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Church Sound: Who Are You Mixing For?
The short answer is that it's not just you...
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A number of years ago, a guy ostensibly working in “professional audio” told me that the reason he mixed the events he did (they were generally smaller local events) was so he could turn up the bass as loud as he could and/or as loud as was possible. 

Personally, I’m glad I didn’t attend any of these events. It’s not that I don’t like bass, it’s more that he was more concerned about how it sounded to him rather that what best fit the audience. (Hence my quote marks around the term professional audio.)

Fast forward to last night. I was doing some consulting work for a local church, which included mixing the evening service. But I chose to defer to the person originally scheduled to mix, instead offering to assist.

Now, I’ve mixed events much larger and more pressure-packed than this one, so I wasn’t intimidated. Rather, I deferred because I didn’t know the audience. Did they prefer 80 dBA or 100 dBA? Do they want to feel the kick drum pound on their chest? How much in front of the mix should the worship leader be? 

Not knowing the answer to these questions (and more), I probably would have offended at least some of the people attending that evening.

I thought it better to support the guy in any way possible while getting a handle on the expectations of the audience, and then using that input to help him “tighten up” his mix. This also served to foster a team approach, where we worked as partners rather than me stepping on his toes, which could have been counterproductive to what we were both trying to achieve.

What does mixing for the audience entail?

1) Know the people and their expectations. Sometimes it’s hard to ask them how a mix sounded because of fear of criticism. Yet it’s the best way to get to know the expectations of those that attend a given church week after week.

Note that I’m not suggesting going out of your way to look for criticism; rather, to gather a range of input that can help you understand the group consensus.

2) Listen with the audience. Simply, get out of the sound booth and go where the people sit.  I highly recommend doing this during rehearsal times. When you have your mix set, and all of the musicians are happy with their monitor mix (does that ever really happen?), take a walk and listen. 

If your sound system is designed properly, the direct energy from the loudspeakers should be relatively consistent throughout the space. Evaluate the energy that comes back into the seating area from the rest of the room.  You might find that you can take steps for improvement; say, for example, clarifying vocals by using less vocal effects.

What also changes is the acoustical energy coming from the stage. You might be able to formulate some stage layout techniques to help control how much—and where—that energy goes.

3) Ask someone whose ears (and opinions) you trust sit evaluate your mix from several different audience locations. If this is done over a period of time, you’ll also need to consider additional factors, like what instruments are on the stage for different services that were critiqued, and what musicians were playing (the quiet percussionist, the obnoxious drummer, and so on). 

All of this is valuable information to put in your mental library. It’s been of particular help to me when mixing the “church marching band” (what I call most church orchestras because they tend to consist of a lot of brass and very few strings). Stage layout can make a big difference in these cases, along with compensating in the mix by emphasizing the strings and de-emphasizing the brass.

4) Enlist musicians not on stage to be your ears in the audience, and ask them for constructive criticism, and also value their input rather than get defensive. I’ve found that some musicians have pretty good ears and can often describe a problem. It might be something like “the sound was kind of purple” or “the mid range sounded like chocolate milk fudge,” which calls for some interpretation on your part…

But think it through. Purple is a dark color, but not black, so I would start evaluating the 150 to 250 Hz range. Chocolate is brown, and fudge is gooey, so I’ll consider the 300 to 500 Hz range. And so on…

Musicians can also tell you what they’re not hearing in the mix (“the acoustic was buried”), which is helpful.

A positive byproduct of this approach is that the musicians will begin to trust you more as they see that you care about how it sounds to them.

Mixing for the audience is not as easy as it sounds, but learning how, and thus being sensitive to the audience and their expectations, makes everyone happier—not just you.

Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator with Parkway Electric and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 25 years.


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