Sound System Recommendations for Preaching
There’s one piece of technology that can get between the pastor and his congregation and either make or break the teaching time, and that’s the sound system. The pastor’s interface with the sound system is the microphone and the sound person. Now, as someone who has worked with many great technical ministry teams over the years, the last thing I’m going to tell pastors is that they need to tell the sound man how to set things up. Unless you have a background in worship arts and are well versed on the current technologies, likely this is an area you as the pastor should avoid putting your “two cents” in on. However, there are a few things that you can communicate to your sound person that will help him or her during the teaching time, and a few things to look for in a sound person.
Your teaching voice. No matter how small or large your worship center might be, the sound system should help you carry your voice to all seats without effort. Regardless of whether your teaching style is typically loud, if you feel your voice is strained each time you preach, or you frequently lose your voice after preaching (say, once a month or more), that’s an indication that you are not using the sound system properly, or you are straining your voice unnecessarily despite the sound system.
Just as a vocalist protects and conditions their voice, and an athlete conditions their body, your voice as an instrument must be maintained. Have a conversation with your sound person as to how you would like to sound to the congregation. You will sound very different in the pulpit than you do in the house, even in a very small room. A good exercise is to have the sound person record your preaching, then play it back for you, at that same volume, with you sitting in the back of the worship center. Think about how you sound and if you are communicating with a volume and intensity that is appropriate to the teaching.
Listen carefully to hear whether or not your voice sounds strained. A strained or tired voice communicates nervousness or being unprepared—so the tone of your voice can give off negative signals even if you are in fact confident and well prepared. You don’t want to be pushing your voice week after week.
You may want to consciously back off a bit, and let the sound system boost your voice into the farther seats. If you are prone to loud sections in your message, consider allowing your sound person to put a compressor/limiter on your microphone, which can help to keep your voice at an even volume, from a low whisper to an excited yell. Either way, it’s important for your sound person to know how you want to sound, and for you to know how you actually sound.
Your listeners. Not to be left out in this equation are your congregation. Not only does your opinion of your sound count, but theirs as well. If you frequently receive comments from parishioners that they cannot hear or understand you, this should be investigated. The investigation should not consist of calling the sound person and telling them to “fix it.” Rather, it should include questions to those listeners to determine if their issues are because of where they are sitting (poor sound setup or distribution), what they are hearing (poor sound quality or mix), or what you are saying (speaking too fast, too loudly, etc.). “I can’t hear” is like saying, “It’s dim.” Well, how dim is dim? Sound is subjective, so your congregation’s input is helpful. Is it too harsh? Too low? Not loud enough? Too echo-filled? Does it sound different depending on where you sit? Does the music sound good but the preaching not so much? All great questions that will lead you to a more accurate sound assessment.
Additionally, get a few trusted members to give feedback on your delivery style in terms of sound. Do they routinely find you too loud, hard to understand, talking too fast, talking too low? Never assume with sound issues that the sound person or system is the problem. You are also part of the equation. Several things could be at issue.
Your sound system. Even inexpensive sound systems today can produce good sound. There are many things you can save money on, but you’ll at least want to have a system that is good at vocal reproduction and invest in a high quality microphone. As I would put the proclamation of the Word above all other aspects of a worship service, I would advise a sound system that is first optimized for the preaching time, and then for the musical time. In other words, I would not compromise the sound during the preaching for an improvement in music. Most systems will handle both just fine, but it’s important, I think, to state the priorities to your team so that everyone is on the same page. If your voice is boomy and sharp because the system is set up to make the drums boomy and sharp—well, I think some compromise for the drums might be in order.
The kind of microphone you use has much to do with your quality of sound. The most popular mics today are the over-ear kind that hug your check and resemble a phone operator’s. In nearly every case I believe wearing a mic on your person is better than one attached to the pulpit, as they allow more freedom of movement. A pulpit mic will lose you a little even as you turn your head to see the eyes of congregation members seated to your left and right. A properly placed mic on your head is more consistent.
Keep in mind too, that your vocal sound actually goes up toward your forehead as it exits the mouth, versus straight out as you might think. This is why, in the high-end Broadway shows, you’ll often see the actors’ microphones hidden in their hair. That’s actually a good place to capture your voice. So a microphone at your cheek is going to grab better sound than one in front of you but below you.
Handheld microphones, such as those used by vocalists, have the advantage of a wider tonal range. So, if you want to get that belly-shaking deep bass in your voice, they’re the way to go. But you have to hold it during the entire sermon, which can be tedious and limiting. In most cases I would not recommend a handheld mic for the pastor.
With so many choices and options with respect to sound systems and mics, the best thing a pastor can do is clearly communicate what he is trying to deliver and accomplish with the message, and how he wants to be heard and perceived. If the sound person is a volunteer, spend a small amount to bring in an expert for recommendations. Most of all, listen to yourself from the congregation’s perspective so you’ll know what you actually sound like, versus what you think you sound like.
Your sound person. Finally, the person running your sound is very important. They must have two things in order to function well in that role, and if they lack one or the other, I would have a serious conversation with your team about their suitability for the role—because a bad sound person will absolutely ruin an otherwise great worship presentation.
First, they must have a good ear. They must be able to hear and discern sounds well. They probably don’t need to be the kind of person that plays their music at the highest volume, as that degrades their hearing and lessens their ability to mix good sound. Now, I like Bon Jovi and Usher as much as the next person, but if you can hear my car thumping from five blocks away as it approaches the church, I would think twice about putting me behind the sound board. The instrumentalists and your worship leader can help you know whether the sound person has a good ear.
Secondly, they must be calm and organized in the mix position. I believe this is among the most important characteristics for a sound person. They need to arrive early, have gear set up on time, and be prepared. They must know the order of service and hit cues properly. They must make the most of sound check time. They must be religious about checking all the cable connections, and changing batteries in the wireless microphones. They must listen well and take instruction and direction from the worship team. Humility is a key word. A sound person who thinks much of themselves or their talents and acts like a diva, or is disorganized, will drive everyone crazy. Find them another seat on the team.
Additionally, a sound person must remain calm when a crisis hits. When you are preaching and your microphone suddenly starts to feed back, the last thing you want to do is look back at the sound booth and see someone hopping around and frantic, like the building is about to burn down. Immediately your mind starts to wander. “Is it me? Did I step on something? Did the sound person adjust something?” you’re thinking. The point here is that your mind is now taken off what the Holy Spirit wants to communicate through you and onto this tangent. You must not have a sound person that, after initial setup, regularly causes you to consciously think about the sound.
Rather, you should be able to look back and see the sound person reacting calmly, fixing the issue and paying attention to you—even giving a “thumbs up” that they are aware of the issue and it will be corrected. The worst scenario is to look back and not see the sound person at all, as they set your mic and then went out in the lobby to take a break. Again, personal practice here, but since I believe the preaching time is the absolute most important time of the service, then as a sound person I want to be completely in tune with the preacher at all times, hand on his mic fader and listening to ensure all is at its best during the entire message. Anything less is unacceptable.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.