Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: March 2007

Let There Be Light – Or Not

Everybody knows that the purpose of lighting in the church is to put light on the stage, right? I know a lighting director (from my high school musical days) who said his rule of thumb for stage lighting is to, “flood the stage, and make ’em pink” Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of churches follow the same advice. I’m not sure that’s the best use of light, however. In fact, I would argue that the most creative and effective lighting I have seen includes as much non-light as light. Let me explain.

First, some theory. As humans, our eyes are pre-programmed to jump to the brightest thing in our field of view. Try it out for yourself. In a darkened room, with one or two sources of light (the living room at night with a tv on works well), drop your gaze to the floor, then look up. See where your eyes go. More likely than not, they darted to the lightest thing in the room. In my living room right now, when I look up I see the tv.

So if our eyes are drawn to the brightest thing in the room, what else is drawn there as well? Our attention. Now think about what happens when you wash the entire stage with bright, even light. Where does one look? I would suggest that when the entire stage is lit evenly, the people in the congregation don’t know where to look.

What if we as lighting designers could help direct the congregations attention where we want? Guess what? We can! We do it by using shadows and the absence of light. So if you have a worship set on stage, you typically want the worship leader to be where people are looking. To accomplish that, you can light the rest of the band with richer colors and less overall light, and put a little more light on the leader. If the guitar player has a solo for a bridge, bring a light up on him or her. That shifts the focus of the audience where you want it to go.

You can also apply this to the pastor who is speaking during his message. Consider a stage that is fully lit during the message. The poor person in the congregation doesn’t know where to look. Strike that, they know where to look, but their internal hardwiring has them looking all over the place for the brightest object. By dimming upstage and stage left and right and putting the speaker in a nice pool of light (large enough for him to walk around if that’s what he does) the man in the pew’s attention is automatically drawn to the speaker. He’ll spend more time listening and less time looking around.

All we’re doing is using the body’s natural tendencies to draw attention where we want it. In doing so, the congregation spends fewer “processing cycles” to use a computer analogy, trying to decide what to look at, which frees them up to hear the message. And that’s what it’s all about. The church technician’s primary job is to support what happens on stage, remove barriers to receiving the message and to enhance the experience. Everything we do boils down to that. By using light and the lack thereof, we make progress in all three areas. Now go have fun lighting – or not!

The Downside of Making It Look Easy

Really good tech people have one thing in common: we love a challenge. Tell us something can’t be done and we’ll figure out a way to prove you wrong. Need another monitor mix when all the Aux sends are maxed out? No problem, we can swipe an unused group out, or maybe a matrix out. Need to run 40 channels into your 32 channel board? No problem, swipe the board from the children’s room and sub it in. Next challenge…

All this resourcefulness has a downside I’ve discovered. It can lead worship leaders (especially less technically minded ones) to think that we can do anything, and that it will be easy. Oh, and fast. I have a saying I use over and over (which if you read this blog for any length of time, you will hear a lot), “Planning will set you free.” As much as I like to keep my options open in my personal life (I’m an INTP after all…), when it comes to live production I plan as many details as I possibly can. The way I see it, the more stuff is planned, and the more procedures I have in place to carry out those plans, the more I can enjoy the actual event. While I’m pretty good at figuring out problems on the fly, I don’t enjoy it. I would much rather know exactly what will be expected this weekend, plan for it, configure the system to run it, then be able to worship while I mix.

Planning allows me to serve the band better, which allows them to lead the congregation into a deeper experience of worship. Some worship leaders seem to follow the, “whatever the Spirit leads” model of “planning,” however. Now if the band is a simple set up and everyone in the congregation knows the words, that can work. But when the band gets big and the poor MediaShout operator is just trying to survive following a worship leader that sings the song differently every time, the stress level goes up exponentially.

Take our little sound system set up for example. We have a small Soundcraft Series Two 32 channel board. I’ve got 4 monitor mixes, 2 recording mixes, and 2 FX mixes tying up the Auxes. Both Matrix outs are used. Same for L&R + Mono. I also have an Aviom personal monitoring system with 16 direct outs going to 5 personal mixers on stage. In effect, I have 9 monitor mixes available, though I have to be strategic for the Avioms because we routinely use more than 16 channels for the band. I plan each service a week in advance, drawing up a stage plot and patch chart so the setup crew knows what to do. Normally I am running at full capacity every week.

Now, say I get a request to add a mic on Saturday afternoon. Sound simple, just plug it in, right? Except, I’m out of inputs in my mic “bank.” The singer is on ears, so I need to get his mic into the Avioms, and I’m maxed out on those sends too. I hate to say no, but what choice do I have? If I knew about it early in the week, I could have set up my groups and monitors differently to make it work. Today however, I have to say no.

Sometimes, techies get no respect. I would never presume to jump up on stage during a rehearsal and say to the guitar player, “Why can’t you just play the right chords, they’re on the page right in front of you!” That’s because I have respect for what they do, and playing a guitar is not as easy as it looks. Why then would a musician come back to the sound booth and say, “Just add another mic, it’s easy, just plug it in!” I invite every musician from our church to shadow a sound guy some week to see what we actually do. Few ever do it, but those that do come away with an education.

If you’re a technician, take pride in what you do and know that your job is every bit as complicated and difficult as any on stage. If you are musician or worship leader, take some time to educate yourself about the technical complexities of a sound system (or video or lighting for that matter) in the modern, contemporary church. And better yet, plan ahead. Everyone will have a more enjoyable, worshipful experience. Believe me when I tell you, planning will set you free!

Ill Gotten Gain Part Deux

If you read my previous post, Ill Gotten Gain, the concepts here should be familiar. If not, scroll down and buzz through it real quick. It’s ok, we’ll wait. All set? Here we go. So, last time we dealt with setting up the gain for your sound console. This weekend I was reminded of another gain setting that is just about equally important (perhaps even more so), and that would the gain on the wireless mic the pastor is using. Here’s what happened.

I have been in the process of revamping our entire wireless mic family over last few months. The new mics (Shure ULXP’s, look for a review in the coming weeks…) have been really great. I’ve also been making the switch to new mics for said wireless systems (see below). The challenge is that we have some speakers who like the new mics, and one (turns out he’s the new Sr. Pastor) who doesn’t so much. Since he’s new, I’m cutting him some slack and letting him use a lav (for now…). And that’s the rub. We have one body pack that is “assigned” to the speaker for the weekend. Sometimes we’ll plug in a lav, other times an 892, and each mic has a different sensitivity rating; some speakers are loud, others are quiet. If you read Part 1, you know where this is going.

Just like the input gain on your console, the bodypack also has an input gain setting (at least it should – if it doesn’t go order a new one that does). Sometimes it’s a rather coarse “0”, “-10” switch; other times it’s a little control in the battery compartment that needs a tweaker; sometimes, it’s a handy thumbwheel on the side of the transmitter (like the ULXP’s – I like that!). The problem is, too often we sound engineers get so busy, we jack in a mic, drop in a battery and hand it to the speaker who is already running to the stage for a sound check. We crank up the gain on the board as he says, “Check one, two…are we done?” and hope for the best. It’s not until he’s up on stage at the beginning of the message that you hear the familiar crackle of some sound gremlins having a bad day. You check your console gain, everything is fine; you may even check the compressor, the EQ and everything else. Check the wireless receiver. If it’s a good one, it will have an audio level meter. A less good one will have a clip light. If you see clipping, or the meter is maxed out, you’re in a world of hurt. You’ve gone and done it – you’ve used up all the headroom in that little bodypack. And it’s not like you can run up on stage during the message, reach into the pastor’s back pocked, grab the mic and tweak the little dial down a bit. Oh no, you’re hosed.

Something I’m trying to get my engineers to be more cognizant of is the wireless mic gain. We used to put the mics in a tray and put them in the green room for the “on stage” folks to just pick up. Now, we’re keeping them at the FOH console. That way, we can help them get the mic fitted properly, show them how to use it if it’s new to them and most importantly, adjust the gain on the pack before they’re 100 feet away on the stage (and while we can lay eyes on the receiver so we know what we’re doing!).

So here’s my procedure (which will soon become the law of the land at Crosswinds). Speakers and actors must pick up the mic at the sound board. Before they will strap on said mic while standing there and give us a realistic level while we adjust the gain on the pack. They will then proceed to the stage at the appointed time for sound check and we’ll do the gain trimming and level adjusting for the house (and monitors if necessary). At the end of the service, the mics will be delivered back to the sound board so that batteries can be recharged and so we don’t have to chase people all over the church looking for them.

Yep, that input gain control is the most important setting, whether it’s on the bodypack or the console. Getting this right just makes your day go so much easier. Get it wrong and you’ll hear, “Why was Jack all crackly and distorted for the whole message – it was really distracting!” And that, my friends, is not good sound (apologies to Alton Brown).

Monitor Wars – The Solution?

UPDATE, NOV. 20, 2016

As this post was written almost 10 years ago, I want to start off with a huge caveat; a lot has changed! As of this writing, I would definitely not use Avioms for personal mixers–my choices now are Elite Core for basic 16 channel analog systems or Digital Audio Labs LiveMix for Dante-based systems. Also, I would absolutely recommend using room mic’s with any IEM-based monitoring system. Without them, the band loses touch with the congregation, and the band will hate it. There’s a lot more to say, but that will be a new post. I’m writing this just in case anyone unearth’s this 10 years later… END UPDATE

Not too long ago, in a church not that far away, the battle had begun. It started off innocently enough. The bass player and drummer had to share a monitor because there were not enough to go around (budget constraints, you know). The first request was for a little more bass in the monitors. That was followed by a request for more kick and snare, then a little more bass. Now the drummer needed kick, snare and toms turned up. But the bass player couldn’t hear anymore, so he needed more. By now the level of those two monitors had reached 86 dB at front of house. The arms race had started; the Monitor Wars had begun.

Sound familiar? It happened in my church every week until about 6 months ago. Frustrated at using the house speakers to cover up the stage sound (and just barely at that), I began looking for a better way. Having spent many a summer shooting video of Christian music festivals, I was aware that most of the touring acts had gone to in-ear monitors, mainly the wireless variety. I greatly appreciated the lower volume on stage (I could actually talk to my grip…), but I also knew that without a separate monitor desk and operator (neither of which we had nor could afford), wireless in-ears would not help us.

I remembered an instant message conversation I had with a friend some years back about a personal monitor technology that used Cat-5e cable to send 16 channels of audio to the stage and was distributed to each musician in a way that allowed them to control their own mix. Some quick Internet research led me to Aviom and their Personal Mixing II system.

The concept is simple enough; take 16 channels, direct outs, aux sends, group outs, whatever, and patch them into the input module. Those 16 channels get sent via a single wire to the stage where it is daisy-chained to each mixer. Every musician gets full control over his or her mix without affecting any other. The system is wired, but since our guitar players rarely stage dive, this is not a limitation.

The benefits are many. The most noticeable is that stage volume is reduced significantly. No longer is the house mix merely a mask for the stage monitors. Our FOH engineers can actually create a mix that sounds great, and keep the volume 6-8 dB lower (which makes our more senior worshipers very happy!). It is now possible to turn the electronic drums down in the house, and have them go down – finally the benefit of electronic drums realized!

Another bonus is the generation of additional monitor mixes. Whereas we used to have four, we now have nine – 4 aux sends from the board for vocalists and the choir, and 5 personal mixes for the band. Not only do vocalists require lower levels, but we now have enough that the worship leader doesn’t have to share with the harmony singers, and we have enough left over for the brass section and choir. No more sharing. This makes everyone happy, including the engineers who have far more control to please everyone on stage.

I have to admit to a bit of fear and trembling when I was about to roll out the system. I knew it was a great solution, but would the musicians agree? Would the system be user friendly; would it sound good enough; would they revolt and refuse to use it? Thankfully my fear was unfounded. I made some good decisions (in hindsight) that really helped the adoption go smoothly. First, I talked it up for months beforehand. I knew the musicians (and the sound guys for that matter) were frustrated with the current state. Though I bought the equipment in the summer, I didn’t plug anything in until mid-fall. I wanted time to play with it, show it off and tell everyone how great it would be.

Second, I bought good equipment. The Aviom system rocks. It’s that simple. I also went with good ear buds, Westone UM1’s for the guitars and keys and AKG K240 headphones for drums and bass. I couldn’t afford ear buds that went deep enough (the UM2’s would have been nice), so I bought good headphones. Honestly, they look fine on stage, and some have commented they look really cool.

Third, I rolled it out in stages. I started with the drums and bass first, and they fell in love. It didn’t take long for the guitars and keys to want their own “ears.” I have had almost a 100% acceptance rate, and the only people who weren’t crazy about them at first were those not on ears. Not because they wanted them, but because they missed the “feel” of the sound. Once we dropped the stage level from the mid to high 90 dB range, to the mid 70’s, they didn’t feel the sound as much. It was mainly a problem during rehearsal when the house system wasn’t on. It took me a few months to solve the problem (it should have taken a week, what can I say…). Now we simply turn the house system on for rehearsal – everyone’s happy.

The system is not perfect, none is I guess. At first 16 channels seemed like a whole lot, but when we started breaking it down, we ran out pretty fast. The problem is I have musicians who sing, and they need to hear their vocals and their instrument, so that really adds up. I thought I could get by with using group outs, but that doesn’t allow enough control. More aux sends would be helpful after all. Because we have 4 different worship teams, each with a different musical makeup, I end up re-patching the direct outs each week to accommodate everyone. At first I tried to avoid this, but in the end it makes life easier.

The overall effect of the system is fantastic despite these minor limitations. The house sound has improved so dramatically I actually have people commenting on it (how often does that happen?). Our engineer’s workload is greatly reduced, so they can spend more time finessing the mix, and less time trying to make the monitors work. We can run a much lower house volume, with cleaner sound that still feels great. And the musicians really love it. Some have taken to bringing their own headsets, which is fine and those who are not yet on “ears” are asking when I’m getting them a set.

The cost was very reasonable, and the beauty of the system is its expandability. We started off with an input module and 4 stations for under $2,500. We can add stations for less than $500, and we can add as many as we want. Next budget year I will be buying a powered hub to sit on stage that will power the mixers over the Cat-5, eliminating the wall warts. If you are facing the problem described at the beginning of this article, I highly recommend this system. Not only have we enjoyed a cease-fire agreement, but we are now in nearly complete peace. Worship leading has become fun again!

Ill Gotten Gain

A typical soundboard may have dozens, even hundreds of knobs and buttons and faders. Each one has a specific function, but one is more important than all the rest. It’s typically at the top of the channel strips and it’s called “gain” (or sometimes “trim”). It is perhaps the most misused and misunderstood control on the whole board. Get it set wrong and no amount of fading, EQ or outboard processing will fix it. Get it right and the rest of your mix will come together much, much easier.

So, how do you get it right? Well, it depends. (Great – thanks Mike!) Seriously, it depends – on your board. I wish I could tell you to turn the gain up until you get to 0, then you’re done. That may work, but it may not be optimal. You have to do some experimenting and listening. Follow along and I’ll walk you through the process, then we’ll look at some specific things to listen for.

For starters, adjusting gain needs to be done in a methodical manner. If you’ve ever been to a concert early and watched a sound check, you’ve seen how it’s done. Turn all the faders down on the board, and start with the gains all the way counter-clockwise. Start with one instrument, say the kick drum. Ask the drummer to kick, kick, kick, kick. He keeps going until you tell him to move on. If your board has a PFL or Solo button on the channel, push it for the kick drum (or whatever you’re starting with). The PFL should route that channel to your main meters (check your manual), so keep your eye on it and gradually bring the gain up. When it starts to peak around 0, you are close. Now you can start brining up the monitors, and then house fader.

Repeat this process with all the other instruments on stage. Then move on to vocals. We’ll deal with some more suggestions for a sound check in another post. At the end of this exercise, you should have all the instruments and vocals hitting 0 or a little more. At this point, you may be done. Or not.

It all depends on your board. Some boards have a lot more headroom than others, and if you cap the levels at 0, you are not fully utilizing all the gain they have available, and are not maximizing your signal to noise ratio (the difference in signal level between the noise floor and the signal or music). Other boards are pretty much spent at 0, and if you send 10-16 channels all at 0 to the main buss, it will overload and you will distortion. Or you may just be on the verge of clipping all the time.

This is where you need to listen and pay attention to your board. The Soundcraft board we have at our church will take +8 inputs all day long, mixed into groups and to the mains with no hints of saturation or distortion. So we can run stuff hot, and maximize our signal to noise ratio. On the other hand, I once used another board at another church that would be completely out of headroom if you ran all the inputs at 0.

Play with your board, try different levels and once you settle on a level that works, stick to it. Make it systematic so everyone uses the same gain structure. Once it’s repeatable, you’ll have better, more consistent sound every week.

The Audio Technica AT892 Headworn Mic

I’ll start by confessing that until recently, I’ve not been a big fan of headworn mics. Most of the ones I have used in the past were big, bulky and didn’t look or sound that good. In the last several years, several manufacturers have introduced lightweight, unobtrusive over-the-ear mics that actually sound pretty good. And if you get them in a color to match the face of the person wearing it, they are not that noticeable.

AT 892

We had been using Countryman e6’s at our church for a while. The e6 is somewhat the gold standard of over-the-ear mics for many people. Maybe it’s my contrarian nature, but I didn’t really care for them. When it came time to purchase some new mics for an upcoming Christmas Eve drama, I looked around to see what was out there. I decided to give the AT892 a try. Here’s what I found.

For starters, this mic comes in a really nice, hard plastic case with a custom foam insert (in contrast to other mics which cost a third more and come in flexible pouches). Also included in the case are two windscreens, an additional capsule that brightens the response and a clip to take the cable strain off the ear – a really nice touch that other manufacturers should follow.

The mic runs under the ear, rather than over which for some, is a great benefit. For others, it doesn’t work quite as well. The 892 seems ideally suited to those with average size, somewhat round ears. Those with taller ears tend to have issues getting the mic to fit securely, though a piece of clear medical type tape will help.

After unpacking the mic, I was anxious to hear what they sounded like. We have several different models of Shure wireless mics that we used them in for our large drama. As soon as the first actor wearing the 892 walked up on stage for a sound check I was immediately impressed. I have noticed that other headworn mics require a significant amount of EQ to get them sounding natural. Keeping in mind the main goal of what we do is sound reinforcement, my top priority is to get the amplified sound matching the actual source as close as possible. The spoken word is really tough, but we have to get it right – especially for sermons and dramas where there isn’t a bunch of other music to cover up the difference between the source and the amplified.

Anyway, back to our story. The first actor stepped on the stage, I dialed up the gain and that was it. It sounded just like her. A slight tweak at 3K to take just the slightest bit of edge off and we were done. Six actors later and the EQ on the board was still nearly zeroed out. I was in shock. Having used the mics for the last several months with dozens of different speakers and with several engineers, I’m still impressed. They are the most natural sounding mics I’ve heard of this type. And I’ve yet to have one feed back; even when the pastor walked right in front of the front fills during his message!

Downsides? There are a few in addition to the previously mentioned size of the ear thing. The cables are molded into the body of the mic and thus not replaceable (as they are on the Countryman), and they are very lightweight. This is good from a comfort standpoint; I just hope they hold up for the long term. The windscreens fall off pretty easily (we’ve lost 4 already), though I’m going to try the slightest dab of silicone to hold them in place.

Other than that, I have to say I’m very impressed. So much so I bought 7 of them for our church. Most of those who have worn them like them right away, though it’s taken some tweaking for a few people. For me, the biggest benefit is the sound. People just don’t sound “mic’d” when wearing these – and that’s the best compliment I can give a mic of this design.

Being Excellent – With Less

Have you heard the expression, “Stuff expands to fill the space available?” It was true in my life. When we lived in our first, tiny little house, we didn’t have that much stuff. In fact, it all fit in a single moving van when we bought our next, larger house. After 10 years there, however, we had a lot of stuff. In fact, the once empty basement was full. It took an interstate move to a smaller house to clear out the clutter.

I think the same concept applies in the technical and worship arts. We are always striving to make things a little bigger, a little better. And therein lies the challenge. Not with getting bigger necessarily, but in outgrowing our capacity. Let me explain.

We began a new ministry in our church recently. The program included weekly meetings that would have a worship component. As a general rule, we do worship really well, and it’s very much in the contemporary style —full band, great vocals, lighting – the complete package. It also takes a small army of volunteers to make it happen. In fact, there are upwards of 70 people participating in worship in any given month.

For this new ministry, it was supposed to be simple—pre-packaged PowerPoint slide shows, split-track CD for music and a few vocalists. They would use the youth room, which has a capable but simple lighting rig (30 or so fixtures). At least that was the plan.

The first week there were 5 vocalists on stage, 2 guitars and keys. They wanted lights, 4 monitor mixes and big sound. To support this “simple” set-up there was one guy who is one of our best lighting guys, but new to Media Shout & sound, and one tech who was completely green. The next week, they added drums and some more vocals. Oh, and that week there was only one tech.

Now, I’m all about doing things right, even big. “Go big or go home,” I often say. Yet in this case, it’s a clear mistake. Without sufficient technical support, the music team must scale back. If it doesn’t, both the techs and the musicians will be frustrated, the techs will burn out and the whole thing will collapse. This is a classic case of being only as strong as the weakest link. In this case the weak link is the tech team (a lack of trained multi-disciplinary techs), and thus that becomes the limiting factor of the program. And understand it’s not for lack of trying; the techs we have in our church are the best I’ve ever worked with. But not every one is trained yet in all disciplines, and it takes a lot of years of experience to cover 2 or 3 roles in a tech booth at once.

I would like to propose a radical concept – simplify down to the level of excellence. What does that mean? Look at it this way; design your program (worship, new ministries, that big Easter musical, whatever) around whatever the weakest link is, and do what you can do with excellence up to that point. If you don’t have enough musicians to pull together four different full on bands for a month of worship services, make one a simple acoustic set. If you can’t staff the tech teams to do a wild musical production, simplify it. Once you simplify to the weakest link, you now have the ability to be excellent.

Too many ministries think that bigger is better. It’s not. Better is better. Excellence should be the goal, not getting bigger. Putting more bodies on the battlefield before they’re ready simply results in more casualties. Do what you can do really, really well. Then stop. Raise the bar when all the elements are in place to do so. Want to do a huge musical production that requires 20 actors on stage with wireless mics? You’d better own (or be able to rent) high quality mics that are frequency coordinated, a soundboard with automation capability, and have a couple of high quality sound guys. Miss any of those elements and you’re asking for trouble, and you will not have an excellent production. If you can’t accommodate that, scale back until you can do what you do really well. Stretch the crew, yes. But if you push too hard, things break. Don’t do it.

So what’s the solution for our new ministry? It’s easy—simplify. Go back to a split track CD for music with one or two vocalists. Stick with simple PowerPoint presentations. Continue to recruit and train tech volunteers. Once they are ready, we can add musicians. It will happen, but it needs time. Failure to pull back will ultimately result in failure of the ministry. That benefits no one.

Those that come into our ministries deserve excellence. God wants our best, not our biggest. We can get bigger as we get better, as we add volunteers and the equipment to support them. But we should never get bigger before we get better.

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