Focus Track: Sound Man
There is one vital role in the Worship Team which, if performed correctly, goes completely unnoticed! That role, of course, is the role of the Sound Man.
Before we get too far into this conversation about the Sound Man, I should take a moment to point out that I will continue to refer to them throughout this article as Sound “Men” -even though there are plenty of amazing women who serve in this all-important role. I don’t mean anything negative by it, but the reality is that we live in a world of Firemen, manholes, Men At Work signs, mannequins, and Sound Men. (I could also talk about the fact that, as a man, I am in no way bothered by being referred to as part of “the bride of Christ”, but I think we can just go ahead and move on now.)
With that quick caveat manageably behind us (haha), let’s move on! If you are a Sound Man who is trying to figure out how to best serve the Worship Team, or a Worship Leader who is trying to speak their language, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind (appearing in no particular order).
The fundamental frequencies for each instrument are incredibly important to know and understand! That knowledge will serve you well as you aim to craft a clear and compelling mix of the instruments on stage. Go back through and read about the fundamental frequencies of each instrument from this “Focus Track” series, and be sure to put that knowledge to use!
There are always important harmonic frequencies above the fundamental frequencies for each instrument. These are the frequencies above the fundamentals. Some of those frequencies are pleasant, and some of them are harsh. Typically, the most effective way to craft your mix is by 1making sure that the fundamental frequencies are present, 2aggressively cutting the harsh frequencies, and 3slightly accentuating the pleasant harmonic frequencies.
Begin crafting your mix by setting a proper gain structure. The sound board has a LOT of volume knobs. The gain or trim knob is a volume knob. Each EQ knob is essentially an independent volume knob. The channel fader affects the volume. The Master Fader (obviously) affects the volume. There are many ways to get the volume that you are looking for. But what is the best way to get the volume that you are looking for? Just be sure to set your gain structure intelligently! There are two basic ideas for how to set proper gain structure.
One idea is to set the channel fader to unity (0dB) and adjust the gain (trim) knob on that channel until the output level is loud but not clipping. Since the channel fader is optimized to work from unity, this can be a great, effective method! Personally, I prefer a different method. I like to simply adjust my gain (trim) knob until the input is hitting at 60% and then allow the channel fader to go wherever it needs to once I am actually crafting the mix. In this way, I actually set the gain of every channel before I even being to craft my mix. Since the gain (trim) usually affects the monitor (or Aux Send) mix for the musicians on the stage, this method allows me to “set it and forget it” when it comes to the gain (trim) knob and focus on the faders.
Don’t overthink your job. Honestly, at the end of the day, your job is to be a glorified volume adjuster. That’s it! Don’t overthink it. Sure, there is a ton that can go in to it, and as Sound Men we should strive to continue learning about EQ and how to set compression, gates, FX, and more… but don’t forget to focus on the basics! Just make sure that nothing is too loud and that the lead vocals are coming through strong, and you’ll be fine.
Pay attention to the pots and pans. Still, there is much more to the sound board than just channel faders. Each gain (trim) and EQ pot is important. Each panning decision matters. On one hand, I like to say, “Don’t touch it unless you know what your adjustment is going to do and how it will affect the mix.” On the other hand, you’ll never learn unless you have the freedom to just mess with it. So… use a portion of each Worship Team practice or rehearsal to play with stuff. But don’t play with anything during the service! During the service, only do what you know needs done.
Never set the EQ for an instrument in solo mode. Probably the number one mistake that I see Sound Men make is to solo each channel in order to set it’s EQ. Don’t. Just stop! That doesn’t work! The solo button is for finding and fixing problems -not for generally setting EQ. If you set the EQ for each instrument perfectly in solo mode, making each instrument sound awesome on its own, I promise that you will have a terrible full mix. When it comes to mixing a band, it really doesn’t matter how an instrument sounds on its own. The only thing that matters is how that instrument sounds in the mix. Plus, the open mics always need to be factored in…
Additive verses subtractive EQ… Some Sound Men achieve their desired EQ by adding low, mid, or high frequencies to the channel. Others achieve their desired EQ by taking frequencies away. Which is better? It depends! Personally, I think you are always further ahead to subtract offending frequencies rather than add desired frequencies, but there are many ways to achieve your desired goal! Scientifically speaking, you do not have more of a specific frequency than what you have available to you at unity. Therefore, by adding more, you are adding something that doesn’t actually exist. I would rather take away something that does exist than add something that doesn’t. Artistically speaking, that additional frequency volume (that doesn’t actually exist) sure does sound cool… As a side note, you will experience way less feedback by cutting, rather than boosting, EQ.
Scientific verses artistic mixing… Mixing music is both a science and an art. The best Sound Men learn how to use both. I have met Sound Men who know the science flawlessly, but their mix sounds terrible. I have also met Sound Men who are super artistic, but their lack of basic EQ knowledge and application make for a harsh, hurtful mix. Learn the science and numbers, but be sure to create something that is musical, not just mathematic.
Use the tools of your trade! For musicians, it is a metronome. For Sound Men, it is a decibel reader. Get one. Use it. Work with the Worship Leader or Lead Pastor to figure out the desired volume level for your space and worship service. Make sure that you stay within those parameters each service. If people complain that it is too loud or too quiet, but the decibel reader said you were right where you needed to be, then simply thank them for their input while knowing in your heart of hearts that you have been a good and faithful servant.
There is SO MUCH MORE that could be said about the role of the Sound Man, but I need to at least make this one last point: don’t forget that you are working primarily with humans! So much of the role of the Sound Man is technological. It can become way too easy to treat the humans that you are working with (Worship Leader, musicians, congregation, etc.) the same way that you treat the technology. Don’t do that. Smile. Care. Be a good human. Perhaps your positive attitude and personality (or lack thereof) is being noticed more than you realize…
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).