In the World of Streaming, Audio is King


5 min read
30 May
30May

So, how many of you are streaming your worship services? I’ve no doubt that the answer I’d get today is very different than the answer I would have gotten a month ago. I’m writing this on April 11th, four weekends after most churches ceased meeting together publicly and moved to streaming their services to their congregations. For those churches not already streaming, many had a crash course in basic video streaming.

Many church’s approach to video streaming is a bit like the Cinderella story—formerly relegated to the background, given the leftovers of the budget, streaming has now been to the Ball, met Prince Covid-19, and now the stream is the best thing (and only thing!) in town.

Sight and sound

Often the biggest challenge in video streaming isn’t the video part—it’s actually the audio. And as my friend Mark Hanna once said, “in the world of video, audio is king.” Because people will tolerant bad video far more than they will tolerate bad audio.

Many churches new to streaming (and even those who have been at it for a while) have terrible audio quality for the stream. It’s never been a priority, and usually gets accomplished by an aux send at the FOH console, with no one paying much attention to it. Now that your video stream IS your church service, let’s talk about what you can do to improve your audio mix.

Normally, getting a really good audio mix for your video stream requires a separate space with its own mixer, isolated from the sound of the auditorium. Mixing for video is really picky—it requires far more finesse and tweaking of faders throughout each song to sound good. And getting the right level of reverb (and the right type of reverb) is critical to it sounding natural and pleasant. But churches now have a unique opportunity to achieve a good stream mix without having to invest in a separate broadcast audio room and mixer. Because, no one is there in the auditorium with you during your service. So, the first step you can take is power down your PA system. Yup, don’t even turn it on. You don’t need it, and it’ll just make it harder to get a good mix for your video stream. Then, if you have some, set up a decent set of speakers at the FOH console, 2-3 feet from the audio engineer's head. If you don’t have access to any speakers, you can use a good set of headphones. And last, connect your audio send for your stream to your main audio output instead of an aux send, so you don’t have to futz with that extra layer of potential mistakes.

This will let you mix your worship team without the PA volume level and room dynamics interfering with what you hear. You’ll be listening more like your home viewers, not like for a live event.

The next thing to do is listen to a few reference tracks through your new setup. Play some commercially obtained songs similar to your church's style, and listen to studio versions, not live worship versions. Listen to the details of the music, so you understand what the bass, snare and kick should sound like through your new configuration. You’re not going to get that “punch in the gut” kick drum like you’re accustomed to from your PA with its four double-18-inch sub cabinets, and without “tuning your ears” to what the bass and kick should sound like in your new listening situation, you’re probably going to overdo it on the low end. Listening to some reference tracks will help you understand what good sounding music should sound like when you are mixing your worship team.

Your EQ for streaming is going to be very different than your EQ for the PA system. When EQ’ing for the room, you’re mostly compensating for how the PA influences the sound, for frequencies in the room that resonate and build because of the room shape, and in the case of microphone inputs, notching out frequencies that start ringing or feeding back so that you can get more gain before feedback. This often is destructive to the natural sound of the instrument or voice, but it’s what you need to do to make it work in that room through that PA. Your EQ’ing for the stream mix is going to have much gentler curves and not the radical cuts that your house EQ will likely have. So, start over with all your channel EQ settings and get each instrument to sound natural for the stream instead of acceptable for the room.

Normally, reverb isn’t something you need to add much of to the band overall, because most church auditoriums are naturally reverberant. However, your video stream is not naturally reverberant, nor are the living rooms where your congregation will be watching. So, you need to add almost everything into your reverb effect channel. Some exceptions might be electric guitar—often the guitarist is already adding in reverb themselves through their amp or effects pedals. Keys may also already have some reverb. Drum overheads won’t need reverb. Acoustic guitar may need quite a bit.

When setting up your reverb for streaming, pick a reverb style and settings that make sense for your space. If your video looks like the worship team is playing in a large room, you should use a hall reverb that makes it sound somewhat like a large room. Otherwise, what is heard is a disconnect with what is seen. Likewise, if you’ve switched to more of a studio style environment (my church is shooting the worship team in the green room instead of on stage to make it feel more intimate), more of a medium room reverb setting would make more sense. But whatever you pick, don’t underdo it, and don’t overdo it. Too much reverb can sound as bad as too little reverb.

Vocal considerations

It's also a good idea to put your voices on a separate reverb. When one of your vocalists starts talking instead of singing, you want to drop the reverb level down (but not completely out) so that their speaking is clear and easy to understand. However, you still want the same level of reverb in the band. Using two reverb effects lets you easily drop the voice reverb down without affecting the band. (Or you could just drop the reverb send on the speaking channel instead.) Another advantage of using a separate reverb effect for your vocals is that you can use different settings that still work with the reverb sound for the band, but are tweaked to maintain intelligibility of the words being sung.

Next, mix the talking portions of your service at about 3-5 dB less than the music portions of the service. Normally, there is probably closer to a 20 dB difference in your auditorium between music and speaking. But for the stream, they should be almost the same level, otherwise people will be having to ride their remote control throughout your service. You’ll find that you need to keep an eye on your output meters to keep your volume level consistent.

During your rehearsals, once you get your gain structure set and basic levels dialed in, forget about playing with adding additional effects for now and pay attention to what the band is doing, and take notes on who is doing what through each song. A quality streaming mix needs to keep things in overall balance, but accent the solos and unique things that each musician brings to the music. If you don’t know what those things are, because you’re not paying attention to the details during rehearsal, you will fail in bringing them out during the service. Nothing looks more stupid than a great shot of the electric guitar player rocking some serious lead work and that lead isn’t audible in the mix. You should know when that’s going to happen, before it happens, so you know to boost the EG when they finish with the power chords and move into the lead parts. Similarly, if your acoustic guitar players switches between finger picking and chord strumming throughout songs, they are going to need some serious fader managing to stay in balance with the band. It may be quite productive to go talk with the band before rehearsal to see if they can give you a heads up on the parts of each song that need to be brought out, and that will save you some detective work and guessing. And the band will appreciate that you care enough to ask.

For vocals, you should be able to blend them back in with the band more that you would for the auditorium. Yes, you want the vocals to be heard and intelligible, but they don’t need to be as out-in-front as they do in the auditorium because you’re not battling with the room acoustics. Keep them more in line with the band, and bring them out just enough to be clear, but not so much that they are overpowering the band. Listen to those reference tracks we talked about earlier—how loud are the vocals compared to the band? And pay attention to the melody and harmony parts—whomever is singing melody needs to be the one out in front a little more. When I mix the stream for our church, the fingers of one hand rarely leave the vocal faders, because they are almost constantly shifting just 2-3 dB to keep the vocal parts balanced. It’s a rare vocalist whose levels don’t change as they feel the emotion of the song, or drift closer or further from the mic.

Another difference between mixing live and for your stream is in how you mute channels. It’s super noticeable (and IMO distracting) when all of a sudden all the open mics get muted and the audio goes deathly silent. I actually rarely mute mics; I tend to fade groups up and down, usually slowly, and always make sure that some mics are left open so you never get that “silent as a tomb” feeling. Under normal circumstances in our auditorium, we have ambient mics to capture the room sound and the congregational singing. These are always on in my mix, and I just adjust the levels of those mics based on what’s going on. At another church where I mixed television broadcast, it was the choir mics that were always left up. This way, even if I drop out the entire band, I still have that ambient room sound coming through. That can still work fine in our Covid-19 world. Or, if you’re not in your auditorium, pick some mics that aren’t going to be man-handled (like the drum overheads, or a vocal mic on a stand that won’t get moved), and leave them hot through the entire service. There should never be a point where someone notices that mics are getting turned on and off.

If you have the ability and time, multi-track record your service and play with mixing the service again from the comfort of your home. I often would do this when I mixed front-of-house at our church. It’s fantastic practice without the pressures of having to be ready by a specific time, and it’s amazing what you can learn. There are times where I sit down with the tracks and realize (for example) that for one short segment of a song, the EG player broke away from loud, heavy chords and did a really cool, but short, lead transition. That no one ever heard, because I had no idea that was happening, so I didn’t bring it out in the mix. But now I know that this musician does that sort of thing, and I’m watching for similar things from him when he’s on because I learned about it at home.

In summary, mixing for video streaming is a lot more intense than mixing for the auditorium. There is a much larger range of “forgiveness” in the auditorium mix than in the video stream mix, and where “set and forget” for managing faders (i.e., set a level for the start of a song, or even the service, and leave it alone from then on) is poor for the auditorium, it’s atrocious for the video stream. It’s a learning process, so take time the following week to review your mix, and ask others who have a discerning ear (like musicians in the band) for feedback. It’s the best way to improve.

I expect that for many churches, once the specter of Covid-19 has passed, the video stream is going to be a much more important part of your church’s ministry than it was formerly. Start planning now for how you’re going to continue delivering quality audio for your stream once you have to turn that PA system back on.

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