When I’m not writing brilliant works of marketing genius for HARMAN (yes, that’s sarcasm), I run broadcast audio for my church. So, this topic is one near and dear to my heart. Getting good audio quality for audio and video recordings is a tricky task for churches, but it’s one that can make or break the effectiveness and reach. Too often, people are naturally disinclined to listen to or believe a low-quality recording, no matter the import of the message, so it’s essential that churches do what they can to get the best audio recording possible within their abilities and budget.
Of course, there are a number of different ways to design a system to record audio, and which one you choose depends on the size of the church, the budget and even the talent available. So, let’s look at the different options available and the benefits and applications of each.
Stereo Main Mix from the Soundboard
This is one of the most common ways of getting audio from a soundboard. If all the church is doing is recording the audio of the sermon to place on CD or online, this is a suitable choice. The recording will won’t have any natural reverb from the room and you won’t capture reactions from the audience, so depending on the type of service, that might be a concern. Otherwise, this approach can work for an audio-only recording of the pastor’s sermon. It doesn’t require much additional cost or volunteer resources, so it’s a popular option.
However, if the recording goes beyond that, this approach tends not to be ideal. When expanding to video, and especially if the entire service (including music) is recorded or streamed online, getting a straight stereo mix from the soundboard tends to be incredibly dry with the vocals too prominent in the mix. There is a lot that a front of house engineer takes for granted within the space itself. Running straight out of the board, the audio can come off as sterile, and can even lack certain instruments within the mix. This is because instruments such as pipe organs, acoustic drums or guitar amps might not be miked. Even if they are, they are often turned down in the mix due to their loudness within the room. When recording from the stereo mix, you don’t have the sound from the room, and lose a lot of the vitality of the live performance.
Sub/Aux Mix from the Soundboard
Depending on the soundboard, churches also might have the option of creating a separate, dedicated mix for recording. They do this by using the sub or aux out from the board, making adjustments for the recording mix while wearing headphones. If going with this approach, look for headphones such as the AKG K553 Pro or K92 that isolate well. Low frequencies especially have a tendency to run right through the phones causing the engineer to mix things a touch on the thin side since they hear the low end in the room still.
There are two basic ways of setting up a recording submix. First, you can run the entire recording mix pre-fader, meaning that for every channel, attenuation for the recording mix is done before it goes to the fader that the engineer adjusts for the live, in-room performance. This gives the engineer completely independent control of the volume for each channel in the recording mix. That approach will give you the most flexibility for the audio mix. However, it also means that the sound engineer essentially ends up creating two separate mixes at the same time. This is problematic at best and more often than not causes problems.
A second option to address this and make it simpler is to make the recording mix post-fader for any channels used in the live mix. When an aux send is post fader, any audio from that channel going to the auxillary out is sent after it turned up or down by the fader. That way, if a certain mic is muted in the live mix, it will be muted in the recording mix and the engineer only needs to focus on the live event. Adjustments can still be made to certain instruments, such as acoustic drums, that might be louder than in the live mix, but this is typically set once and then forgotten. Because the two mixes are similar and the loudness alteration is set, the engineer only adjusts the live mix.
However, if you are miking any instruments that aren’t in the live mix, or are using room mics, those will need to be pre-fader. Room mics are very important for recording mixes, because without them, the recording could very easily yield the same “flat” and dry mix as you would recording the stereo out. Room mics help to capture the “air” and ambience of the room and give the listener more of a sense of actually being there and hearing what the congregation heard during the service. You can certainly also add artificial reverb to a recording (as some prefer for orchestral recordings), but room mics also let you hear audience reactions, such as applause, liturgy, etc. Two AKG C414 mics at the back in cardioid mode and two Crown PCC-130 boundary mics above the stage can give good results for this. Just be sure they’re timed to match the PA to prevent phasing issues.
Separate Board with Separate Operator in a Separate Room
This approach is most common in cases where there is a dedicated video production room. If the church has multiple cameras and is recording or live-streaming the entire service, you may want to have a separate board dedicated just for the recording. This obviously will have additional costs and requires an additional paid or volunteer operator, but it has the benefit of ensuring the audio sounds the best for a broadcast performance.
When designing a system with a separate broadcast audio board, you can use a normal live-performance board or a board designed specifically for broadcast, and which you use depends on the application and the budget. If you are broadcasting on television, for example, you will probably need a broadcast board like the Studer Vista 1. These systems have advanced features, such as Studer’s VistaMix, a useful feature when there are multiple speakers are on stage. VistaMix automatically increases gain for ‘talking’ mics and reduces gain for all others while keeping the amount of total gain constant.
However, not all situations call for a broadcast-level board. For applications where you are streaming on the web, for example, you might be ok with using a multi-purpose soundboard such as the Soundcraft Si or Vi Series that tend to be less expensive than the higher end broadcast boards. These consoles have less automated features and fewer faders, but at a lower cost.
How you are going to wire a broadcast audio system is also an important consideration. If you are wiring using “copper” (that is, if you are using analog, hard-wired cabling from the stage), wiring for multiple consoles is fairly straightforward. You simply split the snake coming from the stage and each board gets discrete inputs and full, direct control. Of course, that also requires dedicated wiring that can be difficult to update, whereas with digital audio transport, the system is more easily scalable. The only caveat is that typically digital systems have only one preamp—the one in the digital snake. The result is that you don’t have separate control of the gain on each board. That said, many digital consoles have gain compensation such as a Trim that would allow the down-stream broadcast engineer to boost/cut the gain of the digital signal as needed. As long as the up-stream FOH engineer has a decent gain structure, the broadcast engineer can adjust.
Finally, you will want to consider the monitors you are using. If adding broadcast audio into a video production room, the existing audio monitors might not be efficient. Especially for churches with a more modern worship style, it’s important that the reference monitors support extended low range from kick and bass. Larger reference monitors like the JBL LSR308 typically offer a truer picture of what’s happening in the low end of the mix. Without suitable reference monitors, you may inadvertently mix the low frequency content a little too hot due to the fact the frequency response cuts off a little higher on smaller monitors. This can yield a bottom heavy or muddy mix once it is played back on a real-world device.
As with any technology, the right choice for church audio recording varies greatly depending on the application. Do you have any tips on getting better audio for audio recordings at churches? Let us know in the comments.