Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Defining our sound

Music is a big part of our corporate worship during Sunday services at TBC.  As a result, we work very hard preparing and executing those elements each week.  But there are a lot of variables that need to come together in order for the music played by a band of 8-10 people to connect with the thousands of people.  Those details range from how the drums are tuned, to electric guitar tone, to what octave the piano is played in, to what vocal parts are assigned and to whom.  They include which instruments play and when, how things are high passed, how things are gated, and the balance of the drums to the bass to the piano to the lead vocal to the electric to the BGVs...  How do we manage all those variables and assure that we hit the mark week after week?  

Its important for us to define what we want our music to sound like.  Its easy to just say "It should sound good."  But "good" is not defined the same way everywhere you go.  In order for the music we present to our congregation to be, not only high quality, but also to be consistent from week to week, we need to define our sound and what we value in our mixes.

Good Sources - This means that the drums should be tuned, mics placed properly, the guitar tones and keys patches carefully selected etc.  If it doesn't sound good on stage, it probably won't sound good in the house.  We've recently switched back to acoustic drums and we encourage our electric guitar players to bring in their amps, which we isolate and mic.  (This only works if your guitarists actually have good amps.  Another source to deal with)  Doesn't that take more work and preparation? Yes it does, but the classic, natural tones we get are worth the effort.  

Timeless Tone -  We are looking for sounds that are classic, that don't date themselves or evoke a certain era.  We want to be creative but not distracting, and we want to connect with as broad a range of people as we can.  This means we play it straight (mostly), no space-age ping pong effects or 80s ballad snare reverb.

Active Mixes - Music is not a static thing.  It is a dynamic, changing, moving thing and its important the it is mixed that way by the engineer.  Its not a "set it and leave it" kind of gig.  If you stop mixing after soundcheck, you're missing out on how powerful and effective the music could be.  Even within different parts of a song, the musical balance can shift dramatically and you, the engineer, must be ahead of the curve, constantly adjusting to the feel and direction of the song.  That means knowing when the guitar solo or vocal transition is going to happen and not realizing a measure in that you missed it....again.  

The Foundation - For the style of music we use, drums, bass, and vocals are the foundational elements of the mix.  Drums provide the rhythm, bass provides a foundational pitch reference, and vocals (obviously) provide the melody and lyric.  Drums and bass also provide a lot of the energy in a song.  Its important that the vocals are heard, but a quick way to lose energy and excitement in a song is to have the vocals be too loud.  Another vocal pitfall is the lead vocal/background vocal relationship.  We usually have 3 vocalists on stage at once, with one being the clear leader.  Who this leader is may change from song to song or even within a song.  However, the BGVs need to stay in the background. The leader should not be competing with the other vocalists.  Its important that the engineer actively manages this balance and smoothly transitions from leader to leader, while keeping the backing vocals layered in behind the lead. 

The Fluff - Just kidding, this stuff isn't fluff.  Electric, acoustic, piano, keys, strings, maybe you have a horn section? In our music style, the electric guitar drives most songs.  Whether its a big rock anthem or an ambient and introspective song, chances the electric guitar has a key hook of some sort.  Don't bury the electric guitar!  Be confident with it and let it do what its supposed to do.  Acoustic and keys give texture and interest in a mix (orchestral instruments often fall in this category as well).  They rarely dominate the mix when the whole band is playing but provide a breath of fresh air and dynamics at certain points in a song.  Rarely should the acoustic guitar be louder than the electric when both are playing.  Just because the worship leader is playing the acoustic doesn't mean it should be the loudest instrument. Quite the opposite actually.  By not forcing the acoustic guitar forward in a mix, you allow for really cool moments to happen when the band falls back and acoustic can really shine through.  Remember, music is dynamic!

Hope this was an interesting read and that it gives just a little more perspective on how we do what we do each week at TBC.  This framework is a product of lots of experimentation and constant self-evaluation.  Thanks to Tim Corder for his inspirational and well-articulated post on this subject.