Mixing Monitors

I have to admit this, so why not do it on the internet where millions (i wish) people could read it.  (or more likely a few hundred).  When I’m mixing sound, the thing I dislike most is monitors.  Yeah.  There, I’ve said it.  Sorry to all the musicians out there.

I would suspect this feeling is actually more common than not though in the world of live sound.  I know many FOH sound engineers don’t need to worry about it for various reasons, but I know that many of my colleagues still do, and they also probably wish we could somehow do it another way.  Luckily, with personal monitoring systems, there is a good alternative that at least makes life easier for the FOH sound person.  Our church will be getting some Allen and Heath ME personal mixers for our band in the next couple of months, but until then, we still work with stage wedges, usually 7 of them.

Our issue lately with the monitors has been a lack of focus.  When the musician can’t hear something, they ask for more of it.  Then the monitor mix gets louder.  As practice on Tuesday night goes on, then run through on Sunday morning, the monitor mixes always get louder as well.  To be fair, I am not blaming the musician here, or the sound person, its just what has happened.  But what happens when 7 monitors are on stage, feeding back into mics, and also bleeding into the seats because of their immense volume?  It affects the mix, and what happens when the mix gets affected? It doesn’t sound.  It’s a downward spiral from there.

My worship pastor and I had a discussion about this on Monday and so on Tuesday at our worship practice we had a talk with the band.  We need to bring things back in and our way to do that was to educate our musicians and vocalists on what is actually needed in their monitor mix.  It’s amazing what a little teaching and communication can do.  What’s great is that these tools work whether you are using live monitors or using IEMs (some of the details change, but the overall concept is still the same).

I first told the band that the monitor is not meant to give them a nice clean full band mix, if that was the case I’d just send the main mix to all the monitors and everything would be good.  But no, the monitor is there for them to hear what they need to hear, in order to play as part of the band.  So what does this mean for everyone?  First, it means swallowing a little bit of pride, and secondly, it means thinking critically for what is really needed.

I gave some generalities to the band and asked them to really think about what is in their monitor mix, and what really needs to be in there.  For instance, when we have 4 singers, not all 4 singers need to be in everyone’s monitor.  Really, just the person leading the song needs to be in any of the musicians monitors.  I’m sure everyone wants to hear the beautiful harmonies of the backing vocalists, but other than the vocalists themselves, it isn’t needed.

The bass player needs to hear the kick drum, that is essential for them, the whole drum kit is needed as well, but on most stages with live monitors, the drums will come through without any additional need for them in the monitors.  For a quick note, the major difference between live monitors and IEMs, with IEMs more of the drums will need to be in more people’s monitors for the sake of keeping time.  Every mic on the drum kit does not need to be there though, I personally usually just put the kick and overheads in the IEMs, sometimes the snare, it depends how well it is coming through the overhead channels.  But the Tom mics don’t need to be there, the overheads will pick those up just fine.

The keys are important for the vocalists, often for finding the note, staying in key for a song, the keys can play a significant role in that.  The acoustic guitar can also help this as well, as keep track of the feel of the song.  What about the electric guitar and the bass guitar?  Again, this depends on the song, but they aren’t really needed very much in most people’s monitors other than the electric guitarist and the bassist.  And if you have live amps on stage (which we do) then you might not need them at all.

Basically what I’m getting to is that not everyone needs to be heard, in everyone’s monitor mix on stage, whether live wedges or IEMs.  We don’t want to deafen our musicians, and we want to keep the sound as clean as possible for the congregation on Sunday morning.

I also am training our sound operators and musicians that sometimes when they can’t hear something that they need to hear, the problem isn’t necessarily solved by turning something up louder, it might be that something else needs to come down.  If the guitar player says they can’t hear the lead vocalist, maybe instead of trying to boost the lead vocalist, try turning down the instruments in their monitor.  If that doesn’t work you might need to boost the vocal, but often times something can just be turned down to let space in for needed channel.

Thankfully, we lowered our volume on stage significantly on Tuesday evening, I didn’t take before/after db levels on stage, but I can tell you that it was much quieter, and much more bearable to work with, but also was loud enough that all the musicians and vocalists could hear themselves just fine.  All this took was some communication on the part of our worship pastor and myself to let the team know.   I’m hoping this will help make Sundays sound much more clear to the congregation with less competition on the stage for volume.

Have you communicated your expectations to your band and sound team for their monitor mixes to help them be comfortable while not having to run their level up so high they have a headache by the end of the set?

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Lets Control The Mix!

I’ve been here at Creekside Church now for 5 months.  Upon being hired I knew there were some areas that leadership really wanted me to focus on improving.  Sound and lights for our weekend services were two very essential sections.  One thing I did was had our room retuned (and along the way discovered our DSP had some really strange settings).  I still wasn’t happy with the sound on Sunday mornings though, but I didn’t do anything right away.  I spent a few months learning how our sound volunteers work.  I didn’t want to make big changes that were going mess them up on Sunday morning.  Finally last month I made some changes that I thought were bearable for the volunteers to handle, and would also help out the sound on Sunday mornings.  That was five weeks ago, and I’ve had many positive comments from people saying they’ve heard the difference in the music, particularly drummers who have said they enjoy the sound of the drums on Sundays!

So what did I do? Well first off, nothing “amazing” haha.  If you’re an experienced FOH sound person, this won’t shock you or anything.  But I basically set up the board so that our volunteers have more control of the mix, but in such a way that they don’t get scared of how things are hooked up.  For the record, I love our team, but they are volunteers, they aren’t professional sound operators.  For this reason, many of them have never really worked with compressors before, or effects.  They’ve had them at their disposal but without any education on them, they’ve never really learned what they do and how they do it and how to make them do it properly.  

So at the beginning of February, I was scheduled to run sound, so I rewired a few things.  I took the vocals, which previously had no compression on them at all, and ran them all into a group.  Then I put a compressor on that group.  I enjoy Dave Rat’s mix strategy and how he talks about group vocal compression, and since we have a limited number of compressors, I thought I’d try it that way.  The vocals do not go straight to the main mix, the are assigned to VCA 1 and go through group one and the compressor is set on Group 1 to give an overall compression on the vocals.  I like it for when we go from 1 vocal to 4 vocals, the group compression helps the overall vocal mix stay at a reasonable level when those extra vocals join.

For the drums, I already had the kick running through a gate/comp, same with the snare so I left those two that way.  For the Toms, I did a very similar approach as the vocals.  I ran them into a group and put a compressor on the group.  But I also ran individual gates to each Tom.  Obviously a group gate doesn’t work, so I did it individually.  Then the cymbals were done the same way, I put them into a group and put a compressor on the group.  

I also switched our miking on the cymbals.  I started under miking our cymbals.  I’ve read many opinions on the under miking of cymbals and I decided I needed to try it myself.  It does affect the tone of the cymbals a bit, but by pulling out a little bit more of the low mid range (300-700) than normal I was able to take away the initial muddyness I was getting from them.  This meant more mics, but also meant more control of the cymbals.  I reversed the phase on all the cymbal mics as well since now the mics would be on the other side of the cymbal hit.  The group style compression really helped us gain more control of the cymbals.  With just two overhead mics and a hi hat mic I found it more and more difficult to control when the drummer would do a big fill and hit a crash really hard, only to be gently tapping on the ride later on and we couldn’t hear it properly.  Now each mic is set for that cymbal, and the overall compression allows us to keep the levels appropriate even when the drummer starts getting really excited during a really emotional/driving part of a song.

I also put the guitars through a group compressor together just as the vocals/cymbals/toms all were.  So we had 4 groups set up Vocals, Guitars, Toms, Cymbals.  Meanwhile we had individual compressors on the kick, snare and bass. And gates on each of the toms.  Keys were the only thing without any compression, and since its all preprogrammed sounds on it anyway, I don’t really see a need for that, and we had no compressors left.

So this setup is something that I’m sure has some of our volunteers a little confused.  But it’s also easily controlled enough that they can still mix on it, even though they aren’t totally sure of it.  I’m here every Sunday, so if a serious problem occurs, I’m here to fix it, but they’re also being exposed to the use of compressors and gaining more confidence in their use of them.  They know that pushing the VCA’s or individual faders is jsut pushing things more into compression.  A few of the volunteers didn’t get that, until mid service, they wanted more vocals and pushed the VCA for vocals and things didn’t get much louder.  So I had them push the group fader (which is post compression) and that gave them the added vocals they wanted.  It was like a light went on when that happened.

Basically, instead of just waiting for the right time to do a “training class” with the volunteers on how to use compression, I forced them to learn it on Sunday morning in a live setting without scaring them or ruining the mix because they couldn’t control them.  If we had thrown individual compressors on each vocal, there’s too much going on, too much to be affected and too much for an unexperienced person to learn properly.  The volunteers have each learned more about compression in this use of it than by any discussion I’ve had with them about it.

The added bonus of them learning compression is that our mixes have sounded so much better.  The control that this setup gives us has helped make the mixes easier to do, and better sounding.  We can push the cymbals now without worry of deafening our congregation when the drummer all of a sudden comes down hard on a crash cymbal.  The vocals stay at a reasonable level when all the background singers come in.  The control has helped out mixes.  And our volunteers are learning that the sound person needs to take action to get that control.

We aren’t just taking the stage sound and putting it through the speakers.  We are taking 20-30 inputs and mixing them together to make music that sounds the way the bands intends.  So lets control those inputs so we can actually make that music!

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Too Loud????

Oh the age old question, particularly in church, how loud is too loud? I questioned even writing this post because so many people have posted about it, but I just really wanted to say my thoughts on it as well, and its my blog, so, I make the call ;).

To begin with, I really love Mike Sessler’s blog at www.churchtecharts.org and he’s had a few posts on the topic of what is too loud. My favourite one can be found here.  

Many of my opinions will echo Mike’s comments, partially because I have learned from what he said, partially because I just agree.  

First off, there is no solid answer to this question.  Even many churches don’t have a firm solid answer for where they want to be in the form of a solid number.  Many people don’t understand sound and how it works and just think that 91db is the perfect level and it will sound good there if we just keep it there the whole time.  Easy. Period. Done. Not so much.

I believe you need to work with your band, your style, your room, your equipment and your congregation (not necessarily in that order) to determine your volume level, and you must determine that for each section of the service, each song of the worship set.  If you are starting out the service with a fast moving/high energy song and you want to get people’s attention, and fill them with that same energy, a higher SPL will be warranted for that reason.  When you want to slow things down, have a more introspective section of the worship time, a lower SPL might be in store then.  There are times when a song is more meant as a performance based song, and other times when the musicians will purposefully style the song to be more congregational.  For those congregational songs, I will often pull my house volume back a bit so as to allow to congregation to hear themselves singing.

I’ve heard sound guys say we should always pull the house volume back to hear the congregation singing.  That’s not wrong, in and of itself, but it also isn’t necessarily correct.  That is a call for the church leadership (or weekend service leadership or whatever you call it) to decide on.  At our church, we enjoy having the entire congregation involved in all of our singing, but at the same time, some of these songs are more designed to be high energy songs that just get everyone pumped and loose early on a Sunday morning.  No offence to our congregation, but for those songs, I want to hear the worship band playing them.  But if we slow things down, and have a real emotional moment in one of our later songs, sometimes the worship leaders will even step away from their mic and just have the congregation continue to sing, it adds so much to that moment when we can hear the whole congregation almost leading the song in that moment.  

That example is one of many I can give to say that we don’t have a definitive SPL level at our church.  We have a Weekend Service Director each week and one of their tasks is to make sure our sound people are keeping our levels appropriate.  We often run in the mid to high 90’s dBA, but we don’t have a set number.

Your church might find that number to be way to loud.  What can affect that? Style.  More traditional churches will often desire a lower level.  Your room.  How your room is acoustically treated will affect what the SPL you need to run at is.  I’ve heard 95 in one room and felt it to be real comfortable, but found it to be crazily loud in other rooms.  

So, having talked and said a bunch of stuff in this post, what conclusion can I make? Not really any conclusion.  Use your ears, trust your leadership at the church, and go with that. And maybe I’ll do a few more posts and go into more detail on some of this stuff ;).

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The “NEW” Guy

So how many of you have ever stepped into a role as the “Director” of something, when there wasn’t anyone in that role prior?  I’m now doing that for the second time.  I started as the Media Director here at Creekside Church at the beginning of October and I was the first full time person in that role here.  It is an interesting dilemma, it’s also not the first time I’ve done this, I did the same thing 3 years ago when I started as the Tech Director in Windsor.  

It can be awkward all of a sudden being the Director of a ministry that until now, had been somewhat volunteer run, while being overseen by the Worship Pastor or the Weekend Service Pastor.  After being here for 7 weeks, I’m still learning who everyone on our tech team is, I’m still learning everyone’s personality and abilities, I’m still just learning how we function for our weekend services.  I have a very good idea about it, but I’m still the new guy on this Tech Team.  

When I went to Windsor 3 years ago, I had the advantage of knowing we were moving to a new building within 6 months of me starting the job, so I made no new changes, I just observed for that time.  That made it so when we moved into the new building, I had 6 months of knowledge about our team, giving me a pretty good idea how they would handle all the new gear.  

This time, I have jumped right in.  Its been quite a ride so far.  I have’t made any significant changes (I have a few in my head, but we’ll be patient here).  The team has been great to work with.  They have welcomed me, they have helped me, they have been patient with me, and it seems like they are even started to have expectations of me ;).  

One thing that worried me, and worries me about any Tech guy taking over as the first Tech Guy in a church’s history.  Unrealistic expectations.  Most of you have heard the hopes I’m sure at some point.  “We have a tech guy, our sound problems are over!”  “WE have a tech guy now, we’ll have amazing lighting”  “We have a tech guy now, we can do anything now!!”.  I was worried that there would be some of these expectations here.  Thankfully, they didn’t happen, and if I sensed them starting, I put them to rest.

Did you have unrealistic expectations when you started?  How did you respond? it can be tough as the new Tech guy in town to make our superiors understand why we can’t do everything they want from us, at least not right away, and possibly never.  But for our own sanity we must do that.  The leadership at Creekside Church has allowed me to work at my pace to get up to speed on things here and it has really helped our relationship, I trust them as my leaders, and they seem to trust me as their Media Director.  

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If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you’ve probably seen that I recently changed jobs.  I moved to Waterloo, Ontario to take over as the Media Director at Creekside Church.  I’ve been here for 6 weeks now, things are going well, but there have been some challenges along the way.

What are the challenges and successes so far?  Well successes are that I love the team I work with.  It’s a very good environment in the office during the week, a very “team” oriented leadership style with a focus very devoted to making sure our attendees get the most out of the Sunday services.  one of my challenges has been leaving behind the gear I had at the last church.  Creekside doesn’t have the gear that I had at the last church, and while they are continually upgrading, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am no longer spoiled like I once was.

But do you want to know the biggest challenge?  Leaving behind the Tech Team I worked with in Windsor.  When I got to that church in 2011, they had 3 tech people each weekend.  With the move to a brand new facility it grew to 9 people each weekend, triple what it used to be.  So to leave that team, and leave the environment that we had created together, is difficult some days.  I hear stories from them of how things are going and what they are doing and I realize that I’m not “the guy” there anymore.  I’m not there to lead the team on Sundays, they have someone else leading them, and they lead differently than me, and that’s just fine.

I’m still getting to know the team here in Waterloo, so far they seem like a great group of people that I look forward to getting to know more and more and I look forward to growing this team as well.

The real point of this post is to show how much a Tech Team can become a family.  That was my family for 3 years in Windsor, and I loved working with them and sometimes I miss them, which is natural.  I was there for their move into their new building, and helped them setup their current tech environment.

But things change and now I am here in Waterloo looking forward to what we will do here.  I will make our Tech Team into a family here, and I will develop those friendships here.

This tech thing isn’t all about gear, its about joining together as a team to serve our Church.  I’m glad to be in Waterloo, I’m glad to be working with the team we have here!

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The Affects Of A Great Mix!

How important is a good mix on a Sunday Morning (or at any event)?  I’m gonna suggest that even non technical, non sound, and non musical people will agree that the mix is important!  If the vocals are too quiet, people can’t sing along!  Yes, true … but I’m gonna go further.  If the mix isn’t right, then people will not get as much out of the service than what is intended.  If people are concentrating on the vocals being too quiet, or the cymbal being so loud that it hurts there ears, or anything like that, then they aren’t engaging in worship, and aren’t getting what they should out of the service.

Ok .. theres my blog … thats it, is there more? Yes!

This week at Heritage Park, things clicked.  Everything clicked.  Really well! I felt great about this weeks service.  The band was tight, the bass player and drummer locked in on a great rhythm, the singers locked in on some tight harmonies, the video team did some great work, the lighting operator was on cue for everything … and the mix sounded good in the room.

Now, we had a powerful service, our Pastor gave a great message and the congregation responded powerfully after the message.  The sound had little to do with that.  Little, as in, I couldve had a different EQ on his voice and it wouldn’t have affected the outcome of the service.  If there was feedback throughout, then I suspect the ending would’ve been different! lol.

But before the message, before the congregation got the punch in the face they weren’t expecting from the message, they were more into it than normal.  More hands were raised, I could see from my vantage point in our raised up tech booth that heads were bobbing, meaning people were getting into the music.  I believe the band being to on their game combined with a good mix coming from the speakers is what did that.

We recently had our system tuned up properly and I have our gain structure set properly, this helps build a good mix for sure! (understatement? maybe).  But I really believe that when people came in, they weren’t concentrating on mistakes that the band was making, or on the part of the sound that didn’t feel right to them (whether they could explain what it was or not).  They came in and were able to focus entirely on the worship for that 20 minutes.  And then on the message for 30 minutes.  Without interuption.  WIthout distraction.

We have to remember that our bad mixes, are a distraction.  Our messups as band members, are a distraction.  These distractions then take away from the intended use of that time on Sunday morning.

I don’t write this to say “Look how great we were on Sunday”.  I say this to remind audio guys out there, your mix matters! A LOT! And to remind musicians, your skill/timing matters! A LOT!  Distractions aren’t just a cell phone going off during the message, or a mispelled word on ProPresenter, or a camera person falling asleep at the camera.  A distraction is when we do not have the best mix and the best musical skill that we can deliver!

When I mix, I want to mix in a way that no one even notices the sound.  I add delay, but not so someone comes and says “nice delay!” but so that they say “oh I didn’t notice the sound, the band just played, and I enjoyed and felt a part of the worship.”

This isn’t just for sound and musicians, it goes for everything.  Lets do the best we can do and bring everything we have.  We are worshipping and Serving the most High God, lets bring our best for Him and allow our congregation to engage and be completely filled!

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Letting Go To Let Them Learn

Its been a while since I’ve posted on here, I’d like to get back to once a week posts … no promises, but I will try!

Over the past couple months I’ve been working really hard at training up some volunteers to take over the role of Technical Producer for our weekend services. I need someone to be able to work in my shoes when I’m away, but with 3 weeks of holidays each year, its hard to expect anyone to only do the position 3 times per year and be able to do it well.

So I’ve got 2 volunteers who take over the position every couple weeks. Coming in September I will be joining one of our worship teams part time and I just love to see volunteers who are passionate take the reigns once in a while.

A few weeks ago, with one of our volunteers on with the Tech Producer role, I was in the room, and was technically not scheduled on anything that week. My main role this weekend was to be there if they needed help, but to let them fix any problems they knew how to fix. Easy enough right?

Wow … understatement.

In the 18 months since I got hired at Heritage Park, I’ve been the go to guy every Sunday for anything Audio, Video or Lighting related. So this Sunday, there was an issue, and my first reaction was to run and fix it. As soon as I did that, my volunteer Tech Producer (lets call him Bill, there are no Bills on our tech team, so I’m safe to use that name haha) said to me, “what are you doing?” I told him i was just fixing an issue with camera 3. Bill responded back that he was the Technical Producer, and it should be his job to fix those issues. I told him he is right and apologized.

Five minutes later when the video director said the lower thirds key wasn’t showing up properly, I once again ran to the rescue. And as soon as I fixed the problem, I saw Bill sitting there, shaking his head at me.

I was finding it extremely difficult to let go and let him fix these problems. Yes, he would probably have taken a bit longer to fix them than I would have, but its the only way he would have learned.

As the rehearsal continued and we went through 2 services I was able to back off more and more and actually let him take control, but it was a workout for me to stop and let someone else have the control that I am so used to having.

It is now my task, to be more distant on weeks where we have a volunteer Technical Producer. I will be present because there are things they still need to learn, but I need to let them try to fix it. As they get trained more, I can step away a bit more on Sunday services, or I can run sound or lights or direct video or run a camera myself, and have the knowledge that my Technical Producer has everything under control.

How are you at letting go of control in situations like this? Do your volunteers know that you trust them on Sunday morning?

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