Same Gear, Different Results

A few months back, my daughter asked me to mix for her worship leading final. Of course, I said yes immediately. Then I discovered the venue. It was not ideal. That’s being polite. It was a big, hard box with lots of parallel walls, a poorly implemented PA and a mix position outside the coverage are of the speakers. Oh, and FOH was only accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Cool. 

The mixer was a little A&H analog deal, the speakers were forgettable and someone decided to mount the projector in a rack right next to the mixing position so the hot air exhaust blew on the engineer the entire time. I fixed that by flipping the door on the rack around to direct the air away from me. But that’s not the point. 

I ended up mixing not only my daughter’s set, but three others as well. When the class was over, four or five people came up and thanked me for being there and every one of them said they had never heard that room sound so good. 

Now, I say that not to blow my own horn, but to make the point that the gear is not necessarily what makes something sound good or not. I have heard terrible mixes on great PA’s and great mixes on less than ideal ones. 

You Have to Get Better at Mixing

I talk to some guys, especially at small churches with small or no budgets and they continually tell me that they could do a better job if they just had better gear. Now, that may be true to some extent. But the reality is, you can get better at mixing no matter what you have to work on. Every time I mix a gig on some really crappy gear, people come up and tell me how much better it sounded than they expected. Again, not to tell you how great I am, but to say that I have spent the last 20 years learning how to wring the most performance out of whatever gear I’m given. 

Sure, I’d rather mix on an SD5 with an L’Acoustics PA, but if what I have to work with is some old JBL cabs and an MG32, I’m going to do my best to make it amazing. It’s what we do.

Complaining and Blaming Equipment Won’t Get You New Gear

If I were writing a book, this would be a chapter. It’s easy to constantly complain that you don’t have the right mixer, the right mic’s, the right speakers, the right lights, the right whatever. But no one likes a complainer. You know what church leaders do like? Someone who knocks it out of the park every week despite the crappy equipment their given. Learn to do that, and you will eventually get what you want.

New Equipment Won’t Magically Make You Better

You have to get better. I’ve walked into churches with fancy new digital boards and listened the result and cringed. When I look at how they have it set up, it’s often a mess. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of gain structure, EQ and basic mixing, it doesn’t really matter how many on-board compressors you have or how many plugins you can rack up. In fact, those usually do more harm than good in inexperienced hands. Learn to mix on crappy gear, then move up the food chain. 

Remember, these are all just tools. It’s up to us to learn how to use them to their fullest capacity. Learn to do that and it won’t matter what you find yourself mixing on.

Roland

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Take Care of Yourself

Photo courtesy of anoldent.

Photo courtesy of anoldent.

I have the privilege to know a lot of technical directors. A lot. One thing I’ve noticed about our tribe is that we tend to be really good at taking care of everyone around us, and not so good at taking care of ourselves. And that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. 

On the plus side, we tend to be great servants. Those around us trust us to get the job done no matter what. We typically go the extra two miles, even at great personal sacrifice. This is generally good. However, it can also lead to burnout. I know too many people who gave and gave and gave until there was no more left, then simply left the church, never to return (at least not yet). So we really do need to take care of ourselves if we want to do this for the long haul.

I’ve had this conversation a few times in the past few months, so it occurs to me that it might be beneficial to share some thoughts on taking care of yourself. 

Give yourself permission to take time off

I know you. You don’t think you can take time off. I get it. The baseline standard for the tech department is perfection, and if we’re not there every weekend, there is a concern that we won’t achieve our goal. Having done this for 25+ years, here’s what I have learned the hard way: You have to get over it. First of all, your team will step up and do a great job when you’re not there. Second of all, it’s not like nuclear explosions will happen if something goes wrong. Sure, a few people might be inconvenienced and someone might even be mad. But if you don’t take time off, you will burn out and when you leave, it will be ugly. Don’t to it.

Ask your boss to tell you to take time off.

I add this because I figure you’re not going to listen to the above advice and take time off on your own. I just told someone the other day that one of the most loving things anyone has ever done for me was kick me out of the office for a few days. I worked for a church some years back, and when I first started, my boss asked how he could lead me well. I told him I tend to be a workaholic and need help taking time off. He listened and would tell me to take some time off every few months if I wasn’t doing it on my own. That re-trained my thinking that it was ok to take time off. I am thankful for him to this day for that.

Have a mentor.

You really need to have someone who you meet with every so often who will remind you that you’re not crazy. What we do is hard, unique and different from any other ministry in church. You need to have someone in your life who will listen to you vent and say, “I get it. You’re not crazy, I’ve been there, too.” This doesn’t have to be a huge formal thing, you don’t need to study books or meet every Thursday at 7 am. But you do need someone that you can call every month or two and have lunch or coffee. I meet with several young guys regularly and have a few people that I meet with, and the only regret I have about this is that I didn’t start doing it when I was younger.

The technical arts is a weird, hard, stressful, exciting, fun and crazy business—even in the church. If you want to do it for the long haul, you have to take care of yourself. Now, go fill out that time off slip…

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DMX Over Cat5, Pt. 2

Last time around, we talked about using Cat5 cable to distribute DMX signals. In that implementation, it is really cable replacement. Instead of pulling DMX cable (not mic cable—there is a difference), we pull Cat5 for our backbone distribution runs. Fixture to fixture cables are normal DMX cables. Today, I want to talk a little bit about using Ethernet to distribute DMX. This will be an overview article as there is way too much information to contain in a single post. Also, some of the standards are still evolving, and it’s not always simple, especially when mixing multiple manufacturers. Come to think of it, we need to do a podcast on this…

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity. 

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity

The Original Ethernet—DMX Protocols

In the beginning, we had things like: 

  • Strand Shownet
  • ETC Net1
  • ETC Net2
  • ArtNet
  • Pathport

Each of those protocols use Ethernet wiring and switchgear to distribute multiple universes of DMX throughout a facility. All of them require some time of break in and break out adapter, as well as at least one Ethernet switch to get all the nodes talking to each other. In and of themselves, they were fine. The problem was, none of them talked to each other. Some devices could speak multiple languages, but the languages themselves were not compatible. If having an all ETC Net2 system was what you needed for example, it worked well. But introducing another standard into the mix was problematic. 

Still, those protocols worked well. They offered up to 128 universes, unlimited outputs, signal management (splitting, routing, prioritizing), and because it was all based on Ethernet standards, it was inexpensive to install and manage. So far so good. But you were using Ethernet, and RJ45 connectors aren’t the most robust. And Category cable is fragile compared to a regular DMX cable. 

The New Hotness—ACN

As often happens, when engineers see protocol soup like we have above, they look for a way to create a new one that will do everything the old ones would do, and more, and do it easier. That’s the promise of ACN. ACN stands for Architecture for Control Networks and defines a series of nested Protocol Data Units—a whole series of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) defining how data gets moved around.

What’s cool about ACN is that it is media agnostic; you can use whatever cable you want. It’s designed to be interoperable, so multiple manufacturers equipment can be used together. It’s supposed to be plug and play, which simplifies setup. It’s also two-way, meaning the end devices can report their capabilities to the controller, and the controller will know what to do with it. In theory, this means we can get rid of fixture libraries someday. 

ACN uses an Ethernet backbone, so configuration and system architecture is familiar. I’ve been telling you that as a technical leader, you’re going to need to know more about networking. We know that’s true of audio, and it’s becoming more and more true of lighting and media servers. 

What’s Available Now?

Like many new standards, it will take time to implement. While there are some media servers and the like on the market that use ACN, there are few fixtures that do. Hopefully that changes in the next few years. Right now, we have ETC’s variant of ACN known as Net3. Pathway Connectivity uses sACN (Streaming ACN) in their Pathport products. And believe it or not, these two can talk to each other!

The good news is that we can install ACN backbone systems now, and simply break in and out to DMX as needed. Someday when ACN becomes commonplace on fixtures as well as controllers, we remove the adapters and everything talks ACN. And this is happening; many of the Jands consoles for example, already speak sACN and will simply output their DMX universes straight to the network. 

This is an exciting time to be in this industry. I was with a friend the other day and he showed me an installation that required hundreds of universes of DMX to manage. There’s no way anything like that would even be conceivable using regular old DMX. But with ACN, it’s easily possible. 

If you want to learn more about this, check out Pathway Connectivities Resource page. They have some articles and a Power Point presentation with good info (it’s where I got some of this content—thanks for that, guys!). Now is a great time to begin learning more about ACN, as it will be the standard going forward. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait 10 years before we start seeing native ACN fixtures…

Roland

Today's post is brought to you by DPA Microphones. DPA's range of microphones have earned their reputation  for exceptional clarity,  high resolution, above all, pure, uncolored accurate sound. Whether recording or sound reinforcement, theatrical or broadcast, DPA's miking solutions have become the choice of professionals with uncompromising demands for sonic excellence.