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Streaming Priorities

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A popular topic I see come up on Facebook relates to streaming live services. A lot of people are looking for ways to improve them, and the current issues we’re facing with many churches shutting down due to the current virus concerns have made this an even bigger priority with many churches moving to online only services for a season.

I recently did a little survey looking for examples of churches who are currently streaming their services. I was looking for examples for a project I was working on, but the results were fantastic to hear because they revealed a lot to me about how churches can improve their streaming. So today I have three things in order of priority for you to look at if you’re trying to improve your online stream.

Priority 1. Improve Your Band

Talent and content are king for any type of performance or production situation. When I’ve been traveling to train churches on-site, most of the bands I come across these days are actually in pretty good shape or at least have plenty of potential that could be fulfilled with a little bit of direction.

So what do you really need from your band in practical terms?

It’s pretty simple: you need players with decent sounding instruments who play the right notes in tune and in time with each other.

You don’t need the greatest boutique instruments out there or session players out of Nashville. Those things don’t hurt, but let’s be practical here. Basic musicianship is everything, and I believe well within reach of most church musicians.

If your band can’t learn the songs well enough to play them off a basic chord chart, and can’t play them in time together, that should be your first priority. For most players with potential, I think it really comes down to practicing. Modern worship music is not exceedingly musically challenging which is great because we don’t need virtuoso players to pull it off. BUT the band still needs to put in the time to learn things and practice to the point where they can play things correctly.

I’ve been a musician for well over 20 years now performing at both amateur and professional levels, and–at least for me–playing an instrument is not like riding a bike. You have to keep playing to maintain your chops. The good news, though, is it’s called “PLAYING,” but I think sometimes the biggest obstacle is a mindset thing where musicians forget this. So a simple thing might be to just encourage your band to “play” at home and when they are in the band.

When it comes to sounds, with all the different virtual instruments around and patches available for keyboards and the various guitar amp simulators like the Helix, Kempers, and Axe FX, there’s no excuse anymore for poor tones. Decent stuff is well within reach. Sure, it will still take a bit of investment, but I spent way more on my first good amp 20+ years ago than an HX-Stomp costs today.

Then change your drum heads regularly, tune them properly, and put the mics in the right spot. This isn’t difficult, either, and there are plenty of YouTube videos that will teach you how. If you want an easy method for tuning drums, go check out stuff from Rob Brown.

Priority 2. Improve Your Mix

OK, guys, this is all on us. A lot of churches and engineers would greatly benefit from simply polishing up their fundamental mixing skills. Forget about all the fancy stuff some of us talk about like parallel compression and side-chaining and multi-band stuff for a bit. From what I hear, a lot of churches would benefit from simply getting a better overall mix balance.

By “mix balance”, I’m talking about the relative levels of everything in the mix. How loud are the guitars relative to the vocals relative to the drums relative to the keys relative to the backgrounds, etc, etc, etc.? Can you hear the featured elements in the songs when they’re supposed to be the feature?

This is square one stuff, but this is the biggest area where I hear most streaming mixes go off the rails. If you aren’t getting this right, you’re wasting your time on worrying about anything else.

Personally, I spend far more time on general balances when I’m mixing than anything else. Sure, the EQ and dynamics and effects and other bells and whistles make a difference, but my mixes live and die on what I’m doing maintaining that balance on the faders. If you stood next to me while I mix FOH you’d notice I rarely touch much outside of the faders during the actual event because it’s this balance that is king.

What’s a good way to get your balances in better shape? I have strategies I teach when I’m training, but you can start by just comparing your mixes with commercially released mixes. Listen to the balance in those mixes and compare them to yours, and adjust yours as needed.

If you really want to start moving your mixes forward, I’d love to chat, by the way. In addition to on-site training, I also do mix evaluations and coaching remotely. You can find out more by dropping me a line through my Contact page.

Priority 3. Master Your Mix

When you’re ready to take your mix online, you’re going to need to use some sort of mastering chain. Some folks might debate this, but I think it’s pretty necessary to some extent these days.

So what’s the point of mastering your mix?

First up is the overall tonal balance of your mix. I’ve written in the past about how our mix in a live room is often perceived with a different tonal balance when listened outside the room at quieter levels. Equalization can be used to rebalance the tonality of the overall mix so it matches the experience in the room when listened outside of the room. Not every mix requires this, but I’ve seen very few that don’t benefit from some EQ.

Next up are the dynamics of the mix. In a live setting we are often operating at a much wider dynamic range than what’s viable in a smaller environment like a family room where the streaming mix is being heard, and I seetwo sides to these dynamics. First up is the difference in levels between service elements such as speech and live music. In my experience, it is best to adjust these more globally using a matrix, groups, or post-fade Aux sends on the console to get the levels closer to each other.

Next up are the dynamics within each element. Personally, I like to use a lot of dynamic range in my FOH mixes because it’s the one environment I can mix in and get away with them. However, the 10-15 dB of range doesn’t always translate quite the way I wish it did. That awesome moment in the song where it comes way down and all you hear is the room singing can play as silence online. This is where some light mix compression can be helpful to both glue the mix together more as well as reduce the overall dynamic range.

Finally, it’s a good idea to use a limiter at the end of the chain to raise the overall level as needed while also protecting the output. YouTube uses loudness normalization around -13 LKFS/LUFS, and since that’s where most people consume streaming media it’s a level many are used to setting the volume on their listening device for. Your streaming platform of choice may provide some sort of loudness normalization, but I think it’s a best practice to get your mix as close as possible to prevent any additional downstream processing from affecting your mix more than you’d like. Many modern digital limiters will also raise the overall level for you as you adjust the threshold making them helpful in hitting your loudness target. Not sure what LUFS/LKFS are? I wrote a couple articles on that you can check out here.

Limiters are also important because one of the worst things you can do to a streaming mix is have “overs” or levels peaking beyond 0 dBFS. Even mixing right up to 0 dBFS isn’t the wisest idea because some codecs don’t play nice with these cranked levels. A limiter at the end to prevent peaks over -1 dBFS or so can help with the encoding for streaming, although, sometimes it’s safer to keep your true peaks 2 or 3 dB below that.

So how’s your stream working these days? Would you like some help getting it evaluated and/or improved? If so, I’d love to connect. Visit my Contact page and drop me a message.

David Stagl

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Streaming Priorities