professionally produced sustained chord at the end, and the soloist would replace her microphone on the stand, and the pastor would get up, and the sound person, in a total panic, would just cut the track. Not even a fade. Of course, sometimes, you’d get the opposite, and the person whose turn was next would feel they couldn’t move until the track played out and they’d stand there like a deer caught in the headlights. The point is that channel clipping still happens, especially with increased use of video clips.
- Misreading the house
This error falls into one of two categories: either the sound person is placed in a part of the auditorium that doesn’t represent the acoustics the average audience member is experiencing; or the sound levels were set in an empty room and a now full house is simply absorbing a measurable portion of the sound. (In northern states and Canadian provinces, this actually increases if people bring winter coats to their seats.)
- Mixing by fader only
Anyone can turn up the volume. To do the job well, one has to listen to the tonal balance and set equalization positions on each individual channel. This is where a philosophy degree is helpful. For example, let’s say the soprano singer’s voice borders on shrill. Do you try to suppress that, or do you allow the tonal filters to let through what the music director must have liked when he auditioned her? You can’t just turn down her high end so she sounds like an alto. Some people were taught you don’t touch the EQ on the channels once the program begins. I disagree. Can’t hear the words? Try turning up the high end to enhance consonants and make word-definition clearer. Use the mid-range to bring out the vowels. Turn up the bass to add richness and rhythm. Don’t make major changes in the middle of a song or sermon, but feel free to make small adjustments. Just make sure your speakers are handling this without distortion — especially with bass — and make sure fader levels are brought down when tonal filters are opened up. Also, have the overall EQ of the room checked every 3-4 months using whichever method you prefer, a white noise generator or a spectrum analyzer.
- Not explaining equipment to users
Even a well-seasoned audio guy needs to be told as if he’s never seen the equipment before. When it comes to platform participants, this doubly applies. It’s also good to go over basic care of the board and microphones, and reminding soloists not to point mics toward monitors, cup hands over mics, and not leaving mics on the floor. Do your mics have switches? Make sure they remember this. Does the pastor need to switch on his cordless mic? This often saves batteries, but so many times speakers are intent about their sermon content and forget this important step.
- Playing the wrong media
Anything that needs to be inserted into a machine during the course of the program needs to be well labelled. Back in the day, tape machines had a zero-reset that could be used to cue things to the start point and avoid “dead air.” Digital media solves many of these problems, but introduces new ones. If the video isn’t going to be used until 24:00 into the service, the machine may shut down after 20:00. Furthermore, some media requires greatly different EQ-ing and balancing than other line inputs. The more video you have, unless you have a discrete channel and playback source for each, many things can mess up. I would argue you can’t do video clips in the modern church without an audio production assistant.
- Not balancing between singers and accompaniment
We’re in the communication business. People need to hear what is being said, both through spoken word and through music. So you need to decide: Is the singer too quiet or is the band too loud? This is complicated often by the age and musical taste of the person doing the mix. Different generations have different ideas about what sounds right. Also, the modern church will often post the words on the screen, even for a solo. That doesn’t preclude getting the mix right.
- Failing to bring out the melody
This combines with the mistake above especially if there is more than one singer. The melody (the tune if you prefer) must dominate over the harmony. In a higher class of music, sometimes the melody is passed from the soprano to the tenor. You may need more detailed cue sheets for this type of song. Or better yet, have a musician sitting next to you at the console providing visual cues. Or best, attend a rehearsal.
- Not paying attention
Details, details, details! (Some would say, coffee, coffee, coffee!) You need to be on top of your game making sure channels are opened at the right time (and also closed when they’re not needed). To do this, you need be eying the platform like a hawk. If there’s a cue you need to see and you can’t because of lighting or distance, I wouldn’t eliminate having a pair of binoculars at the console.
Paul Wilkinson has been leading worship in a variety of churches in Ontario, Canada, for several decades, as well as teaching on worship in various settings. He is also the editor of Christianity 201, a daily devotional.