The “Church Mix”
First imagine a mix of music the way you’re used to hearing it on your iPod or in concert…
Now take electric guitar and turn it down until it’s just about inaudible. You can tell it’s there, but you can’t tell what it’s doing.
Do the same with the snare. If you can’t get the snare to an inaudible level, move the drums as far away from the crowd as possible. If that doesn’t work, try putting a giant plexiglass shield around them. If that doesn’t work, make an entire room of plexiglass with a door. If that doesn’t work, scrap the acoustic drums and purchase an electric drum set. Now turn down the drums in the PA until it’s about the same level as the slapping of the drum sticks on the plastic drums.
Ah, much better. You’re almost there.
Turn the band down. A little more. You should know they’re there, but the sound shouldn’t be intrusive. You should be able to have a conversation while they’re playing - that’s the true test.
Now take the vocals (most live bands have 1-3 vocalists, but if 3 is good then 7 is great!) and turn them up about 50%-100% louder. They should clearly be the loudest thing in your mix. Change the balance of the vocals until there is no clear lead singer. Harmony parts should be just as loud or slightly louder than the melody.
To emphasize the sonic mix decisions we’ve made, let’s physically move the band to the farthest back corner of the stage. Kind of like an orchestra pit - they’re not there to look at. Now put the vocalists at the front edge of the stage. They should span across the stage from left to right. Anywhere you look, you should see a smiling face staring right back at you.
We’ll call this the “church mix”.
Here’s why the church mix exists:
- It’s all about the words. The best way we can think of to emphasize what we’re saying is to turn up the vocalists.
- It reduces complaints. No one complains that the music is too quiet or underwhelming, but turn it up and watch the “too loud” complaints roll in.
- It’s not a concert. This approach removes anyone’s suspicion that we think otherwise.
Here’s why I hate the church mix:
- It’s not all about the words. It’s all about the message… the song. And words are only a part of the song. The musical arrangement arguably communicates even more than the words. By emphasizing the words over the music, we remove most of a song’s ability to say something meaningful. This concept is true for rock concerts as much as it is for church worship music.
- If no one is complaining, you’re not doing anything worth doing. If you’re under the impression that you are pleasing everyone, it’s probably more likely that you’re just not doing anything worth bringing up. Music (especially rock music) should be loud. Loud is not bad. Hearing damage is bad, but you’re not even in the same hemisphere as hearing damage levels. Jet engines damage hearing. Shotguns damage hearing. 40yrs of playing behind a drum set with amps blowing at 120dB in your ear is damaging. 20 minutes of moderately “loud” music will not damage hearing. Music should be loud. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that if you’re not receiving complaints about your music being too loud, then your music is not loud enough.
- Concerts are not from the devil. Concerts are good. Concerts are valuable. Concerts help people. That’s why they sell out stadiums. The only people who seem to have a problem with concerts are Christians. “I don’t have a problem with concerts, but that’s not what a church service is supposed to be”. Ok. Then why spend so much of your resources and energy hiring staff, recruiting musicians, and purchasing equipment in order to have a rock band in your church? It seems to me that we want the value of a rock concert without any of the costs or risks.
We’ve got to stop shooting the Church in the foot in an attempt to appear different from “the world” or to avoid complaints. Professional techs and musicians have spent 50yrs perfecting the sound of rock music. Some of them go to our church. Instead of defining our own version of rock music (the “church mix”), let’s release the professionals to do what they’re great at. Yes, that may look similar to secular concerts. Yes, it may (will) earn us some complaints. But the trade-off is worth it.
Here’s what you’ll get in return:
- More engaged and fulfilled musicians. The ones you have will feel more useful. Others will see you truly valuing your musicians and want to be a part of your church as well.
- More powerful worship services. The people who feel your music is underwhelming don’t complain. But they’re there, and there are more of them than you think. Adding back the musical component will engage them more fully.
- More complaints and questioning of your motivation will lead you to evaluate your motives more carefully and more often. That will lead you to a deeper conviction and confidence in what you’re doing. A silver lining.
If you’re a worship pastor and you think you need to move away from the church mix and more toward a professional mix, your first order of business is to convince your fellow staff members. If you fail to do that first, you’re going to cause division and frustration and ultimately you’ll fail.