Have you ever been in a church service where you couldn’t fully comprehend the pastor, or the music vocals were so blurred that they were hard to understand? These are common audio problems and it’s typically not the sound equipment causing the issue — it’s how the system was prepared during pre-service rehearsal.
Before service is the best time to adjust and optimize mix levels for the worship band, pastors’ mics, and the audience areas, but many churches miss this opportunity for one simple reason.
In this article, you’ll learn the best practices for pre-service setup. These simple techniques can help both new volunteers or seasoned operators improve their skill and optimize your sound system’s performance by implementing a proven routine that delivers clear, consistent, engaging audio week after week.
A typical worship space has two discrete mixing areas: the audience area — commonly called “front of house” (FOH) — and the stage.
- Front of house is where the church audience is located
- Stage is where the pulpit, musicians, and instruments are located
- The sound booth is the area within FOH where the mixing console is located
Your sound booth can be as simple as a folding table with the mixing console on top of it, operated by volunteers, or as complex as a fully integrated, dedicated area for professional sound engineers. Regardless, the mixing console is the control hub as all input and output sources for both FOH and the stage are routed and mixed through it. This article will not cover the configuration procedures for your mixing console as proper setup is very specific and depends on many factors. (But the good news is most mixer manufacturers provide in-depth online training.)
- Professional wired headphones with closed ear cups that cover your ears completely and at least partially isolate you from the sound around you. Be sure they have a ¼” TRS connector (if not, you can purchase an adapter).
- An SPL meter to measure the sound levels. If you don’t have an SPL meter, you can download an app to your smartphone instead.
- ½-inch-wide white removable console tape
- Black marker with fine tip
- A microphone with a mic cable
The most important time for a sound operator is pre-service rehearsal. This is when you set the right mix levels for the worship band, the pastors’ mics, and the audience areas. Following this checklist each week will ensure your church services go well.
1. Optimize your sound booth location. For aesthetic reasons, some churches make the mistake of putting their sound booth in an “out of the way” location. But that decision comes at big cost — bad sound. At the very least, you should make sure the sound booth — where you as the sound person will be located during the service — is in a location where you can accurately hear the sound system. And ideally, you should place the sound booth in the middle of the audience space. You want to be in the direct coverage of the loudspeakers — this ensures you’re hearing what is coming directly out of the loudspeakers and not sound reflections from the walls, floor, or ceiling.
3. Plug in the microphone and cable you brought in your supplies at the mixing console. This will become your “callback” microphone so you can easily communicate with the people on stage.
4. Amplifiers are always last on and first off. Turn on all your other devices such as the mixer, signal processors, and music player. Then, turn on the amps. This sequence will save your sound system from expensive repairs.
“Amplifiers” usually means standalone power amplifiers, but check your system as it could have self-powered/“active” loudspeakers (loudspeakers with their amplifiers built in) or a mixing console with the power amplifier built into it. A common mistake is to turn the mixing console on last, which sends an inrush signal into the already powered-on amplifiers, amplifying the signal and generating a loud “boom” through the loudspeakers. It’s not pleasant. So just remember: Amplifiers are always last on and first off
5. Establish a baseline for your mixer settings. Before changing any fader or knob settings on your mixing console, take a photo of it so you can reference the original settings. This allows you to revert back if a problem arises. And doing this weekly will give you invaluable insights into how your sound system behaves in a variety of circumstances.
6. Label each input using your black marker and removable console tape so that you know your microphone and instrument locations. Each mixing channel represents an audio input or output source and should be labeled.
Now that the console is prepared, you can prepare your service mix. Remember, there are two areas that require dedicated attention and their own audio mix: the stage and the front of house. The audio levels and mix are typically different for each area.
7. Always start with the stage mix. Turn off the front-of-house loudspeakers so you can focus on the stage system. Your first mission is ensuring the pastor and musicians are satisfied with their sound and mix levels, so they are not distracted during the service.
8. Establish visual communication with the music leader and pastor with hand signals or gestures, so you can covertly make changes without disruption during the service. Plus, this will save you, your pastors, and your musicians a lot of frustration. At the very least, you should establish gestures for the following:
9. Ask the music leader and pastor if they hear themselves; do this using your callback microphone. Also ask other musicians if there’s anything they need turned up or down.
10. Visit the stage: Once the band is set, stand next to each musician and listen to see if they can hear themselves. Are there any level or mix adjustments that should be made?
11. Check the pastor’s microphone once the band finishes their warmup. Walk around the stage where the pastor typically preaches. Are you getting any feedback rings? Is the level correct for the pastor? Return to the mixing console and make any necessary stage adjustments.
12. Turn on the FOH system and ask the band to play again. This time, take out your SPL meter and take a measurement at the mixing location. The sound level should peak no higher than 80 decibels (dB) throughout the audience area. If it’s greater than 80 dB, turn down the overall stage mix and confirm the volume sounds good with the music leader and/or pastor.
13. Set the FOH mix and levels. While the band plays, the SPL meter should be 9 to 12 dB above the stage level. Your overall sound levels should peak no higher than 90–93 dB as any higher levels can cause ear damage if heard consistently for over one hour.
Note: Later, as the audience area fills with people, room acoustics might change and the SPL may actually decrease. The FOH levels may need to be turned up during service (+6 to +9 dB).
14. Make sure the lead vocal stands out in the mix while the band is playing. Walk around the audience area to ensure the front and back areas have the proper sound levels.
15. Have the band stop playing, ask someone on stage to turn on the pastor’s microphone and set the proper FOH levels. Walk around the audience area to ensure the front and back areas have the proper sound levels.