Loudness In Worship Taming Guitar Amplification

It can be such a battle to obtain a good level for the voice, as the congregation hears with the amplified instruments is the distant and indirect sound coming off of the amp. The end result is a muddy, distant rumble with a mild semblance of melody.
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For my last installment of Worship Audio [“Taming The Driving Factor—Drums” in PAR July 2008], I focused on the topic of sound pressure level (SPL) and making adjustments to help reduce the overall volume to create a better atmosphere for worship. The first hurdle was combating the nature of drums and some creative ways to isolate the drums while retaining good site lines for communication. That column generated a helpful e-mail—which ran as a letter to PAR in the very next issue—specifically addressing the advancement of electronic drums and their viability in the House of Worship (HOW) market.

Once we have corralled our drum levels, it is time to move onto the next greatest SPL creator in the modern HOW: the instrument amplifier. I am most specifically referring to speakers hooked up to amplifiers, which really detract from the sound of the mix especially when there is music under someone speaking. It can be such a battle to obtain a good level for the voice, as the congregation hears with the amplified instruments is the distant and indirect sound coming off of the amp. The end result is a muddy, distant rumble with a mild semblance of melody. This is a 180-degree result from what should be a clear, distinct sound, one that enhances the intent of the spoken word. Look at this through the lens of a fullon worship band and the challenges are increased, proportionate to the SPL level at which the worship music is taking place.

In Other Words, Leave Those Speakers At Home

Bass amplifiers are notorious for creating muddiness in the house; this can be taken care of with a good DI. The use of something from the Line 6 POD family or some other type of amp simulator can greatly help with achieving a quality tone while not having the amp overtake the house mix. From time to time, I have the pleasure of filling the role of bass player, so I speak with some authority on this subject and have talked with the other bassists in the Nashville area—all have easily adapted to this mantra.

Should a bassist insist their sound relies heavily on their trusty amplifier, the simple solution is to unplug their speaker and take a direct out. Throw a good tube preamp in line like an Avalon, Summit Audio, or similar manufacturer’s product, and the warmth and punch of the tone will be even better. Amps for bass have their place and may even be welcomed to add some lowrange frequencies in an environment where there are no dedicated subwoofers, but I have found this is rarely the case. Most often, bass amps in HOWs end up creating 80 - 200Hz mush buildups.

Pianos Can Be Loud, Amplified Stringed Instruments, Too

Should your HOW be so fortunate to have an acoustic piano, closing the lid is a simple solution... but closing it and still getting a good sound is another story. For this problem, Earthworks offers its highquality PianoMic system [reviewed in the Sept. 08 issue of PAR], which includes a mounting bar, two Earthworks microphones and a small cable to allow for closing the lid. If its cost is outside of your budget ($4,495 list), check out the Applied Microphone Technology M40 acoustic piano microphone system, a high-quality bargain ($556 list).

Additionally, with a little intuitiveness, I would bet that a custom bar fitted with your favorite microphones is achievable with the ultimate goal in mind: close the lid, which can provide a clean sound without bleed from the piano or into piano microphones. If your HOW leans on the more flexible solution of electric piano, then a DI (or line out, if equipped) is a great solution. The only purpose for an amp at that point would be for monitoring and that can be better addressed with a good monitor mix.

Jumping into an orchestra pit can introduce challenges of their own but the plus of doing so is that the majority, if not all, instruments are strictly acoustic there and do not require their own amplification. Further, a true pit can serve as a natural sound barrier which helps isolate the instruments.

Six-String Takeover

Time after time, the biggest culprit of troublesome SPL in the world of amplifiers is courtesy of the beloved electric guitar. Many modern acoustic guitars are designed to use some type of DI for amplification (if no DI, then a mic has to be used so the need for an amplifier does not apply). I have used many amps for acoustic guitar and although they serve as a good “hot spot” type monitor, they hardly add anything that could not be accomplished with a good DI or an L/R Baggs or Fishman-type of preamp. The real benefits from amplifier adjustment reside with electric guitars.

Taking away an electric guitarist’s speaker cabinet is not going to make you the most popular FOH engineer on the block, but this can be a win-win for all involved. We have a Line 6 POD on hand for all guitarists and most of them use it or their own model. This is a serviceable replacement for an amp, especially if the guitarist really takes the time to work with such an amp simulator to find a set of tones that suits them and matches output levels.

The other item we have on hand is a Peavey Classic 30 with the internal speaker unplugged. If the guitarist does not have an amp head, they can use the Peavey plugged into our Randall ISO box. There is no true replacement for a good, beefy electric guitar sound via a Shure SM57 pointing right at the cone of a 12-inch Celestion speaker being cranked. Yet the ISO box serves as a great compromise because guitarists achieve their ideal tone without overtaking the mix and ultimately becoming a distraction during worship.

Case in point: We recently hosted CCM artist, Jeff Deyo, for a weekend. He led the congregation during our three church services and then was leading for a citywide worship event at our church on Sunday night. We have fairly strict guidelines in regards to weekend SPLs and shared them with his road manager. The one issue that usually comes up is our “no amp on stage” policy, but Jeff and his team were absolute pros and said no problem ... but they understood on Sunday night there were no restrictions and they use their amps and crank it up as much as they wanted. We set up his guitarist with our Randall iso box located backstage, being fed from his Naylor Super Drive 60 onstage; by the time Sunday night came around, he commented that he had no need to bring in his speaker cabinet. He would never be able to push the level as much as he could the iso cab and really loved what that did for his sound. Having a speaker cabinet on stage can limit the true tone of the amplifier head due to level restrictions. By putting this in an isolation cabinet backstage, the amp could be turned up therefore pushing the speaker more and ultimately achieving the desired tone. He even commented about picking one up to become a mainstay in his rig. Customization is easy, as the internal speaker is replaceable with any 12-inch model.

Granted, if your backstage area is isolated well enough, it may be an option to just move the guitarist’s speaker cab backstage.

It Comes Back To Monitoring

One element that FOH engineers need to address as the amplifiers are virtually eliminated in HOWs is the quality of monitoring for the musicians; this not only serves as a musical reference for the band, but also now becomes their primary avenue to hear their individual tones. This can take some adjustment on both ends, but if the end result is a better worship experience, then any growing pains are quickly justified.

Next time, I’ll address the improvements in HOW monitoring and how it affects overall SPL. The ultimate goal is a good, manageable sound for all styles of worship and no amplified or acoustic instrument interfere or become a distraction to that goal.

Dan Wothke is media director at Belmont Church in Nashville, and he welcomes your comments at dwothke@yahoo.com.