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But What Am I Listening For?

A major emphasis in training new sound tech recruits is getting them to use their ears. Too listen and design the sound around what they hear. After all, the one who is at the board in the booth is the one responsible for what the entire congregations hears, and how it sounds. But it’s one thing to listen—and totally another thing to know what you are listening for and how to fix it.

But first, this reminder: What you hear at practice, will not be what you hear when the church is full—the sound can vary greatly, so be careful about how much you adjust the sound during practice, and prepare to make adjustments come Sunday.

Next, depending on the size and shape of your sanctuary, the quality of the sound can be quite different depending when your ears are at. So make it a habit to get out of the booth and walk around the sanctuary during practice and (if and when possible) during the service. In our church, for example, there is one corner where the bass can be annoyingly booming for the people sitting in those seats if the EQ isn’t just right.

So where do you start?

Being that all my experience is in working with small to medium (average size) churches, here’s what I suggest:

In churches of this size, there will usually be a fairly large zone upfront where the acoustic sound of the praise team and pastor will blend with what is coming-out of the main speakers. You want the sound to be as consistent as possible. In other words, what you are hearing from the speakers should sound just like the acoustic sound—only louder. You can easily check this by dropping your masters and comparing the acoustic sound with the amplified sound.

Here’s a method for setting the EQ that I recommend in my Sunday Morning Sound Tech training course. At practice, (assuming you have a keyboard or amplified piano and an analog mixer with minimal bands of EQ) while your keyboardist tinkles away, bring up the gain to a level that is typical for a Sunday service. Next, using the master EQ on the mixer (with the keyboard channel set flat), adjust the EQ until what you hear sounds like an acoustic piano. Next, being that you pastor’s voice is the predominant part of the service, have him or her speak while you adjust the sound using the EQ for that channel. What you want is a very natural, highly intelligible sound. Next, adjust the mics for you vocalists the same way. If you encounter feedback, and you are fortunate to have a multi-band EQ (more than 9 channels) you should be able to identify what frequency range is causing the squat and attenuate it. Once you have that under control, go ahead and adjust all the other channels.

On Sunday (hopefully) you won’t have to make any adjustments to the master EQ, but you probably will need to tweak the individual mixer channels to get a clear, crisp sound. Also, as most pastors now wear lavalier mics or headworn mics, the sound will change based on the where the mic is positioned (which can change slightly from week to week), and even what they wearing. As a result, you will need to make additional adjustments on the fly to dial in a good sound. At our church, I have my fingers on the pastpr’s channel EQ as soon as I unmute his mic, expecting that it’s either going to be thin or muddy based.

Once everything sounds good to you, leave it be. There’s always that temptation to keep adjusting the EQ to improve the sound, but the reality is—especially in the smaller churches—there’s only so much you can do. As long as the sound is not muddy, thin or shrill, leave it alone. And remember, in many churches, the un-amplified sound produced by the praise band is quite sufficient to cover the congregation, so focus on bringing up the instruments and vocalists that need that extra boost. And for your pastor, as long as he or she can be heard and understood clearly in the last row, then you have done your job well. —Robert

About the author

Bruce Bartlett

Audio Engineering Society member Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, audio journalist, and microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com). His latest books are "Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition" and "Recording Music On Location."


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