Lessons Learned at a Concert

Last week while in Atlanta for the Catalyst conference, I got to hang out with my friend Nick Rivero and his new wife, Sarah. Not only did we have some great BBQ, but we had a great time talking about production, touring, and building stuff. As we talked, I was reminded of a night a few years ago when Thomas and I got to hang out with him at the Staples Center in LA. Nick was touring with Lady Antebellum as a video system tech. We got a tour of the entire production; backstage, the stage itself and FOH. And then there was the show, which was also pretty impressive. 

I won’t go into a lot of details about the evening itself as that is not the point of this article. I will say the show was great; and everyone we met was very gracious and friendly. We felt very welcome there and stayed all the way to the end of tear down. I tend to really pay close attention whenever I get to do something like this as there are always things I can learn to make my processes better. What follows are some of my key takeaways.

Predictability and Consistency is Important

On multiple occasions I asked Nick how much things changed up for the evening’s show over the course of the tour. And on each occasion he said, “Not much.” At one point we were talking about how they wire their system up each day and he said (and I’m quoting from memory, so it may not be word for word, but it’s close), “When you’re doing this every day, you want things the same as possible.” Another time I asked him about the walk-in playlist, wondering if it changed up each night. Again, the answer was, “Nope. It’s kind of nice to have that predicability. After a while, you know when you get to this song, you have a few minutes to go.”

As I am a huge fan of consistency, this was really more of a reinforcement for me than a lesson. But still, it’s always good to challenge your thinking, then come to the conclusion that you’re headed in the right direction. Doing things the exact same way has saved me on many, many occasions. Once I find a process that works, I repeat it over and over again until I come up with a better process. 

Many Hands Don’t Make Light Work; Many Skilled Hands Do

We’ve heard that verse repeated over and over again in church and in many respects it’s true. However, I loved watching the union hands come out to strike the show after the concert was over. The various team leaders on the tour would give a bunch of guys some brief instructions and off they would go. Near the beginning, I watched Nick say, “OK, green shirt guys, my name is Nick. I need you to take all these cables, coil them up to the end and bring them back here. Thank you.” Within a few minutes all the projector and camera looms were neatly coiled and returned to video world. Even more fun to watch were the riggers. Without hardly a word, trusses starting coming down, fixtures were removed and returned to road cases and lines coiled. The whole show was loaded out in a few hours.

Contrast that to the typical church “y’all come help teardown” party. It’s chaos! One or two technical people will try to herd the army of cats on stage as cables get coiled improperly, equipment gets put away in the wrong spot (or worse, lost), things get taken down that should be left up. Sometimes, people even get hurt.

I prefer fewer people with more skill. Give me a few guys that know how to wrap cable and ask good questions over a dozen completely unskilled people every time. During my last few years as a TD, I adopted this approach for our big events. Instead of recruiting huge teams, I hand-picked a few guys who I had worked with and knew would do things the right way. It went much better. 

Being Together Still Matters

With the rise of “online church,” some of us are wondering what the future holds for the weekend service experience. At the show, I was again reminded of the power of being in a large group, experiencing something together. I am not typically a fan of large crowds, but I will say there was an energy and excitement in the room that doesn’t exist when I listen to their CD or watch a video in my office. One of the big things we still do well as the Church is bring people together for a common experience. When God is doing something in our midst, it is palpable, and being part of that with a few hundred or a few thousand others is powerful. We mustn’t forget that.

What do you learn when you go to a concert?

Disconnecting

We all know what happens when we disconnect a signal line; the signal stops flowing. Unplug a mic and it doesn’t work anymore. Unplug a speaker and it doesn’t make sound. Unplug power from a board, and it just sits there. I don’t think is coincidence that often the fix for a computer is to shut it down, or unplug and power it back up. Sometimes, you just have to shut it all down, clear our the registers and start fresh. 

I think we all need a reboot once in a while, too. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to do just that. 

Running Hard and Fast

As TDs I think most of us are pretty driven people. We like to work hard, and enjoy the challenges we are faced with. But sometimes, it can get to be too much and we need some down time. Down time can be a challenge, too, because we really don’t know what to do with ourselves. My current job has me running pretty hard. I have installs and proposals stacked up like flights coming into LAX. It’s exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.

When I was a TD, life was similar but different. The weekly pressure of weekend services, special events and maintaining all the equipment and systems could be exhausting. And when the big weekends rolled around, it was crazy time.

While I can take weekends off now, I still find myself working on something. It’s easy with all the connectivity we possess. I have two laptops and a Mac Mini, an iPad and iPhone. Broadband and VPM access lets me work from home as efficiently as at the office. As a result, I rarely unplug and reboot. 

Off the Grid

But a few weeks back, I actually did. About fifteen years ago, my Dad, brother and I started rebuilding an old fishing camp on a tributary to Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Park in New York. After a few summers of hard work, we had a great camp to enjoy. I haven’t been there since I moved to Minnesota in 2007, and I was missing it dearly. Thankfully, we have a great client in New York, not far from White Plains. As it turns out White Plains is only about 4.5 hours from our camp. So I did what anyone who travels a lot would do. I extended my return flight and planned on driving up to camp after the install was done. 

It was actually fantastic to drive up into the mountains. There was almost no traffic and the trees were just starting to turn. Once I arrived at camp, I had no cell signal, no wi-fi and no real way to connect with the outside world. It was just my brother and me, sitting by the lake. 

Real Interaction

As my brother lives in NY and I in CA, we don’t see each other much. Through Facebook, we keep up with what we’re doing, but our schedules don’t give us much time to talk. But up in the woods, with nothing around to distract us, we could just sit in the great room, and talk. Face to face. I think this is becoming a lost art in today’s hyper-connected world. We can reach out to all 500 of our “friends” at a moments notice, but we have a hard time sitting and talking for a few hours without checking in on our network. 

I found this weekend to be incredibly refreshing. Between the interaction with my brother and the downtime in the car (almost 10 hours in total), it was a great way to recharge. I’ve talked about the needy to get away and get refreshed before, but it’s become ever more apparent that when we get away, we really need to go off grid.

My friend Stephen told me he was going to go off grid for a week just to recharge. The thought is probably terrifying to some of you, but I know he’ll come back more refreshed, more creative and more ready to do what God has called him to do. This is something we all need. We can only run so hard for so long before we need to reboot. If you’re feeling foggy and like you need a restart, plan the time away and do it. But don’t cheat; leave the phone off, the laptop at home and disconnect. You’ll be the better for it.

“Gear

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Audio Console Layout

Photo courtesy of Chris Costes

Photo courtesy of Chris Costes

Based on some of the consoles I’ve seen lately, audio console layout is something that doesn’t seem get a lot of thought. However, a properly laid out console not only makes mixing more fun, it can keep us from making big mistakes during a service. 

Legend has it that in the early days of mixing, as analog consoles got larger, engineers noticed that channels farther from the master had more noise in them. So it made sense to put the money channels—the vocals—nearest to the master. As the master was typically on the right, that meant the left-most channels became home of the drums—who would notice noise in the drum channels? 

Somewhere along the line, a somewhat common layout emerged: drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals. As consoles and input count continued to grow, we started seeing the master section land in the middle of the console instead of on the right. In that case, usually the band fell to the left while vocals and effects fell to the right.

Back then, where channels showed up on the console was completely dependent on what inputs they were plugged into. Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader. But before we do any patching—digitally or analog—it’s important to spend some time thinking about why channels go where they do. 

Why You Do Is More Important Than What You Do

I’ve seen all sorts of…shall we say, interesting channel layouts on consoles. Drums spread all over the place, the lead guitar next to the pastor’s mic, vocal effects in the middle of the keyboards. It’s as if someone just patched inputs into the first open channel or floor pocket without any thought at all.

And while there are all sorts of ways you can lay out your console, the first consideration is to make sure you do it on purpose. Don’t just shove inputs into any old channel. Take some time to think about it and patch it in a way that makes sense. Keep all the drum channels together, and then keep the band together. Having all the vocals next to each other makes it a lot easier to find them. Put the channels you adjust all the time closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end every time. Think about how you mix, then organize the channels in a way that supports what you do.

For Example…

There is no “right” way to organize a console. But here are some ideas of how to do it. Personally, I like to start with drums (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads), then bass, guitars, keys, vocals and finally effects. Other channels like speaking mic’s, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console. 

When I was at Coast Hills, I had my current console set up with my VCAs on the right, which put my vocals right in the middle in front of me. My preference is to mix more on channel faders than VCAs, but I know others who prefer the opposite.

I also know guys who put the bass right next to the kick because they like to work those two together. I keep my bass in my guitars VCA; others put in with the drums or dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass. 

Stay Consistent

When I mix on analog consoles, I still follow the same basic layout. The advantage of a consistent layout is that I can mix almost any band on any console and without looking know where the faders are. In contrast, I’ve watched other guys mix and spend half their time searching the board for the guitar fader, only to miss the solo. 

Regardless of how you choose to layout the console, once you come up with a plan, stick with it. Adapt and change as needed, but maintain as much consistency as you can.

Small Digital Consoles are Tricky

The current trend toward smaller mixers (i.e. fewer faders) with higher channel counts makes smart layout absolutely critical. If you only have 16 handles to deal with, you simply must be intentional about what you put where. In that case, I would most likely not use up the first 8 faders on the top layer for the drums. 

In that case, it might be more prudent to put a drums VCA on channel one and treat it as one instrument (which, arguably, you should do anyway). As you fill up your fader bank and channels spill into another layer, it is often a smart idea to duplicate a few channels on every layer. For example, you might want to have the worship leader’s mic on the same fader of every layer so you can get to it quickly regardless of the layer you’re on. 

The fewer faders you have, the more strategic you need to be with grouping channels into VCAs. How  you group the channels will be dependent on your band and your workflow. 

I once mixed a 28-input CD release party on 12 faders. I built multiple layers that were very similar, but expanded various sections. For example, layer one had the drums as a single VCA. But layer two gave me all 8 drum channels. Layer three split out all my effects, which were a single VCA on layer one. Things that didn’t get used often were down on layers four and five, but the lead singer’s vocal and guitar were always in the same place on every layer. 

I spent about 30 minutes initially setting up the board, then tweaked my layout during rehearsal based on how the set unfolded. Of course, this is easier with a digital board than analog, but the principles remain. Think about your layout and adjust it until it makes sense and works for you.

Next week, we’re going to revisit the concept of input sheets. I’ve written about them before, but I think the topic bears repeating. Plus, I have some new stuff to share. Have a great weekend!

“Gear

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