How should one go about assembling a song-writing team? Should you start with a vision and then find a team or define a team and have them work together on your vision? I can’t give you a sure answer for reasons that are obvious, different things work for different churches and this is our story but it may help you with your story, I would have loved to have had known this stuff before we started and so I am making it available for you.
None of this is for our glory, we do it all for God and his glory, it’s our greatest joy to do it. I would encourage you to check out our video so you can understand where we got to and how we got there. I’m gonna do heaps of stuff on the theology side of things at some point, but this is not that. This will focus on the practical and technical side of things.
A Bit of Background on Me
My whole life I have loved music so much, it has always been my thing. I always had a good ear, it was always my best subject in school (and my favourite) and I have been writing songs since I was 12 (they were really bad though). After school, I attempted to be a writer and a ghost-writer on my own and nothing really worked out the way I hoped, so when God flipped my life around to be facing him, I became a Music Director at CityLight Church. Don Reddin, our Lead Elder highly encouraged me to take the skills I learned before and apply them to CityLight and to make great music to the glory of God. I’m a bit of a Theology nerd so I went to bible college to get a degree and the thinking is, the best scholars take high-level concepts and explain them to the masses because they understand them so well, and I believe that, for now, this is my calling in life; to take these things and put them into song.
CityLight Church is an Acts 29 Church, it is non-denominational, young in demographic and in the time it has existed—that is about 5 years at this point—and we have planted two churches. We have a lot of people who are excited about the gospel and motivated to serve God in whatever way, and lots of young creatives – that’s our situation and it is not a terrible one to be in by any means.
The path from me getting things going with song-writing to actually releasing something was about 2 years, which for me feels like a literal eternity (yes, patience is something I need to work on), it consisted many times of banging my head against the wall, usually alone as I had events that no one came to. Everyone who starts something new knows that starting something new is really hard, even if the conditions seem right.
A rough start…
I pulled the music team together to tell them what we were going to do, I planned my pitch, I pitched it to them, people thought it was a good idea, I planned a songwriting night, every Tuesday where I would open the church building. I would be song-writing and anyone was welcome to join me, almost nobody came, often nobody came.
Lesson 1 | Not everyone wants to be a song-writer, and that is okay.
My mistake was presuming that because everyone was on band at church they would also want or be able to write songs, but that is like thinking because I eat cereal I must also want to make cereal, (I love cereal by the way) but the presumption is false.
A Better Way…
The better way, of course, was to ask specific people to be involved who I thought might be interested to do that, to sit down together, have a coffee and chat about what it could look like, to share my dream with them and to see if they share in it. What is the dream you ask? To write beautiful congregational music that is theologically rich, faithful to the word and helpful for the congregation, and if someone doesn’t care about that, I don’t want them on my team.
In the Meanwhile
throughout this time I worked on my own on writing songs, and I worked hard I wrote and I wrote, I wrote when I didn’t feel like it, I read the word, I recorded every voice memo, I wrote down everything I thought of into a note on my phone so I wouldn’t lose anything.
Making a Better Plan
I organised with Joe, one of our song writers, to plan a writing time in which we would invite specific people into a space, the only purpose being to write songs and then record demos of those songs. The turn out to this event was small, it was a Friday and a Saturday, all day, starting at 9 am in the morning and it was fantastic, I had my ideas ready to go, we played games to warm up (the reharmonisation game using a dice was super fun), I played a song to everyone, we wrote the lyrics on the board and pulled it to bits, we changed chords, we had this great idea called the bank: whenever we come up with something we don’t get to use we write it up on the board so we can remember to use it later and we always did, whenever we got in a funk we would go to the board and see what we had.
Setting a Goal
We set a goal to write and record 5 songs, We did three and I was totally chuffed that we managed to write and record three demos, in terms of the tech of the demo recordings we used our “Allen and Heath QU-24” desk as an interface into a MacBook Pro via USB, it is an excellent solution for a quick demo, we have one Shure Sm7b for a lead vocalist, everything else is pretty standard live recording microphones, Shure sm-57 on the electric, acoustic was a cardioid (NT1000 if I remember correctly and a DI, We used SM-58s for backup vocals, we used a click and all had headphones to facilitate that, keys were just a DI. It was important to set up the room to be ready to go so we could hear how things would sound straight away and get a recording done as fast as possible. Two of the songs we wrote were ones that I started and one was one that my wife started. It was a very collaborative effort, everybody gave their bit musically, lyrically and honesty.
Defining the Rules
We wrote on a board a list of rules ‘not to be broken’, like we have to be kind to each other but also be willing to be told that we need to change our idea. We have to be willing to hear other opinions and ultimately willing to change. Songwriting is difficult because it is vulnerable, a song becomes a part of you in a strange way and so when people want to change it, that can hurt and this is why rules are so important, so that we can say, this is what we agreed to; things go better when we have rules we can follow.
The Purpose of the Demos
The purpose of the demos is that we have the songs set in stone, so we know how it goes, so the bands can learn to play them on Sundays and the congregation can get to know them for when they sing them in the recording. these demos were very useful to have and I still kind of enjoy them even though they are of a lesser quality than the final version. Tadro is our mixer and he is a gun, he used Logic and a bunch of plugins that are probably of little consequence in this post but if someone ever asked about I’m sure he would be happy to detail.
The Importance of Having Fun
I remember on the first night we had one more recording to do and we decided to play pool together and relax before doing it and what a beautiful time it was, I will remember those times forever.
Getting the Bands to Play Them
It does take convincing to get bands to play new songs on Sundays, even if you are the Music Director because playing new songs is more work and bands are more likely to mess them up, it is much easier to play a song you already play, regardless, say it enough times and you will get there, we play originals a lot nowadays and I love that we do.
Planning a Recording
I’m not an event planner and I’m not really an admin person, but you gotta do what you gotta do so I planned an event. It was handy that I know things about playing music, recording video, recording audio and design and because I can do those things to some degree I can coordinate other people to do them, so I picked people to be in charge of the different areas. I liked the idea of doing video because it captures the congregational nature of what we are doing, the fact that the songs are congregational kind of necessitates having a congregation there to sing them, in my opinion, so that was really important, it is kinda like proof that it can be done, these songs can be sung by a congregation.
Once we booked a date I planned a band, I decided to have two drummers (won’t lie I took a bit of inspiration from John Mark Mcmillan on that one). I would sing and play guitar and my wife would lead sing the one that she wrote. I got a bass player a percussionist an extra acoustic, harmonists, a keys player, a glockenspiel player, everybody played their part and it was a really great band, all people who are a part of our church community, but from different locations, so it isn’t a band that regularly plays together.
How it Went Down
On the sixteenth of September we did the recording and so now I am going to break down all the technical and practical aspects of how we did it, I hope this is useful to someone.
In the lead up we had to organise the count of microphones and channels we would need, we needed soo many microphones because of the two drum sets, if I did it again I wouldn’t have two drummers to be honest, only because of recording reasons (I love drums). As for our interface we used a QU-Pac, made by Allen and Heath, one of our church plants uses it and so we borrowed it, it’s great because it is all controlled from an iPad so you can have multiple people adjusting the mix at the same time and the musicians can jump on their iPhone and adjust their own mix in their earbuds. We used an extender which gave us about 32 channels in total, we ran that via USB into a MacBook Pro. We used the latest MacBook at the time but I ran a test with my MacBook (2012) and it worked perfectly fine, there were 8 seperate foldback mixes so some people had to share, we used a Behringer personal monitor solution which was super useful, people brought their own earbuds and the drummers used proper headphones which I don’t mind so much, it gives a bit of a Snarky Puppy style recording look. We had to have a lot of headphone extenders, I bought a bunch of them and I brought a ton of cables, I got anyone who had cables of any kind and mic stands of any kind to bring them because we needed so many, we tested every cable before using it and threw away the dodgy ones.
Where Does This Gear Come From?
We have a small budget comparatively, and so I didn’t have much to work with in terms of buying microphones so everything is borrowed, friend of a friend of a friend kind of thing. It’s really important to remember as someone who is starting a thing like this, that people don’t do it for you. All of the talented people who give their time for free, that lend equipment, do it as service to the Lord, and it’s important to give people the opportunity to be able to serve in that way.
All the Gear
There is a list attached of every microphone that we used and what it went on, the list included also who owned what (blacked out), Adrian made this list and he is the man when it comes to organising this stuff, it couldn’t have happened without him and I must recommend making a solid plan, there were so many things to do on the night and we didn’t need to be figuring this stuff out, Tadro made a Logic file with this as the model so it is plug and play, there is a layout for the desk which can be downloaded somewhere.
The speaker fold back for the congregation was tricky, we had someone delegated to run it and keep it real low, what the congregation were hearing was not a good mix, but just enough so that they could sing along, it was very difficult to record the congregation because of the drums. We did a rendition of “Jesus loves me” at the start to get levels for the congregation which was hugely helpful.
The Big Thing with Audio
The really big thing is making sure that all of your levels are right, that nothing is ever going to clip, we were basically never going to get complete separation in this recording in terms of the microphones so we tended not to worry too much about it. People’s ears tend to give grace to a live recording, and the sound of the room was more important than separating the sounds out.
The Sound of the Room
The room is where we meet as a church, it is not treated for sound and it is not necessarily a good room for it (it’s a box), but you make do with what you have (and it is cheaper than hiring a studio). Adrian kindly hired us a big curtain which can be seen in the video that made the drums a little more quiet for us which was a really good thing.
The video was done by Nathan Story of the wonderful Story Studio. We used Sony Alpha A7’s of various editions, we had three roaming and one on a tripod, the one on the tripod was super handy in editing, because it never moves, this means you always have a camera angel to go back to if there is nothing interesting happening on other camera angels. It is a good idea to get some b-roll in case you don’t have a good angel of what is happening in the shot so you can cut it in later. The three roaming cameras were close up on whoever the camera operator thought was doing something interesting.
Realisations in Post
Something we realised in editing was that you need to stagger when the cameras move to a new spot because everyone naturally moves when the song changes section, Ie chorus to bridge which means you don’t have any camera angles at that time, it’s funny to watch on a Multicam.
Shooting in SLOG3
The Sony Cameras used SLOG3 which makes everything look really flat and grey but gives a lot of room in post to make things really awesome and I highly recommend doing that
The Design Aspect
CityLight has a look; the stage particularly was designed by Nathan and Ben to be low and natural looking. My wife and I went to op shops and found cheap lamps and tables, there are bookshelves full of books that belong to Don, our Lead Elder and the effect is that it looks like a lounge room, like someone’s home and that’s what church is, a family gathering, and so we wanted to have that feeling in the recording.
Taking a Stage and Turning it into a Circle
So we took what is normally straight and made it round, it took forever and we had to build it really high because the wall behind looked really ugly on its
own. I made sure to make it known that everyone could come to this, it wasn’t a youth thing, so we had everyone from young children to much older people which was fantastic, we wanted it to represent the diversity of our community. It is not lost on me that what are doing has been done before to an extent and while I don’t claim that we are totally original I believe what we have done has our own flavour and I am proud of that.
There are little things that are a part of the set that are Easter eggs for CityLight people, like the jar of red hotrods,
a clock set to 5:15 (when our service starts), these things are fun things for me to do that no one cares about. Jem and Jo are the legends who helped to set this up, they have the design eye that I don’t have for things like this and I am super grateful to have people around like that.
Lighting these things is really tough for many reasons, but the main one is that what looks good in real life doesn’t look good on camera, that is, yellow light, what
looks good on camera doesn’t look good in real life, white light looks clinical like a hospital, but it is what you have to use, and you need the room to be well lit if you are going to video. Sony cameras work really great in low light and I can’t recommend them enough over their competition especially for video (not sponsored). We had some set lighting, like lamps but we had to make sure they were fairly dim, there were also overhanging lights which had a manual dimmer so that they wouldn’t affect the video but just look cool still. We used a LED light behind the lead singer’s head which makes a glow around them and is a very cool outlining effect. The main lighting though was from three softboxes hanging overhead that gave off white light, the and cost 70 bucks for two and come with bulbs from Ebay, we just used a regular rope to tie them to the ceiling.
The Musician Aspect
In the lead up we obviously practised, but not as much as we could have, we had everything set up the night before and practiced (this is when Nathan setup the lighting and shot some video for a promo I put up the day of), we made sure all the tempos were right, everyone set up their foldbacks using the handy iPhone app, we got to test everything and make sure everything was right, this was really important. We played to a metronome which was operated by the drummer in case I wanted to go off time at the end to slow down.
What Went Wrong
One of the songs was too hard for the band to play, Worthy, the bridge section wasn’t really working, we were speeding up too much and so someone suggested to change the tempo and take a break for a bit, it was hard to say okay because I wanted to keep the momentum up, but a break was just what we needed and once we came back we nailed it (although the song will forever be recorded faster than we intended it).
Recording it is the easy part, then you have to do everything else.
Post Production | Audio Recording
The audio had to be mixed and Tadro was the man to do this. The bass and guitar were both recorded as dry signal and then re-amped later on in a home studio. Basically what you do is take the dry signal, run it to an amp and then record the amp, it means we didn’t have to have the bass or electric pick up in any of the other microphones which was really useful for mixing.
We did some overdubs to be honest with you, some of the harmonies, the glockenspiel, I don’t want to ruin the magic but that is just part of it, we aren’t perfect and so sometimes we need to do stuff again and I am thankful that we can, i’m really glad we were able to keep the congregational singing as is and we didn’t have to re-record that, you can hear a particular child singing at the end of one of the songs and I think that is really beautiful.
I can’t speak on behalf of Tadro for what the mixing was like but I can imagine it was a pain because of the amount of tracks, it was a lot of work for sure and a lot of back and forth with feedback being given, but he did a great job.
I was originally not going to have the tracks mastered and boy was I mistaken for thinking I wouldn’t, I took it to Mix Masters and it was a magical experience, there were so many machines, he knew what he was doing and it was just fun to watch and made a huge difference to the sound, it really brought
the whole thing full circle for me and made it feel real. Do get your tracks mastered, it does matter.
Post Production | Video Editing
The video editing process was super fun, we had the four camera views open in Final Cut and you can watch it and live cut to different takes, the main considerations are, “who is playing something interesting”, “cutting in time with the music” and “what camera angle looks best”, we used some b-roll when we didn’t have anything to cut to. Nathan used a bunch of different colour grading tools to edit the footage, if anyone is interested in that I would be happy to detail what those are.
Post Production | The Design Aspect
Part of releasing the EP was making an album cover, something I regret is not having anyone taking photos of the event, and so I had to take a still frame from the video itself for the album cover, so next time I would have a photographer. I wanted the album cover to capture the people in the room all together and I did my best to capture a good frame which can be seen below. I had to make a website, we used WordPress with the theme Salient which is truly fantastic once you get the hang of it. We used Routenote as the aggregator of our music, you can upload it on there and then your music ends up on Apple Music, Spotify and everywhere else.
Your church can do this!
The headline here is that anyone can do this, yes you, your church could do this, nothing is stopping you, we have been around for 5 years, we have no budget, I’d love to see more of this in all places around the world.
Feel free to hit me a message on any of my social accounts if you have any questions and I would be happy to help you in any way.