Our Music Director Karl is one heck of a guy. I’ve known him for about 3-4 years now and we’ve been through a lot. Over the past few months we have gone through a lot of changes, and we are really re-shaping our music ministry. With the new facility, upgrading our sound system (we added AVIOM’s and are moving to ears), and trying to figure out where God is leading us as a band and team – there is a lot to consider. Karl usually is a soft spoken guy who rarely argues his points, until now…
Check out this email that I am sharing with his permission (tech heads and musicians will appreciate this!)
I suppose I should take this time to fully explain my argument as far as “acoustic sound” is concerned. 🙂 As I am usually the dissenting vote, I feel that I am sometimes viewed as the guy who just likes his guitar, or just thinks “This is what U2 does,” or just likes to disagree. hehe 🙂 On the contrary, I rarely argue my opinion, because in the grand scheme of things, keeping a relationship with a brother or a sister in Christ is infinitely more important than what sound system we use. However, I have studied this subject far more deeply than one may realize, both in and out of school. I try to keep my words few when it comes to issues such as these unless I am asked. But as I feel this is an important issue, I am going to address it. Am I always right? Absolutely not! But here is what I have learned so far:
1. As a worship music team (vocalists, sound technicians, musicians, computer operators, and lighting operators), our main focus for a ‘worship service’ is to tell God how much we love Him. In this way, we make a big deal out of God–to God Himself, to us, and to others.
2. We do not need to use music to worship Him (Is. 1:10-20). However, as long as we are using music as a vehicle to worship Him, let’s do it in a way that pleases Him, reaches others, and let’s do it full-on (Ps. 33:1-3)!
NOW, in order to achieve telling God we love Him along with the congregation and through music, each musician (and by saying musician, I am including sound technicians as perhaps the most important musicians) has a different idea of what will make the music the most appealing and worshipful. They generally fall into two camps (a gross generalization, but for the purposes of brevity):
1) Clarity, crispness, and a good mix of instruments are the main ingredients for music
2) Warmth, earthiness, tone and feel are the main ingredients for music
(The second camp is more often recognized by the “But these amps go to eleven, so screw you” attitude.) hehe just kidding…..sorta…… 🙂
And I believe that the best sound doesn’t come from one camp or the other, and it doesn’t come from somewhere in the middle, and it doesn’t come from even creating a new camp. My humble opinion is that it comes from starting over:
SOUND IS NATURAL.
Do you know what the best sound system I have ever heard was? It wasn’t a Digico, line array speakers, analog tone, or U2’s sound…..it wasn’t any of that. It was the concert hall at Biola University, where a very soft-spoken professor gave a lecture at the front of the stage which I could hear perfectly in the back row. It was perfectly real…meaning, his larynx was vibrating and his lips were moving in such a way as to change the shape of the air. As the air molecules hit each other, our ears picked up the vibrations, and we “heard a sound.”
The “sound system” was the skillful crafting of a wood and brick building to correctly echo the sound waves. If you get a chance, check out Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the LA Philharmonic in the almost exclusively acoustic sound-based Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The sheer vibrations of waves of sound–completely real, untainted, un-reinforced, un-eq’d–helped create a different perspective at least in me.
The crux of the matter is this: music is sound waves vibrating together in a pleasing manner to the brain. Why does a vibration of A (440 Hz) sounded along with a vibration of C#, create an ear-pleasing major third? Why would an A sounded along with a vibration of D# create a rough and un-musical sounding tritone? There are theories, but no one knows for sure the why of it; however, the fact that different sound vibrations in the air can be beautiful and calm someone down or be grating and upset someone, is certain. I do not know how else to explain it; musical sound vibrations in the air have an effect on a person’s brain. If this vibrating of soundwaves is in fact, music, then keeping the music as real (that is, as acoustic) as possible is a chief concern.
This chief concern of acoustic music translates heavily into modern music as well as classical. With every microphone, every cable, every eq knob , effects knob, or volume knob, some integrity of the acoustic sound is lost. Just compare a band’s stage sound, their live sound, their cd sound, and their radio sound. Have you ever been on stage with a cranking band? The vibrations alone feel like they are going to crack your sternum. Now you go into the audience. The music still feels like it’s pumping the blood through your veins, but now that you are off stage you are hearing the sound through some microphones, some cables, a soundboard, more cables, re-amplifying modules because of all the sound that has been lost in the travel, and then more speakers. Then you buy the cd. Now the sound has gotten still less real with having to compress it, record it to a hard drive, compress it again, and burn it onto digital media. Now, let’s say you hear it on the radio. Now that same original acoustic sound wave has to be passed through the sound system, the digital media cd, and now the air and received by the antenna.
Now, some may say that the cd actually sounds better than the live band. In mix, perhaps. In volume, perhaps. But in air waves moving your body, I would have to disagree. If you have not experienced live sound moving your body even if it doesn’t sound ‘as clean’ as the cd, then you might be going to the wrong concerts. Find a band such as The Killers, The Listening, Loreena McKennitt, Delirious, Alanis Morrisette, Peter Gabriel, Muse….these bands have incredible sound technicians who give them just as good of a mix live as on the cd. And the cd might put you in a good mood; but live, it just might literally bring tears to your eyes.
Honestly, the best live sound you will ever have is the one without sound reinforcement. However, this is where the war begins between practicality and letting soundwaves move people. Can you imagine if your sound technician was on stage, turning volumes of guitar amps, bass amps, vocal amps, keyboard amps, acoustic violins, acoustic guitars, trying to get the mix correct in the room? And then he would finally get it right for the center of the room, but the left side would be horrible. And what about drums? The volumes would be baffles to block the sound at different angles. You’d have to have five technicians up there moving baffles back and forth at different distances from each drum depending on the feel and sound of each drum. It’s impractical! I’d go even further and say, it can’t be done! So….we compromise and use sound reinforcement.
As, in my mind, this is a huge compromise already of acoustic sound, it begins to worry me when other compromises start to be made. I’ll go through the instruments:
Drums–the sound of a piece of wood hitting an acrylic substance is picked up by a microphone and sent to the soundboard. The signal path of the acoustic sound is unchanged. Signal is lost, and a reinforced sound will never sound the same as when the drummer cracks his snare while you’ve bent down to pick up your lead sheets and your head is right next to his drums; but still, the signal has not been changed. Once you go to a digital drum set, you no longer have a microphone picking up the sound of air being displaced; you instead have a machine producing an electronic vibration that has been altered to try to replicate the sound of air moving. The result is a hollow and electronic sound that moves hardly any air at all. Now, an engineer will tell you that 24.1 digital bits should be exactly the same sound as acoustic vibrations. In theory, that would be true if acoustic sound were only heard as the properties which we can view. But sound (that is, the air waves traveling and colliding with your ears), is felt more than heard. Think of an electronic drum kit that sounded fantastic while you soloed but when the band arrived, it sounded thin and brittle. That it because there were very few soundwaves coming out of that amp, and the soundwaves from everything else knocked them down. Then you turn the drum amp up. Now, you just have a louder thin and brittle sound. (Nothing against electric drum kits…they certainly have their place, especially in houses with annoyed neighbors!) 🙂
Bass–for instruments that were meant to be electric, the amp is a part of them. Electric instruments were never meant to be played without an amp. And in amps, tubes are the warmest type of circuitry. Why do we not use them in all sound applications? Because they break easily…they have to run hot and therefore loud to sound their best, and because they need to be changed every six months. It’s the war of sound versus practicality again. However, the fullest and clearest possible bass sound is once again from putting a microphone on moving air, from a tube-circuited amplifier. Why don’t we do this? A mic to pick up those bass frequencies is crazy expensive.
Electric guitars–much the same principle as electric basses. The sound of an electric guitar is the acoustic vibrating of strings through microphones (pickups). This sound was only made to be amplified and heard through a tubed circuit. That is where the guitar starts to get its warmth; and the warmth, clarity, and reality of the sound is fully achieved when the actual soundwaves travel out of the speakers. Take away that, and once again you no longer have an acoustic sound signal, but a digital electronic circuit attempting to create true acoustics, which cannot be done. Will you get a guitar sound without tube amps? Sure. But you lose the acoustic movement of air, which is the main part of the very definition of ‘sound.’
(Keyboards and acoustic guitars to be dealt with later–it’s 2 AM hehe) 🙂
Vocals–the most important part of music, as hailed by many a scholar, especially in worship. The vocal is the truest of acoustic instruments, because it is a God-created organ vibrating. There is no synthetic reproduction, not even any acoustic construction. Just pure, unadulterated vibrations moving air. Oh, how, I wish to keep this musical sound as acoustic as possible. Nothing moves people more than the sound of a voice. Reinforce it so it can be heard. If it doesn’t sound good, train the vocalists.
Now, the first argument to all this is always as follows: “Sure, okay. But how many people can really tell the difference?” And the answer, of course, is probably none–consciously. The point of music is not so that someone can say, “Hmmm…..that guitar sound is the best I’ve ever heard.” The point of music is for the guitar sound, the bass sound, the vocal sound, etc. to be, in fact, the best anyone has ever heard; but no one will put this into words. That ‘good music’ will move them, and they won’t know why. That is after all, the point of music–to move people. Especially in worship music. We wish to help move them, and put them in a place where it is easy and comfortable for them to worship God with abandon. Both in worship music and other music, nobody will walk out of the auditorium saying that it was the worst music mix or the worst guitar tone they had ever heard; but they will walk out of there, thinking, “The music really didn’t do much for me.” And likewise, if the music is good, nobody walks out thinking that the vocals were so warm and real, and that the drums sounded so acoustic and driving; but they will walk out of there thinking, “Man, that music moved me!”
Suffice it to say, nobody notices if it’s wrong; but they sure notice when it’s right.
However, this vocal issue brings me to the second crux. If vocals are the most important part, what good are the pure, beautiful, acoustic soundwaves from the other instruments if the vocals cannot be heard? Especially in worship music? And my humble answer is no good at all. If we can’t get the vocals, let’s get rid of the band. I believe this. So what is the compromise? Can we still get the acoustic soundwaves to move people as they worship the Lord, but still get to the main part, the vocals?
We are trying to do this by cutting stage volume and moving to in-ear monitors so that the sound mix can be good. But what good is a good sound mix of crappy sound? But…what good are great acoustic soundwaves if the mix cannot be controlled?
I see both sides. The problem right now is that I believe that we are spending so much money on new equipment, such as these in-ears and Avioms, that we are looking at them as an end in themselves. These are a tool, to help lower stage volume, so that the sound of the music can be more conducive to worship. That is all, I believe. Sound should not bow to the Avioms, the same way sound should not bow to the reverb slider, or my guitar rig, or the digiredoo. 🙂
The solution is so simple, in my humble opinion…baffle the loud stuff so that they can still have acoustic soundwaves in their own little room. That way, there is still good sound to be microphoned; but yet the stage won’t be loud, so the mix can still be good in the house.
In this way, the acoustic soundwaves of moving air come under control, vocals are heard, and prayerfully, the Lord will be glorified. I think we get ourselves into trouble by thinking that one thing or one school of thought is the ultimate answer. All these things that we see as issues that cannot resolve into each other, will in fact come into their own and function the best when working hand in hand. Just as the sound technician is worthless without any band to play music, so the worship leader is useless without a sound technician to turn on his microphone and set up the sound system to reinforce his voice.
If you look at anyone creating live music right now, worship or otherwise, you will see 95% or more using acoustic instruments (i.e. instruments that create soundwaves as opposed to digital drums, digital computer guitar amps, etc.) and running them into a house system on a quiet stage. It’s all about understanding sound isolation and acoustics.
And if anyone read this far, then…oh, well, nobody read this far. hehe 🙂
I love you all, and let’s do our best to understand that each of us has something to give and something to lose. I’ll admit, hearing the sound of my guitar amps, the bass amp, and an un-baffled, out in the open drum kit……ooooohhh, it makes my blood pump!! I love it!! But, heck, if no one but me can worship with that than what’s the point? So…..here’s my sacrifice…..that’s the way I worship through music the best–just me, personally. But, I’m giving that up and going to baffling everything up and wearing in-ears. I don’t like it, but that’s just me being stupid. I honestly don’t care as long as we’re worshiping the Lord through music.
But my argument about acoustic sound has nothing to do with my stupid fascination for liking loud drums pumping behind me. It does have to do with how we can best glorify God and reach people through music, and how the very definition of music is moving air, moving soundwaves, real acoustics. Sound is felt by our ears, in essence. That is hearing.
Well, may the Lord keep you all.
And in the words of Jim Carrey, “Hey, Big Gulps, huh? Well, see ya later!”
Can I just say – I love Karl! The day after this email he ordered 2 sets of E3’s and 2 sets of E4’s and is currently researching amp & drum baffles.