Taking a Risk With Christmas

My view for a great day of virtual soundcheck prep for Christmas Eve.

My view for a great day of virtual soundcheck prep for Christmas Eve.

One of the things I love about what we do is there is always an opportunity to try something, to learn and grow. Sometimes, learning and growing takes a risk—we have to try it to see if it works—though it may fail. I’ve spent the last 25+ years taking calculated risks in my job, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve gotten reasonably good at it. I have a pretty big mental database of things that did and didn’t work. With that as a track record, I took a risk this Christmas. I mentioned it last time in the article about mixing Christmas Eve. What did I do?

I reused last year’s show file as my starting point for this year. Normally, I’m a proponent of starting over each time, but as I started to build the show file for this year, I discovered that the service was going to be nearly identical to last year. Most of the instrumentation was going to be the same, as was the program. We cut a song, but otherwise, the same. We had roughly the same number of vocalists (with ears mixed from FOH), and most of the musicians were playing again this year. I already had the mixes pretty well dialed in, and we’d play them the same. On the surface, it looks like a good idea.

Of course, there is always the downside. Or at least the potential downside. All the downside centered around what was changing. Last year we had one keyboard player playing piano, keys and B3 (a total of 7 inputs). This year, we would have two players—one on piano and one on keys. We wouldn’t use the B3, but I would recycle those inputs for guitars as we were adding three of them. 

We also added 2 new vocals, a new worship leader with a totally different guitar rig, and I’ve made substantial changes to my broadcast and other ancillary room mixes. I’ve even changed the way I process my L&R bus. Those last few things were a simple matter of saving presets and loading them into the new/old show file. But some of the recycling bit me.

The best thing about digital consoles is recall-ability. It can also kill you. I decided to not only keep my patch, EQ and gain settings from last year, but also the snapshot list. I figured, I spent a lot of time honing that last year, why not utilize it again. In theory, it’s a good idea. However, in practice it caused some headaches. 

In retrospect, I should have mass edited all the snapshots to include very limited—fader only, really—recall. I didn’t because I was doing things like sharing channels and mic's between different readers, swapping guitars and things like that. All my starting points were good, but I missed a few things that got me in trouble. 

What you don’t know can hurt you. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that my All Off snapshot (the first one in all my lists) was set to recall monitor mixes. I did this intentionally last year because I was making some changes to them during the program, and I wanted to be sure we re-set at the beginning of each service. Problem was, it was recalling last year’s monitor mixes, not this year’s as I forgot to update it. 

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with trying something like this. The SD8 has incredible power and I can do amazing things with it. But after 12 months, I forgot some of what I was doing. And it came back to bite me. After getting the vocal monitors dialed in, I fired All Off at the end of the night and wiped them all out. Only I didn’t discover it until a few days later at dress when all the vocalists were complaining about not being able to hear. 

By that point, I didn’t know where I had a clean snapshot of a good mix for them (as I wasn’t recalling changes to the monitors this year; except for the one place I didn’t know I was). So they muddled along, trying to the best they could, but it wasn’t good. 

Mistakes like that make for a long day. I couldn’t sleep that night, and I lay in bed thinking through what went wrong. Once I figured it out, I knew what I had to do to fix it. I got up super-early, and headed in three hours before call time. Using tracks from rehearsal, I re-built all the monitor mixes, fixing all my recall so they would “stick.” The vocalists were super-happy with the changes and were able to have a great day. But I was ready to fall over by the end of service four (of five). 

My experiment was about 50% successful overall, which isn’t good enough. Much of my attempt worked really well. We got through soundcheck super-fast because so much was the same as last year. Many of my mixes required only a little tweaking for updated instrumentation, and my transitional elements worked great. However, I had routing, aux send and the aforementioned monitor recall issues that cased more problems. 

So while I saved a little time up front, it cost me in the end. Knowing this now, I won’t do this again. Even if the service is identical, I’ll still start over. I’ve learned so much this past year that I approach things very differently than I did 12 months ago. DiGiCo updated the software, giving us new capabilities that change the way I work, and it was hard incorporating those changes into last year’s file. 

Still, I’m glad I tried it. At the end of Christmas Eve day, everyone was happy, the services sounded great and God’s Spirit moved. We shared the Gospel with 3,600 people, and that’s not a bad day. I’ve learned from it, and I have another entry in my database of what works and what doesn’t. Never be afraid to try stuff; even if it doesn’t work, you learn from it.

Roland

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