The Mormon Tabernacle Choir gets the headlines, as they should. The 350 voices, with accompanying 100-plus seat orchestra—all of them volunteers—have entered the vernacular and become, as Ronald Reagan once called them, America’s Choir. Their first performance was in 1847, one month after the arrival in Salt Lake City. Their first performance in the Tabernacle was in 1873, a few years after the famous structure was completed. Their first radio broadcast was in 1929, and they’ve been on the air every Sunday morning since, now reaching a network of 2,000 radio and TV stations worldwide through Music and the Spoken Word. There is some real history here. There is some real quality audio, as well.
If all that the small-yet-mighty audio team at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did was the choir, their audio legacy would be secure. But there’s so much more audio coming out of the three-city-block Temple Square, on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis, that if you’re not Mormon, you have no idea. There are Temple dedications and remote gigs in any of 80-plus countries, with many more close to home. There are General Conferences twice a year for 21,000 live and local, also broadcast to the world. There are the holiday specials, leadership meetings, training programs and scripture. Everything goes out in at least three languages with simultaneous live translation, and most go out in 10 or 11. The General Conference is up to 94 simultaneous live streams. There is an archival effort that would make the Library of Congress proud.
What NFL Films is to sports production and Skywalker Sound is to film sound, the Mormon Tabernacle is to sound for houses of worship. There’s really nothing like it. But it wasn’t always this way.
“I got a job with the Church in March 1982, and in April I mixed my first General Conference,” recalls Milo Lefler, senior sound designer. “I was the only real audio guy at the time. We had a little Neotek console behind the auditorium in the Church Office Building, and the night before my first mix, I spent all night rewiring panels so I could get languages out anywhere in the U.S. Later, I built a matrix with an output that I could switch by sticking in a pin. We had eight language booths, and we sent it out over phone lines during conference—I might send Spanish to Oakland, California, for example. The box had 30 outputs at one point. Within about six years they had built 24 translation booths underneath the Tab, then 40. By 1990 we would record 40 languages on two 24-track reel-to-reels, 5,000-foot rolls, at 3.75 ips to get two hours.”
Audio Control, in the Conference, with SSL C200 console.
In 1995 they went to digital recording with DA-88s, modifying them to get the requisite 120 minutes (all sessions are two hours long). In 1997 they held their first experiment with a 5.1 broadcast—very early on for surround TV. When the Euphonix System 5 came out in the early 2000s, at the same time that the Conference Center opened with new studios, they bought one, for the 48k to air. Later, they bought a couple of SSL C200 consoles. They were a digital facility with a thoroughly modern workflow. Then, about three years ago, they began a return trip to analog. Analog to air.
“We are mixing on great consoles, Euphonix and SSL desks,” says senior audio engineer Trent Walker, who joined the audio team in 2001 as a live sound mixer, soon after the Conference Center opened. “But we always felt like we were missing something—just the texture of a violin coming through a digital board. Digital consoles are great for smaller groups, but when you get orchestra and 100 sopranos screaming, something happens that isn’t always pretty.”
It took two years to convince the Church management that they should spend significant money on analog technology in 2013. They thought the audio team was nuts. So they held experiments, did their due diligence, and in January 2014 installed a 64-channel API Vision console, with 88 API mic pre’s, in the main studio underneath the Tabernacle. For every major production, whether from the Tabernacle or the Conference Center 3,000 feet away, it’s the last stop before hitting transmission.
“We had picked up a lot of API pre’s when the Tab was redone in 2007,” Lefler says. “We have long runs, and when we got them the noise issues disappeared and the clarity increased. When it came time to replace the console, the Vision had just come out in 5.1, with three stereo paths. We thought it was built just for us!”
Walker organized a visit to Middle Tennessee State University for a test drive. He brought a Christmas show he had done at 24-bit/48kHz, hit play, turned up the faders and said it was like an answer to his prayers. “Everything was there,” he recalls. “There was such detail, and there was a depth that we had been missing.”
Two more APIs were purchased, 1608s for a room in the Assembly Hall and another in the East Wing. The SSL C200s reside in Studio A and Audio 2 at the Conference Center, with a large vocal booth, close to Master Control and the network routers. An SSL X-Live sits at front of house, with an L’Acoustics rig feeding the audience. All major recordings take place either from the Tabernacle or the Conference Center. While they have identical mic and layout schemes, with the same signal chain, there is a slight variation in that one is farther away.
“In the Tabernacle, we have really long lengths,” Walker explains. “So we have a tube mic hanging in the ceiling, say a Peluso P47 or Royer 122V, which is feeding an API pre and is coming in line level to the API desk. It comes through the desk, and all we’re running on the stereo mixes are the 2500 API bus compressors. On the 5.1 mix, we’re inserting the 6500 surround compressor, which by the way is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then it hits Lavry 4496 converters A-to-D and then hits the transmission path at 24-bit/48k.
The Tabernacle itself, built originally from 1864-67 with horsehair plaster, hosts Music and the Spoken Word every Sunday morning, as it has since 1929.
“When we go to the Conference Center, we’re about 3,000 feet away,” he continues, “so the same tube mic hits an API pre, then it hits an RME M32 A-to-D, then it comes over MADI fiber at 24/96 and hits another RME D-to-A, then hits the console. Then the Lavrys and to transmission.
“In the Tab we have 96 channels of API pres. 48 channels of Millennia HV3R, with more in the Conference Center. And the Direct Out Andiamo 32-channel preamps. Then the portable rig has another 64 channels of API in it. We have a lot of preamps.”
Two full-blown Pro Tools systems record everything multitrack, and a JoeCo Black Box serves as backup. Last year, after working for years on a variety of mixed and matched monitors, with B&W 802s up front and Genelecs in the rears, they standardized on the hi-fi Wilson Audio Sashas up front, LCR, with Wilson Duets in the rear. Dave Wilson, the founder and designer is local. Walker was blown away at first listen.
Microphones? They have hundreds, too many to list. Suffice to say they are hanging large-diaphragm tube condensers from the ceiling for choir and miking every instrument.
“We close-mike everything, which kind of goes against the traditional classical recording philosophy,” Walker says. “But that’s what works for us. Our mixes are going live to air to picture. If you see in the score that this harp glissando is featured, then you want that. The close mics give the producer and conductor what they want. We do one rehearsal and then go live to air. We have to be able to capture everything we can capture.
“All of our strings are on DPA 4080 contact mics, a cardioid pattern that clips on every violin, every instrument. For woodwinds and brass, we’ve found that Beyer ribbons, the little 160s, are money. They are so smooth, and they’re deaf as a door nail to the others. Then we use Sennheiser MKH 50 and MKH 40 for area miking. Some Schoeps. The main left-right pair are the new Royer 122Vs, the new valve mic. Their ribbons sound phenomenal as a left-right pair. And I use a lot of Peluso mics, the P12 pair over the woodwind section.”
“In our Music and the Spoken Word, we used to be very minimalist and understated,” says broadcast audio engineer Jason Graham, who joined the team about six years ago after stints at Berklee, BYU and a few studios. “Now we have this quasi-classical feel with a film score aspect to it. If we have a little bit more of a Broadway tune, then we can emphasize the close mics and that feel. Then the next number might be Handel’s Messiah and we want a big wide choir sound. So we have the best of both worlds in miking. I think we tend to lean more toward area and room mics. That’s the foundation of the sound.”
It’s hard to overestimate how important the “sound” is to so many Mormons, and others, around the world. It’s the familiar voice of a Church leader, delivering a message from a pulpit with two DPA 4081s in a custom mount. And it’s the familiar voices of the Choir, in an acoustically magnificent Tabernacle, through the finest audio gear, mixed by some fantastic engineers who are comfortable and creative in their milieu. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The producer’s desk behind the API Vision includes three API 2500 Bus Compressors and the 6-channel API 6500 surround compressor.
“I used to hang out in Temple Square as a child while my parents would go to General Conference, many years ago,” says Lefler, who will be retiring this year. “It’s been a big part of my life from the very beginning. Then I studied voice and violin in school. I’ve done 66 General Conferences since, haven’t missed one in 33 years. I know enough to know that I could never be in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But I get to record them, just how I like to hear them. I am truly blessed to be a part of it.”
The LDS Audio Team
These are the guys who really make it happen.
Mixers: Trent Walker, Jason Graham, Milo Lefler
Post Engineer: Adam Berrett
FOH Engineers: Chris Martin and Joey Russell
Monitor Engineers: Curt Garner, Troy Morgan, Ben Warner
System Engineers: Sean Mcfarland, Jerrick Mitchell, Sean Adams.
The flyaway pack, which audio engineers bring around the world, includes: 48 Channels API 8200 Summing Mixers; (5) Joe Co Black Box recorders; 48 API preamps, 24 channels Millennia HV3D preamps, API 2500 Bus Compressor, and Grace Headphone Amplifier.