There is no such thing as a simple article on recording your worship service. I should know… I just spent the last month trying to write one. There are dozens of ways to approach a recording project at your church, so before you get started, you will need to make some educated decisions about the gear you will use and what approach you are going to take. In this article, we will explore some of the aspects of live recording, and hopefully provide you with the information you need for your worship project.
So, where do we start? Luckily, there are some simple basics that apply to all forms of recording. Having a firm understanding of these will go a long way towards giving you the highest quality results, no matter what recording method you use.
Some of these basics are really common sense. How many times have you heard someone say “Wow! I really loved so-and-so’s guitar sound on their last album. I wonder how they got it.” Well, the simple truth is that great guitar sounds start with great guitars…or any instrument for that matter. We have a lot of tricks available to us in recording, but it is not magic. Great recordings start with great sounding instruments. Whenever I get the chance, I love to share with church musicians. I truly believe they are the most important musicians on the planet based on what they do and Who they do it for. I think if more church musicians truly believed that, they would be much more conscious of the quality of instrument they used. Whenever possible, make sure you have as fine a musical instrument as you can afford. This important tool is the interface between you and your giftings, and not the place to skimp.
Next, make sure that your very fine instrument is ready to go. Guitarists and bassists need to change their strings. It is amazing how often these don’t get changed and what a difference it makes in the tone of your instrument when they do get changed. If your guitar uses batteries, make sure you change them. Also, make sure you use quality instrument cables that are in good repair. Drummers: put on new heads and take the time to tune your drums. Pianists need to make sure that the piano is tuned and that there are no mechanical squeaks or noises in the action and the pedals. It is very frustrating when this stuff ends up on a recording and it will drive you nuts. Remember, we are talking about something you are going to have to live with for a long time.
Probably the most important consideration that applies to all recordings is preparation. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Head east on 56th St. and turn left after 7th Ave. How do you make a great recording? Practice, practice, practice. A recording does not lie, and it will faithfully reproduce every mistake you make till the end of time. Make sure you know your songs and that you have all of your arrangements worked out. Your band should have a clear understanding of the roadmap you are going to use and where solos, bridges etc are going to happen. Background harmonies should be well thought out and solid.
Now it is time to make some decisions as to how we are going to do this recording. In the case of a live worship recording, our choices will be to record live to 2 track, or to do a live multi track recording. Both have their advantages and drawbacks.
Live 2 Track Recording
There are a couple of ways to do a live 2 track recording of your worship service. Perhaps the simplest to understand and execute is to place a pair of microphones in front of the band on a Sunday morning. You would want to use a matching pair of condenser microphones for this along with a high quality digital recorder. If you stand in your sanctuary and you hear a good mix of your band, you should be able to set up a quality pair of microphones at that spot and capture it. I mentioned that this is the easiest way to make a recording, but is not always the best. There are too many variables at work that will affect your final product, as in how the sanctuary sounds, how the PA sounds, how good the mix is, etc.
An approach that removes the PA and the sanctuary from the equation is to record directly from your mixer’s stereo outputs. This method is probably the best known to churches and often ends up with some of the most confusing results! It is typical to hear from a church that they tried to record their service in this way and ended up with a recording that had no drums, no electric guitars, or they were too low and out of context. The reason for this is that when you record from the stereo output of your board, you are basically recording the exact same mix you are sending to your sound system.
This mix is often light in drums or electric guitars because these instruments are putting out their own sound in the sanctuary and you often don’t need to add more through the PA. Many churches do not even mic their drums and guitar amps. If this is the case at your church, you will need to add mics to these instruments to get them into your recording. The benefit of recording like this is that you are basically recording a finished project.
The downside is that you have no way of changing the mix or of adding any additional instruments or vocals to the recording. You really have to get it right the first time. For simplicity, this is the way to go. For flexibility, we need to look at a type of recording known as multitrack.
Live Multitrack Recording
This is a more complex way to record and requires more in the way of gear. A live multitrack recording allows each individual instrument and vocalist to be recorded onto his or her own individual track on your recorder. Software based recording is very popular and relatively inexpensive to get started with, making it a great way to record your service.
You do this by connecting the direct outputs of each channel of your mixer to the individual inputs of your computer’s audio interface. You will need an audio interface with enough inputs for each of these channels; probably 16 – 24 channels depending on how many musicians and singers you have on the platform. You will also need to make sure that you have mics on your drums and your guitar amps, even if you don’t normally use them for your live sound. Again, if you don’t mic them, they won’t get recorded.
Make sure that your mixer’s direct outs are pre-fader. This means that the signal to the recorder will not be affected by the level changes that your soundman makes during the service. Pre-fader will also allow you to keep any additional drum and guitar mics turned down if you do not need them in your house mix. You can easily determine if your board’s direct outs are pre-fader by observing whether or not the level to your recorder changes when you move the fader on your mixer. If there is no change, then they are pre-fader.
Set your levels very carefully when you soundcheck in order to optimize the audio levels to your recording software. First set the levels on your mixer so that they are not clipping, or distorting at the loudest point of the performance. After this, you will need to set the levels on your audio interface. This interface is where your audio is converted to digital, so be very careful not to distort these inputs. Digital distortion cannot be fixed, and you will be stuck with an ugly sounding glitch in your recording if you clip your signal at this stage. The point is to get good levels to your recorder and have these levels remain constant for the duration of the recording. The channel inputs of a typical 16 track recording might look like this (see Track Sheet, 16), or any one of a thousand other combinations.
With 24 inputs, you would have the ability to add mics to your individual toms, run additional keyboards, more vocals, loops etc.
Once you have recorded your worship service, you will need to mixdown your individual tracks to a final stereo recording. Mixdown is one of the most creative parts of the recording process because you can literally mix these recorded channels just as you would for a live performance. You have the ability to EQ each instrument and vocal, add effects like reverbs or delays and place each instrument or vocal in the aural panorama (left to right) using your pan controls. Creative mixing will allow you to place each instrument and vocal into its own space in your final mix.
Kick, snare and bass guitar usually are placed in the center of the mix along with the lead vocal and any solos. You can freely pan your guitars and keyboards anywhere you would like. It is usually desirable to achieve a degree of balance when we pan these instruments. For instance, if you have two guitars, you may pan one to the left and the other to the right. If you recorded your piano and your choir in stereo, you may want to hard pan them left and right. You also have the freedom to spread out your background vocals in the same way. Feel free to experiment with where you place your instruments and vocals in the mix. The key is to clear out the center of your mix making room for the lead vocals and the driving forces of your kick, bass and snare. Be sure to check out the capabilities of your software like automation, which records and plays back every move you make on your virtual mixer greatly simplifying the mixdown process.
Well there you have it. No matter which method you use, the basics remain the same. Good preparation and careful planning are crucial to a successful recording. One of the most identifying features of a church body is their worship, and the ability to embody that worship in a recording allows you to freely share that experience with your congregation and beyond the walls of your church.