13 Feb 2014

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If you’ve executed any sort of musical art on stage, you’ve certainly experienced the stress, anxiety, and utter panic that is induced by things not going as planned.

Whether it’s a pianist who’s started a song in the wrong key, a guitarist who’s broken an essential string for the upcoming solo, a vocalist who just can’t seem to remember the words or the melody, a band that has deviated from the track or loop, or one of a million other things that can quickly take a well planned element and shatter it into a million awkward pieces; disaster always seems to lurk a mere measure away at any moment. It’s not a matter of IF; it’s WHEN it will all hit the fan. You can’t prevent every mistake, but there are some ways that we’ve learned to minimize the fallout of potential catastrophe’s. Here are a couple…

  1. TALK-BACK MIC’S
    • This has probably been the the single most helpful tool we’ve added to our musical arsenal. We always have at least one person on stage with a microphone that only the people on stage can hear; sometimes two. The two types of setups that we’ll use include (1) a wired microphone on a mic stand in front of a band leader, and/or (2) a lapel mic that a worship leader will physically clip to their shirt. The amount of times this has prevented disaster are too many to count. We no longer have to rely on awkward “musician’s eye contact” to get everyone back on the same page when they may be going in different directions. It takes time and training to know what is helpful to say and when it’s helpful to say it, but it’s well worth the effort. Our team can’t imagine not having this tool at our disposal now. Not only does it allow us to stave off musical doom, but it has actually allowed us to increase the excellence of what we do. The confidence this little tool instills in our team is immeasurable; everyone knows that if something goes wrong, we’ll all be guided back to the same page.
  2. BAND CUES (plus MIDI Control)
    • We use a program called Ableton Live to run all of our musical tracks/loops, and our “clicks” (metronome) that hold us together. I’m a huge advocate of using loops and tracks in our worship sets; I could spend a lot of time in this post explaining why, but I can’t say it any better than Matt McCoy, worship leader and founder of Loop Community (Warning: We use that site A LOT. Many links to follow). Check out his words if you get a chance. But, with tracks and loops comes the added risk of the band getting out of sync with them, and that’s bad…bad…bad. BAD. So, we typically add “cues” to our tracks/loops that only the people on stage can hear. They’re giving very literal, spoken instructions, like “verse…1, 2, 3, 4…” or “build it up, breakdown, outro, end, etc…”. If someone on stage doesn’t know where they’re at, they can find their way home using the band cues to light their way. We use band cues that were already pre-built for Ableton by Loop Community. You can find them HERE, as well as incredibly helpful training and resources on using tracks/loops and music software in general (follow the link above). And, if things do go horribly wrong, we’ve got the talk-back mic’s (see item 1) to help!
    • I want to briefly touch on MIDI Control because it’s been another invaluable tool in our arsenal. But, there’s just no possible way to get into the mechanics of MIDI in this single post, and the learning curve is initially steep; so here’s a LINK that will be helpful for the curious. Suffice it to say, if the band does deviate from a track/loop/click, or if something else goes terribly wrong, we’ve got the capability to start, stop, restart, jump to any point, and generally control every aspect of the computer running those elements remotely if we need to. There are a lot of tools that you can use to accomplish this; we currently use two: (1) the Alesis Percpad, which we position next to our drummer for basic functionality, and the (2) Looptimus Foot Controller, which we position next to a worship leader for detailed functionality. The possible uses of MIDI in your worship services are endless; I’ve simply described a couple of the ones we use. I would say it’s well worth the effort to learn how MIDI might be useful to you.
  3. BE PREPARED…AND THEN SOME!
    • Preparation is a non-negotiable when it comes to playing music on our stage. We expect everyone to know every aspect of what they’re doing and when they should do it. But, there should be at least one person on stage who knows EVERY ASPECT of EVERYTHING that’s happening in your worship experience. These will be the people who will not only know when something goes wrong, but will then know exactly how to fix it so that it doesn’t happen again. Without this, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes.

It’s impossible to predict everything that can and will go wrong on your stage, but the more you can do ahead of time to minimize the fallout of mistakes will not only save the moment, but will instill long-term confidence and trust in your team and your congregation. Doing what we can to ensure that everything goes as well as possible in our worship services honors our churches, and it honors God Himself. I can’t think of two better reasons to justify putting in as much effort as we can to problem solve before the problems arise.

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8 comments on “When Musical Disaster Strikes On Stage…
  1. Anthony

    I’d love it if you could please explain a bit more about the talk-back mic. What do you use to trigger when you’re talking to the band “in their ear” versus publicly?

    • Trace Rorie

      Good question, Anthony. There are a couple of scenarios:

      (a) a member of the band has a wired mic on a stand. This mic is live (unmuted) at all times in the bands ears and not broadcast to the house. You’d be surprised at how little stage noise this mic actually pics up, especially if it’s a dynamic microphone like a vocalist would use. When the band leader needs to give instructions, they’ll just speak into it. When they’re not using it, they just keep their distance from it.

      (b) A worship leader and/or band leader will wear a lapel mic on their shirt that is live at all times. You might again think that this would pick up too much ambient noise, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. It doesn’t pick up that much, though. So, if a worship leader needs to give instructions to the band, they simply step away from their vocal mic and speak to the band from anywhere on the stage since the lapel mic is wireless. With a lapel mic, you do have to be careful about getting too close to louder instruments on the stage (drums, guitar amps, etc…) though, because it will definitely pick them up.

      So, there’s no switching involved, although I don’t see why that couldn’t be an option with the right mute/unmute switch. Hope that’s helpful!

      • Anthony

        That’s immensely helpful! Thanks, Trace.

  2. Caleb Towler

    Hi there, Can you please help with the on stage cue mic.. How would i go about rigging one of these mics up? Cheers

    • Trace Rorie

      Good question, Caleb. I’ve seen it done a few ways, none of which are necessarily the “right” way. All of the below options operate under the same principle, though: A microphone that can be mixed into the “ears” of the people on stage but isn’t broadcast to the house. It would essentially exist on its own channel so you can be flexible with how it’s mixed. So, here are some options…

      (1) A wireless lapel mic with receiver pack in your pocket. This is probably the least accessible way to do it as it requires purchasing some extra equipment. There are a lot of different options out there, but something like THIS would work. We use the mic that clips onto your clothing, but I suppose you could use the headset if you’re looking to make a fashion statement! What’s good about this option is that it’s mobile; especially helpful if a worship leader is wearing it. When I’m using it and need to talk to those on stage, I can back away from my vocal mic and speak right to the artists. Then, I can step back up and keep singing into my vocal mic. It’s on 100% of the time. The one downside of this option is that you’ll pick up a fair amount of ambient noise, especially if you get in close proximity to anything making noise on stage (drums, guitar amps, etc…)

      (2) A wired microphone on a stand. This is a great option if you have the luxury of a “band leader” on stage. If someone in your band, perhaps your keyboardist, knows the form and flow of your set well, then this person can keep the microphone close to them and talk to the band at will. If they’re not singing, then they don’t have to worry about ever backing away from the microphone. This option is easier to implement because many more churches already have microphones, stands, and the ability to place it on its own channel with a mixing console. You’ll also pick up less ambient noise with a standard vocal microphone since they’re built for that. One extra option you can implement into this setup is a “mute” switch. Then you’ve got the ability to mute the microphone when you’re not using it. Something like THIS.

      Lastly, if you’re wanting a bit more practical information on how to rig it up, I found a helpful conversation happening over in the forums and SoundProWeb.com. If that still doesn’t help you, hit me up again and I’ll get you in contact with some of our tech guys; they’ll be much better at describing the setup to you than I.

      Rock & Roll

      • Caleb Towler

        Wicked answer! I took the role of band leader at church on sunday (my week off from worship leading). Set up a wired mic and ran it through our teams ears. WOW! it worked awesome. No going back from here! Thanks Trace

        • Trace Rorie

          Awesome! Good to hear, man. If you ever discover any best practices or new solutions, I’d love to hear them.

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