One of my favorite things to do is train church audio people. Most of the time, it’s on the heels of a recent equipment upgrade — a new console, PA, or an entirely new system in a brand-new building. These are exciting times, and it’s a great time for a church to re-evaluate their processes and contemplate the “why behind the what.”
As Ministry Leaders, we must clearly communicate our expectations to our church audio team. To do so, I would encourage stakeholders to develop a short mission statement with specific metrics that align with your ministry goals. Most audio professionals already have a personal mixing style and are willing and able to fine-tune it to the needs of leadership. This may be a bit more challenging for volunteers. In either case, if you don’t set a target, odds are you’ll miss it. Establishing and articulating a mix philosophy will set a standard by which the success of your audio experience can be measured.
As you consider all the elements that go into the live worship experience, it’s easy to begin narrowing down what will be most effective for your church. I would begin by considering some basic questions. What inspires our congregation to engage in worship rather than simply observe it? And what can we do to encourage congregational participation?
Bridging the gap between leadership’s vision and technical execution doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, it should be as simple as possible. Here are a few examples of a successful worship mixing process in non-technical terms:
- If the PA system is too loud, we’re drowning out worshippers. If it’s too quiet, people are less likely to engage.
- Judicious use of sub energy (low frequencies; bass guitars, kick drum etc.) can help enhance a mix without it feeling loud.
- Be cautious with harsh midrange frequencies (electric guitars, cymbals, etc.) that can make a mix seem louder than it is.
- Observe the congregation; listen to the room, not just the PA.
- Make the main thing the main thing. If your church is vocally driven, don’t be afraid to place guitars and other supporting instrumentation farther back in the mix. Remember, no one ever said, “I really could have gotten to the throne if the guitarist shredded a little more.”
- Remember, you don’t have to hear everything on stage all the time. If everything is big, then nothing is big.
- Actively mix each song according to its desired outcome and style. Slower and introspective songs require a different approach than more upbeat songs. There is no “set it and forget it” in worship audio.
- Your foundation of a large (but not loud) supportive sounding mix is what gives the congregation permission to stand and be moved in worship. The vocals are what lead them and inspire them to participate in the experience.
- Create a distraction-free environment by being prepared and well versed in the programming. You may have built a beautiful and inspiring mix that brings tears to our eyes, but if the pastor’s mic doesn’t work when he comes to the platform, you have failed. A friend of mine says, “An unrehearsed transition is like a coin toss on a windy day.” Stay focused on who is on the platform and what is happening next.
- All audio starts at the source. Work towards cultivating an environment of trust between the platform and the sound-booth. Do not assume that every musician knows how to make their instrument sound its best through a PA. The same goes for pastor headsets or lavalier microphones. A poorly placed or unstable headset mic on the teaching pastor can be a huge distraction. Build relationships that earn you the credibility to work cooperatively with the worship team and teachers.
Putting all these concepts together into a concise mix philosophy statement will look something like this.
Mix Philosophy for XYZ Church:
- Create an engaging, distraction free environment by focusing on congregational worship with clarity of vocals and spoken word.
- Actively mix with a reliable tonal reference and foundational support for each individual song.
- Mix big, not loud.
- Remain aware and responsive to sound levels/frequencies and their effect on the congregation.
- Provide guidance and assistance to teachers/worship leaders/musicians to maximize their contribution (via mic placement, instrument tones, etc.).
- Lead by example with confidence and humility.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include a decibel level (maximum volume) in this discussion. I understand that it may ultimately become a component of your mix philosophy. I certainly believe there should be a dB meter in the sound booth for reference. Sometimes, especially for less experienced audio mixers, the dB level itself becomes the measure of success at the expense of other, even more crucial metrics. I would suggest that if you’re achieving all the standards addressed above, the actual dB level won’t be a major factor.
Depending on your church’s style and objectives, the details of your mix philosophy may look very different from this one. But the self-assessment and intentionality of creating one will enable your team to work towards a common vision. The key to success in this endeavor is cooperation and understanding between visionary leadership and the technical creators in your organization.
I look forward to hearing what kind of mix philosophy your church is developing. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.