Counterintuitive Singing

I recently saw yet another article written about how people aren’t singing in church’s as much these days. I think this is a complicated thing, and there are a lot of reasons why this phenomenon might be happening in some churches. However, I think the issue is often overblown and dramatized because it makes for good “sky is falling” type articles.

In my experience being in and out of churches for most of my life, I have rarely experienced an overly enthusiastic singing crowd on a Sunday morning. I’ve heard conference crowds really go for it and folks at nights of worship will really go for it, but on a typical Sunday morning where there is a mix of dedicated Jesus followers, casual Christians, and new people checking things out it has been a rare occurrence for me to hear a room really go for it. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’ve heard ’em sing for sure, but it’s rare that it’s this crazy, fervent singing I see some people like to wax poetic about. Maybe those churches exist, and they have a real issue right now with people not singing as much, but I haven’t been to one of those places.

People love to blame a million different things when they think nobody’s singing and there is probably some truth in many of those reasons, but I think a big part of it is it’s just weird for grownups to sing together. Seriously, nobody ever talks about this. Churches are the only gatherings where adults show up and are expected to sing together, and it’s just weird. Sure, I know people sing at concerts, but:

A. they don’t go into concerts with an expectation on them to sing and
B. they’re typically pretty big fans of the music at the concert to begin with.

Most average attenders aren’t going home during the week singing the songs they heard on Sunday. I’m sure some do, but they’re the minority.

Now, I’m not saying we should stop trying to have people sing together in churches. I think congregational singing can be an incredibly powerful thing for believers and non-believers to experience. Plus it’s also one of the few activities in most services where the entire room can actually do something and be a part of the service together. I think we should be doing whatever we can to create environments that makes it as easy and natural as possible for people to engage and sing in our services.

There are many different things that can contribute to why people sing, but I’d like to take the rest of this article to discuss some mixing strategies I’ve been using for the last couple of years to help facilitate singing in the room. These strategies might not work in your particular situation, but I think they’ve been working for us. Let me warn you up front, though, some of these are counterintuitive.

Strategy 1: Make the Band Louder

If I’m mixing an artist people are paying to see, I’m going to approach the mix in a way that showcases that artist in the best possible way. Worship music, however, is not about showcasing an artist or band. The trouble, though, is most of what gets talked about in terms of mixing music relates to artist and/or performance driven music, and it’s not the same as what we do on Sundays. Most of the music we mix music in a church service is Participation Music. That means the music should encourage people to take part, and the music should accompany everyone.

Now, I do believe that vocals should lead, but I don’t want them WAY on top where so many people put them. I believe vocals are the primary connection between an audience and the music so they need to be clear, and they need to be heard at all times. However, vocals are just a bridge to the larger picture of the music. The vocals are the connection point and a guide, but the instrumentation often holds a large proportion of the emotional power of the music that I believe drives people to engage.

This means I try and make as much space within the frequency spectrum for the vocals to live so I can turn the rest of the band up as loud as possible. Everybody in the room, whether on stage or in a seat, is ultimately singing along with the band, and that means the band should be heard in a strong fashion.

I will say, though, that if I’m going to err on one side with vocals in the mix, I’d rather err on the side of too much so they don’t get lost. However, my goal is really to get them sitting with the band and not above the band as much as possible.

Here’s an example of a new song we did last weekend called Trust It All. You can find the full song on our latest record, Hear, that releases June 9th. The clip here is from Sunday’s FOH mix so there’s a little bit of audience mixed in. When you listen, note how loud the instrumentation can be at times relative to the vocals especially in the chorus, but note that the clarity of the vocal remains throughout.

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One thing I’ll say about this strategy, though, is a lot of churches may be unable to pull it off because their church simply doesn’t want or won’t let their overall volume loud enough. There’s nothing wrong with this, though, so please don’t be discouraged. Turning things up louder than the people assembled can handle will NOT work towards getting them to engage which leads into my next strategy.

Strategy 2: Go Easy

It is not unusual for me to try and ease up volume over a bit of time in lieu of hitting it all right out of the gate. I ride my band a lot both as a full group and as individual instruments throughout mixing. Part of it is musical to make space for different things at different times and to highlight specific parts. However, part of it is simply to warm people up to the level we’re going to hit. I often pull the intro to the first song back a bit and ease it up by the time we hit the first chorus. This also helps bridge the gap between any welcome or announcements we might have had before we start singing.

Part of this also figures into my belief that people want to hear everyone else singing before they’ll start singing. Remember, it’s weird for grownups to sing together. One of the things that encourages them to sing, though, is to hear the other grownups in the room singing. It’s a crowd psychology thing.

That said, people don’t generally want to hear themselves as individuals so much in these situations, and they also don’t want to be able to hear the individual voices around them so much. This is one reason why we run at the overall volume levels we use. The overall level helps drown out individual voices, but if the crowd really engages you’ll hear it. To make this all happen can be a little tricky, though, because they need to hear themselves to begin with. So sometimes I’ll ride things down to get the larger group to engage.

For example, I might ride everything down a bit at times so the crowd can hear themselves a bit. Sometimes I might just pull the vocals down as close as I can put them to the audible level of the audience. Then when I start turning up the lead vocal and band, audience will usually lean in and sing louder.

Strategy 3: The Gang

This next strategy helps when I can’t get away with pulling things down a lot, but still want the impression that a lot of people are singing to help encourage the room. Big opening songs in the set often call for this type of approach.

Someone asked me at our Drive Conference why our backgrounds and harmony vocals aren’t louder in the mix, but I don’t feel like I did a good job answering at the time so here’s another way I can explain it. Clear and defined harmonies sound like a performance, and a performance doesn’t inspire participation if it’s not one of your favorite songs. Performances inspire listening.

When harmonies are showcased such as in songs like Because by the Beatles or Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles or just about anything by Queen, people can’t help but listen. It’s impressive. This may inspire worship of one nature or another, but I don’t think it inspires participation. Consciously or sub-consciously, most non-musicians think they’ll mess that all up if they start singing, so instead they keep their mouths shut.

What I often prefer to do is tuck the backgrounds a little more under and behind the lead vocal. The part(s) are still there so you get the richness and texture of the harmony, but the feel is more like a lot of people are singing. I’ll also employ vocal doubling techniques on the backgrounds–and even the lead(s) at times–to aid in this effort.

Sometimes I have to find a place in between, but for the most part I want to make all those vocals sound as close to the sound of a room singing as I possibly can which goes back to my last strategy. If people feel like there are a lot of people singing, I believe they are more likely to sing along. Nobody wants to be first to the party, but everyone wants to come to it.

I’m not sure this is the best example, but here’s a clip of the FOH mix from a newer song we did this past weekend called Love Come Down that you can also find on our latest record, Hear.

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Strategy 4: Spatial FX

Spatial FX are definitely one of the bigger strategies I use these days, and by spatial FX I’m talking about reverbs and delays. Spatial FX do a couple things for my vocals in my worship mixes.

First off, they push the vocals back. A dry vocal can sound like it’s right in your face in some rooms and on some PA’s. The problem is an in-your-face vocal feels like it’s singing at you. It’s like someone coming up to you and talking to you right in your face. It can definitely sound cool, but I don’t think it’s engaging. It can actually be a little intimidating. I don’t think people are inspired by someone singing at them, they’re inspired by someone singing with them. So I use reverbs and delays to put some comfortable distance between the vocal and the people out in the room.

Secondly, spatial FX help the vocals blend in better with the crowd and the room. As I mentioned in the last strategy, when I have a group of vocals on stage, I want them to sound as close to a room singing as I possibly can. That means wetting them down with reverb and even doubling them up a little to add more voices. It’s not unusual for me to use a LOT of reverb on my background vocals. This not only helps push them into the overall room, but it can also help differentiate them from the lead.

One thing I’ll say about this, though, is while I’m probably using more reverb in my worship mixes right now, I’m not trying to make it obvious. I want the effect that it brings, but I don’t want to call attention to it. This means most of the FX I use tend to be on the darker side which I find feels more natural for my tastes.

I’ll leave you with a video I posted late last year featuring a FOH mix from last summer where I employed some of these different strategies. I don’t use every strategy every time I mix, but these are things I’ve found that seem to help with engagement in our room. Just keep in mind there is a lot more to getting a room to engage in singing than just what we can do with the mix. I think you need the right songs and the right band to start, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing our part with the mix to help people engage.

David Stagl

2 Responses to “Counterintuitive Singing

  • Now that’s making it practical! I’ll be stealing some of this for our next mixing workshop.

    Rules of thumb for EQ and FX:

    EQ: To improve subtract. To change add.
    FX: Shouldn’t notice them but would miss them if they were gone.

  • My reply when asked why I constantly ride my mix, “The song moves and I never stop serving the song.”

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Counterintuitive Singing