Thanks to Matthew Starner for sharing this article with The Worship Community. Originally published at matthewstarner.com
First a few key things to understand:
Generally speaking, I’m not in favor of replacing key instruments digitally. Our normal team consists of drums, bass, electric guitar and keyboard. Even if one of them were missing, I wouldn’t be comfortable replacing any of them with digital musicians because they’re too important. However, this does depend largely on your circumstances. If you’re just starting out and you have only a guitar player and vocalist (and they’re both you) then you’re going to have to find a way to enhance your sound. There are options for this such as Worship Backing Band.
Also, to do this well will require you to spend some money, though not as much as you might think. Yes, in an ideal world we would use in-ear wireless monitors, a variety of software and other expensive equipment to make it work. But it doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. In fact, it shouldn’t cost a lot unless you just can’t get where you want to go without spending more money.
Our Setup at Journey
Part 1: Keeping Everyone Together
The most important thing about adding digital musicians to your team is that you have to play perfectly in sync with them. Usually this involves playing to a click track (like a metronome). While this series of high-pitched “beeps” keeps the team playing in time with each other, it’s distracting for the congregation. This means having some method of getting the sound directly into the team’s ears. Wireless in-ear monitors are great, but if you don’t have a few thousand dollars lying around to outfit your team with them, pick up a headphone amplifier for around $20. I picked up this four channel amp for under $20 on Amazon. Add a few 20-foot headphone extension cables and some cheap headphones and you can send the click to up to four individuals, each with their own level control.
A note about the headphones: Spend the extra $.50 and get headphones that hook over your ears instead of the simple ear-bud style. The first time I used the ear-buds while playing I spent half the song keeping them from falling out.
Cost for all the pieces: under $50.
Part 2: The [Digital] Musicians
There are several options for adding digital musicians, from playing backing tracks or multi-track recordings of the songs along with your team to loops and sequences generated by computers or keyboards. While we haven’t taken the step into using loops yet, it’s certainly something that I want to get to one day.
What we do is more like having a digital orchestra play with us. I use Finale (you can also use Sibelius, though I am not as familiar with its capabilities) to edit and print sheet music and over the years, they have made huge strides in their digital instruments – to the point where their Garritan Personal Orchestra sounds awfully real – real enough for use in a live setting!
Using Finale, I arrange the orchestra to play with us. While every instrument is available, I generally stick to strings, flute french horn and maybe percussion like timpani or bells if it fits. I use trumpets, trombones and other brass sparingly or I pull their volume down since they are the first to sound fake if they’re too loud.
Where do the arrangements come from? If you’re skilled at arranging or want to get better at it, try doing them yourself! For simple or soft songs that could benefit from a gentle string section playing chords behind the band, give it a whirl! If you’re looking for something more impressive sounding, PraiseCharts.com and WordMusicNow.com offer orchestrations of many current and past worship songs.
Once the music is arranged, I pan the audio of all the instruments to the left and create a click track on the right. The version of Finale that I have doesn’t allow for split tracks with their built-in effects (unless I’m doing it wrong, in which case, someone tell me the right way!), so I bypass the effects in Finale. Then, using some recording software on the computer, such as Garage Band or Cool Edit, I record the Finale file and apply effects like reverb here. It takes some fiddling around to get the settings right the first time, but through trial and error I’ve found the settings that work for us.
Playing It Back:
On stage, I use my laptop to play back the tracks. I have a small table next to my keyboard with the laptop and headphone amp. We’ve used the tracks for several months now and it works pretty well for us. We usually just use it on one song in the service but as we get better at playing along with them and get more songs built up, we’ll start using them more.
How are you using digital instruments with your team?
This has been a good start for us and in the future we’ll grow into using other tools and techniques to continue to enhance our worship.