Remote campuses is the topic of the day. How do you staff them? Who handles problems? Who trains, recruits and leads the teams? What are some great organizational principles? We tackle that and more!
Now that much of my time is spent developing AVL budgets for churches, I’ve spent a lot of time considering what constitutes a good value. One of the things I’ve noticed for a long time is that many churches shop based on price only. They may be comparing two pieces of equipment that do similar things and choose the least expensive. Sometimes that’s a good idea, but more often than not, it turns out the lowest price doesn’t equal the lowest cost.
This is especially true when you begin to factor in the cost of labor. This has been one of the more fascinating thing for me to start looking at closely. Here’s an example that might surprise you.
A Tale of Two Microphones
Shure makes two mid-range digital wireless mic systems, the ULX-D and the QLX-D. Both offer similar audio performance, but the QLX-D brings several key features to the table. They also make a ULX-D dual and quad system, which is two and four receivers in a single rack space.
Now, if you look at the line item pricing on the ULX-D Quad, you might think it’s a lot more expensive per-channel than both the regular ULX-D and the QLX-D. However, when you price it out with all the accessories you need for four channels of wireless, and consider the installed cost, the Quad actually comes out ahead. How can this be?
The big selling factor for the Quad is the fact that it’s four receivers in one space. The installers take it out of the box, rack it up, connect the four audio lines (or better, the Cat5 for Dante), connect power and two antenna lines and they’re done. With ULX-D single or QLX-D, they have four units to unbox, build into two rack mounted units (the receivers are normally 1/2 rack space), rack, wire, and then on the QLX-D, there’s the antenna distro.
The extra time of doing all the work, especially when you go beyond four channels really tips the scales in the favor of the Quad. So we use it almost all the time. The more expensive product is actually less expensive for the church. Now, if a church wants to do all the install themselves and they have the time and knowledge, then the QLX-D is a better deal even with the antenna distro.
For years I’ve regaled you with tales of tearing out poorly chosen equipment that didn’t meet the goals of the church. This happens with speakers, wireless mic’s, projectors, lights, and a myriad of other gear. Often, it happens like this:
The church has a need for something, say, new speakers. They’ll head down to the local Guitar Center or music shop or do some shopping at one of the large online retailers. They’ll talk to a salesman and ask, “What speakers should we buy?” The salesman may suggest something good, they may not. Speakers are bought, installed and everyone is disappointed. It may not be loud enough, clear enough or focused enough. Then they buy more speakers. If two are good, four are better, right? Then the sound gets worse. No one can figure out why the sound keeps getting worse.
Finally, perhaps out of desperation, they’ll hire a company like the one I work for and we will actually do a design (for which we get paid), and take down all the “less expensive” speakers, and put up some good ones. Quite often, I’m taking down 2x as many speakers as we put back up, and people are stunned with the results.
At the end of this road, the church has wasted a good deal of time, money, energy and may have even lost some members. The original intent was to save the congregation some money by not hiring one of the “expensive” integrators. But all they did was waste money and time.
Doing it Once is Always Less Expensive
This is my rule; do it once, do it right. Spending money twice for a given system will always be more expensive than spending it once. This is just math. If you call me for a new PA and I tell you it will cost $50,000, then you decide to try to do it yourself with a $20,000 PA that we end up taking down in 2 years because it didn’t work, how much do you spend for the $50,000 PA? Hint, it’s more than $50,000.
Here’s the bottom line: Get good advice. Take good advice.
Last time, we began talking about how to optimize sound check. Normally, it’s a simple matter of getting organized, staying organized and working through a set process quickly and efficiently. Before you start, make sure you are ready. As I mentioned last time, your board should be labeled and everything should be working. Now let’s get to it.
The Drum Set
I changed the way I do drums a few years back, and I’ve been pretty happy with this new method. I start with the kick, get that dialed in, then add snare. Once the snare is sounding good with the kick, I’ll add hat. Same deal. I like to get those three locked up and feeling right before moving on. I’ll then do the toms, usually asking for a hit on hi, mid, low, hi, mid, low until I have the levels balanced and feeling right. Then it’s a quick hit on cymbals before asking the drummer to play a groove on the whole kit. When the drummer is playing the whole thing, I can make some final balance adjustments and get the drums sounding like a single instrument.
Work Quickly, With the Big Picture in Mind
What you want to do during soundcheck is get the levels dialed in to roughly where everything should sit in the mix. You might do some quick EQ and on drums perhaps tweak the gate or comp. But do it quickly. No one wants to hear the drummer hitting quarter notes on the snare for 15 minutes. Ideally, you’ve paid attention to where your gate and comp settings should be and have already preset them so you’re only tweaking. Same goes for gains, if you can manage it (digital consoles are great in this regard). If you have 30 minutes for soundcheck and you spend 25 getting the drums dialed in, it will be tough to take care of the rest of the band in the remaining five minutes. Get things close and move on. You can always come back and tweak settings after rehearsal gets underway.
Pre-Build Monitor Mixes
If you’re mixing monitors from FOH (and even if you aren’t), it’s not a bad idea to pre-build some rough monitor mixes before you start. I knew most of my vocalists well enough to know roughly what they liked in their monitors from week to week, so I normally started a mix before they got there. Then it’s a simple matter of tweaking. It also really helps musicians through the soundcheck process if they can hear themselves right away. Start with the gains and monitors a little lower than you think you’ll need, and work up.
Get the Vocals to Sing
There are few things as unhelpful during soundcheck than having vocalists speaking, “Check 1,2...” Guitar players constantly noodling is a close second, followed by drummers who are still trying work out the drum solo from YYZ.. I like to have all the vocals sing a chorus of a song while I dial in gains. We’ve told our vocal team, don’t worry about your monitor mix just yet, simply sing. Usually we’ll have the piano or guitar play along for pitch, but that should be the only other sound besides vocals. Have them keep looping until you have their levels dialed in. Of course, starting with rough gains and monitors makes this go faster.
You’ll notice a consistent theme running through this post; get things ready beforehand. The start of soundcheck is not the time to be peeling out the board tape and labeling the desk. By the time the band is set up, you should have completely line-checked, roughed in your gains and pre-built rough monitor mixes. Starting from scratch can be a good thing once in a while, but if you know roughly where things end up each week, starting a little below that makes things go a lot faster.
We had our soundcheck down to about 20-25 minutes, and that’s a full band with 2-3 vocal monitor mixes. Soundcheck doesn’t have to be a painful process. Take some time to develop a system that works well for you, pre-build as much as possible, then communicate clearly to the band. Soon you’ll find it going more smoothly and both you and the band will have more time for rehearsal.
Soundcheck time can be one of the most productive times of the weekend from an audio standpoint. It can also be one of the most frustrating. I have seen soundcheck turn normally mild-mannered and reserved musicians and engineers into angry combatants. My brothers, this should not be. As I’ve been traveling around helping more churches with their weekend sound issues, I’m amazed at the lack of organization prior to a rehearsal start. Many teams just jump right in and ask for monitor changes pretty much constantly for the next 3 hours. I suggest this is not optimal.
Soundcheck can be very efficient, productive and dare I say fun; but we have to do a little work first. Because there are so many different ways to do a soundcheck (because there are so many different church situations), I’m not going to prescribe one. What I want to do instead is offer a series of suggestions that hopefully apply to all situations, and you can create your own plan. Sound good? Here we go...
Line Check First
Few things will frustrate your musicians more than having to stop soundcheck to troubleshoot a bad cable, DI or patch. Before the band even arrives, go through and line check every single line that you’re using that weekend. Even if it’s the same cable you used last week, in the same channel with the same processing. We typically don’t check the actual DIs themselves, but we do pull the mic cable out, attach a 57 to it and make sure we have signal. If it’s an active DI, make sure phantom power is on. And don’t forget the wireless mics. Make sure those are on and working.
Declare Your Intentions
A few minutes before soundcheck is slated to start, I will get on the stage announce and say something like, “Hey everyone, good afternoon. We’re going to start soundcheck in 2 minutes, so if you could get plugged in, get in place with your ears in and ready to go, it would be great!” Once we actually start, I’ll say something like this, “Hey guys, we’re going to go through each channel one at a time so I can get levels. Once you hear the level stop changing, you can set it in your ears (if using personal mixers). If we could have only the instrument I ask for, it will make it go really quickly. Let’s start off with the kick.” Making sure everyone knows what is coming up will help them stay focused. This is important because as we all know, most musicians are very ADD.
Some like to start from the bottom (drums and bass) and work their way up to the top (vocals). Others work in reverse order. Personally I prefer and normally do the former, but which way you go is up to you, and depends on your situation. Whatever you do, stay organized. Don’t start with the kick, then do piano, then guitar, then snare, then vocals, then cymbals. Develop a logical order that works through each instrument and stick with it. Use the same order every week. I suggest you talk through this order with your worship leader in advance as well, just to make sure what you’re doing works for the musicians as well.
OK, that gets you started. Next time, we’ll be back with some specifics on cruising through soundcheck so fast your musicians will actually get an extra half hour of rehearsal time