5 Things Every Worship Leader Should Know About Sound

Every worship leader should know a bit about sound - right?

Let's face it - It's the job of the sound tech to be the sound tech. Worship leaders don't need to know everything about sound. Though, at the same time, you're a worship leader for a reason. Your job is to lead your worship team and usher in the presence of the Lord through worship. You are engaging with your team as well as your church congregation. As a Worship Leader, you should know a bit about sound so you can lead your whole team with confidence.

Here are 5 Things I believe every worship leader should know about sound; so you can lead both your worship team, and your sound team.

1. How Sound Works - and how people’s hearing works.

The way sound works is important because when you understand what is happening, you know what the gear is actually doing to stuff. Sound waves are variations in air pressure and air molecules after they wiggle back and forth at very fast speeds. That is what our ears perceive as sound.  It's helpful when you know that your speaker system has to wiggle back and forth between various air pressures and air molecules to reproduce sound. It's also helpful to understand the bridge between the frequency spectrum, which we'll find on equalizers and spec sheets for microphones, and the musical notes on a piano or any other instrument for that matter.

Knowing what range an instrument is and what notes they are producing, or understanding what frequency balance happens with a particular instrument and its different parts - is when sound gets a lot easier. It's helpful to know how our ears perceive sound because that will affect the way you play and sing. It'll also affect the way you make tone adjustments to both your and your singer's microphones.

Intelligibility and Clarity are Key.

All of that makes a big difference in getting intelligibility and clarity out of your sound system.
I mean, everybody knows that clarity and intelligibility are critical in church. So if you know what obstacles are in the way of clarity and intelligibility because of the way your ears perceive sound, you're going to be much better suited to give directions to your sound team.

One quick tidbit - equal loudness curve, or how our ears perceive different frequencies over different intensities, along with the principle of masking (which is when loud sounds cover up quiet sounds, and low frequencies cover up high frequencies) - all of that blended together means if we get rid of unwanted low frequencies in our inputs, things will sound much clearer.

The High Pass Filter


So what does that mean for you on a practical level? It means that the High Pass Filter can be a very useful tool for cleaning up your mics and getting clarity in a hurry. I made a whole video about how important the High Pass Filter is in running live sound in church. You can check that right here, or by clicking below.


2. 
How to use mics and DIs the right way.

The second thing you need to know about sound as a worship leader is how to use mics and direct boxes the proper way. 

Now you might just think "I just walk up to the microphone and as long as it's kind of close to my mouth and as long as my guitar is plugged in, everything's great." What happens when you need to unplug your guitar? And what happens if the way that you're talking into the microphone is creating feedback problems that are causing a distraction?

We have to know how to use our equipment the right way to get a great signal to the board in the first place. One quick tip I'll give you on this is to try to maximize your signal-to-noise ratio. That's a bunch of fancy words for the sounds we want compared to the sounds that we don't want.

If we increase the level of the sounds that we want and don't do anything to the level of the sounds that we don't want, we've increased our signal-to-noise ratio. On the other side, if we keep our signal at the same level, and find a way to decrease the noise or the sound that we don't want, we've also increased our signal-to-noise ratio.

Now, why this is important? Sometimes you have a quiet input on stage, like your voice, right next to a loud input on stage. (Let's say a drum kit.) When we use your tools the right way, we can position our mics in a way that decreases the sounds we don't want. There are different mics with different polar patterns that can benefit you in removing noises you don't want coming from your mic. You can strategically place your mics in a way that captures more of your voice, and less of other things you don't want (like washy drums).

The other way we can increase the signal-to-noise ratio is we put the microphone really close to the sound source. You wouldn't sing with your mic on the floor, or below your chest, would you? If you point it right in front of your mouth, it's going to sound better than if you're talking across it like it's an ice cream cone or something like that.

Hold it like this...

....not like this.

That brings up my next point - You need to know how to hold the microphone properly. 

We want to hold a microphone right in the middle of the handle. That's what it's made for. We don't want to hold it from the top and we don't want to hold it over at the bottom, where the connector is. If you have a wireless microphone, usually the antenna that carries the wireless signal back and forth is on the bottom as well.

If you put your hand over the bottom, that's going to create problems with getting your wireless signal back to the receiver. You don't want to do that. 

Long story short - hold the microphone where the handle is, and have it close to your mouth. And don't cover the top or the bottom with your hand. You're just asking for trouble at that point.

Direct Boxes

Another tip is that instruments need a direct box. We can't just take the guitar and plug the output straight into our soundboard. That's either going to be very noisy, or it's going to be a very weak signal. Things won't be good if we just use a plain old adapter that takes it from a quarter inch to a main cable.

What you need is a direct box. You can get them for around $60. You can also spend between $300-$500 on a single DI box, which if you can - great! Do I think you really need to? In most cases, probably not. It depends on your setup and your budget.

A direct box converts the signal from what your guitar outputs to what a microphone would output. And then you can carry that over a long distance to your soundboard. That's going to eliminate more of the noise (or the signal you don't want) from your instruments.

3. How to mix your monitors, and teach your band to do it too.

The third area of things you need to know as a worship leader is how to mix your monitors, and how to teach your band to do the same thing. Because in all the people that I've talked to who play music at church, none of them got lessons on how to mix their monitors when they were learning to play their instrument.

For monitoring, we're trying to encourage a great performance. There are three main points of a great performance: Pitch, Pulse, and Passion.

Or put another way - we need to be in the middle of the pitch, we need to be in the right timing, and we have to have the right dynamics. So pitch, pulse, and passion are easy to remember.

After you put in your monitors or you've got a monitor wedge on stage, you need four basic things. You need:

  1. A pitch reference
  2. A timing reference.
  3. A lead reference, which is usually the worship leader in their vocal. Something to lead you to tell you what's going on with the song.
  4. And you need to hear yourself so that you can know if you're matching the pitch and timing, and the dynamics of everyone else  

if you can get this right for yourself, and if you can play and sing with immaculate tone and great timing and perfect intonation, that's fantastic. But the rest of your team needs to learn how to do it, too.

As a worship leader, sometimes you have to lead your bass player and your drummer, and you might not play either of those. Being able to not just understand what you need, but also understand what your team's individual needs are, is going to go a long way in helping you get your team set up for success with their monitor mix.

4. How to communicate with your sound tech.

The fourth thing about sound you need to know as a worship leader is how to communicate with your sound tech. If you play guitar and you've dabbled a little bit in piano, you can communicate easily with a piano player. You're speaking a common language and you have a little bit of experience with their instrument. If you're a guitar player and you're trying to talk to the drummer, you better be pretty good at beatboxing. Kidding.

You need to know the basics of what their board can and can't do to communicate effectively what you're asking your sound techs to do. Another really important thing is to understand the values that you have for your MCs, so you can communicate that in feeling words, not in technical words. (If that makes sense.)

Because you might not be able to tell the sound tech, "I need you to put the lead vocal at -6.3 DB on the fader." Nobody cares about that. What they do care about is, "Hey, I need the lead vocal to be out in front of the band, but not so far out in front that we don't have the support of the band." By putting clear parameters on how the mic should feel, and then understanding the limits of what the board can do - you're going to be able to communicate with your team much better on how you want the mix to sound.

Remember - the mix sounds completely different on stage, versus how it sounds in the Front of House. 

One thing you have to remember when communicating with your sound tech is that it does not sound on stage like it does in the room. Though you might have a general idea of how reverberant your room is, it's much different in front of the speakers than it is on stage. Please be careful when giving specific directions to your sound tech. When you do, be sure they are clear, helpful, specific, and timely. Make sure you build a sense of trust between you and your sound team. 

5. How to set up your sound team for success.

The final thing that you need to know about sound as a worship leader is how to set your sound team up for success. One of the biggest complaints that I get from worship leaders and even pastors is they have a sound team that is always in and out. The mix never sounds the same because of how inconsistent the team is. 

You need to be able to set your team up with clear values and clear systems to attain consistency. At least, if that's what you're going for. If you want a totally different band feel from week to week - you're going to have to change that. Most people are looking for good mixes. Consistent mixes where they feel about the same; and people aren't walking in and wondering what the expectation is going to be for that Sunday.

We're doing all of this so that people can focus on Christ alone through the spoken and the sung word of God, right? If they're wondering about what kind of mix or style the music will be each week, they aren't focusing on Christ alone in that moment. They're bracing themselves for what might be coming at them sonically. 

Create a Base Scene.

This is why I recommend having a base scene or a starting place for everybody to use as their vanilla starting place for a mix. It doesn't mean they can't customize stuff. It doesn't mean that the music can't shift from song to song. But if everybody has most of the parameters dialed in to sound clear and consistent from week to week, you're going to have a much easier time getting that consistency, whether it's one person mixing versus another.

Have an Input List.

Another really helpful thing is to have a clear input list. This is a map of where everything's plugged in and where it should be plugged in. So imagine you had a rehearsal on Thursday, but then on Saturday there's a wedding and stuff had to get torn down. If you've got a roadmap for where to plug all that stuff back in, you're going to have a much easier time getting set up for Sunday morning.

If something is suddenly not working, it may have been plugged in the wrong place. The input list gives you a map of where things should be plugged in so that you can track them down. You're not having to reverse engineer what it is now. You're just trying to find what it should be and get it in the right place. This could save you hours and hours of lost rehearsal time over a year, so it's worth the effort you put into making that input list.

Create a checklist for Start-Up and Shut-Down Procedures.

It's also super helpful to have a checklist for what start-up and shut-down procedures are, and what the expectations are. Because inevitably you're going to have new people, and you're going to have to train someone new. If they know all the steps they need are written down somewhere, It pulls a lot of pressure off of them to have to remember every single thing.

There's nothing worse than being a brand-new sound tech messing something up and getting a sound tech solo. What's a sound take solo? It's where the congregation turns around and looks at the sound tech because there's a glaringly obvious problem that they're wondering why they haven't fixed yet.


Yeah, I get a little stressed out just thinking about it.

So you want to avoid that for your sound tech. Having a checklist is one way they won't forget certain things. If you're a worship leader, you're probably over the lights, the screens, and maybe the video, too. So having checklists for them is not a bad idea.


So to review, you need to understand these five basic things about sound to be a great worship leader and lead your team well.

 

1. You need to know how sound works and how you're hearing works.

2. You need to know how to use the mics and DIs you have on stage to get the best signal to the soundboard possible. You also have to teach the rest of your team how to do it.

3. In addition to teaching your team that, you have to understand how to mix your monitors and get your whole team to do that well because when you hear each other well, you play and sing better. And when you can hear each other well and sing with confidence, things go way up and it becomes much better for everyone involved.

4. On a basic level, of course, you have to know how to communicate with your sound techs, and that requires that you know a little bit about their instrument and how it works. You don't have to be a super nerd and go super deep into all the background stuff. You just have to know what the board can and can't do. You need to hear when something has gone wrong or something has gone too far, so you can point somebody back in the right direction to fix it.

5. Finally, you need to have the tools in place and the systems available for your team to succeed every week and get consistent results.

So this has been a very broad overview, and I've tried to unpack some of the big-picture topics of what you need to know as a worship leader to excel with your sound team and the rest of your worship team. If you want to go deeper and put these into practice in a step-by-step way, with notes and videos guiding you through the process, I've just released my Audio for Worship Leaders Course.

 

I don't use any big words without defining them, and it's not super technical. Even if you're a hardcore creative type who doesn't understand a thing technical, you can understand what's going on in this course and follow along to develop your skills as a worship leader. I've even got worksheets that you can fill in the blank as you go, and that can become your manual for getting out of a pinch when something comes up.


The course is available on its own or as a part of the Attaway Audio Academy, and you can find more information about both of those by either clicking here or the image above.

As always, remember: it's all about the low end, avoid the sound tech solo, and no one leaves church humming the kick drum. Stay frosty out there, Sound Ninjas!

Many Blessings,
James

 

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