Tips for Getting a Professional Mix at Small Churches
I’m continuously surprised by how many FOH engineers I’ve met at churches that show no interest in improving or caring about the sound on a Sunday morning. They just want to make sure everything is on, pull up their presets, and purely play a game of damage control if necessary. But there’s clearly no drive to really focus on getting their mixes sounding professional and trying to strive for continuous improvement.
If you’re here for this blog post, congratulations – you’re probably not that guy. As the body of Christ, we all serve different roles in the church, and it’s so important that each and every one of us strives for excellence in our craft and responsibilities. And if you’re the FOH engineer at your church, it’s especially important that you hone your craft – your expertise or lack thereof can completely make or break the experience for attenders.
Mixing is a little bit easier in massive rooms – you’re not really combatting stage noise too much, you have a lot of gear, you don’t have to worry about volume levels, etc. But in a small room? Different story.
If you’re mixing in a small church room, you’re battling all sorts of issues related to standing waves, comb filtering, reflections, volume, and so many other factors. So, if you’re trying to get a more professional mix on Sunday morning in a small church, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Tame Stage Volume
High stage volumes are one of the biggest mix killers in small churches. If your stage volume is overriding your PA system because guitar cabs are on stage or the drums are too loud, there’s really not much you can do to dial in a good mix.
Build isolation boxes for amps or put them in an amp room backstage. Have your worship pastor talk to your drummers about playing quieter and maybe using Hot Rods to keep volumes down. In the extreme circumstance that your drummer just can’t hold back for some reason, it may be time to look at some type of shielding solution.
I generally advise against drum shields as they usually create more problems than they solve (reflections into mics, they’re an eyesore, etc.), however, I will admit that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Every church’s situation is unique. But you don’t have to opt into a full-on, massive full enclosure. Look for cymbal shields, half-shields, drum mutes/muffles, and other solutions before going for a full-enclosure.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your worship pastor about getting an in-ear monitor setup if you don’t have one already. There are so many benefits. They can start using click tracks, guide tracks, and worship tracks which creates structure and can help in tightening everyone up. But most importantly, it gives you the ability to mix significantly cleaner since you’re not battling the volume crisis of having a dozen blaring loud wedges on stage.
Use Mutes and Gates
If you feel like you’re always struggling to get things sounding “clean”, and that there’s this layer of fog or mud over your mix, you’re probably battling ambience issues.
When playing live, you unfortunately don’t have the luxury of isolating all mics. Your guitar cab mic is picking up drums, your vocalists are picking up guitar and drums, drums are picking up ambience in the room, and if you don’t have in-ear monitors, the stage volume is making its way into every mic on stage in some way or another.
Start using mutes and gates when necessary. Gate close drum mics, put a light gate on vocals if you’re able to, etc. If you’re going to use mutes on channels, it’s important that you listen to the songs ahead of time and know exactly when you should and shouldn’t mute certain channels.
When mixing in a church, you need to be fast on your feet (especially if you have a few unpredictable worship team volunteers…) If someone cranks their volume, the drummer gets a little too excited, or a vocalist is changing their singing volume a ton throughout the setlist, you need the ability to adjust things fast. Use your groups on your board!
Grouping channels gives you the luxury of dealing with less faders for on-the-fly quick volume adjustments. It makes the entire mix easier to manage and allows you to respond quicker.
Start Sound Checks if You Aren’t Already
If you aren’t doing sound checks before rehearsal starts, you should talk with your worship pastor about starting them. It should only take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of rehearsal, but it gives you a chance to check every single line, identify problems before everyone is playing, and get a good handle on what you need to do before the stage is a wall of sound.
Can’t get drums to sound thick in the mix? You’ll probably be able to identify phase issues if you sound check the kit on its own. A frequency is piercing loud in a vocal or guitar mic but you can’t find it? A sound check will give you the chance to do necessary frequency sweeping and cutting out problem frequencies.
Always Be Learning
There are tons of generic tips any engineer can give you regarding basic EQ and compression for each instrument, mic placement, etc., but at the end of the day, nobody is mixing in your room, with your board, with your musicians, with your mics. Your situation is unique, and the only way to ensure that you are continuously getting better mixes is to keep learning.
In the same way that band members set aside 1-2 hours (or more) during the week to prepare songs for rehearsal, you should spend the same amount of time watching live mixing videos, taking notes on the songs in PCO and what to look out for while mixing during each section, and dialing in settings ahead of time if possible.
Being proactive about listening to the songs and taking notes, and trying new techniques as you learn them from others is the best way to skyrocket your capabilities as a FOH engineer and continuously improve your Sunday morning mixes.
About the Author
Chris Fleming is a professional musician from Minneapolis, MN who has played with artists such as TAYA, Big Daddy Weave, and Jason Gray. He is actively involved with the worship music scene and has contributed as a drummer, music director, song writer, and producer for various worship artists and churches locally and nationally. Chris is the Motion Designer at Motion Worship, helping to create motion background collections and countdowns for our subscribers.