Monday, March 12, 2007

Stage Volume and Your Sound Mix

This article is a continuation in my recent emphasis on sound and volume in worship services. Remember, I am not a professional sound technician, so these observations are made from the perspective of being an Arts Director and Worship leader for over 15 years; consequently, I will try to abstain from getting too technical in my observations.

Many churches are very poorly equipped to handle the musical nuances that come with a contemporary approach to musical worship for the following reasons. For one, in the last decade many churches have transitioned from more “traditional” to more “contemporary” musical paradigms; however, the majority of these churches are still worshiping in rooms designed for traditional music applications (choirs, organ, piano, etc…). Another reason churches struggle with sound issues is because, in the name of saving money, churches often put far too little money into acoustic and sound reinforcement design. Poor acoustics (rooms) and inadequate sound systems lay the foundation for a whole host of problems when mixing sound for the contemporary music service. So, what are the solutions? Of course, not every church can afford to scrap their present worship space and invest in state-of-the-art structures, sound, and acoustics; however, there is one relatively simple way to improve your mix even if you are vexed by a poor system and challenging acoustics. Namely, minimizing stage volume.

Since most of us do not have the luxury of worshiping in really large, acoustically dry, theatrical auditoriums, the sound created from the stage is often a major problem for creating a good room mix. The primary sources for high stage volume are stage monitors, drum sets, and electric guitar amps. The following are a few ideas about how one can deal with these challenges in order to reduce stage volume.
STAGE MONITORS: Do whatever you can to eliminate the use of floor wedges. At Parkview we’ve gone almost entirely to Aviom personal mixers. Not only do these eliminate the stage volume issues, they give each musician and vocalist total control in creating and controlling their own personal sound mix. If you can’t afford Aviom, there are more affordably priced competitors worth considering. Don’t forget that every Aviom will need headphones or earbuds. At Parkview the instrumentalists use Etymotics ($165 @ Amazon), the vocalists use Shure E2’s and I use Ultimate Ears. The vocalists and worship leader often run their Avioms into a Sennheiser wireless transmitter in order to maintain mobility.

DRUMS: Having worked with fine music directors over the years, I have quickly learned that using digital drums at Parkview is not an option. Why is this? Digital drums cannot produce the sound and offer the playing versatility that comes with an acoustic drum set. Not only do digital drums hinder the player’s ability to make good drum sounds, but they will ultimately serve as a “stay away” sign for prospective drummers who are interested in serving the Lord with musical excellence.

So, if we must have “real” drums, then how do we deal with stage volume? The answer is found in good drums, good mics, shielding, and baffling. Invest in a good drum set, get some good drum mics, and then shield the drum set with a plexiglass surround. If shielding doesn’t cut down the sound enough, then consider adding a sound absorbent roof and baffles behind and in front of the drum set. As a side note, I have seen churches build entire rooms for a drum set. In my opinion, this is a bit over the top. It may cut down on stage volume, but it also creates a harmful disconnect between the drummer and the band.

ELECTRIC GUITAR AMPS: Guitar amps must operate at a certain volume level in order to produce a good guitar tone. Though this volume level can create problems for the sound mix, good amps are a necessary component of a good guitar sound. Forcing your players to go direct into the system without their amp is not much different than making your drummers play digital drums. It may reduce volume, but it will also hinder good guitar tone and keep good players from wanting to serve in your ministry.

The few solutions I’ve seen to this problem are to point guitar amps away from walls or other reflective surfaces, use baffling behind amps in order to eliminate volume leaking from the back of the amp, or use guitar amp sound cabinets. Though I’ve never used an amp cabinet, I saw them when visiting North Point Church in Atlanta. There, the amp is placed within the cabinet off stage. Players turn up the amp to the optimum volume level, a mic is placed within the cabinet, and then the cabinet is closed. This allows the player to operate at optimum levels for tone, while also virtually eliminating any stage volume issues.
Though lowering stage volume is only one element in creating a good sound mix, it is an important element in helping less than ideal rooms handle the musical challenges that come with the contemporary music style in worship.


Greg said...

Great thoughts, other option for electrics: a power attenuator. Basically, this is a unit you hook up between the output and speaker cabinet of your guitar amp. You can then crank your amp to get the tone you need, and then the attenuator absorbs a lot of the power and volume, and only lets a small amount of volume to the speaker, making it much friendlier to low stage volumes. Check it:

The only downside is the price. $300 bucks for this thing?!?! If you got the money, though, it could be a good investment.

Enough of my ramblings. You rock my world, Scott...even at a low volume!

Vitamin Z said...

Good thoughts, Scoot, but quite simply, my essay was way better... Sorry to have to break it to you.

scooterpastor said...

Greg, thanks for the gear-head wisdom. "Power attenuator" is a great term to have in your vocabulary, even if you don't know what it means. In all seriousness, that sounds really cool. Thanks for giving another great option.

Zach, I am used to living in your shadow. I'm just glad your shadow is quite skinny.