Are You Controlling Your Tracks, or Are They Controlling You?

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

In our previous feature “The Ethics of Pre-recorded Tracks in Worship” we discussed why you should examine the use of backing tracks and the potential effects on your team and overall worship presentation. I am grateful for the many responses from a variety of sizes and styles of churches.  My goal is always to encourage you to find your unique voice in the worship community by practicing self-assessment and intentionality. 

Now that you’ve had some time to step back and consider how much or how little is right for your ministry, I’d like to drill down on some practical applications designed to help your team improve the process of using tracks in worship. 

I’ve worked with many churches over the years and most of them struggle with the integration of tracks. In some ways implementation is easier than ever. Companies like MultiTracks.com and LoopCommunity.com provide excellent resources, and of course professionally recorded content that is easy to use. The most common scenario for playing tracks is downloading the multi-track files from the provider onto a laptop or iPad. That content is then accessed by software such as Ableton, Logic, or a provider’s proprietary software. In some cases a church will add their track computer to their Dante network and access the tracks from there. More commonly, the laptop or iPad is connected to an interface with an analog connection to the sound system. “PlayAudio12”  and “TrackRig” are some of the most common hardware units specifically designed for this purpose, but there are many on the market. 

In most cases, churches purchase multi-track subscriptions from companies similar to those listed above. This provides the worship team with every individual studio track originally recorded for the commercial release of a particular song. 

A common problem I’ve encountered is the assumption that since the content is professionally produced that it is always sonically correct. There’s no doubt that in the context of the individual recording, each track is indeed sonically correct. But let’s keep in mind, those tracks were originally recorded and mixed for a completely different medium, i.e., CDs and digital streaming, not your church’s PA system. 

In my experience most churches are dedicating 8 to 16 channels for track usage. However the multi-track files they are downloading often contain over 25 individual tracks per song. Some providers state they provide even more individual tracks, for example; “….Playback® will automatically pull from over 150 different individual instruments”. That’s a lot of audio to route into 8 or 16 channels through your PA or broadcast system. This is not an indictment of the track companies, they provide a valuable service, but in reality they are providing much more than the typical church needs. Some of them do try and simplify the process. To quote a help-center statement from a popular track provider, “When sending multiple audio outputs from Playback®, every possible instrument track is automatically grouped with other similar instruments into a bus output. With buses, Playback® does the tedious routing work for you, so that you can start using MultiOuts right away and trust that your instruments will be grouped correctly.”

Oh that it were so simple!

I spent a very fulfilling season with a church a few years ago that was really digging into improving their worship experience. The staff and volunteers were exceptionally talented. When we dissected their track process, I discovered they were using a default routing scheme similar to the one listed above. Using 8 channels for tracks; 1 for click, 1 for guide, 2 for guitars in stereo, 2 for keyboards and 2 for other miscellaneous instrumentation. The problem in this configuration was there were usually 5 or 6 individual electric guitars routed to the stereo guitar bus (channels), and at least as many keyboards/pianos routed to the stereo keyboard channels. The worship leader simply took the track provider’s default layout and assumed that all 6 of the electric guitars were necessary and beneficial to the overall mix. This was in addition to the 2 real guitarists on the worship team. It was a similar situation with the keyboards/piano. Unfortunately the result of this “wall of sound” was a cacophonous mess that overshadowed the real talent of the team. The phrase “less is more” is particularly relevant when it comes to live audio. More instruments piled on top of each other do not make your mix bigger. 

When an artist is making an album it’s not uncommon for them to record 6, 8, or even more electric guitar parts, but in the final mix they will be blended, panned, equalized, and effected with any number of studio techniques to serve the song. All 8 parts may not even be audible at the same time. The same goes for the multitude of layered keyboards and percussion tracks. In the final mix, the producer and engineer are selectively choosing which parts to use and where to place them in the audio spectrum, essentially curating the components of the song. 

As audio mixers/engineers/worship leaders we must do the same thing. We have to curate our tracks. We do this by first understanding that many of the tracks we download are simply not needed. I have a friend who refers to curating tracks as “separating the Filler from the Realer”. Curating your tracks will take some time and the first step is removing (muting) the filler content that clutters the mix and robs you of headroom. Unfortunately tracks will sound very different on your PA than they do in your office. They will also sound different in your broadcast environment. I highly recommend dedicating some time each week to play the tracks you intend to use prior to a band rehearsal through your PA and broadcast systems. You will find some of the tracks in need of drastic EQ changes. Remember, these tracks, although professionally recorded, were processed in and for a completely different environment.   

Curating your tracks includes the process of standardizing the routing. Let’s assume you have 8 channels to dedicate to tracks. Obviously 1 channel has to be dedicated to the click. I’ve worked with some churches that route the guide track (also known as the Karen track) into the click channel. This frees up 7 channels in which to route your tracks. But often the first 2 channels are dedicated to click and guide. I like stereo tracks, but that may not be important to you. A common set-up is to  use 1 mono track for click/guide, 1 mono track for sub bass content, 1 stereo pair of channels for keys/piano type sounds, 1 stereo pair of channels for electric guitars, and 1 stereo pair for percussion/drum type sounds. Regardless of which tracks you route to certain channels this should be standardized for every song. You don’t want keyboards to show up unexpectedly on your percussion channels on the second song. 

Another challenge when using downloaded tracks are the varying levels between songs. Some multi-track content is procured from the original artist/producer while some is sourced from a legal reproduction of the same work. In my experience, both sources are very well produced, and I defer to my worship leader friends to determine which they prefer. In any case the basic recorded levels of tracks will fluctuate from song to song. Yet another reason to dedicate a weekly session to curating your tracks.

As we know, it’s not uncommon for churches to rely on volunteers to mix Sunday services. While some of these volunteers are highly skilled and talented it’s not realistic to expect them to “out-mix” a lack of planning. I believe the task of preparing  tracks for Sunday should be a staff responsibility. Whoever is responsible for procuring the tracks should also curate them in preparation for Sunday. This includes listening to all the tracks, removing superfluous (filler) content, assigning proper and consistent routing and adjusting output levels so they are consistent on each song. All these processes can be implemented into the track software on the laptop or iPad and should be executed through the lens of enhancing the worship experience. If you are fortunate enough to have your audio engineers participate in this process, all the better. 

When it comes to routing tracks from the software/interface to your PA system, make an effort to group tracks with similar sonic qualities together. Acoustic guitar and electric guitar have similar names but generate very different sounds. So it’s best that they are routed separately. 

I find many track files feature auxiliary drum tracks recorded with ambient or room micing techniques. While this is creative on the CD it rarely translates well in live worship settings. Tracks that feature alternative snare sounds can become a distraction if they collide with your real drummer. No matter how precise he or she may be, the subtle differences in the actual drum strike between the real snare and the tracked snare can produce an out of phase “flam” sound. These are areas to be aware of that may detract rather than enhance the presentation. 

I’m often surprised at how thick keyboard tracks are, filling up a very wide range of frequencies. If not managed properly, this can absorb all the open space (and subsequently head-room) from your mix. It’s worth checking to see how many keyboard tracks are playing duplicate parts and removing some from the group. 

And then there’s the ubiquitous sub bass track. Depending on your mix philosophy it’s either the greatest thing ever or the complete waste of a track. While it may be a nice effect in the auditorium, it’s rarely useful in broadcast. iPhones, laptops, tablets and soundbars are simply not going to reproduce that frequency, so sometimes it’s worth using that channel for something else.

Once the tracks are curated, they can be mixed more effectively and easily at the FOH or broadcast console. Almost all modern consoles have customizable fader layout options as well as control groups such as DCAs or VCAs. As in all mixing situations it is a good practice to have a designated (or custom) layer where all the tracks are visible at a glance. This is helpful for trouble-shooting and monitoring input levels. Beyond that, I have found that assigning my track channels to similar control groups is very helpful while actually mixing. For example, I assign percussion track channels to the same DCA control group as my real drum channels. Keyboard track channels are assigned to the same DCA as the real keys and so on. This is just one of many methods of grouping tracks and actual instrumentation that I have found helpful.

As I’ve said many times before when training sound teams, you don’t have to hear everything all the time. This is especially true when it comes to tracks. 

I hope you are able to implement the practice of curating tracks into your workflow. And I look forward to hearing all about it. You can reach out to me at rcochran@worshipfacility.com

Until then, don’t forget to listen!

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