Audio Issues for Today

by | Jan 3, 2022 | Audio, Production, Streaming, Worship Service Planning

By Samantha Potter, originally posted in Technologies for Worship Magazine

Houses of worship have been catapulted into this century over the last two years. It’s been amazing and incredibly difficult. The best part of all of this hubbub is that services are more accessible. No longer must we have people be there in the flesh (although that is preferential). No longer must our congregations be made up of exclusively geographically-close folks. The word “community” takes on a whole new meaning! This is exciting! Weather is less of an issue, personal health is less of an issue, and so much more. However, with all this new accessibility, comes great responsibility. 

Let’s look at some common audio issues and see how to solve them.

Interactive Services

Services and events can now have an element of hybridity and interactivity. We just have to be careful about tending to everyone’s needs without crossing any wires. The goal is to have a live service happening in the room with some people in attendance, while also having others join via video and be able to participate/be heard by the people live in the room. 

How do you do this well?

The method that we’ll be using to achieve this is called a “Mix Minus,” where you send an entire audio mix somewhere minus a few inputs. In our scenario, you may have an entire mix to send out to stream where people can watch the service later or watch live without interacting. Then, we’ll create a version of that mix sans interactive folks and send it to the video conferencing platform. In other words, we’ll copy the mix from the stream and send it to the folks logging in on Zoom minus what Zoom sends us. This will prevent a horrible feedback loop or even more annoying, a very delayed echo that goes on forever and makes it impossible for anyone to speak over. 

For the houses of worship that want to have interactivity in their services, this is how I would set it up:

The front of house (FOH) gets its normal mix. The broadcast feed will receive its own special mix made specifically with a remote audience in mind. And then the Zoom computer gets a copy of the broadcast, without Zoom actually in it.

The folks logging in on Zoom can hear each other just fine; they don’t need to be sent yet another version. And, we want to make sure that the people in the sanctuary and the people on the broadcast are able to hear the people on Zoom when they are participating in the service. 

Achieving this is different on every console. One option is to send the broadcast feed into a Matrix that leads out to Zoom. Then that Matrix is also sent to another Matrix where it is combined with the Zoom feed to be sent out to the internet or recording device. This gives us two excellent mixes, one without Zoom. Other consoles use the exact term, “mix minus” and are set up in their own special way. Never be afraid to read the manual!

I highly recommend using a secondary computer to run Zoom or other video conferencing solution. A computer doesn’t like sending audio to itself, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. By having an entirely separate computer run the video conferencing, we know we are only sending them their special mix, and we’re only receiving the attendees’ voices. 

This can be a logistical nightmare at times, so when you are setting this all up to do extensive testing, have backup mutes and controls just in case!

Translating Mixes

What feels like a tale as old as time at this point—getting a great mix in a room and getting a great mix for someone on YouTube—are two very different beasts. Rooms are notoriously hard to mix because there are so many reflections, hard surfaces, and other variables to overcome. Some of those variables, though, actually give something to the mix—space. You can hear and feel how large a room is just by listening. What doesn’t YouTube get? Space. 

Broadcast mixes for streaming have been known to be dry, sterile, and unforgiving. It’s almost as if a giant magnifying glass is put on the musicians and the speakers and every semitone or cent they are off feels like a gigantic error. We can minimize this and get some of that “room magic” into our streams with a couple tips:

  • Use effects (FX) that may only be used in the stream. We spend ages dialing in our FX for the room and the same attention will be necessary for the stream. When I’ve got the bus count or when I’m fortunate enough to have my own console for broadcast mixing, I use FX that will only appear in the stream itself. A couple that come to mind are reverbs and compressors. The stream or broadcast feed needs to have its own space created from scratch so that it feels like it’s happening in a sized room that it is actually happening in. While reverbs will help us build that space, the compressors will help us keep transients in check and ensure that our levels are very consistent—another important key to streaming to the internet. Dynamics are amazing in person. Streaming codecs don’t really like them as much.
  • Use a crowd mic. Another way to capture that “room magic” is to literally capture it with a mic. A crowd mic will pick up the congregants singing along and all those reflections bouncing around everywhere that tell our brain where things are in space. Feeding that into a stream mix can make it feel as though the listener is in the room, instead of just observing it. Extra tip: this mic can also be fed to musician in-ear monitors to have them feel more connected to the congregation!

Seat-to-Seat Consistency

Some congregations may be a little more physically spread out these days in our sanctuaries. It is important we keep in mind that all seats in the house should be receiving the same experience. We can control this in a number of ways.

  • Be sure our speaker coverage is even. If not every seat in the house has some kind of speaker pointed at it, they’re not going to have a “good” experience. Having two rows off to the left that can hear the service, but it’s a bit muffled, is not a “good” experience. We want every person to feel like they’ve got a front-row seat. This will usually mean you must bring in a systems tech or a systems engineer. They’ve got a suite of information and tools at their disposal that can tune and confirm that each seat in the house is covered and receiving as close to the identical thing as possible. If you don’t have enough speakers, or a speaker is blown, or something else, they will let you know how to fix it. Piece of cake!
  • Refrain from going pan-crazy. A little panning of your inputs here and there (particularly in a stereo mix) can create plenty of sonic space for each instrument in the mix. Why we must restrain ourselves is because if we start going crazy and hard-panning left and right, there will be entire sections of the congregation that will either a) not hear it at all, or b) barely hear it. A sprinkle of panning here and there is absolutely okay! Just be a little cautious. If you’re using a left-center-right (LCR) system, you’ve got much more leeway since it’s almost as if you have a third dimension to work with. 

This is an exciting new world we’re all entering into here in house-of-worship land. I’m looking forward to seeing all the things this community comes up with as our technology and understanding skyrocket into the future!

Samantha Potter is an audio engineer, author, and editor for ProSoundWeb with a passion for mixing and educating. She’s also the manager of commercial and install audio for Allen & Heath USA, the host of Church Sound Podcast, and the lead instructor for Church Sound University. She taught two CSU Audio Training sessions at CFX 2021.

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