Church Recording Studios: Mt. Paran Case Study

In Uncategorized by tfwm

In this article we’re going to take a look at the recording studio housed inside Mount Paran Church of God located in the northern area of Atlanta, GA. Mount Paran recently built a new worship area with a seating capacity of nearly 2400 people. They run two primary English-speaking services per week in the main auditorium – the first service utilizing a 100+ voice choir and rhythm section while the second service also incorporates the choir, but uses a full orchestra. This does not include the other services that take place all around the campus in other languages and ages.

The music instruments include (among other instruments) an organ, B3, piano, keyboard, percussion section, drum kit, brass, woodwinds, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, stand up bass, and strings. Vocals are typically solos, trios, quartets, and of course – their rather famous choir. The service is very high energy and spirit filled. The front of house grandstands with a true Left – Center – Right system using EAW cabinets, line arrays and subwoofers galore. The front of house sound is tremendous – the studio has a big shoe to fill.

Mount Paran is currently in phase three of their building project – which will include a brand new media production suite outfitted for their specific needs. In the meanwhile, Mount Paran is operating in an “in-between” mode. Their studio is typical of what any church could create with a minimal investment. I want to take a look at what they have done, how a typical church could do something similar, and examine the pros and cons of their existing setup.

The Studio
If you were to walk into the studio, the first thing you would notice is that it’s not a fancy room. There are some things about the room that are really nice – for instance, it was designed to be a studio – but it was designed to be a project studio for the choir and orchestra rehearsal rooms. So it’s of good size, very well air conditioned, has a slanted control room window looking into the choir room, and features double wall construction (so it does offer a good bit of sound isolation both ways). However, it is far removed from the main sanctuary, and relies on a CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) feed for visual cues. If something breaks, there is no quick way to get to the sanctuary, so cell phones and A2’s are extensively used to make Sunday morning flow smoothly.

As I mentioned earlier, this is an in-between phase for Mount Paran’s media ministry. So the room is not tuned. It is rectangular (which we all know is not ideal for a recording studio) and on top of this, there is no acoustical treatment to help reduce these reflections. The result is a fairly unclear listening environment. This means what you hear is not necessarily what’s going to CD. Obviously this is not ideal. They overcome this by paying attention to recordings and knowing details – for instance, knowing the bass is not as heavy on the recording as it is in the room and so forth. While this is an annoyance, it’s not as bad as it could be – and remember, this is an in-between stage, so it’s not worth spending a ton of money on treating the room knowing they are going to be moving within a year.

The people and the Gear
David Wagner, Media Pastor at Mount Paran says, “It’s all about balance”. He looks at the entire system, their target audience, and format. With this in mind, he wants to balance cost with quality. Jill Warner, the Audio Manager for the church, says it’s about re-creating the worship environment for the listener – not making a perfect studio quality mix. Warner wants people at home or on the internet to feel as though they are in the Worship Center with everyone else.

The studio is equipped with a Mackie 32×8 console with one sidecar. Certain channels are routed through PreSonus Pre-Amps and compressors with outboard T.C. ELECTRONIC effects processors. The console was purchased years ago for a different objective, however it is now the primary console in the studio, and it has performed very well. The additional pre-amps have been brought in for channels that needed a “warmer” feel that they felt they could get with the Mackie. Again, Wagner felt the PreSonus was a good value for the money. While it’s not the highest end pre-amp available, he feels it provides great performance for the price. Wagner says he’s been really happy with the results he has heard from these units.

The effects processors help rebuild the room energy. There is one effect unit for the choir, one for vocal solos, and one for orchestra and instrumentals. The primary vocals as well as the drum kit also run through a series of compressors to reduce the occasional spikes in the signal path. The overall mix is also controlled with a DSP based compressor. Currently, there is no expander or exciter on the system, so the dynamic range is sometimes a little larger than I would consider ideal – but again, Mount Paran is looking at bang for the buck.

The Recording Process
Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the gear, so let’s look at the actual recording. The final product is a two CD set, one containing the worship portion of the service and the other the sermon only. The worship service is recorded directly to hard disc using WAVELAB on a dedicated PC. It is also recorded directly to a TASCAM CD-R as a master backup. As soon as the music is concluded, dual BURN-IT CD-R’s are fired up to record the sermon. As soon as the BURN-IT’s are running, the WAVELAB is turned off, and work begins on producing the music portion. The recording is edited down to a file containing music and pastoral prayers with track markers at the beginning of each song. The work is mastered, exported, and burned to CD. A runner is on hand and the music CD is handed off as soon as the PC spits it out. This runner takes the CD upstairs to the duplication station where several hundred CD’s are burned onto pre-labeled CD’s and couriered to the Media Center for sales. Phase one is complete.

Now, the BURN-IT CD-R’s are set to insert track markers every three minutes. I think this is a nice feature. If you’re in your car, listening to the service, and need to run into the store, you can easily scan the disc to find your spot when you return. They use two of these units because every once in a while they will have a problem with the finalized process – and every once in a while the tower duplicator will have problems reading a disc. So the dual recordings help eliminate problems. Just like the music portion, the sermon is also recorded to the same TASCAM CD-R as yet another backup.

You might ask why there is so much more redundancy for the sermon. The primary reason is time. As soon as the pastor says “Amen”, the CD is stopped, finalized, and rushed to duplication. Again, the towers spin up and record the disc onto pre-printed CD-R’s. They are then rushed down in batches of 20 or so at a time to the Media Center where people are standing in line to purchase. There is no room for error here. If the disc doesn’t finalize or copy – you’re not a happy camper. With the music set, you have a little more time to re-master or fix issues because you still have at least 45 minutes before the first person will stand in line to buy it.

The end result is quite good. Considering that all recording is done on the fly, Mount Paran’s recordings are very high quality. I believe they come as close as they can to getting a great mix shy of multi-tracking the service and mastering it in post.

In reality, the studio still gets a lot of unwanted sounds. There is still room noise – air conditioning, coughing, choir rustling, etc. Another problem they have is the amount of stage volume and room noise picked up in the choir mics. They’ve minimized these problems by using fewer choir mics in the recording and working closely with the front of house engineer to try to reduce on-stage volume. The AVIOM system has greatly reduced stage noise, but it’s still obvious when you bring up the choir mics. The mix goes from pretty tight to pretty loose immediately. But, the end result is still a very good recording that people enjoy worldwide.

That’s right – worldwide. The service is distributed through the internet, radio, CD, and sometimes DVD. The media ministry at Mount Paran makes it possible for many people to connect with the Word of God and Worship. This is what it is all about. Ultimately, media ministry is about connecting people to Worship and bringing them closer to God. As Wagner says, “It’s about balance”. If Mount Paran were on TV and broadcasting worldwide, there would be more need for a sizeable upgrade – both in manpower and equipment. But for the market they reach, their end-result is more than ample.

Interested? Listen yourself. Visit their website at www.MountParan.com. You can listen to their service archives on-line and decide for yourself how this setup works. (It’s important to note that Mt. Paran’s purpose is not to make studio quality recordings, but to create a simulated live-sound that helps the listener feel connected to the service).

All in all, Wagner estimates they have about $20,000 in actual studio equipment. This doesn’t include the room construction or the series of isolated split-snakes, etc.

Mount Paran is a fine example of a sensible studio for almost any size church. The key to a successful recording studio is having a remote room that is dedicated to recording. The engineer then hears the mix through studio reference monitors and is not distracted by anything else. While the CCTV viewing isn’t the best solution, it’s a common one – and it does work. It’s not as convenient and it is easier to miss a cue, but as long as the engineer is familiar with the worship center and is paying attention, it’s a workable solution. Oftentimes it’s just not possible to have the studio looking into the main Worship Center – if this is the case, CCTV is usually the only answer. I believe this is a solution that a church of almost any size could easily implement. The results are impressive, and the increased reach of your ministry is virtually endless with today’s technology. Go to their website and decide for yourself.

Spread the Word.