The Hybrid Approach to Acoustics Instrument Reinforcement

Of all the various issues that generate the most questions from potential and current clients in the HOW markets, creating and managing the musical aspects of a service are definitely at the top of the list. It matters not whether it’s a simple guitar and piano accompaniment to a traditional service or a full-on praise-band with a top line high-energy evangelical style service — the same issues present themselves.

The two that seem to make the top-10 most often are: How do I achieve a balanced presentation? And second, how do I achieve a natural sound with enough volume to cover the congregation?

On the surface, those appear to be fairly straightforward issues that should have reasonably easy solutions — apparently! What is not obvious to the majority of HOW AV staff is a critical element of the equation — the worship space.

Every worship space will create a “room mix” of whatever sound is being generated within that space. This is a fact and there is nothing any hardware/software or technique can do to significantly alter what that mix is. The physical characteristics of the room create it and those are not likely to change so that sonic signature is your starting point for everything else that needs to happen for a quality experience and distortion-free music/voice and spoken word.

With that inherent mix as an established part of the acoustical environment, what remains for any AV staff is: How can they work with what already exists to achieve the best overall presentation of their specific service’s content? This means matching the needs of both the spoken word and musical content to their resources and finding the ever-elusive happy middle ground for both aspects of the service.

In previous articles, we have discussed the needs of the spoken word aspect of a worship service and the criticalness of getting and keeping a high speech intelligibility focus for that content.

However, it is often far more difficult for technical staff and volunteers to balance the musical content, especially when the facility contains large fixed musical sources such as a pipe organ or choir. Those elements are already a part of the mix in the room and what needs to be handled is the inserting the rest of the musical sources into the room mix and setting their inter-relationships.

Further, there is the overall balance between speech and musical content that must be established and carefully adjusted. In essence, no matter the worship style or complexity, it will require a large measure of the art of compromise since it’s unlikely that all the participants will get exactly what they need. The goal is not perfection, but a reasonable and — most importantly — consistent presentation.

To achieve that goal, one underutilized technique is that of hybrid microphoning. What that means is the combination of a direct feed (a direct box connection) from an instrument source such as an electric guitar, electrified acoustic guitar, keyboard of any type or similar source and a feed from a microphone placed at that instrument’s speaker/amplifier. (Direct boxes are often referred to as “DI” boxes. This stands for “Direct Injection” as their main purpose is to convert unbalanced and/or high impedance instrument signals into a format suitable for direct connection to a mixing console’s mic input – without the use of a microphone. More information is here.)

The idea is to reduce both size and amplifier volume on stage while still allowing the performer to keep the feel of the live amp, but get a clean and manageable signal into the sound system mixing console. By reducing stage volume, it is also possible to reduce bleed into vocal or other open microphones, improve overall acoustical comfort levels for all players, and reduce clutter and cabling as well.

Technically, it should be a win/win approach, but it does require some educating of the participants,. Most non-professional musicians are not used to this method and are not sure they will be able to get their sound with a smaller lower level amplifier for example. It’s usually necessary, in my experience, to sit down with all the musicians and discuss this idea before implementing it. Explain what you intend and allow the players to see and hear the results in a low-pressure, non-performance atmosphere so that they can become comfortable with the hardware and the techniques needed. Once that has been achieved you can put the idea to work and achieve the results needed with their full support- something that will go a long way to keeping everyone satisfied and working together.

If you haven’t tried this for your service, it’s worth an afternoon to experiment. If necessary, you can rent the needed gear to try the idea out before investing in a permanent setup. Consider this approach, especially if you have a limited stage space or need to reduce on-stage volume from amplified sources. It’s a proven and workable solution.