Automating Your Tech Booth

Automating with MIDI and XKeys

I don't like having to work harder than I have to. The saying, "Work smarter, not harder" is my mantra. I'm all about saving myself time and energy that can be better spent actually leading and pouring into the team I've been tasked with leading. Thankfully we live in a world where all of our devices can be connected with state-of-the-art protocols like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. And MIDI.

Yes, the MIDI protocol was first released in 1983 and there's a reason it's still in use: it's rock solid!

I suppose I need to paint a picture of our production equipment is laid out. Actually, SketchUp would be better here...

Sandals Production Layout

Sandals Production Layout

s you can see, in the auditorium we have FOH, Monitors and Lighting. The Production Suite is under the stadium seats and has all of our other positions: ProPresenter 1, ProPresenter 2, Video Control and Broadcast.

When we were designing the production systems, I specified that I needed several computers networked via MIDI to our RoadHog. Mark Pearson over at CCI Solutions found these fun little boxes for me:

Each pair of these guys are capable of bi-directional MIDI communication over a CAT5 cable. By using these I was able to get three of my Mac computers—ProPresenter 1, ProPresenter 2 and Reaper—connected to our RoadHog. By interconnecting those four devices I am able to automate Reaper, trigger backgrounds on our center screen and run MIDI Time Code for video synchronization and lighting cue firing.

I know there are a ton of other things I could do with MIDI, but this is all we needed to. That is, until I was asked to support a weekly gathering on Thursday mornings. I'm not sure how your church is, but at Sandals we have a difficult time pulling in volunteers who are available weekday mornings.

Enter Xkeys.

With Xkeys I was able to program it to fire lighting cues on our RoadHog while I was still standing behind the CL5 at FOH. You may be wondering why I opted out of using our architectural control in favor of the RoadHog. Great question! Our architectural control is great for many things. One thing it's not so great at is controlling our compliment of moving-head fixtures and how they transition from cue to cue. I needed to be able to smoothly fade from cue to cue and be able to jump around as necessary without any gobo pops or erratic movements.

I downloaded ControllerMate, installed it on our Reaper computer sitting at FOH, connected a XKey-16 and started dropping in building blocks. I built mine so that each button would fire a specific MIDI note that the RoadHog would then listen to and in turn, fire a corresponding cue. It worked flawlessly! Since I didn't need all 16 buttons dedicated to firing lighting cues, I decided to allocate some for Reaper to make Virtual Soundcheck easier.

Firing lighting cues at the first gathering was a piece of cake. However, I did notice one flaw in my design. I got trapped in the Production Suite and hadn't yet fired the Walk In lighting cue. I had to run out to fire it. You already know how much I hate having to take extra steps so I ordered a XKey-8 to install at ProPresenter.

I really wanted both XKeys to stay in sync so that if I fired the "Teaching" cue at FOH the corresponding LED would light on the XKey-8 at ProPresenter and visa-versa. The beauty about ControllerMate is that not only can it send MIDI commands, it can also listen to them. I programmed the LEDs on the XKeys for each lighting cue to illuminate when they hear a specific MIDI note on the network.

The ControllerMate workflow for this process

The ControllerMate workflow for this process

So now each button triggers a MIDI note and each LED is listening for a MIDI note. There's some extra stuff going on like using a switch block to turn off the inactive LEDs whenever a new cue is fired and setting the toggle switch on the side to disable the buttons to protect against accidentally firing a lighting cue when I have an operator at the lighting console.

In the near future, I plan on adding another XKey unit at lighting to control Reaper playback to make programming lighting cues to the band's rehearsal easier. I might toss in a few other buttons for controlling iTunes and some ProPresenter commands to make life easier when we're running a skeleton crew.

Do you have any other suggested uses for XKeys that help to make your productions easier and more efficient? Let me know in the comments!

My ingredients list

  • MIDILink Transceivers (to bring MIDI signals to centralized location)
  • Motu Micro Express (to merge all MIDI signals together)
  • USB MIDI interface (just a simple USB to MIDI I/O is all you need)
  • Mac computers
  • ControllerMate
  • RoadHog with MIDI widget
  • ProPresenter 6 with MIDI module
  • Reaper
  • XKey-8
  • XKey-16

Combine all ingredients and season to taste ;-)

Elite Core

Isaiah Franco

Isaiah Franco has been involved with church tech for over 10 years and currently on staff as the production director at Sandals Church in Riverside, CA. He’s a big nerd with an even bigger heart to serve the Church.

Only People Last

Image courtesy of mpclemens

Image courtesy of mpclemens

Most of you know by now that I’ve spent many years on staff at multiple churches. One thing that I’ve known, but maybe didn’t live in the reality of is that ultimately, it’s only the people that matter in our work. Now, that might come as somewhat of a surprise from me, an introvert who chose tech because I prefer working with gear rather than people. But here’s the thing: the gear will break, wear out or be replaced. Your amazing stage organization system will be replaced by someone who comes after you. It is only the impact you have in people’s lives that matter. 

This lesson was driven home for me a few weeks ago. I was on staff at a large church for a while, and when I got there, the technical systems were a disaster. I spent several years tearing it all out, cleaning it all up and replacing much of it. My team and I spent many hours organizing, cleaning and sorting through our stuff. We had everything extremely well organized, and everything had a place, and it all lived there. It was easy for just about anyone to walk into our audio storage room and find what they needed. 

The other day, a friend sent me some pictures of what it looks like today. Just 2 1/2 years after I left, it’s back to a worse disaster than it was when I got there. Ultimately, this is a failure of leadership of the church not keeping qualified personnel on staff. However, more than that, it reminded me that everything I did can just as easily be undone. Just as a forest will consume anything that’s left there, our work only remains for a short time later we leave.

The thing that encourages me in this whole discovery is that I know I made an impact in the lives of my team. I probably didn’t do as much as I could have with them, but I am confident that they were encouraged by the time we had together. Mainly I know because they have told me. More than that, I see the fruit in their lives. 

So if you are expecting your awesome setup to live forever, prepare to be disappointed. But if you pour into the people you serve with, you will make a lasting impact. Yes, I know this can be tough for introverts. I get it. I don’t do it perfectly or maybe even well. But it’s all that matters.

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The Weekend Is The Thing

Last time, I told you we would be bringing in some new contributors to CTA. Today, we welcome a good friend and a former ATD of mine, Isaiah Franco. Isaiah worked for me when I was at Coast Hills and we had a ton of fun together. Isaiah is super-smart and a really big geek. He’s already written a really cool article about automating his tech booth with XKeys and MIDI. Watch out for that one! But more than a geek, Isaiah has a big heart to serve the church. I was going to write an article introducing him, but then he sent me this letter he wrote to his team. Isaiah is the Production Director at Sandals Church in SoCal. I think this will do a better job giving you some insight into the guy behind the geek than I ever could. Join with me in welcoming Isaiah to our writing team!


Do you know why we do what we do? Why we put in all the hours for rehearsals and making sure that all of our ducks are in their figurative rows? Why we double-check to make sure all of our microphones are battery'd and powered up? Why each of our audio and video recordings have triple redundancy? Why we meticulously pour over every single detail of our services?

It's because the weekend is the thing.

Without the weekend, Sandals Church ceases to exist. Sure, we've got great ministries for people to be a part of like Cultivate, The Advance and Community Groups. But without the weekend happening every seven days, people don't get the opportunity to join our other ministries.

And do you know why the weekends are important? It's because we have people coming through our doors who are done. Done with life. Done with people. Done with everything. They've turned to drugs, to alcohol, to porn, to relationships and couldn't find what they needed so they figure they'll give God a shot. People come to this place because they have nowhere else to go and it's our burden and responsibility to make sure they get a chance to hear the Gospel. It's our duty to make sure that our services are distraction-free and set up in a way that all of our guests feel welcomed.

We should not be the reason people don't want to come to Sandals!

Let that sink in. Are we the reason people don't want to come to Sandals Church? If we are, that should haunt us. We shouldn't be able to sleep at night thinking that someone didn't hear the Gospel because of us.

Now let me go back and qualify that statement: If we've done our homework and our due-diligence, and we've taken into account all of the variables that affect our service and have addressed the volume of the mix and the level of the house lights and the temperature of the room and are intentional in creating an environment that people feel welcomed in and they still don't want to be here, that's on them. But, if someone doesn't come back because we haven't done all these things, that's on us.

Are you intentional about your audio mix? Are the lyrics shown on screen with enough time for people to follow (notice I said, follow? You should be leading the congregation!). Do the lighting effects support the music or do they steal the focus? Are camera shots in focus and framed properly? Does the video tell a cohesive story? These are all things that can make or break someone's experience here at Sandals.

What I'm asking all of our teams to do is to look at our service through the eyes of a first-time guest. Put yourself in their shoes with all of their burdens and garbage they're carrying in with them. Filter your experience by how they would experience our service. Do we do all we can to serve them? Can we do better?

My reset button has been pressed. I've refocused onto what's important. No more phoning it in. The weekend is the thing.

Elite Core

Isaiah Franco

Isaiah Franco has been involved with church tech for over 10 years and currently on staff as the production director at Sandals Church in Riverside, CA. He’s a big nerd with an even bigger heart to serve the Church.

Fresh Voices

It was almost 10 years ago that I started this website. Back then, I was working at a medium-size church in Western New York. I began writing to chronicle my adventures as a part-time TD working full-time hours. Turns out, a few people wanted to follow along. Since then, I’ve worked at churches in Minneapolis and SoCal. I’m now on my second integration company as well. It’s been quite the journey. 

When I was a TD, I had no shortage of things to write about. Now that I’m on the other side of the aisle as an integrator, I still have lots to write about, but I want to be sure to continue to feature content that will help you as a TD—staff or volunteer.  The last thing I want to do is generate a bunch of content that is not really applicable to what you’re dealing with day-in and day-out. 

Thankfully, I know a lot of smart people. And now, you’re going to get to know them, too. Over the next few months, you’re going to start seeing new names on the bylines of the articles. I won’t spoil the surprise of who will be here, but keep your eyes peeled. 

The guys bringing in to write are really smart and have a huge heart to serve the church. They see this as an extension of that service. My goal is to have 4-5 other people writing a post per month here. I have two lined up, and more on the way. Can I tell you, I’m really excited about this!

You’ll also see Van has begun writing more often. This, too is good news!Van has been doing this even longer than I have, and has learned many lessons throughout his time on staff. Not only is he a really wise technical leader, he’s also one of my best friends. 

Don’t worry, I’ll still be writing as well. I still have plenty to say, and I’ll be writing from the perspective of volunteer, former TD and systems guy. Or whatever else I feel like talking about. It’s good to be the blog owner!

So stay tuned! We have a lot of good stuff coming here at ChurchTechArts!

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