Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: January 2008

Digital Myths

How many times have you heard this phrase: “If we had a digital sound board, we could save so much time on sound checks and it would sound the same every week.” Or this one: “We have a digital board, so why does my monitor mix change every week?” Or my personal favorite: “Are the sound guys not saving the settings each week, because it’s so different every weekend…”

These questions and comments have one thing in common—they all assume sound is an electrical process that, once converted to bits is entirely reproducible week after week. Sorry to dash your hopes, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is, sound is a physical process that happens to have an electrical and digital component. The real reason the mix doesn’t sound the same this week as it did last week is simple. Today is not last week. Here’s what I mean.

Sound, being a physical process, is subject to the physical world. Last week was warmer or colder than this week. The humidity was different. The strings on the guitar were newer (or older if recently changed). The singer was more or less tired last week. The drum heads were tighter or looser. You get the point. The fact is, then is not now.

I have seen mixes change dramatically from one service to the next, even though “nothing” had changed. In fact, everything has changed (well almost everything—we didn’t touch the electronics). When I was at Crosswinds, we did a Saturday night service (that was preceded by a afternoon rehearsal), and 2 services on Sunday morning. By the time we got to Saturday night’s service, the room was warmed up and we had snuck up on a good mix. In the morning, however, it could be 10 degrees cooler in the room. The 9 was often lighter in attendance. In the summer it was more humid, in the winter it was drier. When we started up in the morning, everything was different. Then came the 10:45. After getting the early morning service on track, the whole mix was shot for the live walk in at the 10:45. What happened? Everything changed. The room was now warmed up, and full.

You see, having a digital board doesn’t take away the responsibility to conduct a proper sound check. It doesn’t free the engineer from having to mix. It doesn’t allow the musicians to not communicate what they want in their mixes. Even with a digital board, there’s a lot of work to do. Don’t get me wrong, I really like having an M7 here at CPC. It enables us to quickly switch from one type of service to the next without a lot of re-patching. But really, that’s it. The settings we recall each week are nothing more than a starting point. In fact, I’ve been advocating that our starting points start with zeroed out gain and monitor settings. Why? So those get done each week the right way. At first, that may seem like it’s counter-intuitive, going backwards from having a baseline of last week’s “good mix.” I’ll say it again; this week is not last week. Even if the band is the exact same week to week, stuff changes.

In fact, the only time I would advocate starting with last week’s set up is if the entire band was exactly the same. Then and only then could you even consider it. If only one instrument or vocalist changes, you are better off starting from scratch. Still, I would argue that you’re better off starting from scratch each week (from a gain and monitor standpoint anyway) all the time.

So what about EQ? What about it? It changes with time also. Think you have a guitar dialed in exactly this week? Guess what, if the guitarist plays during the week, it’s going to sound different come next Sunday. Same with vocals. Very few singers can perfectly replicate the same vocal performance week after week. Not to mention the fact that room is going to vary based on temperature, humidity, loading, etc..

So am I completely dismissing the recallable set ups of digital boards? Not at all. Just don’t buy into the myth (lie?) that if you save this weekend’s settings it will all be the same next week. ‘Cause it won’t. Don’t think that if you spend $20,000-50,000 on a digital board that any monkey can sit back there and make great sounding mixes after someone who knows what they’re doing has “set it all up.” There is still no substitute for a good FOH engineer, and for ongoing training to make them better. And if the person who is sitting behind the mixing desk week to week can’t hear the difference between a good mix and a bad one, no amount of digital recall-ability is going to fix that.

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Keeping Windows Drives Clean

Here’s the scenario: You use Media Shout for presentation, but you create all your graphics on your Mac. When you copy your files up to the Media Shout computer, you end up with a bunch of grayed out .ds_filename files on the Windows drive. Because they have the same filename, your volunteers keep clicking on them, not realizing that they are unable to be used. Then you have to clean the drives up all the time. Not so efficient.

Turns out the Mac OS will create those little files to store Finder comments, searching information and other stuff. Those files are hidden in the Mac OS, however, Windows doesn’t know what to do with those files and just gives them to you, grayed out.

But there is a solution. TinkerTool
TinkerTool Logo

TinkerTool does a lot of cool things with your OS. It allows you to make changes to settings that are already there, but you just can’t access easily (without using Terminal, anyway). You can have a lot of fun with it, but what we’re interested in is the setting to have Finder stop creating those pesky little .ds files. To do this, just go to the Finder tab, and select the right option (below).

TinkerTool Interface

Note that this stops creation of these files on all networked drives, including other Mac volumes. This is not really a huge problem, but it will slow down searching a bit on those drives. For me it’s worth the trade off. Don’t forget to click the “Relauch Finder” button after you make the changes. If you forget this step, it won’t take.

So there you have it. A quick way to minimize the clutter on your Windows drive. Now if we can do something about all those pesky .dll files…

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Ripple Effect of Poor Planning

As I mentioned earlier, it’s time to replace our projectors. Earlier this week, we demoed some new Sanyos. They looked pretty good, an at 3 times the brightness, really outshone the existing 2Ks. But here’s the rub. It started with the demo. The widest lens they had available was a 1.2. We can’t fill the screen with a 1.2 because we only have 9-10′ of throw behind the screens (9x12s). This was fine for the demo, we got the idea. But then we got to pricing. And here is where bad planning will comes back to haunt us.

Turns out a .7 lens is about $2,000 more than a 1.2. If we had an additional 4-5′ of throw, we could save $4,000! When designing and constructing the building, that additional footage would not have cost anything (based on the existing floorplan). But here we are 10 years later, and it’s costing us big time.

As we were talking about this after the salesman left, the facilities manager pointed out the lights up in the ceiling. It’s about 65′ to the peak. We have pews in the sanctuary. The only way to get to the lights (recessed can type) is to bring in a lift. But before we can bring in a lift, we have to remove pews—not an easy process. Even with the huge articulated lift, there are still several lights that they can’t get to because of the balcony. For those, a ladder must be used, held straight up by ropes. Thus to change the lights in the ceiling, it runs about four thousand dollars. Had space above the ceiling been designed in, it could be done for next to nothing. Sure the current set up looks great, but had the building committee been told it would cost $4,000 to change the light bulbs every year, would they have pushed for another solution?

When the building was built, light bars were mounted above the stage to provide back light. Great idea as I really like back light. However we don’t have any back lights. Seems that no one thought to run power, dmx, empty conduits or anything else up there. Add to that the aforementioned lack of access in the ceiling and we have some really nice white light bars that will never be used.

Our church is not unique in this arena. I see it over and over again, as have many of you. In my previous church, the front edge of the stage got moved back 15′ at the last minute. This had the effect of putting the main speakers directly over the first row of seats. Which meant that the mains were missing the first five rows. That meant we had to add front fills, which added a level of complexity in terms of timing and voicing that never really worked well. Plus they were ugly and gave us fits when the pastor decided he wanted to preach from the floor in front of the stage (that’s right, standing directly in front of the front fills). Oh, and the mains could not be moved back because the HVAC guys ran the main trunk lines right behind the speakers, so there was no place to fly them from.

One of my professors in college was fond of the saying, “Think it through…” I am reminded of that often. If you’re in the process of building a facility, think it through. The system you put in next week will not likely be the last one in there (whatever it is). How easy will it be to change/upgrade/expand? How hard is it to change the light bulbs? Can components be accessed?

If you are upgrading your facility, what can you do to make future upgrades easier? Pull some extra wire, add another conduit, label the cables(!). When you buy new gear, think about how long it can be used, and how it will fit into the next upgrade plan.

This is painful for me to watch. If there is no one in your church with the expertise to keep an eye on these types of details, pay someone who will. Not the architect, or designer, or installer, or contractor. You need another set of eyes to say, “Hey, did you think about this?” I realize that in the middle of a building campaign, money gets tight, but consider the ripple effect of bad planning. A few thousand dollars spent up front will more than pay for itself over the life of the building. Promise me you’ll at least consider it!

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2008 To Do List

As the “new guy” at Upper Room/CPC, I’ve been tasked with coming up with a priorities list for Sanctuary Technology. After meeting with our team leaders and making a lot of observations, I came up with a list that’s some 40 items long. Seems we have a lot of work to do!

We’re a good size church, but I don’t think we’ll have the budget to do everything in one year. So this will likely turn into a multi-year plan. Still, it’s good to start planning now and figure out how what we do today will help us in two years (and more importantly, make sure it doesn’t have to be re-done). So here are a few things on the list:

  1. Replace 4 broken speakers and optimize the entire audio system to take better advantage of the fairly new M7CL FOH console. I’m proposing scrapping our current speaker processing (a hodgepodge of all kinds of stuff) and going for a new NetMax processor. And a complete system tuning.
  2. Replace our aging Barco projectors. We have two 2,000 lumen units (on 2 screens) that look OK when there’s no light in the room, and positively dim when we have the windows open. Time to jump up to 6,000+.
  3. Install the Expression 3 lighting console and bring everyone up to speed on it. This will entail re-working some things in the booth so it will fit. And some training.
  4. Clean up all the wiring in the tech booth, at FOH and in the amp room. It’s a bit of a mess right now, and a lot of stuff was installed on a “make it work right now” basis. No labels, no plan, just make it work. You know how I feel about unlabeled cables…
  5. Switch over to Pro Presenter for our presentation platform. This will require an investment in computers, software, and training; and will require buy-in from more parties than any other task. Wish me luck!

There are a lot more things I’d like to do, but if we can get those accomplished I’ll feel like we’re making progress. I also want to work on really developing the teams of volunteers this year. Developing leaders in each discipline and working on regular training. And just hanging out and having fun together. I also want to spend time reminding our tech team that we are a vital part of the worship experience and that what we do impacts people’s lives.

I’ve been here a little over a month now, and I feel like a lot of that time has been spent observing and getting a feel for what is “normal” here. Moving forward, I want to build on our strengths (there are many) and work on weaknesses. Mainly I want to make sure our people feel cared for. That’s probably the thing I’m weakest at, so I have to work the hardest there. But really, if I miss that part, the 5 “big” things on the list don’t mean that much.

Peace.

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