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The Secrets of My Success, Pt. 2

Last time, I gave you the first two secrets of acquiring knowledge. I’ve employed the crazy tactic of reading the manual and reading online help for years and learned a ton. But sometimes, the answer you’re searching for is not there, or you are still not getting the results you want. At that point, you have to expand your search radius. 

Image courtesy of Jacob Bøtter

Image courtesy of Jacob Bøtter

Contact Tech Support

This goes overlooked more than it should. It’s true that some companies have terrible phone support (we’re looking at you, Blackmagic…) but others are stellar. I’ve had some tech support staff help troubleshoot problems that turned out to not be theirs. One even contacted support at another company and helped me solve a tricky problem between platforms. 

I have learned so much by talking with good tech support reps. Often times, I learn not only about their product, but about a protocol, system or just how something works. Good tech support teams are invaluable and when you find them, you want to keep their number close. 

Use Your Network

I put this last for a reason. I’m a big fan of having a network of people I can call when I get stuck. But I usually only call on them after I exhausted the above options. The reason for this is simply time. Most often, I can find an answer quicker in the manual, online or with Google than I can from a friend. My friends are great, but they’re also busy. I don’t expect them to drop everything and help me solve a problem.

Sometimes I’ll shoot a quick text to a friend with a question, but if I don’t hear back right away, I’ll work through the previous steps. Many times, by the time they get back to me, I have my answer. There are times that I can’t find an answer, or the question is so specific that I really do need advice or counsel from a friend, and that’s really the best use of your network. 

If I want to know how to invert a selection in Photoshop, I’m not going to ask my friend Ken—even though he could surely tell me. I can find that on Google in under a second. But if I’m trying to decide if I should upgrade to Photoshop CC or stick with CS5, we’re going to have a conversation. See the difference?

Bonus Round: Use the Search Box

This is something else I get all the time; someone will ask me, “Hey, I think you wrote an article on thus and so a while back. Do you know where it is?” Chances are, the answer is no, I have no idea. I write well over 200 articles a year and have been doing so for 7 years. Even if I did remember writing the post—which I probably don’t—I couldn’t tell you the URL. 

But, Squarespace has this great search tool. The search box is right over there on the right, and you too can do exactly what I’m going to do; type some keywords into the search box and see what comes up. Again, you could email me and wait 2-4 weeks for me to do a quick search on my site and send you the result, or you could do it yourself. Not that I mind hearing from all of you, but you can probably get the answer faster on your own. 

So that’s it. That’s how I look so smart all the time. I learned a while ago that I don’t need to know all the answers, I just need to know where to find them. Today, that’s easier than ever. And you can do it from your phone. To be fair, I am really good at seeing how a whole bunch of disparate information fits together in a cohesive whole. That’s a natural talent that I’ve worked hard to hone. But you too can learn this skill. It all starts with a quick glance around the old inter-webs.

Roland

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The Secrets of My Success, Pt. 1

I get a lot of questions from other tech leaders. And I’m OK with that. I really do enjoy helping people and solving problems. But I’m only one person, and I’m a busy one at that. Sometimes, emails and twitter questions can pile up and go weeks without being answered. I generally get to them eventually, but I feel bad when it take so long. 

In the interest of spreading the wealth (of knowledge), I’m going to share with you the secret to acquiring knowledge. Learning new things has been one of my keys for staying employed, and I think it’s one thing that makes me good at what I do. So here you go; some of the secrets I’ve employed to learning more about this crazy trade.

Read the Manual

Yes, I know. Most of us pride ourselves on being able to take any new piece of gear out of the box and start using it without reading the manual. Well-designed equipment will even make that possible—at least to some extent. But when you start getting into the technical details of how to do something, often the fastest way to figure it out is read the manual. 

I can’t tell you how many questions I’ve answered from people by simple downloading the manual for the product they’re having trouble with and reading it. Sometimes, I even cut and paste the relevant section in my answer. 

Often, you will even discover cool features of a product that you didn’t know existed by reading the manual. I don’t even know how many times I’ve thought to myself, “I wish this box would do …” only to find it does because I read the manual.

I will acknowledge that many manuals are not worth the paper they’re not printed on (everything is a PDF now, right?) I’ve seen a manual for a mixer say, “The PFL button engages PFL mode,” and nothing more about it. Well, now that’s super-helpful isn’t it. I sort of figured pushing a button labeled PFL would do something related to PFL. And if you’re familiar with what PFL is, you probably don’t need that less than helpful sentence. But if you don’t know what PFL is, you need to go searching. 

Use Online Help

More and more software is coming with built-in help that is actually useful. Just the other day, we were trying to figure out how to run a particular report in our new system-design software. We knew what we wanted was possible, but it wasn’t immediately obvious. So I hit the big ? button. It took me to online help section that eventually led me to the solution. 

More and more, companies are using YouTube for really helpful instruction videos. I was trying to learn some new to me lighting software a while back, and discovered a whole slew of videos from the creator of the software. My learning curve shortened dramatically.

Again, I’ve done this for others. Many times, when I get a question about software, I’ll either launch my copy or download a demo and look for help. It’s amazing how many times the answer is right there. But sometimes the answer is there, but it doesn’t work. I was trying to convince a Blackmagic routing switcher to work the other day and while the manual told me what to do, I wasn’t getting the result I wanted. In that case, it’s time to pull out the big guns.

Use the Google

Google is probably the single greatest technical resource for a technical director today. You really should learn how to use it. Seriously. I’ve had questions come in and I’ve literally typed the question into Google and sent out a response based on my findings. 

See, here’s the thing. Chances are, someone else has already needed to do what you’re trying to do. And they’ve probably already written something about it online. And Google knows where it is. Now, you could email me and ask, or you could just go to Google. Google is faster, by the way. 

Google has become really good at taking in natural language questions and giving you good results. I was going to give you an example, but I do it so regularly that it’s become like breathing; I don’t even think about it. Just try it. 

Someone asked me once if I had any online resources for training volunteers. You know what I did? I used the Google (and reminded them about this cool site called ChurchTechArts). When someone asks if I’ve heard about an obscure product, I use the Google. Do I remember where an article by someone is on a particular topic? Use the Google.

Next time, more top tips for acquiring knowledge!

“Gear

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Field Guide to AVL Renovations: Develop System Objectives

We’re continuing on in our series of AVL renovation. I should point out that almost all of this applies to new builds as well—though I hear from more churches who are upgrading and remodeling than building. Last time we talked about design, or more accurately, where in the design process the AVL guys should be brought in (answer: early!). 

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most oft forgotten aspects of an AVL system renovation: Defining the system objectives. Put another way, what do you want the system to do?

Don’t Ask the Wrong Questions

I hear from churches all the time asking for advice. I love to give advice, so I’m happy to oblige. However, sometimes, it’s really hard. I get questions like, “We want to upgrade our sound mixer to a digital mixer. Which one do you recommend?” Or, “Which projector do you recommend for a center screen?” Or even, “We have a 300 seat room, which speakers should we install?”

Those are all questions that are all but impossible to answer. The reason is, they are asking the wrong question. There are usually several options that I could recommend. But without knowing what they want the system to do, I can’t do anything but give you brands and products I like.

The Right Questions

Before you ask for specific equipment suggestions, ask yourself some questions first.

  • What benefit to we expect to see from this new technology? How does it advance the mission of our church?
  • How will this improve our services? Will this lead more people into worship or will it be distracting?
  • What do we want this new gear to do for us? How should it be better than what we have now?
  • Who will be running it? What is their skill level, and how quickly do they learn new things?
  • Are we getting into this because it’s cool? Or are there really good reasons for this new technology?
  • What specific capacities do we need? If it’s an audio console, think inputs, outputs, mix buses, FX, remote mixing, digital snakes, personal mixers, etc. For a projector it might be how bright do we need, screen size, resolution, inputs, ease of mounting and servicing, or even should we consider a video wall?
  • Do you have a budget? Is that budget realistic?

There are plenty more questions we could delve into, but most get pretty specific pretty quickly. That should get you started.

Develop Your Objectives

Armed with the answers to those questions, you should be able to come up with a pretty clear set of objectives for this technology purchase or upgrade. With that in mind, you can start looking at options. The field will narrow quickly when you have a good idea of what you want a piece of gear to do. 

You will often find several options that will suit your needs. At that point, it comes down to what brands the dealer you’re working with carries, or which ones may have better service options. Consider which one will work with your existing equipment and even which one you like more.

Most of the equipment I’ve purchased over the years has been chosen specifically because it meets my design objectives. Sometimes it comes down to two products and I choose based on the one I like better. Maybe it’s their software, the interface, or that I have a better relationship with the rep. Those aren’t top line criteria, but they do help you decide at the end.

Above all, know why you want to upgrade or purchase. When you know why, it makes it a lot easier to come up with the what. Next time, we’ll talk budgets.

Gear Techs

CTA Classroom: Using Auxes, Groups, VCAs & Matrixes Pt. 4

We’re finally wrapping up our tour of the alternate ways we can mix a signal. Last time, we dealt with the aux and group layers, today we’ll key in on VCAs and the matrix mix.

Using VCAs

VCAs, as we mentioned before, are basically remote controls for your faders. You can assign a collection of faders to a VCA and then control the level of all of those faders using a single VCA. I use VCAs for giving me a way to control the overall mix of the band on a few faders. In our setup, we have drums, guitars, keys, perc or winds (depending on the week), BGVs and wedges. A couple of notes.

Some like to put the bass into the drum VCA, and there’s good reason to do so. I don’t because I have enough faders to do most of my mixing on channel faders. It’s a preference thing and you can try it both ways to see what works best. I also use a VCA for my wedges because I can. By assigning the aux masters that I use for monitors to a VCA, I can keep those aux masters on another layer out of my way and turn all four monitors on and off with a single fader.

This is just one of the many ways to lay out your VCAs. Image courtesy of APB Dynasonics

I’ve also created a single band VCA in the past that controlled all instrument and vocal inputs. I didn’t use it for mixing, but for taking the entire band out in one button press (on that desk, a VCA mute muted all the channels, including monitors). I still had my individual VCAs as well, and I did some mixing on them. 

Any time you want to control a group of inputs as a whole, a VCA is a great way to go. Drums are a perfect example because once you get the various drum mic's dialed in and sounding like a kit, you typically want to raise and lower the level of the drums, not the toms and hat (well sometimes you do…). The VCA will maintain the relative mix balance between the channels but give you “master” volume control over all of them. 

Background vocals are similar. Get your blend set up correctly, then mix them with a single fader. Once you see what you can do with them, possibilities abound. 

Using the Matrix

For a novice sound engineer, a matrix mix can be really confusing. I remember years ago encountering my first matrix mix. It was at a large church, and they mixed on a large analog console. In that case, they used the matrix to balance out the relative levels between the main speakers and the downfills. When the tech guy showed me that system, I asked, “OK, but how do the signals get into the matrix.” His reply was, “You just turn these knobs up.” 

I knew that. What I didn’t know was the source of those knobs. Apparently he didn’t either because he never did answer me. I finally resorted to the manual and learned it wasn’t that mysterious. 

As I mentioned in the descriptive post on the matrix, modern digital consoles have blurred the definition of a matrix. On many consoles, they can be used like auxes, in that you can send any or all channels to a matrix mix. Other consoles only let you send the groups there, perhaps with some limited number of channels.

The columns are the inputs into the matrix, the rows are the individual matrix mixes. I use this to level-balance the band and speaking mic's, build lobby and video mixes, and drive the FOH Buttkicker.

So what do we use them for? Well, in our church, I use them for sending mixes to various outboard locations; video, CD, 2-track board mix, lobby, cry room, things like that. I use my aforementioned grouping system to balance out the levels, then use eight of my twelve matrix mixes for driving those destinations.

Sometimes, you just need a spare mix for something, but don’t want to burn an aux or a group. I use a matrix for driving my butt kicker up at FOH. It’s driven by a single input—my sub aux—but by passing it through a matrix, I can set the delay for FOH and have an easy, single-fader control for level in the booth.

I also use a matrix mix for my FFT analyzer. By putting both L&R into a mono matrix, it combines them and makes it easy to compare the output of the desk to the measurement mic. This allows me to pad the level down so it matches up properly in my audio interface.

Uses for a matrix are really limited only by your imagination. Just don’t overcomplicate the system just so you can use all your matrix mixes. Remember, the goal is not to use 100% of the capabilities of the board just because you can. We use these tools to make life easier and get done what we need to.

And that’s the goal of this whole series; to give you ideas on how to use the tools you have to the greatest good. Now go read your manual and come up with some better routing ideas...

As we wrap up, I want to link to ABP-Dynasonics. Not only do they make great analog consoles, they also have some of the nicest drawings of those consoles on the web. I'm thankful they are available as they make great reference pictures. I reviewed a ProDesk 4 a while back; it's a great mid-priced analog console.

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