Seeking Clarity

Growing up in a church with a small sound system, it was always shrouded in mystery. Feedback was a gremlin that showed up every few Sundays to wreak havoc and spread fear. EQ was something you twisted and turned until the vocalist didn’t sound like Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher.

Not all of us have the time, or the brain capacity, to fully understand all that’s involved, but I think we owe our churches more than a fleeting prayer that the sound won’t be a disaster this week. (More thoughts on that here!) So with that in mind, over the next few weeks I’ll be having professional engineers help explain various audio concepts.

To begin, I decided to quiz Jeremy Bayne on clarity!

On the most basic level, what is clarity?

Much like having a well lit stage, or a focused and crisp lyric projector, clarity lets us engage without straining, thus allowing us to focus our minds on the content of what is being sung or spoken instead of simply trying to understand what word is being said. Take for example a bird chirping – when you hear it you don’t wonder what it is. It’s always recognizable. It’s so clear that often you can even tell which bird might be producing the sound. That’s clarity.

What affects clarity?

On the most basic level, clarity is affected by system and channel EQs, reverb, and mic technique and placement. For instance, the smallest adjustments to mics on drums can change a drum sound from being flappy to thunderous. It’s typically lots of small errors that add up to cause problems with clarity.

When do you know you’ve achieved clarity?

When there’s intelligibility across the board. My goal is for the listener to be able to easily understand the pastor even when their eyes are closed or they’re following along in their bible to a scripture reading. For the band, I should be able to look at every single instrument and vocalist on the stage and hear each one as a clear singular item in the middle of the larger mix.

What are some suggestions for easy improvements to clarity?

Adjust channel EQs. The quickest improvement you can make is using a high pass on vocals to get rid of the unnecessary low-end, especially on female vocalists. Basically it can remove up to 250 Hz, though you have control of how far you take it. Typically older analog boards will have an auto high pass button, generally located at the top of the channel strip, that will take off up to 80 Hz automatically. On digital boards, there’s usually a high pass knob right by the gain knob. You can look at it and change it when you open the EQ window on the console.

Completely confused by Hz and EQs? Enlighten yourself with the help of these 7 system dwarves

Back off the reverb. You can have a big sound and still be clean! When mixing bands, one thing that makes clarity difficult to attain is all of the reverb that’s used. It makes sense to use reverb on the lead vocalists, but reverb on drums can be dangerous if you’re not a professional audio engineer. Keep it simple. Your first priority should be building a solid mix. Reverb is icing on the cake.

Fix your mic technique. Singers – I can’t stress this enough. Sing into the mic not over the mic. That is one of the biggest problems when it comes to vocal clarity. Drum mics should be aimed over the drumhead, not at the drumhead. Make sure your pastor’s mic is placed correctly and take the time to explain why it should be exactly there - he'll be less likely to absentmindedly move it.

We can’t recommend this article by Shure enough for helping you understand appropriate mic use and placement for a variety of instruments! 

We hope this helps de-mystify the concept of clarity. Try out some of the pointers this Sunday and let us know what you think!

What other audio concepts would you like to see explained?

Struggling with audio problems at your church? Baynepro can help!