Church Sound: Don’t Touch That Knob—Why Every Song Mix Needs a Vision

November 09, 2012, by Chris Huff

church sound
This article is provided by Behind The Mixer.


I was going to be an architect. I attended every drafting class my high school offered. 

While my career choice changed, I learned the number one way for drafting the perfect home: having a vision.

Looking back on the homes I drew in my middle school drafting class, I can’t help but be embarrassed. Middle school tech class wasn’t about the best way to draft a home floor plan, it was more about how to draw floor plans. 

The first floor plan I did in high school, where I thought it was the best floor plan ever, was greeted with this phrase from my teacher: “how are you going to put a roof on that?”

I designed my floor plans by creating the rooms I wanted (office, indoor pool, bedroom, kitchen, etc.) and putting them where I thought they belonged. The problem was my process made the exterior of the house have about twenty corners. 

I didn’t have a vision for how the house would look like from the outside and I definitely didn’t have a vision for how the roof would look. Had I submitted such a floor plan to a builder, I think the roofer would have killed me.

Thus, my high school drafting teacher, and licensed architect, taught me how to have a vision for a home. Not only did having a vision include imagining the outside of the house and the roof line, it also included how to build a house that would meet the vision of the home owner.  And it’s this same type of vision that you have to have before you start your mixing.

Creating a song mix which produces the best sound for your particular church, for your particular congregation members, using your particular band, and the particular equipment you have available, requires you to have a vision. 

Using steps similar to how an architect creates a vision for a house, you can create a vision for your mix which meets all of those needs.

The Three Steps to Forming a Vision

1. Learn the vision of the worship leader. Much like designing a home for a homeowner, you must know their expectations. Will they be playing a ska-version of the song?  Will they be playing a more subdued version? Do they want the acoustic guitar to lead the song? 

Whenever I’m preparing to mix a new song during the sound check, I ask a few important questions—who is singing the song, and what instrument is leading the song?

You should find out the theme for the service/worship set. For example, if the sermon is on rejoicing and the worship set is filled with related songs, then you want a mix that reflects that positive emotion.

Every song has a specific arrangement the band has decided to use and such an arrangement calls for certain attributes to your mix. For example, if they want the drums to dominate during the chorus, then you can’t have the drums pushed to the back of the mix during the chorus.

In short, find out the song arrangement, the lead singer, the lead instrument, and the feel of the song. Additionally, when the band has decided to do a new song, they should contact you mid-week with this information and you can ask if they have a youtube/iTunes version that’s similar to the sound they are trying to copy.

2. Know how it sounds on recordings. The majority of Christian worship music played during church services is music most people already know.

Therefore, you should consider much of your work as “remixing.” 

I cover the idea of remixing in this article, Remixing; You’ll Never Look at Mixing The Same Again.

Mixing music which people are used to hearing on the radio or on their iPod means you have to create a mix that’s similar enough to what they expect while taking into consideration your worship band and the equipment you have available. 

This isn’t to say you must mix a copy of the radio version.  Viewing your work as remixing, you are actually starting off with a huge advantage.

Knowing how the song sounds on the radio, you can learn a lot about how it is mixed. 

Listen to the song and note areas such as:

—Sound volume relationship: Which instruments are upfront in the mix and which are tucked in the back?

—Instrument frequency spectrum width: How does each instrument fill in the frequency spectrum? Does the electric guitar fill a lot of the lows and highs or does it cover a more limited frequency range?

—Reverb length: How is reverb used? Is there a little or a lot? How long is the decay?

—Instrument definition: Which instruments stand out in the mix? How are the others treated?

—Tone of song: This can vary a lot when you consider all of the remixes that professional musicians have produced of popular worship songs. Therefore, you need to listen to the version which most closely aligns with how your worship band would play it.  Is it bright? Happy? Somber? Country-fied? Are they going to do the reggae version?

3. Remember how you sculpted sounds in the past. In drafting house plans, one of the most important rooms is the kitchen. 

And the kitchen is a tough one because, not only do you have to consider the work-flow, but you also have to work with a room that usually has several doors such as to a garage and dining room and even a hallway to another room.

Oh, and if I recall correctly, the work-flow includes a 21-foot triangle. This means if you walk from the fridge to the sink to the over, in a triangle pattern, you shouldn’t walk more than 21 feet. 

I’m not sure if 21 feet is right, but I do know that the bigger the kitchen, the harder to conform to that triangle.

Regarding those kitchen designs, I learned that once you have drafted a few different kitchens of varying sizes, you learn what placement works best. You learn where to place the fridge and where to place the oven so they are in proper relationships but they that also make sense in their placement. 

And so it is with mixing. The more you mix for the same band in the same room with the same congregation, the more you know what works and what doesn’t. Let’s look at how this can happen.

The more you mix in a room, the more you know how to achieve:

—The proper drum sound for energetic songs

—Vocals which sound energetic and sit above the rest of band while still blending in the mix

—A subtle bass approach when it’s called for in a song

—A big sound from a small band and vice-versa

Consider your experience in mixing as a wealth of knowledge in mixing the band as well as mixing different instruments and different vocals. Therefore, when you are establishing a vision for mixing the song, you already know how you can bring many of these sounds to fruition.

The One Step To Executing Your Vision

Mix the sounds with the song already playing in your head. 

Now go back and re-read that last sentence about 20 times. You know the vision of the band. You know how the song usually sounds. You know what you have done in the past. Not that your past work is a limitation but it’s instead a great starting point. 

Take all of that information and form a sound in your head of how that vision would be realized. You’re mixing the song in your head not by thinking of how you would do it but how it should sound. With that vision, next you work on the “how.”

Mixing is a three-step process. The first thing you do is evaluate the sounds you are hearing. Does it sound like you want? What is wrong with it?

The second thing you do is evaluate the sound against your vision. Before turning any knobs, you must know your desired sound. 

Lastly, take action against that evaluation and vision. Boost the guitar at 800 Hz because that’s what you think it needs. Don’t randomly boost it and ask yourself “does this sound right?” You need a reason for ever turn of a knob.

Every step in your mix process should be about matching your mix to your vision. By starting with the end in mind, you’ll find you’ll reach that end sooner—and with much better results.

The Take Away

Over the last month or so, I’ve found myself repeating the phrase “mixing for the moment.” You and I are mixing for a moment that won’t come again. We can perform some dynamic mixing to maximize that moment. 

But one thing we have to do BEFORE that moment is establish a vision for the songs of that moment. By working together with the worship leader, pulling in your own experience, and establishing a “sound vision” in your head, you’ll find that mixing is no longer about “does this sound good” but it’s about “I know how to make this sound good.”

Remember the three key steps to realizing your vision: evaluate the sound, compare it to your vision, and then make the required adjustment.

Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians. He can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown.

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Church Sound: Don’t Touch That Knob—Why Every Song Mix Needs a Vision