Church Sound Production: Preparation is One Important Key To Mixing Like A Pro

March 24, 2011, by Robert Scovill

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In my 25-plus years as a professional mixer I’ve mixed thousands of events ranging from live concerts for thousands of people, to television broadcasts reaching millions, all the way down to intimate club shows for artists in front of high-level music executives where the artist’s career may hang in the balance.

But I must confide that I’m the most anxious while mixing events for houses of worship.

Perhaps it’s because, as a believer, I realize just how much is at stake for the listeners during a worship or praise event, but honestly, there have been times that the butterflies have felt more like dive bombers in my gut when sitting down at the console for one of these events.

But if mixing all of the varied styles of live events in my life has taught me anything, it’s simply this: the only way to truly neutralize the butterflies, or the dive bombers in this case, is with preparation.

Over the past decade or so, I‘ve lead a number of seminars and workshops on the topic of “mixing” and, without fail, I’m constantly amazed by the attendees’ reactions at the conclusion, when they arrive at the stark realization that successful mixing is based on much more than learning to operate a complex console, or some highly touted routing or EQ manipulation.

Now granted, knowing how to actually operate the mixer is important, but as I have been known to say from time to time—“a great pipe wrench does not make a great plumber.”

So, what I’m getting at is this: mixing— especially music and event mixing—is an approach and a mindset, not simply a task.

And it requires a method. That method has to include a way to anticipate moves before they need to happen.

The Problem & Solution
I’m sure you all have heard the event where it feels like the guy mixing has set his watch about two minutes slower than everyone else’s.

The pastor’s mic comes on after he starts speaking, the audio for the video comes up well after the video actually begins, you hear the backing vocals well after they start singing their parts, you hear the guitar solo about a bar after the guitarist starts playing it, the worship leader prays at the end of the song with all the effects glaring on his or her vocal—for the first half of the prayer.

All of these kinds of happenings are signs of a mixer who is not anticipating but simply reacting to what is happening. The ol’ tail is officially wagging the dog.

No matter how accomplished a tone-meister we become, or how many consoles and effects we know how to operate, if we mix like this, we’re imparting some serious disruption to the worship experience and severely handicapping the pastors and performers from creating any kind of “moment” for the congregation to experience.

So how do we combat this? At the root of changing this is some simple preparation and a change of mindset by you as the mixer.

And I want to put up the disclaimer here: Digital consoles can be very effective in helping us manage certain tasks during an event. However, they do not afford us less preparation. In fact, they put a bit more pressure on us to pre-prepare.

A very good friend of mine and a fabulous mixer in his own right preaches and practices the following mindset to interns and budding audio professionals. And in my opinion, he’s right on the money.

You and your team may be well-served by employing this little ditty: “If you’re early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late.”

Now granted, in the house-of-worship world, because of the high proportion of volunteers involved, time, generally speaking, is not money.

But, don’t let that lull you into believing time is not cherished by those involved. In fact, it may be even more highly scrutinized because people are freely offering it.

One of the sure-fire ways to see your team’s focus and enthusiasm wane is to have them waiting around for you as the sound guy to make even a simple patch, or find that elusive extra DI that you didn’t know you were going to need until the extra player showed up.

What may only take a few minutes can seem like an eternity to a musician or a service director.

Frankly, you and your team’s energy and rehearsal time needs to be spent refining and learning what is going to transpire during the service—not doing what is generally considered utility or task work.

Three Important Planning Documents
So, with that in mind, I always take the time and initiative to assemble three documents, in this order: a stage plot, an input list, and a cue sheet.

Nothing you do as audio mixer will save you and your team more time and energy, and in turn make you look more on top of your game, than taking the time to prepare and implement these three documents.

For the stage plot, work with the service director to assemble it. It essentially shows where the pastor, actors, musicians, and their instruments will be located on the stage.

You can also include information on where you’ll place monitor wedges or which musicians will be working with in-ear monitors, where you might need power drops, etc.

This will allow you to have mics, DIs, stands, and monitors all within arm’s length of where the musician will set up before they walk in the door, allowing for nearly instant patching of your sources. It can also help you preempt and diffuse difficult transitions between events and elements of your service.

For the input list, you—not the director—should take the initiative to question the musicians and find out what instruments they’ll be bringing, and then list it out in a simple spreadsheet.

Lay it out just as you would lay out your console and have it show everything you deem relevant about a given console input. Include info such as what microphone or DI you’ll use, what snake line or stage box the mic will be patched into, what kind of mic stand you’ll need.

Possibly have a “misc.” column that lists things such as quarter-inch cables needed, etc. You can even get console-specific and list what inserts you’ll need for a given input and include notes about its associated patch.

This is especially helpful when using analog mixing systems.

There’s nothing wrong with having extra items handy and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Maybe the guitar player will bring an extra acoustic just in case of an arrangement change, or the drummer may bring an extra drum for a given song.

It will always be better to have extra DIs sitting patched and ready to go and not need them than it is to scramble to find and patch them while everyone is waiting on you to make it all happen. The depth of your preparation is only limited by your imagination and what your situation typically demands.

For cue sheets, again work with the service director and make simple but detailed notes for every “audio event” that happens in the service.

I usually layout every event that happens from “walk-in music” to “CD-R record ready” to “verify drama mics and stand by” to “mute acoustic during the breakdown” to “walk out music fades up” etc.

With digital consoles like Avid’s D-Show, you can incorporate a cue sheet note into every recallable scene on your console and have it displayed prominently on the GUI. Very handy indeed.

Believe it or not, this seemingly simple process has many overarching side effects. First, it’s a huge time-saver for everyone involved when time is the most coveted factor in rehearsal.

It will also help you dramatically build self-confidence because you’ll be on top of the game and prepared for the job at hand, which will please the musicians and pastors and make for a much better performance.

And finally, it will relax you and allow you to stay focused on your most important duty: anticipating all the moves you’ll need to make throughout the service, and not simply reacting to them.



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Church Sound Production: Preparation is One Important Key To Mixing Like A Pro
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