Creating the Big Picture

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm all about developing a well thought out game plan before starting any system upgrade. Perhaps it comes from my background in carpentry and construction--one would never (OK, at least one should never) undertake a new building or renovation project on without a well-developed plan. When trying to coordinate all the various trades--framers, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, finish carpenters--it's imperative that all know what the outcome should look like when everyone is done with their piece of the job. Without a plan, the job gets botched; pieces don't fit together, there are HVAC ducts where there should be lights and outlets where the trim should be. We've all seen it. And we've all seen it in the church with our technical systems.

It starts off innocently enough. Say we need to add some TVs to the lobby. Often the timeline and budget are tight so we run coax and feed it from an RF modulator which is looped out of the DVD recorder (I've seen this in more churches than I can count, by the way...). Then we need some TVs elsewhere. That leads to an RF distribution amp. It all works well enough except between services when the video guy finalizes the DVD, and everyone on campus sees the process.

A few years later, there is a new tech guy and he starts running a whole new standard. A few years later, it happens again. By the time we're through, we have multiple standards--RF, DVI, HDMI, Twisted Pair, Composite Video, S-Video, HD, SD--running all over the building and no way to make everything talk to each other.

The same thing happens with audio and lighting. How many churches have DMX and MultiPlex in different (or even the same) rooms? How often have you seen multiple rooms in a facility each with a completely different compliment of equipment? Multiple wireless mic manufacturers, scalers, switches, mixers and lighting boards--we've all seen it. And there's really no one to blame. It's all done with the best intentions--save the church money, meet the needs, get it up and running quickly--all noble goals. Except it's a mess. And eventually, it needs to be fixed.

Eventually, someone needs to develop a plan to bring all the systems under one umbrella. One thing that's hard to acknowledge is that the best person for that job might not be the Tech Director. I know some great Tech Directors who are phenomenal audio guys. Their knowledge of building a mix, mic selection and the use of effects dwarf mine. And quite often, they don't know that much about video or lighting systems. Sure, they can turn on the cameras & lights, run the board and make things work. But design an entire system? Probably not. They're audio guys, and they like it that way. And I think that's OK. At least until they start being asked to design an entire system.

As churches, we spend a lot of money on the wrong equipment. Often several times. Usually it's because finding someone who can develop a solid long-term plan is rather difficult. More difficult, in fact, that just making something work. Sadly, I don't have a fool-proof method for finding the right person to design a system. What I can tell you is that the more eyes that are on the plan the better.

I consider myself pretty good at system design. I understand signal flow and have a knack for developing efficient systems. And I love to learn, so I'll spend hours researching. Still, I almost always run my plans by a number of other people who know as much or more (and sometimes less) than I do. Why? Because I always get good feedback and suggestions on how to do things better. When considering vendors, I'll ask around to see if people I trust have had good experiences with XYZ company. And if not, who did they have a good experience with. I'll bring in multiple vendors, manufacturers reps and consultants if need be to get the best system.

Does all that take longer? Yes it does, without question. But in the end, it's the only way to ensure I'm spending my churches money in the most cost effective way possible. Note too, that the plans we ultimately come up with are probably not the cheapest up front. However, they will provide the most value in the end. And as for the time factor, I'd rather live with something that's not working right for a few months than spend money 2 or 3 times fixing the problem. When I tear it out and fix it, it's going to be right.

Understand too, that I say all of this not to ruffle feathers or make people feel bad. My motivation is to help the Church be as effective as possible while being wise stewards of the funds God has entrusted us with. Since I'm doing a lot of system design right now, over the next few months I'll be letting you in on our process. Hopefully it will be helpful to some.

I'll end with the words my college professor, Clint, was fond of admonishing us with, "Think it through."