Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: March 2008

One Year and One Hundred Posts

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already. Actually, it’s been a little longer—the first post on this little old site was March 6, 2007. Fittingly, this is post 100. In March of 2007, I was really excited that I had something like 70 visitors to the blog. This March will be the first month to break the 2,000 barrier. In month 1, I had no idea how to publish an RSS feed. Today, roughly 100 of you read this through RSS. This site has been linked to by others from Atlanta to the Philippines, and in the process, I feel like I’ve made a new group of friends. I am excited, deeply grateful and humbled all at the same time.

This blog started as a way to help (hopefully) build credibility as I began my search for a full-time Tech Arts Director position. It quickly grew into something I’m truly passionate about. I have been captivated by audio-visual technology and live production for a quarter century and there are very few things I enjoy more than getting to use my skill set to enhance worship. I also get really jazzed when I have the opportunity to teach others, so this is really a fun medium for me.

When I started this, I wondered how long I could write; would I run out of content? Now, I have so many ideas in my head, I simply lack the time to get them all down. I’ve thought a lot about where to take this as we enter year two, and here are some thoughts. First, I want to do more equipment reviews. We’re in a season of buying new stuff at Upper Room, so I’ll have lots to review. I hope to post more often. I also want to borrow a concept from Guy Kawasaki called “10 Questions With…” These would be digital “interviews” with people I admire, who are in the trenches every day and who have some good things to say. I’ve even thought about doing a podcast…we’ll see how my time goes this summer.

As I sit here musing about the past year, I’m thinking, “If I were a one year-old blog, what would I want for my birthday present?” Well, that’s easy. There are two blogs that I enjoy reading, written by men who I admire that I am not linked from yet. Greg Atkinson and Anthony Coppedge both have great ministries and blogs and I’ve been linking to both almost since the beginning. And I know at least one of them drops by here once in a while (you know who you are!). So what do you say, guys? How about a birthday present for my 1 year-old blog?

Seriously (actually, I am serious about the linking…), when I think of this blog, my mind goes back to (appropriately enough) Easter, 1992. At the time, I was the lay youth leader and lead sound guy of our small church in Ohio. In an amazing demonstration of courage and faith, my pastor let me preach the message on Easter that year. I worked really hard on it, but was still really nervous; that is until I stepped up to speak. Then the most amazing thing happened—the nerves went away, my mind was crystal clear and it felt really, really good to speak. Afterward, a woman who I greatly admire approached me. By the look on her face, I could tell she had something important to say. I got nervous thinking she was going to point out a theological error or perhaps ask me what I thought I was doing in the pulpit in the first place. Instead, her first words were, “I hope you plan on doing something with the gift of communication that God has entrusted you with.” Well Donna, I hope this qualifies as “something” (thanks for the encouragement, by the way!)

And to you gentle reader, thanks for reading, commenting and passing this along. I have truly enjoyed our year together and hope God will allow many more to come!

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Willow Arts Conference

Last year was my first visit to the Willow Creek Arts Conference. I was jaded going in and blown away leaving. I’m excited to be able to go again this year. A few weeks back they announced that Brian McClaren would be speaking, and earlier this week, the breakout session registration opened up.

There are some good breakouts again this year. Robert Scoville will be teaching a “Master’s Class” on mixing (which takes up 2 breakout sessions); a few excellent lighting classes and a breakout on wireless mics in an HD world. Last year I waited too long to sign up for breakouts and didn’t get the ones I wanted (though the ones I had were good). This year, I picked my sessions the day the e-mail came out.

As a reader service, I will point out that April 8th is the deadline for super-early bird registrations. The conference itself is June 11-13. As the date draws nearer, I may be organizing a get-together; I think it would be a lot of fun to meet some of you in person (and by some of you I mean the ones that are going to the conference…not that I don’t want to meet all of you).

Holy Week at Upper Room and CPC was quite an affair; I’ll have some pictures and posts about that soon. I worked a lot last week and am only now recovering. We did get to do some cool stuff, and found new uses for some old gear that you might find interesting. Stay tuned!

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Church Leaders–You’re Killing Us!

Building on the popular, Worship Leaders, You’re Killing Us (it was the most read and most commented on post to date), this post flows from a conversation I had last week with a guy named Bill. I’ve been thinking about this topic for some time, but it was this conversation that was the catalyst for organizing my thoughts on this topic.

Bill used to be on the tech staff of a really, really large church in suburban Minneapolis. He was one of two tech guys there, actually. Since I knew the other guy who used to be there, I asked about him. Bill said, “Yeah, we just couldn’t take it anymore, so we left.” As we talked he shared more of what he couldn’t take. The long hours, relentless schedule and comments from senior leadership that because it was “for church,” these two guys should be willing to give even more time. Huh.

I came across attitudes like this when I was looking for a full-time position. Some of the job descriptions were impossibly big, and others even included lines like “55 hours a week minimum” (emphasis mine). I’m guessing the expectation is more like 65-70 hours? I know of far too many tech guys in churches who are over-worked, underpaid and under-appreciated. My question is, when did we get to the point that this is OK because “it’s for church?”

Just so we’re clear up front, I’ll state my position. It’s not OK. If you’re a church leader who thinks that you or your staff has to give at least 50, 60 or more hours a week to the church because “it’s all for Jesus,” you’re wrong. There I said it. You’re wrong.

Though overworking staff happens in all areas of ministry, it seems to be more prevalent in the technical arts. I think this is due to several factors. For starters, as a church leader, you’d never consider short-staffing your children’s ministry. It’s just too important. The children’s staff needs time to catch their breath and plan and think and refresh. Same goes for the adult ministry staff, the student ministry staff and so on. But technical arts? Well, that’s just pushing buttons, so how hard could it be? Why is the technical arts the only department required to make do with too few staff and small budgets?

Never mind the fact that every single person who darkens the door of your church each weekend is touched by the technical arts staff. Don’t believe me? Who makes your message sound good? Who make sure lights are on the stage? Who makes sure the right lyrics are on the screen at the right time? Who isn’t impacted by this? I would argue that the technical arts ministry touches more people (at least indirectly) than any other ministry in the church.

And yet we routinely expect these highly skilled technicians to work far more hours than even corporate America deems acceptable. Most of our technical arts staff are highly skilled and dedicated individuals who could (and often do after they burnout and leave the church) earn a lot more for working a lot less. So what gives?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I have workaholic tendencies, and I suspect other tech guys do to; it’s part of our personality. Effective church leaders recognize this however, and tell their tech staff to take time of. My boss is really good at this. When I ended up coming in on my day off (one of my days off–I get two each week!), he told me, “Comp it later this week.” I’m sitting at Caribou writing this morning because I have to shoot some video tonight at a home group and he told me, “Don’t come in until noon.”

When I interviewed at this church, during my first large group “get to know you” meeting, I told them that if they were looking for someone to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week, they should keep looking because I wasn’t their guy. I’ve learned the hard way working that much is a recipe for disaster in my personal life. When I owned my own company, I was working 12 hour days, 7 days a week. I almost lost my wife and my kids. It took what I believe to be a divinely inspired collapse of the business to get me to realize the error of my ways.

It is a this point that most pastors would say, “Of course, you should never work that hard. It’s bad for your family, and your marriage.” Yet some expect their staff to do just that. I’ll say it again, “You’re wrong.” The Bible doesn’t call us to give our lives to the our job; even if our job is in the church. We are called to give our lives to God. Out of that flows a commitment to our wives and children. Then our job (and/or the church).

Aside from the very obvious personal and spiritual ramifications of over-working your technical staff (or any staff for that matter), there are very practical problems with it as well. People can only take so much before they burnout and leave. The harder they’re worked the shorter time time to exit. This turnover creates chaos and upheaval in the whole department. Volunteers are affected, and often will leave their posts when someone they admire leaves. Without a sufficient tenure, there is no continuity and the ministry to the tech people (yes, they deserve to be ministered to as well) never gets going.

And this doesn’t even begin to address the problem of over-working key volunteers (especially if you don’t have paid staff in those roles). But I’ll save that for another post.

Fellow techies, I invite your comments. Personally I am ever so thankful to be in a work situation where I am able to give my best, and get time to rest (even if I have to be told to do it once in a while). What about you?

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New Tricks for Old Light Boards

Here’s a few quick tips that made our lighting a little more interesting this weekend. We’re currently in a series called I AM, examining the I AM statements of Jesus. This week was “I AM the light of the world.” So we contrasted light and darkness. People entered by candlelight only. When our speaker got up to speak, we had only 2 lights on him, the rest of the room was black. However, over the course of his message, we brought up the stage and ambient lighting to a bright wash. We ended up doing a 27 minute fade. However, our ETC light board maxes out a 10:39 fade (why? 999 seconds–go figure).

So we ended up doing a 3 part fade. Part one was a fade from 0 to 33%, in 10:39. Part two went from 33-66% over another 10:39. The final 34% came up in about 7 minutes (I didn’t trust the speaker to go a full 30 min; I know, weird). To make sure we wouldn’t forget to fire the next part of the fade, I used the “Follow” command. Follow is the time between firing the cue, and the time the board automatically goes to the next one. In this case, I made my follows the same as my up time, so it was one continuous 28 minute fade. Pretty cool.

Well almost. Seems when I programmed the third step, I selected the lights and hit “AT-1-0-ENTER,” not “At-1-0-0-Enter.” Whoopsie! I knew something was up at the end of step 2 when the lights stopped at 65%. A few seconds into the third step, they dropped to 64%. I immediately hit “Hold,” stopping the cue and went into “Blind” mode.

Blind mode lets me look at a cue and modify it, without affecting the stage lights. I pulled up the cue, and sure enough there sat all my lights at 10%. I quickly re-selected them and this time hit “AT-FULL” and re-wrote the cue. Switching back to Stage mode, I re-fired the third step, which restarted the timer and took the lights to full. No one was the wiser.

So there you go, a few tricks for doing long fades.

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Speaker Support Form

Posted by popular demand, I’ve set up a link to our speaker support PDF form. You can download it from the Downloads page, or just grab it here. I played around with it for a while to see if I could come up with a completely generic version, but decided to leave it exactly as we use it. To make the most of it, you’ll need to open it in Acrobat Professional and make some changes, namely editing some of the instructions, and changing the e-mail addresses the form goes to.

This is pretty easy in Acrobat Pro (especially v. 8). If this proves to be less than helpful, let me know and I re-visit it after Easter. My hope is that this serves as a springboard for you to take it and modify it so it meets your needs. And if you come up with something better, by all means share it…we’re open to suggestions!


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Unexpected ProPresenter Benefit

Sunday was the second weekend of ProPresenter. Again, it worked flawlessly and our second volunteer picked it right up. He was called away to help his brother between the 5 and 7 services so I stepped in to man the con. It occurred to me that my MacBook Pro came with a remote, so I pulled it out to see if it would control ProPresenter. Sure enough, it works great!

So instead of being tied to the keyboard, I was able to stand back fire the slides and sing along. The left/right buttons on the remote advance and go back, and up/down moves through the playlist. I’m not sure if this is officially supported or not, but it worked like a charm. I felt much more in control of the process, and I was able to engage in the worship.

I was also able to fire cues from across the tech booth while manning our video switcher. A truly multi-tasking moment! At any rate, it’s one more thing I appreciate about it.

I also saw that Renewed Vision just released 3.3.1 which includes a few bug fixes for the previously released 3.3 (a week ago), which again qualifies Pro as the most actively developed software ever. Having used it for a few weeks, I have a few questions and suggestions… I’ll be calling tomorrow!

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The First 100 Days

I’m always fascinated how we humans account for things. In presidential terms, the first 100 days always seems to be a milestone. I’m amused by this at the national level because seriously, how much can one person get done in 100 days when trying to run the free world. Since we’re in the beginning stages of choosing our next president, and since I’ve now been at Upper Room for just about 100 days, I thought I would jot down some of the things I’ve gotten done.

Upon my arrival, I quickly learned that the state of technology at the church was in tough shape. We have some good equipment, but it wasn’t put together very well. So I started my journey by figuring out what we have to work with (and I’m finding more stuff all the time), learning what the needs were for both communities (Upper Room and CPC), and establishing some priorities. This are the results of that (so far).

  • A big change was installing two new Eiki LC-X80 projectors. These things rock.
  • I’m about 3/4 of the way through re-wiring our video desk in the tech booth. I’m prepping to install a multi-view monitor over the presentation computer and light board so the operators can actually see the service.
  • We’ve switched from Media Shout to ProPresenter, and from PowerPoint to Keynote.
  • I’m 1/2 through re-working our IEM rack. Half of the receivers are still at FOH waiting for the install of the Aviom snake to backstage. I did get antenna combiners and blades set up for the ones backstage, though.
  • We’ve switched from alkaline disposable batteries to NiMh rechargeable ones.
  • I sent our GL-2 back to Canon to get the FireWire port fixed.
  • I’ve “hired” two volunteer “staff” to direct our sound and lighting teams. I hope to have someone in place with our presentation team by summer.
  • We came up with a interactive pdf form to use with our speakers to give us a common way to submit sermon graphics.
  • We installed a new ETC Expression 3 light console (which subsequently melted down and is on it’s way back to ETC for repair…)
  • We pulled all new DMX cable for the light system and installed a DMX distro.
  • I’ve frequency coordinated our wireless mics and IEMs.
  • I pulled and re-installed all of the wireless mics, antenna combiners and network interface.
  • New monitor speakers have been purchased for our tech booth (to be installed soon).
  • I swapped our old, uncomfortable Clear-com headsets for nice new lightweight Production Intercom 700’s (very comfy!).
  • We’ve come up with numerous procedures and checklists to make sure we’re not bypassing details as we prep for services.
  • Built a 25′ cross stage snake to simplify our stage setup.
  • We have a re-tune of the room scheduled for next week, which will hopefully improve the sound pretty dramatically.
  • Edited about a dozen videos for weekly gatherings.

There are still some big projects to tackle; the design and install of acoustic treatment in the sanctuary and a new speaker rig (timeline–?), getting the house lights switched over to a DMX controllable dimming system, installing some new lighting fixtures (in the next few weeks), upgrading our live video package and possibly moving lighting and presentation to a location adjacent to FOH.

And of course, there is recruiting, training and encouraging new techs, developing some additional standard operating procedures, and figuring out how to push the limits of what we can do creatively with lights, sound and video.

It’s been a busy, crazy and fun 100 days. The community here is great, and the staff second to none. It’s such a privilege to be a part of this ministry and to see how God is using Upper Room to reach the next generation. The good news for readers of this blog is that I’ll have plenty of stuff to write about over the next two years! Thanks for reading and sharing in the journey.

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Worship Leaders–You’re Killing Us!

The scene repeats itself over and over again every weekend. Perhaps even in your church. It’s worship time, and the band is rockin’. The congregation is singing out as the worship leader leads. Eschewing hymnals as old-fashioned, the words are projected on 2 large screens above the stage. As the worship leader looks out over the worshiping throng, he (or she) internally reflects on the goodness of God, and decides to repeat the verse. Suddenly the congregation appears confused and stops singing. About halfway through they start up again, but the mood of the moment is obviously broken. What went wrong? That darn presentation computer operator messed up again! Or did they?

Now, keep in mind that I’m all about being a team player. I really try to not differentiate between the band and the tech team when referring to the worship team. In my mind, we are all the worship team; band, worship leader, vocalists, tech team. Together we are allowed to lead God’s people into worship. Unfortunately, we don’t often spend enough time learning about each other’s roles, and how what we do affects others. It is in that spirit that I write today’s post.

I would argue that the presentation operator’s job is one of the most stressful in a worship service. They have all the responsibility of ensuring the right words are on the screen at the right time, and none of the control to determine when that time is. Should the worship leader deviate, they have less than a second or two to find the right part of the song and get it to the screen. It’s a huge challenge and responsibility.

It’s not a Word.doc

I think one of the most common misconceptions of worship leaders is that the software used to put the words up on the screen is a lot like Word and that changes are super-easy. Thankfully, some of the newer versions of the software have gotten easier. Even so, making changes to the songs on the fly is a challenge. If you’re planning on changing the way the song is sung, it’s best to communicate that clearly to the presentation people early in the process so they have time to not only make the text change, but to ensure the formatting of the song remains consistent.

Communication is key

Presentation software is like a database. It pieces together parts of songs in the right order and presents them on cue. It’s brilliantly simple in concept. However, the challenge is trying to decide what parts to present when. Songs can have all kinds of parts; verses, choruses, bridges, pre-choruses, refrains, tags, endings, and the list goes on. At Upper Room (and many other churches I know) we try to put the song order together before Sunday to make rehearsal time more productive. But consider the challenge when we get an order like this:

V, Pre-Ch, Ch x2, Br, Inst, V2, Pre-Ch, Ch x2, Br x2, Tag, End

Looks easy right? Except when the presentation operator gets to the computer and sees that he has only a verse, a chorus, a bridge and an ending defined. Now, all the words may be in the computer, but they may not be called the same thing. In that case the above order could just as easily (and correctly) be written as:

V, Ch, Br, Inst, V2, Ch, End

How can this be? Simple—older versions of presentation software gave us 4 labels. So we had to figure out how to get a dozen part “types” into four labels. So the person who originally put the song in the database combined the pre-chorus and chorus repeat into a chorus. It works fine, until the worship leader wants to repeat the chorus without repeating the pre-chorus. This could be accomplished by simply creating “chorus 2” and using that instead. But can you tell from the first order what gets repeated? Not without a chart.

The woman who has been leading worship at Upper Room while we search for a permanent leader is quickly becoming my favorite worship leader because she supplies me with full-length charts of every song each week. If it’s anything more than a simple verse & chorus song, she’ll lay out every word she plans on singing, in order! This completely eliminates the confusion of simply supplying abbreviations because regardless of what a part is called, we can make sure the words are in order.

I highly recommend this practice, at least until you have a solid book of songs that both the tech team and worship leader are comfortable with, and all parts are well defined. I spent some time in the youth department of my last church putting together a song list that matched the worship team book. That way, we could use shorthand and not get burned.

Stick to the script

I fully appreciate that sometimes the spirit of the room dictates that you add an extra repeat of the chorus, or throw in an alternate ending for a song. There are times when people get wrapped up in the song and it makes sense to keep singing it. I support that and want to accommodate that to the best of our ability. What I don’t support is not bothering to actually learn the song and stick with the order you gave us. I’ve worked with worship leaders in the past whose song order, let alone verse/chorus order could be considered a guide at best. This might work great when sitting around in a living room with a dozen people, but when there are a few hundred, a few thousand, or more people trying to worship God and the only thing they have to go on are the words on the screen, it’s a recipe for disaster.

I can hear some out there saying, “But it’s all about what the Spirit moves me to sing!” And that’s great when you’re in your car. When you’re leading people in worship, it’s not about you. And it’s not about me. It’s about leading the people of God into worship effectively and without distraction. When you’re not singing what’s on the screen because you went off script, the people get confused and the mood is broken. To be fair, presentation operators screw up too, but I’ll tackle that in another column.

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s all on the computer, follow along!” Two problems with that theory. Problem 1: Presentation software is generally pretty linear. It’s designed to move through a song in order. It’s possible to go back, but it’s a challenge. To go back, first the operator has to figure out where you went. Are you repeating verse 1 or 2? The bridge or pre-chorus? Then he/she has to scroll back (or look at tiny thumbnails) and find the part you’re repeating, and once found, fire the slide. Depending on how many lines of the song are on the screen at once, by the time the operator figures out where you are, you could be somewhere else.

Problem 2: The presentation operator should be leading the lyrics, not following. Good presentation operators will change slides somewhere in the space between the last and second to last word on a slide. This puts the next set of words up before anyone has to sing them. This style of “leading” ensures there will be an uninterrupted flow of worship, not punctuated by fits and starts as the congregation tries to figure out what to sing next. If the operator can only follow, the song will be broken at each slide break.

This is why it’s so important that the worship leader and presentation operator being on the same page to effectively lead the congregation together. Worship leaders, if you’re willing to plan ahead and communicate effectively with us, we can work together to create engaging, powerful and immersive worship times. The more information the presentation operator has at their disposal, the better the experience will be. To be fair, we need to do our part, pay attention and make sure the right words are up at the right time. But like I said, that’s another post!

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ProPresenter Week 1

As I told you last week, we’ve made the switch to ProPresenter. Last Monday’s post was one of my most read and most commented on posts so I thought I’d give you an update.

Things went really well during the service (though getting there was a challenge). To be fair, ProPresenter worked nearly flawlessly. It fired every cue on time, and was entirely stable. Due to a scheduling glitch, we were down a man, so I had to do lights and train our presentation operator in ProPresenter and Keynote. Thankfully, she picked both up quickly.

I say ProPresenter worked nearly flawlessly because we had an issue importing the exported Keynote slides. For some reason, v. 3.2.9 imported the slides in reverse order. If there 8, it would not have been a big deal. But there were 40, so I had to manually re-order the slides as people were walking in. That was a challenge. Between services, we had to make some changes to the Keynote, so I re-exported them, and upgraded Pro to 3.3. Yeah, that’s right—I went live with a new version without ever having used it before. Thankfully, 3.3 fixed the reverse import order and ran flawlessly.

We’re still figuring out the best way to do things and getting used to the new work flow, but the simple fact that I could throw it in front of a presentation operator who has only been doing Media Shout for about 6-8 months is a testament to it’s easy-to-use interface. In fact, I showed her a few tricks on formatting songs then left to focus lights. When I came back, she had figured out how to do a bunch more stuff and was making great progress. In contrast, after 8 months, Media Shout remained a mystery.

I’ll also say that Keynote is so much better than PowerPoint it’s not even funny. And I know PowerPoint. For the first 9 months of 2007, I spent 20-30 hours a week using PowerPoint. I know what it can do and I’m really fast. However, I always felt I had to trick it into doing what I wanted and that every operation was 4 clicks too many. Keynote is like a breath of fresh air. It does what you want it to do without making you jump through hoops. The biggest improvement is that masters actually work the way they should. The inspectors and palates are laid out in a way that is immediately intuitive and accessible and give the ability to make changes quickly and efficiently. And at $79 as part of the iWork suite (also includes Pages, a killer word processor and page layout app and Numbers a spreadsheet app), it’s totally worth checking out.

Ease of use is also a huge factor. After watching a few Lynda.com videos of Keynote at home just to get up to speed on the basics, she was able to get done what she needed to with minimal input from me (I was programming light cues, remember?)

I’m also thrilled to have access to h.264 video. The DV codec AVI files I used to render out for Media Shout always looked like crap (especially type) and they were huge. The h.264 stuff looks like Digi-Beta (remember that?) are tiny by comparison. I love the new “bail to logo” feature also. Despite our best efforts to plan the service completely, sometimes we just need to go to a series logo slide. While we could always find one, eventually, in earlier versions or in Media Shout, it’s great to be able to hit F5 and have the logo come up.

The live video feature is intriguing, though I don’t think we’ll be using it for a while (we have lousy cameras at the moment). For churches that want to be able to run lyrics over IMAG of the worship team though, this feature is huge.

For those that are interested, right now we’re running ProPresenter off my MacBook Pro, though a 20″ iMac is on the way. The MBP was great, though in our setup, the screen is a bit small. I’m looking forward to a 20″ screen in a week or two. We’ll also soon be sending audio through a new Lexicon Alpha FireWire interface. I’ve been playing with that for the past few weeks and am really impressed. It’s a vast improvement over the 1/8″ mini jacks.

So there you have it, week one. Renewed Vision has done a great job developing the product, and the support has been incredible. They are rolling out updates so fast that I went from 3.2.4 to 3.2.9 (missed the 3.2.8 seed because I wasn’t fast enough) and right to 3.3 in less than a week and a half. Some may suggest that they should have fixed all the bugs before rolling it out, but it’s almost impossible to find them all in-house. It takes users actually beating on the program to discover them all. In fact it’s the same methodology that Microsoft uses. Well, except that Microsoft sells beta software as a new version then takes 2 years to fix the bugs. Great work, guys. You’re my new favorite software company!

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