“It sounded bad.“ “I didn’t like it.” “It normally sounds a lot better.” Have you ever heard someone describe live music using those words? There is a 75% change it’s not your fault!
Working in live sound, I’ve managed to unintentionally teach my wife how to listen to music. She’ll comment on how well an instrument sits in the mix when she listens to a new CD. She’ll notice when a live music set has something wrong and can often identify the problem. If only everyone knew how to critique music.
The problem you have, as the sound tech, is when someone walks up after the service and says something like “the music usually sounds better.“ Or, you might even hear about it later in the week when it comes to you via word-of-mouth; “my friend’s mother said the music sounded bad.“ What do they mean? What was bad about it? What did you do wrong?
The 75% chance your mix is not the problem
There are four reasons why live church worship music sounds bad. Four reasons means 25% chance each could be the reason for the problem. While you could have more than one reason, then we get into adding percentages and honestly, the next think you know, it turns into “if two drummers are walking in opposite directions, what are the odds that one of them is going a paying gig?”
Reason #1: It’s your mix
From the point of view of someone in the congregation finding fault in your mix, it’s likely one of the following points;
- Poor volume balancing. You might have pushed an instrument too loud or buried a lead rhythm instrument that makes it hard to follow the tempo. You can fix this by building your mix through performing volume balancing where drums are first, then you layer other instruments, until your vocals are sitting on top.
- Instrument(s) not audible. I’ve been at a few events, church or otherwise, where I’ve found the mix sounded good but one instrument wasn’t even in the mix. What’s up with that? (Subscribers to this site will get a bit more on this point in an upcoming email.)
- Vocals not heard. You let your instruments dominate the mix while having your vocals play second fiddle. Second fiddle is a term for describing something that’s not treated as primary importance. Fix this by remembering that vocals are number 1 when it comes to worship music. If people can’t be lead by the vocal line, then you don’t have it loud (or distinct) enough.
- Lack distinct sounds. Listening to music, you like hearing distinct sounds. A mix where instruments blend together and all sit in the same place in the mix is a mix that lacks depth. Fix this by creating a general mix with volumes balanced correctly and a bit of EQ work for removing bad frequencies. Then make changes so you have a distinct mix where instruments and vocals occupy their own spaces.
Reasons #2: [In a whispered voice] Poor musicianship
Poor musicianship isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’m not casting judgment. I’m just saying these points can result in a bad sound. Having played on a worship team, I can say I’ve either seen this first-hand or have been guilty of one or two myself.
- Singers not singing in key. Could be a singer getting over a cold. Could be a singer who doesn’t have the ear they think they do. Could be a singer who is unsuccessfully singing a counter-melody or a harmony line.
- Musicians don’t know the song. I’ve had a handful of times when I didn’t know a song as well as I should and ended up making chord changes at the wrong time.
- Musicians can’t play as one unit. This is usually because they don’t all know the song as they should. However, I’ve seen it with singers who would stylize and throw off everyone else. I’ve seen it with…well…for whatever reason, the song doesn’t sound like it should.
Reason #3: Poor Arrangement
A worship leader should be good at song arrangement or have a musician who is good at it. Bad song arrangement can be seen with…
- Arrangement drastically different than what the congregation likes/expects. I’m all for re-arranging a song but if the congregation doesn’t like bass, then don’t have a “bass-only” verse. Don’t make it a ska-version when the congregation likes piano-centric songs.
- Arrangement too slow. I’m calling this an arrangement issue. People sing slow songs slower than they should. If the arrangement calls for a slow song, then establish a suitable tempo and stick with it. Otherwise, the congregation will slow down the band.
- Arrangement too difficult. There is a time and place for everything. If an arrangement calls for fast-paced tempo changes, chord changes, and key changes, then it’s not the right arrangement for a team of rookie musicians. They will destroy the song and die trying to survive the arrangement.
Reason #4 Poor music choices
Working in broadcasting ere long ago, I learned about one of the most important jobs; music director. The job of the music director, in brief, is adding music into rotation and removing songs from rotation. The trick to doing a great job is giving the listeners new music which fits their likes while rotating existing music in and out so it doesn’t grow stale. As this relates to music choice for worship songs…
- Playing all new songs. A worship team can’t perform all new songs and expect the congregation to fully worship. When I was on a team, we worked in a new song by first playing it as a “song for reflection” where the congregation listens – no singing along. A week later, perform it in the worship set. Do it again the next week. Then, it’s safely become familiar to the congregation.
- Playing songs with difficult timing. Certain songs don’t lend themselves to worship songs even if they are worship songs. I hear this when half the congregation is singing it right and the other half is singing when they think they should sing.
- Playing songs all with the same tempo. Bringing in my broadcasting background again, songs on the radio are not played randomly. One of the components of the song schedule for the radio hour is tempo. It’s usually something like this; play 1 fast tempo, 1-2 medium tempo, and 1 slow tempo. Playing songs with the same tempo tires the listener. For that reason, tempo rotation is key to keeping people listening to each song.
Speaking of poor music choices, I recently played Air Supply’s “Lost in Love” on the jukebox at the local bowling alley. While it’s a familiar song for many people my age, I found out it’s not one we tend to admit loving. #EmbarrassingMoments.
There are a variety of reasons for complaints like “it sounded bad” and “it normally sounds a lot better.“ While your mix can contribute to a bad sound, there are obviously other reasons for a bad sound. Leading worship and playing / singing on the worship team well…those are hard jobs. Just like your job, they take determination and dedication to present the best sound week after week.
If you are a sound tech reading this, please take this as encouragement that even when you have a great mix, you can get negative comments…and it’s not your fault.
If you are a musician/singer/worship leader reading this, please take this as an encouragement that we sound techs know you have a difficult job. However, please see your work as more than playing a set of songs. You must pick the right songs for your congregation, arrange them in the right way for your congregation, and play/sing them like you have known them for years.
Do you need help building a solid mix? Audio Essentials for Church Sound will show you how you can do it every week.