5 mistakes every sound guy makes...

Five little details….that make a HUGE impact on how your congregation perceives the music they’re hearing, and even how they engage in worship. If you’re taking care of these 5 issues, you’re on your way to a great mix. Let’s start with number five:

5. Not Matching The Key Of The Pre-Service Music.

This one has caused some of the ugliest sounds I’ve ever heard in church. The problem shows up when the pre-service music playlist coming from your iPod/computer/whatever plays a song that’s in a terrible key to transition to the first song of the worship set. Worship leaders are VERY careful in choosing which songs to play next to each other during the worship set for this exact reason, so we should be just as careful when we have to orchestrate the transition from our pre-service playlist to the band. In reality, it’s not too tough to fix either. If you happen to be musically inclined yourself and you know what keys the songs on your playlist are in, just ask the worship leader what key their first song is in and then select yours accordingly. For the not so musically inclined sound guy, just ask the worship leader for 3 minutes of his time to look through your playlist and to pick a good song. It’s super easy, and your congregation and band’s ears will thank you for nailing that transition!

4. Not Checking Microphone Placement Before Service

Ok let’s be real here: drummers are a clumsy bunch…and they beat their immediate surroundings with clubs of wood for hours on end, and as well-intentioned as they may be, they WILL knock around some of the microphones that you’ve so carefully placed before as the band was loading in. Same thing goes for guitarists with amps. People walk by, they bump in to stuff, and suddenly the guitarist’s mic is pointing at the ceiling instead of his speaker. So always, ALWAYS check the mic placement before service starts. You’ll be shocked at how many things change, and how much better your mix will sound when the drummer hasn’t smacked his top snare mic so it’s pointing at the hi-hats.

3. Too Much Reverb

I know, reverb covers a multitude of sins. It’s a great tool, and I’m a huge fan, but often a little goes a long way. Consider two things: first, we sound guys are usually in the back of the room, and being placed back farther from the speakers means that it’s harder for us to hear very detailed sounds like the decay of a reverb. Because of that, we often overdo it in our effort to hear the effect. Chances are, if you can really hear a good amount of reverb all the way in the back of the room, the congregation in the front of the room is hearing a TON of reverb. Second, consider the room you’re in. Odds are it doesn’t have perfect acoustically treatment, and more than likely, it’s already got a lot of natural reverb built-in. While it might not sound as pretty as your Lexicon effects rack, it’s still something we have to consider. Try working with that natural decay instead of trying to cover it up. If you’re already in a hall, maybe don’t use the hall setting on your effects rack. Try a room or plate reverb instead and I’ll bet you’ll like the results a lot more.

2. Trying To Make Everything “Big”

Here’s a dirty little secret: trying to make everything sound “big” is a surefire way to make everything seem small and hard to hear. We have to use our volume and EQ to carve out space for certain elements in a mix to sound big, and for other elements to take a back seat to the ones that we want to stand out. Go listen to some of your favorite studio recordings. I can guarantee that when you really listen close to those mixes that sound huge, it’s not every element in the mix that’s standing out. It might be huge guitars with drums pulled back a little bit, or maybe big vocals and drums with the guitars and bass dropped down to really let them shine. Now it’s not all about riding the faders, it’s also about EQ. I’ve noticed this with guitars in particular, the upper mids will step all over vocals and even drums and make them lose their punchiness unless you do something about it. They really may sound great on their own, but get them in a mix, and suddenly they’re so big that there’s no room for anything else. Listen for where frequencies overlap and cut the EQ regions where the conflict is happening. You’re mixes will open up like you never imagined. You may notice that these EQ cuts make the individual instruments sound less “big”, but in the context of a mix you’ll gain clarity, space, and depth that are all impossible otherwise.

1. Not Walking Around

This is probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever had from a fellow sound engineer. When I was just starting out, I dialed in what I thought was a pretty great mix and I asked the other more experienced sound guy who was also working that day what he thought and he said “Yeah…that sounds pretty good back here at the sound booth…but I’ll bet it sounds like crap on the front row”.

And he was exactly right. Harsh vocals, snare verb that sounded like it was in the grand canyon, guitars that we so muddy I couldn’t even hear the vocals…it was rough. The moral of the story is this: know your room. And when you know it, walk around in it. You’ll be surprised by how much it changes as you move. The frustrating thing is, it’s really tough (if not impossible) to get a mix that sounds perfect everywhere, but by knowing how the room changes, you’ll be able to get a lot closer. By balancing your mix for the problem areas in the room, you’ll get a more consistent and pleasant mix to listen to throughout the entire space.

That covers it: 5 big problems, 5 easy solutions. Feel free to leave comments below.