Backstage at the CMA Award Show

Image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group (this was last year)

Image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group (this was last year)

Every once in a while something totally unexpected and totally cool pops up. As I write this, it’s the Sunday before the 2015 CMA Awards show. Yesterday as I was eating my Cowboy Eggs and Bacon breakfast, I read an email from long-time CTW listener. He said he was in town doing coms for the CMA’s and wondered if I would be interested in a backstage tour. It didn’t take long to say, “Yes!” 

I just got back, and thought it would be fun to share some of it with you. I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to be “that guy,” but I’ll try to describe some of the very fascinating things I saw. Much of this is pretty typical for an awards show like this; in fact, many of the same trucks and crew to all the major award shows. Still, it’s cool to see, and I came away with a few very important thoughts that relate to church production.

Two of Everything

Most people know the CMA’s have two stages in the venue that alternate performances. Because of this, there are two of almost everything. But it’s not always split for Stage A and Stage B. There are two separate monitor worlds, one for each stage. And there are two consoles at FOH, but one is for all the band mixing, while the other is for everything else. There are two broadcast audio trucks, but one is “live” and one is “preset.” There are also two video trucks but there is so much going on in both it’s hard to tell you what is what. 

I’m not sure this is 100% true, but it also looked that most of the key production positions also had a primary and secondary tech working them. I know from experience that having a dedicated A2 on a big weekend can be a huge stress reliever, and I regret not learning that lesson earlier in my career.

By the Numbers

Everyone wants to know how many channels of this or that there are, so I’ll see how I can do with recall. I believe the FOH guy told me they are running about 242 inputs at FOH. All the live desks are DiGiCo SD5s and SD7s, while the broadcast consoles are Calrec. The show has 16 cameras, including 5 jibs and a SteadiCam. There were some 250 channels of wireless between mic’s, IEMs and coms. Each stage has 10 wireless IEMs, 4 wired IEMs, and there were 16 wedge mixes, though I don’t think that was per stage. Coms is an interesting blend of digital point-to-point and analog party line depending on application. I think there were some 90+ com packs.

Lessons Learned

Whenever I get the chance to do something like this, I always try to see what I can learn that will improve my productions. Here are some of the takeaways. 

Give yourself enough time. The show is Wednesday night, and they’ve been there for almost a week already. I believe one of the reasons for the low stress I sensed is because they all had enough time to do their jobs well. It helps that the same companies do this show every year, and it’s pretty dialed. But they also know how much time it takes and allow for it. Too often, we try to cram 3 weeks worth of work into 1 and kill ourselves. My best Christmas productions where the ones where I started way in advance. 

Have enough help. The number of people back stage was staggering. Everyone had a job, and typically it was just one job. I didn’t see anyone trying to program lights while simultaneously fixing audio problems or setting up drum risers. We often complain about the lack of help in church productions, but I wonder if it’s because we don’t ask enough people to help. Or perhaps if we’re trying to do productions we can’t reasonably do because we don’t have the help. 

Don’t be a jerk. As Keith took me around, he introduced me to many of the high level production folks. Every single one of them stood and talked with us for a few minutes, even though they had no reason to do so. I’ve been guilty of this at times, people will bring family members by during a production and I’ll say hi and rush off to do something “important.” Perhaps because I didn’t have enough help or enough time. Hmmm… But everyone I met was super-cool and gracious. 

Those production guys are real people. I have frankly been quite embarrassed during some award shows some years as I watch the social media stream just rip the production—and thus, the production crew—to shreds. Now, I’ll agree that there are certain shows where the audio or camera work or whatever is less than stellar. But before you hit Tweet on that scathing critique, think about how it would feel if every member of your congregation tweeted about your last mistake.

I got to meet and talk to the guy who does the final 5.1 broadcast mix. He basically gets stems and puts them all together, while he has about 20 people talking on the coms the entire time. When I told him that I felt the CMA Awards had the best broadcast mix of any award show, he was genuinely grateful for the praise. He told me that they usually don’t hear positive comments like that from viewers, so it meant a lot. Think about that before you tweet next time, OK?

Overall, it was a great couple of hours. I want to thank Keith for inviting me and everyone I talked with for just being cool. I’ll be out of town on Wednesday, but you can bet I’ll have my DVR set so I can watch the whole show when I get home.


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.

Why Make it Beautiful?

Image courtesy of

I recently happened across a discussion that was started by a pastor who was looking at the bland, white walls of their sanctuary with terrible acoustics and struggling with the why of making it look nice. Thankfully, he understood the need to fix the terrible acoustics. But he was legitimately struggling with the why of making the room look better than blank white. 

Now, as a technical artist, you might think my first thought would be to attempt to justify the need for a ton of LED lights, environmental projection and cool stage sets. And while I think there is a place for that, I didn’t go there first. My first thought was the great cathedrals of Europe. Then I thought of what the Temple of David must have looked like. I’ve seen some artist’s renderings of the temple, and it had to be amazing. 

Who Do You Worship?

Looking at those temples and cathedrals, one has to ask, “What is the motivation to create such an awe-inspiring structure?” In the case of the temple, David wanted to create a temple that was as amazing as God himself. That’s probably not possible, but he sure gave it a shot. The great architects and builders of Renaissance tried to build spaces that would put all who entered into a state of awe and wonder. They figured that since we worship a great, awesome and amazing God, the buildings where we worship should be great, awesome and amazing. 

When you enter such a building, or even see pictures of them, you can’t help but be inspired. The longer you spend in them, the more the Gospel story unfolds itself. Those architects were master story tellers and managed to tell a complete story with the building itself. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the artwork and paintings that often filled the space. 

Little White Boxes for You and Me

Fast forward to today and what do we have? White boxes. Instead of creating buildings that inspire wonder and awe, we build the cheapest, most boring church buildings we can. Well, not all of them, but many fit this description. Contrast this to the mall or the Vegas strip. If one were to evaluate what we value based on the time, energy and money we spend on the architecture, one would potentially come to the conclusion that we don’t really value our God much. 

Spend Money on Ministry!

The cry we often hear when it comes to not spending any money on the building is that we should be spending it on ministry instead. While I think spending money on ministry is a good thing, I think that argument is based on a fundamental lack of faith. The great cathedrals of Europe cost a small fortune to build, and often took a century to complete. But look at the results! Hundreds of years later, they’re still wonderful. 

Today, we live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and we scrimp and build our “houses of worship” with the lowest bidder. The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’s not really concerned about finances. Yet we pinch every penny and build the most boring, uninspiring building to worship the God who created the entire universe. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? 

Strike a Balance

Now, I understand we live in a different time and place. A $100 Million cathedral might not be the best idea today. However, our buildings don’t have to be ugly and boring. I think it’s more important to be intentional about creating a space for worship than it is to spend a lot of money on it. 

I travel to a lot of different church buildings and I’ve seen the ugly white boxes and I’ve seen buildings that are incredibly cool and welcoming that didn’t cost a fortune. It’s all about creating a space that is inspiring, calming, welcoming or engaging—depending on what you’re going for. It could be as simple as a few thousand dollars worth of ultra short throw projectors on those blank white walls (they’re good for something!). Or it could be a paint and some cool found objects arranged in a way that tells a story. 

Technology is Changing

A few years ago, every church that wanted to be “relevant” (in quotes because it’s been so over used I’m not sure it’s relevant any more) put up a bunch of moving lights, fired up the hazer and tried to do a rock concert every weekend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you do a terrible job of it. Or it’s not at all the culture of your church. Some of the best worship experiences I’ve had were in very simple, but very intentional rooms. They used technology—lights, haze, video, graphics—but that wasn’t the focus. You don’t have to go crazy. But you can make it beautiful. You should make it beautiful. It should match who you are as a church. And it should reflect the God who created the universe all around us. How’s that for some inspiration!