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That Modern Church Sound

Tips for dialing it in, instrument by instrument.

I’ve been to my fair share of church services, and more than my fair share of contemporary/modern church services. Some of the mixes I hear are fantastic! Some of them, however, are less than stellar.

I’d like to think I know it all, but know enough to understand that’s completely not true. Certain mixes hit my ear different than others, and that’s O.K. All I can offer is what I believe to be that modern, pop-y Christian mix.

I need to say that my mixes are heavily influenced by gospel and R&B because these are the genres of music that I typically work with and listen to recreationally outside of the church.

Vocals

Man oh man, can these things get buried. Vocals are the number one priority in all of music. If I can’t understand your vocals, you’re losing the entire message of the song. I understand that things happen, but this is a no-no for me. They should fit right on top, right in between any melody-carrying instruments.

I tend to cut out a lot of low end. Perhaps a lot more than others, but it’s necessary to make plenty of space for instruments whose fundamental frequencies reside below 500 Hz. So I place a high-pass filter (HPF) at about 150 Hz and do a low-end cut at about 500 Hz to get rid of any boxiness.

I’ve also noticed I like the sound of a “notch-out” at about 1 kHz. In recent months I’m finding more and more “throatiness” in some of my vocalists and people speaking, likely because of the hot and humid weather we have in the Midwest. I find it fun to try opening it up a bit.

Guitars

I love a robust guitar sound, but what I don’t love is over-amplification of electric guitars. There’s a time and a place (read: solo) for strong loud guitars, but I don’t consider it in contemporary Christian music. (I can already hear the crowds boo. I regret nothing.)

Now, if it’s a pleasant acoustic guitar, go ahead and let it take center stage (aside from vocals – never, ever push the vocals away.) I like my acoustic guitars with just a little “meat” at around 250 to 300 Hz, and plenty of sparkly high end without getting too much fret noise. Once I notice the fret noise is really prevalent, I can’t un-hear it.

The low end of guitars can tend to be a little tedious as I’m balancing it with the rest of the low end. I usually end up cutting at 400 or 500 Hz while still trying to keep that previously mentioned beef at 250 Hz. This is all a balancing act you may be familiar with.

In general, though, I whole-heartedly believe that guitars can’t always serve as the main instrument. They have their places and I love really ethereal licks, but this isn’t a metal show and there are often many more instruments on stage that could use some love.

Drums

I consider drums to be the second most important piece of the band behind vocals. We all know how poorly some congregants keep the beat, so we need to make sure that a nice crisp clear drum set can be heard.

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Kick and snare, most of the time, are vital. I prefer a very fat low end with a cracked snare. I boost the kick around 60 or 80 Hz depending on what the feel of the song is, and also boost just a tad at about 1 kHz to keep some of the pedal sound in.

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