Hear Ye, Hear Ye: Advice on Mic’ing Christmas Productions
The audio quality of your Christmas production could depend upon mic’ing techniques. Matt Wentz, audio systems engineer at Willow Creek Community Church, reveals how to select and apply the right mics for Christmas events.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or so goes the old song. For the church tech, this can be one of the most stressful times. Of course, many churches offer a major Christmas production. But with Christmas falling on Sunday this year, other churches will want to ramp up their weekly services by adding more musicians. From an audio perspective, it may mean adding more mics, a larger board, or introducing more wireless systems.So what’s the best way to get ready for “mic’ing Christmas”? We spoke with Matt Wentz, audio systems engineer for the 7,200-seat main campus at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. He’s been with the church for 10 years and has been involved with the full range of productions at Willow, from major concerts and Christmas extravaganzas to The Global Leadership Summit produced by the Willow Creek Association. Through it all he’s worked through many challenges and has acquired a great deal of sound wisdom.Sound for a MegachurchLocated about 30 miles from the heart of Chicago, Willow Creek is listed among the largest churches in the U.S. It can run just over 25,000 in attendance on a weekend. And as you can imagine, audio is no small task. Willow’s main campus includes a number of Yamaha mixing consoles linked with Dante digital audio networking and 16 channels of Shure wireless. Wentz tells us that Christmas always has some additional elements but those items vary from year to year. “In the past, our Christmas productions have included everything from a 30-minute video or to more live music and various artistic elements.” He says that the church’s creative team comes up with the plan, and then the tech team comes together to support it. “Whether it's a dance, spoken word, or something like that, it all needs to be figured out.” At Willow Creek, Wentz’s specific focus is always getting the best sound, no matter what gets added to the mix. “We aren’t as concerned about hiding mics as we once were. We’ve favored getting the best sound by correct mic placement. So most of our actors are now on headset mics instead of lavs. We also try to get the correct mic and mic clips for strings, brass, percussion, so we can get the best sound,” Wentz adds.Like most churches, Willow Creek doesn't have a huge inventory of mics just laying around. Wentz says that renting is often the best option. “Renting equipment is a huge benefit to any church, large or small. It is a way more cost-effective use of resources. It might not be a great stewardship move for a church to purchase something that is used once or twice a year. Maybe the direction changes the next year, and that piece of equipment never gets used again.”He also warns that you need to do your homework on the rental company. “We always try to rent from reputable companies that we have longstanding relationships with, because we know that the companies maintain their gear and provide great service if something fails,” Wentz says. “We’ve been burned by the ‘save some money’ option. We’ve gotten bad gear and either chose to not use it or had to do some work to get it going.”Avoiding the PitfallsSo how does the Willow Creek team select additional mics? Just like everyone else who is on stage: practice. “We are constantly putting mics in different places or putting a vocalist in a different location on stage. Feedback is always a risk,” Wentz says. “But we do extensive testing and line checks before the actors, vocalists, [and] instrumentalists even get into the room. The FOH engineer tries to push the mics to the brink of feedback and then EQ as best as possible or know where the trouble frequencies might be. Then we have a pretty long sound check to dial in the mics with the actors, vocalist, or instrumentalists.”He also tells us that simply adding another wireless system to the mix may not be as easy as it sounds. “There is a challenge of coordinating frequencies. If you’re not familiar [with] how to do that, frequency coordination can get tricky when you go above two or three wireless systems.” This includes adding wireless instrument systems and in-ear monitor systems.Wentz says his go-to solution is Wireless Workbench from Shure: “This software allows you to enter the gear and frequencies that you have, and it will give you suggestions for adding frequencies. It can also let you know where interference may occur.”Sound AdviceThe best advice for Christmas prep from this Willow Creek veteran: “Don’t take on too many new things,” Wentz suggests. “Try not to go crazy in how much time you’re putting in. It’s easy to push too hard and get burned out.” He concludes, “The best way to stay fresh is to try and carve out time in your fourth-quarter schedule where you do nothing that’s Christmas-related. So don’t add new wireless, specialty microphones that you’ve never used, and rent a digital console in the same year. Try adding one of those things each year so you can really focus and figure out how it works best. Then you’ll be more successful.
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