Intentionality of Audio in a Worship Environment

Todd Hartmann Audio, Production, Worship Leader Blog Leave a Comment

If you’ve spent any length of time in the Church, you’ve likely observed that there exists a wide variety of worship styles—ranging from choral acapella, to guitar-driven anthem rock, to EDM—and nearly everything in between. Just think about that for a second. While angelic-sounding choirs echo through the halls of great cathedrals in Europe, another group of believers shout forth praises alongside electric guitars and thunderous drums in an urban United States gymnasium. Even as one congregation in the deep South accompanies a pipe organ to 150 year-old hymns, another one in Australia (time difference accounted for) is jumping for joy as they declare the relentless pursuit of their Savior. Each one is a valid expression of worship. And that, friends, is part of the beauty of the Body of Christ. Our unique cultural differences make up the elaborate mosaic that is the people of God.

As one might guess, with each culture comes unique environmental needs. What should the experience of the worshipper be? What do they need to hear and feel? What is the desired response we hope the person will have? In this post, we’ll be talking about the function of live audio in the worship environment and how an intentional approach can help support the culture you want to create.

Before we go any further, I believe it’s important to first take a look at what live audio is meant to accomplish on a fundamental level. Music is one of the few forms of communication that has the ability to invoke a deep emotional response, oftentimes even crossing language barriers. The effect music can have on a listener is a unique and profound one. We are compelled by it…moved by it…inspired by it. As Eric Olson once wrote, “music is what feelings sound like.” Audio is simply the medium by which music is conveyed. In light of this, for a song to have its intended effect, every aspect of its transmission from source to audience must be intentional.

It may seem obvious that different styles of music should have different sonic “signatures,” but unfortunately this is this rarely taken into consideration when choosing a setlist. Oftentimes the audio aspect of a worship culture comes as an afterthought, typically when leaders wonder why a particular song isn’t having the effect they imagined. Somewhere along the way, certain aspects of the song were lost in translation between source and listener. The question then becomes ‘how do we create a sonic environment where people can connect with God and respond to the truth being sung?’ While there is a myriad of possible solutions and case-specific scenarios, I’m going to leave you with three general concepts to consider.

First, the audio environment should be consistent with the desired worship culture. If the songs are intimate, soft, and filled with space that is intended to cause the listener to reflect on the words they’re singing, excessive low-end or an overbearing guitar will likely divert the worshiper’s attention from the intended goal. Instead, careful attention must be paid to maintaining the space between instruments and vocals, while sitting at a comfortable yet singable volume level. Nothing says “intimate and meditative” like 100dBA slamming you in the face. On the contrary, if the consistent trend of songs are intended to invoke a response of joy, excitement, and unbridled praise, a soft or wimpy-sounding mix will likely stifle the energy a song was meant to convey. Instead, try shooting for a more full, up-front sound (don’t be afraid to use low-end if you have it available) and you’ll be much closer to achieving the desired effect. If you’re curious and want to learn more about how different sound pressure levels and EQ affect the listener, you can read more about the subject here.

Second, the environment should be enveloping and distraction-free. One of the most common questions I receive concerning the audio culture of the Austin Stone is ‘why do the volume levels of your services more closely resemble those of a concert than a typical church service?’ The answer is simple: we want to create a distraction-free environment where people would cry out to God  without inhibition. That doesn’t have to mean loud, but it does need to envelop the listener.

Now, you might be thinking, “volume and distraction-free don’t really seem to go hand-in-hand, do they?” But Let’s unpack this for a minute. At a concert, the volume is not simply loud for loudness’ sake (in an ideal situation). It’s purpose is two-fold—to help you, the listener, hear all frequencies more evenly (see link above), and to focus your attention solely on the performance by eliminating distraction. When enough of a margin occurs between the ambient noise of the crowd and the sound of the performance, our brains eventually perceive that what’s coming out of the PA is the only thing happening in the room. In the same manner, when the volume levels are responsibly and safely used to drown out the distraction of the person next to you, your focus is drawn to the music. A person who is self-conscious about their neighbor hearing them, upon hearing their own voice fade into the background of the congregation, will more than likely feel the freedom to sing as loud as they want without fear of being heard. This is especially true for men in today’s culture, where stoicism and being emotionally unmoved are common false perceptions of masculinity .

Finally, the environment should be inspiring. As you create your sonic landscape, take great care to ensure that beauty in the lyrics or melody isn’t lost or crowded out. In fact, the elements that are the most response-invoking should be the ones that speak the loudest. You may have your kick drum dialed in to perfection, but be willing to tuck it back a little further if it helps a more crucial instrument come forward in the mix. Even in the heaviest of worship anthems, elements of beauty exist—whether in the subtleties of a turn, or the emotion-fueled shouts of a refrain that brings you to tears as you sing it. As you listen to a song, try to identify what part of it reaches out and grabs your heart. When you find it, do your best to carve out space for it. Whatever the style of your music, create something beautiful that inspires your people to worship. The beauty we experience in art points us to the Author of creative beauty .

Ultimately, it is the Spirit of God that stirs our hearts’ affections to worship Him, and not even the most talented band with the best-sounding mix can accomplish this apart from His actual presence being there. In this profound interaction between the Creator and the created, God Himself awakens tired souls to sing; all the while He satisfies and speaks life into His people by the very words we sing and hear. While there is no man-made formula to produce this, God can and does bless our preparation and efforts when our hearts’ motivation is to glorify and point to Christ. As we prepare, create, plan, and strive for excellence, we are worshiping the God who prepares, creates, plans, and does all things perfectly.

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Todd Hartmann

About Todd Hartmann

Todd has been a live audio engineer for the past 10 years, and currently serves as the Audio Engineering Coordinator for The Austin Stone.