The Beginner’s Guide to Sound System Engineering

All you need to do is set up all of the instruments (a voice is an instrument) so that they sound the way that they should, and blend with the other instruments ... Easy right?

So, you just became the sound engineer at a new church.

We will assume that you have run sound before. You know how to turn up the microphone for people and instruments, but you want to take your skill to the next level.

It really is pretty easy.

There is a big debate among amateurs as to where to roll off, or should you roll off unused frequencies.

I know it doesn't look that way, as you stare at all of those knobs in front of you, but if you take it one step at a time, you will see just how easy it can be.

In the beginning, it may not sound like you want, or very good, but it will. Trust me.

We purchased a new audio console a couple of months ago, and I am just getting things to sound the way that I want. When your system is installed, it is EQ'd for the room. All you need to do is set up all of the instruments (a voice is an instrument) so that they sound the way that they should, and blend with the other instruments, to give you the sound that you are looking for.

Then all you have to do is control the volume faders during service. Easy right?

Once you have everything plugged in, you can begin.

Let's start with the bass. Go to a computer and type bass equalization in a search window. Go down to where it says "The Art of Bass EQ," at

Chris does a good job of explaining EQ'ing and where this instrument fits into the mix. You can get more information from Chris here. I would also sign up for his guide: 32-Point Soundcheck Checklist. I give this to every new trainee.

Next, type in how to EQ instruments, and click on images. Find a few frequency charts that you understand, and print them out for reference. Also on this page, you will find a magic frequency guide.

Print it as well. It is very useful when setting up an instrument to bring out its sweet spot. Most people can hear 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

So, we will stay in this range.

Let's go back to the bass.

I start by rolling off everything below 30 Hz. It is my opinion that even with a good subwoofer, anything below 30 Hz makes it sound muddy. The bottom end of crisp bass is about 45 Hz. Add a little around 500-700 Hz and a bit at 2,500 Hz, then roll off everything above 8,000 Hz.

There is a big debate among amateurs as to where to roll off, or should you roll off unused frequencies. I do, because it makes room for other instruments.

A friend of mine used to record jazz music and roll off the unused frequencies of each instrument. I found it helps to make each instrument sound crisp and clear. This is not to say that there is a hard and fast rule, as to where to roll off. You do this with your ear.

At this point, you are now in the process of training your ear for the sound you want. You should walk all around your sanctuary to listen to how it sounds in different places. It will always be a compromise.

Something important to remember, is that the place that you want it to sound the best is where you mix from. If your board is not located in that spot, then you need to go back and forth from there to the board, until it sounds the way you need it to, and then train your ears to mix at the board, so that it sounds correct in that spot.

If you don't yet know the sound that you are looking for, take your favorite song and listen to it in your headphones with your eyes closed. Then mix until you can get that sound. Think of a black box with balloons of different shapes, sizes and colors.

The image is from The Art of Mixing, by David Gibson, shown in the slideshow.

He takes a black box and puts in different sized, shaped and colored balloons in different areas of the box.

For instance, in your church the lead guitar might be on the left and the rhythm on the right, with the bass stretching out along the bottom, the kick drum in the center bottom, the cymbals on the top right and left with the toms on the left and right in the middle, the piano in the center and the lead singer in the center forward of the rest of the group. This may sound confusing, but if you look at the diagrams and listen to a song and picture, along with the different shapes, it will start to come together.

Now you are on your way to training your ears.

The shape is formed and placed in position by using pan, EQ, and volume. EQ forms the shape and whether it is on top or bottom, the volume puts the instrument forward or backward in the mix, and the pan right to left.

Higher frequencies are on the top, while lower frequencies are on the bottom.  The picture is from his book. The easiest way that I have found to get people to understand this system, is to pick a song with a four- or five-piece jazz band with a singer. Look at the pictures in the book, close your eyes and listen to the music.

Do this until it starts to make sense.

You should be able to see the size, shape and position of each instrument.

The next thing is to try and duplicate this on the sound board.

I hope that you are starting to see why I roll off unused frequencies. It helps to keep things from getting too muddy. And you don't need to turn it up as loud, to be able to hear everyone clearly.

I use keyboards and acoustic guitar to fill in the empty spaces. I leave the volume down a bit, but only roll off the very high and very low. Not all of my engineer friends agree with this, but it gives me the sound that I like.

Not everyone will agree with your mix. Find a sound that works, and stick with it. All of my sound guys have a different sound to their mix.

Let's go back to the bass.

Now that you have rolled off the unused frequencies and adjusted for the sweet spots, you can begin to experiment, to get the sound that you want. Every mixer has one to six different knobs that you can adjust different ranges of frequencies. Select them one at a time, bring them up down, and sweep until you have the sound that you are looking for. You will have to go back and do this several times, until you have gone through all of the frequencies and have the sound that you want. Do this for each instrument and then have them all play and make small adjustments to the volume and save. Make a copy, and then make changes to the copy as necessary, as they play together.

Changes at this point should be minimal. Do this until you get what you want, then save and copy. Now you should start employing what I call subtractive mixing. Instead of turning everyone up one at a time, until your ears bleed, start turning instruments down until you get everyone placed properly in the mix.

Then save this in a few places.

This is your basic mix. You start here each time.

Each song each week will be different. Different instruments and singers will have solos. The instrumentalists are part of the sound system. You should talk to them about their sound and about the program.

Listen for where the solos are, and make notes on your program. Also during practice, listen to the ebb and flow of the music. It is a collaboration that brings everything together.

You need to take notes, so that you are prepared and are able to make the necessary adjustments during the service.

If you have the ability to group instruments together in a subfader on your board, this will be a great help to you. For instance, if your band is grouped, the piano separate, backup vocals grouped, leader separate, orchestra grouped, choir grouped, then if you need to make a global change in one of these groups, it is faster and easier. It also makes it easier to make room for a soloist by bringing down the backup vocals, and then just increasing their mic a little.

Once you are set properly, you should only need to make small changes from this point. I cannot stress small changes and negative mixing too much here. Too many engineers turn too many instruments up, until there is no room. This just makes it muddy and incomprehensible.

Close your eyes and listen. Can you pick out each instrument?

Do this, until you can hear everyone clearly.

Another big reason to use negative mixing is that it gives you a crisp, clear sound that leaves room for the unexpected.

Do you remember listening to a song and hearing a slight embellishment by the instrumentalists? If you are too loud, no one will hear these subtleties.

Leave room.

Leave space for the unexpected.

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