Let the Drums be Heard

by Curt Taipale

I played keyboards in rock and roll bands for twelve years before I went back to school to get my music engineering degree from the University of Miami (a Bachelor of Music degree with a minor in electrical engineering). I got saved just out of college, got my career started, and got married a few years later. As a recording and sound reinforcement engineer since 1980, I still love rock and roll sounds. Especially drums. And in the studio, or in a concert setting in a large auditorium, loud, powerful rock and roll drum kits work great. Acoustic drum kits do not, however, work well in many church service settings.

The words “large auditorium” and “loud” are simply not reality for the great majority of churches in the world. Well, actually, the “loud” part probably is an unfortunate reality for many churches who desire to follow the current trend in praise and worship music, and attempt to use full rhythm sections including acoustic drums in small sanctuaries. Neither is our regular worship service intended to be a “concert”, with the usual sound pressure level that the term implies.

This pursuit has brought with it more than a few problems as musicians, music ministers and sound technicians alike have tried their best to blend the transitional sound with the church acoustical environment, not to mention visual aesthetics. Trying to use an acoustic drum kit is one of the greater challenges, because an acoustic drum kit played appropriately for a contemporary style song is loud. There’s no getting around that. It can easily overpower the rest of the musicians, and especially the vocalists. So, the sound engineer attempts to create a musical blend by using sound reinforcement to add to the strength of those softer elements. In so doing, the overall sound pressure level can reach well over 95 dBA SPL, even 105 dBA SPL or more! Now we’re facing the issues of being good stewards of our vessel (possibly ruining our own hearing, as well as the hearing of others in attendance), driving the intelligent people away from attending the service – and therefore the church – because they choose not to be part of such a loud environment, and so on.

As a sound engineer, achieving great sounds is a big part of my job. I’ll fight long and hard before I’ll compromise one fraction of that sound. But I’m also the guy who gets yelled at when the music in the worship service is too loud. Through years of experimentation and just plain fussing over it, I’ve found that a small compromise on everyone's part can create an overwhelming improvement in the sound of a worship service, especially worship in a small (less than 1,000 seats) auditorium. Wanta know what that is?

Just switch from acoustic drums to an electronic kit.

I mixed the house sound in a 4,000 seat church for eight years, and even we used electronic drums for every service. Whenever we tried to go back to an acoustic kit, the acoustic energy put out by the kit was so out of proportion to the rest of the mix of the instruments and vocals that all semblance of musical order and taste was thrown out the window. I could overcome it easily with the brute force of a large sound reinforcement system, but I’d also be dodging wigs and ladies hats as they flew past me from the sound wave that hit the front rows.

In addition to my work at that church, I’ve also mixed the house sound in over one hundred other churches, and I’ve worked with some really great drummers, so please trust me when I say that acoustic drum kits are a significant problem in nearly all church worship service settings.

There were a small handful of settings where it worked: One 1200 seat church had a totally enclosed drum "room" built into the stage with a plexiglass front for visual communication. That worked great! Another 3500 seat church with a very high ceiling had a special drum gobo arrangement with very thick plexiglass tops that were bent out over the drummer, basically capturing the kit sound right there. But there was also a 4000 seat church with a roughly 50 foot ceiling and such a live room that there was absolutely no way possible to use the acoustic kit – we had to use a totally electronic kit.

I can hear all the growls of disgust rising from the true percussionists the world over. But let’s talk reality for a moment. I can’t for the life of me understand why so many drummers in small churches still insist on playing acoustic kits. Do they think they are somehow going to single-handedly be the first one to defy God’s laws of physics!?! Wake up, guys! It’s not going to happen.

First of all, in order to achieve a great drum kit sound, let’s say in the controlled setting of a recording project, one needs to start with a great drum kit, with high quality heads, and someone who can tune those heads to get a great sounding kit in the first place. Next, you need to mic that kit in a good sounding room with what can easily total up to at least $1,000, even $4,000 worth of studio-quality microphones, not to mention several years of training and engineering experience to know how to place and EQ those mics to get the sound you're looking for. Let's talk reality here for a moment. Is your finance committee really going to cut loose of those kinds of funds to make your drummer's kit sound good? And if they do, are you really going to take all that gear into a reverberant 200 to 2,000 seat church. For what!?! Why on earth would you bother, when anyone can go out and spend a few hundred dollars on a good electronic drum sampler, and have first rate drum sounds triggered from a sequencer or from pads?

How is that one musician can hold the ears of an entire congregation hostage for their selfish reason of “I don’t want to play those fake drums.” or “They don’t 'feel' right.” Is it fear of technology? When the early electronic keyboards came out, some pianists refused to play them because they weren’t a “real instrument”. Now look how far that technology has come! The church is supposed to be the leader in technology. God’s glory rather than run and hide from it.

Anyone who knows my background knows that I am the first one to agree with the drummer that makes all those excuses. I don’t agree with the excuses, but I do agree with his/her desire for the resulting sound. A well-tuned acoustic drum kit played by someone who really knows how to hit does sound bigger, fatter, and more powerful than any sampled version ever created, even samples of the same kit. But please guys, be reasonable!!! Don’t let purely selfish reasons stand between the vision and leadership of your worship team and the enjoyment of that worship service by your congregation. So much energy, time, love, emotions, and work is poured into the life of every worship service by so many, many people. Why ruin it?

There is a way to make worship services sound great at a reasonable volume. It will only be achieved when we come out of denial and accept the realities of God’s perfect laws of physics.

Well, you either read this far laughing hysterically and applauding, or you’re frustrated and angry and vowing never to read any of my articles again. Thanks for listening. I know this was a rather direct conversation, but please know that I want the best for you – and your church. Do you still love me?

Copyright 1997. Taipale Media Systems. All Rights Reserved.