Don't Forget to Check the Cable

We’ve been talking about the transition to IP-based networked AVL systems for quite some time. I just finished up a big install for a church in which every system is IP-based. Audio is Dante, lighting is Streaming ACN and while video was SDI, the router and switcher lived on the network and were remotely controllable. All these systems are extremely flexible, powerful and offer the church great capabilities. They also come with some setup and configuration challenges. I spent as at least 2-3 times the as long getting everything playing nicely as I did actually tuning the PA and building show files.

These system can also be challenging to troubleshoot. And with everything now in IT switches, it’s easy to assume that any problem you have is IP related. However, sometimes, it’s something far more simple—and frustrating. Here are few examples of things I ran into that turned out to be a lot simpler than we originally thought. 

Is It Getting Power?

We installed an RGBW house light that was driven by DMX. The fixtures have their own control box that sends out a proprietary control signal that we initially had some challenges with. Once we worked that out, it all seemed to be working, until we lost half the lights in the youth room. The lights were split into two circuits and two runs of control. Those runs coincided. I spent a few hours trying to troubleshoot the control signal, wondering why it wouldn’t turn on. 

Finally, I grabbed by non-contact voltage tester and found out they weren’t getting AC. I went back to the relay rack and found a fuse blown on the relay tray. Curious as to how the fuse was blown, I shut power off to the relay panel and tested all the hot busses for shorts. Sure enough, we had a short in a different circuit. The electrician accidentally landed a neutral on a hot lug and when we put the relay tray in, it blew the fuse. We didn’t know that, as we hadn’t used that circuit yet. And when we pulled the trays out to connect DMX, we mixed up the order and ended up with the blown fuse in the house light slot. Before you go spending a ton of time trying to sort out IP/IT/DMX/SCAN issues, make sure the fixtures are actually getting power. Lesson learned. 

Is the Pinout Right?

In this same system (it was a frustrating day), we came out of a SCAN gateway to DMX to drive the control box. The gateway used a terminal strip, and the control box used a 5-pin connector. So, we cut the end off a 5-pin cable and landed the wires. My installer had done the exact same thing in another room in this install, so it seemed logical to land the wires the same way.

Three hours of troubleshooting streaming ACN, DMX, gateways and all that nonsense and one of my guys suggested opening up the 5-pin to verify the pinouts. Sure enough, the manufacturer of this 5-pin cable (who will go unnamed, but will not see a ton more business from me) decided that sticking to a single color scheme for all DMX cables is simply too much work. In one cable, shield, data + and data - were bare wire, black and red, respectively. In the other room where I had so much trouble, it was bare wire, red and green. Once I swapped wires, all worked fine. 

Lesson learned; never trust a cable manufacturer to do a good job managing colors in 5-pin (or even 3-pin for that matter) cables. 

In each of these cases, a simple analog cable caused me a ton of headaches. I should have checked them first, but I was sure it was a network issue. When troubleshooting newer systems, don’t forget the basics. Is it hooked up properly? Is it getting power? Is the In cable going to the In port? Often, we spend a lot of time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.


Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.

Better Sounding Video, Pt. 2

As I mentioned last time, in honor of my SALT class on getting better audio for video, I’ve dug up some of the very first posts I wrote for ChurchTechaArts, way back in 2007. The previous post focused on the reason for close-mic’ing your talent, and how to use handheld and shotgun mic’s for that purpose. Today, we’ll consider a few other options. 

Wired Lavaliere

My second favorite way to mic interviews (after a shotgun mic), is the wired lavaliere. I have used these extensively professionally with great results. You don't have to worry about interference and the sound quality is excellent. For wired mics, I really like Sony's ECM-77, though the ECM-66 and 55 are pretty good too. The 77 is great because it is tiny, can be hidden almost anywhere and sounds terrific. If you can’t find those, the Countryman B3 or Tram TR50 are great options. DPA also makes some fantastic (and fantastically small) lavs, though they are spendy. 

Wireless Lavaliers

Ideally, you would use a wireless mic that has a camera mount receiver, such as the Shure FP series. The wireless option gives you the most flexibility because you have no wires to connect you to the talent. As long as you stay in range, and choose a clear frequency, things work great. Be wary of cheapo wireless mics, however. If a camera mounted receiver and body pack combo doesn't cost $400-500 at least, keep looking.

The other big downside to wireless is the simple fact that the RF spectrum is shrinking as the Federal government keeps selling it off. We already lost the entire 700 Mhz band, and it looks like we have about 3 years to vacate the 600 Mhz band. When you use a wireless mic, you’re competing with everything else in the area for clear spectrum, and that’s going to become harder. My rule of thumb is that if the talent isn’t moving, there’s not reason to not wire them. 

Another Wireless Option

A final option is to use a wireless mic that you would use in a live sound application. I used to do this a lot at church because we didn’t have a camera mount wireless system. I’d just take one of the Shure ULX-P (back in the day) mics, set the receiver on the floor next to my tripod, and strap the transmitter on the talent. It works great, though it is a bit of a pain every time I move the camera.

Plugging It All In

All of the applications are assuming your camera has XLR inputs to work with (though the camera mounted receivers usually come with an 1/8" cable). Each of these mics are professional grade solutions for prosumer cameras and above. If your camera has only a 1/8" mic jack, all is not lost. You might be tempted to make up an adapter to take XLR to 1/8". Don't do it. The pre-amps on consumer grade equipment will not function well with these types of microphones.

The better solution is to use an adapter box made just for this purpose, such as the ones from BeachTek. They have a variety of solutions that include phantom power, metering and variable gain. They are well worth the investment (as low as $199).

Now that many people are shooting with DSLRs, a better solution is to buy a small recorder from Zoom or Tascam and capture your audio that way. I’ve shot quite a few trade shows with a Tascam DR-40, and it works great. I have a headphone Y-cable on the headphone output jack and take one side to the mic input on my DSLR (for later audio synchronization) and use the other for monitoring.

Listen Live 

Finally, when you are recording, plug some headphones in and listen to what you are recording. I am amazed and confused when I see people recording audio, but not monitoring it (and I've seen it with professionals as much as non-professionals!). When you listen in, you can hear trouble before it is too late. Make sure you use good headphones that provide good isolation. I've been burned before using cheap "walkman" type headphones and thinking I was hearing clean audio, when what I was really hearing was the person talking in the room.

Hopefully you've found this helpful and you will be on your way to making better, more effective videos that will tell the story without being distracting.

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