How to Prepare your Sunday Services as a Portable Church – Production System at Saddleback Berlin

Worship Night at Saddleback Berlin

We are limited! By time – by people – by budget. I think every church is. Still we want to create an environment where people feel drawn to God and where they begin to worship him. And we want to constantly improve on doing this. And you should too, shouldn’t you? We have an attendance of 300 people week by week and we run two services. We only rent our location.

For years we struggled utilizing the time given to us. People nocked on the doors while we still rehearsed. Two hours between the opening of the venue and the start of the worship service was just too tight. But we learned how to optimize our team, our systems and our equipment to setup everything within 45 minutes and have a bit more than an hour to rehearse – and so can you. 

In this article I show you how we implemented a good preparation routine to optimize our setup time and our sound and visual experience. 

I’m not sure if we reached the end goal. We try to constantly improve things, extending our capabilities whilst keeping setup time at the same level. Therefore I will keep this article up to date whenever we found an even better solution. And for this reason I’m very happy for any comment or questions you have for our approach. Thus check out our comments section at the end of this article.

Step 1 – Prepare the Stage

The organization of the stage begins with good planning. This planning begins before Sunday. It is important to know exactly who will be on stage where and what the musician will need.

A planning system such as Planning Center Online Services can be very helpful in planning. It can be used to plan the complete worship service, schedule musicians and support their rehearsals, e.g. by providing the sheet music or chord sheets of the songs as well as YouTube or Spotify links to the originals.

Depending on the size of the team, a Google Sheet or a doodle survey can help with the planning of the band and the technical team as well.

We made great experience with the Worship Coordinator creating a stage plan as shown below:

Stage Layout from Planning Center Services

The Producer for next Sunday will then take it and transfer the stage plan into a table and plan how we cable instruments and other microphones. We use the same template every week, so this step is done in seconds. In this template we also enter which musician gets which In Ear Monitor.

Stage Design in a table (Excel, Apple Numbers or Google Sheet)

On the picture we have highlighted the Multi Core cables (front = orange, left = yellow and right = green). For each instrument or singer the wiring is now documented, i.e. at which input the corresponding cable is to be plugged.

A power socket is also provided on each multicore cable so that the instruments can be supplied with sufficient power.

We always schedule a Stage Manager who is responsible for providing the technical equipment for the stage. He sets up the PA, sets up and connects the technical cabinet, lays out the power and multi-core cables and provides some cables for the band.

Based on the stage plan, musicians and singers can now set up and wire their instruments independently, and they can select their In Ear Monitor body pack. In this way we have many helping hands and the stage is ready quickly.

Step 2 – Prepare your Sound Board

The sound board is the heart of the production. All signals created during a production are going into the sound board. All mixes distributed somewhere are coming from the sound board.

The latter might be a surprise for some people because the only mix they are hearing is the mix in the house. But in most production environments we have way more mixes. We have a monitoring system so the band can hear each other well, we might have a recording or even a live stream of the service, we might have a nursery room, we might have a translation system in place and the interpreter listening closely to what’s happening on the stage.

Every single mix should come from your sound board. Some churches with a certain budget have dedicated mixing consoles for specific purposes. Our mother church in California has a mixing console for the mix in the house, another mixing console just for the In Ear monitoring mixes and another mixing console just for the broadcast of the service to our other domestic campuses.

If you do not have the budget or the team to do this, you can still create a great experience by just using one sound board. The key is to prepare it well.

Use a digital console

I recommend using a digital board because nowadays it is not expensive anymore and the benefits you get from it are just tremendous. I will write a dedicated article just on that topic.

For now we assume you have a digital console in place. One of the advantages of a digital sound board is most of them come with an app which you can install on your computer. You can then use this app to prepare the layout of your sound board and load all relevant presets.

Create your basic setup file for your console

You should have a main scene file that includes all of the basic settings and configurations. This includes the routing, the settings for the outputs, the setup of mix groups and DCA’s as well as some basic organization of the sound board itself.

A basic structure of the channels might be to use channel 1-5 for singers, 6-10 for guitars, 11-14 for other instruments, 15 and 16 for people making announcements or saying a welcome, 17-22 for your drums, and so on.

You should have a basic structure and stick to it as often as possible. It will be much easier for the team to manage the board if the structure stays the same.

Save presets files – reuse and optimize them constantly

For every single instrument and vocalist save the settings in a preset file. The sound board can store those presets locally on the console and most of them also can store them on a USB stick or an external drive.

Save the complete channel setup in your preset file:

  • Equalizer settings
  • Dynamic settings
  • Sends and their configuration
  • Even the label of the channel

Just everything. And every time you changed something significantly on a channel and you think you improved the sound – save the preset again.

This way you constantly improve your sound and you make your setup easy.

At Saddleback Berlin we even go a step further. We store all preset files on a Github repository. This way the preset files are version controlled. Every time we save a new version of a preset file we add a commit message to the change to describe it.

Since we use the Behringer X32 and its preset and scene files are just simple text files it’s very easy to read them and you can compare the changes over time and make a decision if the change was worth it.

The Saddleback Berlin scene file and preset files are on Github.

Create the scene file for a Sunday

Next time you prepare your sound board you just load all the presets into the channels according to your stage layout and patch plan. If your sound board supports an offline app you can even do this already on your computer using all the previously generated preset files.

At the end of the preparation you just save the preset file on a USB stick, you take it to your sound board on Sunday, load the scene and you are ready for sound check in seconds.

Include a rough In Ear mix for the band

When you prepare your scene file you should also prepare the In Ear mixes already.

First, you name all your mix busses according to the receiver of that signal. We labelled our In Ear body packs with simple numbers from 1 to 8. Now let’s say Rick is taking In Ear 1 and Tom takes 2. I would then name the mix bus for Rick’s In Ear “1 Rick” and Tom’s “2 Tom”. As simple as that.

This makes it much easier for everyone to find the right mix bus to make adjustments. On your stage plan you also communicated the body pack number the musicians should take. So, if something goes wrong you first check if they have taken the correct body pack.

Second, during the preparation go through every In Ear mix bus and consider what that particular musician or singer might need. Most of the time they need themselves at top level (0dB) and the rest just is a matter of taste.

To make the preparation simple and easy I would put other singers on a level of -15dB and other instruments on -30dB. This is just an easy starting point and it helps the band to just start their rehearsal and sound check.

There you go, now you have a great scene file prepared for your Sunday without even having a sound board in front of you. Bring the scene file to your Sunday service and in seconds you’ll be ready and give the others mean looks why it takes them so much time to prepare their instruments 😂

Step 3 – Optimize your Equipment

This is a very complex topic, so we will dedicate a specific article just on that. But for now I want to share some practical tips to at least touch on that subject.

Use shortest cable possible and multi cores

The longer the cables the longer it will take you to unwind it and then roll it afterwards.

Therefor use patch panels and multi core cables to bring plugs close to the band. It takes time to roll those multi cores as well but if you can bring 4-12 plugs close to the musicians they need less time to walk back and forth getting in each others way. This also reduces stress a lot and makes the load simpler for everyone.

Use big cases and organize them well

As a portable church you do not want to have dozens of cases, you want as few as possible. I encourage to use huge rollable cases.

Usually those have shelves to separate areas in the case. Use them and dedicate areas for audio cables, power cables and label those areas well so that everyone ones quickly where to get certain equipment and where to put it back.

Pre cable as much as possible

Week by week the foundational equipment is always the same. So, try to pre cable those devices in a cabinet or 19 inch stage box so you make sure this cabling is already done and you do not need to revisit it week by week. This also reduces reasons for troubleshooting.

We have two cabinets, one on stage and one at the front of house.

At the front of house we pre cabled our HDMI and computer sounds (DI boxes etc.) and our translation system. We have a digital snake in that stage box so we only connect a USB C cable to the computer and an Ethernet cable to the sound board. Pretty simple.

On stage we have pre assembled to wireless In Ear transmission into the stage box and they are all connected to the digital snake. We just plug an Ethernet cable into the wall and at the front of house we have patched that plug to our sound board. Pretty simple as well.

Conclusion

All that to say: Search for your own ways to improve setup time, increase quality and prepare your Sunday service. Let me know what you have improved to optimize the setup at your church.

Next Steps

We will continue to share our experience in further stories and links to those will appear in this article as well.

If you want to move forward I highly recommend reading the following articles next:

Production System at Saddleback Berlin ⛪️

Saddleback Church celebrating Easter
Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash

The picture above is from our mother church in California. This is how we celebrate our Easter services in California. Sometimes we still have snow here in Berlin, so we prefer to stay in the building. 😉

What is Saddleback?

Saddleback is a church in many locations. On the one hand we share many similarities worldwide and on the other hand we respond to our regional needs.

Our teaching pastors are Rick Warren, Tom Holladay and Buddy Owens. Each campus is led by a campus pastor, who is usually supported by a team of staff and volunteer leaders. Dave Schnitter started our campus in Berlin and still leads it as our Campus Pastor.

Our special challenges as Saddleback Berlin

Saddleback Berlin celebrated its first worship service in October 2013. We have been renting party and event locations since the beginning. At the moment we are in the Kalkscheune in Berlin-Mitte.

This means that every Sunday we set up all of our equipment, then rehearse once, check the sound and celebrate two services. Afterwards we tear everything down and store it in a storage room provided by the venue.

We must constantly balance between the different requirements.

Finding balance

  • We want to maximize the time for the rehearsal of musicians and the sound check.
  • We want to let our volunteers sleep as long as possible.
  • We want to take as little time as possible from our volunteers.
  • We want to rent the venues as short a time as possible.
  • We want to conduct our services at meaningful times and all guests should have the opportunity to participate in the service.
  • We want the audience to experience as little sound check and rehearsal as possible.
  • As a consequence, we want to spend as little time as possible on the setup.

Our conclusions and the reason for this series

As a consequence of the above challenges, we have made the following decisions:

  • We start at 8am with the setup of stage and technical equipment.
  • We optimize the technical equipment so that we can empty the storage room and set up the stage and technical equipment within 45 minutes.
  • We can then rehearse and check the sound for 90 minutes.
  • Our services start at 10am and 12 noon and last about 90 minutes.
  • We slowly start the teardown at 2pm and leave the event rooms at 3pm.

At first glance, it looks like we are asking a lot of our volunteers and that is difficult to refute. I have been responsible for production in many churches over the past decades. However, I have never experienced such incredible encouragement between the volunteers.

This results in us delivering a high-quality performance. I have never had so much fun in this role and I firmly believe that the whole team does.

Almost every Sunday I myself — a volunteer like many of the others — spend seven hours in our church. We don’t expect that from any volunteer, and I just want to be there because it gives me a lot of energy.

I studied sound engineering a few decades ago and never before has my knowledge and experience been so challenged as with Saddleback. I have never experienced such a dedicated and enthusiastic team before. This motivates me and many of the other volunteers.

Every Sunday Saddleback Berlin has about 350 worshipers (including children) divided into two worship services.

How is the production system organized at Saddleback Berlin?

We have set up our production system in such a way that we have achieved a good balance between the time available and the optimal use of this time.

The production system is divided into the following elements:

  • Sound Board
  • Presentation computer and video system
  • Translation system
  • Stage
  • Software systems

In the coming weeks we want to explain the individual elements in more detail. We hope that many churches can learn from them — small and large, mobile churches like us, but also churches that celebrate services in their own spaces.

If you do not want to miss any of the posts just sign up for my newsletter.

5 Concepts for a Great Mix

I came across a great video by Matthew Weiss (The Pro Audio Files), who explains in a nutshell what 5 concepts he keeps in mind when mixing. The 5 concepts for a good mix are: Clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion. If we strive to improve in these five areas, our overall mix will consequently improve.

5 Concepts for Getting a Great Mix from Matthew Weiss

Even if he talks about studio music in principle, these concepts can be applied wonderfully in the live area as well.

Clarity

Every element of the music should be audible. It is not always necessary to separate all elements from each other. Sometimes we want two or three instruments to form a pad sound together. The listener should then perceive them as such.

Sometimes we want the bass drum and bass guitar to sound like an instrument together. In the Daft Punk song Da Funk this is clearly the intention. In most cases we want to hear the guitar and the drums separately. We want clarity.

In the studio, for example, we can create clarity by distributing elements of a piece of music in the stereo image. In addition, we can separate instruments from each other by creating space in the frequency spectrum.

In the live area, it is not appropriate to distribute elements in the stereo image. If a listener is further to the right in the room, in the worst case he will not even notice an instrument that has been moved to the left. We can very well provide clarity on frequencies. If the keys overlap e.g. with the voice, we can take out the keys e.g. around 300 Hz and around 2 kHz and the voice is much clearer.

In live music, the sound system must be very well designed, otherwise the reflections in the room alone ensure that we can no longer create clarity. The goal must therefore be that every listener perceives the direct signal as much as possible and that the early reflections arrive much more quietly. Sound design is very complex. I can recommend a podcast by Nathan Lively, which is mainly dedicated to this topic — Sound Design Live.

Punch

Punch power is about not only hearing individual instruments such as the bass drum and the snare, but also feeling them. Punch gives our mix a dynamic touch. In live music it depends a lot on the type of event, but in many cases we expect more of this punch live than we are used to at home. The event area is bigger, maybe the stage is very big, so I want to feel more of the music. At a big concert you want to feel the bass drum in the stomach area.

However, this is not appropriate in all cases. It is worthwhile to carefully consider for which occasion you are mixing and to generate an impact accordingly.

Depth

Michael Jackson’s songs are very often filled with depth. Sometimes the voice seems to be right in front of us, sometimes it fades into the background. Bruce Sweden, Sound Engineer for Michael Jackson describes how he created this depth in this article.

In general we create depth with different techniques. We can place an instrument in the foreground, in the middle with almost no early reflections and reverberation. We could distribute the elements that we want to appear further back in the stereo field and create the impression through stronger early reflections and reverberation that the element stands further back in the room.

In the live area, some of the reflections already arise through the room. We need a very well designed sound system, so we get more chances to create depth in the mix. We want to have the possibility to play with reflections and to integrate different levels of reverberation. That’s how we create depth.

Character

Character is something that appeals to us. A boring mix becomes a great mix when we give character to the different elements. Does the bass guitar sound like any other? Or does she have something special, something unique? We can play something by adding overtones (by distortion), highlighting characteristic frequency ranges, rather lowering others, and so on.

Character breathes life into the mix. In the live area, it strongly depends on the mixing console how much room we have to give the instruments character. But there are also opportunities to create character outside the mixing console. How are the microphones positioned above and below the snare? Which effect devices does the guitarist bring with him? How is the microphone positioned on the guitar amplifier? Does it help to position a second microphone?

It is worth trying different things. Character makes a big difference. We have to be careful with EQ, because we can kill any instrument with it. But when used properly, we can also give it a new character.

Emotion

We want to transport emotions with music. This is the most important thing we want to achieve with music and thus the most important thing we want to achieve in our mix. What is offered to us from the stage in the mixer tries to create a certain emotion. Our goal in mixing should be to intensify this emotion. We might as well try to create something more cheerful in the mix out of a sad love song, but that will confuse us and the song will not get stuck. If we try to intensify the effect, the mix will reach the hearts of the listeners and remain stuck. It is the most difficult element in our mix and yet the most important.

Conclusion

When mixing live music, the 5 elements clarity, punch, depth, character and emotion can make the difference between a good mix and a great mix. With each adjustment I make, I should ask myself what I want to achieve with it. Can I get more clarity? Am I increasing the punch? Do I add depth to my mix? Does my mix get more character? Or do I bring more emotion into my mix? If a change does not pay into any of these five areas, that change is probably worthless. If, on the other hand, the change affects several areas at the same time, it’s great.

And now: Have fun mixing 😉!