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)
- “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/