If you’ve been mixing for any period of time, you’ve probably been inundated with project literature and manufacturer advertisements. But getting exceptional sound doesn’t come down to a knowledge-base of mics and product numbers.
After all, the A-list people in our industry aren’t hired for the data they’ve collected on gearthey are hired for their knowledge of the way sound behaves and their ability to create innovative solutions to both everyday and complex audio problems. One of the best investments an audio engineer can make is to study the textbooks and learn the physics. If you don’t have the groundwork solid, you’re sure to get yourself into serious trouble. Once the foundation is solid (or significantly reinforced), start utilizing creative, possibly unorthodox ways to provide the best miking solutions.
IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTEXT
There is a tremendous range of mics on the market for almost every element of production of the service, and you’ll never know how well they work for your particular needs until you listen to them and experiment with them. Naturally, the best evaluation is to use a product in real-life contextin your auditorium, through your speaker system, using your musicians. Any other environment won’t give you the same results. (It’s a similar principal to paint looking different in the paint store than when it is actually on your walls.)
Because you will likely be too busy during the service to give your full attention to a single mic, you should throw in a DAT/CDR/Tape to record, patching that mic directly to your record deck, and then you can listen discretely at a later time played back through the house speaker system as well as a set of phones or control monitors. If channels and space aren’t an issue, try a couple of different mics at once.
For instance, if you are looking to enhance a particular drum sound, try two or three different mics of similar type and diaphragm size on different record tracks. Then during playback, you can A/B to assess the overall response, tonality, attack, and texture to determine what you prefer or what works best. Again, context is going to be key. Even though a large diaphragm mic may give you excellent low frequency response when listening on phones or nearfields, it may give you a completely different feel and response than what you wanted when you play it back through the sound system in your particular worship space.
SO WHERE DO I GET THE GEAR?
If you’ve been mixing for awhile, you’ve probably built some relationships with audio suppliers. These people want your business, and if you’ve got a good history in doing business with them they may be willing to let you try out gear for listening demos. (Yes, they will probably require a deposit, and you won’t be able to keep it around for long.)
Often a sure fire way is to find a company in town that rents the items you want to test. It often will not be very expensive and will give you very valuable experience to make current improvements or future purchases on.
Another good source for demo gear is other churches. Ask to borrow some extra vocal mics for a Saturday night service from a church that only uses them on Sundays. Talk to other qualified people about their gear; then ask to borrow what works. If you are going to invest in new products, it pays off to do the research so that you’ll be happy with the results later.
DISTANCE AND ANGLES
As you try different products, experiment with distances and angles as well. Again, this has to be done in context, but if you are testing it via archival recording, you don’t have to worry too much about disrupting your mix during the service.
The sound you are looking for is going to depend on the overall feel you are orchestrating in the service. For instance, in trying a particular mic on a kick drum, you may decide to close mic the drum from inside, angling the mic from a high position down towards the beater away from the snare drum. This can be very effective in producing an articulate and punchy sound that rejects snare bleed quite well.
But maybe in the setting of your church’s particular worship style, a fuller sound with less attack would be better. In that case, you may try miking the drum towards the front venting hole. Again, you are listening for the sound in context to your room as well as the overall service. After you’ve narrowed down some choices, record it with the rest of the music and play it back through the system.
Another element for many churches is the choir. As a side note about choirs, much of the success you will have in the sound of the choir is going to depend on the architectural elements surrounding the choir, and it is important to invest in high quality condenser mics with excellent off axis response (the flatter the response is as you move off axis from the microphone the better multiple microphones will integrate and create excellent ensemble).
However, as you experiment with different products and angles, you will find that even the feel of the choir sound can be adjusted. Some cover choirs with a number of close ranged microphones for direct, “in-your-face” sound. The trade-off is that you get negative artifacts from less than optimized phase interaction and poor ensemble. Another tact is to use fewer mics at larger distances. This will provide an excellent ensemble sound with minimized artifacts.
Which is the right way to mic the choir? (Ahem. We’re throwing out “what worked before” here, remember?) The right way to mic the choir is to mic it in such a way that it gives you the right sound for the overall service. And this will vary depending on your particular context. A note about music ministers, pastors and others with input.
No doubt about it, the input of music ministers, pastors, technical directors, (and budgets) will also drive your choices of microphones.
After all, if you decide to place thirty microphones on stands in front of a choir on risers, chances are some one is going to tell you to change it because of the clunky look on stage. No matter what it sounds like, context includes visual as well as aural perception.
The more an audio engineer becomes a part of the process of contributing to the atmosphere they are trying to create for worship, the more valuable he/she becomes. This is true for all types of programs and worship styles.
Over the past several years, I have mixed for both Jack Graham and TD Jakes-each with unique (and vastly different) preaching styles. Though no one may have noticed the subtleties of how various wireless mics supported their voices, I was able to select mics and use techniques that contributed to the overall feel of their preaching style.
Granted, listening experiments on speakers will often be considerably more tricky. Pastors and music ministers rarely appreciate being handed a variety of mics on a given Sunday. However, it is possible to try listening tests in smaller services, such as Wednesday nights. Also, if you build strong working relationships with your team, you’ll find they come to trust your judgment and will be willing to help you in testing new gear.
THE EQ FACTOR
Another aspect of mic performance is how well a particular mic will respond to equalization. Be objective in your evaluation by listening to the mic without EQ, then adjust to optimum settings for the instrument/vocalist you are miking and listen again. Some mics will sound good without much EQ, which will help with overall phase response. Other times, you may have a mic that doesn’t sonically demonstrate a very flat frequency response, but proper EQ will bring it “alive” enough to sound even better than a mic (with or without equalization) that demonstrates a very flat frequency response. For example, when miking strings, purists often prefer a well balanced sound generated from a larger sized condenser mic, minimally EQ’ed and positioned overhead approximately 2-3 feet away from the instrument.
Yet, you could also choose a less expensive mic such as a miniature lavaliere and mic it closely behind the bridge. After proper EQ, you may have achieved a more defined sound, conducive to sound reinforcement and subtly penetrate an otherwise indistinguishable listening experience.
Experienced engineers are usually built by a little training and the battle scars of a lot of trial and error. The worst thing you can do as an engineer is to let yourself get stuck in a rut-chained to “what traditionally worked”.
In two words, be innovative. Use your experience, your knowledge of physics, and recommendations from trusted experts to narrow the field, but the only way to choose the right mics and the right techniques is to try them out in context. (Do you sense a theme here?)
Keep in mind that you want to invest in the best quality you can afford. I need to mention that quality isn’t necessarily linked to price. Sometimes mid-priced mics perform close to their higher priced counterparts, and the brands that everyone trusts have generally earned their reputations.
So, what’s the payoff for all the hard work? Well, if you’re looking for accolades from the congregation, the hard facts are that the majority may never notice the subtleties of what you provide to the service. Some will take substantial notice and reaffirm that you are making quantifiably positive changes in the mix but the true value is in the overall contribution you’ve made to the total worship experience.