Hi! My name is Reid Wall. I’ve been part of the Hillsong team since 2005. These days I am responsible for live audio/lighting/video in our Queensland & Northern Territory Campuses in Australia.
Over the years, a mantra in our team has been that we “serve the service”. This basically means we prioritise the elements that most impact the experience of people coming to church (I’ve written about some of these priorities in another blog here). Often, this requires putting emphasis on supporting our platform team who are responsible for leading the service.
Occasionally I am the person on the other side of a microphone – with the responsibility of speaking to a team of people – the one leading the meeting. I always find myself hopeful that the teams around me will be ‘with me’, and so grateful for everyone playing their part to help me deliver a message. Teaching God’s Word is of supreme importance in our weekend services, and the person responsible for carrying that segment really does have a lot on their shoulders. While handheld mics are a robust solution, sometimes the speaker needs their hands free to best teach God’s word. Here are some ideas we to put in practice to ensure the headset mics adds value to the service.
Let’s begin by considering some prerequisites to success:
– A great sounding headset mic
– A PA system that gives us the required volume without feedback
– Room acoustics that give the needed clarity
– A sound team with the skill set to make a headset mic sound great in the PA System
– Production team leadership with capacity to spend time before and during the service ensuring the microphone is fitted properly.
Before we make a headset mic an option for one of our campuses, we need to ensure the above pre-requisites have been met. Otherwise, it won’t help our pastor communicate to the congregation. Additionally, I find we need a comms system that enables the production team to clearly communicate if challenges arise with the headset mic. In some instances, a solution that doesn’t look as nice really is the only option to mitigate challenges mentioned within our prerequisites.
1. Choose the right headset!
The classic first rule of live sound certainly applies to this topic…
If you want something to sound good, you must correctly position the right microphone in front of a source that sounds good.
Let’s unpack that a little bit. The very first thing I’m looking at when choosing a headset mic is a reliable headband. This is a mechanical prerequisite before it’s a sonic prerequisite. Over the years I’ve heard some great sounding microphones, with a headband that left me without confidence that the capsule will stay where I want it. Rent or demo a few options before you buy something. The preacher will be wearing it for a while, so it needs to be comfortable. Depending on the unit, you may need a few different size headbands to go with the actual capsule. If a headset mic doesn’t fit properly, it simply won’t stay put. Personally, I am not a fan of ‘single ear’ headbands. I always use a dual ear option.
After the headband, the microphone capsule is next. A wide variety of manufacturers make microphones designed for various applications. In most applications, we end up with an omnidirectional capsule. Cardioid options will give us increased gain before feedback but will almost always need a large pop filter to go with them. There are a few options of larger headsets mics, that behave more like handhelds. While these options don’t look as nice, they are an option that should be considered for smaller environments with greater challenges around gain before feedback, and less-skilled sound operators.
2. Always test the headset mic!
Here is a blog I recently wrote about 5 things I do before every service I mix. No matter what is planned for the service, one of the first things we do is test our headset mic. Even if we are planning to have video teaching – or the planned preacher traditionally prefers to use a handheld – we still always test the headset mic. This means every volunteer on our sound team is used to working with a headset. If plans were to change mid service – we know the headset is ready.
I find it helpful to remember that the person testing the microphone probably has a different sounding voice than the person who will be teaching, so keep in mind the difference between the test voice and the speaker’s voice. Where possible, ask the test voice to replicate the volume of the planned speaker. In these moments, we are looking to have basic tonality concerns resolved, and obtain a clear understanding of gain before feedback. Once we add people to the room, we probably need more volume, however, room reflections are also reduced. Finding your feedback limit in soundcheck helps you know your potential limits in the service.
3. Fit the mic properly
Our teaching team need to be experts in teaching God’s Word, but hopefully, the existence of our tech team means our preaching team don’t also need to be experts in mic placement. About 15 minutes before the service, our rostered service production manager will take the mic and belt pack backstage and work with our speaker to fit the mic properly. It’s important that the individual given this task has confidence, trust, and relationship with leadership. If someone is learning this role, we send a senior team member with them. Make sure the belt pack has a full battery and is power-locked before you go!
It’s critical that we understand just how important these moments are to the outcomes of the service. To ensure the preacher’s voice is heard nice and clear to the listener, we must make sure the mic is placed properly before the speaker walks on stage. Often this means adjusting the headband and move the capsule around to curve to the shape of their face. Too far forward and we get extra plosives, too far back and we lose gain before feedback. Too close to the face and it will rustle against their skin or facial hair. It also needs to be tight enough that it doesn’t move out of place, without being so tight that it is uncomfortable. Once we have the microphone placed and sitting comfortably, I will stand back, and ask the speaker to move their head left to right, up and down. I want to see if and how the mic will move once they are on stage. We also need to consider earrings or other jewellery. Different mics will perform differently, but ultimately it’s something you should test with your microphone, so you can advise the speaker if there will be problem.
We also need to be intentional about where the belt pack sits on the user. Given they will probably be sitting down before they walk on stage, I try and end up with the belt pack to their side, rather than on their back. Your confidence in these moments inspires them to trust you. Your ownership and passion for getting this right, communicates your understanding of how important their message is.
4. Check it before they go on stage
As we start the service, and the preacher enters the auditorium, our stage management team informs the audio team on comms. Our audio team will then verify RF reception and battery levels are good, as well as listening to the mic in their headphones. If there is a problem, we need to know about it ASAP. One of the challenges with headset microphones is the amount of human interaction involved, so opportunity for failure between the time it’s placed and when they walk on stage really is a concern. Before loading the preacher, our audio team will have another listen in their headphones, and our stage management team will have a subtle glance at how the mic is sitting on the speaker’s face. There have been times where we have adjusted mic placement again during a video or other suitable moment before loading the preacher on stage.
5. Using the tools on the console
The person operating the sound console(s) needs to have skill and experience working with a headset microphone. I start with a high pass filtering to remove unwanted low frequencies. In some instances, low pass filters are required. De-essing can be helpful with some voices. Some EQ will be needed, but, if we get too aggressive, we are simply turning the mic down (with added phase artifacts). During soundcheck I will setup a compressor, and then wind the threshold all the way out. When the speaker is first walking on stage, I do not want any compression limiting their overall volume. Once they get settled in, I may dial in some light compression. HOWEVER, remember: we want our preachers to have dynamics in the room. The best compressor available is simply moving the channel fader as needed to suit the moment. Dialling in an overly aggressive compressor can really damage the impact of the speaker’s delivery.
6. Mixing the service with the headset in mind
After praise and worship, during the MC spot, we need to consider the fact that our preacher is using a headset. We don’t want the preacher’s mic to sound ‘weak’ in comparison to other people leading the service. For example, if I know the preacher is soft-spoken and using a headset, and we sing an extra worship song just before preaching, I will intentionally mix that song at a level that leaves the headset mic feeling in context to the rest of the service. If we go from a handheld MC/hosting mic to a video, to the preaching headset, I want to ensure that the video finishes at a volume that leaves the headset volume sounding natural and in context with the rest of the service. I really don’t want our preacher to walk on stage and immediately sound ‘weak’ in comparison to everything else we’ve heard up to this point.
If the same pastor is hosting the service before preaching, we may have them do the earlier segments on a handheld, and switch to the headset for preaching. If the pastor wants to flow in and out of songs at end of the message, we will look for a good moment to give them a handheld. We also need a plan if the headset were to fail mid-service. It’s important that we take ownership for leading these conversations. Our ability to add to this dialogue, helps our preaching team feel confident that we are ensuring they will sound great in the service.
I hope these ideas are helpful, and your church’s headset mic sounds great this Sunday!
P.S. if something goes wrong, confidence and communication become key … 🙂
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