Today, you’ve got it easy. I started learning audio in the early days of the internet with dial-up connections into services like AOL and Compuserve. There wasn’t a central hub, like Behind the Mixer, where you could go to learn everything. Today, it’s so much easier to learn the art of church audio production.
Since you’re reading this, it’s obvious you’re serious about learning the craft and I’m excited to help you. I’ve been helping people learn audio production for over ten years and every time I can help, I love it! Let’s get serious now…
I have 16 tips and strategies that will have an enormous impact on your work in just the first week.
The 16 Tips and Strategies for Serious Beginners
1. Know that the last place you want to be is standing behind the audio console.
Everyone wants to start mixing ASAP! Tweak the EQ, add the effects, you know, do the cool stuff. Whoa there, cowboy, you need to think about what else needs to be done.
What are the ingredients of a great mix? It’s more than what many realize. The first two are a given but look at the rest.
- Good musicians
- A good audio tech
- Good equipment (functioning equipment, it doesn’t have to be top of the line.)
- Correct monitor setup
- A safe working environment on the stage so the musicians aren’t worried about tripping over cables.
- And proper (sometimes creative) microphone usage.
There’s a bit more to it but notice how much work is on the stage. That’s because a great mix starts with the best sounds coming into the mixer. So, spend time on the pre-mix routines so when it’s time to mix, you’ve got what you need.
2. The gear doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that matters.
I spent many years mixing on analog mixers. Some places also had rack effects and such but most had the bare minimum. And guess what!?! I could still create a great mix. Yes, right now I’m fortunate to mix on a state-of-the-art console but here’s the thing…
Every great mix starts by using the same fundamental mixing concepts. And to take this to the next level, touring artists were using analog systems for decades with great results. It’s just another indicator that it’s not about what you use, but how you use it.
For example, if you have an analog mixer and want to add reverb, pick up a reverb unit like the Lexicon MX200 and you’ve got two reverb channels.
Two reverb channels enable you to:
- Use reverb on two vocal channels
- Use reverb on a vocal and an acoustic guitar channel
- Route all vocals to a subgroup and use the reverb on the subgroup, leaving another reverb channel
- Connect the two reverb send/returns to two subgroups and now whatever you chose to send to the subgroup will have the controllable reverb - no need to move cables around.
The only time that the gear makes a significant difference is when it’s the speakers.
3. Speaker quality makes a difference
In this article, we talk about identifying a blown speaker and other speaker problems so I’ll keep this first part short; Just because the same speakers have been in the church for 20 years doesn’t mean they still sound good. The speaker cone is a moving part and over time, can crack or tear. Driver coils can overheat. Some of this is very noticeable and other times, it’s not until you compare it to how it should sound.
I’m not saying that because you are new to audio that you should ask for new speakers. What I am saying is that you should test them with a critical ear. Pan audio left and then right to identify any possible speaker problems – noticeable when one sounds different than the other. If there is a problem, then bring up the problem to the appropriate person.
In this second part, I want to talk about the overall quality of the speakers. Speakers are not all the same. They can reproduce audio at different frequencies and up to different levels. For example, consider two speakers with different frequency ranges:
Between the two, the second can reproduce lower bass frequencies and can create a lower sound.
Speakers also have a limit to how loud they can be. When it comes to that loudness limit, don’t think about how loud the volume would be all the time, but think about volume spikes brought on by instruments such as the initial blare of a trumpet or notes from an electric guitar. We don’t necessarily perceive these volume bursts as being massively loud because they are usually very short in time but when the speaker can’t handle it, you can get speaker clipping and possibly distortion and now the quality of the audio decreases.
Finally, not all speakers sound the same. You could get two speakers with the same frequency range and volume capability but they sound different. The reason is due to the manufacturer (QSC, Mackie, Community, etc.) choosing a unique sound signature. Some might sound brighter in the mid-range frequencies while another might feel as if there is more bass presence.
On top of that, darn near anything you buy now will sound better than a 10-15-year-old speaker.
I’m not saying that you can’t create a good mix on old speakers. What I am saying is you need to make sure those old speakers are correctly working and that the sound they create (test by playing recorded music) is still of good quality.
Check out this guide if you are interested in learning more about speaker selection or gear selection in general,
4. Prioritize the Lead Vocal Channel
Mixing music can seem a daunting task but there are a few ways to start off right. First, make sure the lead vocal is front and center of the mix. This means the singer can be heard and clearly understood. This happens through volume balancing, EQ work, and effects work – but the latter isn’t always required.
There are two ways to build a mix; start with vocals or end with vocals. In the latter, you build the mix starting with the low end instruments including the drums and bass and work up through the guitars to keyboards and piano. Lastly, you add in the vocals. This helps ensure the vocals get the focus required as they would need to be louder than everything else that was previously mixed.
Some people know the volume level they need for the room so they start with the lead vocal and layer everything underneath.
No matter which method you pick, the vocals need to stay on top. Considering the following.
Add more volume to the vocal so it’s clearly heard. You know what good music sounds like on the radio so aim for that vocal clarity. If the extra volume gets you vocals that are too loud, as that’s the only way they stand out in the mix, look to cut frequencies from other channels that are competing for the same frequencies. Look to anything that can be mid-range heavy, like guitars or piano. I’ve found by cutting the mid-range in a competing instrument, the vocals stand out.
I mentioned reverb and this is tricky. Imagine the band is on stage with the lead vocalist standing near the front of the stage with supporting instruments located farther back on the stage. In a way, that represents your mix. By adding reverb, you are nudging the lead singer back a little bit. They are starting to blend into the overall mix.
Reverb isn’t a bad thing and reverb is usually a standard feature on a vocal channel. However, you have to be careful with how you use it. Use too much and you’ve just pushed that singer to the back of the stage. However, use just the right amount and their vocal channel suddenly fills out and becomes one with the band while still standing out thanks to volume and EQ adjustments.
5. Keep your ego in check for a long lasting and happy mixing career.
I know it’s easy to learn a bunch of stuff about mixing and then want to tell the band what they should change, tell other techs what they should change, and ignore comments from the congregation, all because you know what’s best.
I’ve been mixing for over twenty years and I’m still learning new mixing tricks or microphone tricks or ways to work with the band. I do have times when I make a recommendation to a band member, but it’s usually before or after a practice and I explain why I’m making the recommendation and how it would help their sound. Most of the time, they take my advice but sometimes they don’t and that’s ok with me. As I’ve build good relationships with the band, if one disagrees with my recommendation, they are quick to explain why. It might lead to a further discussion or it might stop there. That’s ok.
There will always be someone better than you but that’s nothing to worry about as long as you’re always striving to be better AND you treat others respect. Let the quality of your work speak for itself.
6. Learn to critique your mix.
I’m my own worst critic but that’s not always a bad thing. When it comes to mixing, you need to have a mix goal – a “sound” if you will. Post-service, or even post-practice, you need to review your mixes and determine if you met that goal. But how?
Consider these questions to start your review:
- Was the lead vocal clearly heard in the mix so people could follow along?
- Was the primary lead instrument for the song outfront or was it buried?
- If you closed your eyes during the song, could you pick out each instrument and vocal in the mix?
- Did the backing vocalists blend together into a cohesive sound?
Now I’m going to throw in one more question that will help you:
Did I try something different today?
You might be at the point (or get to the point) where you are creating a consistent mix each week. That’s a good thing. But, to take it a step further, your mixes need to improve each week. Yes, early on it’s easy to see a lot of improvement over a short period of time. The more experience you have, the smaller the improvements but here’s the important thing about that…
Beware of the dip.
Whenever someone learns a new skill, they see a lot of improvement in the beginning. But after some time, they are working just as hard but aren’t seeing the same rate of return. Most people stop trying to improve at this point. But you aren’t most people, so you keep going. At some point, all the time you spend on learning and mixing and trying new things will get you to the point to where you’re creating amazing mixes. It’s that middle point of the dip you have to work through. And when you critique your own mixes each week, that’s going to help shorten that dip.
7. Never be lazy
Don’t show up at the last minute to church, walk in, and start mixing without any prep work. You might get the job done but it won’t be a great job and the band and the pastor will not be happy with you. I don’t like those people as they don’t respect the position and how much the work helps people engage in worship and feel the blessings of being within the church walls.
Instead, you have to look into all the planning and treat the job seriously. For example, two weeks before I’m scheduled, I receive a notification with the list of songs, any special instructions for myself or the band, as well as a list of the musicians, the tech crew, and the church service schedule. Right there, I know my team and what I need to do.
I’ll then listen to the songs, plan out my mixes, and note any special gear needs for the stage. When it’s time for the band’s practice a few days prior to the service, I’m able to quickly set up the stage and get my mixes in for each song. By Sunday morning, I’m ready, the band’s ready, and the band and the pastor are confident in what I’ll be doing.
8. Invest Your Money.
Invest your time and money in training. You can’t grow unless time is spent seriously training. And here’s the funny thing about training, if you were getting paid to do a job, you’d probably feel ok about spending money to learn how to be better. But, as soon as we say it’s a hobby or a volunteer position, people start looking for the free stuff. I’ve learned a lot from free resources but most of my ah-ha moments came when I was using training material I purchased.
Invest in gear. This is a touchy subject. Should the church purchase the gear you need? Most of the time the answer will be, “yes.” But what if they don’t? A common reason for this is the church is small and there’s no money to make the purchase. There are times to hold campaigns and fundraisers for system upgrades but for now, let’s talk about a small purchase.
Let’s say you need a cable tester and you find this Livewire Cable Tester for around $20. If the church won’t buy it, buy it yourself. This is a necessary piece of gear and most of us could afford it.
But now let’s say your running on an analog console and you’d just love to be able to use reverb but the soundbooth doesn’t have a reverb unit. You look online and find the Lexicon MX200 Dual Reverb/Effects Processor for $200. What do you do?
If you can’t afford it, talk with the other techs and see if they’d chip in. Maybe there is someone at the church who is a musician and they’d be willing to chip in because they see the value. If you can afford it, you could buy it and donate it to the church – get a receipt to use as a tax deduction.
If possible, don’t let money get in the way of your progress.
9. Get into a Church Tech Community
We become like the people with whom we spend our time. Hang out with rookies and your growth with be slow. Hang out with those better than you and your growth will be steady and quick (well, somewhat quick). That’s why I encourage people to join the Behind the Mixer community. You’ll get the regular newsletter with tips and trick, notes on the latest podcast and articles, AND you get access to our massively successful private facebook group. This group is filled with daily conversations from rookies and pros.
Being in community with other techs means you can ask for help on everything from technical questions to help with a unique problem with a musician or other tech. You can also vent frustrations and we’ll be encourage you. Most of us have “been there, done that.”
10. Put the mix desires of the pastor and congregation and band over your own.
This one gets a bit interesting to discuss. Let me be clear on what I mean. You should create a great mix every time by normal professional standards. That being said, if it’s known that the pastor doesn’t want a lot of bass in the mix, you don’t put a lot of bass in the mix. I have had times when I mixed at a church and found their overall mix lacking and so I boosting in some areas and the pastor loved it. However, I first talked with the pastor days in advance about any mix preferences he had, if any.
11. Learn how to place instruments and vocals into the mix space.
You don’t want every instrument and vocal to be at the same volume level. What you want is a blend, such as a little of this and a lot of that. Take backing vocals for instance. If the song has them singing under the lead vocal, then your mix needs to have the backing vocalists blended together and they should not be as loud as the lead singer.
Think of the musicians in a three-dimensional cube. The lead singer would be closest to the front of the cube, the backing singers a little farther back. Then you might have drums and guitars sitting back as well. If your audio system allows for panning, then you can move them left and right for better separation.
The idea is each instrument and vocal supports each other. And that’s where the EQ work also comes in. If you have drums and a bass, will it be the bass or the kick drum that dominates the low end? That’s up to you.
Imagine that cube and know these three key modifications can move an instrument/vocal forward or backward in the mix:
- Volume change
- EQ change
- Reverb (the more reverb, the farther back in the mix it goes).
12. Don’t think about what you should do with a mic, but what you could do.
It’s easy to set up a mic on an instrument based on standard practices. Overheads over the drums, an SM57 on a snare, and vocal mics for vocalists are a few examples. There isn’t anything wrong with that but maybe you could get a better sound by doing something different.
For example, every brand / model microphone has a different frequency response, that is to say a different way in how it modifies the frequencies. Many vocal mics will roll off everything under 100Hz but they can also boost or cut differently in the mid-range. If you have different models of vocal mics, look up the frequency response online and see if that best pairs with each vocalist.
Here’s the frequency response of the Shure SM58.
For example, if you always need to cut the mid-range 2 KHz area of a vocalist, you don’t want a mic that is boosting in that area.
Taking this a step further, consider a completely different method of miking an instrument. You might have mics on every drum kit piece and are therefore mixing 8 drum channels. Try using one overhead, a kick, and a snare mic. You might get everything you need and get a better sound.
Lastly, get creative. I had a time when I couldn’t get the punch I wanted from a kick drum so I pointed a mic at the beater header on the side of the drummer. It sounded great!
13. See if sound check organization needs attention
A chaotic sound check will kill any possible extra mixing time and frustrate the musicians. I find chaotic sound checks occur when there isn’t any order to the process.
Start by showing up 30 minutes before the musicians to make sure the stage is set up, the equipment is ready, and the mixer channels are set up. If you have a band practice on another day, this will be your first sound check. The day of the service would be a matter of a run-through and you’d again want to be there early to make sure everything was in place.
The band then needs to show up – ALL OF THEM – at the designated time so they can warm up and you can start the sound check.
You can then use a couple of methods to run the sound check; individual or group. Using the individual method, each musician plays or sings for a few moments while you set the channel gain and then monitor levels are set. The group option is to have the band start a song and you set the gains and then the monitors during that song. After the song, the musicians can ask for monitor changes. If the band is using an in-ear system, they will do their own monitor mixing. The only caveat is they should NOT put in their in-ears until all the gains are set.
A huge tip on using the group method is to have the band play a song they all know. I’ve seen them struggle through a first song during a mid-week practice and it killed my mix time.
14. Create order where there is none.
Stress comes when we don’t know what could happen next. Try running sound for an event or church service when you don’t have an order of events. In my early days of running sound, my church didn’t provide a list so I was stressed big time.
In this case, I’m not talking about a church bulletin that everyone receives that has a list for the service. Some churches don’t have those and that’s ok. What’s not ok is when the tech crew doesn’t have a list.
No service schedule for you to use? Time to start that process.
There are two people who usually know the order of the service, the pastor and the worship leader. Talk with the worship leader first and ask for an order for the service.
The level of detail doesn’t have to be advanced. For example:
- Song 1 (Name of Song)
- Song 2 (Name of Song)
- Welcome Greetings from Pastor
- Song 3
- Closing by Worship Leader
We use Planning Center and include the name of the singer who is leading a particular song and the song tempo. These items are helpful in mix planning. (We also use PC for scheduling our tech team and band).
Another huge benefit of having an order of service is when anything out of the ordinary comes up. For example, a guest interview or church elder is to speak. This helps you get the gear ready and have it set up in a mixer channel. Imagine hearing the pastor say, “and now I want to welcome our visiting missionary on the stage to talk about what’s going on in his life,” and you don’t have an extra microphone ready for him to use.
15. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Mistakes are embarrassing and in the field of audio production one mistake and the whole congregation is looking at you! This is where band practice and sound check times come in handy.
One tip I give on using effects is to turn up the amount of reverb until it’s too much. Intentionally make it sound bad, so you know what bad sounds like. Someone listening might think it’s a mistake but it’s not, it’s you learning what “too much” sounds like. I guarantee if someone listened to my work during the band practice, they would have times of, “that doesn’t sound right.” It’s because I’m testing the limits.
That’s why I tell people to “make it sound bad during practice” so they know what “bad” sounds like.
But let’s talk about real mistakes like missing a microphone cue. The pastor walks up to talk and you forget to turn on his mic because you’re focusing on starting the sermon recording. Personally, I’ve made my share of mistakes. What I didn’t do was allow them to define me and my future success.
Developing standard processes helps eliminate problems like missed mic cues. Using the above example, step one might be to start the recording near the end of the song or whatever comes before the sermon. Then, you don’t forget to turn on the mic at the right time. And the first part of the recording can easily be edited out before it’s released to the congregation for download or CD or dare I suggest…cassette tape.
When a mistake does happen, follow these steps:
- Identify what happened.
- Identify precisely why it happened.
- Develop a strategy to prevent it from happening again - or at least reducing the chance of a repeat problem.
In my early days, I made repeat mistakes because I skipped the above and reasoned, “that was just my mistake and I won’t let it happen again.” I never looked at why it happened and what I could do to reduce the chance of it happening.
Finally, when it comes to mistakes, I classify them as major and minor. If a mistake happens during the service and it’s quickly resolved in a few seconds, then chances are the congregation won’t remember it. That’s a minor mistake.
When it comes to the big mistakes, like forgetting to put batteries in the pastor’s wireless mic (something I have yet to forget), yes, it will impact the service but your reaction to the problem, your behavior, and your resolution, will speak volumes to the pastor and the congregation. They might remember it after the service but more likely it will be the pastor and you should talk with them after the service. Take responsibly and show you have a new process in place – or are developing one, and how it won’t happen again.
Live audio is a field where sound is amplified and so are our mistakes because it’s in front of an audience. If you want to go even further, check out this article on what to do to prevent that Freak Out Moment!
16. Have a goal for where you want to be by the end of the year.
We grow because we want to be better. Hopefully the above list helps you do that in this wonderful world of church audio production.
My hope is that in 2019 I can help you become a far better audio tech.
If you are new to church audio or still feel like you’ve got a lot to learn, then start with Audio Essentials for Church Sound as it will provide you far more than just the technical skills of mixing but also details the things mentioned above, and more, like the big one…how to meet the expectations of the congregation, musicians, and pastor while creating a great mix each week.