Planning the Practical – Set Preparation

I’ve played with a lot worship leaders and one of the experiences that I had will always stick with me as the pinnacle example of unpreparedness. I received a phone call 15 minutes before rehearsal asking if I could play; As we frantically set up the stage and started to dial in the monitor mix, I was running back and forth to the photocopier to grab the 15-20 charts that were printing for me there, most in the wrong keys. Of the 5 songs we practiced, only one of them made it into the set that was still being chosen in the green room as the service started. It was a stressful night, and all of this could have been avoided with some advanced planning.

While most large churches now are placing an emphasis on planning their sets, unfortunately, the above process still seems to be the standard cycle in small churches. Having these things sorted out ahead of time takes a lot of the stress out of the equation so you can focus on leading. Here’s some practical things that I do when leading a service that have helped prevent this type of situation.

Preparing the Set

Have your sets picked and setlists emailed to any musicians playing at least two days before your first rehearsal. If you only rehearse on Sunday right before service, have the set to everyone by Friday afternoon. This gives everyone a chance to learn any new songs.

My day job is software development, so I ended up rolling my own set planning software that spits out PDF charts to email, but many churches are using PCO for planning and distributing their services/sets. I also like to put together a Spotify playlist of the set and email a link to that as well.

I know many like the iPad/OpenSong rigs for stage. Personal opinion; I think they’re tacky. In every instance that I’ve seen them used, the musician tend to lock into staring at them and never look up, or worse, hide behind them.

Personally, I try to memorize as much of my set as possible and only use a paper setlist with song keys and cues noted. A confidence monitor is preferable as safety blanket and I have paper chord charts or lyrics sheets for others.

Know the songs and have solid arrangements before you rehearse with others. Play though the set top to bottom to make sure it’s going to flow. Nothing is more frustrating that working with a leader that doesn’t know where they’re going.

Plan Transitions

Equally as important to learning the songs is having a plan for the transitions between songs. Plan and practice any segues or cues ahead of time and have them noted in the order of service and on the music. Bad transitions will derail your set faster than mistakes.

Plan What You’re Going to Say

I’m not a public speaker. Put a guitar in my hands and let me sing, I’m fine, ask me to talk and I’ll make a fool of myself. I always knew it was bad, but until I saw a Facebook Live video of me dismissing a congregation after service. It was ugly.

Now, I make sure I have what I’m going to say planned out before I say it. Some people adopt the mindset that God only speaks through spontaneity. To that I say, “Your pastor studies and plans what he’s going to say, you can too.”

Communicate

Along with the set distribution, include any special information about the service and any rehearsal times. You may consider having a call time for rehearsals that is a earlier than the start time to give everyone time to set up.

Also, make sure you send a digital, proofread copy of the set to whoever is responsible for lyric projection as well. Frantically trying to type songs into ProPresenter five minutes before service is not fun. Send a set to the sound tech as well, (with an input list if you can). Everything goes more smoothly if they can pre-plan.

Do what you can to keep the folks on your production team happy. They can make or break your service; you want them on your side.

Pack Your Gear

There’s nothing more stressful than getting to a service and not having what you need. A couple days before I’m leading or before a rehearsal, I go through all of the equipment that I’m going to need to make sure it’s accounted for and and pack it up. Here’s a list of the common things that I toss in my bag.

Have anything that’s part of your preparation that we didn’t cover here? Drop it in the comments! Catch you next week to talk about some practical areas of service day preparation.

Using a Cut Capo

I don’t think that I can express how much I love the Kyser Short-Cut capo. I love it too much, using it way more than probably should. I just adore the full, open-tuning tones you can get.

Here’s the theory: the short-cut gives your guitar the essence of an open tuning when placed on the second fret by fretting only the 2nd through 4th strings. The advantage if has over an open tuning is that you don’t have to learn any alternate fingerings; the chord shapes from the key of D translate. However, there’s some alternate open shapes I really like, and I’ll detail them below. Be aware, since the Short-Cut will be on the second fret, playing D shapes will translate to the key of E.

A few months ago, I was installing new WiFi access points in our church the day before I was scheduled for Sunday worship. While terminating the patch panel, I sliced my fretting hand open on my Electrical Shears. Due to the simplified chords available with the Short-Cut, I was able to get through set without much pain.

Here’s a chart of the open voicings I use a lot, they’re a great getting started point:

One final tip; if you need to transpose up from E, you can make use of a standard capo and then place the Short-Cut two frets up from the standard capo.

Have any questions or tips, hit me up in the comments or social media.

Introducing New Songs

Last week we talked about establishing a baseline for evaluating new songs for inclusion in a worship set. Once the song has made it through the evaluation process, here’s some quick ideas for introducing a song to the congregation, with the end goal of allowing those in your church to worship without too much confusion or disconnection.

Strategically Place New Songs

I prefer to introduce new songs either as the second song, or the second-to-last song, depending on the type of song. For songs that are appropriate to start sets, placing the song second give those you’re leading a chance get settled in with a song they know before throwing something new at them. If you confuse them at the start of the set, they might not recover from it.

However, there’s a lot of songs that just don’t belong near the start of the set. I’ve heard a lot of worship leaders recommend placing those new songs at the end of the set. I’ve come to prefer placing them second-to-last. This allows those you are leading to end the set with something familiar; giving them a chance to re-connect before the set ends and not lead into the message with the discomfort of not knowing a song.

Introduce with Repetition

It’s common knowledge that we learn things by repetition. When introducing new songs, I employ two forms of repetition to aide in the learning process: song structure and set repetition.

The first time I ever lead a new song, I’ll build more repetition into the dong structure than I normally would, typically repeating the first verse and first chorus an extra time to increase familiarity with the melody and rhythm of those sections. If the song employs a bridge, I’ll run through repeat that as well. For any subsequent plays of the song, I’ll revert back to the normal structure.

I’ll also try to repeat the song for the next set I lead, and then keep it more frequent in the rotation for a few weeks.

Limit the Number of New Songs

I typically will limit the number of new songs in a set to one; I’ll push it to two occasionally, but only in very special cases. Anything more than that, and the people you’re leading are going to feel lost. Also, don’t introduce new songs in every set; give recently introduced songs a chance to breathe.

Feature New Songs in the Background Music

I saw a mention of this in a worship leading forum that I participate in, and it’s so simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. In the weeks prior to introducing a new song, put it in the pre-service background music rotation. While this isn’t a substitution for any of the other things listed above, it’s a great idea for raising familiarity.

Any ideas for introducing new songs? Drop them in the comments or hit me up on instagram. I’d love to hear your opinions on this!

As a heads up, I’m going to be taking next week off to catch up on some projects I’m working on form my church. See you on 8/8/18!

Selecting New Songs

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I select new songs for inclusion in a worship set. In the past my process was:

  1. Is is Popular?
  2. Yes?
  3. Do the Song.

This doesn’t fly with me anymore. I’ve been trying to distill an informal process that I’ve been putting new songs through into something tangible:

Are the Lyrics Theologically Sound?

I was having a conversation with my pastor and his wife about this topic after my last worship set and someone made the statement, “It’s amazing how much you can get away with saying when you set it to music.” There are some beautiful, singable songs that have some seriously questionable theology in them.

I’ve probably swung too far to the conservative side of this argument, so I’ve been bringing new songs to my wife, who has thorough knowledge of biblical theology, and we work through the theology together. If it passes muster, it goes moves on to the next tests.

Some songs don’t have any observable theology errors in them, but they just don’t say much of anything. What value is there in that?

I was discussing this with a worship leader friend and he made the following statement: “When we choose songs, we’re literally putting words in people’s mouths.” Do we want to put meaningless or unsound words into the mouths of those we lead?

Is It Singable?

There are songs I can’t sing. There are songs I can sing, but I know the majority of our congregation wouldn’t be able to.

There’s two quick criteria that I use to figure out the singability of a song:

Melody: Does the melody of the song cover a large vocal range, low to high? Just cause I can get those notes out doesn’t mean everyone can. If the range is narrow enough, you can drop the key of the song, but if it’s too wide, you’ll start pushing the melody too low to sing comfortably.

Phrasing: I heard a worship song recently that had run of 16th notes with a new syllable of the lyrics for every notes. Unless you’ve been taking auctioneer speed-talking training, you’re not going to get all those words out cleanly. A great test for this is the “whistle test”. Whistle the melody; if it’s hard to whistle, it’s going to be hard to sing.

I heard the following statement on a worship leading podcast that I’ve been listening to, and it really summed this up: “The voice of the congregation is the most important instrument in the room.” If your church can’t sing the songs you’ve selected, what’s the point of singing them?

Is It Memorable?

Music sticks with us. There are songs I recall from my early childhood that I now sing to my daughter. Conversely, there are songs I’ve forgotten before they’ve ended.

Memorable songs have have a way of popping back into our heads at random moments; and can stick with for years. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the details of any sermon I heard ten years ago, but I can very easily sing the chorus of most of the songs I was leading ten years ago.

However, just because a song is memorable, doesn’t mean it’s a good song. This further drives home the point of verifying the theology of the songs we sing.

Also, It’s a lot easier to sing along with songs you remember.

What makes a memorable song? Typically a great lyrical or melodic hook. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(music)

Can I Pull it Off?

There are songs I love that I’ll never do just because I can’t pull them off. There are styles that outside of my current ability, and I’ve come to be okay with that. I’ll play through a song a few times. If it’s not comfortable or stressed after a few playthroughs, it gets set aside. If I’m not comfortable playing a song, those I’m leading in worship will sense that and will be distracted or uncomfortable.

Is It Culturally Appropriate?

Jamal Hartwell of gospelmusicians.com has a great lesson where he discusses musical “memory banks” and how the music that we are familiar with connects with us. I love his gospel/neo-soul arrangements, but for the environment I’m in, the tritones, passing chords would distract from worship instead of enhancing. (Also, I can’t play his arrangements. No matter how hard I try, I sound like his “White Church” example. See “Can I Pull it Off” above.)

That’s my criteria for selecting songs. Even if you don’t agree with all my points, I’d encourage you to define your own standard to that you use to evaluate, just be sure that you have these criteria in place. Next week I’ll look at some thoughts on introducing songs to the congregation.

Cords and Cable Types

“I can’t wait for your article on cables”, my friend replied.

“You can’t be serious”

“No, honestly!”

Despite his reaction, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who’s going to be excited about cords and connectors, but you’ve got to know this stuff. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with technical details or impedance formulas; just the basics you need to get the job done.

As an example, let’s look at an instrument cable:

The common instrument cable is a shielded, two conductor, 1/4″ TS (tip and sleeve), unbalanced cable.

Okay, that sounds complicated, but stay with me. It’s pretty easy to understand when it’s broken down. Let’s break it down.

Shielded vs Unshielded:

There’s a lot of outside forces that attempt interfere with your signal. Radio frequency can leach into your instrument signal through the cable and will introduce noise. Shielding is a metal jacket that lives under the outer rubber jacket that surrounds the wires inside the cable to prevent the interference. Most instrument cables are shielded, speaker cables are not. With this in mind, (among other reasons) speaker cables should not be used as instrument cables.

Conductors:

The number of conductors indicates how many wires are inside the cable. If you cut open an instrument cable and through the shield, you’ll discover two plastic coated wires. Two wires are required to circuit, a signal wire and a ground wire, so an instrument cable can send one signal. The ground wire can be shared, so a three conductor cable can carry two signals (Think stereo – Left and Right Signals),

The connector (Plug or Jack):

The first thing in that list is the connector: ¼” refers to the width of the plug. The following connectors are common:

 

⅛” – Typically found on headphones and consumer devices. Casually referred to as an “Aux Cord”. Two or three conductors.

 

 

¼” – Typically found on instruments. Two or three conductors.

 

 

XLR – Typically found on microphones and DI Boxes (1) Three conductors.

 

 

RCA (Phono) – Typically found on recorders and playback devices, typically in a stereo pair. Two conductors.

 


Speakon  – Found on Unpowered Speakers

 

 

Still with me? Cool! Just a couple more to get through…

TS Vs. TRS

⅛” and ¼” cables come in two variants, Tip Sleeve (TS or Mono)  and Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS or Stereo). TS connectors work with two conductor cables and can send one unbalanced signal, and TRS connectors work with three conductor cables and can send two unbalanced signals or one balanced signal. You can differentiate between the two by counting the insulating rings on the tip of the connector (See above image). One insulating ring = TS, Two = TRS.

Balanced Vs Unbalanced

This one is more complicated. Simplified: unbalanced cables can pick up noise and hum across long distances and shouldn’t be longer than 20’. Balanced cables send an extra copy of the signal to prevent interference and can be run for hundreds of feet. XLR cables are the balanced cable of choice, but ¼” TRS cables are sometimes used as well.

Most analog instruments put out an unbalanced signal. If you need to run a long cable out of an unbalanced instrument you’ll need to convert it to a balanced signal using a direct box to convert the unbalanced signal to balanced. A ¼” to XLR cable should almost never be used as it can not convert the signal to balanced. (2)

There’s still discussion of gauge and impedance, but this should be enough to be confidently grab the right cable when you need one. Hit me up in the comments section or on your social media platform of choice if you have any questions.

  1. Until researching this article, I had know idea what XLR stood for. It’s Canon (X) Series, (L)ocking connector made with synthetic (R)ubber.
  2. Unless your instrument has a ¼” TRS Balanced output. Then, this cable is acceptable. The Taylor expression system pickups are the most notable example of this configuration.

Do Something Else

When my pastor first approached me about stepping back into ministry, he caught me off guard. My history as a worship leader and media director had preceded me, and I fully expected to the conversation to head in that direction. I wish I could remember the exact specifics, but it was along these lines:

I was wondering if you would consider praying about stepping into ministry…

…as an usher. I think that it would be a great opportunity for you to serve while getting to know and love people in our church. And “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…”

…oh, and if you wanted to pray about leading worship occasionally, that’s fine too…

…but really seek the Lord about ushering. I think that it would be a good fit.

I cringed inside.

I am emphatically not a social person. There was a time where I made sure I was 10 minutes late for church every week to guarantee that I would miss the “turn and greet” segment of the service. I’ve always been drawn to ministries that isolate. As a worship leader, was either on stage or back stage. As a media director, I was well hidden in tech booths.

We all know the often quoted passage:

…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Seems like I had managed to completely neglect the “meeting together” aspect of my faith, despite being front and center in the church.

I knew he was right; if I was going to minister at the church, I needed to love the people in the church. After loving God, this is the second greatest commandment. What do you do when you love someone? You interact with them, you get to know them, you be a part of their life. It’s hard to do that when you’re separated by a physical wall.

After praying about it, I let him know to put me on the usher schedule.

I’ll be honest, I still get nervous in the days leading up to my scheduled weeks, but I think this role has been one of the most fruitful areas I have ever served in; it never fails that I leave those services more encourage than any other time.

Here’s what I would encourage you to do; take one service a month to serve in another boots-on-the-ground, face to face with people ministry. Serve as an usher or help at the info table; take orders at the coffee bar or help with children’s ministry check in. Get to know people in your church, love them, be a part of their lives.

Why is this important?

Trustworthiness: If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to follow them, would you do it? Okay, some of you might depending on the circumstances, but most wouldn’t. Every Sunday, you’re asking people to follow you as you lead them in worship. Have you given the people you’re leading a reason to trust that you’re not going to lead them the wrong direction? If you don’t give anyone an opportunity to know you, it’s going to be hard to earn any trust.

Humility: The unspoken reality of most of us worship leaders is that we all could be taken down a couple of notches. Being a musician on a platform tends to feed all the wrong parts of our self worth. Are you willing to regularly serve in an area of your church that isn’t glamorous or visible? If not, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your motives as a worship leader.

Leadership: This really is the other side of the humility coin. From an outside perspective, there’s a lot of glamour in leading worship. You have a platform, and from it you get to be a “Cool Musician”™. By serving in other parts of the church, you have an amazing opportunity to practically demonstrate that less visible areas of service are just as valuable.

“But, if I don’t lead worship, there’s nobody else who can.” Sure, I get this is the reality of most small churches. However, leading worship for every service your church has is not healthy. You need breaks, you need perspective. Use this an an opportunity to train up another worship leader from your congregation or reach out to like-minded worship leaders in your community to arrange for coverage.

I know this makes a lot of us uncomfortable, but there’s no growth without discomfort. Put down your guitar, spend some time in prayer, and then work a vitally important part of your craft that is often completely ignored.

A Guitarist’s Guide to Surviving the Bass

Bass players always seem to be in short supply. There’s not a lot of glamor in mostly playing one note at a time, and bass solos are seldom appreciated.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on bass for a worship night at a church where a friend leads worship. While I’m not an amazing bass player, I’ve really come to look forward to the opportunities I get to play bass. I’ve come up with a few strategies that have really helped me move from just surviving the bass to playing it confidently.

Bass is a “One Note at a Time” Instrument

Unless you’re Victor Wooten, you’re only going to be playing one note at a time. No chords, period. Additionally, to get the cleanest tone out of the bass, all of the other stings of the bass should be muted with your hands to prevent sympathetic resonance. Without muting the strings, the bass will sound muddy and undefined.

When I was in the School of Worship, one of the most valuable instrument techniques I learned was from a bass lab that was taught by Gordon Rustvold. He employs an unusual method of muting the lower strings using his thumb on his right hand, sliding it up and down as needed. You can see an example of this in this video. Then mute the higher strings with your fretting hand.

This Pattern Will Get You Through Most Songs

 

I’m planning on talking about Nashville Numbers in the future, but here’s a quick rundown. In the major scale, each note is assigned a number. Based on the key of the song and the number you can work out the chord. The table below indicates the type of chord for each number and gives an key of C example of the system. Most simple songs make use of the 1, 4, 5, 6. Knowing how this translates in each key is useful for translating this pattern to the chord chart in front of you. I’ve marked 3 and 7 as passing chords. 90% of the time, you’ll use these as passing notes into the next note in the scale (7 to 1, 3 to 4). Additionally, I’ve marked these notes with the alternative inversions that are more commonly in worship songs.

 

Nashville Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Chord type (major key) Major

Root

Minor Minor

Pass

Major Major Minor Diminished

Pass

Example – Key of C C Dm Em

C/E*

F G Am Bdim

G/B*

* Indicates alternate inversion

Know what chords pertain to each number in each key. Know where these numbers fall in the pattern. When this is second nature, all you need to know is the root note and you can track with most songs.

Use Pitch to Simulate Dynamics

Bass sounds best when it’s consistently present. With this in mind, most sound techs will compress it quite a bit, killing most of the volume dynamics of the instrument. You can simulate dynamics by playing in higher octaves for softer parts of the song and lower octaves for louder parts of the song.

Neck Position Affects Tone

I’ve found it easier to get a consistent, warm tone by playing up around the 5th fret. When possible, I try to stay up in that range.

Follow the Kick

The kick drum sets the pulse of the song. While you don’t need to play a note with every kick, it usually makes a great starting point for the rhythmic elements of your playing.

Be Confident in the Changes

The Bass really should be only melodic instrument that occupies the low frequency, or your mix will sound muddy (1). However, when this is applied, if you make a mistake, miss a note, or arrive late, there’s nothing that going to cover it up. Know where you’re going and get there in time or it’s going to stand out.

Getting to the Note is Just as Important as Being There

After proper muting technique, this tip as made the most impact in my playing. The sure sign of a insecure bass player is the transitions between the notes. Unless it’s for rhythmic effect, try to eliminate gaps between the notes you’re playing. If you’re staying on the same string, slide into note. If you’re changing strings mute the previous note at the same moment you play the next note. Clean transitions are secret to sounding confident; know where you’re going and have a plan for getting there.

Have any bass tips for me? Leave them in the comments!

  1. Keyboardists, leave room room in the low end. Anything you add down there will just make the low end sound muddy. I made this mistake for years. Don’t be like me… Now, I’ll even highpass my pads and synths to leave room down there.

Tune Your Guitar

Tune Your Guitar

This is the musical equivalent to having to tell someone to wear deodorant. There’s no way to say it that isn’t awkward.

You need to tune your guitar.

There, I said it.

Maybe you never learned… Maybe you know something is off, but have no idea how to fix it… Maybe it sounds okay to you (but not to everyone else)… Maybe you have an aversion to blinking red and green lights…

Regardless, you need to tune.

Okay, the awkward part is over. Let’s talk about what we need to do to get this done.

Step 1: Invest In a Quality Tuner

Oh, it’s going to get awkward again.

Yes, you can tune by ear. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to play with a by-ear tuner that had anywhere as good an ear for tuning as they thought. A computer will always beat your ear. Tuning by ear should be be reserved for emergencies only.

I’m a big fan of the Boss TU-2 (now TU-3) pedal tuner. In addition to using as a tuner, it’s also a really convenient mute switch and great for getting your guitar unplugged at the end of the set if your sound tech isn’t paying attention.*

Make sure you pick up a power supply for your tuner. I’m willing to risk a 9V battery for a couple hours, but anything longer than that, it gets plugged in to power.

*As an aside, don’t leave your guitar plugged in when you put it on a stand. You’ll kill the battery in the guitar and will stress the cable. Mute with your tuner, pull the cable and hang it on the height adjustment knob on your mic stand.

Step 2: Plug Your Guitar Into the Tuner

While we’re discussing awkward things, let’s just get all this out in the open.

You really should have an undersaddle pickup in your guitar (sound hole pickups don’t sound great). Miking a guitar should be reserved for emergencies unless you have a really good reason; it’s too hard to get consistent tone and level with a mic. Undersaddle pickups can be purchased and installed for around $250. I like Fishman, but I’m not dogmatic. Consult with your local, reputable guitar repair shop or luthier.

Because you have a pickup in your guitar, plug that guitar into the tuner and then plug the tuner into the DI. Leave that tuner in line until you’re ready to pack up.

Step 3: Tune the Guitar

Know the names of each note for each sting before you attempt this. I once watched a worship leader break not one, but two guitar string because he just kept cranking the tuning pegs up and up until, trying to get a green light, without paying attention to the note readout.

E A D G B E

Commit that to memory. Also, know what your tuner does to designate sharps/flats. The TU-2 displays a small dot next to the note to indicate the note is a sharp. Don’t make the mistake of tuning to a sharp.

Start with the low E and work your way to the higher strings. Play each note and give it a second to settle in. Pay attention to the note display on your tuner to make sure you’re at the correct note for the string. If the light is to the left, the note is flat, to the right, it’s sharp. Shoot for the green light in the center.

Always tune up. if the string is sharp, tune down until you’re slightly flat and then tune up until the string is in tune.

Once you have tuned all the strings, start at low E and check them all again one more time. As you progress through the running process, it can cause the previously tuned strings to go a tiny bit flat.

Play a chord and check it by ear. If it sounds good, you’re all set.

See, that wasn’t too bad.

Good talk.

My Tuner Died, What Should I Do?

Have a smartphone? There’s great tuner apps that will get you out of a bind. I’ve use Guitar Toolkit on the iPhone and GuitarTuna on Android.

… but my phone is dead too!

Seriously?

Okay.

Fine.

I say this under great protest.

Tune by ear.

If you have a pianist, have them play each guitar note and tune to that. I find it helpful for them to play the root note and an octave up simultaneously. Then use the 55545 method to make sure the guitar is in tune with itself.

Buying a Microphone

At the time I accepted the invitation to lead worship at an acquaintance’s wedding, he told me that there would be sound equipment at the wedding chapel that I could use. All I had to do was show up with a guitar. Great! That simplifies things…

The first sign of trouble was the green, spit-bleached foam windscreen cover on the Samson SM58 knockoff. “I can take that off,” I thought to myself as I set up my guitar stand. After giving a copy of the set to the pianist, I finished setting up got a closer look. Embedded in the grill of the mic was dried bits of food.

I was literally singing into someone’s pre-chewed salad.

I stood so far away from that mic, not using it would have been equally effective.

“This must never happen again,” I thought to myself. When I got home that night, I went online and ordered a mic.

Sharing a mic can be almost as bad as sharing a toothbrush. A few of the more thoughtful churches I’ve visited have cleaned shared mics after each service with telephone disinfecting wipes. This is better than nothing, but there’s still a lot of gunk that gets absorbed by the foam behind the metal grill.

Hygiene aside, you may want to consider buying your own mic because you prefer the way it sounds to what is provided. Most churches I’ve visited provide something akin to the Shure SM58, a legendary mic, to be sure, but I’ve always found it dull and uninspiring.

A few notes on mic technology: Most mics are one of two flavors, Dynamic or Condenser. Shure has a great technical write up on the differences, but here’s my thought on the differences in three sentences. Dynamic mics are cheap and sturdy, but have a duller sound quality. Condenser mics are expensive and fragile, but sound more open and sparkly. Condenser mics also require the soundboard to send them power (called phantom power), and will not work if the soundboard can’t provide this power (unless you have an external power supply). This really isn’t as concerning as it sounds as almost all soundboards made in the 20 years have phantom power built in, but it’s worth noting.

Here’s a few of the choices that I have experience with and can recommend, and I’ve listed an alternative in each class that are worth a look too.

Shure SM58

Type: Dynamic
Street Price: ~$100

The Shure SM58 is the industry standard microphone. It’s the Honda Civic of Mics; It’s cheap, indestructible, and doesn’t sound bad. It’s a great first mic. Also, I’d consider this the minimum standard of mic to purchase, don’t bother buying anything less. Beware, the SM58 is the most counterfeited mic in the industry (yes, people make fake mics); only buy from a authorized Shure dealer or you may end up with a low quality knockoff.

Alternative: Sennheiser e835


Shure SM86/Beta 87

Type: Condenser
Street Price: SM86: $180, Beta 87:$250

These are the Cadillacs of the mic world. The Beta 87 might be the second most common mic that I’ve seen in churches, and it was my first introduction to stage condenser mics. I noticed the difference with the first note I sang into it; the mic had a open, shimmery, studio-esque quality to it. I knew I’d never go back to a dynamic mic. That said, I wouldn’t buy one because…

…the SM86 is, in my opinion, Shure’s best kept secret. It’s the lower cost SM version of the Beta 87 and it sounds just as good to my ear, for ~$70 less than the Beta.

Alternative: Heil PR 35 (Note: Dynamic Mic)


Neumann KMS 105

Type: Condenser
Street Price:  ~$700

This is the BMW 7 series of Mics. German engineered, super expensive, probably more mic than anyone needs. I had used Neumann mics in the studio and based on that experience, when I was choosing a mic for myself, their stage mic was at the top of my list. I didn’t have a wife and kids back then and I was leading worship a few days a week, so a $700 mic somehow seemed perfectly reasonable (how things change!). If you’ve got the expendable income, this mic is, in my opinion, unrivaled, but if I had to replace mine now, I’d probably get the SM86 for the best price-to-value ratio.

Alternative: Shure KSM9

Using Pad Loops in Live Worship

The reality of leading worship for a small congregation is that, unless you have an exceptionally musically inclined group, you’re typically not playing with a band. If you lead from a guitar, it can feel a little empty. There’s nothing wrong with this, but a simple tasteful way fill some of the gaps is the use of Ambient Worship Pads.

Pads in Theory

Ambient Pads or Drones take the place that would typically be filled by a keyboardist or an electric guitar player by creating a subtle texture underneath the song. Unlike more structured loops, they have no rhythmic elements or structure and work under any chord in the family of the selected key, so you don’t need an in-ear monitor system to play to a click. Play the file for the key the song is in, and the pads fill in the gaps.

Pads In Practice

I first purchased a set of these pads and experimented with them at a marriage conference before my hiatus. I found them very effective, but when I started leading again, I didn’t want to ease back into it without pulling out all the stops right out of the gate. This last Sunday, I got brave, precariously balanced my laptop on a music stand, and gave it a go again. It looked ridiculous, but it got the job done for a first attempt.

Using the pads filled in gaps and glued the songs and the set together; I felt more free to play less, knowing the pads would carry the simple or quiet parts. The unexpected reaction was most surprising; I noticed that our congregation was singing louder than I have noticed in the past. I believe that this might be attributed to the fact that the pads I used sat in the same frequency range as the human voice, lending a feeling of fullness in that range. I think that gave the congregants and the confidence to sing without feeling like they might stand out or distract those around them.

Setting Up Ableton Live

Triggering pads for playback during a set is actually more difficult than I expected. I thought I had simple requirements:

  • Playback of a File Starts with a Computer Key or MIDI Note Trigger
  • Ability to Define Multiple Start Triggers to Start a file that Corresponds with the Key of the Song
  • Playback Starts with a Fade In
  • Playback of Any FIle is Stopped with One Specific Computer Key or Midi Note Trigger
  • Playback Ends with a Fade Out

Ableton Live is typically my go-to for this type of application; the intro version of the software is only $99 and it’s very easy to assign playback of files in the session view to computer keys or MIDI events. However, for a application that excels in live performance, ending a the playback of an audio file with a fade out is surprisingly difficult. It’s easy to trigger the audio files as clips in the session view, but struggled to find a way to stop them with a fade out until I found an explanation on a forum(1)  that advised some clever routing and use of dummy clips.

I have two audio tracks in Ableton. In the session view, I drop the pad audio files into the clip slots on track one. Track one is routed to track two instead of master. In each of the clip slots on track two set to Monitor In, and on each of its clip slots except for one at the end, there is an empty audio clip that only contains a fade in automation. Then, when a scene is triggered, the audio clip in track one starts playing, and the automation clip in track two fades the file in. In my very last scene there is no audio or stop button in track one, and track two only contains an empty dummy clip that fades out the playback. Then, each of my scenes are set up to be triggered by either a computer key or MIDI event.

In place of Ableton Live, there are iPad apps that can perform the same function. I had used WT Director for aforementioned marriage conference, but it looks like the app hasn’t been updated in years.

My next goal is to replace the laptop-on-music-stand hacked together rig with a small Ableton controller like the Novation Launchpad Mini.

Where to Get the Pads

There’s several worship resource sites that sell packs of pads, typically a pack will contain a file for each key in the chromatic scale. That said, I wasn’t very enthused about what I found out there; most of the pads I found were just a few notes held down on a synth for 20 minutes. That’s fine, but I wanted something with more texture and a more organic sound, so I recorded my own, based on electric guitar swells. You can download my pad set of all 12 keys for free.

Of note: pad loops are are designed to work in major keys, however when playing in minor keys, typically the pad loop for the relative major will work. (2)

  1. http://loopcommunity.com/blocks/software/ableton/fading-out-loops-in-ableton-live-9
  2. “Each minor tonality has a relative major. This major relative is located a tone and a half above the minor tonality. For example, one tone and a half above A is C. Therefore, the relative major of A minor is C major.” http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/relative-minor-major/