Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: April 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

It’s a phrase we hear all the time, right? Practice makes perfect. Actually, it doesn’t. Perfect practice makes perfect. Regular old practice just ingrains the same mistakes into your mind. But I digress. It’s commonly understood that if you want to get better at something, you need to practice. But now it’s time for one of Mike’s #1 pet peeves – people serving in the technical arts at church who are not committed to getting better at what they do. This boggles my mind.

We expect that the worship team will practice their music individually, and corporately prior to the service (and if they don’t shame on them – but that’s another post). This practice not only familiarizes them with the music, but also hones their skills as a musician. The same holds true for drama people. We would expect the preaching pastor to continue to improve not only their hermeneutics, but also their presentation skills, so as to engage their audience more completely.

As for the tech team, we expect…{insert crickets sound effects here}. Well, what do we expect? Too often, we expect too little, even of ourselves. If you’re a tech person reading this, what have you done in the last month to improve your ability to perform your task? Some might argue that it’s difficult to “practice” the technical arts. To some extent I agree, you can’t practice mixing if there’s no one on stage. But how about coming out for rehearsal time and work up a mix, then play with some outboard gear? Lighting people can spend hours playing with different combinations of lights to see what effects they can come up with (I know, I’ve seen them do it at our church…).

How about continuing education? I’ll talk on sound (because it’s my passion) but the what I’m about to say carries over to every discipline. I’ve been doing sound and live production for almost 20 years, yet almost every week (sometimes every day), I learn something new, or pick up on a new technique. How? Because I spend a few hours a week reading magazines and web sites devoted to sound engineering. Right now, I get 5 technical magazines (all free) delivered to my house each month. I’ve also taken on-line classes on sound engineering (all free). There are numerous classes and seminars you can attend that are not free, but very good.

When training is offered at your church, do you attend? Are you willing to show up when it’s not your weekend to watch over the shoulder of someone else and maybe learn something? See, here’s the thing: What we do is very difficult, and it’s not for everyone. Making great sound in an imperfect room even with good equipment is every bit as difficult as playing piano. Creating compelling and effective lighting effects that enhance not interfere with worship is just has hard as singing a solo. So why would we think we can hop in there once a month (or once a week) and “just do it?”

I once had a conversation with a sound tech (a few churches back) about music. I had just finished running camera for a Christian music festival. I was listing off some of the bands we shot that week, the Newsboys, Third Day, Michael W. Smith. After each one, he said, “Hmm, not familiar with them…” Ok, so what kind of music do you listen to? “I don’t really listen to music much.” And he was a sound tech!? Nope, that’s not good folks.

Remember, we’re serving the King here. He didn’t skimp and give us seconds when he gave it all for us. How can we give our best to our earthly employers during the week, then come in and give leftovers to God? Call me a fanatic, but I don’t think we can. Check out the links page for some resources to help build your skills. Thanks for reading…

Planning Will Set You Free

If you’ve read more than one or two of these posts, you’ve seen that phrase. I am a huge believer in planning as many elements of a service or event as possible. It’s much easier to figure out how you’re going to patch an extra guitar in when you’re relaxed and sitting in your office on Wednesday than in a panic Sunday morning at 8:00 am. As contemporary services get more complex, planning becomes not just a luxury, but a matter of survival.

Consider this scenario: You’re in a modern church that is doing very production heavy services. You’re running a board that’s too small for the job because it was bought 5 years ago when the services were much simpler. You’re using an Aviom system for monitors, and every week, the board is pretty much maxed out, as are all 16 Aviom sends. On Saturday you show up for soundcheck and rehearsal and discover you forgot all about the special music that weekend. A singer, who is not part of the normal worship team will sing and play guitar. They will also need the full band as backup, so they need the vocal and guitar in the Avioms. As you discover this, the worship team walks up on stage and wants to begin soundcheck. Can you make it work? Chances are you can, but it will take some head scratching, thinking, re-configuring and Tums.

Now, imagine you knew about this on Wednesday, because you got a Weekend Review sheet in your e-mail. The special was clearly noted, along with the guitar requirements. It may take some head scratching and thinking as to how you’ll make it work, but you can figure it out. You enter all the info into your patch sheet, draw up your stage plot and rest comfortably knowing the weekend is under control.

At Crosswinds, we are blessed to have a couple who love to set up the stage. He is a retired engineer, so things are done very precisely. It’s great – assuming he has the right information. This is why I’ve developed the Stage Plot and Patch Chart (available on the Downloads page). The stage plot shows him where everything needs to go on stage. It spells out who, what and where. If it’s a guitar player who sings, it’s clearly noted. Piano player who also plays keys? Right there. I indicate monitor locations, Aviom positions, and staging requirements.

The patch chart is a detailed account of what gets plugged into where, from the beginning of the signal chain (mic or instrument) all the way through to the board, and back again through the monitors or Avioms. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that I can walk through on the screen of every single patch point to make sure I’m covered, and that every signal will get where it’s supposed to. It’s a setup tool, and a troubleshooting tool. If a musician grabs the wrong line to plug his DI into, we can trace it back very quickly to the DI, then the mini-snake (more on those in a second), and know what is going on. No more pulling on cords all the way to the back of the stage.

Of course, all this only works if you have the proper information to start with. I’ve been encouraging my worship leaders to get me their band set to me 8 days before their weekend (the Friday before the previous weekend). That way I have time to go over it, and make sure I have what I need to support them well. I check in with the drama director (actually, it’s posted on a section of our website) and see how many mics the drama team will need. I make sure I know of any specials or guest speakers, then draw up the plot and chart on Tuesday night.

Our setup couple comes in on Thursday morning to set the stage. That night, the worship team arrives, along with the weekend FOH tech to do a quick soundcheck and get levels in the monitors and Avioms. They can then rehearse under real-world conditions. Saturday is then a fine-tuning of monitor levels and 2 complete run throughs of the service prior to the evening service. When it works the way it’s supposed to (ie. there are no last minute surprises…), it’s very low stress and very fun. By the time the worship service rolls around, everyone knows what they are doing and the tech team can worship along with the congregation. All of this is brought to us by Planning.

If you don’t currently plan your services in advance, I encourage you to start. If you can’t get information out of the worship leaders, send them a copy of a stage plot and patch chart to help educate them on how crucial the information is, and how much you need. Worship leaders and music ministers, help us help you (to paraphrase the great theologian Jerry McGuire…). Give us the information we need ahead of time, so that we can be all set and ready to go when you are. Trust me, the experience will be better for everyone involved. It’s true, planning will set you free!

Oh, I almost forgot about the mini-snakes. In our worship center, we have 32 stage inputs. 16 on the back wall of the stage and 16 on the front edge of the stage, facing the audience (I have no idea why…). It’s not unusual to have 15-18 or more inputs every week, and with our setup, the patch points are not always convenient. We used to just run mic cables all over the place, which made for a very messy stage, not to mention a lot of cables to pick up and sort out. So I picked up some 4-channel and 2-channel snake cable (I really like the Mogami MG-2900 series, available at Markertek), put XLR males on 1 end and XLR females on the other. Each is between 20-30′ long, which is enough to get from the back corner of the stage to the opposite front corner. I also labeled each individual channel with a unique code. Every snake gets a letter, and each channel a number. Thus snake A consists of 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A. Each connector has a printed label on it, protected by clear heat shrink. Now we can plug a 4 channel snake into 17-20 (which are on one wall plate), run it over to the drum kit and patch in the electric drums. Another goes from 21-24 and picks up feeds from the guitars (since they normally stand pretty close together, we plug DI’s right into the snake, and run the instrument cables from one central point, very neat). Just make sure when you order the snake cable, you get black – or you’ll hear about it (believe me…).

Aviom Update – The A-16D

As you may recall, we installed an Aviom Personal Monitoring System a while back. Click here to read more. Honestly, I love the system, with one exception; since A-16I does not supply power, you have to have all the individual mixers powered with wall warts. This isn’t that big of a deal, as it’s our backline on ears anyway, and we have power to every location already. However, during one rehearsal (that already wasn’t going well…), suddenly the bass player announced he had nothing in his ears. Same for the drummer. I ran to the stage to check it out and found the personal mixer at the bass location dead. Check the cables, looks good. Check the drummer. Same thing. Root around a bit and discover the wall wart came unplugged when the drummer stepped up to the drum platform a few minutes earlier. Ugh… Since the system is daisy chained, once one goes down, the rest after that go down too.

Aviom A-16D

Enter the A-16D (and it’s bigger brother A-16D Pro). Basically an ethernet power-over-ethernet switch, it allows you to take the output of the input module and wire the system in a star topology instead of daisy chained. Each mixer is fed with it’s own cable from the switch (the A-16D, which looks a lot like a hub, or even a router, but it’s a switch). The A-16D acts like an audio distribution amp, taking one signal in, and sending out 8 identical copies of that signal. As a bonus, it also sends power down the Cat-5e cable, eliminating the wall warts (and the possibility that one will come accidentally unplugged).

The box itself is a 1/2 rack space unit with 9 RJ-45 connectors on the front (1 in, 8 out), and 9 power ports on the back (9 in, one to power the unit, and 8 to power each port). That’s the first disappointment I had when I opened the box. Given that at 24 port POE (power over ethernet) switch from D-Link can be had for under $200, I expected this $325 8 port switch to have a beefy power supply to power a mixer from each port. Instead, you have to use the wall wart that came with the mixer to power the port. And it only powers one mixer from each port. You can still daisy chain, but after the first mixer, you’ll be back to wall warts. It’s not a big deal, except that a power strip or rack power distro is needed. And since most rack power distros have 8 outlets, and the unit needs 9 to fully run, you’ll need a power Y-cord to fully utilize the unit.

Aside from that, the unit works as advertised. Since each port buffers and re-sends the digital signal, you get 8 exact copies of the output of the A-16I (or whatever input module you use). It’s been rock solid since we installed it, and not having wall warts on stage has been a real plus for keeping things neat. I built a simple 4 rack space box to house a Panamax power distro, and simply screwed the A-16D to the bottom of the rack, spacing it off with washers. The bottom of the unit is tapped for such mounting.

Aviom A-16D Pro

It should be noted that the A-16D Pro is rack mountable (2 spaces high) and includes a standard IEC power cord, uses EtherCon connections and does not require wall warts. On the other hand its nearly 3x the cost. Is it worth it? You be the judge. For my money, I’d buy one A-16D and 2 more A-16II personal mixers. I’ll live with the individual power supplies for each port.

3 Simple Ways To Improve Videos

Many churches are now using video during their services. Whether it’s to supplement the message, to make a point, or as an alternative to a drama, video is becoming more popular. I’m excited by this, because I think video is a pretty powerful medium. I believe it so strongly that I have devoted nearly 15 years of my career to producing videos. A well done video can convey truth so powerfully, in such a compelling manner that few other mediums can match it. A poorly done video, however, can do more harm than good. Even if the message is spot on, if the production is sub-par, the message will be lost. Given that people watch anywhere between 2-6 hours of professionally produced, high-impact video (aka TV) a day, we need to be sure we are not clouding the message with poor production technique. So here are Mike’s 3 tips to better video.

Tip #1 – Get a Tripod

Under rare circumstances, when done correctly, a hand held camera will work. Because I have been shooting video professionally for a long time, and use professional equipment, I can hand hold a camera, sometimes, and get an acceptable shot. However, given the choice, I will use a tripod. Video tripods can get expensive, but even an inexpensive one will give you good results if you don’t try to do too much panning and tilting. Once the camera is on the tripod, take a tip from filmmakers – work on setting up well composed, static shots. Don’t try to pan and tilt all over the place. Keep your shots simple and static and camera movement will not get in the way of the message.

Tip #2 – Don’t Zoom

One of the dead giveaways of non-professional video production is constant zooming in and out. Watch films, and well-produced TV shows and one thing you won’t see is zooming. What you will see is nicely composed, static shots (sounding familiar isn’t it?). The zoom function of a video camera can be very useful; it allows you to get a different view of a scene, or isolate a subject. Just don’t use it during the shot.

Tip #3 – Get a Good Mic

Another message-killer for a video is poor audio. The microphones that are mounted on all but the most professional cameras are good for one thing and one thing only; picking up ambient sound. Ambient sound is all the sound in the room. Sometimes you want that. When you are shooting a large scene of people worshiping, or mingling, ambient sound is good. When you are in a room doing an interview, ambient sound is bad. Just like in live sound, the goal needs to be to get a good mic close to the sound source. Most camcorders have some type of microphone input jack (either 1/8″ or better yet, XLR). If you have a 1/8″ jack, you can either get an inexpensive mic that is so equipped and use that. It’s not my first choice, but it will be orders of magnitude better than the on-camera mic. Another option is to use an adapter, like the ones made by BeachTek to adapt professional level XLR mics to 1/8″. Once you have XLR connections, you can use a wide variety of lavaliere, shotgun and handheld interview mics. You don’t have to spend a fortune, you can get a really good quality mic for under $200.

As I’m writing this, it’s occuring to me that each of these topics can be expanded upon, and there is a lot more detail about the equipment to go into. I’ll work on that, so check back in a week or two and see what I’ve come up with. In the meantime, start thinking about how you can use video to impact people for Christ!

God Is In The Details

It has been said that the devil is in the details. I would beg to differ. I argue that God is in the details. Consider the incredible intricacy of creation for example. If all the details weren’t right, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Before I go any further, let me issue the following disclaimer: I am guilty of everything I am about to talk about. So there.

In the training I do with our sound engineers, I maintain that we have three main charges as sound techs: 1) Accurately reproduce what happens on stage, 2) Remove barriers to worship and hearing the Word of God and 3) Enhance the worship and preaching experience. Making all this happen is harder than it looks, and it takes an incredible amount of planning, proper design and setup and good training. Once those things are in place, it comes down to details.

For example, the worship set is just wrapping up, people are in an attitude of worship and the pastor steps up to the platform to pray. Except the mic is still muted. Suddenly it’s unmuted, and he’s way too loud. What happens to that worshipful mood? Doh! Or this, after a stirring message, the worship band takes to the stage to lead a closing song. The congregation is ready to worship and praise God for what they’ve heard. Except the battery in the worship leader’s wireless is dead. Now what? Doh! At the end of a powerful service, the youth pastor invites the students in attendance to consider their relationship to Christ. In a very powerful moment students begin to come forward to pray. Suddenly all the lights in the room go full bright then dim. Oops.

Oh, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure this has never happened to you, but if it does, I suggest that really blows the mood. I view my quest to make technology seamless, not obvious. When we miss a detail like the above (and the hundreds of others I’m omitted), we can really distract from the message. Some might argue that we are all human and mistakes are to be expected. True. However, if the Bible is true (and I believe it is), we should be striving to be more perfect (more like Christ, who was perfect). So how do we get there?

I always begin with as thorough a plan as I can develop. The more I have the service planned out in advance, the more I can adapt when things don’t go according to plan. This means figuring out in advance how things will be hooked up (I do a full stage plot and patch chart every week), and testing it in advance. It means paying attention. I am convinced that 80% of technical errors come from loosing focus during the service. It’s easy to do, for sure. We see people we want to talk to, or we get caught up in the worship or message and forget we’re techs that day. Problem is, when it happens, we hurt the experience for hundreds of others.

It also means thinking ahead about what is supposed to happen and about what could happen. Take a look at the order of service in the middle of the last song to see what’s coming next, and you won’t be caught with a muted mic on stage while you are trying to figure out what’s going on. Develop standardized practices and procedures that everyone can follow. Do things the same. We set our board up the same way each week. The kick drum is always ch. 17. Worship leader ch. 12. Pastor ch. 10. Acoustic guitar? Ch. 24. I’m doing this from memory in my kitchen. If I stand up and put my hands on the table, I can mix a service without having the board in front of me. Why? Because it’s always the same and my hands know where to go.

I have recently developed a “pre-flight checklist” that details everything that the sound techs should do before and during the service. When we follow it, fewer errors result. Learn your equipment. The worst time to figure out how the on-board EQ responds is when the pastor steps up to the pulpit and begins feeding back. Once you get settings that work, write them down. Pay attention when things go right. Look back and see what you did. Then repeat it. Most of all, be willing to change the way you do things.

I recently read an interesting article about Toyota. They don’t have a “quality improvement program.” Quality improvement is integrated into their DNA. So much so that a line worker can stop the entire line if he sees something that’s not right. If you see something in a run through or rehearsal that will likely cause a problem, stop it and fix it. If you’re winging it every week and the pastor’s mic feeds back every week, do something different. If the sound techs don’t know the equipment well enough to stop problems before they happen, train them, or find someone who can.

This is getting to be a long post, which I suppose reflects on how strongly I feel about it. It’s important we get it right for a number of reasons. First, for the benefit of those who attend our churches. We need to serve them to absolute best level we can. Second, we need to do it for team and for ourselves, so the entire tech & worship team can feel good about what they do. Finally, we need to do it for God. He didn’t skimp on the details of our redemption. How can we offer Him any less?

Peace.

On Easter, Forgiveness and Making Tough Calls

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always questioned that nomenclature, and having just watched The Passion of The Christ earlier this week, it still doesn’t seem to fit. What happened was ultimately good, but the process was surely not. Watching the movie was difficult, as much as for the violent beating Jesus took on our behalf, as it was for the way He behaved toward His tormentors. It struck me as profound that while Jesus was being beaten to within inches of His life, He was dying for the very sins being committed against Him. I can’t even begin to comprehend that kind of love for others. It really puts things in perspective when a singer wants a little more “me” in her monitor, for the fourth time in as many minutes.

Having done this church tech thing for quite some time, I’ve dealt with some difficult artists. Few, if any, were bad people. They were just trying to produce the highest quality product they could, and sometimes lacked people skills. God has softened my heart quite a bit in recent years, and I’m much more tolerant than I used to be, though sometimes it takes work to get along. Watching The Passion really helped drive that point home. The work is worth it, because it is what is best for the Body. When we display an attitude of servant-hood, and really serve the people around us, we are reflecting Christ, and that will do more to further the cause of Christ than copping a ‘tude and yelling at the vocalist that she has enough and must be deaf if she can’t hear it (not that I’ve actually ever done that…it was a guitar player and turns out he was deaf in one ear…but that’s another story).

Nonetheless, as a technical arts director (or sound guy for that matter), sometimes you have to make the tough calls. Just last night I had on stage 6 incredibly talented musicians for our Good Friday services (we do 2, one ends up on Thursday). If you’ve read this column at all, you’ll know we switched to the Aviom personal monitoring system about 6 months ago and haven’t looked back. I’ve had the entire backline (all instrumentalists basically) on “ears” for months. No wedges or amps on stage. The effect on the house sound is amazing. With no stage wash to contend with, we can dial up a really sweet house mix

The trouble was, these guys and gals like to play with amps and wedges. They use the Avioms in the studio (they are all semi-pros…), but like wedges when playing live. I was reasonably sure we could have kept the volume down, but it would still color the house. And for this service, with the style of music and the feel of the drama that was also happening, I knew it would be a impediment to the optimal worship experience for the congregation. So, I did what I had to do; told a group of amazingly talented musicians, all my senior, that they couldn’t have what they wanted, and that they were going to use the Aviom system. They took it like the pros they are, but I know they were frustrated.

By the end of an amazing, worshipful night, everyone was fine. The music was incredible, the drama powerful and all came away feeling like we had led the Body closer to Christ. Could we have worshiped had the band used wedges and amps? Probably. But the experience would not have been the same. I would not have been able to modulate the volume to match the mood, and that would have created several jarring transitions. Going the route I took meant the entire evening was fluid, and the look on people’s faces as they left was enough for me to know I did the right thing.

Thanks for reading – and have a joyous Easter celebration on Sunday!

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