Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mixing Priorities and Pyramid

Today's Topic: Tools and Techniques

In a recent post on sound pressure levels, I alluded to some basic priorities that are important to understand and use when mixing for congregational singing. We'll now embark on an exploration of audio mixing for worship.

Here's a drawing that gives us a starting point for discussion on good sound in church.

This "mixing pyramid" gives you a sense of the relative importance of each section of an orchestra, band, or any worship team. As we'll see in the future, this really is an oversimplification. Hopefully, I can nuance some of those details as we go along.

What I want to note initially, is the "conflicting" priorities of musical excellence and spiritual excellence. For the song to sound good musically, the rhythm section must sound good first, then the other insruments, the background vocals, and the lead vocal. How many modern pop bands prove that great instrumentalists can cause people to overlook a mediocre singer!

However, words that lead people to worship the One True God are absolutely necessary for spiritual effectiveness. Without people being able to hear and understand the lyrics and sing along, the excellence of the musicians will be underutilized for God's glory.

So, what does this mean for the person operating the mix? It means no matter what else is great, the words must win. Practically, it helps him identify priorities for a limited soundcheck time. Here's my recommended order for mixing setup (it is a bit different than soundcheck for a rock concert):
  1. Begin by quickly making sure the worship leader can be heard. Let the level of the worship leader set the overall level of the band (aka don't start with the drums and then turn everything up to overcome the racket).
  2. Get the sounds of the rhythm section next, working quickly through the drums or percussion since they will frequently have many mics that can easily eat up precious soundcheck minutes.
  3. Add the rest of the instruments without too much work on the sounds of each one.
  4. Now add all the vocalists. Tune in the equalization and compression for all the singers, remember to layer them according to priority: worship leader on top, key parts singers just below that, and the rest just below that.
  5. Now go back and fine tune the sounds of the melody and solo instruments. Synths, pianos, strings, horns, etc are rarely way off sound-wise, if you have decent mics.
  6. And lastly, go back and really lock in the rhythm section.
During the whole time, work on relative levels, following the pyramid as a general rule: the higher in the pyramid, the louder that musician should be. Some exceptions to that could be the kick drum, bass guitar, tympani, djembe or other rhythm instruments that have very low fundamental frequencies. Pushing them up a little more than the rest of the rhythm section can help solidify the mix without the risk of overwhelming the vocals.

And, most importantly, when soundcheck is done and before the service starts, make sure the words are still winning!


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4 comments:

Gregory Pittman said...

David, excellent post! I was at a conference last week where the mix wasn't all that great. A couple of pastor friends rightly pointed out that they couldn't understand the words. I'm sure mixing in ballroom as immense as the one we were in can be tricky at best, though.

I appreciate your blog and have recommended it to the guys who serve on our very small tech team. I've also linked to it on my blog's Helpful Resources page.

John Carlson said...

In this modern day where everything is on video screens, including lyrics to songs, is it always so important for the lyrics to be 100% heard and intelligible for a mix/worship to be "spiritual"? Just an interesting question to ponder. Given a choice, for myself anyway, if the lyrics are present on screen, I'll take a thumping powerful in your face band mix any day over a weak mix with no energy or power but heavy on vocals. (Granted I'm an Instrumental Music Director and musician - can you tell? :-) But I've sat through too many mixes, in my own past churches even, where I've literally lost the beat due to an absence of a solid kick drum and drum mix, and I've lost the tonality of a new song I'm not familiar with going into a modulation from not hearing the harmonic movement of the bass - seriously! In its origin, the pipe organ was enlisted in church worship because it was the loudest instrument known to man at the time in order to lead the congregation in cathedrals. Scripture clearly speaks of instrumental music being very powerful and loud (the "loud crashing of cymbals" and the musicians "playing with all their might." Last, what about the worship leader, many of whom I've heard, especially male leaders with a lower range, who sound better with their voice sitting INSIDE the vocal mix, not always way out in front of it? I've seen that done very effectively where the WL is pulled out for necessary leadership, but then pushed back into the mix for the remainder of a song, allowing the other better vocalists carry the song. In the end I think too, and you allude to this, that a good mix has to start on stage with the band itself and how it is lead. I teach my musicians to serve the song and the lyrics first and foremost. This doesn't always mean playing softer or with less energy. But it does mean they pay attention to their role in the song, what the other musicians are doing, when to lay out, playing simplistic, when to dig in, when to "tighten up" or "widen out" as I call it. I prefer to think of the picture not so much of the mix as a volume pyramid as you describe, but a well-balanced 3D picture with a window in the center for the vocals to shine through. I'm always looking for a way, as great legendary studio music producers describe, to find a way in the arrangement to allow for that "window." Achieving that first on stage with the band is half the battle. Of course, mixing is an ART and a science, and a "good mix" can mean different things to everyone, especially our congregation. But I'm not sure judging it on shear volume alone or what should be out front of everything is the best way to go. Like a fine prepared gourmet dish that is well seasoned, sometimes in the end, what you taste most about the dish may be the least used ingredient.

John Carlson
Instrumental Music Director
Parkview Church, Iowa City
Former Assoc. Music Director - Willow Creek, 10 years.

David Wilcox said...

John,

I wholeheartedly agree with you here. The pyramid drawing is certainly an oversimplification of a much more artistic and complex process of mixing. In response to your excellent comments, I'll try to nuance my ideas a bit further in this Wednesday's Tools and Techniques post.

God bless!

Dave Wilcox

David Wilcox said...

Here's the post I promised...

Flattening the Mixing Pyramid

dave