“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” – Dr Spock (Star Trek).
I received an email asking me this question; “Is it acceptable to cut/pull back certain instruments when their sound doesn’t fit well with the rest of the group?”
Before I go any further, I should note the question wasn’t clear as to why the sound doesn’t fit. Therefore, I’ve decided to cover this subject in two ways, first by looking at the purpose of our work and second by looking at the reasons a sound might need to be cut and what you can do about it.
Let’s start by asking this question; what’s the purpose of audio production in the church, specifically mixing worship music?
The purpose is to create an environment in which the people in the congregation can fully worship God. This leads into proper volume levels, vocal clarity, and naturally creating the proper mix of instruments and vocals as you create (mix) worship music. The sound board is a musical instrument when you think about it.
What’s the purpose of the musicians? It’s not to worship for themselves. The purpose of the musicians is to create worship music for the congregation to use as a means of worship, whether it’s singing along with the band or listening to the music as they prayer or listen to the words.
Our combined purpose is ministering to the congregation so they can worship Him.
Keeping this purpose in mind, WHEN is it ok to pull back on an instrument or a vocal for the benefit of the mix?
There is the normal amount of song-to-song changes where you pull back on the guitars and boost the piano because it’s the lead instrument for a song. That’s perfectly ok and part of being a good mixer. But, that’s not what I’m addressing.
Why does it sound bad?
There are two reasons an instrument, let’s say the piano, could sound bad in a mix. Either the instrument is being played poorly or the sound tech doesn’t have it mixed right for the song.
Let’s start by addressing the latter. Electronic keyboards have a place in a contemporary worship band. However, they can be hard to mix. Sometimes a keyboard pad or voicing can add a lot of complexity that makes it hard to place in your mix. If you are having trouble mixing in a pad, does it mean you should remove it from the mix? No. You might pull it back a *little* in the mix but it does need to be there. Take it as an opportunity to focus on tweaking only the keyboard during that song.
Then comes the other possibility…the instrument is being played poorly. Why? An instrument is played poorly for one of two reasons; inexperienced musician or bad monitor mix. For example, I’ve had times when the sound check was great and monitors were good but once the service started and the band was playing, I could tell a guitarist was off on when they were nervously making chord changes. So, I bumped up their monitor volume and they started playing confidently and correctly again.
But what about the musician who is playing poorly and struggling through a song?
I cut them way way way back. If they are playing a rhythm instrument, I might cut them just a little but give them a lot of reverb and delay. This way, it smooths out their inconsistencies and gives it more of a keyboard pad type of filler sound. Not as severe as keyboard pads but hopefully you get the idea.
If they are stumbling through a melodic line on an instrument, that’s when you’re likely to completely cut them out of a mix. At least you’ll want to cut them out. However, before you completely nix them from the house mix, ask yourself the question, “what COULD I use?” Maybe the piano player has a strong left hand bounce going but it’s their right hand that’s causing problems, so I cut the high frequencies a lot and give the piano a fatter sound. It’s not always possible but do try to go with the “what can I use” attitude. But like I said, I have cut instruments out completely before.
Can I cut them out of all songs?
Don’t cut the same instrument out for all the songs. You will have times when you get a new band member and they are nervous and it shows in their playing or they stumble over a chord change from time to time. They need to get used to hearing themselves in the mix and being on stage. And, the congregation might likely give a break to the new person as long as they aren’t singing or playing in the wrong key.
What if it’s a problem with the arrangement?
Even if the style of the song doesn’t fit an instrument, you should view it as “this is how the band arranged the song so I have to give it *some* prominence in the mix.”
If you have a good relationship with the worship leader, you might offer your opinion to them before or after a practice when it’s an arrangement issue. Maybe even during the practice, between songs, depending on your relationship. For example, I’ve told a worship leader, “you probably don’t want to do that because from back here, that doesn’t sound right. What if you…” Now I used to play on a worship team and so I’ve got a musical background and he values my opinion. What I’m saying is you might tell them “look, the way you have arranged that song with the piano isn’t working.” But try offering another option.
Before you cut/pull back any instrument in your mix, look at the variety of reasons it might sound bad; bad arrangement, bad EQ’ing on your part, bad monitor levels, and poor musicianship. Then take the right path to rectifying the situation.