When I was the Technical Director of a good-sized church all technical aspects of the weekend services; sound, lighting, video, presentation and even some stage design and set up were my responsibility. My time was split between all those disciplines. But at the end of the day, my passion is sound. So with that in mind, I have a few suggestions on how you can improve your mixes. They may seem simplistic, but as I’ve been more intentional about doing them, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in the overall quality of my mixes and how fast they come together. It’s further proof you can teach an old dog new tricks...
Listen to the Music
I’m surprised at how few sound guys actually listen to the music they mix, or any music for that matter. I once was talking to an audio volunteer about a festival I was shooting. I started naming some of the artists we had filmed that week; Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, Jars of Clay, etc (this was a while back, obviously). To each, he shook his head to say, “Never heard of them.” I asked him what kind of music he listened to. “Mmm, I really don’t listen to music,” was the reply. I thought, “That explains a lot...”
Most worship teams have a method of getting recordings of the songs they will be doing for a given weekend out to the team. The easiest is Planning Center Online, and MP3s can be posted there each week. That enables the team to listen to the songs during the week to learn their parts. Since our part as mixers is to know how the individual parts come together, it’s a good idea for us to listen as well. I often created a playlist on my iPhone and listened to them during the week several times during my driving. Even songs that I’ve mixed before go into the list, as I want to be sure I know when solos are, and to remind myself if it’s a piano- or guitar-led song. When you know how it’s supposed to sound, it’s a lot easier to pull a mix together.
Record and Listen to Your Board Mix
I had long held to the notion that the board mix doesn’t accurately reflect the acoustic energy in the room, so I didn’t bother with this for a long time. While it may be true, there is still a lot we can learn from listening to the board mix. We may notice that we picked up a guitar solo late, or that the vocal harmonies weren’t balanced properly. The drums may be too loud or too soft in your mix recording, and you can mentally adjust for that, but you can still figure out how everything else sits in the mix.
I admit I didn’t do it every week, but I found when I listened to my Saturday night board mixes, my Sunday morning mixes sounded better. It doesn’t take that long, and is worth the effort if you want to get better at your craft.
We all know feedback is something to be eliminated in the world of sound. However, feedback in the form of constructive criticism from a few people you trust can be a very good thing. These people don’t have to be musical experts or professional sound engineers. They should have a decent ear and know how to describe what they are hearing, however. It’s a pretty rare church where the sound coverage is so even that what you hear at FOH is the same everywhere in the room. It’s good to get some input from people who sit in other areas, and to hear what they liked and didn’t like.
For example, I really love the sound of the B3 organ. I like to pull it up so I can hear it, which is sometimes too loud. I need people to tell me the organ was starting to over power the vocals. When our mix position was up in the balcony, in a completely different sound field than the rest of the congregation (a particularly egregious sin committed by far too many architects...), my boss would occasionally call up on the com and let me know something is translating too loud or soft on the floor. This is helpful input for me.
So there you go. A few things that are easy to implement and will surely give you results pretty quickly. We owe it to ourselves and our congregations to continually get better at our mixing.