Breaking Down The Musical Pie
One of the biggest struggles for worship bands is getting a great blend on the stage. It seems like I’m always hearing sound engineers complain of the mix sounding muddy and cluttered. Many people try to fix this issue with EQ, Panning, & Level in the mix but sometimes, these just don’t work. What can you do? Is there no fix for this issue? Surely this must be the sound man’s fault? FALSE!! This issue, many times, is caused by the worship band themselves and, unfortunately, many worship leaders don’t understand how to resolve it. Music is like a pie and every band member has a specific piece of pie to eat. When the music isn’t balanced, it’s usually because someone is taking more of the pie than they should.
The Musical Pie
You’ve probably figured out that I’m an audio nerd by now, and I’m okay with this. Understanding the fundamental concepts of audio can greatly help you as a musician. When we’re working with our worship bands to produce a song to play on Sunday, we need to understand where all of the different instruments fit in the audio spectrum.
This chart is one that many sound engineers have probably seen, but many musicians have no idea what they are looking at. You’ll find this chart on many different blog articles that use it as a tool to teach you how to EQ. I don’t like using the chart in this way because it teaches you to EQ with your eyes instead of your ears. However, this chart can be a great tool for understanding where certain instruments produce sounds and how you can piece them together to produce a full sound. Pay attention to the legend in the bottom right corner. The red boxes show the fundamental notes for an instrument, these are the notes the instrument naturally makes. The yellow boxes show the harmonics produced by the instrument, these harmonics are sympathetic notes, and overtones, created by the instruments. By looking at this chart, you can get an idea of where each instrument on your stage falls in the frequency spectrum & where they best fit in the mix. All of these different frequencies make up “The Musical Pie.” You can easily see there are a limited number of slices to go around so it becomes very important that you keep this spectrum balanced within your band.
Sharing The Pie
Now that you understand this whole pie analogy we can discuss sharing the pie. Let’s say that we have a band with a Drummer, Bassist, Piano/Keys, Synth/Pads, Lead Electric, Rhythm Electric, Acoustic Guitar, a Male Vocalist, & a Female Vocalist. This model has become the standard for worship bands in the past 5-10 years. All of these instruments are capable in playing in different registers of this audio spectrum. Lets break down how we can piece these different instruments together
The Drums occupy a wide range of frequencies, but the notes aren’t sustained very long so this doesn’t usually contribute to a “muddy” sounding mix.
The bass has a limited frequency range since it is confined to the lower register of notes. This allows the bass to safely live in the 50-250 hz range. However, basses should typically stick to their lower register and avoid higher notes as this will interfere with some of the low notes on a guitar, as well as the piano. Notice on the chart that the bass and guitars start to overlap around 80-100 hz. Watch your bass player and make sure he’s sticking to the 3rd & 4th strings on his bass so that he isn’t interfering with other instruments.
Guitars have a rather wider frequency range running from about 80 Hz to 1.25 kHz which makes for the need of some coordination between players. Usually an acoustic guitar player is strumming open chord shapes, which means that they’re taking up the lower frequencies and the lower mid frequencies. The electric guitars, however, don’t usually have to plan around around the acoustic player because of the difference in harmonics. I mentioned earlier that the chart shows fundamental & harmonic notes, and that the harmonics were sympathetic notes created by the instrument. These harmonics are what create the timbre of an instrument. Since electric guitars & acoustic guitars have different timbres they usually separate well in a mix. However, two electric guitars need to coordinate since they usually share the same harmonics. As a general rule of thumb one guitar player should be playing lower on the neck, usually playing power chords or open chords, while the other is playing melody notes/lead lines higher up the neck. This provides a separation between the two electric players because they’re playing in different registers. If, you have two guitar players that constantly play in the same register, perhaps try to convince one of them to play higher up the neck, or change the rhythm of the notes they are playing in order to get a better blend between the guitars.
Keys & Synthesizers have the widest range of frequencies to be played. This makes them very flexible instruments. I usually think of these instruments as glue to put the whole mix together since they can easily fill in the gaps of a mix. I like to have my pads and synth leads taking up the higher register where the electric guitars can’t go, & I like to have my keyboards to be in the upper mids filling in the gaps between the electric guitars as well. Pads & Synths can even play notes in the low frequency spectrum to add another dimension to the low end of your mix. These instruments can really be placed anywhere in the mix, but exercise caution when these instruments overlap with others. Usually keys and synths are more ambient sounds containing lots of compression and reverb. You traditionally don’t want to play busy rhythms (8th notes or 16th notes) on these instruments when playing in a band. I’ve been in many bands where the keyboardist is amazing as a soloist, but plays too busy in the band. This usually leads to a muddy mix where other instruments can’t be heard.
A quick word about vocals. You can’t really change what frequencies the vocals live in since every vocalist is different. However, you can change the timbre of the voice by changing where the voice resonates. A good vocalist will have their voice resonate in “the mask” of their face. This allows the voice to resonate slightly in your nasal cavity which adds a brighter tone to the voice. This brighter timbre will allow the voice to cut through the mix and be more distinguished. If you have a vocalist that places their resonance further back in the larynx, the voice will be harder to distinguish in the mix because it shares similar harmonics with other instruments. This part of vocal performance takes great practice and I recommend you research this topic further. Here is a link to a YouTube video taking about resonating your voice in “the mask” of your face.
Eating The Pie
We’ve talked about what “The Musical Pie” is and now you understand how the pie is shared between musicians. Finally, let’s talk about eating the pie. One of the hardest, and most time consuming, parts of cooking is preparation. What you’ve just done is prepped yourself to cook this musical pie, now you have to share this with your band. If you can get your band to buy into this idea of sharing the frequency spectrum like you share slices of pie, you’ll get to experience the best part of cooking: eating what you’ve cooked. Baking a pie is not small task. It requires hard work to make the crust from scratch, make the filling & topping, and then finally time to put it in the oven and cook. Your worship band is no different. Teach your musicians about this concept giving them a strong foundation to grow on, this is building your crust. Try enacting this concept and make sure your instrumentalists are sharing the frequencies and playing in the correct register, this is your filling & topping. Once you’ve started using this concept you’ll begin to notice that, over time, your musicians don’t require as much guidance. They’ll start to share the pie on their own. Once you’ve reached that point you’ll be able to fully enjoy the musical pie that you’ve been cooking all this time.
What About The Sound Guy?
After reading this you might be thinking: “Isn’t this the sound man’s job?” To an extent the answer is yes, but remember: You can polish dirt all you want, but at the end of the day it will just be shiny dirt. If you polish a diamond, that came out of the dirt, it will be shiny and have enormous value. If you give your sound guy dirt, he can polish it all he wants but he can’t change dirt into anything but dirt. If you give him a diamond to polish, he’ll polish the diamond and make it even more valuable.
I really hope this article has helped you understand more about the frequency spectrum and how it plays a huge role in making great sounding music every week. I use this knowledge every single time I work with a band, whether that is in church or outside of church. You’ll begin to notice that all of the professional bands that you listen to use this knowledge too. This is how they create a layered mix where every instrument can be heard easily. The frequency spectrum is like a pie, and everyone has an equal slice that they take up. If someone starts to take up more frequencies than they should, they start to take a bite out of someone else’s pie leading to a bad mix. However, when everyone in the band works as a team and shares the pie the music sounds great and the end result is a great mix from week to week.