Recording Your Church Worship Team - Making a Live Record

Hey guys, I know! Let's make a live worship record! But…how are we going to record it? Are we doing overdubs? What about mixing and mastering? Does CCLI cover the licenses for that? How do we distribute the songs? Who's going to manage all those accounts?

So you've been recording your worship services, and maybe somebody has written a new worship song, or you've got a great version of somebody else's song and you want to release it to the world. But where do you start? And then after you finish making the recording, what do you do with it? Well, today I'm going to walk you through all the steps that you need to know in order to make a live worship recording. I've been a part of over two dozen live worship albums, so I'm going to walk you through the process and the decisions you need to make, plus how to distribute it once you get it done.

Getting Your Music Released with Distro Kid

Today's discussion is sponsored by Distro Kid, a music distribution service that helps you get your music placed on Spotify, Apple Music, iHeartRadio, TikTok, and a ton of other platforms. They take all the headache out of distribution and recover all the money that you make from those services. One of the things creative people don't always think about is what to do with the money after it comes back in. Sure, you can earmark it for a special project, upgrading your gear, or giving to missions. But if you want to pay people from the proceeds of what you make, you're probably going to have to have a plan for that and the admin can get a little bit daunting. And this is my favorite part about Distro Kid. They’ll pay whomever whatever you decide from the proceeds of any song. So if you hire a producer or an engineer to come in, but you can't pay them their full rate, you can pay them some on the back end. Now, I don't love working that way, but if somebody else is willing to, awesome.

Distro Kid has you set up! The pricing is also really simple. It's $19.99, a year for unlimited uploads of unlimited songs. A lot of other services will charge money on the back end. So unless you're making less than $200 or $400 a year, Distro Kid is a way better deal. Yes, I'm a frugal nerd, and making those spreadsheets to figure out where the break-even point is makes me happy. You can check it out through the link right HERE. And if you use my link, you'll get 7% off your first year's membership. And that's enough for an extra shot of espresso in your next latte.

Click Track and Crowd Mics

So now that you know how easy it is to distribute it and get the money after you've finished it, let's go back to the beginning. You're probably already multi-track recording your songs, so I'm not going to go over that, I’ll just mention a couple more things that you need to pay attention to.

The first thing is that you're going to want to record the click track if you're not already. The click track is essential if you're going to do any overdubs. You'll also want to record all the crowd mics that you possibly can. You never know when there's going to be that one person that sings really loud in front of that one mic hoping that they can get on the record. And for some reason, they're not always that great. And even if they were, you wouldn't want them to be by themselves anyway. So, make sure and record lots of crowd mics. You can spread them across the stage, we've done this at the One Thing conference in Kansas City at Bartle Hall, where there's been over 20,000 people. We've made about umpteen records that way, and it can be really helpful. If you have the time and the lift to get there, installing these up in the ceiling, either in the lighting truss or by the speakers can be especially helpful in getting a more even coverage of crowd mics. I talk a whole lot about crowd mics in this blog post right HERE. You can check it out and then come back to the spot.

After you've got the song brought into your digital audio workstation of choice, you're going to want to line up the metronome to the internal metronome of the session. Sometimes a click track is not perfectly on, and especially if you have a really, really long song, there can be some drift back and forth. So you might have a tempo of, say, 73.997 bpm and that's what it takes to make the click line up with the grid on verse one, and on the last measure too. When it's locked to the grid, it makes editing so much easier and the little bit of time that you take to do this is going to save you a lot of time on the back end.

Polishing Your Arrangement and Timing

After you've got it locked to the grid, you can start editing for arrangement. There are some times in a live setting when it feels good to repeat something a lot more, but in the recording, it doesn't really translate. If you want to pare that back a little bit, you're going to want to do that first, before you start overdubbing anything or you start editing mistakes. The reason we do this is that you might be editing out a mistake in a section that you end up cutting out later, and then you've wasted your time. (Yes, I have done that before. And I regret it.) There are a lot of timing things that get missed when you’re live that really show up in a recording and you don't want to be bugged by that later. The tighter the band, the more professional it sounds. And there's no amount of mixing that can fix that. A lot of times it actually just uncovers it more and then it can be tough to deal with. If you're in ProTools, you could use Beat Detective or Elastic Audio, and if you're in Studio One you can use bend markers to do essentially the same thing. It's sliding the audio back and forth to get it more on the grid so that the timing is tighter.

Use Overdubbing to Your Advantage

Now when it comes to editing, you can move stuff around to get the timing better. You can copy and paste over mistakes so that things feel a little bit better. So say one particular note wasn't that good, we can take a good one and paste it over that one.

Or you can overdub it. Overdubbing does take a lot of time, but you can pay more attention to the details to get a really solid performance. And get even better tone than you could have gotten live. Maybe you've got a special preamp that makes the bass or the guitar sound really good.

One thing that I highly recommend overdubbing is acoustic guitar. If you've only ever mixed the acoustic guitar that's plugged in with the D.I., it can be a night and day difference when you stick even a mediocre mic in front of it and actually catch the air molecules that are moving rather than what a piezo pickup is feeling under the bridge. If you're able to use a really nice mic and preamp, you'll probably cry a little bit when you go back to the D.I. Sorry, it's just the way life works. I haven't figured out how to get a great mic sound on the acoustic guitar without picking up everything else on the stage, so it's just one of the things we've got to deal with.

Now, I like a lot of realism when I'm making live records. I don't want to stack tons and tons of stuff to get a much bigger sound than what was even possible live. But I do like to double parts on occasion. You can double it and pan it hard left and right to give a wider feeling, or just doubling it and panning it in the same spot can make it feel bigger or give it a little bit of a chorus effect. I typically do this with acoustic and electric guitars, but again, you've got to be careful that it doesn't sound so big that you've lost the realism of the live moment. Now, how much attention you give to overdubs is totally up to you, but don't get sucked down the rabbit hole thinking that overdubbing every single thing is going to make the record that much better. It really comes down to how great the vocal performance was live and how much you captured with the crowd mics. And of course that it's an awesome song to begin with. You're never going to fix a bad song with better production and expect it to do well. Sorry.

Now, honestly, I don't really care if you overdub your instruments, but what I do care about is if you overdub your vocals. The thing is your vocalists aren't bad and their live performance has to carry energy for it to translate in the live record. But we overdub for two big reasons: a better mic, and less noise. The vocal sound you're used to hearing is right up in your face, and that comes from a lot of compression. Now you can get away with not using all that much compression, but you're not going to get quite that sound that you're looking for. So overdubbing the vocals is the only way to get rid of the background noise from the microphone that got picked up during the live performance.

Now, this is a tricky thing to do for an engineer, a producer, and the singer themselves. They've got to try to match the timing and intensity that they sang live. Now sometimes you try and it just doesn't work and you have to use the live one. There have been plenty of records, especially with one artist that might be a little relentless that don't quite translate when they try to do the overdubs. It's tricky to get the same amount of energy that you had in the moment on stage with the band and the crowd all around you in a recording studio that, in comparison, can feel kind of sterile and dry.

If they're having trouble with the headphones, you can try to use two speakers and flip one out of polarity and make sure that the mic is equidistant from both of those. That way, a lot of the low frequencies will cancel out of that microphone. Now you've got to really match the timing and intensity of the original vocal because when you mix in the crowd mics, if there's a timing play between the crowd mics and the vocal, things are going to sound a little bit weird and off and you don't want to create that distraction. Nobody, except maybe me and a few other people will notice and say, “Oh, they really jacked up the timing on that one”, but it's just going to feel a little weird and not quite right. So you've got to watch out for that. When you're overdubbing, you're going to have to send the singer their original vocal for them to learn the timing, the nuance, and the intensity as well as the vocal that they're singing right then. After a few passes, they can turn down the live vocal and just do the overdub vocal. But you should always still be listening in the control room to the original vocal to make sure that it's lining up in timing.

Now, the other great thing about vocal overdubs is that you get to use a really nice mic. I am a mic snob. And I love getting great recordings and having the perfect microphone on a really great singer with the perfect signal chain after it to capture all those nuances and make it sound as big and clear as possible.

Improve Your Vocals with Comping and Tuning

Now, you're probably not going to get the singer to get all of it all in one take. So this process is called comping. I'm sure there are a bunch of other videos on YouTube about this, but it's basically taking a bunch of different takes and compiling or "comping" them into one take where it really fits well. This is another place where your nerdy engineering skills and attention to detail really come into play because the more consistent the microphone and the singer sound from take to take, the easier it is to splice it all together and not have weird moments where it sounds different from one line to the next. After you've got a comped vocal take, you'll want to run it through some tuning, either Waves Tune Real-Time or Antares Auto-Tune, or my preference is Melodine, because I like to do everything manually. I kind of geek out when it comes to vocal tuning, and I'm really particular about the way each note scoops, bends, shifts, and how far off the center of the pitch it is so that it sounds just believable without being distracting. Of course, I put a ton of work into it, and then nobody notices because it's so transparent, which I guess is my lot in life. Being a sound tech and a vocal producer means that when I do a great job, everybody else gets the credit.

Bringing Everything into Balance with Mixing

Now, after everything's tuned, timed, and tidy, it's time to jump into mixing. In the same way that broadcast mixing is different from live sound, mixing for a record is different from live sound too. Except you can give a little bit more attention to detail because you can do it over and over and over again to get it just right. We're trying to make sure that there's a good balance between the vocal and the rest of the instruments. You're trying to make sure that the low end is right and you really want to match the top end of the band and the vocals. You don't want a super bright vocal and a super dull band mix because then in mastering, you can't fix that. If your vocals are a little dull and your band is a little dull, but they match them in mastering, you can just throw on a little high shelf to bring out that air and everything's beautiful. So it's really tricky to get it done right because it's going to be forever. But don't let that keep you from finishing when you're mixing. Keep working at it until you know that you've done the best that you can and then ship it. Don't tweak it to death. It's probably not going to get better after a certain point, so just try again and make a better mix next time. And actually, a lot of the tips that I give in my broadcast mixing videos apply to making live records, too. Because we're dealing with the same source material and we're trying to make it sound good on every system as well. The only big difference is that for a recording, during the mix process, we don't have to worry about the final output being super hot. We can wait and do that step in mastering.

The Final Stage: Mastering

So let's talk about mastering. Mastering is the process of taking a bunch of different songs on an album and making them one unit so they sound like a cohesive thing. It also corrects for some of the anomalies that you might have missed in mixing, and it gives the level up for the final delivery medium. If you're mastering for a CD, you can get it as loud as you want, but if you're wanting it to be on streaming services through Distro Kid, you'll want to aim for loudness units full scale of -14. This is what Spotify, Apple Music, and others are going to be aiming for. And if you get it louder than that, they're just going to turn it down for you.

So what's my favorite live worship album, sonically speaking? It's got to be Magnificent Obsession by One Thing Live. Shane Wilson mixed it and it's brilliant. I didn't do anything except hit record on some of the multi tracks on that one, so you can't give me credit for how good it sounds. But the production team, the mixing in the mastering is all top-notch for me. I love that one.

Hey, don't forget that you get 7% off your first year of Distro Kid when you use my link right HERE. And be sure to check out some of my other blog posts, because I'm here to help you make every worship mix an enjoyable one, whether that's live, broadcast, or for a live record. We'll see you back here next time.

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