Bid Specs--A Better Way

Over the last three posts, I’ve detailed what I think is wrong with the Bid Spec process. It’s too broad, too specific, it’s bad for integrators, and it’s bad for churches. Ultimately, no one really wins in a job like that. I believe that most integrators want to develop a partnership with their clients. In a partnership, everyone does their part and everyone wins. Those are the systems we come away from saying, “Wow…that’s a great AVL installation!” 

Win-Win Partnership

One of my pet peeves of the Church is that some inside the Church seem to feel that because it’s, “All for Jesus…” that they should get stuff for free, or at least heavily discounted. I know builders, electricians, plumbers, etc. who won’t work for churches any more because they were constantly beat up over their fees. My brothers, this should not be. Even when I was a TD on church staff I saw this, and I campaigned against it. I told our pastors, “When you stop taking a salary, then you can tell the contractors they have to cut their rate.” 

All companies, even those that serve the Church, are in business to make money. They have to in order to stay in business. And believe me…you want your integrator to stay in business! We can probably all recount stories of integrators who worked for cheap or free because it was for the Church, then went out of business leaving all those churches with no support. 

A good win-win partnership means the church gets a system that is designed properly for them and will accomplish their goals and the integrator gets paid fairly for, without having to work 20 hour days to get it done. 

And don’t play the game of, “If you give me a killer deal on this project, there will be plenty more after this to make it up on,” all the while planning on moving on to the next integrator when this project is done. 

Choose Based on Compatibility

There are a lot of good integrators our there, and each has a slightly different personality. Not every integrator is the best choice for every church. I often tell TDs that when choosing an integrator, pick someone you won’t mind hanging out with for a few months, because you’re going to spend a lot of time together. You should meet the person who will actually be running your project and make sure he gets what you’re trying to do. 

If you are a more traditional church, it may not be the best idea to pick an integrator known for creating big, loud, modern concert-like systems. Sure, that company can do a simple, traditional system, but it’s not in their wheelhouse. The reverse is also true. Some companies do biggest and best. And if that’s what you need, go for it. But others excel in delivering a great system at an excellent value and that might be more in line with your church. Make sure the two philosophies align.

Create Transparency

The best partnerships are based on transparency and trust. Neither party is holding back and secretly trying to win at the expense of the other. As a church, don’t bring in an integrator with the idea of a project being one way, then withhold information or switch it up after they’ve signed the agreement. 

Make sure everyone that is going to have a say in the system is in the room when decisions are made. I’ve seen churches completely exclude the TD from an AVL renovation, and when the system is done, the TD has nothing good to say about the process or the integrator. This is inexplicable to me, though I’ve heard some pastors claim their TD “only wants to spend money.” This is a shortsighted approach. 

The integrator should show you what you’re paying for things, as well. However, be careful about trying to whittle down every line item price to the lowest cost you can find on the internet. There will always be someone willing to sell any particular item for less than your integrator. But are they going to be sure it’s the right product for you, install it and support it? Probably not. Support after the sale costs money, don’t put your support system out of business. 

The Better Way

Ultimately, if I were choosing an integrator for a project (something I’ve done as a TD many times), I would do it based on relationships. If you’re new to the market, get some recommendations from similar churches who had successful projects. Talk to friends and find out who they like. Then interview 2-3 of the top recommended companies for you. You may need to pay their travel expenses to come out and see you for a day or two. Choose the company that gets you and that you like talking with, then go all-in with them. After the design agreement has been signed, they can begin working up the details for your project. 

A good integrator will be able to give you ballpark pricing and design ideas beforehand so you know where you’re starting, but don’t expect a fully fleshed out design document until you’ve agreed to pay for it. 

Well, there you go. My thoughts on how to best choose an integrator for you project. Having been on both sides of the fence, I’m confident this is in fact, the best way. Choose wisely!

CTA Review: QSC TouchMix 16, Pt. 2

Last time, we started looking at the QSC TouchMix 16 digital mixer. It’s an interesting concept; a powerful mixer in a small package with no physical faders. It relies on a touch screen—and a not very good one at that—for fader control. While I didn’t love that part, there is a lot I like. Well, except for the non-recallable head amp controls. 

Why, Oh Why?

Instead of encoders, we find analog controls that sit in two rows below the two rows of mic inputs. They are not hard to use, but making them recallable would have been nice. I know manufacturers have to cut costs somewhere to keep the price point competitive, but I really wish we could do recallable head amps on all digital mixers these days. 

Sensible Controls

A series of buttons allow the user to access the mixers deep feature set quickly. Below the phantom power and mixer power buttons are five easy-to-activate rectangle buttons labeled Wizard, Info, FX Mute, FX Master and Mute Groups. The Wizard button helps inexperienced users set gain and route channels to effects. Info is basically a help menu and is pretty good. FX Mute is a nice touch, as it kills all the effects in a single button press that is always on the surface. FX Master takes you right to the FX Master page—shocking, I know. Mute groups brings up a set of on-screen buttons for the 8 mute groups. Below those buttons are the Phones, Talk and Monitor buttons. Phones and Monitor bring up an on-screen volume indication for those two outputs. Talk does exactly what you would expect it to. That’s a common theme on this mixer; it’s laid out well and acts the way you’d expect it to. Even novice users should have no trouble getting up and running quickly. I like user interfaces that are intuitive and make sense, and this section of the TouchMix is good in that regard. 

The big knob on the lower right side of the mixer has a cool blue ring around it and there are five buttons surrounding the top half. Four are user-definable and come pre-programmed for left-right navigation, cue clear and clear clip. The final button is the channel polarity flip control. Next to the touch screen we find three more buttons; Home, Menu and Record/Play. Home takes you back to the main channel display quickly, so if you get lost, that gets you back. Menu brings up the system menu, which has a bunch of controls for how the mixer behaves, sets security, gives access to aux and effects overviews and more. Record/Play brings the transport controls to the bottom of the screen.

Easy to Use

In use, the TouchMix is fairly easy to get around on, with one caveat that I’ll get to in a minute. Routing is simple and intuitive, the display is clear and bright and I never struggled to figure out how to do something. It offers two USB ports on the back, one of which comes with a Wi-Fi adapter installed. The other can be used for any FAT-32 formatted drive and can record 22 channels; all 20 inputs plus stereo mix. You can even play them back by setting each channel to take signal from the track rather than the input. It makes for easy virtual soundcheck. 

Better With an iPad

As I mentioned last time, the biggest problem I have with the TouchMix is the touchscreen. I found it sluggish to respond and occasionally overshot my targets. The version 2.1 firmware helped some, however. The best way to use this mixer in my opinion is with an iPad. While the TouchMix can be its own Wi-Fi access point, I found it worked much more reliably when I connected it to my Airport Extreme. 

The iPad app is really quite good. Where fine selections are hard on the mixer screen, it’s easy on the iPad. All functions are available—including all set up and configuration settings—from the iPad, so after gain is set on each channel, I’d walk away and use the iPad exclusively. This is really why I wish the head amps were digitally controlled; I’d never use the surface for anything if they were. It also helps that the iPad is multi-touch; the TouchMix is not. 

An iPhone app is also available, and it’s really designed for monitor mixing. You can allow a device to access all mixes (including the main) or just one through the configuration screen, making it easy for band members to mix their own ears. 

In use, the TouchMix works well enough. When paired with an iPad, it would do well for small gigs, student rooms, ancillary rooms and the like. I suspect it was really designed for small bands to set on the side of the stage to mix their shows. It feels like a set it and forget it mixer. But it does have some cool features and the number of aux mixes is surprising for a mixer in this size and price class. I did crash it once or twice during testing, and I saw a few configuration menus that weren’t complete. A reboot cleared most of that up, and to be fair, the crashes happened right after a firmware update. There’s probably some software work left to do, but overall, it’s a decent mixer in the right application.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

CTA Review: QSC TouchMix 16 Digital Mixer Pt. 1

When I first saw the QSC TouchMix at the NAMM show in 2014, my first impression was, “Meh.” After all, here was another small mixer with a touch screen instead of actual faders. I spent a few minutes with it and came away unimpressed. So when I was asked to review one, I looked again at the spec sheet, and my interest was piqued. 

Impressive I/O

On paper, the mixer actually does look pretty good. It cones in two versions, the 16 and 8, and aside from I/O count, they are identical. We’ll focus on the 16 input here. It’s called 16, because of the 16 mic inputs, 4 of which are combo jacks. There are also 2 stereo inputs on TRS jacks that bring the total input count to 20. There are technically 10 aux mixes on it; I say technically because 1-6 are mono, and 7/8 and 9/10 are stereo. The mono mixes leave the desk on XLRs while the stereo auxes have TRS jacks, which would make it hard to break them up. So, you really have the capability to do 8 monitor mixes, which is impressive on a mixer this size.

On most small mixers, you end up burning auxes to do effects, but not on the TouchMix. There are 4 dedicated FX busses that feed a limited selection of reverb, delay, chorus and pitch change effects. There is also a pitch-corrector processor that can be assigned to any channel. This could come in quite handy for vocalists that are, how shall we say, pitch-challenged. There are also 8 DCAs and 8 mute groups, which might be overkill on a 20 channel mixer, but there you go. 

Impressive Power

Internally, the mixer uses 32-bit floating point processing and has 24-bit AD and DA converters. It also features Class-A microphone amps which sound quite good. Each input has a four-band, fully parametric EQ, variable high and low cut filters, a gate, and compressor with a de-esser. The aux outputs also have a four-band parametric, limiter, delay and 4 notch filters for eliminating feedback in wedges. The main output substitutes a 31-band graphic EQ for the parametric. 

Other goodies include a dedicated talkback mic input, separate phones and monitor outputs (on TRS jacks), and four user-assignable buttons for quick access to common tasks. As is becoming common on small digital mixers, the TouchMix features over 100 presets for various types of inputs you’d find in a live setting. I didn’t try them all, but the ones I did were good starting points. I suspect experienced sound guys would ignore them or modify the starting points, but they may be helpful for less experienced operators. If nothing else, those starting points will get you in the ballpark quicker for those gigs when time is short. I’m not opposed to preset libraries for that reason—sometimes you just need to get close, fast.  There are also Wizards that assist in gain set up and effects selection and routing.

Physically, the mixer is quite small at roughly 13”x10”x2”. It uses an external power supply and a beefy power cord. It gets quite warm in operation, which tells me there is a lot going on under the hood. The interface is dominated by the 6”x3.5” color touch screen. It’s capacitive touch, and while it works OK for most operations, it’s not great at precision selections, nor as responsive as an iPad or iPhone. Instead of physical faders, the screen presents banks of 8 virtual faders at a time. You can touch and drag the faders on the screen, or touch the channel then use the large knob to raise or lower the level.

Not So Impressive Screen

In use, I found the touch screen a bit laggy, and sometimes the fader would over-shoot my target level. The screen was honestly the biggest disappointment of an otherwise good mixer. In my view, we all carry around touch screens in our pocket that work quite well. There’s really no excuse for a lousy touch screen these days, especially when it’s the primary interface for using “faders.”

Using the knob is better, but be aware there are ballistics built in; if you spin it fast, the fader moves fast. A quick flick of the knob can take a channel from off to +10 in under a half-second, so be careful. Moving it slower is easily controllable however, and pushing down enables a fine control mode. Again, this is a miss in my book. It’s possible that a future software update will fix the ballistics, but the firmware version I tested was tenuous. I was ready to write the whole mixer off based on the poor fader controlling experience, but there is one big saving grace, which we’ll get to next time. 

You may be picking up that I’m not a fan of this mixer, but that’s not correct. I think it’s a good concept, with a few flaws. But there is a way to get around those issues, and we’ll cover that, and a lot more, next time.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Total Cost of Ownership

Image courtesy of Chris Potter

Image courtesy of Chris Potter

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) sounds like a highly abstract concept. But it’s really not. It’s also something that churches—sadly—tend to miss out on. TCO is simply a calculation of what a particular product or service is going to cost you during its life. TCO has become popular in automotive circles, with some manufacturers boasting about the fact that while their car might cost a little more to buy, it will cost less to own. At least in theory.

Missing TCO Calculations

TCO can be missed in several ways. Sometimes, a church will buy a particular piece of gear—sometimes a very expensive piece—that will dig into their cash reserves pretty significantly. Projectors are a great example of this. A really bright, say 15K, projector can cost well over $20,000-50,000. That’s a lot of money. However, it will also cost somewhere between $2,000 and $6,000 to re-lamp it. And at that brightness level, re-lamping is going to happen every 500-800 hours of use, which is right around a year (at least for many churches).

So not only did you spend, let’s call it $30K, on a projector, you can figure on another $20K in lamps over the next 5-7 years of life. And we haven’t even talked about filter replacements, electricity costs or service. Costs on this imaginary projector (that’s not that imaginary) will easily exceed $60K over the life of the unit. Did anyone think about that or did the initial purchase price double as a complete surprise?

Other times, a church will buy the cheapest piece of gear they can find, thinking they are saving money. However, what they find out is that the consumables cost of that gear is far more expensive than a slightly more expensive piece of gear. Ink jet printers are a classic example here. I’ve seen churches replace older, heavy duty color laser printers with newer “cheaper” ones because the toner cartridges are 1/2 the cost of the old ones. What no one noticed was that the new cartridges print about 1/8 as many pages, which quadruples the per page costs and irritates the users who find the printers always out of toner.

Do Your Homework

Sometimes, it’s hard to choose between two seemingly comparable pieces of equipment. What you need to look at, besides initial cost, is total operating costs. I’ve compared projectors based on bulb and filter life plus electricity and found brand A to be almost 50% less expensive over a 5 year period than brand B. And these are two projectors with output and picture quality close enough to be called “the same.”

Rechargeable batteries are another great example. Yes, it might cost you a few hundred dollars to get into the game once you purchase chargers and the initial stock of batteries. But from that point on, your annual battery costs could drop to under $100 to handle replacements. At my last church, we went from spending over $1500/year to about $200; and the only reason I spent that much is because we had 5 rooms using rechargeable cells, and the ones in the student rooms go missing more regularly. 

It’s Real Stewardship

If you want to win friends and influence people—especially your senior leadership—continually present them with plans that demonstrate you know how to make purchases that represent an excellent value over time. Showing them that you’ve done TCO calculations, and have chosen equipment with that in mind will show them you’re serious about leading your department well. 

Of course, TCO doesn’t tell the whole story; it’s just one data point. But it’s an important one. You still have to consider usability, whether the product fits your needs and if the volunteers can use it. Still, TCO can often be the tipping point between brand A and brand B. Choosing the one with the lower overall lifetime cost will pay off in more ways that one. Trust me.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.