Church Sound Quick Reference Guide
If there is one member of your worship team that is often forgotten – except when things go wrong – it is your “sound guy”. No matter what you call him/her….”sound guy”, “FOH” (“front of house”), “sound tech”, etc…he or she is the one crucial person who cannot take their instrument home each week to practice – yet we expect him/her to be on top of his/her game each week. When feedback, loss of sound, harshness in sound or…well…anything happens – every head turns to look at “that guy in the back.”
“That guy in the back” is, perhaps, the most critical person on your team. If you haven’t acknowledged that lately – stop reading this immediately and take him or her out for lunch. Ask him/her what they need from you to be better equipped or understood. From my experience – most techs that I’ve seen in the church world crave the need for better training.
So…let’s give it to them. We expect it of them – and we owe it to them to provide it lest we start demanding them to comply.
Whether your sound guy is volunteer or paid – good training can make night and day difference. I’ve worked with church FOH techs who have also mixed the Grammys, FOH techs who have mixed for touring artists, and FOH techs who just happened to be a warm body on a Sunday when no one else was available and someone at the church said “hey…can you sit here?” They truth is…with training – they can all have the same potential.
So let’s dive in and give it to them.
This reference guide isn’t for the basics. We will address that at a later time. For now, we are going to assume that each person that is entrusted with operating a sound board has a basic understanding of the board. What we are going to venture into is that mystical world of “EQ”. Let’s face it – EQ is single-handedly one of the biggest issues that most church FOH techs face. It is a big issue because it easily becomes one of the most obvious issues. Feedback makes heads turn, faces cringe, and people not want to come back if it becomes a continual issue.
Most FOH techs who have never been trained properly already know that the key is often in those mysterious EQ knobs…but are never told what to actually do with them. So let’s tackle some basic knowledge.
Take a look at the chart above. We will refer to it a bit during our discussion. Your EQ will coordinate with the various frequencies seen on this board. Typically, your “Sub-bass” and “bass” areas are more in the “low” area of your soundboard EQ. “Mid-Range” is “Mid”. “High-Mid’s” and “Highs” round out the “Highs”. If you look at your own sound board – you may see that your EQ area has different knobs than the church down the road (They aren’t “knobs”, for the record…they are “pots“…short for “potentiometers” Diehard FOH guys will swear allegiance to calling these “pots” – we are amongst friends here…we can call them “knobs” without humiliation. Just make sure you know the proper terminology.) For some boards – you may have only three knobs (High, Mid, and Low). Other boards may have four. (Low, two mids – one for the frequency range of the mids/one for the dB value, and one for highs). Other boards may have six knobs. (Low, two low-mids – one for the frequency range of the low-mids/one for the dB value, two high-mids, and one high.) Other boards – such as digital boards – may have a different configuration all together.
In the drawing to the left – we are using a 4-knob configuration. For now – let’s think of our EQ as being “flat” – nothing added (“boosted”) or cut. This is represented on our mock “board” to the left by having all knobs at the 12 o’clock position.
Refer back to the FOH Cheat Sheet above for a moment. Notice the “Highs” end of our frequency spectrum is around 16k-20k. Typically, most soundboard EQ’s are maxed out at 16k. If we turn the “HF” knob all the way to the right – we are raising…or “boosting” our flat EQ up on the high end.
If we turn the same knob all the way to the left, we then “cut” our high end at 16K.
Now let’s turn our “HF” knob back to the right for a moment and move to our “LF” knob. Turning it to the right “boosts” as well. To the leftt “cuts” – but the frequency is different. As we saw on our cheat sheet – the bass area is typically around the 80Hz area. In the case of our mock board – turning our knob is going to give us a cut or boost at precisely that frequency.
Now we have a “V” shape in our sound – leaving a gap. As you can probably guess – we can fill in that area by use of the “MID” knobs. This gets a little confusing since there are two knobs. This is actually a “parametric EQ”.
Notice on our “HF” and “LF” knob we were dealing with numbers “3” thru “15”. This is because the numbers were not dealing so much with frequencies as they were with decibels. When we “cut” the HF knob by turning it all the way to the the left – we were actually “cutting” the 80Hz frequency at a “15dB slope”.
So…back to our mock soundboard. In the parametric EQ area (the MIDS, in our case), we have two controls. One gives us the frequency we wish to control. The other is controls the amount we wish to boost or cut the frequency. By turning the upper knob of our MID controls to the far right and leaving the lower knob resting on “0” – we do nothing to our signal. However – once we “sweep” our lower knob to the far right (to “15”) – then we are “boosting” our 12k frequency. If we return our upper knob in the “MIDS” back to 12 o’clock and leave the lower knob all the way to the right – then we are “boosting” the 2.5k frequency at a 15db slope.
I know I’m being very vague with my drawings – but bear with me. I’m a worship pastor by nature. Imagine the center triangle being able to move left to right. The peak of the center triangle currently rests at around 2.5k. Imagine, if you will, that we can move the peak of this triangle all the way over to the left to 100Hz and all the way over to the right to 12k on our frequency spectrum. You’re probably already picking up, by now, that this is exactly what we are doing when we move the upper “MID” knob from left to right. This action is called “sweeping”. In this case – it is called “sweeping the mids”.
Your New Golden Rules
Now that you’ve learned some basics – and some new terms like “boost” and “cut” and “sweeping”…what do you do with them? That’s a good question. Let me give you some great rules to commit to memory or to print out somewhere.
Keep these rules in mind. That “muddy” sound you hear from time to time? You know…the one that you or your senior pastor have actually associated with the word “muddy” before? As in…”that (guitar/vocal/bass) just sounds kinda ‘muddy'”…??? That’s actually what we call it. Now that we can agree on what to call it – let’s make an action plan to fix it!
If we use our first rule – we know that we need to “cut” at 250Hz. Back to our mock soundboard – we find our “MIDS” knobs – and pan the upper knob (our frequency knob) to the right just above 100Hz. Next, we “cut” by rolling our lower knob to the left. We may not be right on 250Hz since our board doesn’t say “250”. We know, however, that to can’t be too far from 100 since the 12 o’clock position is 2.5k. This is where “sweeping” may help you find exactly where the problem is.
Recently, our friends at Soncbids did FOH techs an amazing service by creating the “Ultimate EQ Cheat Sheet” that details almost every instrument that could possibly appear on a stage – and tips on how to EQ them. I’ve included the most common instruments that you will likely deal with as a FOH tech for worship services below. PLEASE visit Sonicbids for the full article.
A few of my own quick tips before we close with Sonicbid’s nuggets of wisdom:
Jason’s Quick EQ Tips
Jason Says – If you want to fatten up your acoustic guitar…try this: Ask your guitarist to play something “in the key of ‘A major’” without use of a capo. This will give you access to hearing the “A”, “D”, and “E” chords. These three chords will EQ nicely.
Give the acoustic’s channel a big boost in the midrange…at least 9dB or better. Now sweep the frequencies until you get to a point where the sound is nice and fat but still bright – like an acoustic should be. Next, drop back your boost to somewhere in the neighborhood of +5dB until the guitar is cutting through the mix and is still bright…but not too bright.
Jason Says – One of the biggest mistakes I see FOH techs do is scooping out the mids on a bass. They will drive up the lows and, perhaps even the highs and cut almost all the mids. This particular sound may be pretty cool if your bass player is doing a lot of soloing or playing by himself. In fact, when soloing a bass player – it may sound better to scoop out those mids. After all, it helps hide a lot of articulation issues – but the truth is the lack of mids won’t quite “cut” it with a band. The bass needs the mids to cut through the mix. On the other hand – too much mid in the EQ will make it sound honky or nasal. Try not to boost too much.
Also – the bigger the room…the more you may need to roll off your low end on the bass. This will also greatly depend on how much sound dampening is in the room. Finally, if your bassist is more of a pick player – you may need more high end boost. Ditto if your bassist has an aggressive style like Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. (Now that I would have to see in a worship service! …wait…on second thought…we’ll just leave that idea under the bridge.)
As for other instruments – here are the tips that the pros at Sonicbids have given. Again – PLEASE make sure to visit their full article for more information.
While the snare may arguably be the most vocal drum in the kit, the kick has an amazing array of possibilities for tonal shaping. In many ways, I think you can really measure an engineer/mixer’s abilities on how a kick sounds and how it sits in the mix.
- 40 to 60 Hz – Bottom: The tone of the reverberation in the shell, sometimes too rumbly, can be undefined/indeterminate depending on the mic’ing/speakers
- 60 to 100 Hz – Thump: The “punch you in the chest” range of the kick
- 100 to 200 Hz – Body: This is the “meat,” if you will, of the kick sound
- 200 to 2,000 Hz – Ring/Hollowness: This large band is where you can often find issues with ringing and muddy kick sounds
- 2,000 to 4,000 Hz – Beater Attack: This is the range to look for the “thwack” sound of the beater, critical for getting that “basketball bouncing” kick sound
- 200 to 400 Hz – Body/Bottom: The central fundamental of most snares tends to live somewhere in this range
- 400 to 800 Hz – Ring: This is the range that tends to give that hollow “ring” to a snare tone that’s often undesirable. Crush this range too much, though, and your snare will start to lose some life and sound two-dimensional in the mix
- 2,000 to 4,000 Hz – Attack: The stick on head “crack” is often found around 8,000 Hz (Sizzle and Snap). The overtone sound of the snares themselves can either be accented or dampened somewhere around this point
- 100 to 300 Hz – Body: Depends on tuning, but a good place to look for the “boom” of a tom sound. Too much and things will sound, well, “boomy.” Remove too much, and your toms will sound like cardboard boxes
- 3,000 to 4,000 Hz – Attack: Just as it sounds, this is the the attack of the drum itself from a stick on its head
- 200 to 300 Hz – Clank: Here’s where, especially on your hi-hats, the “chink” sound of the cymbal lives. As always, season to taste
- 6,000 Hz and up – Sizzle: This range is where the “tssssssss” part of the cymbals can be brightened up to add some more life and “air” to a cymbal wash, or you can spontaneously start bleeding from the ears if used without prejudice
The reason the kick and the bass tend to be mortal enemies in many mixes is they can literally occupy identical sonic space from a frequency perspective. So before reaching in with any EQ, listen to both and decide where one will take the lead over the other, and in which ranges.
- 40 to 80 Hz – Bottom: Especially with five-string variations, this is where the bottom resonances of most basses live
- 80 to 200 Hz – Fundamentals: The primary fundamental of the bass. Right around 180 to 200 Hz is where you can try to cut in on a bass that is too “boomy” to clean it up while preserving fundamentals
- 200 to 600 Hz – Overtones: These are the upper harmonics of most bass tones, depending on the sound you’re interested in. If you’re having trouble getting a bass to cut through in a mix, especially a low-end heavy one or one that’s getting played back on smaller speakers, this can be where to look
- 300 to 500 Hz – Wood: Particularly in upright basses, it’s that distinctive, woody bark
- 800 to 1,600k Hz – Bite: The growl and attack of most basses can be either emphasized or toned down around here
- 2,000 to 5,000 Hz – String noise: Pretty straightforward here, I think
- 120 to 200 Hz – Boom/Body: This is where you’ll find most of the explosive low end on a mic’d acoustic that tends to feedback in the live world or be disruptive in the studio. A little bit here adds warmth and fullness on a solo performance, but in a dense band mix, it’s probably better to get it out of the way
- 200 to 400 Hz – Thickness/Wood: This is the main “body” of most acoustic tones. Too many cuts here, and you’re going to lose the life of the guitar somewhat
- 2,000 Hz – Definition/Harshness: This double-edged sword band will give the definition to the acoustic tone to hear intricacies in chords and picking, but too much will make it harsh and aggressive
- 7,000 Hz – Air/Sparkle: A touch, and I mean a touch, of a shelf boost here can help open up an acoustic sound
A note on acoustic guitar pickups (piezo, in particular): Making crazy 10 dB cuts? Contemplating making some absurd boost? You’re probably not wrong – the acoustic pickup world can be the Wild West when it comes to tone. Some are great, and some are downright questionable. There are too many variables to even begin suggesting frequencies, so use your ears to guide you home on this one.
In general, I find a light hand with broad strokes to be most effective on electric guitar, if any EQ is applied at all other than some filtering. If you do decide to go hunting, however:
- 80 to 90 Hz and below – Mud: Lose it, crush it with your HP filter. There’s pretty much nothing useful down here, and it will almost always just equate to flabbiness and noise in your tone
- 150 to 200 Hz – Thickness: This is where the “guts” of a guitar normally come from, but again, can quickly cloud a mix on you. Use sparingly, perhaps automate to add sweetness to a solo section or an exposed part, and then tuck it away when things thicken up again
- 300 to 1,000 Hz – Life: I call this the “life” of the electric, as many of the things that make an electric sound like an electric live in this range. So attenuating needs to be taken into consideration carefully. Too much though, and you start fighting with your snare and things like that, so take note
- 1,000 to 2,000 Hz – Honk: This is where honky and harsh characteristics can usually be smoothed out with a wide cut centered somewhere in this range
- 3,000 to 8,000 Hz – Brilliance and Presence: This is the range that can add shimmer or allow a guitar to cut through a mix when boosted. It can also be where you make cuts to keep a guitar from conflicting with a vocal. If making boosts in this range, keep an eye (ear?) out for noise, as any noise present from distortion/effects pedals will very quickly be accentuated as well
When looking at acoustic pianos, there are so many variations that can lead to differences in tone: upright vs. grand, hammer types, mechanical condition, the player, mic choices, and mic techniques. No matter what, though, the piano tends to be a behemoth in the mix – for better or worse – so most often you’ll be looking to cut holes out for other things in your mix.
- 100 to 200 Hz – Boom: This can be a great place to add a little warmth to a solo piano in a studio environment, but more often than not will be the first place to cut some of the girth in a piano in a mix or help reduce feedback potential in a live situation
- 3,000 Hz and above – Presence: Adding a little “air” here can be great to brighten up a dark piano tone, depending on mic placement. Be careful not to bring out the noise of dampers on strings (particularly in the 3,000 to 5,000 Hz range), as this can quickly become distracting and jarring
Electric Piano (Rhodes)
If we’re dealing with a real electric piano over a sample, things can be very situational as amp, mic’ing, and condition of the instrument itself can play such a huge role.
- 100 to 200 Hz – Boom: As with its acoustic counterpart, the low end can go from lush to overgrown Jurassic underbrush quickly. Particularly with the rich, dense harmonics of something like a Rhodes, cutting “mud” is usually your first order of business
- 800 to 1,000 Hz – Bark: Managing the “bark” and damper noise can sometimes be an issue, but if things are cutting through too much, odds are it’s somewhere in this range
Much of a B3’s magic comes from good mic placement and the player (the right drawbar settings are game changers). EQ should be applied sparingly and mainly as a corrective measure. Usually it’s good to look to anything clashing with the bass (80 to 180 Hz), and if it’s feeling a little “chubby” in the middle and either can’t get out of its own way or doesn’t play nice with other mid-heavy instruments or guitars, look to make cuts somewhere between 300 to 500 Hz.
While the near-infinite possibilities in the synth world can make this a hard one to generalize, there are some places you may start to look:
- 400 to 600 Hz – Thickness: Many synth sounds can get kind of muddy in this range and mess with the clarity of the sound itself, especially when you start layering multiple synths. Searching somewhere in this range is a good place to start
- 1,000 to 2,000 Hz – Cut/Bite: This is where you can usually find the attributes of a synth patch that are going to help it poke through the mix. Cut here to help tuck something back and out of the way, from guitars to vocals
- 3,000 to 4,000 Hz – Presence/Clarity: Also like voice and guitar, this range helps add excitement to a sound. And also like just about everything else mentioned here, too much of a good thing can be painful
The human voice: simultaneously one of the most fickle and yet most important pieces of any mix. Male voices, though typically lower than female, are actually more complex in their overtone structure, meaning that at least equal attention needs to be paid to the high end of a male vocal as a female.
- 100 Hz and below – Rumble: For most vocals, all you’ll find down here is mic-handling noise, stage/floor vibrations, air conditioners, etc. Get rid of it
- 200 Hz – Boom: This frequency is usually where you’ll find the “head cold” sound. The female voice may run a little higher, but this is the ballpark. Anyone with allergies or sinus issues knows exactly what I’m talking about
- 800 to 1,000 Hz – Word Clarity/Nasality: Not enough and intelligibility of some lyrics may be unintelligible, too much and you get the teacher from Peanuts
- 3,000 Hz- Presence/Excitement: This is right around the point that tends to add some energy, or some “buzz” to a vocal. Not enough, and the vocal may sound deflated, flat, and dull. Too much, and your listener will feel like he or she is getting poked in the ear canal with a chopstick every time the vocalist opens his or her mouth
- 4,000 to 8,000 Hz – Sizzle/Sibilants: Typically this is the range a de-esser is handling. If your vocalist sounds like meat hitting a hot pan at the end of any word ending in “s” or a similar sound, this is where to hunt
- 10,000 Hz and up – Air: Want to “open up” your vocal a little? Apply a light shelf boost around here and that should do it. This is not always necessary, though, and simply adding “air” for the sake of it can make things harsh, brittle, and introduce noise to the sound
Want more articles for Sound Techs? Click here for a two-part series on controlling volume in worship services.