How Creative Should a Sound Tech Be?
In last month’s issue Zac Marcengill discussed how to add creativity to the mix. As a tech who has spent most of my career as a sound mixer, one of the most important questions I can ever ask myself is: when mixing, how creative can I be?
To answer that question, we should clarify what creativity in mixing may be. Let’s break down the areas of mixing and the positive and negative effects they can have on the service.
The Volume “I” Like
Positive: Turning it up can bring things into balance. If you have a room that has some acoustical challenges like a very live stage or an improperly designed sound system, turning it up “may” get your mix into balance. I stress “may”.
Negative: Turning it up can be a disaster if your congregation, staff, worship leader, and Lead Pastor think it’s “too loud!” Not to mention, if you have a room that has some acoustical challenges like a very live stage or an improperly designed sound system (see what I did there?)…
Accentuating the Instruments “I” Like
Positive: Provided you are on the same page with your team, this may be what everyone wants. If you are a Rock and Roll house with a Rock and Roll band, turning up the drums and making them the focal point of your mix may be okay. I mean, who doesn’t like loud drums? Don’t answer that.
Negative: Even though you really like the lead guitar because he is “that good”, the style of music you are doing may not lend itself to a “guitar heavy” mix. Putting emphasis on your favorite instrument just “because” is selfish and, most likely, very distracting.
Effects, Equalization, and Dynamics
Positive: Delay and Reverb can make a small room big, a dry singer smooth, and a flat snare deep. They can also bring emotion and life to an otherwise mediocre tune.
Good optimization of each instrument and vocal through E.Q. and dynamics can give space to the mix as it allows you to better position each item where you want it. Good use of compressors, gates, de-essers, etc. when properly used, can lower noise and automate the management of dynamic range in your mix – so there are less surprises when the musicians decide to “experiment” or they get a little more excited that usual.
Negative: It is so easy to destroy the sound of any input by incorrectly E.Q.ing an instrument. Equalization is an art and it does, not matter what anyone says, take years of experience, learning, and practice to understand and implement good equalization techniques. There is no “magic button” that makes the mix sound “right”. It is a skill. Not having that skill will do more damage than good. Using effects or dynamics improperly can not only destroy the mix, but also make the job of managing the mix a total nightmare. I have not only witnessed this, I have done it.
If you don’t have a firm grasp on how to use these tools, they will be your demise. Mark my words.
What It’s Really All About
Mixing in church is really about being part of the big picture. As a mixer, I need to understand what the end goal is. That may seem easy, but I can’t tell you how many mixers and worship leaders I talk to that are frustrated in this area. This all boils down to not being on the same page with the rest of the team. This is the most crucial part of mixing for church. So many mixers have talent, skill, and knowledge, but they lack the willingness to be a team player. Worse yet, they may want to be a team player but not get any direction from their Worship or Executive leadership.
We could talk for hours on this subject, and so many have exhausted it already. But where do we start?
It starts with you. Part of your job as the mixer is to gather the tools you are going to need to do your task. As with any discipline, it isn’t just physical tools, but also the tools of skill and understanding. Having a hammer without the understanding of what it takes to build something can be very dangerous.
Here are some ways to find out how creative you can be in your particular situation:
Understand your church’s worship style.
This is paramount if you’re mixing the services. What style is your church is going for? This should be consistent from week to week. Now there will be times when the band is mixing it up, but the overall vibe should be consistent.
Be on the same page as your Worship/ Creative Pastor.
Your Worship or Creative Pastor, more than likely has a vision for the service and the music in it – along with some pretty strong opinions on how it should sound. It is crucial that you know what that looks like.
How do you figure it out? Talk to them. This should be an on-going dialog – not a one-time conversation. I consistently talk about the direction, feel, vibe, etc. with both my Creative Pastor and our Music Director. You have to know what they want. Remember, ultimately, they are responsible for the outcome and they really are putting their lives in your hands. You, at least during the “show”, control their destiny. Be aware of that. Trust me, they are.
Understand your Pastor’s heart.
No matter who is over your particular campus – be it your Lead Pastor, Campus Pastor, or Youth Pastor – you need to understand their heart and views on style, volume, and feel. Once again, the best way to find this out is to have a conversation about it (and not during the service). Set up a meeting with them during the week and let them know this will help you serve them better. They may faint when you say that, but you will learn volumes of information from that eventual meeting.
Special note: after you have these meetings, it is likely you will find that these two points of view don’t totally align. It’s more common than you might think. If you find this to be true, don’t keep it a secret. A misalignment of values will, in the end, be your demise. So make sure, respectfully, they are both aware of this. It is vital that you all be on the same page.
Understand your limitations.
Let’s just be real, if you are not confident in any of the areas of creativity we have discussed, don’t use the worship service as a time for experimentation. This is something seasoned professionals never do. It’s also never a good idea to try out new things in a sound check right before the service. These two scenarios never end well. So what do you do? If you have a digital mixer with virtual sound check capabilities, use that to try new things in a controlled environment. If not, a midweek band rehearsal can be a venue to experiment – provided that your band and leaders are in the loop on this and understand what you are doing.
Creativity in church, especially in the mix, is not an individual or mechanical sport. It is a living, breathing action that affects multiple people. Have fun. But remember you are not alone in your efforts to make this thing amazing.