Preachers can vary extremely in their presentation style, sound, and reinforcement requirements. Lapel microphones have largely given way to subminiature head-worn mics in the last 15 years or so. Sermons done with a handheld mic remain popular in some styles, and depend on the microphone technique of the preacher. Whatever the mic type used, the attendee should feel as if the preacher is speaking directly to them, forgetting sound reinforcement is even involved. Those of us that have spent many years honing our live mixing craft tend to think of music as our main challenge – but we should remember that the spoken word is critical and must be engineered with excellence. Bad sounding speech is terribly obvious to any listener, and there is often no music or other sounds for it to “hide” behind.
I’ve been fortunate to have miked up and mixed hundreds of preachers over the years at conferences and other events in a wide range of environments and venues, from small format to stadiums, including some of the best-known preachers in the world. Awhile back, on a series of travel dates, I miked up 7 of the most notable pastors of our generation in under two weeks time. That run was a good reminder of how important great speech reinforcement really is. These talks covered a wide range of presentation styles. Some went hand held, and some used head-worn mics. None were interested in lapel miking (thankfully). Some were very high GBF environments (gain before feedback), while others required some surgery to make them behave. As usual, much of my time was spent sound checking and rehearsing the music mixes, but I knew that these spoken presentations had to be right, so I prepared for a variety of processing needs, and redundancy was set up. Bottom line?
…None of that really matters. We have to sort out the parameters of the situation and deliver intelligible, natural sounding speech with good coverage at whatever level and dynamic range are appropriate for the setting. Our audiences don’t care whether a $99 wired dynamic or a $9000 wireless microphone is used, or whether we use a multi-band compressor and a pile of plugins or just the console’s channel strip EQ. Listeners simply know if they can hear without distraction and whether it sounds natural.
This run of presenters each sounded dramatically different. One spoke with an incredible dynamic range on an exceptional quality hand held RF mic. His whisper passages and his “screamer” moments measured about 46dB apart! And his microphone technique was awful. We have to manage that kind of delivery in a way that sits “right” over our (sometimes large and noisy) audience. And we must trust that such dynamics are an intentional part of the presentation. Another preacher spoke very consistently, and using a wireless head-worn system meant perfectly consistent mic placement. I experienced very high GBF with him and no dynamics processing or fader riding was needed – easy. The former required constant riding. Worlds apart! In fact, I never let go of the fader once during that sermon…on top of meticulously dialed multiband compression. We simply don’t have a 46dB window over our live audiences in which to deliver speech, so I worked to reduce that range while still delivering the feel and believability of the talk. No-one noticed the dynamics processing. The second preacher delivered a very small dynamic range. But he was just as loud. He was easy. The former was not. The other preachers all fell between these two extremes in terms of processing needs. Whether using fancy processing or manual gain riding, or both, the key is to always listen. Over-processing is a valid concern, but we shouldn’t be scared to use appropriate processing tools when our ears say tell us they are necessary to achieve the desired result. Common tools are compressors, limiters, de-essers, equalizers, dynamic equalizers, and multiband compressors.
No matter who you are miking, and whatever their style and dynamic range, or whichever tools are used, remember to listen closely and keep it authentic. Always keep the perspective of the listener in mind. Live sound is a real-time results business. It really doesn’t matter if we build a good 60-input music mix in 10 minutes, or spend 2 hours processing a single speech microphone.
The point in what we do is not what it takes. . . it’s what we deliver!