Get Ready for Christmas! Pt. 1

Yes, yes, I know. It’s only August. The kids are still on vacation, you’re still at the pool or the beach, and it’s hot as blazes out. It’s hard to think about Christmas. However, As I write this, Christmas is but 5 months away. And in those 5 months, most of you will have some kind of fall launch, whatever activities the fall brings, Thanksgiving, and then, Christmas. It will go fast. Now is the time to at least start thinking about it, if not planning for it. 

Mixing a Christmas production may be the biggest event a church sound engineer ever does. In almost every church, Christmas or Christmas Eve is one of the biggest productions of the year. Even for churches that don’t do “big production,” Christmas tends to be bigger than usual. 

Hopefully, you have a good routine for normal weekend services—that’s a good start. Christmas will take you out of that routine and into a whole different world. It can be a lot of fun, and, since it’s likely the highest attended service of the year, they have the most impact on your community. It can also make even the most dedicated tech staffer or volunteer want to quit their job. But we want to avoid that, so here are some tips on making Christmas a great service and a great experience for the tech team.

It All Begins With Planning

Ideally, you have already begun planning the service, and you have a really good idea what to expect from the band, drama, orchestra and whatever other special things will pop up. Musicians and pastors don’t always know what is important for the tech team to know, so you have to ask a lot of questions. Here is a starting list for you:

What is the band configuration? How many vocalists? Do we have an orchestra, and what does that look like? If doing a drama, how many wireless mic’s will we need? How many pastors will be speaking? What other special sound effects might we have to do? Will we need tracks with a click fed back to the band? Do we need additional monitor mixes in unusual locations? Will the set pose any acoustical or set up challenges? Is there anything else we haven’t discussed?

It’s amazing what you find out when you start asking questions. Armed with the answers, you can begin building your next line of defense: The input sheet.

Your Roadmap to Success

I insist on an input sheet for every event we do, including regular weekends. The input sheet simply lists every input and output on your console along with what is connected to it. Different snakes should be indicated as well. List the type of microphone, DI or input along with who will be using it. You will learn a lot about your production during this exercise. 

You might discover that you are 6 wireless mic’s short for the drama. That is a challenge, but you can rent wireless mic’s. Unless of course you waited until the first day of rehearsal to figure this out. You may also learn you need more vocal mic’s, or perhaps you are short on aux sends for monitor mixes. Special instruments may require special mic’s that you don’t have. Now is the time to figure that out, or begin negotiations with the music director on how to solve any issues. 

There is much more to this process, and we’ll keep unpacking it all week. Stay tuned!

DPA Microphones

LED Walls vs. Projectors

One of the trends we're seeing in the integration Biz is the meteoric rise of LED video walls. As few as 5-7 years ago, video walls really only made sense for outdoor sports stadiums and really big churches with really big budgets. Here we are in 2016 however, and the calculus has changed. 

A question we're fielding a lot lately is, "When does it make sense to consider a video wall instead of a projector?" I wish there was a hard and fast rule for that, but I'm not sure there is. But here are a few parameters we look at.

Ambient Light Levels

In the past year or so, I've worked with churches that are not the modern "black box" style of sanctuary. One had a giant 300 sq. ft. stained glass window right next to their screen. And yeah, it faced south. My first thought was video wall for them for two reasons. First, it would have the punch that no projector ever would making it possible to actually overcome all that ambient lighting. Second, and maybe more importantly for me, the blacks would actually be black. You see, a screen will only ever be as dark as the white screen ever gets. When there is that much ambient light in the room, it's never going to be darker than light grey.

That destroys contrast which makes the already not bright enough projector seem even more washed out. By contrast (see what I did there?), the background of a video wall—the space between the pixels—is black. And when the LED is off, it's black. I don't care what the contrast ratio spec says about a projector, it only matters if the room is very dark. In a full light situation, the screen looses. 

Projector Brightness

This one is a little more subjective, but we're finding that if a church wants to talk about a projector in the 12-14K lumen range or higher, we should probably start talking about a video wall. Now, I should make it clear that a video wall is not going to be the same initial cost as a 14K lumen projector. It's going to cost more up front. However, when we do the math, often the delta is low enough that it makes sense to go with a video wall. 

Video walls don't need lamp changes, they can be mounted to the wall or flown and don't require a clear path from viewing screen to projector. The overall service life of a video wall is likely to be longer, and they generally require less maintenance. At the end of the day the wall may still be more money, but the extra value it brings is often worth it. Not every time, but sometimes. 

Screen Location

Some churches want to use a big screen as a backdrop to their stage. Projectors can be problematic because if people get too close to the screen, they'll cast shadows unless you do rear projection. But rear projection requires a big backstage area. If you want to do a wide screen, you'll need to blend the projectors, and that can be tricky and may need adjusting from time to time. And the screen will still be competing with stage light. 

When we switched from a 16K projector to a video wall at Coast Hills, the biggest thing we all noticed was that the stage lights had no effect on the video image. Whereas before we had to be really careful where we pointed the lights, how much haze we used and even where we hung fixtures, the video wall had enough power to punch through all of it. And the blacks stayed black no matter what. 

Like I said, there are no hard and fast rules. Yet. Video wall technology is advancing at breakneck speed and almost every year we're seeing an increase in pixel density, and a decrease in weight and cost. Brightness isn't changing much; they're already bright enough. But we're also seeing refresh rates go up, and processing quality improve all the time. 

All of that to say, if you're thinking about replacing or upgrading some projectors, especially larger ones, it's worth looking into video walls. They don't make sense in every case, but when they do, they're a big win.

This post is brought to you by Nemosyn. The guitar player practices, the keyboard player practices, the vocalists practice, how does a sound guy practice? Nemosyn record. Practice. Perfect your mix. Visit their website at Nemosyn.com.

The Art of Pre-Visualization

A few weeks back, I got to participate in my first competitive pistol shooting meet. I've been wanting to do this for years, and the time was right to give it a shot. See what I did there? I showed up not knowing anyone—or that it was a low-light match, me without my flashlight—and had a great time. Being a newbie, they let me shoot in full light and coached me through the stages. 

At the end, I didn't do too badly. I placed third (out of ten) in my class and tenth overall (out of twenty). And that was after making a hash of my first run. I was so nervous having never done this before that I made several errors, botched a reload and had two jams. So how did I go from that bad to not bad? Pre-visualization. 

See Yourself Doing the Tasks

I've written about this before, but there is a huge benefit to visualizing yourself doing a series of complex tasks. One of the great things about being the new guy at this match was that I went last. I got to watch the veterans run the stage before me. I noticed the guys who were really good were using every break between shooters to walk the stage. They would move back and forth, simulating the angles they would shoot the targets, do virtual reloads and figure the whole thing out ahead of time. That way when it came time run the stage, they weren't trying to figure it out, they were running the program they built in their minds. 

I've done the same thing when mixing for years. I applied the pre-visualization technique the match and each stage I ran, I did better than the one before. When the pressure is on and seconds count (literally), you can't be trying to figure out what to do. You need to know what you're doing and just do it. 

Transitions are for Go

I read a post recently about training for matches and the author said, "Splits are for show, transitions are for go." What he meant was two quick shots on one target is one thing, getting to the next target just as quickly is another (and will make a bigger difference in your score). 

A church service is similar in some ways. I could rephrase that to "Mixing is for show, transitions are for go." Transitions are what often make or break services. People won't notice a mix that's not perfect. But blow a transition and almost everyone knows. I talked about this a few weeks ago. 

Let's take the opening of the service as an example. I'm not sure what you have to do, but here's a rundown of the tasks I complete in the few seconds before the service starts and a few seconds afterward.

  • Verify we're on Walk In snapshot
  • Check Reaper to make sure it's recording
  • Check battery levels on wireless
  • Put one IEM in
  • Solo stage announce so I can hear producer countdown
  • Hit Next Snapshot to fade out walk in music and start worship leader welcome
  • Pull out IEM
  • Tweak WL vocal level if needed
  • Clear solo
  • Hit Next Snapshot to start first song
  • Stop walk in music
  • Mix

That all happens in about 30-40 seconds. It's important to note that order is important. Obviously, if I hit stop on music playback before the fade, it will be really apparent. But also notice that I prioritize pulling out my IEM before checking the WL's mic level or clearing the solo. That's because to accurately set the level, I want both ears open. The solo clear can wait; I'm not likely to use that again for a a while, if at all during the set. 

Also notice that I don't bother to stop the walk in music until the first song is under way. I figure I can spare a few seconds hitting the space bar right after the song starts up. I don't want to just let that roll in case somehow that channel gets pulled up in the band's ears or even worse, in the house by accident. But it's a task that can wait a little bit.

Like walking through the stage at my pistol match, I walk through the motions at FOH a few minutes prior to service start. Going through the motions helps me identify anything that might cause a bumble or slow me down. I make sure my keyboard is in place and Spotify is on top so when I hit space bar Spotify stops, not Reaper.  I make sure my console is clear and I'm on the right snapshot (most times anyway, see that other post...). 

Don't Just Wing It

Like I said, I was the last one to shoot each stage, so I saw the whole field go before. One thing I noticed is that some guys tried to just wing it. Those were the guys who ended up doing unexpected slide-lock reloads because they ran the gun dry in the middle of a target sequence instead of reloading while moving between positions. Those guys also shot the same target from multiple positions because they didn't think a sequence through. All those things cost them valuable time.

Some weekends, especially by service 5, I think I can just wing it, too. That usually doesn't go well. Most of the service starts I've botched I've done so because I didn't go through the motions first. It's easy to get flustered once things start going wrong and it can quickly spiral out of control. But when I take the time to walk through it once first, it's pretty seamless. 

The other thing I did while at the match was ask other guys how they would shoot a particular target. I learned a lot doing that. But that's probably another post.

DPA Microphones