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SHHHHHHHHHHH! How to Keep it Loud with a Quiet Stage

Unless your church service is held in a giant sports arena, you probably face issues every week regarding stage volumes that can get out of control. When we bring contemporary worship to our congregation, we do it utilizing contemporary instruments that can often be quite loud. In this article we will take a look at some practical ways to handle on-stage volume.

Many of the issues surrounding poor sound quality in a church service have to do with the volume coming from the platform and how it interferes with what the audio engineer is able to get out of the main speakers. If the sound levels from the instruments and monitors on the platform are so loud that the sound person has to compete with them, this greatly affects his or her ability to do their job. The engineer is often faced with the impossible task of trying to balance the vocals and instruments that they do have control of with the very loud stage volumes that they do not.

Drums are probably the biggest volume offender in the church service. These are awesome acoustic instruments that sound good when you hit them hard. (They sound really good when you hit them really hard.) Drums are an important part of the contemporary worship experience providing a great deal of power and drive to a service.

The downside of drums is that very few churches have a sanctuary large enough that the instrument can be played at full volume without them seriously affecting the overall volume coming from the stage. In fact, even played softly they can be too loud for many congregations.

A common solution is to place the drums behind a clear plexiglass shield that extends from the floor to the height of the cymbals. This cuts down on the direct sound coming from the instrument, and is often enough to lower the volume level of the kit to a manageable level. However, by handling the volume this way, you will drastically change the tonality of the drums. The sound your audience is hearing will be very indirect; reflecting off of the back wall and the ceiling leaving us with a muted and indefinite drum sound. To address this, the engineer can place mics on the kit to regain some of the presence lost when shielding them. You can do this very simply with a kick drum mic and a single overhead mic, or more comprehensively with a mic on every drum. Careful attention needs to be paid here because of the comb filtering that can take place when a microphone is used in the reflective environment these shields create. Sound waves reflected from the plexiglass can combine at the microphone with the sound waves coming directly from the drums producing unpredictable results.

Drum shields can be constructed in such a way that the lower portion of the shield absorbs sound while the upper portion is left clear to allow the drummer to see and be seen. This will cut down to some degree the “live” or reflective characteristics inside the shield. A negative of this approach is that it will tend to block from view the drums and the drummer. Carried to extremes, these drum treatments can be so extensive that they will sometimes come complete with ceiling and even a door! A drummer’s home away from home.

The really quiet approach to drums is through the use of an electronic kit. These offer a number of advantages to both the drummer and the audio engineer. The drummer benefits from not being separated from the rest of the church and having an expanded pallet of sounds while the engineer enjoys complete control of the drum volume in the mix. When running audio from the electronic kit, you can make it as simple as running a single mono out, or as complex as individual outs for each drum sound. If running a mono output, the drummer will have to mix individual drum levels at the tone module. A more flexible approach is to run four outputs from the kit; one for the kick, one for the snare, and a left and right stereo mix of the rest of the kit. This gives the engineer control of the important aspects of the drums without taking up too many input channels. The drummer will still need to make sure they are providing a good stereo mix of the rest of the kit (other than kick and snare) to the sound person.

Electric and bass Guitars
Like the drum kit, electric and bass guitar amps can produce an uncomfortable amount of volume making it hard for the audio engineer to get a good balance between the guitars and the rest of the worship band. Poor amp placement is often the culprit leading to these out of kilter volume levels. When a guitarist places their amp behind them sitting flat on the ground, the majority of the amp’s volume will blow between their legs and not into their ears. The guitarist doesn’t hear what they are playing as well as they should, and the front row gets way more guitar than they bargained for!

When amps are used primarily as the guitarist’s monitor, they should be aimed directly at the player. Many amps have built in provisions to tilt the amp back, and you can even build a simple wood or metal stand that will allow the amp to be leaned back at an angle with the speakers pointing directly at the player. Additionally, placing the amps in front of the guitarist, rather than behind, will further cut down on the amount of direct amplifier volume in the congregation.

To even further shield the amps, (sound does come out the back as well) a simple barrier, or “gobo” can be constructed with sound absorbing material on the side facing the amp. These gobos need only be as tall as the amp they are shielding. Like the shielded drums, these amps will require careful mic placement to make sure that the audio engineer is getting a good electric guitar sound in the mix. If the guitarist is running a pedal board that allows him to change his amp settings and volume, the amp can be removed from the platform completely and placed in a separate room or hallway. Mic the amp as usual and the engineer will have complete control of what the audience experiences while allowing the guitarist to hear themselves through the on stage monitor system.

The bass player is faced with a slightly different set of problems. Low frequency waves are very large and require a lot of room to develop. A bassist using a large amp on the platform could be sitting right on top of it and not be able to hear himself, while the congregation is getting blown out of their seats. Use of a small bass amp can help, as well as tilting the amp towards the player as we discussed earlier. An even better solution is to run the bass directly into the system through a direct box or an amp modeling unit.

Amp modeling technology allows the electric and bass guitarist to eliminate his or her amp altogether. These units give them the ability to reproduce electronically not only their effects (like chorus and reverb), but also the amp and cabinet combinations that are so much a part of the guitarist’s tone. This technology has come a long way and a number of companies make outstanding units that allow complete tonal control by the guitarist while giving overall volume control to the front of house engineer. Like the drummer using an electronic kit, the guitarist enjoys a much larger pallet of tones than a single amp could provide. Investing a little time into getting the exact sounds they want out of this technology will pay off big for the guitarist. Gone are the days of having to lug around big guitar amps and heavy speaker cabinets. Many of these pedals will literally fit in the guitar case making setting up and tearing down a snap.

If you have horn players in your praise band, you know that they can absolutely make their presence known! A live horn section, especially one comprised of trumpets and trombones, can easily put out volume levels of great magnitude. Skull splitting…but magnificent none the less. Here is one way to handle this volume issue. Watch your horn players sometimes when they are warming up. You may notice that they will stand and play into a wall listening to the reflected sound. This is a fantastic natural monitor allowing horn players to hear something they don’t always get a chance to hear…the sound of their horn! (Remember, most horns radiate sound away from the musician.) This suggests a very simple and effective volume control treatment for horns. An 18” by 24” circle of clear plexiglass with a hole cut in the center for a mic to fit through makes a great live horn shield. By blowing into this mic/shield combination, their volume into the sanctuary is greatly reduced and they have an efficient, natural means to hear themselves. These work equally well for brass instruments and saxes. (Woodwinds like clarinets and flutes are typically not volume offenders and don’t require this kind of attention.) The shields are not overly distracting when viewed from the sanctuary, and the horn players have an unobstructed view of their congregation. The sound is still magnificent…with more control.

Personal Monitors
We have discussed how to handle the volume of many of the instruments on the platform, but what about all of those monitor wedges we use every week? These speakers represent an entire additional PA system that the engineer has to contend with and can rival the audio volume of the front of house system. Since these monitor speakers are usually facing every way but forward, the sound that the audience hears from them is very muddy and indistinct having bounced off of two or three walls. Plus, after all that bouncing around on the way to the listeners’ ears, these signals will be significantly delayed compared to the sound coming directly from the main speakers. This will color and degrade the quality of sound that your congregation hears reducing musical enjoyment and intelligibility. Music can become muddy and indistinct, which in its own way can distract from worship. This is where personal monitoring systems come into play, allowing us to get rid of most, if not all of the speaker wedges on the platform.

In their simplest forms, a personal monitor system can consist of a headphone amp for each musician with a simple stereo mix that they listen to. However, the most effective systems allow the musician or singer to have control of their own volume as well as the volumes of the other instruments and singers on the platform. A good example of this is the Aviom personal monitor system. This system allows for audio from the mixer to be plugged into an interface box which converts the signals to digital. This digital audio is then sent via standard networking cable to as many mixers as you need on the platform. Typically there will be a mixer for each musician in the band. The players have the ability to do their own monitor mix independently from everyone else, feeding small headphones called “in-ears”. In-ears offer some profound benefits to the musician or singer using them. Not only do they sound great, but they also greatly reduce the amount of ambient stage volume that the musician hears. By blocking this ambient noise, musicians can listen to their mix at a much lower volume than they would if they had regular open air headphones.

Wearing regular open air headphones during a service can also be distracting as they tend to separate the musicians from the congregation. (This is hard to explain. I guess it just looks like the musicians are doing something else!) In-ear monitors are very hard to see from the audience and don’t add to this illusion. These systems provide for the greatest reduction of stage volume because they can completely replace the monitor speakers on the platform. In ear monitors should be of high quality, since how they sound will directly influence the popularity of this technology with your musicians and singers. The sleeves that come with these headphones do a good job of cutting down outside noise, but the ultimate solution is to have an audiologist make custom ear molds for your in-ears monitors. You can sometimes negotiate a reduced rate to have a specialist come in and do the molds for your entire team at one time. This increases the comfort level to the wearer as well as their effectiveness in cutting down outside volume. There is one other thing I should mention at this point. In ear monitors are so efficient at blocking out the surrounding sound that the musician or singer may feel quite separated from his or her congregation, unable to hear the congregational singing that is such an integral part of the corporate worship experience. The simplest way to address this problem is to set up a pair of ambient or room mics. These mics can be placed at each corner or set up in an X-Y pattern right at the front of the platform. Either way, you should face them towards the congregation allowing for this signal to be included in the personal monitor mix that the artist can then control.

Presented here are a number of solutions to the problems associated with high on-stage volume levels. Consider the ones that may apply to your particular situation. Ultimately, we all desire to provide a worship environment free of distractions where our musicians, singers and congregation can take full advantage of that ultimate invitation…to enter in.

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