Distributing Worship Music: Technical and Legal Solutions


The 150th Psalm contains an invitation to Praise the Lord through music.

We are instructed to "praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals."

Just as music enhances worship, your church's duplication capability can be used for more than distributing recorded sermons.

Distributing worship music on disc introduces some small technical and legal ramifications in addition to those of distributing the spoken word. Even though the requirements for music distribution are slightly different, they can be addressed with proper planning.

The main technological concerns arise because good music recording calls for more extensive equipment and skill than recording the spoken word. It also calls for more attention to sound qualities, and introduces more subjective, artistic factors into the production. Of course, the equipment for duplicating and printing the finished product is exactly the same.

Legally, music recording requires more attention because the rights to the music often are not owned by the performers (unless the musical work is an original composition). The pastor himself, conversely, usually produces the text of a sermon. He therefore owns the copyrights and give permission for the sermon to be recorded and distributed. However, the several pieces of music used in a single service could all be owned by separate entities.

Technological Nuances

The principal difficulties with recording music for distribution lie in getting good source material to the mixer, and then taking a good 'mix' from the board to the recording device. Considerations include microphone types and placement, use of the mixer and it's effects, and editing your content (where appropriate). Entire trade journals are dedicated to this science and art, which has evolved over many years.

However, where most of those articles deal with a space where the acoustical environment is ideal, i.e. the recording studio, event recording has unique challenges. When a live performance is recorded, new variables are created. For example:

The effect of sound reinforcement on the space. Sound reinforcement, the process of naturally amplifying the participants in an event for all to hear, can introduce problems with recording. Monitors and loudspeakers can feed the signal into the recording microphones a second time, with just enough of a hesitation to make the source sound sloppy. Electrical equipment can introduce a hum or a buzz.

The effect of the audience on the space. People affect the acoustical space in at least two ways: 1. By dampening sound. Clothing, hair, and personal items serve to absorb sound, where empty church pews and walls can act as reflectors. Some concert halls actually attempt to compensate for or imitate this effect by installing retraceable curtains where an audience would sit.

2. By creating sound. Coughing, moving, shuffling papers, applause, whispering, breathing, cell phones - you name it, we've all heard it. Usually we hear it right in the rests. Occasionally you even pick up an audience member signing along - perhaps inserting an extra solo "hallelujah" in the grand pause at the end of Handel's most well known chorus by the same name.

Regardless of the space design, careful planning, or experience of the technician, not but experimentation will solve all of the problems associated with recording.

This article cannot serve to address all of those problems (no is its author qualified to do so). But we can offer the following advice: Install the recording equipment and duplication equipment well ahead of your big event, and do some test runs. While this seems obvious now, many (including myself) have made the mistake of attempting to create and calibrate and entire system without adequate planning and forethought.

In other words, if you play to distribute your Christmas Music Program, you should be recording services in November.

Now that you feel sufficiently nervous about the things that could go wrong, please try to relax a little bit. While you could read every article ever published on recording in churches and purchase every piece of hi-tech equipment in the latest gear catalog, it doesn't have to be that involved to get a good recording. The important thing is to address as many variables as possible before the performers even arrive.

Several years ago, I was asked to record a children's school choir performing a handful of Sunday-school songs as a gift for a local church leader. New to recording, and operating on a budget, I used three generic sub-$25 microphones that I had picked up from a catalog, a 4-channel Behringer mixer, and borrowed an old audio CD-recorder ('Start-Rec') from my office. I dragged them all through the snow into a back room of the church. An hour later, I loaded them back into my car and stuck the CD I had made in the CD-player. I was startled by the quality of the sound. The levels were perfect, the children sounded like angels, and the piano was balanced just right.

Now, the only reason I got away with recording so hastily and with such limited equipment was because I had done a test run - I knew how everything worked, and had limited the number of variables, so that I would be dealing with as few potential problems as possible. I knew that I would be working with children that had a minimal attention span. I knew that I was not a recording guru. So I limited myself - no fancy effects, no editing after the fact, no extra cables or confusing equipment, and the results were stellar.

If your church already has a sound system, sometimes a line out of the existing mixer into a recording device is all you need to get started. If not, a handful of microphones and a small mixer will be necessary. Even if you don't have any expertise with audio, mixers and you don't plan to use all of the switches and knobs onboard, a mixer is an inexpensive way to take care of pre-amplification problems and get a stereo to your recorder.

As for recording devices, Tascam makes a reasonably priced CD recorder that is simple to use. The CD-RW750 has RCA and optical/coax S/PDIF I/Os, so you can record to it from practically any audio source. You can digitally adjust gain and make custom fade-ins/fade-outs from 3-30 seconds. It also has a remote control, which gives a little flexibility when you can't be everywhere in the sanctuary at once.

Distributing a finished product is actually the easiest part. Most churches with full duplication ministry capabilities pre-print the discs during the week, so that they are ready to record and distribute after a live service. Then they use a simple, manual copier to churn out copies as soon as the service is over.

Paper stick-on CD labels are tempting to use, but you can give your church a more professional look by printing directly on the CD. Inkjet CD printers are as easy to use as paper printers, and save you the trouble of having to apply the labels to the CD. Microboards Technology's Print Factory is widely used by churches because of its high-resolution print quality and the low-cost per disc in ink use. A single $60 cartridge does up to 600 full-color CDs, and does them at a rate of 50 or more per hour. CD Printers usually come with simple to use label design software free of charge. For example, you can test the software that comes with the Print Factory by visiting www.surething.com and downloading a free trial version.

Other popular label-design software, such as Acoustica (www.acoustica.com) also supports printing to the Print Factory. Acoustica has some creative features specifically designed for creating music CDs, such as the ability to import the playlist directly from Easy CD creator, Nero, iTunes, Winamp, Acoustica, Emusic, and other popular programs onto the label design.

The final step is the duplication. Making the copies of the disc is as easy as copying paper. One of the secrets to a successful duplication ministry is throughput: The ability to rapidly distribute the recording immediately after an even, keeping up with demand. Generally speaking, the trick to rapid duplication is threefold:

More recorders = more discs per hour. A tower duplicator can have up to 10 recorders in a single unit. That means that instead of getting one disc at a time, you get ten discs every three minutes.

Human-friendly design. A CD duplicator needs to be easier to operate than a photocopier. Not only will that reduce error, but also it will increase confidence and satisfaction among your volunteers. A good tower duplicator will have an easy-to-read interface and a minimal number of buttons.

No moving parts. The human hand and eye are faster than the robotics available on most duplicators. If you want to leave a machine running overnight and have it unload and load it's own discs, then automation is right for you. Some churches use automation so that its office can create discs for outreach programs to move-ins and distribute recordings of services to shut-ins. But if you want to get the duplication done right away, a volunteer's fingers will outperform robotics every time, hands down.

Legal Nuances

As mentioned in the beginning, the recording and distribution of worship music introduce some legal issues that are more problematic than just distributing the spoken word. Some churches have responded to the issue by eliminating the music from their recordings, distributing only the text of the sermon. Some have sought for a means to provide the music by searching out copyrights. Others have ignored the copyright laws entirely.

Copyrights give the owner of a piece of text, music, art or other intellectual property the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform, and display the work. Copying, distributing, performing, or displaying someone else's work without permission is illegal. More importantly, it is unethical.

Unfortunately, well-meaning leaders in churches may be some of the most egregious offenders of copyright law.

Perhaps this is because of certain myths that have been perpetuated or justified in the minds of many people. Let us debunk them here.

When you perform a piece of music yourself, you have not gained rights to record the piece - it is still owned by the composer or whomever they have transferred the rights to. Purchasing the sheet music does not give the author's consent to allow you to reproduce it by recording. When you buy sheet music, you still do now own the copyrights.

Copyright law applies to the whole or parts. If, for example, you write your own music but use another's text, you may still be violating copyright, because the text has standalone copyright protection.

The lack of a copyright notice does not result in the loss of copyright to the author. An author does not have to register his/her copyright with the government for it to be in effect. Copyrights may be applicable even if the work has never been published.

The passing of the composer does not necessarily free up the copyrights either; when the author dies, the work typically remains under copyright, for at least an additional 70 years.

In short: If you didn't write it, you don't have recording rights to it unless you have been expressly (in writing) told so.

A daunting obstacle to recording church services? It would seem so. The only resolution, it would seem, is for the church to approach each publisher or composer of every piece of music in the program and individually contract the rights to use their music in a recording. This is hardly a practical solution.

But there is an easier way. Certain entities have emerged that act as a mediator between performers (including churches) and publishers or composers. These entities act as a clearinghouse, simplifying the process by charging a flat or per-recording fee to the churches and handling the copyright permissions on a larger scale on behalf of many churches with many different publishers.

Christian Copyright Licensing International ( www.ccli.com), for example, is an Oregon based organization whose mission is to make such activities easier while providing legal protection. The premise behind their service is that "copyright law is fair, but not practical".

CCLI pays royalties to songwriters based on calculations of the church's son copying activity. The church has access to the copyright owners of many different words through a single point of contact. In addition, the Church Copyright License covers reprinting songs, hymns, and lyrics in a church's bulletins, customized hymnals, overhead transparencies, slides, and special arrangements.

The way the Church Copyright License offered by CCLI works is that CCLI charges the church a fee based on the average number of attendees at that church. They also set a contractual limit to the number of recordings that the church can distribute. The church gains all of the benefits of legal copyright adherence without doing all of the work.

Since the main purpose of the license is to protect churches from violating copyright laws during normal ministry use of intellectual property, certain limitations exist to the service. For example, according to Paul Herman, CCLI's Marketing Manager, the license is not designed to allow a church to create commercial recordings for large-scale fundraising. The church, for example, can only produce a quantity of recordings that would not exceed 15% of their church size per service. Churches can, however, charge for those recordings, up to a fixed amount depending on the type of medium used.

In addition, "The recording feature of the license only includes live music. In other words you cannot re-record or re-duplicate and accompaniment track", says Paul.

In all, CCLI claims that over 140,000 churches in North America alone are using their service to have copyright access to over 150,000 songs.

By way of experiment, I used CCLI's online database to see whether the pieces from a special music program from several years ago would be covered by the license. Pieces included Mark Hayes' 'The God of Love My Shepherd Is', 'Praise Him' by Craig Courtney, 'Oh Sing Jubilee to the Lord' by Erik Hoff, the Hallelujah Chorus from Beethoven's 'Mount of Olives', and 'Before the Marvel of This Night' by Carl Schalk. Only the last in the list did not turn up in the database, the others all showed up as covered by the license or residing in the public domain.

Here again, churches should exercise caution even with a song or composition that is in the public domain "publishers may have copyright protection for their particular arrangements" according to Herman.

In the case of a song that isn't covered by the license, the church would have to approach the publisher directly for permission to record it during their service and distribute the recording. But cases like that seem to be the exception, not the rule.

In fact, even some songs not listed in the database are still covered by the CCLI license, if they are from a catalog that CCLI has an agreement with.

When I asked Paul Herman how confident he was that CCLI's agreements covered most of the songs typically being used in worship today, his answer was positive. "I would say that 90-95% would be a safe number. [The number is] really based on the publishers and song owners with whom we have an agreement and the various catalogs that we represent. In other words, if a publisher or a catalog is represented by the Church Copyright License then their songs are covered."


Technically, recording worship music is not overly difficult or expensive, it just requires time and planning. Even someone who is new to digital music can assemble and operate a reasonable recording and duplication system using the example above. Manufacturers like Tascam, Acoustica, Microboards, and others have designed equipment with the needs of churches in mind - taking in to consideration ease of operation and budgetary constraints.

Legally, recording worship music could be complicated, were it not for the help of organizations like CCLI that manage copyright agreements between many churches and many publishers. Thanks to their services, it should not be hard for a church to be in compliance with the laws that govern copyright, while simultaneously fulfilling their ethical obligation to the artists that produce the work of the church.

We also help to fulfill the commandment to worship through music. When he wrote the 150th chapter, the Psalmist probably never considered the potential that CDs and DVDs would represent for extending worship service outside the sanctuary. Now you have.

Aaron Pratt is the marketing & Communications Manager for Microboards Technology. Aaron has written for several different publications on CD and DVD related topics. He has also held a wide range of positions at his church, including serving as an organist and choir director for over a decade, and as a financial clerk and an auditor. Aaron is a husband, and a father of five boys.