One of the most appealing parts of my transition to New Life Church last summer was inheriting a blank canvas of sorts when it comes to values and execution. The talent here, both on and off the stage, is first class. However, we’d never spent any time defining our “sound” and some strategies to be more consistent in arriving at it. So a few months ago I committed these ideas to paper and we’ve been living inside of them ever since. The inspiration for this discussion on the blog came from a common question I heard at Gurus a few weeks ago regarding getting a group of volunteer engineers to think alike and begin to move the same direction in crafting a mix.
Last time we discussed overall team mission and values. I think this has to be defined first before going any further. Transitioning to more specific mix values, here’s what we’ve been living with…first some general concepts…
Accurate Tones: We value getting it right on stage. Great input makes great output, so it ALWAYS must start on stage. This includes drum tuning, keys patch selection, mic placement on guitar amps, etc.
Classic: There is a timeless quality to some records and overall music approaches that have stood the test of time. Classic, good tones that don’t stray too far one direction or the other, trying to avoid super dated verbs/choruses/delays. It is our goal to make timeless mixes that translate well both inside and outside our rooms.
Dynamic: A worship set should be a journey. Again, starting on stage and then translating through the engineer, it’s important that we take our audience on the most incredible journey.
Active: Mixes should be active, always looking for the most interesting thing and highlighting it. Many engineers have a tendency to be level managers and always mix a measure behind – one measure behind on pushing the solo, one measure behind on the transition, and on and on.
Now to specifics of our “sound”…
Drums/Bass and Vocals are both foundational. Of course in worship music there is nothing more important than the lyric. However, there’s a fine line we balance here between the vocal sitting just right in the mix or being too far out front (what I call a “churchy” mix). Drum sounds that are dynamic, engaging, natural, and just sound great are the foundation the rest of the mix is built on.
Electric Driven. The reality of the most common style of music we play is that it is electric guitar driven. The hook of most songs is somehow connected to electrics, so it is important to mix like they are important to us. This is one of those other ways to avoid a “churchy” mix…keep them out front. As an extreme generalization, the only times the electric shouldn’t be driving the mix is when he’s not playing. Ha! Seriously, when the band drops out its important to find something else to fill the space such as acoustic or piano, but most of the stuff we do is driven by electric.
Keys and Acoustics provide texture and interest. A mix that is 100% drums/bass/electric can certainly become boring, so keys and acoustics provide the flavor to add musical interest. Mix them that way. It is RARE that the acoustic should be further out front than the electric if both are playing. Sometimes keys or acoustics share focus with electric, such as in the intro hook to “Greatness of our God”.
Lead Vocal relationship to BGV, Male to Female vocals. We have a lot of people on stage on a given weekend. A lot. There is a coolness and hipness to this that just works at New Life Church. I was really skeptical of it coming in but it’s really engaging in the room and works really well for us. However, there are few songs we do that should be mixed as a huge group vocal. There are several, but most have a clear lead vocal/BGV thing going on and its important to honor that in order to maintain relevance musically. The same goes for the relationship of male to female singers. More often not there are 2:1 more women on stage than men, but there’s no faster way to make a mix “churchy” than too much female vocal sitting on top of the whole thing. We accomplish this a couple ways – first in the arrangement and making use of lower harmonies so the ladies will naturally sit in the middle of the mix rather than on top, second through actively managing the level relationship in the group and keeping lead vocal out front with the BGV group tucked nicely behind it.
I’d welcome discussion about this topic either here in the comments or via Twitter.