It’s All About the Experience
Paul Baloche on how the right attitude, technology, and people maximize the message
By Mark Hutchins
(You can also read this article with all the photos here)
You have 20-plus years of experience as a worship leader. What place do you think technology should have in worship — from services to musical performances?
All technology needs to serve the goal of helping to create an environment that makes it easier for people to connect with God. Technology, when done well, can really enhance the experience. It’s almost the same thing as songwriting; it’s a fine line where, when you’re writing a worship song, you want the congregation singing the song to feel like it’s a natural, organic prayer that they’re singing to God. But if you cross the line where the song is just drawing all the attention to itself, then it’s not necessarily accomplishing the goal of helping people draw near to God.
In the Gospels, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I was thinking about that in terms of technology. We want to engage our audience; we want them to participate and sing and not just observe. We want our congregations to participate and not get to a place where they’re just coming to church and watching the “professionals” onstage do their thing. So, when it comes to projecting lyrics and images or mixing the sound, technology has the potential to be a powerful help in creating this environment that visually and aurally helps people connect with God — with their senses. Lighting can also help create an atmosphere that quietly helps people let their guard down, get beyond the hassles of life, and focus their hearts and minds on God.
How has the progression of technology affected your performances?
For years, I was a “wedge guy” using onstage wedge monitor speakers. I think wedges can still function fine. But as a vocalist, when you’re onstage and it’s loud and the crowd is singing, it really is reassuring to have a good in-ear monitoring system. It allows me to relax more, to not fight my way through a set because I can’t hear and I’m a little bit unsure about my pitch. It gives me security. That just helps me do a better job of trying to prayerfully lead people in a more effective time of worship.
What technical challenges do you and other worship leaders face these days?
A lot of worship teams aren’t aware of how important it is to get a good monitor mix going before they lead worship. Reminding singers and musicians to take a little time to make sure their monitors are properly dialed in can really affect the entire service. The singers need to be able to hear the hi-hat and the snare. The bass player needs to be able to hear the kick, the snare, and the hi-hat. The hi-hat is so important for that subdivision, and to lock everybody in. A lot of times, I’ll go over to my singer’s monitor, and I realize he or she can’t hear the drums. And I’ll go, “Man, you guys need drums!” If you’re using an in-ear monitor system, it’s important for worship leaders to make sure there’s an audience mic somewhere, picking up the audience so you can dial some of that in to the in-ear monitor mix, because in-ears tend to really isolate what you can hear. On one hand it’s beautiful, since you can hear your own pitch quite well, but you lose the leading aspect or the sense of community if you can’t hear the congregation singing or responding.
Your primary instrument is the acoustic guitar. Has the acoustic guitar become the contemporary worship instrument?
I would say that worship music has stylistically tended to follow some of the trends of our culture. And I’m talking style here, not content. The acoustic guitar has always been a pretty strong factor in pop music, and I would say it’s always going to have a strong place in worship. But I also would say that electronic keyboards over the years have made it so easy for people to lead from a piano, without having to cart around a heavy, bulky instrument. The acoustic guitar will always have a prominent place in worship, but the electric guitar is catching up quickly. It’s not uncommon to see folks lead with a Strat or a Tele these days.
So many churches and worship teams have begun to incorporate loops and backing tracks into performances. What’s your take?
My road band incorporates loops, or stems – a drum loop, a keyboard pad. I find that loops don’t necessarily inhibit your flexibility or spontaneity; you can do the song, and after the song’s over you can always linger at the end or start another chorus. The key is discerning the moment. In worship, it’s really important for the worship leader or the team members to try to diagnose what’s going to best serve this situation. And then, if you feel that loops and VJ and images and lights are going to serve it well, then by all means use them. But there may be some situations where less is more. The key to technology is to not become overly dependent on it. Let it serve you by giving you more choices in your tool kit.
Any advice for newer worship leaders or leaders who want to continue to move their programs forward?
I would say, go slow. Don’t feel like you have to go out and buy all this stuff overnight. Add things incrementally. As you add, you need to learn how to use it. There are lots of good conferences available out there. Maybe there’s a church in your area with a bigger budget and a really developed program. Make an appointment with that worship pastor. Say, “I’m from ‘Church ABC’ down the road here, and it’s obvious that you guys have such great technology, and we’re trying to grow in that area. Can we come and sit in on one of your rehearsals and watch your tech do some things?” You need to find somebody who’s a few steps ahead of you and just humble yourself and ask if you can glean from them.
You’ve worked with Sweetwater for quite some time. Why the long relationship?
I was thrilled with the opportunity to do this interview because I remember way back when Sweetwater just started and they had this teeny little catalog and one of the first websites. It’s been amazing to watch Sweetwater grow over the years. I’ve bought a lot gear from them. It’s quite a success story, and I think it has a lot to do with the attitude about serving — about educating, equipping, and encouraging. The whole Sweetwater vibe, to me, is about serving. They just kind of get that — to serve and to answer questions — and they’re not just in it to make a quick buck. I think Sweetwater has earned the trust of the music community because they almost approach their business like ministry.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Paul. Any closing thoughts?
From the sales people who sell the equipment to the tech guys who use the equipment to the worship leader and the worship team, we all have to ask ourselves, “Are there things we can do to better serve the people God has called us to serve?” That’s a fundamental value that runs through all our roles. I think everything seems to fall in line if we just make it our priority to serve as best we can.
Paul Baloche on making your tech person an integral part of the worship group
For years it used to be sort of the band and the worship team, and then there were sort of these tech people who were sort of their own thing. Somebody needs to initiate bringing everyone together, making it all one team. Either the tech people need to reach out to the worship leader and say, “We want to be more connected to what you guys are doing,” or, if I’m talking to worship leaders, I put it on them: “As a worship leader and a worship team, you need to initiate this connection with your tech people and make sure they’re involved spiritually and relationally — that they get your heart and that they have an understanding of what you and your senior pastor are trying to accomplish.” A tech person can make or break it, period. Let’s face it: the worship leader can be on his knees praying all week, prepared spiritually, prepared musically by rehearsing the band. The pastor prayerfully studied for the sermon, and yet all that has to filter through the hands and the ears of that tech person. Pretty amazing when you think about it. Tech people really have to have a sense of how essential their role is in making sure that they’re plugged in and part of the vision of the entire team.
Paul’s signal chain
I use a McPherson acoustic guitar with an L.R. Baggs pickup under the saddle. I use Elixir strings and an amazing Elixir cable. That goes into a BOSS TU-3 tuner, and then I come out of that into an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI. I’ve also used a Radial JDI. Coming out of the DI, I go into a mixing board. Electric guitar stuff: I’ve used a Telecaster into a Tube Screamer into a Vox AC30 or a Fender Blues Junior amp for smaller gigs — that’s great for smaller rooms. As far as live vocal mics go, I love the SM58. It’s amazing to hear all the great mics that have come out, and I am willing to use them here and there, but live, I tend to fall back on the 58 a lot of the time.
On the studio side, I upgraded to Pro Tools 8. I use it more for demos at home. But when it’s time to cut serious tracks in the studio, it’s typically on the Pro Tools HD system. I like the RODE NTK mic for vocals, and I’ll run that through an Avalon preamp. We use Apogee converters.
Paul Baloche’s latest album, Glorious, is available now.