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It's ok with me!

Recording worship songs: Eight things I've learned

Posted at 09:20am on 9th September 2016
All over the world, thousands of people write worship songs every single day. It’s an incredible thought – all those expressions of worship, of people singing the “new song” the Psalms call for, going on all around the globe. The vast majority of those songs will probably only be heard by God, the writer and maybe one or two others. But that still leaves plenty of songs that will be shared more widely than the writer’s bedroom or lounge, and when a song needs to be shared, it will almost certainly need to be recorded in some way or another.
 
The simplest form of recording, for many people, is to use the voice memo function or some basic recording app on their phone. This is invaluable for recording song ideas and can be useful if you’re co-writing and want to ping a melodic idea over to someone else. However, if you want to share the song with your worship team or church, you have an idea of how you’d like the full arrangement to sound, and you want to convey that in the recording, you’re going to have to dive into sometimes murky world of DAWs*, EQ*, FX*, compression* and all kinds of other complications.
 
After over twenty years messing around with various programs and ways of recording, including having been involved with many of the recordings on the Resound Worship website and now having launched my own recording business at www.worshipsongrecording.com, I’ve picked up plenty of tips and ideas and learned from many mistakes. There’s not enough space to go into the technical details here, and you’re probably best subscribing to a channel like The Recording Revolution on YouTube to improve your knowledge – but here are some general principles that will almost certainly help your recordings avoid sounding rubbish!
 

1) Get the sound right at the source.

With the power and flexibility of modern DAW’s and plugins, it’s so tempting to point a mic vaguely in the direction of the thing you’re recording, hit record, and feel confident you can fix it later. But honestly, if that snare drum sounds rubbish in the room, it will sound rubbish on the record, unless you’re intending to totally replace it with samples (which is another topic for another time).  Similarly, you’re better off spending five minutes listening to exactly where you get the best balance of depth and definition when miking an acoustic guitar, rather than just pointing a mic at the sound hole and then wondering why it sounds horrible and boomy later. (Hint - Try pointing the mic where the neck meets the body, sounds much better there!)
 

2) Rehearse!

If you’re the performer, you will give a much better performance if you can play the whole song without peering at a scribbled chord chart with multiple crossings-out all over the lyrics. Can your bassist repeatedly nail that bassline, in time, every time? Again, the power of DAWs can make you think you can just edit things together – and of course you can – but it honestly sounds better with a good musician playing things really well. If you can’t play or sing well enough to make a decent recording, find someone who can.
 

4) Sing it with passion.

You might think you’re getting all emotional when singing your own worship song, but probably less than 10% of that is conveyed in the tone of your voice. I’m not advocating putting things on for the sake of it, but if you want to convey passion, you have to put more of that than you think into your voice, because otherwise it may just sound like you’re not totally convinced by what you’re singing. And (slightly contrary to the previous point) here is where the editing power of DAWs can really help you – it’s much better to sing a song with real passion, slip up on a note or two and replace or edit those later, than sing a very careful “correct” performance that is pitch perfect but dull. The lead vocal is the most important part of the worship song, so it needs to be engaging if people are going to want to listen to the end.
 

4) Don’t bore us, get to the … first verse.

I remember Matt Redman (who may have been quoting someone else) say in a seminar once that “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” was a great maxim to have in worship songwriting, and it is. Even more important though is just to get to the first verse. Unless you’re deliberately writing a meditative, contemplative track with lots of space, your song is there to be sung by others and doesn’t need 45 seconds of guitar wibbling before the vocal starts. Sixteen bars of intro is probably too much. Eight is great – and four may even be enough.
 

5) Simple is (often) best.

This is a tricky one and can go either way. If you’re writing an epic, stadium-rock worship anthem, then you’re going to need musical resources to match. However, most Christians around the globe worship in small churches with limited resources, so often a straightforward, uncomplicated arrangement that doesn’t use nineteen layered electric guitars, a full string orchestra, drums, three percussionists and a zither solo is going to be best. Making huge arrangements sound great is also really difficult, so start small and build up from there.
 

6) The rule of one.

This applies to worship teams playing together live as much as when recording – all the instruments and voices need to add up to one. So if you have one voice and an acoustic guitar, each are contributing half the sound. If you have five instruments and two voices, they’re all contributing roughly a seventh. Problems arise when you have five instruments, and four of them are all trying to contribute a half to the sound, with an overplaying drummer, an incessantly soloing electric guitar player and a keyboardist who is playing on the “Massive Dreamy Washy Swooshy Synthy Stringy Wall of Pad” patch. When you’re recording, you decide how to arrange your song – so get things right at the arrangement stage. When you come to mixing, keep this rule in mind – if you have chunky guitars, you’re not going to need huge keys pads, and vice versa.
 

7) Keep it live.

I’m all for using drum samples, electric guitar amp simulators, vocal pitch-correction and so on. But it’s amazing the difference made to a fairly processed track by adding just a touch of “real” live-ness. For example, an actual hand percussion part with some shakers or tambourine. Or some real group vocals with a bunch of mates all shouting along in the last chorus rather than just overdubbing one vocalist repeatedly. Or adding some impromptu rhythms in the bridge from hitting plastic tubs and boxes. Try it!
 

8) Get an external opinion.

At Resound we do lots of work to encourage songwriters to collaborate with other writers and/or to get input from theologically trained church leaders to sharpen their writing. Collaboration is great when recording as well. Apart from anything else, you’re unlikely to be the best drummer and the best guitarist and the best vocalist and the best keyboardist that you know (and if you are, make some more musical friends!) – but also getting an external opinion on your song can make all the difference to how it’s arranged and recorded. At worshipsongrecording.com, we aim to help writers showcase their songs so that the song really shines – not just the recording – and we also want to encourage others in that. If you’ve got songs that you want to get recorded but simply don’t know where to start then check out the WSR website or drop me a line at matt@worshipsongrecording.com and we’ll talk. Or, if you’re starting along the way of recording your own material but need some advice, get in touch via www.facebook.com/worshipsongrecording or on Twitter @worshipsongrec. Happy recording!

 

* DAW = Digital Audio Workstation. Garageband and Reaper are two examples of cheap (or free in the case of GB) DAWs. Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase and Studio One are others, which all largely do the same basic things in enabling you to record and mix audio and midi sources.
 
* EQ = Equalisation. In its simplest form, this is treble/bass boost and cut controls. In its more complex forms you can have multiple bands of parametric EQ, graphic EQ, resonant hi- and lo-pass filters, linear phase EQ, dynamic EQ – even EQ that tracks the musical pitch of the input source. 
 
* FX = Effects such as reverb, chorus, delay etc. In general, less is more – most effects sound best when they’re adding to the sound but not in a “LISTEN TO ME!!!” kind of way. That’s not always the case and as with most things relating to recording, there are very few hard and fast rules – sometimes that massive burst of reverb is exactly the effect you want.
 
* Compression = your best mixing friend. Unless you’re recording the rootsiest of folk tracks or pure classical music, you will probably use some kind of compression somewhere along the way to even out the dynamic range of voices and instruments. Many compressor plugins nowadays offer “analogue modeled warmth” and claim – with some justification – to enhance your sound by adding warmth and tone. Before you leap at buying expensive branded compressor plugins though, experiment A LOT with your stock compressors and the many freebies you can get nowadays, using the numerous tutorial vids on YouTube (I recommend The Recording Revolution channel) for guidance.