John Mills on Improving Your Church Service Recordings
When we decided to tackle the topic of how to make better recordings of church services, we didn't have to look very far. For years now, we've been turning to John Mills, FOH engineer extraordinaire, frequent contributor to Worship Musician magazine and the man behind the mixing board on some of the country's biggest tours.
For this 2012 interview, we tracked him down somewhere between Paradise Island and Tampa at the start of Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw's record-setting Brothers of the Sun Tour.
Before we get to actual recording, let's touch on a subject that's rarely mentioned. Recording rights.
"Any time you press record on an audio or video device, you need to make sure you have the rights to record the music. Recording the Pastor's sermon is perfectly fine because technically he is the copyright owner of his sermon. Music is another story entirely.
If your worship team is singing another worship leader's song, or a classic hymn for that matter, you can pretty much count on the fact that there are restrictions to pressing that big red record button. Even if your church isn't producing CDs to make a profit, the rights aren't as hard to understand as you might think.
Now that we've covered the fact that you really DO need to have the rights to record, let's talk about actually pressing the RECORD button.
"Many churches simply hook up the tape recorder to the left/right output of the soundboard. That, as I'm sure your readers are aware, is going to sound pretty bad from a mix perspective.
What is coming straight off the board is often very unbalanced for the recording. It sounds great in the room because you're hearing the trumpets fine without having a mic on them, but the recording is suffering because it doesn't 'hear' the horn section, or whatever instrument(s) you choose not to mic. "
Smaller congregations don't have mega-church budgets and rely on part-time staff or volunteers. What advice do you have for them?
"Here are some No Budget tips:
- Put a mic on anything you're not satisfied with on the tape. I can hear the folks in the front row now … "We don't need microphones on the drums, they're already too loud." Tip two will answer that complaint.
- Set up your recording device to take a feed from a pre fader auxiliary send. This will allow the FOH engineer to mix what is needed in the house, while having a completely separate mix for the tape. Yes, this does mean a little more work, but it will give you the ability to mix things differently for the tape. Make sure your aux sends mutes when you engage the mute on the main channel. If not, you'll have stuff going to tape that you really don't want there.
For those folks in the front row concerned with the volume, tell them not to worry; those mics are just for recording. If you put those extra "recording" mics on pre fader aux sends, you don't even have to push up the fader for that channel. So if they're really concerned with the volume, take them to the board and show them that the drum mics aren't even on in the house.
A really neat trick on the last install I did was to use a separate Aviom system for the recording. If you're having trouble with monitors and recording services, this may be the way to go. We installed an Aviom system (www.aviom.com) for the band to run their own monitors. Then we took an extra control surface to a room just behind the stage. We hooked up the output of the Aviom to the input of the tape deck and monitored it through a set of computer speakers. This gave them the ability to have a pseudo-recording room for a pretty reasonable budget."
Let's take a flight of fancy and assume that money is no object.
"If you are really serious about recording music the best way possible, you'll need a separate engineer in an isolated room with a separate console. It's really the best way to get amazing mixes."
We know that not every house of worship has a professional staff. What's your advice for the church with a semi-pro crew?
"Any mix is only going to be as good as the sound person behind the board. If you have only one good audio tech, I wouldn't spend $100K on a separate recording room. I'd spend my money on educating some of the other audio volunteers. I've heard mixes from the simplest of setups that blew away the recordings done by multi-thousand dollar remote recording rooms, because they had a better sound person."
What separates good recordings from great ones?
"The biggest key to a good recording is making it sound like you were there.
Start with a good, clean, balanced mix of all the instruments. It's not uncommon in a smaller building to have six or more additional mics on instruments that aren't even going to the house speakers. They're just for the recording setup that I described before.
Now that you've built a good mix with whatever system you're using, here are some additional suggestions:
- A mix straight off the board will never sound completely live because it is getting a tight sound directly from the instruments. You need to add back in some ambience with audience and/or ambience mics. Remember, audience mics are a spice: add too much and it sounds unnatural. Get a good mix of the instruments first and then add in just enough audience so that listeners know that they're there. I usually start my recording with the audience mics considerably back in the mix. I wait until the middle or end of the first song to decide how much I need. That gives me a few minutes to make the mix as clean as possible before adding the spice.
- Also of note it's best to EQ out as much of the low frequencies as possible in these mics. If I have a variable High Pass filter on my soundboard, I may set it as high as 200Hz. If you only have a button, engage that, and then take your low frequency shelf filter all the way down. This lets the warmth of your dry mix come through without muddying it up with a bunch of low mush that the ambient/audience mics are picking up.
- If you have a stereo aux send then definitely do the mix in stereo and feel free to pan stuff around. Your brain loves to hear things with space in between and around it and stereo audience mics are always going to sound more real. They really add a sense of dimension to the mix. If you have a little more budget available, the Shure VP88 is one of my favorite stereo mics. Either way, when you add more than one audience mic to the mix be sure to pan the hard left and right so that the listener gets that natural sense of space. "
"Live worship recording is an art and a science. It begins with a celebration of faith – the goal is capturing that experience in a form that can be shared with the world."