Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: July 2007 (Page 1 of 2)

Of Cables, Conduits and Labels

Warning: Rant coming. It might be best to get the kids out of the room for a minute.

One thing I’ve discovered in the last 20 years of doing church tech (and other tech for that matter) work is that in any given cable installation, over a period of time, the once neatly installed cables degenerate to a mess resembling a big old plate of over-cooked #11 Vermicelli. I don’t know if there is a roaming squad of cable trolls who tangle it all up or what, but it’s been true of nearly every installation.

So last night I decided to pull all the cables in our youth ministry center and lay it out again. I wasn’t surprised that all the cables were twisted up, and that a bunch of stuff was not connected correctly. What really aggravated me was that I found a bunch of cables that were laying in the cable tray under the counter with no labels on them. There were RG-59’s that disappeared down a conduit without a trace of where they may go. I found cables running up to our RF DA in the ceiling without a single flag of tape as to which one was input and which were outputs (after toning them out I found out the input cable was connected to an output terminal, explaining why the system didn’t work…). I found eight 1/4″ lines also laying in the tray, with no idea where they go.

I’ve done a lot of wiring in my life, and I’ve learned a few things. One is that putting a label on a cable end doesn’t take that long, and it makes troubleshooting a lot easier. I’ve learned that in a month, I will not be able to remember where all the cables go. I’ve also learned that I will not be the last person working on the system. And this is where the aggravation comes in.

If you start running cables all over your church to connect rooms or booths or TVs or whatever, and none of them are labeled, at some point, something will get disconnected and someone will have to figure out what goes where. If everything is labeled, it’s a whole lot easier to track it down, especially in a large church. We have 5 theaters that are all inter-connected by unlabeled wires. Which makes the wires in the conduit useless. At some point, I will have to spend the better part of a day toning these lines all out and figuring out what goes where. That’s a huge waste of my time, and it could have been avoided by putting something other than a flag of red tape on the end of a cable.

I like to label everything. We have one of those nice label printers with a QWERTY keyboard on it, and I personally have gone through at least four 50′ rolls of label tape in the last year. I label connectors with the tape, and put clear heat shrink over the label (a cable tray full of labels that dried out and fell off is almost as frustrating as unlabeled cables).

While were on the topic of labels, make sure you label it so someone else can understand it. “To Lobby TV” might be a great label—if your church has one lobby and one TV in said lobby. However, when you add on in 3 years and have another lobby with another TV, things will get confusing. For runs that leave the room (whatever room they originate in), I suggest some type of code to go along with the label. If you have all your rooms connected with RG-59, perhaps tag each end of the cable with a serial number, like “RF-1,” “RF-2,” etc. You can also put something on there like “To Min Cntr” so that someone has an idea where to go look for the other end of “RF-2.” Same goes for audio tie lines.

I even label cables in equipment racks and behind soundboards and the like because eventually, it will need to be unplugged. Who can remember what gets plugged into where? If the connector is big enough I’ll label it with where it goes, “To Projector,” and what it gets plugged into, “Octo Output 1.” If it’s a small connector, I’ll just call it what it is, “RF Mod In.” The idea is that one person should be able to unplug everything, and someone else could plug it all in correctly, and without tracing lines all over the place.

Next time you’re about to string some cable over the ceiling, or push it into a conduit, think about putting a label on it. It takes just about a minute to do it, but I can almost promise you will save someone a lot of time trying to trace it out later. You can get a label printer just about anywhere; clear heat shrink is cheap insurance and available here.

If you happen to be the one who ran cable all over Crosswinds with no labels, I hope I didn’t offend. Perhaps you can come in some Saturday and help me track them down and we’ll label them together.

Mixing Guitars

Tim Corder found a good article in Mix magazine on mixing guitars. While Mix focuses on mixing in the studio, many of the concepts apply to us live guys as well. Check it out here…

Mixing Guitars

Audio for Video: Using High Pass Filters

Let’s admit it: It happens a lot. Even when you pay careful attention to the audio you record for a video, and you used a good mic (you did use a good mic, right? if not read this…), you can still end up with a bunch of background rumble and noise in your recording. It happened just the other day to someone at the video production company I work for.

They were shooting in a grocery store, capturing some interviews. They used a good shotgun mic, with good directivity to cut down on the ambient noise. However, there were those dreaded coolers all over the store, and if you listen carefully (mainly because our brain normally tunes them out), you’ll hear compressors running. Back in the studio, it sounds like a truck going by the entire interview.

Because it’s a complex noise source, trying to run a noise reduction program on it probably won’t work well (and even when the noise goes away, it is often replaced by unwanted digital artifacts of the FFT process used to perform the noise reduction—but that’s another post). However, we do have one tool in our utility belt that can help (actually two, I’ll get to the second, which should actually be the first, in a second): Enter the high pass filter.

A high pass filter is just what it sounds like—it lets high frequencies pass, while blocking low frequencies. Super-basic HPFs are a simple on and off switch with a pivot frequency (the frequency at which it “passes” signal) and slope (how quickly it drops off the signal below the “pass” frequency) set at the factory. Better HPFs that come with higher level editors like Premier Pro and Final Cut allow you to select the pivot frequency.

Here is an example of an HPF with a pivot frequency of 120 Hz, and a slope of 12 dB per octave (that is, at the frequency 1 octave below the pivot frequency—60 Hz—the level will have been reduced by 12 dB).

High Pass Filter Example Graph

You can see how the frequencies above the pivot frequency pass by unaffected, while the ones below get rolled off pretty quickly.This is when it actually gets useful. For the male voice, the fundamental frequency of the lowest notes one speaks is between 85-155 Hz. For a female, it’s a little higher, perhaps 165-225 Hz. This means that there is no real information that we need below 85 Hz for males and 165 Hz for females. And in reality, because of the way we hear and the way the voice is produced, there are plenty of harmonic frequencies that our brain will interpret clearly to make up for missing fundamentals.

So let’s say we have a compressor running in the background of a female interview. We can safely dial up a HPF with a pivot frequency of 165 and not loose any of her voice. We can take it up even higher to eliminate more of the noise, and the clarity will improve markedly. In fact, the voice will “sound” louder once the low frequency stuff is removed because we can hear it better.

So this is exactly what we did for grocery store woman. We dialed up an HPF with a pivot at around 150 Hz, and it totally transformed the audio. There was still some higher frequency noise, and it was obvious she was standing in the store and not a studio, but the clarity of here voice was improved substantially. If I have time later this week, perhaps I’ll grab a before and after sample and put it up here.

Earlier I mentioned we actually have 2 tools in our tool belt. The other one may be on the mic itself. Many professional shotgun mics (and some interview mics, and the occasional lapel mic) have a HPF built in. For example, my beloved Audio Technica 835B has a switchable roll off at 180 Hz at 12 dB per octave. That means at the lowest fundamental of a male voice the mic will be 12 dB down, which is generally not a big deal unless you’re interviewing James Earle Jones. Normally, I like to leave this switched on because it eliminates a lot of room rumble, AC noise and other nasties right at the source. It’s just a good idea. If you use this when you shoot, you will require less processing in the edit suite.

Of course, you’ll want to listen to it through some good headphones first to make sure you’re happy with the sound. You do have good headphones, right?

More Aviom Tricks

As I’m sure you know, I really, really like our Aviom system. It has made a huge difference in the main house sound (by lowering stage wash) and has made the job of the FOH engineer far easier. By adding 5 additional monitor “mixes,” we can now give each of the vocalists their own wedge so no one shares. Overall, it’s a great system.

There have been a few hiccups, however. The first problem we had was with the musicians not knowing how to mix. Makes sense, they’re musicians, not monitor engineers. What was happening was simple; when the Aviom starts up, all the inputs are set to 50%. So as the musicians built their mix, they kept turning things up. The problem was, they quickly ran out of headroom. I was getting complaints that they “couldn’t hear themselves.” I’d run up on stage and look at their “mix,” and discover all channels at or close to 100%. Since they don’t go to 11, they were out of room.

To solve this, I’ve created a simple preset that I recall before each rehearsal/sound check. I programmed all the channels to 0%, except the talkback channel, so they can hear the FOH engineer calling for instruments. I programmed this preset into 16, so it won’t accidentally get erased. It takes just a few seconds to recall the preset and gives everyone a blank slate to work from. And I haven’t had a complaint since.

Another issue we’ve run into is with power outages. We have pretty flaky power around us, and it goes out from time to time. When this happens between rehearsal and the weekend, the mixes everyone so carefully set up are lost. Since it just happened again last week, I will be reminding everyone to save their mix before they leave Thursday night. That way we don’t have to start all over again on Saturday.

Since you can save 16 presets, theoretically everyone could be assigned a Aviom unit (one for drums, one for bass, etc.), and each musician could have their own number. More likely, I’ll just have them store it into 1, and it will be re-written each week.

The final trick involves the labels we use. If you visit the links page on this blog, you can download a template done in Excel that you can use to create custom labels. I started doing this a few weeks after we put the system in because we have 4 worship teams that rotate. The challenge was, how to affix the labels to the mixer so they would not shift for the weekend, but not be a pain to remove. In a flash of brilliance, I came up with vinyl report covers. I cut them down about 5/8″ from the folded edge, which gave me a tight “V” shaped piece of vinyl. I inserted some tape inside the “V”, then taped the vinyl to the mixers, over the channel marker strip. Now I print off the labels and just slip them into the vinyl each week. They stay put, and are easy to get out. Total cost, about $2.00.

Peace.

The Danger of Over-Compression

A few weeks ago I wrote about compressing pastors and others who speak from the platform. I really like to use compression (judiciously), and would use it on just about every input on the board if I had enough comps (one of the many reasons I want a digital board…). Compression can really help even out the spoken word, especially in smaller venues, and enhance clarity.

On the other hand, when over-used, compression makes things muddy and takes away all the dynamic and punch. I came across the video below on Dave’s Going to 11 blog. It does such a good job visually and audibly demonstrating the dangers of over compressing something I am posting it here. Check it out—it’s really interesting (make sure your speakers are turned up to a good listening level).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ]

Worship Team Lineup Help

If you’re a long-time reader (since, like March 2007…) you’ll know that I love forms. It’s all part of my “Planning will set you free” mantra. So here’s a new form I created. At Crosswinds, we have 4 regular worship teams, but people’s schedules vary and there always seems to be some variation in the teams. Since I create detailed stage plots and patch charts for each weekly setup, I needed a way to easily get the actual band makeup (that should also be easy for the worship leaders to get to me). The old way, via e-mail, was getting tough as I sometimes had to sift through 3 weeks worth of e-mails to find the original band, a change here and a change there.

So here is an interactive, fill in the blanks form. It was inspired by the work I’m doing for Adobe (helping them pitch their interactive form creation tools). If you have Acrobat Professional, you can change this to suit your needs. If you don’t, well, I guess you’re stuck with my idea of how it should be.

Hopefully a few of you will find is useful.

Worship Team Line Up Interactive PDF

What Makes A Great Church Sound Tech?

Pulling off great sound during a church service is no easy feat. It’s not like a concert, where you can focus all your energies on getting a rock solid music mix. In the church setting, there are a ton of extra elements plus the added bonus of last minute changes. Getting it right takes a lot of work, and significant attention to detail. The rewards however, are significant. Below I present to you what I consider to be the 5 key factors in mixing a great church service. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but if you pay attention to these, other details will fall into place.

Pay Attention

Seems obvious, right? Except, how often do you see sound guys talking on the phone, texting, working on a laptop, talking to someone else, reading a book? Too often, I’d say. A typical church service is made up of many elements, and you’re typically working with non-professional talent. This means you need to keep an eye out on what is going on. There are often last minute changes to the service; someone comes up to pray when they were not scheduled, a song is inserted into the close, the song order changes, whatever.

The point is, you need to watch what’s going on and be ready to react to it. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in tweaking EQ or trying to find the perfect mix we forget to lift our heads up and notice that person stepping out on to stage to pray. Or we may get so focused on one element of the mix that we fail to appreciate how the people in the room are responding to the service. Being a great church sound tech takes concentration—the service is not the time to get caught up on relationships.

Plan for Contingencies

As the saying goes, “Stuff Happens” (I think it’s more graphic than that, but this is a family friendly blog…). Things will go wrong during the service. Songs will get sung out of order, batteries will die, mics will suddenly stop working, monitors will get unplugged. Whether or not the problem becomes a distraction depends on how you handle it, and how you handle it depends on how you prepare. Having a spare mic on stage is cheap insurance in case the worship leader’s mic suddenly goes out. Making sure they know it’s there and what to do is also helpful.

What do you do if the pastor’s mic suddenly stops working during the message? Again, having another one ready to go, near where he or she is standing is a super idea (and one I need to implement, come to think of it…). I know of some churches that double wire the speaker, just in case one mic fails. Not a bad idea. Take a look through your typical weekend and think about all the things that could go wrong. Then come up with a plan to deal with each one in such a way to minimize disruption. Someone running down the aisle, jumping up on the stage and changing a battery during a song set is not minimal disruption.

Watch the Big Picture

There was a great article in Live Sound a few months ago entitled Nice Third Rack Tom. It talked about a sound engineer who spend the entire sound check trying to get the tom sounding perfect, but ran out of time to put the rest of the band in the mains. The first time the audience heard the lead guitar was the first time he heard it too. You can guess how well that worked out.

Likewise, in a service made up of many elements, there is a tendency to focus on our favorite—getting the bass sounding sweet, tightening up the snare, dialing in a smooth vocal effect—and missing out on the big picture. You could have the most perfect sounding rack toms ever, but if the actors mic feeds back during the drama because you didn’t get it dialed in, you missed the point. I like to work in layers, making sure each element is good before I make anything great.

I developed this technique while editing video under tight deadlines. First I cut the video together. Then I’ll make a quick pass at adding needed graphics. Then a pass at sweetening the sound. Next I’ll color grade. Then if there’s time, I’ll go back and tweak the edit, upgrade the graphics, make the sound better, really dial in the color. The end result is, if something takes longer than I thought, I still have a video. It may not be sweetened, or color graded, and the graphics may be simple, but there’s an image on the screen.

We can do the same with sound. First get your gain set right. Then rough in a monitor mix. Next, rough in a house mix (you can actually do these steps at the same time). Then tweak monitors. Make sure you check speaking mics. After you have everything good, work on making it great. You may not always have time for greatness, but the truth is, most people won’t notice if the kick is a little muddy. They will notice if speaker feeds back because you didn’t get that mic rung out.

Think Ahead

This is similar to paying attention, but it goes one step further. You’re in the last chorus of the last song of the song set—what’s next? Does someone come up to pray, is there a video? What do you need to do to get ready for it? You shouldn’t be surprised at what comes next. If your church doesn’t do order of service documents, maybe it’s time to start (check out the downloads section for what we use).

Today at Crosswinds was a great example. We went from a video countdown, to a live intro with the worship team to three people (including me) doing announcements from the tech and sound booths. To be ready to do the announcements, I had to make sure my mic was turned on, my script was on my computer screen and be sure the other two wireless mics were on. In the last measure of sustain of the song I had to mute the worship team (2 mute groups, vocals first, then band after the sustain), unmute the announcement wireless (but make sure only one fader was up), boost the level of the matrix mix to the TVs and Lobby, and get ready for the video that followed. And I had to be ready to deliver my announcement.

It was a tense few minutes. Last night, I forgot to turn my wireless pack on. I wasn’t thinking far enough ahead. Today, I automated as much as possible and began preparing during the second chorus. I may have missed a few minor opportunities to “perfect” the mix on the song, but the service flowed smoothly. To make it work, I though through the sequence of events much the way a downhill skier visualizes his run from the top of the mountain. During pre-service I put my hands on the knobs and buttons to make sure it would work.

I’ll admit to not thinking things through more often than I should, but getting this right is what separates the men from the boys.

Smile

I’ve met some pretty cranky sound techs, even in the church. At Crosswinds, we have a great group of guys who do a great job every week, with a smile. I often say, “We’re worshiping God, it’s supposed to be fun.” A contemporary service can get really tense with all we have going on. But that’s no reason to not enjoy it. That’s why I’m so big on planning. Plan for everything that can be known ahead of time, and you’ll have the bandwidth to deal with the unexpected with a smile. Not only that, how do you expect to recruit more volunteers if it doesn’t look like you enjoy what you do?

So I propose that the best church sound techs are not neccesarily the ones who can mix the best. They are the ones who deliver a smooth and distraction-free service week in and week out. They make it look easy, even when there are hundreds of things going on at once. And most of all, they do it with a smile that makes people want to be around them. Those are my thoughts, what say you?

Mics—To Wire or Not To Wire, That is the Question

A while back, I was at a conference, sitting in on a session covering technology in the church. The question was raised, “Should we get wireless mics or wired mics?” It’s a question that gets raised a lot, especially by smaller churches who are short on dollars, but want to upgrade their music and sound program. My usual answer to a question such as that one is, “It depends.” But the more I thought about it, I’ve decided there are some guidelines that I would follow (and have followed in the past) that seem to work out pretty well.

First let’s to a Pros and Cons of wired and wireless mics (and for this discussion, I’m referring to vocal mics—we’ll leave the discussion of lapel mics for another time).

Wired: Pros

  • Significantly less expensive per channel
  • Rock solid reliability (provided you buy good cables, and you did buy good cables, right?)
  • No batteries to buy
  • Easy to store, maintain and use
  • No chance of the mic shutting down during a service because you forgot to change the battery
  • Lots of options to choose from, easy to get the “right” sound
  • Smaller package to hold

Wired: Cons

  • Wires, everywhere; they’re ugly and tend to clutter up the stage
  • You can’t wander that far without getting tangled up
  • You need to lay out and pick up all those wires
  • You need a line back to the board for each mic, which means a bigger snake, or more installed wiring

Wireless: Pros

  • No cord = neater stage, more mobility
  • Easy set up and take down
  • They take up no channels on the snake or installed wiring

Wireless: Cons

  • Batteries—they eat them like growing teenagers eat cereal
  • Batteries can go dead during a service
  • RF interference can be an issue if they are not frequency coordinated properly (and even if they are…)
  • Significantly more expensive per channel
  • You need space to put receivers
  • [added] The compander circuit in most wireless mics can have negative effects on gain before feedback as well as the sound (see Dave’s comment for more detailed explanation—thanks, Dave!)
  • Did I mention batteries?

So, at first glance, it might look like wired mics are the way to go, right? Mmmm, yes and no. Here’s what I advise smaller churches with limited budgets: buy enough wired mics to suit your needs, and if there is budget left over, buy a high quality wireless mic. Here’s the thing—a high quality wireless mic system will set you back a good $600-750. We’re talking about at a minimum a Shure ULXP, Sennheiser G2, AKG WMS 400 or AT 4000 series. If you go with anything less than that, you’ll be disappointed (with the possible exception of the AT 3000 series, which sound pretty decent for about $450-500, just be very careful with frequencies).

Now I know there are some budget conscious shoppers out there saying, “But Mike, we use XXX wireless system and it only cost us $250 and it sounds great.” No, it doesn’t. It sounds adequate at best. If you compare it to even the lowly SM58 wired mic, the 58 will sound better. There is a reason the high quality mics cost what they do, and it’s all about the quality of the sound and the reliability.

Another problem is that cheaper units will not play nice once you get more than a few of them operating in the same room simultaneously. Our church made the mistake of buying cheap ($300) Shure UT systems by the caseload and we have trouble every time we turn more than 6 of them on at once. That’s because they are not designed to do that. And now I’m phasing them out, putting thousands of dollars on the shelf.

I hate it when churches buy stuff that they will throw away in a few years because they can’t afford good stuff now. The thinking goes like this: We can’t afford to spend $700 each on the 5 wireless mics we want, so we’ll buy 5 $300 systems now, and upgrade later. Bad idea. Not only will you end up wasting $1500 on the ones you get rid of, but you’ll be unhappy with them while you own them. It’s far better to buy five $200 wired mics now, because they will still sound great in 5 years and will still be useful when you can afford to drop $3500 on wireless.

Please don’t waste God’s money because you want what you can’t afford. Buy good stuff. Make sure everything you buy will still serve a purpose 5 -10years from now. Plus, what you do buy will serve you better because it will be of good quality.

Now for larger churches, the wireless option is a good way to go, with some caveats. First, make sure you buy a high quality system that is rated for at least 10-12 channels in your room. Make double dog sure you frequency coordinate for your location (most manufacturers have an online tool for this, or ask your vendor). Buy from one manufacturer, trying to frequency coordinate is tough enough without having to cross frequency groups. Once you get past 4 channels, start looking at antenna combiners. It keeps the installation neater, and gives you better results.

Develop a battery policy that has a high margin of safety (ie. change them before every service). I really like using rechargeables because I hate throwing batteries away (check out my post on rechargeable batteries). Buy mics with good capsules on them. Many people don’t know you can order the transmitters with a wide variety of heads. Treat that selection process like you would for wired mics. You may even want to buy a few different types (of capsules, not wireless systems) to suit different singers.

I would also suggest you evaluate why you want to go wireless. Is it to go for a really clean stage look? Consider what else you can do to achieve that goal. Is it for freedom of movement? At Crosswinds, the harmony singers pretty much stay put, so they are all wired. I use a wireless for the worship leader to give them the option of moving, and I bought a really good head (Beta 87C), so it’s one of our better sounding mics.

It all boils down to my overall strategy for church equipment purchases: Do it right, do it once. Don’t buy junk, and don’t buy stuff you won’t be able to use in 5 years. Hopefully this will help guide you toward making really wise decisions and give your congregation, vocalists and tech crew the equipment they deserve. Peace.

Not Another Transition!

I was trying to watch a show on the DIY network the other day about sustainable building practices. Those that know me well know that I’m really into building. It’s a hobby out of control, really, so I was very interested in the content of the program. However, I had to stop watching because I became so annoyed with the editor’s attempt to use every single transition style his editing package came with (and even a few third party ones I think…). Even my wife was aggravated by it, which says a lot. Some of the transitions were really cool and used sparingly, would have been great. The problem was, the transitions got in the way of the message. After 10 minute of yelling, “STOP!” I had to turn it off.

Back in the old days of editing (the real old days of cutting film with a razor and taping it together), cuts were pretty much all an editor had to work with. Even dissolves took a lot of work. This was fine however, because editors developed a language of editing in which cuts ruled and dissolves marked the transition from one scene to another (or a change of time).

Today, with the advent of digital editing and the hundreds of transitions just a mouse click away, many editors find themselves afflicted with ET—Excessive Transitionitis. Thankfully, there is a cure: I call it CDO—Cuts and Dissolves Only (which is not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in alphabetical order…).

Try this experiment. If you are telling a story, cut it together using cuts only. Then watch it and ask yourself if a whole bunch of wacky transitions will really help further the message. I often say that ET is merely a compensation mechanism—compensation for lack of good content. The truth is, if the story isn’t compelling, piling on 3-D rotating cubes and cross-zooms will not make it more so.

Often times, when we produce industrial or commercial videos for clients, we have to use some flash, because the content really isn’t that exciting. However, in the church setting, we have a story to tell. When telling stories, all we really need is cuts and dissolves. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Watch any movie that tells a powerful story (The Passion of the Christ, Saving Private Ryan, Crash). You won’t find a flip zoom or venetian blind transition in any of them. Why not? Because the story and the visuals conveyed the message, powerfully. The editors spent their time cutting well, not tweaking the reflection settings on a page turn.

So give it a shot. Try CDO for a week or two. Spend more time developing content, getting the lighting right, shooting interesting B-roll (to cover up jump cuts) and having the on-camera talent do it one more time. I can almost promise your videos will be more effective.

Mixing is a Skill—We Don’t Just Manage Levels

Tim Corder wrote a great post about this a few days ago. I’ve tried and I can’t come up with a better way to say it, so I’m just going to link you to it. He terms it a “rant,” and in some ways it is, but he’s so right on with what he says.

Whether you have been mixing for 20 years or 20 minutes, you have something to learn. To not learn more, to not continue to hone your craft is a real shame. Someone famous once said, “If you’re not learning, you’re dying.” That is so true in our business.

After almost 20 years of live sound mixing in one form or another, I still find myself learning new things on almost a weekly basis. In fact, I think I’ve learned more in the last 12 months than in the 5 previous years. Why? Because I keep reading, trying new things and most importantly, listening. Listening to music, good mixes and others who know something I don’t.

If you don’t know what something does on your board or in your rack, learn what it does! Today it’s way too easy to learn about the equipment we use to say “I don’t know…” Look it up on the internet, ask someone else or just play with it (not during a service please!).

Anyway, here I am adding to Tim’s thoughts. Just click here and read for yourself. Happy Mixing!

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