The Audio Engineers Pre-Flight Inspection
If this article doesn’t get editorial comments, nothing will. Let’s ask the “MUSIC GUY” to write on how to conduct a “proper” sound check.
Before you react, let me tell you that for the most part I’m the music and tech guy’s biggest nightmare. The reason is that I did pro-audio mixing for several rock bands in Upstate New York, long before coming to Christ. I’ve also been very involved with Tech Ministries for years and watched as many audio teams and music directors have struggled with the sound-check at rehearsals and on Sunday morning. With that said, let’s get going, and talk through the process together.
I’d like to begin with reminding us all of the importance of what we do as “Technicians for Jesus”. A favorite verse that is quoted around the audio console is Romans 10:17. In the NIV it reads; “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” If you continue to read verse 18 and the beginning of verse 19 is the part that intrigues me. It says; “But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand?” As I read this, although I know they didn’t have sound system issues, I’ve wondered about just how bad their sound was!
I spent a few years working for a major commercial airline and therefore did quite a bit or traveling. One thing that always interested me was watching the captain walk around the plane doing his pre-flight inspection. Now, I don’t pretend to know what he is actually looking for, but the point is that he does this himself. It’s his plane to pilot and lives are in his hands. I wonder how often we approach our task this way? We have the message of hope and people’s lives are in our hands. Buzzing, popping, mics not on and poorly mixed services can easily turn people away from our ministry. Conducting the sound-check is like doing a pre-flight inspection. Let’s make sure that everything’s in order so that we don’t fall out of the sky.
What you need to know before it’s a go:
There are a couple of things that are preliminary to doing a proper sound check. These are things to consider before you even power up the board. The first question to ask is constant and applies to most every service that you will mix, and that’s, “What dB level am I shooting for?” What is the makeup of your church and what is the “MUSIC IS TOO LOUD” point. If you have a young congregation and are doing an alternative rock service, your levels are obviously going to be higher than that of a church with a choir and a small praise team. It’s better to know these things up front and then you can eliminate some issues ahead of time. If the point hasn’t already been made, if you don’t own a dB meter, go get one.
Secondly, as an audio tech, I want to know WHO is playing on the team this week. This is really important, especially if you have a mix of different musicians and different audio techs who work with different teams. Some musicians have heavy hands on their instruments and some do not. Some vocalists are overpowering where some are very soft. If I know who our people are this week, it helps me to go into the rehearsal and sound check with an idea of what to expect ahead of time.
Replace the Ready-Aim-Fire Method with the Ready-Fire-Aim Method:
We all need to be ready, but I watch so many teams struggle to get good sound while they employ methods that work against them. Let me walk you through this. The ready-aim-fire idea comes from missiles that used to have to be aimed in order to hit their target. Now, we can launch a missile from anywhere and steer it to where we want it to go. Same is true in how we process our sound-check.
When many people hear the Ready-Fire-Aim method, they think that you skip this part too. Not so, you have to get ready. Getting ready is the basics and comes in two parts. The first part you accomplish before the worship team arrives and the second happens when everyone is together.
As I mentioned above you have to begin with KNOWING YOUR TEAM and KNOWING WHO IS PLAYING. This will help you know what to expect when we launch. Secondly know what your worship leader wants this week. I always like to talk through the service with a worship leader. Certainly, we will be ready for anything, but it’s good to try to get a like mindset with the leader. Once we know these things we can get going on the tech stuff. This begins with doing a line check on everything. We do this every time too. Let’s not wait until the vocal team starts to sing to find out that we have a bad cable. A line-check is making sure that you have a signal to the board from every instrument and every mic that is plugged in. The next step happens when the team arrives.
Always begin by setting the “Input Levels”, or “Gain Structure”. You need to do this every week. You cannot simply set your gains when you install the board and then leave them be. This is so simple and yet, the most common error that I see churches make. Getting your input levels set properly will affect all of your other settings. Remember, even if you have the same musician in the same channel as last week, take the time to get a read on his/her playing and input level. Now we go to the monitor mix. For the majority of this section, let’s assume that you are not on individual mixers with in-ears and are using conventional, on-stage monitors. If you are in individual mixers you’ll just need to train your team on how to get a mix that allows them the best performance. I find that most people will mix their in-ears to what sounds good, like the way that you hear music on the radio.
The purpose of monitors is to be able to hear yourself and others for the best performance. For example, if you’re a vocalist you would want to make sure that you can hear the worship leader’s vocal over everyone else, followed by your own or others that you are harmonizing with. The danger of individual mixers is that, since you are mixing yourself, you can decrease your effectiveness by making it “sound good” rather than mixing so you hear what you need to hear.
That brings us to on-stage monitors. Before you set these, you have to train your team on what they need to hear. Many times we get to this place and operate on the assumption that everyone knows what a good monitor mix sounds like. Take the time to work with your worship leader and team so that everyone knows what they should be hearing. This will also help eliminate the constant changing of monitors because the instrumentalists or vocalists are not happy with what they are hearing. In mixing monitors, a simple rule applies; “Less is More”. Let’s walk through this process and take a look at who needs to hear what.
WORSHIP LEADER: The worship leader should get whatever he/she needs to be able to lead worship. This will vary depending on the skill level of the worship leader and the way they lead. When I lead worship, I use a guitar and also function as the band leader. That means I have to hear a little of everything, but mostly I want to hear my guitar, my vocal, other vocalists, and the kick drum. If I don’t have my guitar, or have a band director, I’ll want my vocal, the other vocalists and the lead instrument. I trust that the band director will keep everything together, so, since I’m not leading the band, I don’t need to hear the kick.
VOCALISTS: Your vocal team need to hear the lead instrument, the worship leader, and each other well. The problem that some teams face is that either we mix everyone’s monitor like you’re mixing a CD, so it “sounds good” and you can hear everything. Many times I have had vocalists say that they want the lead guitar in their mix so that they can hear his solo. This is just going to make everything less clear. You have to be able to say “No” to those requests, but also explain why. The more stage volume that you have the harder it is to mix the mains.
BAND MEMBERS: Band members need to hear themselves, the worship leader, and the kick drum. You can mix other instruments in as needed, but remember that the more you have coming through your monitors the harder it will be to hear yourself. Only have what you absolutely need to be able to play as a team.
The basic thing to remember when you are mixing monitors is that every person only gets to hear what they need to hear to play or sing their best. Understanding this will go a long way to not only having a good monitor mix, but less stage volume allows a better mix in the mains.
The last things I want to cover here can also make or break a service. First, you want to make sure that you have good batteries in all condenser and wireless microphones. Having a weak battery will affect your sound check and the performance. And finally, lets remember good microphone placement. I was at a church recently where the drums were real loud in the mains, as I observed, the problem became obvious. The vocal team was positioned right in front of the drums. The vocalists were also holding the mics about 10 inches from their mouths causing them to pick up more drums than vocals. I asked the pastor why he was micing the drums in such a small room. He insisted that he was not, however, once I brought the stage arrangement to his attention, my point was made. He moved the vocal team off to the side and had them move the mics about 3 inches from their mouths. This minor adjustment made a HUGE difference in the sound.
OK, now, we’re ready to roll. Instead of having every person play or say “Check 1-2-3” into their mics, it’s time for a sound check song. The Sound Check Song is a song that your team can play from memory and know really well. A song like this guarantees that your team will be playing confidently and singing loudly. During this song you’ll be able to recheck and reset your input levels and tweak the monitors. (By the way, you’ll need to get used to walking up on the platform and hearing what the team is hearing when you do this.) Set each vocalists and instrumentalists EQ setting here. Yes, the team may have to play through this song a few times, but if you take 3-7 minutes to do this at the beginning, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and grief in the long run. Oh yeah, have you noticed that we haven’t even talked about the mains yet? I never have the mains on during the GET READY, or FIRE stages of my sound check. This allows me to keep an ear on the stage volume, as well as, making sure that the monitors are set right with no distractions.
Now the fun begins. At this point the team can go into their rehearsal or pre-service warm up songs and you can get the mains dialed in. You will have to occasionally request from the worship team to make a monitor change, but for the most part that is done and over with. Since mixing is very subjective I’ll stay away from personal preferences of what you want to hear and talk about some things to consider while were finishing up the sound check.
First of all, the sound check doesn’t stop when the rehearsal or service begins. We need to be aiming and making those mid course corrections all the time. Don’t simply set everything and walk away. Your audio console is your instrument, just as a guitar may be the worship leader’s instrument. Don’t stop playing! Listen and see if you can hear every instrument on the platform. If you cannot, make the right decision. Ask; “Is that instrument too soft, or is everything else too loud?” Use a dB meter and be familiar with your room and what you are listening for. A simple way to think about this is to ask yourself; “Do your ears hear what your eyes see?” This is a great way to train yourself to listen correctly. Enough said.
In closing, I’d like to say a couple of things about clarity and loudness, but before I do that remember that I am also a musician. Having clear mixes is something that the audio guy and music guy have got to work together at. If you don’t give your sound techs something that sounds like music in the first place, it’s hard for them to make it sound like music out of the mains. It’s the old’ “Garbage-In/Garbage-Out” Principle.
I have been to many churches where the general complaint is; “The music is too loud!” When I hear this I really like to evaluate what I hear and the sound levels in the room. There are many times that the volume level is just fine, but you continually hear this complaint. This has more to do with the musician’s ability to play “together” than the audio techs ability to mix. When you are working with an all volunteer team it’s rare that the musicians instinctively know how to play together. Many times there is much more sound coming off the platform than is needed for a quality mix. Instrumentalists need to learn how to evaluate what each other is playing and adjust as necessary. Although a little off topic, this is just another thing to consider when doing your sound check.
I am confident that if you take the time to consider some of the things I’ve mentioned above, you’ll not only be able to do a better sound check, but you’ll do it in less time and your overall mixes will be much better. Now, as I close, I’d like to challenge you to give us some input. If something here works well, please let us know. If you’ve had success in doing your sound checks much differently than described above, we’d like to hear from you too. The bottom line to everything we do, is to be better equipped to serve in the Kingdom of God. If you’ve got something to offer, shoot it our way. We’d love to hear from you.