When it comes down to it, what your congregation hears begins with the microphone. If you don’t initially capture the audio source with sufficient level and clarity, everything else in the audio system is playing catch-up. Perhaps you can make it usable so that a person in the last pew will still have an idea what is being said, but even the best processors, mixing consoles, and speaker systems will not take you back to the source.
The mic you choose for a particular application, and how you apply it, can make a great deal of difference in how well they hear the sermon or the singer, on the balance of instruments in the praise band, and on how much work the sound person has to do to provide sufficient level and intelligibility through the house system. What follows are some useful techniques for working with the pastor, the choir, the band, the holiday pageant, the church meeting, and other audio capture situations you may encounter.
UNDERSTANDING THE PASTOR While some pastors are gifted orators with strong, distinct voices that will travel intelligibly to the back of the room, with even a quiet or whispered passage having sufficient level and articulation to be heard, many are not so blessed. The microphone is essential to active communication. The choice of microphone and where it is placed relative to the pastor’s mouth will make the difference between comfortable listening and straining to hear—and between having headroom in the system and riding the fader on the edge of feedback.
Since most pastors need their hands free, the typical microphone choices are a pulpit mic, typically on a gooseneck, a lavalier, or a headset. Depending on how much the pastor moves while preaching, the lavalier or headset can be hardwired or connected to a wireless transmitter.
A gooseneck mic has a flexible boom that allows the mic element to be positioned at varying heights and angles to best respond to the particular presenter. As with all microphones, the signal level from the voice will decline a very significant 6 dB each time the distance doubles between the presenter and the mic, so coach anyone who will be using the mic to work fairly close to it—perhaps a hand-width away if possible. This distance will allow the presenter some side-to-side head movement while still remaining in the coverage pattern of the mic. Have the user take a moment to adjust it to their height before speaking.
When using a gooseneck mic, keep an eye on where your loudspeakers are located. Especially with speaker systems located above and slightly to the front of the pulpit and altar area, try to keep the mic element positioned level, more or less parallel with the floor and at mouth level to the presenter, rather than pointing up toward the ceiling (and the loudspeakers). In many cases you’ll achieve more gain before feedback.
Lavalier microphones are available in omnidirectional and directional/cardioid polar patterns. They can keep hands free and the face unencumbered, but are often difficult to use in live settings to achieve a full frequency response and enough level. Make sure to choose a quality mic with as flat a frequency response as possible, to maximize gain before feedback. Some lavalier mics have a shaped frequency response with added highs or diminished chest resonance frequencies; check out the specifications.
Omnidirectional mics typically have less clothing, cable, and handling noise, but pick up sound sources relatively equally from all directions. And because of the lack of directionality, it is harder to keep their pattern away from the speaker system—resulting in more feedback potential. Directional mics can provide more isolation, but the user needs to be more consistent with their movements so that their head (and voice) don’t dramatically move away from the mic’s pickup pattern.
Try positioning the lavalier mic at the upper chest/lower throat area. Once positioned, make a loose loop of the mic cable below the mic element and secure it as a strain relief rather than just letting it hang. You can also pull a loop of cable and return it to the mic clip to hold it. The loop of cable will help to lessen movement noise being transferred to the mic and out the speakers.
When possible, a headset microphone is a more consistent choice, and the frequency response is invariably better in a live setting. Low-profile headsets are available from many manufacturers; invest in one of higher quality. Headset mic advantages include considerably greater gain before feedback, more natural voice quality with full frequency response, and more consistent audio level with movement. Place the mic element toward the corner of the mouth but out of the direct line of the voice to minimize breath noise and consonant pops.
Perhaps the pastor will present part of the service from the pulpit and other parts at the altar or in the center aisle just in front of the pews. In this case, having a pulpit mic on one channel and a wireless transmitter and low-profile headset on another makes sense—and then you can mute one or the other, as needed.
PRAISE BAND MIC’ING When working with the praise band, and trying to maintain consistency and more control on overall levels from the mixing console, a technique that combines amp positioning and mic’ing can prove useful. Instead of having the instrument amplifiers pointed directly at the pews, and directing their output to the congregation, have them side-fire so that they are aimed across the stage. Place a microphone on a short stand or boom, with the mic head positioned toward the outer edge of the speaker cone (if you mic toward the center, you will usually pick up too much high-frequency content).
Have the musicians adjust their desired tonalities, but at a lower level than if they were trying to fill the building with sound. This may be difficult at first to get them to turn down, but it will benefit the overall musicality of the performance. If they need more of themselves on stage, either put more of their signal into the monitors, or have them tip their cabinets a bit so that the speakers are pointing more toward their ears.
Using this technique will have several positive effects. First, it will minimize the bleed of the guitar or bass into the vocal and other mics on stage. Second, it will give the sound mixer more level and audio shaping control over the entire mix, so that an overly loud guitar or bass part will not overwhelm the vocals or other instrumentation. Use the same technique with a keyboard amp, if used. When I’ve used this method, both the listeners and the band have been pleased with the resulting clarity.
VOCALS MICS Harking back to the beginning of the article, it all starts with the microphone. So this is not an area to skimp in the sound budget. Look for a microphone with good, consistent pattern control (polar pattern) across all frequency ranges from low to high, and a relatively flat frequency response. Such a microphone will require less equalization and will typically achieve higher gain before feedback.
Condenser mics with a cardioid or supercardioid pattern are often used for vocals because of their added responsiveness and crispness at the top end, but a number of excellent dynamic mics are also available for the purpose. When possible, use the same model of mic for similar functions, such as lead vocals, background vocals, and certain types of instruments so that you can learn their responses and treat them consistently.
One key element that you cannot control from the console is the microphone technique of the singer or speaker. Many inexperienced users hold the mic far away from their mouth, or down below their chin, or other hard-to-hear locations—often because they think their voice is too loud. So you end up pushing the limits of feedback to make their voices intelligible.
Before the service or event, whenever possible, spend a few minutes with anyone who might be using a mic to show them how to hold it in front of their mouth, pointed in, and typically between two and four finger-widths away. For singers, encourage them to stay on the mic and keep a consistent distance from it. And know your microphones, as some are optimized for lips-touching use, while others can effectively be used a few inches from the source.
Your overall gain before feedback will be highest when you judiciously use the channel mute to minimize the number of open mics. Mute any microphone that is unused for a time during the service; by keeping an eye open and knowing the routine you will have it unmuted by the time someone is ready to use it. Keep the choir mics muted until necessary. If the pastor’s wireless is still on when stepping up to the pulpit, don’t turn on the gooseneck; this will also alleviate potential phase cancellations between the two open mics.
During instrumental breaks with the praise band, mute the main and background vocal mics, if possible. In some cases, if you have a high-quality cardioid mic with consistent polars, your backing singers might share a microphone rather than having one per singer. Also, it is sometimes helpful if you need to minimize stage noise—as well as to prevent noise from HVAC systems and similar [equipment from] adding to your mix—to engage a high-pass filter on the microphone, or on the mixing console, starting at 100 to 150 Hz.
When reinforcing the choir with microphones, specialized small-diaphragm cardioid condensers are typically used, either suspended from the ceiling or on high stands. Use these mics sparingly, and try to maintain a ratio between mics of at least three times their distance to the nearest singer. Position them above the head of the tallest vocalists in the back row, and set the angles so that they are aimed toward the choir (rather than pointing straight down to the floor) and with their lower sensitivity zones toward the speaker system.
INSTRUMENT MIC’ING For an acoustic guitar, use a directional mic—preferably a condenser—on a boom stand or gooseneck and experiment with the best area to aim it. Good candidate locations are at the guitar’s upper bout where the neck meets the body or slightly below and on the top or bottom side of the bridge, a few inches away. Mic’ing directly in front of the sound hole will give more level, but also tends to be boomy.
With acoustic piano in a larger space where you need additional reinforcement, or when the piano is part of a group of instruments, you can use a combination of a cardioid condenser mic on a boom stand over the sound board (or a pair covering the low and high side about midway between the hammers and the rear) with one or more small condensers mounted inside the piano above the sound board and clipped to the harp. When bleed from other instruments or gain before feedback is a problem, emphasize the close mics for the fundamentals and high-pass the overhead mics at around 2.5 kHz for the piano’s shimmer.
Sax and other reed instruments often are naturally louder than many of the other instruments, and having a fairly directional microphone a foot or so away will provide some additional reinforcement for the sound system and monitors. Acoustic bass can be picked up with a small instrument condenser clipped under the bridge. A minimal drum kit mic’ing consisting of kick, possibly snare, and a single or XY pair of overhead condenser mics can be quite effective.
IN THE END … A church service is a dynamic event combining spoken word, with experienced and inexperienced speakers, solo vocalists, choirs, bands ranging from mellow to rock levels, and responses from the congregation. And though the program can often be fairly predictable from week to week, new variations always arise. So keep experimenting and trying new ideas.
As you go, keep the key principles in mind: use quality microphones with consistent polars and frequency response; control the number of open mics; use directivity to your advantage by keeping the mic’s most sensitive pattern pointed toward the source and away from the speaker systems; coach the users in good mic technique; and judiciously use equalization to minimize any problems that can’t be solved by mic selection and placement.
by Gary Parks; Reprinted from the March 2013 issue of Church Production Magazine