Building Better Swells and Soundscapes for Your Sunday Morning Gig

If you’re a praise and worship guitarist, you know well the challenges of gearing up for a Sunday morning soundcheck at 6:30 a.m. While your buddies from their gig last night are yet to unpack the van, you’re en route to service with a keg of coffee in fist and a hatchback full of gear.

Each musical setting comes with its own known obstacles and unspoken rules. For Sunday players, the task is simply this: Your job is to provide the soundtrack for a space that cultivates connection to something more, yet if you do your job right, you should essentially go unnoticed. Nobody’s doling out bonus points for perching on a monitor and laying down a tap solo.

This different job description also demands careful gear considerations. While musical styles for Sunday mornings are diverse, one common denominator to most these days is the need for ambient sounds. This article offers up some simple pedal pairings to elevate those essential, washy sounds before, within, and between the songs of your praise and worship set.

Transformational Transitions Using a Synth Pedal and Delay-Reverb Duos

Setting up the space for your set is arguably the most important moment of your Sunday gig. But before your synth player plunks down a predictable pad and gives you the signal to come in, why not harness your soundscape stylings and set the tone yourself? Even better, rather than make this a war of egos, just let the Electro-Harmonix Superego make the case for you.

The Electro-Harmonix Superego, and now Superego+, allow you to hold and freeze any combination of notes. Where this gets interesting in a praise and worship application, however, is with the Gliss effect onboard. Here you not only hold a single sound but seamlessly segue between them in a progression that isn’t interrupted by the attack or decay of the notes or chords you’re playing.

If you’re looking to grab a single synth-like sound, the budget friendly, one-knob wonder that is the Electro-Harmonix Freeze also gets the job done. Use the Freeze to sample a triad or chord and play some subtle, evocative leads on top for your gateway into the service.

For Sunday morning sounds, however, the Electro-Harmonix synth engines need a wingman, one that can take their full-on hum and toss it into a wet wash of reverb and waves of delay. While there are any number of pedals that could do this job, to avoid your praise and worship set looking like a tap dance routine it’s wise to pick a tandem effect and, ideally, one that has a distinctive character.

In my book, any pedal that is equally at home in either a psychedelic experiment or a pre-sermon set is simply brilliant. For this reason, the EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath is a top pick for getting the job done. Not only does its Mix knob allow you to dial in the wet/dry of your incoming Superego synth sound, its Length and Drag knobs give you control over the two axes upon which your signal extends.

Another ideal option for this setup is the recently released Wampler Ethereal. As Brian Wampler commented last year at NAMM, the design of the Ethereal was with praise and worship players in mind. While the pedal’s a great fit for clean lead lines and interludes on its own, when hit with the outgoing sounds of the Freeze, Superego, or Superego+, the tonal terrain of the Ethereal truly lives up to its name and makes for interludes that are inspirational.

Curating Saintly Swells and Shimmery Soundscapes

A traditional volume swell is all about easing into a cavernous space and sustaining your signal in a wave within it. Assuming that you’re already wet with reverb and rocking a volume pedal, there are some other variables you can add to instill your soundscape with otherworldliness, such as shimmers and octaves.

Shimmer delays and reverbs were made for Sunday morning. That upper octave glow that lingers at the horizon is pretty much the sound of the pearly gates. You have a few options for engineering this sound, each with varying levels of customization.

First, if you’re looking for a custom sound there’s no beating a partnership between an effects-loop-equipped analog delay pedal paired with an octave pedal. My go-to is Electro-Harmonix through and through and includes a Memory Man 1100-TT and Micro POG. Since the analog sound gets slightly darker on the repeats, by the time the octaves emerge in the background the brightness is a welcome shine without becoming overbearing. Using a pedal like the 1100-TT also means you can dial in a bit of modulation on the front to add greater contour to the outgoing echoes.

Second, to streamline things come Sunday morning, don’t leave home without packing a little heat from TC Electronic. With both the Hall of Fame 2 and Flashback II featuring new reverb and delay algorithms for shimmer based on TC’s Sub N’ Up octave generator, these stompboxes offer near plug-and-play convenience for cultivating that glorious, shimmering sound. With MASH technology also onboard for both, you have instant expression pedal access.

Once the swell is rolling in like a wave, apply some pressure, and you’ll hear the reverb and shimmer build into a sound at home among stained glass.

Inspirational Interludes: Strategies and Top Picks for Stacking Reverbs

We’re all familiar with the concept of stacking gain pedals. That basic concept is equally applicable for reverb sources and nets some wide-open results for developing a multi-tiered space. Yet again, there is no one way to do this, but there are some ways of doing it better. Here’s a trinity of tips.

First, when partnering up a pair of reverbs, pick two that have different characteristics. These days, I find that the most churchy sounding reverbs out there are those of the "chorale" setting on the Strymon Big Sky. When you take this already vocal-and-vowel inspired algorithm and play it into a second cavernous sounding reverb source, you can’t help but channel a bit of the church choir in your ambient six-string sound.

Second, wet/dry mix and decay controls are all-important when stacking reverbs sources. At least one of your reverbs should have the ability to go to the brink of full wet. Whether your congregation meets in a sandstone building from generations past, a suburban campus, or a modest movie theatre, that little mix knob will make any space feel like a cathedral.

Third, if you’re on a budget, don’t forget that you probably already have one half of the stacking equation taken care of. Just because you have a reverb pedal doesn’t mean you need to retire the reverb on your amp. Crank that up, dial it in, and build on it with a stompbox. When partnered with a pedal that has a mix control you’ll be able to get the ambient depth you need it, but you'll also be able to scale it down to a reasonable setting on your amp when you don’t.

Engineering ambience takes some creativity. Yet for Sunday morning players, cultivating a space for connectivity is essential. So before you head out for the morning, pause to consider how the picks on your pedalboard are going to help set the space.

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