Tony Cummings talked to Mark Pennells and Zarc Porter about a groundbreaking new app, iSING WORSHIP
With the rise and rise of contemporary worship we have long reached the stage in the British Church where only the most rigidly traditional churches will insist on sticking solely to organ accompaniments to accompany their congregations and the battle to bring electric guitars, synthesizers and drum kits into the sanctuary has been largely won. However, although there are some churches around today with reasonably-skilled musicians to provide a suitable contemporary accompaniment to help the new breed of worship leaders there are still a larger number of churches which simply don't have enough musicians to fill the role. The lack is exacerbated when one considers the worship needs of smaller, home-based groups who, even if they possess a musician, are finding that a not very well played acoustic guitar is insufficient to bring out the full dynamic power of the outpourings of Hillsong, Redman, Tomlin, et al. Into this void has emerged an amazing new high tech resource called iSing Worship. Manchester's Innervation Trust are launching iSing Worship on Friday 16th December. It has the potential of revolutionizing worship in thousands of churches and small groups. Cross Rhythms spoke to iSing Worship's innovators Mark Pennells and Zarc Porter about their exciting new resource.
We began by asking Mark to explain what precisely iSing Worship is. "Essentially it's an incredibly advanced backing track player in the form of an app but with several unique features. It's extremely flexible so you can get from a chorus into a quiet instrumental to talk over or into another chorus with the drums only playing or in fact into any other part of the song. You can make all these decisions while the song is playing or you can plan them in advance and save them as a new arrangement. The lyrics are automatically displayed in sync and you can turn the vocals down or off all together. The music has been recorded by some of the UK's best session players and singers but if you prefer, you can opt to play very simple 'unplugged' versions of any song at the push of a button. When we explain all this to people a blank expression usually appears on their faces, probably like the one you've got right now! However, when they've had a chance to use it, that's when they really get it - it's a tough one to explain in words."
We asked the renowned record producer Zarc Porter why he felt there was a need for something like iSingWorship. "Back in the '90s and 2000s we produced a few worship CDs coupled with instrumental backing tracks ('Jumping In The House Of God', 'Re:Source 2000' and '2001'). These were intended as resources for churches and youth groups and many of them went on to see quite a lot of use. However using conventional backing tracks in worship has always been a bit hit and miss and can often feel uncomfortable. This is because the track runs for a set length of time and then stops with no flexibility or ability to repeat sections or change anything. Back in 2000, we talked about trying to write some software to make backing tracks more fluid but the idea ran out of steam mainly due to everyone getting busy on other projects. Then about two years ago I started talking to my brother Laurence, who is a computer programmer and worship leader, about how Apple had managed to build what is actually a pretty powerful computer and put it in a phone. Laurence did some tests on an early iPhone and we worked out that it was possible to do a lot of advanced stuff on these devices including playing and mixing many high quality tracks of audio. Even after all this time, we still get people asking us for more 'Re:Source' material and this project is a natural response to those requests but using today's technology."
Mark added his thoughts, "There are lots of churches with plenty of great musicians, but there are also many who struggle. Even in a big church, it can be difficult for smaller groups to make their worship times effective due to a lack of musicians or resources. For the past few months, we've had a team of beta testers all with vastly different levels of experience trying it out in lots of different situations including some we had never thought of! This has given us loads of valuable feedback and allowed us to make lots of improvements, but it has also highlighted the need for something like this."
So what kind of churches and people did Mark and Zarc envision using the app? Said Zarc, "It's great for people who want to lead worship with acoustic guitar and use it as a flexible backing band in a service where for some reason the band may not be available. People can use it in small and larger house groups where they were previously using commercially available CDs with songs that are often not in congregational friendly keys. Kids groups is another area where it works really well. We've also found that people have been using it to learn to play songs by displaying the chords on the device and looping each section to practise along with. There was even one case where someone was teaching a group of around 20 musicians to play along with it. We've also seen kids getting engaged in their own personal worship times by turning the vocals off and singing along with the lyrics displayed on their iPods."
Recording the backing tracks in a way which could enable do-it-yourself, moment-by-moment mixing and editing was, as Zarc admitted, an extremely laborious task. "It has taken us a long time to get right and it's been a huge challenge. We started by simply allowing the app to jump between any of the song sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc) while the music was playing. However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't the best way to do it. For example, you may want to go from a loud final chorus back to a soft first verse and end the song on a really gentle note. Simply doing a straight cut between sections like that in some songs will sound like a car crash and totally break the flow! After much head scratching, the real breakthrough came when Laurence who, it has to be said, is a complete boffin-type genius, developed this new technology which we've called SATT (Smooth Audio Transition Technology). It took us a long time to crack this process but we're really chuffed with the results and in the end you don't have to think about it at all as everything happens behind the scenes automatically. It's just like having a really experienced worship band behind you where you can indicate to them to repeat a chorus, break down into a quiet section for prayer or wrap the song up, etc."
Mark added, "In terms of the music, Zarc has been able to use his production skills alongside a team of some of the most experienced worship musicians and singers in the UK as well as some equally talented up and coming people. The results are inspiring and engaging, but easy to sing with - an essential balance worth fighting for."
One of the extraordinary features of iSing Worship is that even the most technically inexperienced user will find iSing Worship operationally very simple to use. Said Zarc, "This is something we've worked really hard on. When you realise the power available in modern mobile devices, it's very tempting to add all sorts of interesting things. However, we've focused really hard on making something that someone who is not technical can still use without having to think about what's going on. At its most basic, you can simply plug it into your projector or TV, select a song and press play. You can turn the recorded vocals down or off all together and sing along while all the words are automatically displayed on an external screen. If you want to go deeper and change things around then that's also really simple to do. We've even designed it so that if you press stop, it actually fades the music out very sensitively. Whatever you press at any time, it should still sound good so there's never a need to worry about getting anything wrong in front of a congregation. We designed the software to be really comfortable to operate on an iPod Touch or iPhone, but we also have an iPad version out which looks great and you could even lead worship in a small group on that without plugging it into an external display."
Some of the songs that are available on iSing Worship at its launch
include "Amazing Grace" (Tomlin, Giglio, Newton), "Be Still" (Evans),
"Beautiful One" (Hughes), "Blessed Be Your Name" (Redman),
"Everlasting God" (Brown, Riley),
"Forever" (Tomlin), "Happy Day" (Cantelon, Hughes), "Here I Am To Worship" (Hughes), "Hosanna/Praise Is Rising" (Baloche/Brown), "How Great Is Our God" (Tomlin, Reeves, Cash), "How Great Thou Art" (Hine), "In Christ Alone" (Townend/Getty), "There Is A Redeemer" (Green), "Mighty To Save" (Fielding/Morgan), "Shout To The Lord" (Zschech), "Lord I Lift Your Name On High" (Founds), "God Of Wonders" (Byrd, Hindalong), "Come, Now Is The Time To Worship" (Doerksen), "Your Love Is Amazing" (Brown) and "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" (Watts).
Mark commented, "We've had requests from people to make all the iSing Worship songs and backing tracks available in standard versions too so we are releasing them as a series of albums in sets of 10 songs with instrumentals each on iTunes although obviously these versions don't have all the flexibility associated with the app."
After its launch there will be further songs added to iSing Worship. Said Zarc, "We've already begun work on lots more songs and we're planning to keep releasing them in the future. We're asking people to send in requests via the website as we're very keen to produce the songs that people actually want. We're also publishing a chart of the most requested songs so that people will be able to see what we're working on next. We've already had requests to include previously un-published songs which we are keen to do once we have finished the best known songs."
Zarc continued, "We already have some incredibly exciting plans under way for future updates of the app and we are welcoming as much user feedback as possible. The app itself is free of charge and people can purchase the individual songs they want from the in-built song store so it's really easy to try out. Above all we are all really excited to see it being used to encourage and inspire people to worship God in all sorts of different situations."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.