Hey Pastors, Can You Help Us to Help You?

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

Considering all the things pastors and staff do regarding sermon preparation, I’m constantly surprised how little effort goes into making sure spoken-word content is presented well from the platform. While some churches meticulously manage every technical detail of the pastor’s audio presentation, many treat it as an afterthought. As we’ve discussed in depth in previous articles, creating quality audio begins at the source. What is true for guitars and drums is also true for a pastor’s voice. The better an instrumentalist understands how his instrument interacts with a PA and broadcast system, the better it will sound.  Great studio musicians develop this skill early in their careers. How you strum your guitar, what strings to mute and when, how consistently and accurately you strike the drum are what separate the good from the great. 

I would love to be able to tell pastors to ignore the technical aspects of how their microphone responds to their voice, that it’s not their job to worry about those things. “Just go out there and preach the Word and let us worry about the rest.” But I would be lying to that pastor and putting an unrealistic burden on my audio engineer friends, implying that; no-matter-what someone on stage does, there is a technical remedy to fix it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a school of thought among some audio professionals that we should be able to handle anything our lead pastor, MC, or guest speaker throws at us, without comment or suggestion. I would never expect a church communicator to drastically change their teaching/preaching style solely for technical reasons. But it is reasonable to discuss how much a communicator’s technique, or lack thereof, affects the engineer’s ability to process the content.   

We have more tools than ever in our digital consoles to aid in making up for bad habits, poorly placed headset mics and wildly dynamic content. But it’s a little unfair, particularly in small churches, to expect an inexperienced tech or volunteer to repair what shouldn’t be broken in the first place. My philosophy is: 

Work on getting the best source possible and then use the digital tools (if needed) to enhance what is already pretty good. 

If you’re a staff audio engineer, volunteer on the audio team, or tech director, read on, and consider sharing this article with your pastors and key communicators, as we dive into what it takes to get great spoken-word content into your PA and broadcast systems.

Best Practices for Headset microphones

There are a variety of manufacturers and types of headsets designed for spoken-word. Almost all of them have single ear, and dual ear fitting options, and options for a more or less discrete look. More importantly, is the pick-up pattern of the mic itself; typically described as Omni-directional, Cardioid (aka uni-directional), and in some cases Hyper-Cardioid. DPA has a detailed description of the differences on their website

Essentially, omni-directional has a wide pick up pattern, while cardioid-design has a narrow, more focused pattern, that rejects sounds not directly near the mic. Each design has its strengths and weaknesses. The omni pattern can have a smoother overall tone but may be prone to feedback in reverberant, uncontrolled environments. The cardioid pattern will reject feedback more easily, but is less forgiving when not in close proximity to the source. I would encourage you to do your own experimentation specifically in your environment. In my experience; omni-directional mics perform better in a fairly neutral or acoustically treated space, where the pastor does not require his voice to be routed through stage monitors (more on that in a bit). In live, reflective environments, when stage monitors are in use, I prefer the extra control with a cardioid headset. Regardless of the type headset you settle on, the primary contributing factor to the success of your spoken-word content is consistent microphone placement.

I can’t tell you how many times I see pastors put their mics on improperly or loosely. Once I had a professional guest speaker wear his headset as if we were mic’ing his eyebrows. This is the easiest thing to fix, and the most distracting element of your presentation when ignored. 

Years ago I was working with a local church and we purchased a new headset mic for the pastor. One afternoon I ran into him in the hallway and he was wearing the headset. He told me he was wearing it a few hours each day to get used to it, so it would feel natural. Admittedly it seemed a bit silly at the time, but in retrospect I think it was a great idea. 

Pastors and engineers need to work together, some time, other than Sunday morning, to establish a standard positioning that works for the individual. Each headset manufacturer has their own placement recommendations. Start with their suggestions and adjust as needed for optimum sound quality. A common placement recommendation is about an inch from the corner of the communicator’s mouth. But everyone’s facial structure is unique, so proper fitting will require some experimentation. From an audio engineer’s perspective, as you’re helping your pastor or guest speaker with the headset, keep a few things in mind. If the headset is too tight and rubs against their cheek or neck, you will get structural noise from the unit itself. Ideally the mic should not touch the cheek if possible. This is especially important  when working with a bearded or fashionably unshaven communicator. Conversely, if the headset is too loose you will get unwanted noise from the movement of the mic and inconsistent audio levels. Judicious use of the high-pass filter on your console settings can help eliminate some structural noise and unwanted breath sounds. But there’s no substitute for a well positioned microphone.

Once you find the best placement, the next step is working with the headset to make sure it stays in position. Consider using a dual earpiece or some costume tape to hold it in place. Once you’ve found the optimum placement take a selfie as a reference.  Use a mirror or your peripheral vision so you know when the mic is in the sweet spot. The pastor I mentioned above developed the muscle memory to know exactly where his mic should sit.

A quick reminder to the ladies. Dangling earrings can be a huge distraction and if you insist on wearing them, they could be a problem, no matter how good your engineer is.

Dynamics of the voice

As I mentioned above, I would never expect a church communicator to drastically change their teaching/preaching style solely for technical reasons. But it is reasonable to ask you to listen to recordings of yourself for extreme changes in your delivery. Does your vocal “volume” fluctuate from a 0 to a 10? These intervals will have substantial downstream effects beyond what your audio engineer can compensate for. YouTube viewers and streaming listeners may find themselves constantly adjusting their volume, just to maintain a normal listening level. There are some digital tools that can minimize this effect to some degree, but reducing extremes in the dynamic range of spoken-word content is always best when it starts at the source. Rather than working in a range of zero to ten, consider making your zero a 3 or 4, and your ten at 7 or 8. Thus narrowing the presentation to more manageable levels. I’ve known professional voiceover artists and some newscasters who practice speaking with a decibel meter to train themselves to stay within a pre-defined dynamic range. I’m not saying to remove passion and expression from your communication style. I’m simply giving examples of how various extremes in speech can distract from the intended message.

Wedge monitors with headset mics

I’ve been in many churches that have no onstage monitors at all, as In-ear-monitor systems have eliminated the need altogether. Some communicators are perfectly fine with no stage monitors. However, I have worked in churches where the lead teacher/communicator prefers to hear themselves through stage or wedge monitors. I’ve talked with some sound engineers who don’t understand this. But I think its completely reasonable, especially in very large auditoriums. Imagine taking away a worship leaders IEMs and expecting him to sing or speak clearly, while only hearing reflections of their voice off the rear wall. 

Accommodating this need is tricky but not impossible. Headset mics are notorious for feedback when fed through wedge monitors, considering the microphone is actually pointing at the monitor itself. If the wedge monitors are only being used for the headset mic, then simply set the EQ curve to eliminate problem frequencies generated by the headset. Don’t be surprised that this EQ curve will be rather drastic and unsuitable for any other source you wish to monitor. If the monitors are serving double duty for other sources, such as vocals, instrumentation or other hand-held microphones then you must take a different approach. Leave the master EQ on the wedge(s) appropriate for the  other sources. Then double patch the input of the headset mic into an un-used channel of the console. This is a simple process available on almost all current digital consoles. Now your headset mic is feeding 2 individual channels. Use the 1st channel as you normally would in the PA and broadcast feeds. The 2nd  channel is only used to feed the wedge monitors. This enables you to apply the drastic EQ settings on the 2nd headset channel, required to prevent feedback. In this scenario a cardioid headset is usually more suitable than an omni-directional one.  

It’s a journey

Hopefully I’ve presented some ideas that will resonate with your ministry, both technically and culturally.  Odds are, many pastors and communicators are unaware this problem even exists, but I’m pretty sure lots of engineers deal with this virtually every week. Improvement will require intentional cooperation between tech and leadership. I look forward to hearing how you are getting the best results in your spoken-word content. You can contact me at rcochran@worshipfacility.com

Until then, don’t forget to listen!

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