The sound system is often the red headed step child when it comes to worship.
The dream is to have the perfect room, great speakers, the best microphones, and a professional to run the board every week. Where we end up depends on what we do with what we have.
I wrote an article for Worship Tech Director last year, Prepared To Record Video of Your Church Services?, posted Feb. 17, 2016 about making videos, and one of my comments in that piece was that sound is the most important element in video. To emphasize that, I noted how you can have a blank screen, but even with just audio, you will still get the point.
However, take the best HD picture and remove the sound and what do you have?
For me, I never wanted to be the sound guy. It’s just that no one else really knew how to mix. And no one wanted to. I play bass and do vocals. I didn’t know how to mix either, but I did know what a mix should sound like. From there, I experimented after reading a few books, and found some great teachers along the way, until I figured out what needed to be done to arrive at a quality mix.
It does not have to be that complicated.
Let’s start with the microphone. Always buy the best microphone that you can afford. First off, I know that we all would like to have a wireless system. However, at $800 or more per microphone for a good mic, you may need to instead buy a significant number of wired mics, along with only a few wireless mics. For example, the Shure SM57 and SM58 are still around $100 each, and are great microphones and would be worthy inclusions as part of your system.
The next place I would spend my money is on good cables. A good mic, paired with a cheap cable, will still add interference, which creates unwanted feedback into the system.
After that, look to buy the best speakers that you can afford. When researching the right speakers for your system, recognize that they are made with specific venues and sound in mind. Analyze how you will use your desired speakers the most, and then buy that type of speaker.
Even after looking at microphones, cables and speakers, one of the most overlooked items when building a system is the amplifier. Your amplifier needs to provide enough power to capably run your speakers without distortion. Also, the electronics of the amp (the number of ohms) should match the output of the speakers.
After each of those items in your system, next is your mixer.
Analog or digital?
When looking at those two options, one can look to many places to learn in detail about whether it be best to go with an analog or digital console, as there are plenty of articles that will list the attributes of each. Today, working with digital mixers for live worship is just as good as working with analog units. They are just typically more expensive.
When purchasing equipment, look toward the future, and always build a system that you could grow into, and remember that most sound equipment should be planned to have an anticipated lifespan of around 10- years.
Also, don’t outspend at a rate that outpaces the growth of your church. Microphones and speakers typically last a longer amount of time, compared to amplifiers and mixers that generally need to be replaced over that same period. For example, our speaker system at West Asheville Baptist Church has remained in place through the series of other changes made for three different systems. Over that time, our microphones have been upgraded to add more wireless. Make sure that when you were buying microphones, that you also look at FCC regulations and focus on building any wireless systems based on the frequencies that were not part of the recent FCC auction. By ensuring that your microphone system is using the proper frequency, that is key to avoid having you in a situation where you might end up hearing someone else's CB or cellular phone come through as audio during your worship service.
Once you have what you need, you will need to look at your acoustics in your worship space. Sound bounces off walls, floors and ceilings. In addition, carpet, chairs and people all will absorb some of the sound, but the rest of any problematic sound reflections will need to be dealt with by installing acoustic panels.
On this issue, unfortunately it's not something that can be solved by just reading a book, then buying panels on your own and then installing them. On this, I would really recommend that you need a professional.
After everything is installed by the professional, you will then need to also have a professional to come in and ring out your room for sound and feedback. They will come in with a special microphone and tune the sound for your room.
Fortunately, many integrators where you would buy the pieces for your system from, will do this as part of the installation package.
Once your system and any necessary acoustic panels have been installed, you can finally start bringing in the singers and musicians.
If you have a good sound tech as part of your church tech team, then they will be able to add effects to the instruments as well as voices. If you don’t have a great sound tech, though, you can still have this done as part of the installation package.
Even with each of these steps, don't forget incorporating monitors as well. Recognize that monitors were not designed to get those who are on stage to feel as if they are in their own concert. Their main purpose is to allow those performing on stage to hear what they need to stay in time and on pitch. Generally, you need monitors for the drums, piano, and music director, among others. And then you can individualize it from there.
If you are using a monitor for groups of people, they will need to compromise, so that you do not overwhelm the sound on stage. This can cause feedback or also bleed into the audience, creating an undesirable, muddy sound.
Remember that every singer or musician that you add into the mix will change the sound in the room. Therefore, understand that mixing at the board is not a set it and forget it exercise. You should be constantly making minute adjustments on the console. Notice I said minute adjustments, not big adjustments. Understand that during rehearsal is the time to get the soundboard ready for service. Then you should only need to make small adjustments periodically, for solos and such. The technician should have each of these adjustments all noted on his or her program, so that they don't come up as a surprise during service. And they should always be looking at those leading musicians on stage to see if there are any unexpected changes that need to be made on the fly as well. If the choir director, for example, needs something more in their monitor, and you’re not looking at the choir director, you will end up not making the necessary changes.
This rundown about what system needs and what to plan for when working with a console is by no means an exhaustive list.
But for starters, remember that when building a new sound system, it is best to hire professionals. Then always buy the best that you can afford.
When it comes time to dealing with acoustic treatments in your worship space, most of the big acoustic panel companies will have you take a picture of your room and they can give you an idea of what you might need as far as panels are concerned.
For those who are looking to learn more about such options, Shure has a great book available as a downloadable PDF on sound reinforcement that is free on their website. It is called, Introduction: Recording and Sound Reinforcement. Also, don't forget to scour through the Worship Tech Director website, as there are many articles that go into more detail on topics such as sound reinforcement. Use this article as a guide, and then look to additional articles for more specific information in those areas.