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Mistakes Church Sound Engineers Make with Mixing Consoles – #5 Misuse of Compression 

Mistakes Church Sound Engineers Make with Mixing Consoles – #5 Misuse of Compression 

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  • Many people say your live mix needs to sound like a record. Really?
Church Mixing Console Sound Compression Rack

This article is part of a series called The Top 10 Mistakes Church Sound People Make With Mixing Consoles. We’re on number 5. Go here for part 1.

I cannot count the number of times I have walked in as a guest to a sound engineering gig and found that compressors are incorrectly set up. Very recently, I was mixing at a friend’s church, and the bass sounded like I was moving the fader up and down on every note. I looked at the channel strip and there was not one, but 3 compressors layered onto the bass track. One from the console and 2 from Waves SoundGrid.  When I disabled the comps, the change was so dramatic the rehearsal stopped and the Worship Leader said,

Well, you found the bass, thank goodness!

Waves SoundGrid SuperRack

I rarely use compression or, more accurately, I use it sparingly. I love the dynamic range that today’s sound systems can handle. Before digital mixers, it was rare that you would see a compressor inserted on every channel. Why?

  1. It was too expensive
  2. It was not needed

But give an inexperienced sound person a digital console and they will put a compressor on every input squeezing the life out of the sound. Having said that, I sometimes use parallel compression on drums. I also use a compressor on a vocalist who has a big resonant voice, but with less than perfect microphone technique, to tame transients (a temporary oscillation that occurs in a circuit because of a sudden change of voltage or of load). I will also use compression on a snare to get a nice fat sound (fat: rich dense sound, with a lot of harmonics, mostly with a lot of bottom ‘low-mid’ frequencies). I also use compression on a master bus out (left/right out) for broadcast, recording, and live streaming. We will discuss this in upcoming articles, but for the sake of this post, we are discussing “live mixing.”

Many people say your live mix needs to sound like a record. Really? Why not just play a CD during the service? Why have live instruments? The service would be very boring with very little dynamic range. When I mix live music there is a lot of dynamic range! When the band gets soft, I pull the levels back. On big crescendos, I give it the gas!  I accentuate what the band is doing to make it more dramatic.

I once attended a production company’s “manufacturer’s expo” and got a chance to listen to a new flagship line array for a well-known loudspeaker company. The system sounded great. It was very much like a studio monitor mix, but it was boring. When you stood 20 feet from the stage and closed your eyes, you could not tell whether there were live humans on stage or whether it was a recording. They actually had a live band there to demo the system. I was friendly with one of the salespeople from the factory and I asked if he would go ask the engineer what kind of compression/plugins he was using.

A few moments later he came back saying the engineer has an LA-2A on every channel and on the Left/Right Main out. A Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A is a tube “leveling amplifier.” It’s a single-channel unit and it sounds amazing. It’s found in nearly every recording studio around the world and often on the road in touring scenarios.

The LA-2A  is just under $5,000 per channel. So can you imagine what 48 channels of compression would cost? Right around a quarter of a million dollars. But thanks to software plug-ins, you can have that classic tube compression for a fraction of that.

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier

Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

But he did…

Dynamic music is more exciting than just loud music. If your show/church service starts out loud and stays at the same volume throughout the entire program and ends at the same level, you have mixed a boring service. But if your music has dynamics, your audience WILL enjoy it more.

On a theological note…Worship is dynamic. Barak is a Hebrew word used over 330 times in scripture. It means kneeling before God in humble submission and quiet voice. Halal is used 165 times. It is part of the root word of Hallelujah. Halal = Crazy exuberant praise, to act like a fool, and Yah is the other part of Yahweh. So crazy praise to God. Loud. That is dynamic range. From quiet voice to soulful rejoicing.

The long and the short of it is this: use compression sparingly. You will get better results than squashing the life out of everything. In the meantime, happy mixing, and I hope this article helps you create an environment for worship!

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