Recently, I was at an industry conference and enjoyed dinner with a group of veteran sound people.
One of the fascinating conversations around the table involved ways to get vocals to pop out of a mix.
Many ideas we’ve all tried before where thrown around (play with phase on the vocal mic input, brighten the EQ in the 2 kHz range, use outboard gear like a harmonizer to thicken the vocal, etc.), but one of the better ideas was to drop in level the instrument(s) that are competing for the vocal space in the mix. (This is usually lead guitar.)
We all agreed that this would be a reasonable fix—but at the same time, concern was expressed as to how it might change the overall feel and sound of the song.
My friend Doug Gould was on hand. He works in the worship area for numerous audio manufacturers, while his wife Sheri offers vocal instruction and training to worship leaders.
During the discussion, Doug jumped in and observed, “Why is modern music so busy all of the time! Worship leaders don’t arrange any more, they just grab chord charts and send the worship team into action.”
He went on to explain how in modern worship, bands tend not to leave any space in the mix for the vocals to fit in and for the song to breathe.
To me, at least, this is a great insight, having been frustrated so many times when a worship song seems to disintegrate into noise.
So how can we deal with it?
1) Start with a private conversation with the worship leader about the issue. I’ve found that approaching with a proper heart (and yes, humility) will get most worship leaders to open up to ways to improve the band’s sound.
The conversation could open with something like this: “Jeff, you know how I’ve been struggling to get the vocals to stand out in the mix, and to have the band sound less like a wash of noise on Sunday mornings. I’ve been studying why this is happening, and it seems that at least part of the issue is that the band is playing over each other, which doesn’t leave enough room in the mix to let individual instruments or the vocals to stand out.”
Hopefully, this gets the dialogue started.
2) Encourage the band to get together and jam. It’s been a long time since I worked with a worship team that just hung out and jammed together on even a semi-regular basis. What typically happens is that the musicians show up for rehearsal, the songs for that week are run through—and that’s that.
But the reality is that they’re never really learning how to play together, and/or, play off of each other. The latter is really important—the ability to play off of each other creates natural spaces in the music, and it takes away the competitive angle of everyone feeling the need to compete.
3) Last resort: Actively mix the band. When the vocals come in, drop the guitars, and then bring them back up for interludes and instrumental sections. Note that unless you’re also a musician, this can be hard to do. And simply, it’s not nearly as effective as having the musicians play off of each other.
Stated a bit differently: A noisy arrangement sounds just as bad on a good sound system as it does without one, because bad music just plain sounds bad!
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator with Parkway Electric and has been involved with sound at churches for more than 30 years.