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Sound for Traditional Worship

by FOH Staff • in
  • January 2018
  • Sound Sanctuary
• Created: January 16, 2018
Mixes at the 1,800-seat Christian Life Assembly (Camp Hill, PA) on an Allen & Heath dLive console can range from a praise band and choir to full orchestra.

Here’s something that you may find hard to believe: Many churches, my own included, still hold regular Traditional Worship services, and many congregants still prefer Traditional Worship over Contemporary Worship. Shocking, I know. Oddly enough, there’s a contingent of young worshippers at my church that attend Traditional Worship rather than Contemporary. They go against the grain of the average 30-something Contemporary devotees.

Despite the large number of Traditional Worship faithful, the center of gravity at our church, and many of your churches, has shifted dramatically toward Contemporary Worship styles over the last 10 to 15 years. As this shift has occurred, technology upgrades have focused mainly on Contemporary Worship venues while leaving Traditional Worship’s technology to decay over time. I know this to be true at my church and I’m a guilty party in this regard. It’s tough to sustain audio/visual technology in two worship venues on the same campus, both from a labor perspective and a budget perspective. How do we, as church technology leaders, maintain high quality production in both Traditional and Contemporary Worship? And what, exactly, is high quality production in Traditional Worship anyway? In some ways, it is the absence of production, or at least, the production shouldn’t be nearly as prominent in Traditional as it is in Contemporary.

‡‡         The Systems Perspective

From a sound system perspective, there are many obvious (and maybe some less obvious) differences between a Traditional Worship and Contemporary Worship system. While the fundamental technology is the same, the requirements for SPL, headroom and low frequency reproduction are substantially less in Traditional Worship. At our church, the aesthetics of the space also inform the sound system design. Big black line arrays and subwoofer hangs aren’t favored in traditional spaces. Our main sanctuary has a very particular look that isn’t to be interrupted with a bunch of AV technology.

We have a few main visual features in the room that cannot be obstructed by loudspeakers. First and foremost, there is a large cross hanging above the upstage center portion of the stage. It is the visual centerpiece of the room. As much as I’ve longed to hang a center cluster line array in this space over the years, it is never, ever going to happen. Period. Second, we’ve got a beautiful looking pipe organ behind the choir loft. While people always enjoy it being lit with LED’s during Christmas, blocking it with speakers would be a problem. Fortunately for me, the pipes create a V shape right in the center. I’ve always thought that I could nest a small format line array right in the middle of the V and it wouldn’t obstruct anyone’s view of the pipes. In early 2018, I plan on doing just that.

Monitoring is also quite different in Traditional. In Contemporary, we rely mostly on in-ear monitors, with a few monitor wedges for vocals. In Traditional our monitoring situation is totally different. We use a mix of floor wedges, hotspots, flown loudspeakers and the occasional in-ear monitor when we need a click track. We try as hard as possible to keep monitoring levels to a minimum because they can really influence our house mix.

‡‡         The Mix Perspective

One of the challenges we face with our Traditional service is an almost complete lack of sound check or rehearsal time. If we are lucky, we might devote between 15 and 30 minutes to it around 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. This forces our tech team to work in a more proactive manner. We pre-dial monitor mixes and use experience and a bit of guesswork to be “90 percent of the way there” on Sunday morning. Over the years, this has forced me to memorize our gain structure for pretty much anything our music director can throw at us. I never did this consciously, but now gain settings are etched into my brain for common mic and instrument combinations.

Overall, I would describe our Traditional Worship mix as well… more traditional. It is less processed by EQ, dynamics processing and plug-ins, while more straightforward, pure, and raw. Our Contemporary Worship mix has what I would describe as “obvious processing.” It has a very produced sound, from both a sound reinforcement and a musical performance perspective. This not to say our Traditional mix isn’t processed, but the processing is less obvious and hopefully a bit more transparent than a modern Contemporary mix.

Traditional and Contemporary Worship are two completely different styles, so it is only natural that the sound reinforcement style is different as well. I think I’ve gone through some phases where I over-processed our Traditional mix with plug-ins, and it was a learning experience for me. Finding that perfect balance between Traditional Worship and modern sound reinforcement is a challenge that I’m working on improving every Sunday.

Mix Styles — Contemporary vs. Traditional

•    I use less multiband compressors in Traditional, whereas in Contemporary I rely heavily
    on Waves C6 or the console’s multiband compressors and dynamic EQs.

•    In Traditional, I use considerably less delay on vocals, focusing our time-based
    processing more on long decay reverbs that are more suitable for the musical style
    and the room

•    I rely more on group processing in Traditional than in Contemporary styles. I process
    groups in both worship services, but group compression takes a more prominent role
    in Traditional Worship, as we often use groups of mics to capture elements such as
    Choir, Vocal Ensemble, Strings, Brass, etc. Rather than applying compression to every
    single mic in a group, group compression manages those dynamics. In Contemporary,
    almost all my individual mics are compressed, grouped, and then group compression
    is layered on top of that as a sort of finishing touch rather than the main dynamics

Vince Lepore is the technical director at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and teaches live production at Full Sail University.

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