Houses of Worship (HOWs) are everywhere. There are more than 400,000 in the US alone, and an overwhelming majority use praise music to attract and retain members of the congregation.
Unlike performing arts centres, theatres and other venues that are in use on a daily basis, HOWs typically schedule one musical rehearsal each week. The music ensemble then performs only one or two services on Sunday… and sometimes a mid-week or Sunday evening youth service. This brief schedule, coupled with the fact that the musicians and sound personnel are usually volunteers, makes it quite difficult to fine-tune and iron-out problems that might be present in the sound system or stage monitoring system.
While a musical rehearsal is one element, and beyond the scope of this article, a sound check is altogether different. Who runs the sound check? Simple.It should always be the lead sound engineer, NOT the music minister, NOT the Choir Director, NOT the Pastor. The sound check exists to make sure that the system works properly. It is NOT a musical rehearsal and the sound engineering team must be empowered to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that the sonic results are the best they can be.
The important elements of a sound check are outlined below:
• First, all sound sources from the stage need to be identified and carefully checked to insure that the microphones, direct boxes (DI’s), and any other sources are working without hum or buzz,are correctly labeled and are showing up on the proper inputs of the mixing console. While this is very basic and should be obvious, the importance of knowing “what is what”is not always respected by eager volunteers who want to jump right in and start “mixing sound.”The foundation must be built before the house can stand. All inputs and monitor sends should be sorted out well before the band, choir, music minister or others who are not part of the sound team even arrive at the worship center.
• Next, the musicians and vocalists must be able to clearly hear themselves on stage. If they’re not comfortable with what they hear — then their own instrument or vocal, properly blended with the other band members — will not permit them to be able to perform tightly in sync with one another. This aspect of the sound check is absolutely critical. Each member of the band should be asked if the monitoring system is working properly for his/her needs, and given whatever time is necessary to work with the sound engineer to make corrections that might be required to be able to perform at their best. This may mean moving instrument amplifiers to a different location on stage, changing monitor levels or implementing other measures.
Many HOWs have implemented monitor systems, such as those provided by Axiom, which give each musician a small panel enabling them to adjust their own mix. This makes a lot of sense, because only larger HOWs are likely to have a full-time dedicated monitor engineer. Smaller HOWs typically will mix the monitors from the front-of-house console, which means that the primary attention of the sound engineer is not concentrated on the stage mix.
• Lastly, the sound check gives the sound engineer a chance to experiment with the balance of the vocals and instruments in order to “establish a mix.” Contrary to what some might expect (a perfect mix in the first moment or two), it actually takes some time to experiment in order to determine how the various instruments and vocals should optimally be blended together. It’s like driving a new car; you need to put it through its paces… turning hard left and then right, before you know how it handles. A sound check is not a performance. Keep repeating that. It’s a Mantra. A sound check is not a performance. Thank you!
What often occurs is the music minister, the music director, the choir director or another responsible party takes charge of the sound check process and mistakes the sound check for a musical rehearsal.It’s not uncommon to see a musician reprimanded for “interrupting” the sound check because he/she speaks up to ask for an adjustment to his or her monitor.
Sound check time should be utterly different from rehearsal time. Of course, both are almost always going to take place during the same period when the musicians and vocalists are present and available. Key to making it work well: the sound engineer must step up and make it clear that sound check is not rehearsal time (remember that Mantra!). This can be very difficult for an untrained volunteer, as egos often run high among permanent church staff members. Nonetheless, it’s critically important that the band is able to hear what they need to hear on stage.
Ken DeLoria is senior technical editor for Live Sound International and has had a diverse career in pro audio over more than 30 years, including being the founder and owner of Apogee Sound.