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Church Sound: Ear Of The Beholder? The Subjective Nature Of Sound

A wide-ranging discussion in the context of worship audio, including PA tuning, the goal of live music mixing, the role of politics and more...

A while back, I was pursuing one of the many online sound groups and came across a question from someone who I believe to be a volunteer tech at a church.

He was asking if sound was subjective. He had been dealing with various other leaders in the church and was struggling to come up with a consensus on whether there was “good” sound or if it’s all in the ear of the beholder.

As someone who has been party to many of these discussions, I’m going to throw my thoughts out here about this topic.

First I want to tackle the idea of PA tuning, because without a well-tuned PA, good sound is much harder to achieve. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of opinions on how to tune a PA.

Second, I want to dig into the difference between “subjective sound” and “personal preference” when it comes to mixing. I think those concepts are often confused, and when we assert one as “correct,” we get into trouble. We’ll see where we go from there.

You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tune A Fish

That’s probably one of my favorite album titles of all time (thanks, REO Speedwagon!). When it comes to PA tuning, you could ask 10 people how to do it and get 11 answers.

But it basically boils down to two main schools of thought. The first says the PA should be as linear as possible; that is, what comes out of the board comes out of the PA. When you look at a transfer function graph of a PA tuned like this, it should be pretty close to flat across the audio spectrum.

Before we go any further, I want to stop and say that in an actual, live room, you’ll never get it totally flat. There will always be slight anomalies, but these should be fairly small. And if you do manage to get it totally flat, you can completely change that by moving the mic about 3 feet. So when I say a linear system is “flat,” I don’t mean the trace looks like it was drawn with a ruler. I mean it’s generally flat.

The other school of thought is to build in some tonal shaping into the tune of the PA. This would normally include what some call the “bass haystack,” a 6-12 dB bump at the low end that looks somewhat like a haystack, and usually also includes some rolloff of the high frequencies. How much roll off and where it starts will vary, but it’s usually in the order of 1-2 dB per octave above 1-4 kHz.

Which Is Right?

I’m sure there are those out there who will argue to the death about which method is correct (or have their own, far superior method). Because this is that important. [That was sarcasm]

As is often the case, much of this is personal preference. I’ve heard and mixed on systems tuned both ways and to me and my ears I prefer the latter approach. I find these systems sound more musical and less harsh.

However, good friends of mine will argue that mixing on a system tuned the way I like it is like mixing with blankets over the loudspeakers. I can appreciate that. Their approach to mixing is different from mine and while we achieve similar results, we go about it differently. I think it’s possible to get a great sounding mix on either tune, but you have to approach the mix differently.

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I do believe folks in either camp will agree that the overall tune of the loudspeakers should be accurate. Aside from a bass haystack (or not), and a subtle, linear roll off of the HF (or not), the system should pretty much deliver what comes out of the console. So while we may have be able to build consensus on a couple of different ways that are “correct” to tune a PA, there are a lot of ways to really screw it up.

You Can’t Tune What Wasn’t Designed To Be Tuned

Part of the problem stems from too many badly designed (or not at all designed) and engineered systems that simply cannot be tuned. What kind of system would this be?

I’ve seen seating areas fully covered by 2-3 loudspeakers that are at radically different distances from the seats. You can’t fix the comb filtering that will ensue with electronics. I’ve seen systems that use loudspeakers that are entirely wrong for the space. Sure, they make sound, but it’s so uncontrolled there’s no way to make it sound good. Other times, entire seating sections are off-axis of the PA, and there’s no electronic fix for that. Those are all bad.

I’ve also seen all sorts of crazy frequency response traces from systems I’ve been called in to fix. These are usually the result of someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous going in and playing with all those cool EQ controls inside the DSP. I’ve also seen some, uh, interesting EQ curves on 31-bands on the master bus of consoles. Cleaning all that up makes a huge difference.

The bottom line is that while I think there is some room for preference and individual taste when it comes to tuning a PA, if you put 10 top notch sound people in a room with a competent system tech, you could come up with a general consensus of what sounds good and would be easy to mix on. And it would be relatively easy to spot ways not to do it.

Now let’s delve into the tricky world of mixing. At the end, you’ll know exactly what is the right way to put together a mix and be able to identify all the wrong ways. [That was sarcasm]

The Goal Of Live Music Mixing

I chose the words carefully in that heading — we’re talking about live music mixing. This is different from speech mixing (which isn’t so much mixing as it is level management) or studio mixing.

Generally speaking, the goal of live audio mixing is to reproduce and make louder what is happening on stage, and to do so as accurately as possible. I say generally speaking because sometimes there are some things happening on stage that aren’t pleasant and a good sound engineer will either fix or eliminate those.

In addition to the “making it louder” bit, we engineers can also enhance the audio experience by using things like effects and various mixing techniques. But those bits are never the goal; no one comes to a concert to hear the front of house engineer’s super-groovy plate reverb on the snare—they come to hear the band. Our goal is to make the band louder, and therefore cooler.

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Enter The Murkiness

While most front of house engineers will agree on what I just said, there is quite a bit of deviation in practice. For example, there’s a movement among some engineers to assault the audience with low end. In my opinion, those mixes are not pleasant to listen to, and if we removed the PA and listened to the band in a small room (where we don’t need a big PA), it wouldn’t sound like that. However, some bands want that sound.

As engineers, we are an extension of the band. If we are doing our jobs correctly, we are delivering to the audience the band’s vision of the music. Now, that might mean that we mix in such a way that is different from what we would prefer.

Here’s a concrete example; I don’t really listen to modern worship music outside of church. Like… at all. I don’t really like the way most of it sounds or the way it’s mixed.

However, when I’m mixing in church, I mix the way the band wants it, which is usually the way it sounds on the album. I listen to the tracks we’re going to do for the weekend so I have my point of reference, and I try to enhance it and maybe move it a little bit towards my preference, but overall, I’m working hard to deliver what the worship leader wants.

This is all personal preference. Some people actually like One Republic. Go figure. It doesn’t really matter that much what we as the engineer like, we deliver what the band wants. If your personal music preference is the Gaither Vocal Trio, and your church loves to do Bethel, don’t try to make Bethel sound like Gaither. Make it sound like Bethel or find a new church.

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