The only difference between a secular song and a Christian song is the lyrical content. There are no “Christian” chords, except Gsus (thank you, Pun Master Steve Bowersox). Both genres use the same musical structure and progressions. The words define the musical difference. So, then, hearing and understanding the words is vital to communication in musical worship. Since the vocals carry the words, getting them clear and articulate is essentially the Prime Directive of worship mixing. Here are five ways to “make it so”:
- Start; don’t end rehearsal with the lead vocal. If volume is an issue in your environment with complainers lined up at the tech-booth door every Sunday, try this process. Instead of starting rehearsal with the kick drum, then snare, then toms, et al. start with the lead vocal, dial it in strong and clear and then make everything “less than” the lead vocal. This process forces the mix to center around the lyrical content. It also tends to reduce the overall volume level since the defining point level is the vocal.
- Get rid of the mud. For vocals to shine through the mix, they have to be free of low-mid obstructions. Energy between 200Hz and 500Hz tends to mask the articulation necessary for a clean vocal track, so dial out a low-Q (wide) amount by 4-6dB on the channel EQ. To make this happen, in rehearsal, start with a boost in that region and sweep the frequency around until it rings or sounds horrible. Change the boost to a cut and then narrow the Q until the “mud” is gone but the voice is still clear. This step is what seasoned live engineers do every event to rough in the mix.
- Watch the effects level. Time based effects such as reverb and delay can cause the vocals to sound opaque. Keep the tail of the verb within the phrasing time of the song and roll off most of the low end on the wet return (below 300Hz). Use a vocal plate setting on the reverb and keep the delay repetitions to a minimum.
- Speaking of roll-off, high-pass everything. Since most consoles now have a variable high-pass (low-cut) filter, use it on every channel, setting its frequency just below the cut-off of the input signal. For example, the lowest note a soprano sings is A220 so set the filter for her channel to 200Hz, as everything below 220Hz in her channel isn’t her.
- Use dynamics controls with forethought. Back in the old analog days, a compressor was only available for those channels with a physical device attached, but now all channels have compression at the ready. Avoid the temptation to overuse dynamics controls. In most instances, unless a specific effect is the goal, vocal compression should be applied only when the vocalist cannot be consistent with their level. Compression adds smoothness but at the expense of “life” in the mix if overdone. Typically, for vocals, the threshold can be set at -10, the ratio at 4:1, attack at 50mS and release about half a second. Limiting can be set at -3 to 0 depending on the console.
Vocals are the defining character of a mix. The key is to make the “sit” in the mix comfortably and clearly. By removing problems such as rumble, low-mids, and too much reverb, they can become the center of the mix without overshadowing the musical instruments supporting them.