Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Choirs and Microphones - A Good Mix?

Hello everyone. I hope your Tuesday is going well. Mine began with a 6:30 spin class at the gym. I thought I could catch a train in time to meet my carpool companions on time, but nothing seemed to work out and I made everyone late for work. So not the best start to the day, but it is a beautiful day here in Chicago—sunny and warm.

I'd like to raise the issue of the use of microphones for parish choirs. Some history here. When I was the music and liturgy director at a parish in Florida many years ago, we had a choir of just under fifty. The acoustics of the church building were certainly not ideal (carpeting under the choir member's chairs, carpeting beneath the pews), but I never even entertained the idea of placing microphones in front of the choir. Their sound filled the church. When they sang acclamations and hymns, their harmonies supported the singing of the assembly. When they sang pieces by themselves, I felt quite confident that the nuances of their choral sound were being communicated well to those who were listening. Several years after leaving the parish, I returned for a visit. I found an entire new system of hanging microphones all over the choir area and a professional person was in attendance at Mass to be the "sound guy." The choir (which was even larger in numbers) had a very different sound. It seemed kind of artificial to me. This scenario was repeated in another parish where I subsequently served as music director.

This past Sunday while at Mass in New England, it was the parish choir's final Sunday of the year to sing at Sunday Mass. They were taking the summer off. Again, this was a substantial group of singers, yet there were microphones placed on the different levels of the choir area. There is little natural reverberation in this church. Sound gets absorbed quickly. Unfortunately, microphone placement was not ideal. There were voices heard above others because those people were standing closest to the microphones. What could have been a blended choral sound was really destroyed by the use of microphones. They sang a magnificent piece after communion. Unfortunately all I heard were a few voices "sticking out" over the sound of everyone else.

My advice? If you can, remove the microphones for choirs, unless they are absolutely needed. Try working with an acoustic sound rather than an amplified one, especially for groups whose choral sound is adequate for the space. I welcome any and all comments. I know that we "gotta sing," but do we really need that song to be amplified all the time?


byte228 said...

I think that you raise a great point. Too often I think we use microphones as crutches instead of tools. As a cantor I get told all the time that I'm not as loud as the other cantors. One of the reasons for this is that I've been taught over the years at NPM and elsewhere that the goal of the cantor is to lead and not to solo. Because of this I only sing "loudly" into the microphone to get the congregation into the song and when I am singing something that they are not. I have never seen a reason for me to solo One Bread, One Body or On Eagle's Wings into a microphone when the congregation is already offering up the joyful song to the Lord without me booming over all.

In terms of choirs, there are definitely situations where amplification is needed, but it must be done properly. Microphones should not be substituted for a choir knowing the pieces well enough to sing them confidently enough to project the sound to the congregation.

From a liturgical point of view, I like to keep in mind too that the choir, cantors and other music ministers are there to support the congregation and not to perform. Although many Catholic congregations have come to expect more of a performance, we must help foster the sense that music is part of the liturgy and should be the work of the people just as much as any of the unsung texts.

Chironomo said...

For once, we're in agreement...lose the microphones! The effect of any amplified voice (or voices) in a liturgical setting is that of each individual in the assembly singing a personal duet with the amplified voice, rather than their voices combining with the voices of the cantor, choir and others in the assembly. It is a very frightening thing for those accustomed to singing with amplification to do without, but the result will be better assembly singing if that is your goal.

For those who REALLY want the assembly to sing out, lose the battery of instruments as well, and pare it down to the organ (or piano, if you must) or for those who want the maximum singing coming from the seats, go completely a cappella.... that is, if your goal is really to have the faithful sing their parts. There is an inverse correlation between how much sound the cantor/choir makes, and how much the assembly sings.

Jeffrey Tucker said...

Excellent post. This will also have repertoire effects. Some music is designed for microphones. Some is designed for the liturgical space.

Gordon said...

Good post regarding choirs and microphones. However, what about small groups--aka ensembles? When a small group has 2-10 members with a couple guitars and a piano, the sound doesn't travel as far especially in a full church or with pads on the pews or carpeting. What about this situation?

dancilhoney said...

Right. I agree with this article. When seeking with a microphone, then, remember to pull the microphone away from the face before using a high note. vocal tips for singers

Documentaries said...

you are so right ... but there are situations where amplification is needed .but it must be done properly. Microphones should not be substituted for a choir knowing the pieces well enough to sing them confidently enough to project the sound to the congregation.