Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: December 2015 (Page 2 of 2)

Is Sound Subjective? Pt. 3 Politics

Photo courtesy of  Camille King

Photo courtesy of Camille King

As we go on in our series of subjective sound, I thought I should touch on the concept of politics. Not nation-state politics (don’t get me started on that one…), but the internal politics of the church. We don’t like to talk about this because we like to believe that everyone is one big happy family and totally on the same page. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s not. 

Dueling Objectives

Where we run into trouble—especially in church—is when we have multiple objectives. Usually this is the case when the leadership of the church isn’t on the same page when it comes to the musical portion of the worship service. I’ve worked in those environments and it’s no fun. When the senior pastor wants All Sons and Daughters and the worship leader wants Hillsong Young and Free, the poor sound engineer is stuck in the middle. We cannot serve two masters, especially the two masters want very different things. 

This is usually where the questions come from. When the pastor keeps saying, “Turn it down!” and the worship leader is yelling, “Crank it up!” you will never win. I want to be really clear on this so no one misunderstands; this is a leadership issue, not a mixing issue. 

I’ve lived in this tension before and I can tell you it’s not good. This usually happens when a church finds itself aging, so to appeal to a younger crowd, the leadership brings in a young, cool and loud worship pastor who immediately changes the musical style. This leads to all kinds of conflict, and as I mentioned, the sound guy gets caught in the middle. 

I Know What I Don’t Like

Another big challenge is when a pastor won’t tell the sound and worship team what he wants musically, but will only tell them what he doesn’t like. You start to hear comments like, “I don’t like that, it doesn’t fit our culture.” When asked, “OK, what would you like to hear?” “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you when I hear it.” 

This drives me nuts. You are not leading when you’re simply saying, “No” all the time until your team stumbles on the “Yes.” Pastors, if you want to continually frustrate your teams and make their lives miserable, don’t give them any direction, just shoot down everything they do because you don’t like it. 

Choose Your Music Style

One of the easiest ways to settle the “sound problem” is to choose a musical style that fits the culture of the church. Not every church is cut out for Bethel. Not every church does well with traditional hymns. Find the style that fits the style of the congregation and mix appropriately. If you do that, the problems will go way down. 

So that’s it. For now. I have a feeling we’ll be revisiting this topic again in the future because this is something that’s not going to go away. But hopefully this week we’ve helped you think differently about it.

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Is Sound Subjective Pt. 2 Mixing

Image courtesy of  defkreationz

Image courtesy of defkreationz

Welcome to day two of our subjective sound adventure. Last time, we talked about ways to tune a PA. Today, we’ll delve into the tricky world of mixing. At the end, you’ll know exactly what is the right way to put together a mix and be able to identify all the wrong ways. [That was sarcasm]

The Goal of Live Music Mixing

I chose the words carefully in that heading; we’re talking about live music mixing. This is different from speech mixing (which isn’t so much mixing as it is level management) or studio mixing. Generally speaking, the goal of live audio mixing is to reproduce and make louder what is happening on stage, and to do so as accurately as possible. I say generally speaking because sometimes there are some things happening on stage that aren’t pleasant and a good sound engineer will either fix or eliminate those. 

In addition to the making louder bit, we engineers can also enhance the audio experience by using things like effects and various mixing techniques. But those bits are never the goal; no one comes to a concert to hear the FOH guy’s super-groovy plate reverb on the snare—they come to hear the band. Our goal is to make the band louder, and therefore cooler. 

Enter the Murkiness

While most FOH engineers will agree on what I just said, there is quite a bit of deviation in practice. For example, there is a movement amongst some engineers to assault the audience with low end. In my opinion, those mixes are not pleasant to listen to, and if we removed the PA and listened to the band in a small room (where we don’t need a big PA), it wouldn’t sound like that. However, some bands want that sound. 

As engineers, we are an extension of the band. If we are doing our jobs correctly, we are delivering to the audience the band’s vision of the music. Now, that might mean that we mix in such a way that is different from what we would prefer. Here’s a concrete example; I don’t really listen to modern worship music outside of church. Like, at all. I don’t really like the way most of it sounds or the way it’s mixed. However, when I’m mixing in church, I mix the way the band wants it, which is usually the way it sounds on the album. I listen to the tracks we’re going to do for the weekend so I have my point of reference, and I try to enhance it and maybe move it a little bit towards my preference, but overall, I’m working hard to deliver what the worship leader wants. 

This is all personal preference. Some people actually like One Republic. Go figure. It doesn’t really matter that much what we as the engineer like, we deliver what the band wants. If your personal music preference is the Gaither Vocal Trio, and your church loves to do Bethel, don’t try to make Bethel sound like Gaither. Make it sound like Bethel or find a new church. 

Mixing Can and Does Suck Sometimes

There’s a big but in that last paragraph. While there are preference issues to deal with, the truth is sometimes we hear mixes that just suck. I’ve heard my share, mostly in church, but not always. Usually, a bad mix is the result of a lack of training, a lack of a musical ear, or someone who just doesn’t care. One of those things can be fixed. 

We also hear mixes that are OK, but not very good. Sometimes that is an experience thing, other times it’s a lack of understanding how music works. Not everyone can do this, that’s one thing we should all agree on.

Should It Sound The Same Every Week?

This is another question; how do we get consistency in the mix from week to week. There are a few things you can do to help with this, such as starting with the same baseline show file each week. But the reality is, if you want the sound to be very consistent week to week, keep the same band and same guy behind the desk. Every week. Change either or both of those positions, and the sound will vary. How much it varies will depend on the skill of the band members and FOH guys. But with amateur musicians and sound techs, you’re not going to achieve the exact same sound each week if you’re rotating team members. You can get close, but it’s going to vary. 


Finally, I feel I should point out that the mix is only ever going to sound as good as the band on stage. GIGO is a computer term that means Garbage In, Garbage Out. Basically, if you put bad data into a computer, you get bad results. If you put a bad band on stage, about all the FOH guy can do is make them louder—he can’t make them better. 

I’ve seen pastors berate the sound guy when the real problem is on stage. I’ve wanted to tell them, “Pastor, it’s not his fault, the band is just terrible.” I once had a guy email me and ask what plug-ins or mic’s he needed to use to get that “huge drum sound” he heard on some album. I said, “First of all, hire that drummer. Second, have him bring his drums. That should get you pretty close.” 

The Bottom Line

Preference definitely plays a role in mixing. It should not play too much of a role, however. Your job as the engineer is to make the band louder, enhance their sound and fix any bad stuff as much as possible. The best mixes I’ve heard are when the engineer and band are working as a team and are on the same page. 

Next time, we’ll talk about the politics of mixing. That should be fun!


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