The concept of online church seems here to stay. When I first started writing about this over 10 years ago, few churches were streaming their services live. Some would post the sermon, either in video or just audio, but for the most part it was the larger churches with larger budgets and staffs that were streaming their services live. The year 2020 changed all that and even small churches today are streaming live for people who would rather stay home.
The video portion of live streaming is relatively easy – put up a camera or two, run them into a computer and use OBS for switching and streaming. Or deploy multiple PTZ and manned cameras, controllers and a switcher – a little more complicated but still fairly easy.
But audio, judging by what I hear when I check out online streaming broadcasts from various churches, is somewhat of a mystery. I’m going to focus primarily on strategies that smaller churches can use. If you have a separate broadcast mix room/console/operator and create stunning live mixes, you’re good to go.
However, smaller churches often have enough trouble getting one sound tech to show up each week, let alone two, so we’ll focus on ways that lone person can do double-duty without doubling the workload.
The Easiest (& Worst) Way
To send the sound of a service to the internet, the easiest way is to simply send a feed of the main mix going to the house system to the streaming device. Just because you can though, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
There are many problems with this method. First, for the average church service, there will be somewhere between 20 to 30 dB of level difference between the speaking parts and the music parts. That’s OK in the room, because we expect music to be louder.
But for people are viewing remotely via the stream, it usually means they can’t hear the spoken word or they’re blasted by the music. It presents a constant turning up and down of the volume, which is really annoying. Oh sure, you can put a compressor or auto-leveler on the output, but they never sound good when dealing that much of a level difference.
This is the method that’s typically used when the pastor informs you at 8:30 on Sunday morning that you’re starting an online ministry for the 9:00 service. We will not speak of this again.
Online Mixes That Sound Good
To paraphrase the Apostle Paul: And now I will show you a more excellent way. Whether it’s an analog or digital console, there are a couple of ways to dramatically improve your online mix without going crazy every weekend.
Either way works and they both have their pluses and minuses. Whichever one you choose will be determined by the equipment, the room and the band. In this article, I’ll discuss the two methods, and then next time in Part 2, I’ll delve deeper into reasons for choosing one over the other.
The first method is using an Auxiliary mix – the good ol’ Aux send method has been with us for a long time. The easiest way to think of it is as another monitor mix, but for the folks at home. With this approach, you determine the level of each channel on the console for the broadcast mix.
To set it up, pick an open aux and start dialing up the channels. To get the levels set correctly, I suggest using a set of headphones or in-ear monitors that do a good job of isolating your ears from the house mix. It may even be helpful to turn down the house mix a bit while you’re doing this – just not during the service.
As you begin to spin up the knobs, start with the speaking mics. The reason is that they’ll likely need the most gain to get to the proper level. If you dial the band up to unity, you’ll run out of gain on the speaking mics and the aux master will end up at -30.
Once a solid baseline gain is established for the speaking mics, it’s time to move on to playback. If you play videos or walk-in music during services, dial them up to see where they need to be. Finally, move on to the band. You will likely find that the band channels are as much as 20 dB or more below the speaking levels.
Groups In The Matrix
The second method for a quality online mix is the group/matrix method. This is my personal favorite because I find it produces the best results with the least effort once everything is dialed in.
Unlike the previous method where you have to set each channel level individually, this approach combines the channels into similar groups and mixes them together in the matrix. There’s no end to the way you can do this, but here are the groups I start with: Band (instruments), Vocals (and Effects, usually), Speaking Microphones and Playback. If the console is group-challenged, you can combine the band and vocals, or split the band up a little more and add an effects group.
Once you’ve created and named the groups, assign the channels to the appropriate group. Because they’re groups, the channels hit the group at whatever level they hit the main mix bus. If the room is set up well, the PA is balanced and the live mix is solid, this is a very good thing.
The magic of this method happens in the matrix. When you route these groups into the matrix, simply level balance them appropriately and the broadcast mix should be pretty much set.
What does an appropriate level balance look like? It varies from church to church, but generally I start with band and vocals at -15 dB to -20d B, playback at -10 dB to -5 dB and speaking mics at 0 dB (unity). This usually results in a well-balanced mix that will sound good for the audience at home.
I also often turn the compressor on for each group and have it set to take 1 to 3 dB off the loudest level it gets. There’s also a compressor on the output of the matrix that does the same thing. I’ve found over the years that doing small amounts of compression in stages makes for a better mix. I’m not trying to level balance anything with the compressors (we’re already doing that with the group levels), I simply want to glue it together.
Those are the two methods I use to get churches set up for success in online streaming. Next time, I’ll delve into why you might choose one over the other.