Getting Great Church Sound

Getting Great Church Sound

Introduction

One of the reasons why Josh and I set out to create Worship Innovation was because of a huge issue in the local church: lack of trained sound & media volunteers. It seems like every church I visit, or every worship leader I visit with is always having an issue with the production at their church, specifically sound. Josh and I have visited with many worship leaders that deal with people consistently complaining about church services being too loud, others will complain that they can’t hear the vocals over the sound of the drums. There are many other complaints that I could list but the issue is this: your worship service doesn’t sound like you want it to on Sunday. This is a problem, and I hope that we at Worship Innovation can help you fix it.

Understanding Your System

The first thing that I encourage all worship leaders to have their sound volunteers do is learn the system. It is very important that your volunteers understand the inner-workings of your sound system. They need to understand what cables are running where, and they also need to be familiar with possible points of failure. This is by no means a fun process. Learning the make up and wiring of a system is very time consuming, and usually requires reading through many manuals for different pieces of gear. Reading these manuals can sometimes be like reading another language. The task can be daunting, but when you have volunteers that understand the entire anatomy of your sound system the reward is great. If you, the worship leader, or head sound volunteer, don’t understand the anatomy of the system, then I suggest you start to do some digging. You’ll be greatly surprised by how much easier it is to troubleshoot issues once you understand how everything works. A doctor has to know how a human body functions so that they can accurately diagnose issues with our health, likewise, you are the primary care physician of your church’s sound system. Study the system anatomy so that you can easily prescribe medicine to fix issues with system health.

System Optimization

Once you understand how your system should theoretically work you now need to optimize the system so that it functions as designed. This means making sure that your gain structure and room EQ are set properly. Usually this requires the help of a trained professional, but I understand that many churches can’t afford to hire an audio integrator to come out and tune up their system—If you can afford to have your system professionally tuned, however, I’d greatly recommend it

Gain Structure

The most important part of gain structure is making sure that your power amps have the correct input sensitivity for your room. Many people think that the “volume” knobs on a power amp regulate the power sent to the speaker. This is false. A power amp puts out the same amount of power to a speaker regardless of where the “volume” knobs are, that is because the so-called “volume” knob is actually an input sensitivity control. This input sensitivity control adjusts speaker output by making the amplifier more sensitive to incoming signal. For larger spaces the amps will need to be more sensitive so that they can put out more sound, but for smaller spaces the amps won’t need to be as sensitive.

Setting System Gain Structure

  1. Connect a playback device to your mixing console and set the console gain structure so that your channel is peaking at unity gain (0 dBu for Analog Mixers, -18 dB FS for Digital Mixers).

  2. Adjust the input sensitivity of your amplifiers until the sound in your room is at a desirable level.

  3. As an extra step you can set up an RTA (Real Time Analyzer) Mic, or SPL Meter, in the center of your room approx. 2/3 of the way back and use this to measure the SPL level in your room. This will give you an exact measurement of how loud the room is. Most people’s comfort zone is around 80-95 dB SPL. If you get into the 100s then you’re way too loud.

Setting the system gain structure in this way will allow you to get more sound coming from the mixer which helps you overcome the noise floor of the mixer.

Room EQ

Room EQ is a huge portion of getting a great sounding mix. Every room is different and Room EQ allows you to adjust the frequencies coming out of the speakers to prevent build up caused by issues in your room. In a perfect world all of the sound coming out of our speakers would be absorbed, eliminating the need for corrective room EQ but this isn’t how rooms work. Sound comes out of your speakers and gets reflected off of hard surfaces. This could be a wall, a projector, a member of your congregation sitting in a pew, literally any hard surface. These reflections can cause phasing issues with your audio, and they can even create standing audio waves in the room called room modes. These phase issues and room modes will cause certain frequencies to stand out more in your room. This can contribute to feedback issues, or can even increase the perceived loudness of your room. Here are some basic steps to correct your room’s EQ.

  1. Connect a playback device to your mixing console. Use this to play pink noise through your system. (Here is a link to a pink noise audio file. Alternatively, if you’re using a digital mixer with a built in oscillator you can use that to send pink noise out of your system.)

  2. Set an RTA Mic in the center of your room approx. 2/3 of the way back.

  3. Use a RTA software like Smaart or Flux to monitor the output of your speakers. This will allow you to see if there are any frequencies sticking out in your room. (If you’re using a digital mixer that has a built in RTA then you can feel free to use that as well, instead of Smaart or Flux)

  4. Place a graphic equalizer on the main output of your mixing console (If you’re using a digital console this can easily be done without the use of any external gear.)

  5. Find the frequencies that are louder than the rest using your RTA and adjust the graphic EQ to bring those frequencies down.

  6. Repeat step 5 until your Room EQ is essentially flat.

These system optimization techniques are not something you should regularly change. It is a good habit to optimize your system every 2-5 years. This way you can ensure the system is still functioning as designed.

Train Your Volunteers

Many churches have volunteers running their sound, which is awesome!! However, many sound volunteers were chosen because they have a warm body and a good spirit, this is great when dealing with people but not great when it comes to mixing audio. The reason why many sound volunteers don’t feel like they can do a good job is because they haven’t been equipped to succeed. I can not possibly get in to everything that your volunteers need to know in order to be successful as a sound engineer, but here are some concepts that you should make sure that your volunteers know.

  1. Mixer Gain Structure (This is Different than System Gain Structure)

  2. Routing & Signal Path within your mixing console as well as on stage

  3. Understanding the difference in Microphone Type (Dynamic, Condenser, Ribbon) and Microphone Polar Patterns (Omnidirectional, Cardioid, Hyper-Cardioid, Bi-Directional, etc.)

  4. How to use Equalizers & Filters

  5. How to use Gates & Compressors

  6. How to use and route time based effects (Reverbs, Delays, Chorus, etc.)

  7. How to build a mix

  8. How to run an effective soundcheck

These steps are in no particular order but are super important for volunteers to know. I intend on writing articles over each of these topics and as I do you’ll notice hyperlinks embedded on the text that will lead you to another blog article. Having volunteers that know these fundamental concepts of mixing will greatly improve the quality of your mix on Sunday.

Perhaps the best way to train your volunteers is a live in person training session. There are many great resources available in this area. First, I’d recommend that you email us on our contact page to see about hosting a live Worship Innovation training event at your church. Josh and I have a great heart towards training sound volunteers and worship leaders. We’d love to talk with you about visiting your church and helping you out. Also, you can check out churchsoundcheck.com to see about attending a “Church Sound Bootcamp” with Curt Taiple. I attended one of his seminars years ago and it changed my entire view of audio. Curt is awesome. Lastly, you could reach out to a local audio integrator and see about having them come and train some of your sound personnel.

If in person training doesn’t work for your church, there are great resources online for you to follow. First, check out the Worship Innovation Podcast. Josh and I meet up every week to talk about something related to Worship and Media. We also have the blog articles on our website ranging over various topics. We’re constantly coming up with new ideas for articles so check back every Monday to see what we’re releasing. Finally, we have our YouTube channel where we release content every Wednesday coming soon. These videos will come from the same topics that we discuss in the blog, as well as the podcast, but will go further in depth to try and visually show you how things are done.

Define A Great Service

This last tip for getting great sound is by far the most important. If you want to have a great sounding service, you need for first define what a great service is. If you tell your team members “just do whatever sounds good” and let them run loose, they could misinterpret your vision for the service. If you define what your end goal of the service is for the volunteer, they should be able to use the knowledge they have to make your vision come to life. This isn’t to say that you should tell your sound volunteer how to do their job. There is nothing more frustrating than a person on stage telling the sound engineer “I think you should try mixing this way” when they don’t even have a full idea of what the mix sounds like. You aren’t limiting the creativity of your sound volunteers, instead you’re sharing the vision for the service with them. Here is an example of how this can play out.

WL: “Hey man! During this Night of Worship I’m really wanting an intimate vibe. We’re going with an acoustic set and I’m hoping that it will really bring the audience in to worship with us. I still think we need to have a big sound, but I think having a more intimate setting on stage will help the audience engage and experience God’s presence.”

Volunteer: “That sounds awesome! I’ll do what I can to make it happen.”

Now the volunteer fully understands what the service is supposed to look like. You didn’t tell them how to do their job, but you gave them a good idea of what you want the service experience to be like. In order to still get a big sound you might be using more effects to meet the vision or using many other techniques to get the sound you want. If you hadn’t had the conversation with the sound tech, however, then they might have just mixed the service as usual. Since you had less musicians on stage the service might not have sounded as good. There’s a great quote by Zig Ziglar that says “If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.”  If you don’t give your sound volunteers anything to aim at, they’ll miss the mark every time. If you clearly define your vision for the service, they at least have a target to aim at and if they miss the mark it gives you a great opportunity to pour into them as a pastor.

Conclusion

Achieving a great mix on Sunday can seem like an impossible feat. However, with an understanding of how your system is designed, proper system optimization, and properly trained volunteers you can have great mixes every Sunday. Training your volunteers in the fundamentals of audio will greatly help them understand how to get a great mix every week. Finally, clearly defining goals and expectations for your sound volunteers is crucial. This allows them to know what is expected and allows them to buy in to the vision of your worship ministry.

The bulk of this information is not very technical, it’s more philosophical. There are a plethora of articles written about the technical side of getting great sound, but so many worship & technology pastors miss the mark on the philosophy of why we even have a sound team in the first place. The technical information is important—which is why we’re constantly writing articles and producing content covering technical issues—but our philosophy is the heart that remains in the center of all we do.

God Bless,

Tyler Dickey

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