Although I’ve worked for decades as an audio engineer at studios, clubs, concerts and festivals, I recently had an opportunity to fill in for a few weeks as an audio engineer at a church. Being there, I couldn’t help but consider the unique audio challenges of house of worship services.
In the last 10 years, people have come to anticipate recorded or broadcast quality sound wherever they go. The nice thing is, that level of quality is often achievable. Great live sound requires careful planning, the right gear, paying attention and making the right decisions. This certainly comes into play at complex church services.
What differentiates church programs from concerts and festivals is that a service can be like a whole festival in one act. At a music festival, you have a band that goes on and plays a dozen or so songs. They might have a different singer, lead guitarist or keyboard on few songs, but it’s still the same band on stage. Once you have a basic mix, you are often just making small changes. When they finish, the next band that comes on stage might have very different requirements. You quickly tap mics, make sure the equipment is set up right, open up a new snapshot on your console and start the next set.
Very often, church services also entail multiple audio configurations. The service I most recently worked on opened with playback music from my phone as parishioners arrived, went to a live pipe organ, and then continued to one person talking on stage. Next, there was a pop style worship band, followed by a group of people talking on stage, and then a few individuals with headset and handheld mics interviewing audience members. A few minutes later, the band played again, followed by a presenter with piano background music and a closing song from the band. All of this happened in one flowing hour and 15-minute set.
Fortunately, the staff members at the church are extremely well organized. The decision makers meet mid-week and distribute a call sheet that breaks down the Sunday service, minute-by-minute, event-by-event. With all of the variations of music and presenters, the service needs to be planned and executed with the precision of a live TV variety show and they pull it off seamlessly.
Generally, when you’re asked to fill in at church, someone has already set up the speaker system and acoustics. Still, when you arrive on-site, you need to assess the room and make sure you know what you have to work with.
Varieties of Churches
The first thing to look at is the kind of building you’re in. You need to examine the shape and surfaces of the room and imagine how sound will navigate the space. When you have certain audio elements up too loud, they can overplay a room, just because of the room specific acoustics. If it’s an older building, it probably has tighter structural density. While there probably won’t be as much sound from outside, it’s more likely there will be reflections bouncing around inside. With more modern construction, there is usually much less thickness to the walls, meaning much less density to block outside noise and reflect in the interior.
Most churches fall into four architectural styles. The first is the traditional church that is the most classic in the U.S. It’s a long narrow church with a pitched roof that extends the full length of the hall. It has its challenges because of the acoustics moving around the room. With pitched roofs, you don’t have a lot of standing waves because there aren’t many walls directly against each other that are parallel. However, the pitched roof will reflect sound from one side of the roof to the other and back, lengthening reflections.
Next, you have the theater style of church. In many cases, it’s not the typical style of a modern movie theater. When constructed as a church, the theater seating pitch is usually lower and flatter to the ground. Because the goal is to keep the audience as close to the presenters as possible, there’s often a broader fanning out of the seats. The more the seating is fanned, the more architects can pull in the back wall, bringing people closer to the stage. In most cases, this is a relatively forgiving acoustic environment, as long as you have wide front of house coverage, which often means multiple speakers on each of the mains.
The third style is the shoebox with a flat roof, flat walls and a flat front and back. Generally, these churches are about twice as long as they are wide, with parallel walls that can be problematic. If there are large windows, glass tends to be even more reflective at certain frequencies. These rooms are easy to overplay with too much volume, so you need to watch your levels.
The last is cathedral style—big cavernous structures made of dense materials that cause a lot of reverb. When somebody drops a prayer book, the whole sanctuary hears it and you can even hear it ring out in the hall, so there are very specific challenges. When there’s music, you need to be careful not to overplay the room. If you put any push to the main mix, you’ll overdo it. It can quickly turn into a wash of reverb. If someone is speaking, you have to almost completely shut down the lower frequencies, from a high pass filter, so you’re not putting any more energy into the room and build up the reverberation. Fill speakers can also clarify speech in this environment and allow you to reduce the front wall volume. You need to make sure, however, that the fill speakers are properly time aligned.
The four different types of rooms are the initial consideration you face. You need to look at the space and see what kind of acoustic challenges you’re going to have, then look at your program to determine how to navigate it.
Along with accommodating six kinds of presentations within a 90-minute event, managing all the microphones can also become very complicated. The service I recently worked on used three headset mics, two handheld mics, four presenters and micing the entire worship band. A major part of my planning was determining which mics were needed when and which I would need back on, minute-by-minute, to avoid other mics ringing the overall sound.
You may be set up for a worship band, but also need to be prepared to mute off all of the band’s mics when a solo presenter begins to speak. To do so, you can set up all of the band channels as a mute group or have them in subgroups that are easier to mute off or pull down. If the solo presenter starts speaking through the front of house (FOH) and there are 20 other open mics on stage, they are all going to have this little ringing going on. It’s a challenge to prepare for, but you also need be ready for the band piano to go live too. Sometimes, during the service I worked on, the piano would play during other sections, so I kept it on its own mute group.
Another difference between microphone management at a concert and a church service is that at a concert or festival, you have “the line” at the front of the stage with the loudspeakers in front of it and performers who generally stay behind the PA speakers.
During church services though, it’s common for presenters to walk in front of the speakers and into the audience with their headset mics, holding a cordless mic to interview audience members. The loudspeakers at most churches don’t come directly out from the wall; they’re angled down at the audience from a pitched roof, right where the presenters walk out front. Some people have great microphone techniques, but most aren’t trained to be aware of where their mics are pointed at any given moment. Public speakers often gesticulate with their hands when they talk and tend to point with the microphone, unaware of the speakers. When you watch certain people go to interview audience members, you have to carefully ride the wireless mic then put it back up, because otherwise, it might feedback. You always need to have your finger on the master fader. I didn’t have an automatic feedback suppression system on my console, so I had to manually chase feedback the entire time while running monitors, front of house and everything else, all by myself. It was a handful of action, concentration and watching for the unexpected.
A really important thing to know at a church service is the kinds of mixes you’re expected to provide. There’s a strong likelihood the audience mix is not the only one you’ll need to produce. There may be two or more matrix mixes in addition to the primary mix. You may need a mix for the cry room in back—where mothers take their children when they’re crying—or other auxiliary and overflow areas.
Also, in many churches, you have to provide a streaming mix that needs to be fully filled. If the guitar player or drummer is playing loud on stage, you don’t need to reinforce their sound for the live audience. However, you still need to have it all miced up and the levels properly set to feed to the streaming mix.
The church I mixed at is two and a half times long as it is wide with a long pitched roof. The main speakers are mounted about halfway up the pitched roof and there is a second set of fill speakers partway back that are on a delay and require a separate sub-matrix mix. With the fill speakers, you don’t want to have the full mix, because the output will be more complex to handle, phased against the main mix.
Just like at a concert, you can usually hear the lower range in the distance, but vocals can get lost. For the matrix mix fed to the fill speakers, I just put in the presenters and singers, then time aligned them so when music came from the main speakers I only used the fills for additional voice support.
In most cases, matrix mixes are built off of subgroups. You can build your speaking parts into one subgroup and your vocal singing parts into another. That way, the matrix for the fill speakers only picks up the two speech and vocal subgroups.
Two things you need to do with fill speakers is time align and phase align them. I use SMAART software, put up pink noise and analyze the waveform difference between the fill and main speakers. First, you get a time alignment and then you put up the phase meter so you can see the phase where the subwoofer crosses over into the main speaker. Whatever comes out of the fill speaker at the crossover point between those two, you phase align. The shapes will align at different angles until they finally arrive at the same angle. Then you have your alignment. That way, the fill speakers will work seamlessly with your front wall speakers.
Front of House Position
In most cases, unless it’s a modern theater kind of environment, churches like the FOH position to be tucked away out of sight. At the church I recently worked in, I was up in a small organ loft with their Soundcraft Vi1 mixing console. I shared the space with a woman putting the images on the chapel’s four big screens and a guy doing four-camera switching for the live stream.
The window out to the church is about six feet tall by eight feet wide and I was in a little room that didn’t sound at all like what it sounded like on the floor. As an engineer, I had to use my best judgment of what it was going to sound like two-thirds of the way back in the audience. It felt like I was landing a 747 remotely. I had to imagine what I needed in those fill speakers, in the cry room and on the streaming send.
Sometimes I use a set of headphones to monitor the streaming mix whenever the program moves to something different. I’ll check when the entrance music starts, again when the organ begins, when the worship band comes on and so on. I also use a tablet app for the mix console, which gives me mobility to hear and adjust the mix at different locations throughout the hall.
One thing for sure, the better prepared a sound engineer is at any service, the less difficult the situation will be. There will always be surprises, but if you’re prepared for 75–80 percent of what’s going to happen, the surprises become manageable. If you’re not, they’ll take you down.