What you need to know about worship mixing from a veteran sound operator when it comes to dealing with talent, getting gear prepared, and more
January 03, 2011, by Gary Zandstra
A sound check is not always the easiest or the most fun thing to do. However when it is done in an orderly and proper fashion it will set the tone for the service.
Sound check vs. rehearsal
There is often a debate of what constitutes a sound check and what makes a rehearsal, the lines between the two often get blurred.
For me a sound check is a maximum of 15 minutes with the band where I check input levels and do some initial EQ work.
During that time I take the lead and control the flow. Musicians may provide input or ask to use a different order, but I am in charge.
Following the sound check, I turn over control of the stage to the worship leader who’s running the rehearsal portion.
During this time the worship leader is in control and I can ask to stop or redo a section, but this is his time to get the band comfortable and tight on stage.
This also is the time when monitor levels are set and tweaked, and tweaked, and tweaked…
Are musicians ever satisfied with the monitor mix? More on that later.
Ten Steps To a Powerful Worship Service
1. Be Prepared!
Being prepared means “being all there” ready to engage and doing your best! I realize that sound checks and rehearsals can be tedious. However this is your opportunity to get off to the right start.
You need to have all the tools and “stuff” necessary right down to the board tape to label the console.
If you know you will get thirsty have your bottled water handy so you don’t have to chase it down. On the same note, use the facilities ahead of time, not during sound check or rehearsal.
2. Have an input list and keep it handy!
Under pressure, my brain throws up the blue screen of death. Because of that I have learned to write things down!
At all times I keep a pen in my pocket and if I don’t have a piece of paper, my original palm pilot (my hand) becomes the notation point.
Before the first musician arrives I make sure that the board is labeled and that I know where every input is plugged into and patched to!
3. Stage Layout
Another thing which I feel is of utmost importance is to have the stage layout pre-determined and all of the equipment in place including mic stands, music stands (with stand lights if necessary), direct boxes, monitors, etc.
I also make sure that all of the chords are dressed and neat so that when the musicians arrive they will have plenty of open space to set up their equipment.
Note: If the drummer is bringing his own kit and will be setting it up, have all of the microphones for the kit set in place about 5 feet in front of where the drummer will set up.
If you are using drum claws to hold the tom mics, set the mics in the claws on the floor in the mock set up.
In this process make sure that you don’t forget about electrical power at the appropriate locations.
Also, never assume that the musician will have an extension cord, power strip or even the correct line cables to connect into a direct-box. Make sure you all cables that will be needed in place.
4. Line check
Never skip a line check. A line check is simply making sure that all the mics and inputs are working, showing up in the correct channels on the board and do not have any hum, buzz, or other unwanted noise.
I usually carry my iPod with a 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter to check direct inputs. Also, make sure that you don’t forget to test all of the monitors to ensure that they are working and are also patched to the proper output on the board.
If you have an on-stage monitor set-up, make sure to check each input at each station.
I know that this is tedious, time-consuming and sometimes just a pain in the rear, however, in reality it does not take that long in light of how long it takes when the entire band is waiting and you are under pressure to get it right!
5. Sound check with each band member
During the sound check (the 15 or so minutes you control) you should systematically go through each input on the board.
I prefer to start with drums then move to bass (drums and bass are the foundation that I build my mix on) followed by keys, guitar(s), other instruments (sax, flute…) and finish with vocals. During sound check, I also ask that all the musicians stay on stage ready to play.
This is important as it ensures that I can hear how certain instruments are going to interact and feel. For example, I always listen to the kick and bass guitar together.
How I EQ bass is dependent on how I EQ the kick drum. Keep the whole mix in mind when you sound check to ensure an ideal end result.
Back in my rookie years, I spent around an hour on a sound check. I would have each musician come out separately and then spend an enormous amount of time getting their instrument to sound rich and full.
So rich and full in fact that the instrument could do a solo concert. You can most likely predict the outcome of this process. The musicians became anxious to warm-up and rehearse, and my initial mix of the entire band was less than ideal.
I usually spent the entire rehearsal time trying to clean out and tighten up the mix. I learned later from an industry pro that adding a 6-10 db boost at 100 Hz on the kick, bass and keyboards was not the best plan to achieve a tight chest thumping bass.
This pro taught me how to EQ both the kick and bass to complement one another rather than making them compete with each other. I now approach mixes by beginning with the end in mind.
6. Make the musicians are happy first, reduce tension (use the talk back mic)
This may seem rudimentary but I often see sound engineers fail as facilitators during the sound check. Learn to work with the musicians, their goal is (or at least should be) the same as yours, to produce great sounding inspiring music.
Learn to take the role as a gentle teacher when it comes to technical items. When the guitar player tries to use his special 1/4 inch to XLR cable and plug the speaker out directly into the mic input, don’t scream at him.
Yes, stop him immediately but then take a few moments to kindly explain to him why the mic preamp in the mixing console is not interested or capable of receiving such a high voltage level.
A simple way to cut the tension is to use a talkback mic. If your console is not equipped with a talk back mic capability, simply plug a microphone into an input at the console and turn up the appropriate aux sends.
If you do not want the mic to go over the house system set your auxes to prefade or unassign the input from any groups or master outs. There is nothing more frustrating and stressful than a sound engineer yelling from the booth to a musician who has not other option than to shout back.
The simple act of using a talk back mic and speaking slowly and calmly into it will greatly reduce the tension and potential hostility that exists. A proper monitor check will also keep musicians happy.
Structured monitor check
You should always ask each musician what they want in their mix before the rehearsal starts.
After you have roughed in those levels on the board, the band should play through one song (unless it is a total disaster, don’t stop).
After the song, each musician should give the soundman direction as to how they would like their mix changed.
Allow the band to play through two to three additional songs before the musicians make any additional requests.
This forces the musicians to be precise in their monitor requests and also provides the soundman with an opportunity to tweak the house mix.
After two to three songs, each musician can once again (in an orderly fashion) ask for adjustments in the monitor mix.
After these adjustments, the musicians will have to live with the mix. Forget about the monitors at this point and focus on the house mix.
An additional note, the soundman should not adjust the master gain on any channel (except for an emergency) after the completion of the first song.
All adjustments need to be made using the faders (for house sound) and the aux sends (for monitors). Assuming a pre-fade auxiliary, monitors levels will not change when the channel faders are moved.
7. Build the mix from the bottom up
From the kick and bass guitar foundation of the mix I favor, build the mix by adding additional instruments. If you have already done your sound check with the end mix in mind this is a quick and simple process.
Once I have all of the inputs up and going, it is time to give a critical listen. My initial judge of a mix is based on my ability to identify each instrument individually.
During this process, I often leave the sound booth and sit in the audience seating area.
I never try to stray too far from the booth, just in case there is something urgent to be addressed like a vocalist setting the wireless handheld down on a monitor wedge…
Getting out of the booth helps clear my mind. It allows me to sit down, close my eyes and really listen to what is going on. If I can identify each instrument, I am 95% of the way there.
I can now move into “Finesse mode” and work more with compressors, gates and effects. A word of caution here, once you are at 95% there is a tendency (at least in my case) to “overmix” and end up once again with less than desirable result.
A good sound engineer that has conducted a proper sound check and worked with the mix during rehearsal does not need to be constantly “fiddling “with the mix.
8. Affirm the musicians through your attitude
Most of what a soundman does and thus how he is perceived comes from his attitude toward musicians.
A worship leader that I work with on a regular basis once told me that he can tell when we have a great mix going by what we are doing in the booth.
He said, “If I look up and see the people in the booth looking relaxed, having fun and worshipping along with us, I know the mix is sounding great.”
I have not asked him if seeing us looking confident allowed him play more confidently, but I would bet the answer would be absolutely!
Also try to make it a habit to give a word of praise and/or encouragement to at least one of the musicians after the service. Even if it just a “hey, thanks for playing today” doing so allows the musicians know that you notice and care that they are there.
9. Re-check with musicians that all is well
During rehearsal, after you have the mix down, take time to walk the stage. There are a couple of good reasons to do this.
First, you will hear what the musicians are hearing and will get a better feel of how to preset the level and mix for the monitors ahead of time.
Secondly, use this time to ask the musicians if all is well to show that you care. Are their monitor levels and mix correct? Have they changed the battery in their pickup in the last two years? Do they have enough light to read the music? etc.
10. Plan on the first song being 3db+ hotter that sound check
After a smooth sound check and rehearsal, you might be thinking, “all right, this is auto-pilot from here on out.”
Don’t mislead yourself. Yes, you have set yourself and the band up to win. Yes, you are prepared and ready to go.
Remember that the last song of the rehearsal sounded spectacular and that you’re still thinking about it.
Now, there are people sitting in the seats and the pastor has just amped everyone up with his opening.
The musicians naturally sense the energy and excitement in those words and guess what . . . they will all play louder and with more intensity!
All of a sudden the nice 85 dBA level you had during rehearsal jumps to almost 90 dBA and you fear that if the drummer hits his crash cymbal any harder it will break!
This is natural and I do not blame the musicians, in fact I appreciate the intensity they are now bringing to the worship time. However, be prepared for it. Anticipate it. I have a common practice of turning down the master faders 3dB after a rehearsal.
Don’t tell the musicians. but I often do the same for the monitors. I only do this if I really know the musicians well and how they play during a service vs. how they play during rehearsal.
The key is to know the musicians and to be prepared to act accordingly.
After years of mixing, when I or any sound engineer that I’ve worked with follows the above steps, the worship service is a success.
It is less stressful, there is more camaraderie between the people on and off the stage, and the mix sounds great.
Take these 10 steps and make your next sound check and rehearsal a powerful and productive experience! Read on for some additional (and brief) soundcheck tips.
After verifying that all the lines have the right signal and sound clean, you’re ready to begin the soundcheck itself.
Here’s a suggested order of events in a typical soundcheck:
- 1. Set the gain trim for each instrument/vocal with faders and monitor sends set very low.
- 2. With faders up, set the monitor level for musician #1.
- 3. Set preliminary EQ for musician #1.
- 4. Repeat steps 2-3 for musician #2, and so on. Remind the musicians not to change their volume-control settings between the soundcheck and the performance.
- 5. Set up a drum submix and vocal submix if applicable.
- 6. Ask the entire band to play and establish a house mix.
- 7. Touch up the monitor mixes as requested by the band members.
We’ll now go over the major steps, having assumed that the lines are checked and the band is on stage.
Set Gain Trims
First, set the faders and monitor sends very low to prevent feedback as you are adjusting the gain trims. You might say to the band, “Okay we’re ready for the soundcheck. I’m just setting levels now, not monitors.”
Ask musician #1 to play or sing as loud as he/she will during the performance. Slowly turn up the gain trim until clipping occurs, then back off about 10 dB to create some headroom. (There are other methods). Repeat for each musician.
Set Monitor Levels
Turn up the faders to design center (but watch out for feedback). Use full-volume house levels if possible so the monitors don’t need to be turned up so much.
Ask musician #1 to play. Slowly bring up that channel’s monitor send until the musician says the level is okay.
Say something like, “Play your bass and let me know when it’s loud enough for you.”
Of course, some musicians do not want to be heard in the monitor loudspeakers.
Now ask musician #1 to play or sing non-stop as you set preliminary EQ for that channel. Make sure it sounds reasonably accurate.
If an acoustic guitar is boom-y, move the mic away from the sound hole or turn down the low-frequency EQ.
If an acoustic guitar pickup is too bright or electric sounding, turn down 2 kHz and/or 12 kHz. If you hear vocal pops, switch in a high-pass filter at 100 Hz or so. It’s a good idea to high-pass everything except maybe the bass, kick and synth.
Set the monitor level and EQ for each musician. A typical checking order is drums (each part of the kit), bass, backup instruments, lead instruments, and vocals.
Establish The House Mix
Once all the instruments and vocals are set individually, ask the drummer (if any) to play. Set up a drum sub-mix.
Then ask the singers to perform at full volume and set up a vocal sub-mix.
Ask the band to play a song all together as you set up a house mix. Then ask them to play a short section of a few different song styles.
Touch Up The Monitor Mixes
You, or the monitor mixer, will set each performer’s monitor mix so they can hear themselves and any other parts they need to hear. That’s not necessarily the same as the house mix.
Ask each player what they want in their monitor. If the monitors seem “hot” overall and are starting to ring, turn down the master monitor send a little. Some musicians comment on the monitor tonal balance.
They may want less bass, less mids, more highs, or whatever. If your monitor sends do not have EQ, you can tweak the graphic EQ that is feeding the monitor power amp.
Note that the musicians are hearing the bass-y sound off the back of the house loudspeakers, so they may not need much bass in the monitors. That’s great – then you can roll off or filter out the lows in the monitors, which also reduces rumble and feedback.
Controlling Stage Volume
If you turn up a vocalist’s mic in the monitors, and the instruments are very loud at that mic, you also turn up those instruments in the monitors.
You need to get more vocals and less instruments at the singer’s mic. So ask the vocalist to sing with lips touching the mic’s foam pop filter, and don’t place the vocal mic right in front of a guitar amp or drum kit. Turn down the instruments if possible.
If the guitar amps’ stage volume is too high, suggest that the guitar players place their amps to their side, aiming up at their ears so the amps will sound louder to them.
Then you can turn down the amps. Other tools for reducing stage volume are in-ear monitors, clear plastic drum baffles, and electronic drums.
Make sure that musicians with DI’s alert you when they want to unplug or plug in. Mute their channel when they signal in order to avoid loud pops in the sound system.
Caution: Some mixing consoles do not mute the monitors when the channel is muted. In that case, temporarily turn down the monitor send for that channel, then reset it where it was.
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 25 years.