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Graduating Mix-Master High: Learning The Art of the Worship Mix

The cables are run, the monitors have been dialed-in and the wireless mics are, remarkably, functioning properly. Now, the mix can begin.

All the preparation and perspiration have led to this moment: the opening song. As the loop begins, the congregation rises in unison to join the praise team singing “Hosanna.” In the mix, voices are clear, instruments ebb and flow as they should and the rhythm section stays strong, yet compliant. In an instant, the technicalities of the process are washed away by the resounding joy of the lyrics carried from the speakers directly to the heart of the worshippers. The mix has been achieved, not through obscure chicanery, but with a methodical, learnable approach to the task.

Is this a dream? It doesn’t have to be. Graduating from Knob-Jockey Elementary to Mix-Master High is an attainable goal, if several core principles are followed and the right attitude is employed.

A worship band mix is different than a secular band mix in many ways. In a secular mix, all that matters is who is writing the engineer’s check, and what does that person want to hear? In a worship setting, everyone in attendance has at least some voice in the proceedings. A secular mixer focuses on delivering the best possible sound, while a worship mixer must balance the content of the music against other factors, including tradition and church history. A secular crowd is there in unison, purposely to hear the band. A worship setting is an amalgamation of society from twelve to seventy years of age—from all backgrounds—with each person wanting to hear something different. So, the criterion in worship mixing goes far beyond whether it “sounds like the CD” and into an uncharted realm where the grading curve is really a sine wave. However, there is a way to herd the litany of complaints into two areas: “It’s too loud!” and “I can’t understand the words.”

When a congregant utters those famous words: “It’s too loud!” responding with the words “You’re too old.” is not the best course of action. Loud is a relative term. In fact, our reference of Bel, as in Bell Labs, means “twice as loud”—a differential correlation. So, the loudness issue cannot be met with mere techno-speak. There is a greater concern at play here.

It is likely the overall volume is acceptable, but certain ranges within the spectrum are out of alignment. The complainer may say: “It hurts my ears,” meaning some frequency content of the sound is causing them grief. To solve the problem, analyze the situation. Where is the person sitting relative to the on-axis response of the speakers? Does the person prefer a different style of music? Is the person within a known “power alley” in the room where low-band energy builds up? Does the mix engineer have a hearing loss in the 2-4KHz octave—leading to a pronounced boost in that region? Once these answers are uncovered, the real issue can be addressed.

Hertz, Don’t it?
If the house speaker system employs large-format compression drivers mated to constant-directivity horns, there may indeed be an excess of upper mid-band energy reaching the seats. Since the human ear/brain system responds to frequencies between 2KHz and 5KHz more acutely than any other region, some preventative steps are in order.

The classic Fletcher-Munson curve shows how humans perceive upper mid-band frequencies intensely at modest levels, but the disparity across the range essentially vanishes at high volume. In essence, the ear/brain response changes, and so should the mix. When the moment is gentle and the song quiet and fragile, people need the clarity of 2-5KHz to stay connected, but when the band is rocking, that same region must be held in check. The popularity of multi-band compressors such as the Waves C6 can be partially attributed to the need to quell the upper mid-range only during loud passages while leaving the rest of the signal intact. Low frequency build up can be countered with rearrangement of the subwoofers to avoid unwanted power alleys. Every FOH engineer should have a comprehensive hearing test to uncover losses in the critical mid-band area.

“I can’t understand the pastor” is another common complaint—and is centered on intelligibility, not volume. As a general rule, most church auditoriums enhance low-mid energy which masks needed clarity in the system. One simple test is to duck down behind the pews or seats in the center of the room while the band is rehearsing. If the sound is extremely muffled and incoherent, some adjustment is in order. Now, electronic controls are no substitute for acoustic solutions, but this exercise is designed simply to improve the situation with the tools at hand. The most common problematic octave is between 200Hz and 400Hz. A reduction at 250Hz in the pastor’s lapel mic channel can do wonders for clarity and gain-before-feedback. A 400Hz cut on a female vocal will let it stand out in the mix without resorting to a 4KHz boost.

The New Math: Reductive Mixing
Monitor mixing is more difficult than FOH since each band member presents a complete mix requirement and there is unwanted interaction among the stage mixes. For an FOH engineer to succeed while also running several stage mixes, order must be the rule of the day. If everyone talks at once, there will be chaos.

Therefore, one proven method is to start rehearsal with the monitors off. The band is then asked to play the first song with the understanding the monitors will be addressed ASAP. The reasoning here is to place the FOH mix first in order to establish a baseline of need. Once the FOH mix is dialed-in, the band can then use the monitors as a “what’s missing” box instead of an “everything but the kitchen sink” box. As the purpose of a monitor mix is to keep the band on-time and on-pitch, the monitor need only carry enough information to achieve these two goals, with nothing else brought in to spoil the function.

Reduction is the rule of the day in live mixing. Every signal generated on-stage competes with another one, and it falls to the engineer to parcel the results to best fit the mix. The key is to “dig holes” in the response. Each channel’s HPF (High Pass Filter)—also known as a low-cut filter—will reduce the response of a signal below a knee-point frequency. If adjustable, it should be used on every channel since it will eliminate issues across the board.

When an electric guitar creates competing energy in the female vocal range during the verse of a song, it must be “scooped” to prevent a clash. It is permissible to engage a low-Q cut around 1KHz on the electric channel EQ strip during the verse and then bring it back elsewhere in the song. In the same vein, two acoustic guitars on-stage must be separated by bandwidth through a low-mid cut on one at 500Hz and a high-mid cut on the other at 3KHz. This action allows both instruments to fit nicely into the available sonic palette.

Two vocalists in the same register must be differentiated in order to be heard. One way to accomplish this goal is to ask one vocalist to sing. Then sweep the mid-band EQ on that channel, starting at the lowest frequency, with its associated level set to +6dB. Stop when the mic rings or sounds especially poor. Leave the sweep in place and move the level control from +6dB to -3dB. The improvement will be significant. Repeat for all other voice channels and even on instruments such as toms when resonance becomes a problem.

Interestingly, the better the band, the more likely they are to “self-mix” and perform such tasks at the source instead of forcing the mix engineer to do so at the console. Either way, this process should be used every time since it will make a tremendous difference in the overall sound of the band.

Know thy Instrument
The best engineers are organized and know where their tools are located. On a digital console, with its layered approach, organization is essential to success. The time-honored layout of kick on channel one and vocals to right of master no longer applies. A digital console should have its primary signals, such as lead vocalist, electric guitar, speaking pastor and announcement mic on the top layer with subsequent layers assigned according to access requirements. Digital mixers allow the engineer to double-assign inputs to the same fader on two layers, making it easy to configure the top one for the worship leader’s singing voice with reverb added and low-end rolled off for clarity while the second is set-up for speech with no effects, lowered monitor levels and bass restored to add authority to the voice. A scene can then be set up to quickly recall the appropriate configuration with the same fader used for both situations.

Mixing for worship requires a thick skin and a soft heart. Pastors, worship leaders and team members will say unfortunate things in the heat of the moment so be prepared to absorb some injuries. Their comments are not meant to be hurtful and they will realize this after the service. Do not harbor ill-will as it can grow into a cancer within the team. Assume the best of everyone on the stage and work accordingly. Remember: we are there to serve them as they serve the congregation. A smile and response of, “I will work on that for you” can overcome most difficulties and disagreements. Musicians will always turn up their amps to eleven, vocalists will always want more of themselves in the monitors and pastors will always change their entire sermons three minutes before the service, so accept these issues and do the best job possible with the goal of “Well done” in mind.

Kent Morris, based in Atlanta, is a 30-year veteran of the worship technology arena and continues to learn from the newcomers every day.