Audio Scene Memories in Worship

How to start using them and why

In casual conversation with church audio engineers, discussion often touches on how much they like the features of their digital audio board and great audio quality. Worship audio engineers really appreciate the vast array of controls and functions that help deliver better sounding mixes each Sunday.

When I ask about specific features, everyone raves about signal routing and patching, the overall ease of use, noise gates, EQ, compression, the built in special effects and so on. But very few of my church tech peers seem to make much use of Scene memory features (or snapshots as they are called by some manufacturers).

I have found that most churches only have a few scenes stored in the audio board memory. Typically all they do is store the “Sunday Morning” scene as a backup in case something gets messed up. While a backup master scene is something everyone should have, there is a lot more that scenes can do.

This article is written to encourage church techs to make more use of scene memories, and describes why scenes are important to good worship audio. Scene memories are easy to use, and will greatly reduce the Sunday FOH workload, while making for better sounding mixes.

What are scene memories and why use them

For those who are not experienced with scene memories, they can be a bit intimidating at first. But just like so many other features of a modern digital audio desk, once you know their purpose and how to use them, you’ll want to use scene memories all the time. They really do make life behind the mixer a lot easier. They are essential to reducing the real-time live workload.

Scenes are intended to help simplify the sometimes complex audio “transitions” that are inherent when moving from one element in the set list to another. Changing scenes is a way to make multiple changes to the mixing board all at once. A multitude of changes can be made to patching, fader strip faders and dynamics settings, fader strip labelling, Multitracking DAW setup, MIDI controls, etc.

Scenes are often useful not just when moving from one song to the next, but also within many songs and hymns used in worship services. Scene memories are intended to make multiple simultaneous audio adjustments easy to do ~ adjustments that would be impossible to accomplish in real time.

Let’s consider a typical contemporary worship music set. Every church is different, but in most cases a worship service usually starts with a couple of up-tempo songs. Then things settle down into a couple of softer, slower more worshipful songs. Not only is each song different in terms of tempo and feel, but each song can be carved up into several sections with each section having a different mix.

Songs usually open with an instrumental intro of some sort, followed by some mixture of verses, choruses, and a bridge or two. Perhaps an impromptu instrumental riff is tossed in somewhere, and every song wraps up with some sort of outro at the end.

For discussion purposes, I will call each of these sections a “chunk.” If you are like most audio engineers you will get things settled in, and then make a bunch of rapid adjustments every time the music transitions into the next “chunk” of the song or hymn.

Let’s use vocals as an illustration. Let’s suppose a lead vocalist who sings melody is prominent over some backing vocals during a verse. In the chorus that follows, there’s a different vocal requirement where the melody is carried by several singers, and the former lead is singing harmony or vamping, and a longer reverb is appropriate on the drum kit.. On the next verse, a different vocalist or a duet might be prominent and no backing vocals. In the same song an instrumental bridge occurs at the end of each chorus before the next verse starts, and one of the bridges is extended with an electric guitar riff.

It is easy to see that at a “chunk” transition, a bunch of adjustments might need to happen simultaneously at the transition. As mixing skills grow, and more sophisticated production becomes the norm, there will be transitions changes not just to audio fader settings, but also to EQ, compression, the master volume, mic muting, aux and matrix bus configuration, reverbs, delays, inserts, flangers, chorus, and a host of other special effects settings. As mixes become more complex, the transition workload increases and it becomes more difficult or impossible for the audio engineer to make all the simultaneous changes by hand in real time. At some point the workload is so large that it is impossible to keep up. And let’s not forget that the audio engineer is also adjusting the mix on the fly to stay on top of all of the unplanned nuances and dynamics that are normal in live performances.

If audio engineers sometimes fall behind because they can’t keep up with the workload, then scene memories are essential. Scene memories allow the engineer to make complex changes that would not be otherwise possible ~ and only a single button needs to be pressed.

How to do it

Using scene memories starts with something that might never have been done before in your church ~a mix planning session with the music / worship director. An easy way to do this is to print out and review the lyrics for each song. Because some lyric sheets might only have a single chorus that is sung after each verse, you might need to do some minor cut and paste work on the lyrics text file to get everything in the proper real-time sequence that represents how a song will be performed. Leave some space between the “chunks” so there is room to make notes about any instrumental chunks. Then make several columns: Vocals, Instruments, Effects, and Other. Landscape mode printouts provide more room to make notations.

Now you have an entire song and a place to make notations describing what should happen from the FOH perspective as the song transitions from one chunk to the next. Ask your worship pastor to sit with you for a few moments and help make decisions about what things should sound like in each chunk, while you take notes. When done, you can use your notes as guidance in preparing a FOH scene memory for each chunk.

Then go to the audio console and start programming. This is where some audio engineers freak out ~ thinking that it’s a lot of work. But it’s not. Programming scenes is nothing more than adjusting things where they should be and then pressing the “store” button to preserve the settings. More often than not the settings for each chorus will be very similar if not identical, so you can cut and paste scenes. Label the scenes to match the chunk labels.

I prefer to set up my baseline scenes ahead of rehearsal. But you can do this during rehearsal if you want. During rehearsal you will do the final tweaks, and the only additional step is to update each scene. If you program things ahead of time, during rehearsal you can tweak, make changes and revisions, and save things back into the appropriate scene memory.

Most audio desks have cut and paste functions that make it easy to edit a scene or easily create a derivative scene by using an existing scene as a base to work from. On the lyric sheet, write down the scene number were you stored the scene. I usually circle it so it’s easy to see the scene number on Sunday.

When complete you should have stored a separate scene for every “chunk” of a song, and you’ll have a written record of when each scene is to be recalled. Take care to store the scenes in consecutively numbered scene memories. This will make it easy to sequence from one chunk of music to the next as you recall a scene, and then the next scene after that, in sequence during the worship service.

On Sunday, during the worship service you will “recall” each scene, and all of it’s settings will take immediate effect at exactly the right moment simply by tapping the “recall” button. Keep your lyric sheet on a knee clipboard or on a nearby stand for easy reference so you always know where you are in a song and be ready to recall successive scenes based on the audio cue sheet you made.

By recalling a scene memory, you can change a large number of individual settings instantly. The next scene in the sequence can be recalled when you transition to the next chunk of music. When recalling a scene, all of the settings stored in the scene take effect instantly, so you need to get the timing right. At first it takes some concentration, but after a while using scene memories becomes almost an automatic reflex. I find tapping my finger to the music tempo makes the timing easy.

Talk about reducing your workload! Using scene memories frees you up to focus your mixing energy on the variations that always occur in a live performance, such as when someone sings or plays an instrument louder or softer than expected.

Work into this gradually until you get the hang of it. Do just one song the first weekend you try this. Don’t forget to set up a scene for the sermon too. Push one button and all the instrument and vocal microphones can be muted without needing to set up and activate a separate mute group. Once you get the hang of it, you can increase the number of songs and audio cues that use scene memories on subsequent weekends.

Once you master these sorts of skills, you’ll be ready for more sophisticated scene operations, something I’ll discuss in a future article. Scene memories when used to their best will let you produce a studio quality mix!


Ethan Harris is an accomplished top-10 market technical director with decades of pro-audio, acoustics, lighting, video, and high-tech management experience. He can be contacted at ethan@churchtech.biz

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