Kent Morris, mixer for Bridgepointe Church and others near Atlanta GA, as well as a contributor to various pro sound publications, discusses the unique challenges of microphone selection and mixing strategies for Houses of Worship:
Is mixing for HOW fundamentally different than for live entertainment?
I've had this discussion many times and it's not the same as a rock-n-roll, country or jazz gig. There's much more emphasis on the spoken word. I think the closest comparison outside of HOW is to corporate events. There you have a similar mix of live music, talking heads, lighting and video cues. With HOW, we have an overall lower stage volume to manage, but perhaps a greater mix of sound sources, volume and coverage issues to solve. A well-covered service requires a full mix of condenser vocal mics, dynamic vocal and instrument mics as well as specialty mics for choirs and ensembles.
Does the HOW environment change your miking strategy?
In HOW applications, I can choose vocal mics that are generally more performance oriented versus just having to survive the gig. Ambient levels in HOW situations are much lower than rock performance—somewhere in the range of 60-65DB-A versus up to 80dB or more. In this quieter setting, I need to select microphones that have minimal handling noise, go on and off the stand well and have a fairly tight pattern for isolation. I like the Audix VX5 condenser, as an example, for all of these characteristics and a nice warm sound.
Does miking instruments for HOW require a different approach?
Not so much for instrument mics. I have my favorites that I can use in any miking situation, but it's been a bit of a journey back to using them. We used to have amps miked up on the stage and it was chaos. Then for a while we switched to 'modelers & pods'; DSP-based amp and speaker simulators. Now in larger churches, we have the ability to place amplifiers off-stage in isolation cabinets and mike them as normal. It gives the musicians their tone without impacting stage volume.
In some larger churches, we even have the luxury of isolated rooms where we can do distance miking at full amplifier volumes. This gives me the flexibility to do anything from an Audix i5 mounted with a CabGrabber, to perhaps an SCX25A back about four feet on a Vox AC30 for a more ambient tone.
How do you accomplish this remote full-volume miking solution?
I use the SGI system from Radial Engineering to get the output of guitars and bass back to the isolation cabinets. It works especially well with single-coil pickups on Strats and Teles. The miked amps come back through aux sends to individual in-ear monitors for the musicians as part of their matrixed personal mixes.
Do you use floor monitors on stage?
These days, about the only people using wedges in HOW settings are the backing singers because they have to move around a fair amount. All of the primary leaders and musicians are on in-ears. I like this approach for feedback control and maintaining a manageable stage volume. With the leaders on in-ear,s I also have the flexibility to select a better performing microphone for them; one with more gain such as an Audix VX10 or VX5 condenser. For backing singers, I can use a dynamic mic that is more forgiving such as an OM6 or OM5 that is less susceptible to feedback in front of a floor monitor.
What are the challenges to miking a full choir versus backup singers?
Controlled pattern condenser mics placed close to the source are the key to good choir miking. Quite frankly, without the Audix M1255 mics, I would be in trouble. Previously, choirs were ensconced in their own balcony well away from the stage. Current trends have them right next to a live drum kit. My best solution is to rely on the tight pattern coverage of hyper-cardioid mics for the edges of the choir and then to fill-in with cardioid mics for the center. I use the Audix Microboom84, mounting these mics on the 84" carbon-fiber boom and a simple round-base mic stand. After all, there is a visual element to be considered along with good sound reinforcement.
What advice would you have for other HOW sound technicians working in perhaps smaller churches or with limited budgets?
I would recommend that they find the most economical microphones that are worth using. There are lots of mics on the market at "Six for $99!" and they just don't do the job. There are just as many beat-up old band mics that don't work as well anymore.... Good worship service sound really matters. Quite frankly, it's the parishioners who donate to keep a vibrant music program going, and they won't continue to do so if their experience is poor. It all starts with good mics used well!