Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: October 2008

Continual Knowledge Upgrade

Most of you have probably guessed by now that I’m a geek. I thoroughly enjoy being around technology, talking about technology and figuring out how to use technology to enhance the mission of the Church. That’s why I have the job that I do. Every day is different, and I’m always learning new things. Some days I feel like I’m trying to drink from a fire hose, but the truth is I love it. I enjoy change, which is a good thing because one thing technology doesn’t do is stand still. There’s always something else to learn about.

What puzzles me is when I run across people who work in a technology field who are not all about change. That is, they are not interested in growing their knowledge base. I can’t figure this out at a philosophical level, and it makes no sense to me at a practical level. For example, a few years ago I was between jobs. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and in the process I met a lot of people who were also in transition. I was frankly totally unprepared to come across some of the attitudes I did. I met quite a few people who had previously made their living programming in the A/S 400 environment. That’s fair; it was the king of big iron a few years ago. However, those systems are on the way out. What amazed me was how many of those folks would grumble and say, “I’m a great A/S 400 programmer, but all companies want these days is .Net programmers.” “Why don’t you learn?” I’d ask. They’d mumble something about not having time (come on, you’re unemployed), or not wanting to go back to school, or some other nonsense. Seriously, did you think you’d retire programming on one platform?

What does this have to do with church techies? I’d say, “A lot!” Thankfully, the pace of change is a little slower in the world of sound, lights and video than it is in the IT universe. Still, we’re well into the transition from analog to digital mixers (sorry analog die-hards, digital’s here to stay and analog is going away…). Those 700 Mhz band wireless mics are going to have to be replaced, and you’d better understand frequency coordination this time around. And of course, when it comes to speakers, line arrays are the hot topic. You should probably have at least a passing knowledge of them, and whether they’re right for your room before someone tries to sell you $600,000 worth.

Video used to be pretty simple. It was all standard definition, 4:3, CCIR-601 and your biggest choice was BetaCam SP or MII. No more! We have have a half-dozen tape formats, again as many non-tape formats and even more aspect ratio/resolution combinations. FireWire was supposed to make video production plug and play, but does your editing software support your camera’s codec natively? Check that out before you plunk down $6K on a shiny new camcorder.

Lighting hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years, save the plethora of new consoles that are introduced every year. It’s now possible to design a show on your laptop, in 3D complete with shading and color, then load it into the new console. Then there’s wireless DMX. For temporary lighting, that’s a technology worth checking out.

For the church tech guy or gal, it’s important to keep abreast of all these changes. Sure, you may not be in the market for a new FOH mixer this year, but you will be someday. And as services get more creative, we need to come up with ways to implement the ideas that make worship gatherings more engaging. Standing there with your hands in your pockets muttering, “I don’t like them new-fangled digital mixers a’tall” is not a way to maintain job security. Pastors want tech people who can make stuff happen, not give them a list of reasons why theirs is not a good idea.

So what can you do to stay current? Here are some ideas.

Read

The internet is a great place to keep up with technology. Any time I’m confronted with something I don’t know about, I Google it. Granted, you need to sift the wheat from the chaff, but there’s a wealth of information out there. You’re reading this blog, which is a good start. Check out the ones I read (on the right sidebar). There are some amazingly gifted church-tech bloggers out there. Check out what they have to say.

Also, subscribe to trade magazines. I’ve listed a dozen or more, most of which are free, on the links page. I read about 14 a month just to keep up with sound and video. If we did more cool lighting effects at Upper Room, I’d be reading more.

Go to Conferences

There are so many good ones out there. I’m headed to WFX next week. It runs again in the spring. There’s LDI, InfoComm, Willow’s Arts festival, the big one–NAB, and more. Get out there and play with some new gear, even if you’re not in the market. It’s good to learn what’s out there.

Network

Getting to know other tech leaders in churches around you is a great idea. The other day I met with a guy who’s a new tech guy at a church down the road from us. I helped him with a gain structure issue he was having, and it turns out he’s an Apple Genius. He had some great pointers for me as I get ready to set up my new IT system. I know I’ll be calling him with more questions as I get further down that road. Hopefully, he’ll call me when he has an issue I can help with. Along the way, we’ll both learn something.

And don’t forget the smart people you learn from on the web. I get questions all the time from people asking my opinion on which digital board they should buy, or which video switcher, or which long-distance video system they should use. My answer usually has more questions for them than answers, but I’m happy to share my opinion. So are many of the other guys who write about church and non-church technology.

Load Balance

I’ve decided it’s impossible to learn everything about everything. So I cope with the enormous volume of information by digging into the things that I really need to know about. As I said, we don’t do a ton with lighting right now, so I’m not spending a lot of time with that. As much as I love audio, right now I know what I need to know so I’m not focusing on learning quite as much. Since my job description has changed to include IT, I’m spending most of my time filling in gaps in my IT knowledge. Once that system is up and running, I’ll be back to the intricacies of digital snakes (that will be next month…).

Forget

I once had to tell a particularly annoying video sales guy that I had forgotten more about professional video production than he knew. It’s sounds arrogant (and maybe it was, but he was really getting on my nerves…), but the reality is I no longer need to remember how time align a A/B roll edit suite. So I forgot. OS 9? Please. How to program the ETC 24/48 light board I used a year ago? Gone. When things are changing as fast as they are, don’t worry about keeping everything you ever learned top of mind. Strengthen what you need to know now. Google the rest. It will come back to you if you ever need it. Though I seriously hope I never have to troubleshoot an extension conflict again!

Use Technology

Google is a great resource. You can learn about anything in a matter of minutes. I also love a program called Evernote. I’ll blog about that sometime. It’s a great way to collect all the bits of information I need to keep handy without actually having to remember them all. What was that ADAT to balanced audio interface I found and where did I find it? Evernote knows. Take advantage of e-mail, blogs, Twitter and iPhones.

We live in exciting times. The pace of change in the arena of technology is staggering. It is a great time to be a church techie. We get to learn about all sorts of cool stuff that most people in the church can’t even fathom figuring out. And we get to share that knowledge with our volunteers! And we get to continually enhance worship while we’re at it. Does it get any better? I think not!

Embrace change–when it comes to technology, it’s the only thing that stays the same!

The Fixer

I still get the chills when I think about it. Having just come off a 7-year run as a 50-week a year volunteer sound guy, I was ready to take a break. My family and I had moved to a new town, and were looking for a new church. We visited one and really liked it. We went back the next week. And the next. Pretty soon, we had been there all summer and the fall “ministry season” was starting up. I stopped by the worship leader’s table and said I had some sound experience, but was on sabbatical. He was excited to have another sound guy on the line, and told me to call him when I was ready to get back into the game. 

A few months later I was. It was about this time that the chills started. The sound booth was a mess. There were cords all over the place, many of them not working. Mics were thrown into a tub. The gain structure of the system was a disaster. It wasn’t EQ’d properly. It was everything that gives a sound guy the willies. I spent 4 years there, slowing building trust with the leadership and being allowed to fix quite a bit of that poor little system. Eventually we turned it into something quite useable. 

I bring all this up for this reason: As a volunteer, it was incredibly frustrating to come in week after week and work on a system that wasn’t put together properly, with equipment that was broken or not suitable for the job. The church wasn’t “small” by most standards (roughly 1,000 attendance each week), but there was no staff member really in charge of the technical stuff. When I eventually left the church, one of the driving forces for my departure was that no one really seemed to care that much that the technical team was being asked to do the incredible with both hands tied behind our back. I knew my efforts were appreciated, but there was never much of a sense that action was being taken to improve the situation.

Like many of my life experiences, I have tried to learn from that one. I find it’s useful to recall what it was like to be a volunteer in church as I try to lead my team of volunteers. Which brings me to today’s post: The Fixer. Now, I understand this post is going to mean different things to different people; and I realize there are some of you serving in churches that are really strapped financially. I know some of you are volunteer leaders and are just as frustrated as I was back then. I hope this encourages you nonetheless.

One of the guiding principles of my ministry to my technical volunteers is to build a system (be that sound, lighting, presentation or video) that is reliable and up to the task. I personally find it completely unfair to ask a volunteer to give his or her valuable time in service on equipment that is sub-par or ill-suited for the job. When things are broken, things go wrong; and when things go wrong, the volunteer usually gets the blame. This is totally unfair. 

Imagine being the lighting operator and week after week you program your cues and work really hard to get things looking right. Then when the service starts, the lights start flashing on and off, colors aren’t changing like they’re supposed to, or the entire board just stops responding. Or as a presentation operator trying to lead worship with lyric slides on a computer that keeps crashing. Or a sound engineer trying to mix with wireless mics dropping out, or monitors cutting on and off, or feedback howling through the system every time you open a mic. How excited are you going to be about coming back next week to face the barrage of criticism you will inevitably endure?

That’s why I believe it’s important, vitally so, that those of us in technical leadership work as hard as we can to equip our volunteers to succeed. I get asked all the time, “How do I get people to volunteer for the tech teams?” I like to answer with a question, “How are your technical systems?” Often times, the question is met with a blank stare; as if it’s hard to imagine what one has to do with the other. But think about it–technical volunteers, the good ones anyway, are at some level, equipment geeks. That’s why they’re there. However, if the equipment is broken down junk, you’re going to have a tough time getting tech geeks to show up. And those that do will quickly become disillusioned and quit. 

Now, I know some of you have shoestring budgets. You may not be able to afford that M7-CL, or brand new wireless mics or a 24″ iMac running ProPresenter. But you need to have mic cords that work. And you can make sure that the presentation computer isn’t full of viruses and crashing all the time. You can clean up the tech booth and make it an inviting place to be. And if you can’t afford to fix stuff, at least start to develop a plan to do so. Bring the volunteers in on the process. Let them know you care enough to start working on making things better. Become the squeaky wheel that the leadership of the church eventually recognizes and properly funds. Show them the value of the investment–that is, reliable volunteers who are engaged, good at what they do and make a valuable contribution to the weekly services. 

I have been amazed to watch the level of engagement grow in our tech volunteers over the last 10 months. When I cleaned the booth up the first time, there was a noticeable difference. When I re-engineered the whole video, lights and presentation system (at a total cost of about $500, I might add), they were amazed the first weekend they came in. They’re now coming in early and working harder. When we have a problem on a weekend, I track it down and fix it during the week so that it’s not an issue again. Instead of criticism, they now receive praise on a regular basis. Which is not to say we don’t have room to grow, that’s what training is for, but everything runs smoother now. 

Here’s the success story to share with church leaders: I now have 16 volunteers who are excited about putting in 8 hours on a Sunday in service to our community. A big part of that is because they no longer have to fight the equipment they’re working on. It just works. They come in, do they’re thing, enjoy it and head home feeling satisfied that they were a part of something wonderful. That’s why we fix the gear. How cool is that?

Final Soldering Lesson–XLRs

Picking up where we left off, we’ll get back to soldering XLR cables today. This is an incredibly useful skill, as we probably use more mic cables (and break more mic cables) than any other. Today, I needed to make up a few 6-foot XLRs for our Worship Director, Jon. Jon needed to hook up his little mixer to the speakers in his office. It’s a simple job, here’s what to do.

First, assemble the tools you’ll need for the job. If you missed out on my first and second posts about soldering, you may want to go back and review. Here’s what you need. Left to right, you’ll need a soldering iron. You can find them at Radio Shack (one of the few things I buy there), or other electronics stores and of course online. You don’t need a super-fancy one with electronic temperature regulation. Just a simple 15-30 watt pencil tipped iron will do. My iron is switchable between 15 and 30 watts, though I leave it at 30 almost all the time. Next, a pair of diagonal cutters. These are the smaller ones, and spring loaded. Very handy. You’ll need solder of course, electrical grade–no plumber’s solder. The rosin inside the core is different between the two, so get the right kind. It comes in different thicknesses, and as I write this I don’t recall which I have, other than it’s the thicker kind they stock at Rac-Shack. The super-fine stuff is nice for mini-jacks, but XLRs take so much solder, the thicker variety is faster.

Also in the picture are some wire strippers. I like the kind I can adjust to strip all the way to 24 gauge wire, then count on the fact that I’ve stripped so much (wire that is) that I can tell when I’m through the insulation of thicker wire without nicking the copper. You may wish to get a wire stripper that is calibrated for different gauges of wire while you’re learning. A knife is very useful for cutting through the outer jacket of the mic cable. I use a box cutter I got when I worked at a grocery store in high school. But any sharp blade will do. Finally, there’s my vice, which is some 30 years old. It looks terrible, but is just the ticket for holding on to the connectors without burning my fingers.

Let’s get stripping! Not so fast! Before you do anything, you want to slip the housing of the XLR connector down the end of the cable. There’s nothing worse than making a perfect solder joint on your connector, then realizing you forgot to do this step and having to de-solder the end off to put the housing on. Not that I’ve ever done that…

The first step is to carefully cut through the outer jacket of the cable. Make your slice about 1/2-5/8″ from the end. I normally try to not cut all the way through, then bend the cable at the cut and just touch the blade to the jacket at the cut line. This will split the jacket without nicking a bunch of the copper shield. Separate the copper shield from the 2 conductors, taking care to round up all the bare copper strands. Wrap them tightly together. Now if you’re using Mogami 2792 (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll notice that both the 2 conductors are wrapped in black plastic. This black stuff is actually conductive, and it’s one of the reasons this cable is so immune to interference. Any junk that makes it past the copper shield is then shunted to ground via this conductive plastic. As great as it is, it has to go at the ends of the conductors. If you don’t take it off, you may find the cable buzzes slightly as the plastic forms a high-impedance ground to the positive and negative solder cups. So make sure you talk it off. Here, I’ve removed the coating from the red lead.

Next thing to do (after you get the black stuff off both leads) is to strip the ends of the white and red conductors. You don’t need much, just about 3/16″ should do it. Twist the copper strands together tightly, like you did for the shield. Next, we’ll tin the leads. Just like last time, put some heat on the wire, and touch the solder to the other side. Just a little bit here, you don’t need much.

You’ll notice that when you heat the wire, the insulation will melt back a little bit. That’s why you don’t need to strip too much off. Next, take your connector end, in this case a Switchcraft AAA series–my favorite, and chuck it into the vice. You need to make sure it’s not going to be moving around on you. You’ll want to fill the solder cups with solder. It should look something like this:

That’s kind of a lousy picture, but hopefully you can see the solder is coming just up to the top of the cup. Almost done now. Array the wires in the correct order for the pins. You want to make sure you follow the proper standards when building cables. With 2792, red would be hot or +, so it goes to pin 2. White is cold or -, so it goes to pin 3. The shield always goes to in 1. Switchcraft and Neutrik mold little numbers onto the ends so you know which is which. I like to start with the shield, since it’s the biggest. Heat up the solder in the cup, then drop the wire in, making sure to heat up the wire too. You want to get it all nice and hot so the solder flows together. Then remove the heat and wait. The solder will go from shiny and molten to a bit dull and solid. Then you can let go (and cool off your fingers). Do the same for the other two.

It should look like the above. Notice the solder is just up to the top of the cup, and everything is nice and neat. You don’t want solder dripping all over the place, and you especially don’t want any stray copper or solder connecting any two pins.

Finally slide the housing up (you may have a few other parts if you’re using Neutrik NC3 series). But this is why I love the Switchcraft AAA series. There are two parts to the connector, and when you’re done soldering, slide it up, screw it together and you’re done.

That’s it! You’ve just successfully soldered an XLR connector on the end of some mic cable. Just make sure if you put a male on one end, you put the female on the other. Not that I’ve ever made that mistake…

If you missed the earlier posts on where to get supplies, or how to do unbalanced speaker connections, you can find them here and here.

I made this cable for $6.80. It’s all top quality material, and it took less than 5 minutes (including picture taking). Buying one of comparable quality would set me (actually, the church) back at least $15-20. And it’s just plain fun. So go make some cables, huh?

Update on Wireless Mics & the 700 Mhz Band

Yesterday I listened in on a webinar sponsored by iLevite and Shure. Chris Lyons of Shure gave a good summary of where we are right now with the digital TV transition and the reallocation of spectrum. There wasn’t a lot of new information, mainly because there haven’t been that many developments, but it was a good seminar nonetheless. Here’s the upshot.

As far as the “White Spaces” goes, the FCC recently released it’s report on field tests. TV Technology has a good summary article on the report. In the testing of the new wireless devices Google, Microsoft and others want to bring to market, it was found that the devices could detect and avoid TV stations and other wireless carriers (ie. mics) about 50% of the time. Doug Lung, author of the TVT article mentioned above, concludes that these White Space Devices (WSDs) are likely to cause interference. Regardless, the FCC seems to be convinced that the WSDs can work. They will issue a ruling on Nov. 5th.

The whole issue with WSDs is a murky one, as no one really knows what it will mean for church sound, schools, theaters, sound companies, etc.. One of the plans of the WSD proponents is to put together a database using geo-location and registered frequencies to avoid interference. This plan has its own problems, of course. The good news, if there is any with WSDs, is that we’ll at least have some real information to act on come Nov. 5th.

The other topic discussed is one we’ve dealt with here before; the 700 Mhz band (698 Mhz-806 Mhz). As previously written about here, the days for us to use the 700 Mhz band for wireless mics are numbered. We’ll know exactly how numbered on Nov. 5th. Shure has been leading the charge of an industry coalition to establish a 24-month transition period for users of wireless mics in the 700 Mhz band. If the FCC agrees to this, we would, in theory, have roughly 2 years (from Feb 17, 2009 or another arbitrary date) to stop using our wireless mics in that band. 

This would be a God-send to the thousands of churches, schools and other venues that are looking at multiple thousands of dollars to replace existing wireless gear. Being able to spread the costs out over a 2 year period would be most helpful. Personally, I doubt we’ll get that much time. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a year. 

Like I said earlier, if you own wireless mics that operate in the 700 Mhz band, start making plans now to replace them. It’s not a matter of “if” but of “when.” The question is today, what do we buy? The answer to that is, “Wait a few more weeks.” Once the FCC issues its ruling, we’ll have more guidance on how to proceed. 

Given this climate of uncertainty in the wireless spectrum, I’m looking at trying to get away from as many wireless mics as possible for Upper Room and CPC. I’m hoping to drop down to 2 wireless IEMs and go Aviom for the rest of the band. Ideally, we’ll only use wireless mics for the pastor and other verbals during the service. I want to keep my vocalists on wired mics. They’re cheaper and sound better to boot.

In the meantime, we have a few days left to comment on the ruling. Shure has an excellent resource with full instructions on how to file a comment. If enough of us get together on this, we might be able to buy some more time to make the switch out of the 700 Mhz band. Follow this link to learn more on making a comment. Hurry–we only have until Monday, Oct. 27 to comment. After that, we get what we get.

Stay tuned for more information. I’m guessing that the FCC’s Nov. 5 ruling will be a topic on the FaithTools “Live from WFX” episode coming up. In the meantime start planning for change–’cause it’s coming!

Perfection or Progress?

I heard from a good friend of mine the other day. He was rather frustrated (that may be an understatement…) because he perceived some of the criticism he was subject of was coming from a desire for perfection in worship. Now, I don’t know all the details, but I ventured a guess that perfection was in fact not the goal, but rather progress toward excellence. While I have been around some people for whom anything less than perfection is unacceptable, most church leaders don’t fall into that category. Rather, most church leaders I know are more interested in excellence. Yet when technical problems that seem easily solvable keep happening, they get frustrated. That frustration can spill out as sharp criticism, which can look like a desire for perfection, especially if the tech leader in question higher value on relationships than technical execution. 

In an effort to help my friend, I jotted down some thoughts that I’ve learned over the years. As I was proofing my e-mail (what, you don’t proof your e-mails?), it occurred to me that this was good stuff. One area that I felt needed to be addressed was setting the proper level of expectation for volunteers. I know very few people who are better at caring for people than my friend. But sometimes, like a parent who tries too hard to be their child’s friend, we as tech leaders commit a disservice to our volunteers by failing to lead. Just as a child needs a parent, not another friend, our volunteers need us to lead first, and be friends second. This is not to say the two are mutually exclusive–I’m friends with all my volunteers–but rather, as a technical arts director, I need to direct. Here’s how I see this playing out.

Volunteers will only perform to the level of the expectation we set. When I got to Upper Room, the tech teams were rather sloppy. Cues were regularly missed, the team was often late, and the team seemed nonplused when a mistake was made. Without once yelling at anyone, I started raising the bar. When someone missed a cue, I confronted it right then, and offered suggestions on how to do it better. If they were 5 minutes late, I called their cell phone. I started calling cues on the com, and expected them to be followed.

It’s been an a nearly invisible transformation–but I’m now regularly told our services have never run smoother. And it’s not because I’m a task master, I just expect excellence, and everyone knows it. Every Sunday, I work harder than anyone, and they respect me for that. And to make sure the volunteers feel safe, if there’s a bad cue or a problem, I take the blame for it in front of them. 

Because really, when a volunteer messes up, it’s ultimately our fault. We’ve either not trained them well, not empowered them well or didn’t fire them when we should have. My team is now sharp enough that they over-ride my bad calls. We work together, I expect the best from them and they bring it. And believe it or not, morale is up, and we’re having a lot more fun each weekend than we did a year ago. Volunteers want to do a good job, and the want to serve; we just have to equip them to do it.

I know the heart of any tech director is to value and appreciate the volunteers, but you’re not doing them any favors by not expecting them to perform at a high level. When you’re in a setting that clearly calls for excellence in execution, and you need to set that expectation, and deliver. Otherwise, the the heat that you’ll feel travels straight to them. They get discouraged and ultimately stop caring about doing a good job.

You may need to get clear coms set up and get everyone on them. Call the service like you would any other show. If the guy who runs the lights can’t follow a cue sheet, then you need to tell him to only move on your cue. Same with slides, video and anything else. 

And if someone keeps messing up, then yeah, you may need to fire them. Have a serious conversation with him or her and find out what’s causing the problems. If they’re just not paying attention, or lack the ability to do the job, or just doesn’t care, then fire them. Sidebar: OK, fire might be too strong. You may need to move them to an area of ministry that better suits their skill set. Never fire a volunteer out of anger, and make sure that in “letting them move on,” you express appreciation for their service. Because in truth, not everyone is cut out for the tech team, just like not everyone is cut out for nursery duty (I’d be terrible at that, for example, and should be fired immediately). Still, anyone who shows up week after week to serve needs to be valued. End Sidebar. If it’s an equipment issue, get the equipment fixed. If it’s a training issue, get them the training they need. If it’s a preparation issue, make sure everyone involved in the service is prepared and knows what’s supposed to happen.

Ultimately, church leaders aren’t really after perfection. I’ve heard them mess up on multiple occasions. What they want is progress–progress towards excellence. If month after month the same issues keep cropping up, it’s because those issues are not being dealt with. 

Perfection is a elusive as a spotted leprechaun, but excellence is achievable and repeatable. I was once told that I shoot for perfection and settle for excellence. If all you’re going for is good enough, then you’ll likely get poor. Set the bar high, and people will perform. 

I know many church leaders expect a lot, and they may not do a good job of equipping you to deliver the goods. You can’t fix that, but you can fix what you do. Ultimately, you are responsible for what you do, and what the people below you do. We can’t blame our volunteers for things that go wrong in a service. We need to own the mistakes of our team, then figure out how to keep them from repeating. That’s why we get paid the big bucks (funny, I just accidentally typed big buck–might be more accurate…). 

But you get the point. You’re responsible, you fix it. And never apologize for a mistake without having a plan to keep it from repeating. You may not get it perfect every time, but you can plan to get better. Now, this begs the question, “What do I do when I’m not given the authority and/or budget to fix what we need to fix?” That, grasshopper, is an excellent question. One that will have to wait for another day.

Soldering On

Well now that you know the reasons for building your own cables, and have the resources to do so, let’s build some cables, shall we? What’s that, you don’t know why you should build your own cables? Well go back and catch up. We’ll wait. All set? Here we go… BTW, you can click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.

Today, we’re going to tackle some easy ones; an unbalanced 1/4″ jack (which is a speaker cable in this case) and a 2 channel Speakon. The project in question here is a two channel, single cable interface that will take 2 amp channels from a guitar head amp (using two 1/4″ plugs), send it via a two channel cable into a Neutrik Speakon NL4, through 2 individual speaker cables we have run under the stage to the backstage area, then come out in another Speakon to dual channel 1/4″ cord to plug into the speaker cab. But that’s really immaterial. Here’s how we connect the ends.

First, the Speakon, because Speakon cable ends are super-easy. Start by stripping about 5/16″ (or 8 mm) of insulation from the ends of the wires. Make sure you use a good wire stripper, that is set to not nick the inner conductors of the wire. It will look like this:

Notice that none of the small copper strands are cut off. If you have your strippers set to cut too deep, you’ll start cutting out the copper, and that will decrease the efficiency of the wire. So don’t do that. Now, at this point, simply shove the ends into the appropriate ports on the back of the Speakon, I found it’s often helpful to back the screws out a little bit before putting the wire in. Just don’t back them off too much; they will come out. 

In the case of an NL4, you will have 4 terminals labeled 1+, 1-, 2+, 2-. In the case of this wire, there is a red/white pair, and a frosty red/frosty white pair. Normal convention would be that the red is a hot (or positive) lead, so that would go into the 1+ terminal. White goes to 1-. Frosty red and white get tied to 2+ and 2- respectively. 

While it’s good practice to follow standard industry conventions, what really matters is consistency. Make sure you always connect the same wire to the same terminal all the way through the cable. You don’t want to swap the positive for negative. That’s bad.

When you’re done, the job looks like this:

All that’s left to do is slide up the chuck, the threaded end, and slip the whole plug end into the housing. What’s that? You forgot to send the chuck and threaded end down the cable before you put the end on? Don’t feel bad, I do it more often than I care to admit, even after making thousands of terminations. Don’t sweat it, just un-do the screws, take off the end and slip the threaded end and chuck on. You’re back in business. It’s a little more work when you forget with an XLR or 1/4″, but it’s not the end of the world. Try to develop a system that helps you not forget. I should note that NL4 connectors come with 2 chucks for different sizes of cable. Make sure you use the one that fits snugly for proper strain relief.

Connecting a chassis Speakon is not hard either. In this example, I have 2 chassis connectors; one on stage, the other backstage. The procedure is essentially the same–strip the wire, tin the wire, and only deviates when we get to the connector. I put a little dollop of solder on the pad of the connector first, like this:

If you look closely, you’ll see the top pad has a layer of solder on top. Next, you’ll apply heat with the tip of the iron to both the wire end and the pad. The goal is to completely melt the solder on the end of the wire and on the pad. When everything is nice and warm and melted, remove the heat and hold the wire in place. It will be pretty toasty, so be careful you don’t burn your fingers. When you’re done, the wire will be firmly attached to the pad, thusly:

Notice there is a nice solid flow of solder that completely encompasses the wire. You can give this a pretty good tug once it cools and it should not come off. If you can pull it off, or the solder looks dull and chunky, you have a “cold solder joint” and it will fail (and it won’t conduct well before it fails). Heat it back up and do it again if that happens. Click on that picture to enlarge it so you can really see what I’m talking about.

At this point in the job, because I’m really anal, I wrap the entire thing with electricians tape before setting it in the wall plate. The job is done.

The process for terminating a 1/4″ unbalanced plug (Switchcraft 280) is much the same as the chassis mount Speakon. Again, it begins with a proper strip and tinning of the wires. I make a slight adjustment here, and trim the white wire (or whatever is used as the ground, or negative wire) a little shorter than the red (or positive wire). This makes it easier to keep them apart inside the connector.

Like the Speakon, we put some solder on the pads like so:

You don’t need to get crazy here, just flow a small amount onto the tip pad (the one on top, which will be positive) and the sleeve pad (the bottom/strain relief). The amount of solder is probably 2-3 times the thickness of the pad itself. Before joining the wire and the connector end, make sure the housing is on the wire, facing the right way. The 280 (and 297 for that matter) come with a insulation tube that fits tightly inside the housing. Make sure this is present, or you risk shorting the positive pad/wire to the housing. Next, heat the pad and wire at the same time to get the solder flowing all around the wire and pad. When done right, it looks like this:

Again, you can see the solder completely flows around the wire and is nice and shiny. This indicates a good joint. Use a set of needle nose pliers to carefully bend the strain relief tabs onto the wire. You want it to grip snugly, but not cut through the insulation. It’s a good idea to let everything cool down a little bit before you do this step (if not only because you’ll burn your fingers if you don’t).

And that’s about it. You can see I only stripped back enough wire to fit onto the pads. You don’t want to strip off more than you need, as you risk a short. You may find you need to push the tip pad (the positive one) down a bit to fit inside the housing. That’s OK, so long as you maintain a good gap between the sleeve pad. Don’t push them too close, or they’ll short.

Now, you may be wondering exactly how do you hold onto the soldering iron, the connector end, the wire and the solder all at t
he same time? Well, you could check into having 2 more hands attached; you could find a friend to hold some parts for you; or you could do what I do and use a cheap, old, heavy bench vice that I bought at Ames when I was 12.

It’s ugly and beat up, but I’ve used it for literally thousands of connectors. I snug the connector in the jaws just enough to hold it, but not enough to distort the shape. It does a great job of holding 1/4″ ends, XLRs, RCAs and even mini 1/8″ connectors. I also slip the stripped wire ends vertically between the jaws and clamp them in place when tinning. With practice, I’ve gotten so I can tin 3-5 wires at once. It’s all about the right tools.

So there you go. Unbalanced 1/4″ connectors and Speakons. Next time around, we’ll tackle balanced lines. Happy soldering!

Note: I edited this post on 8/16/14 to remove a section about tinning the ends of the cable when making up Speakon connectors. I don’t do that anymore as I’ve learned the manufacturer doesn’t recommend that. We learn as we go…

Onward Christian Solder-ers

If you didn’t guess today’s topic based on that fantastic pun for a title, we’re talking about one of my favorite pastimes: Soldering. More specifically, making your own cables. I think I bought my last pre-made audio cable about 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve made all my own. Mic cables, speaker cables, instrument cables, even patch cables and patch bays. If it carries audio, I’ve made it. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a church for any length of time and not ended up making audio cables. 

For today’s post, I’ll talk about why I make my own cables and what my favorite raw materials are. Upcoming posts will illustrate proper connection methods for various cable ends (1/4″, XLR, Speakon, even BNC). But first…

Why make your own cables?

I give several answers to that question. First, I like to control the materials I use. Building my own allows me to specify the cable, the connector and how they’re mated to one another. I have my favorite cable types for different applications (see below), and I really don’t like the cable they use in cheap music and instrument (MI) store cables. It doesn’t coil well, doesn’t feel good and doesn’t last.

Second, I like being able to control length. For example, in our current Upper Room setup, we have need for a bunch of 1′ mic cables to run between DIs and our sub-snake. Those are easy to make up. We also needed some 8′ cables for vocal mics. When I’m doing an installation, I like to make my cable exact length. It neatens the install, and makes it far easier to work on later on (and by exact length, I mean point A to point B, plus a service loop if needed). I’ve seen a stack of IEM transmitters sitting next to a mixer, literally 2′ away, all connected by 25′ cables. I wish I was making this up.

Third, there is significant cost savings. Whereas a high-quality 20′ mic cable might cost $30 or more, I can make that same cable for half that, and it only takes me 5 minutes (when I’m making more than one). If you only need 2 cables, making them yourself might not save you any money (though the first to arguments apply), but when you’re doing 10 or more, the cost savings really add up. And when you start looking at multi-channel cables, the savings really take off.

My Favorite Things

I’ve been buying nearly all of my connectors and wire from the same place for over 10 years. Markertek has a great selection of both (and a whole lot of other stuff), they ship fast and offer great customer service when needed. They’re prices are also hard to beat. I compare others every so often, and they remain competitive. You may be able to find a local source for these parts as well, but I find it easier to hit the ‘net, place my order and wait 3 days for the box to show up. Takes a little more planning, but I also stock standard components and cable in my office for emergencies.

So here’s what I like to use. For mic cable, it’s Mogami 2792 all the way. It is, hands down, the best mic cable made. It’s great to handle, coils wonderfully and is exceptionally low on noise. Because of the unique shielding method (which we’ll talk about when we make mic cables), it’s nearly impervious to noise. I’ve run these mic cables right next to AC lines (I know, you’re not supposed to) and never had a hum sneak in. It’s also a great bargain at $0.49/foot as of this writing. Some people might like the Canare Star-Quad, but I hate it. It’s incredibly hard to work with, isn’t nearly as flexible as the Mogami and is more expensive. I’ve used literally thousands of feet of 2792 and never had a cable go bad (except for the one that got run over by the piano…)

For instrument cables, it’s Mogami again, this time 2524. Though I’ve been known to use 2792 for it because that’s what I normally stock, 2792 is low impedance, while 2524 is high impedance. For a low cost, permanent install cable, I will often turn to West Penn 291. It’s a little harder to work with than some of the Mogami console cables (2944 for example), but it’s often quite a bit cheaper. When I’m doing a ton of install lines, I’m not as worried about flexibility of the cable, so I don’t mind using 291. And the $0.10/foot (or more) savings adds up over several hundred feet.

When it comes to connectors, there are several to choose from. One thing I don’t do, and neither should you, is use any connector you bought at Radio Shack. They’re junk. And expensive. Don’t do it. 

Now that we have that out of the way, for 1/4″ connections, I’m a Switchcraft man, all the way. Neutrik makes a good connector, but I don’t like assembling them. Their pads are too small, and they take too much time. And they’re big and expensive. Nope, give me a 280 for unbalanced lines and a 297 for balanced. I normally keep 10-20 of each on hand at all times.

For RCA, I won’t use anything but a Switchcraft 3502. Others make them, but I like Switchcraft’s. When it comes to XLR connectors, I’m divided. I was a long-time Neutrik addict, having soldered up literally hundreds of NC3MXs and NC3FXs. They also make a pretty trick IDC (insulation displacement contact) connector that doesn’t require soldering. You can throw on of these on the end of some 2792 and have a mic cable made up in about 2 minutes, and you don’t burn your fingers. But, I’m a cheapskate and they’re about a buck more than the solder ones. Not bad if you want 5, but I use a hundred or more a year. 

As much as I love 280s and 297s for 1/4″, I’ve never liked (not even a little) Switchcraft’s XLR connectors. Sure, they’re strong, but they are harder to put together than a kid’s Christmas present. All those parts and little screws for the strain relief…yuck! However, a few years ago, Switchcraft won me over with their new AAA series. While there are 4 parts to an NC3, the AAA has 2. The pins are integral to the shell, and the strain relief is built-in to the back housing. Slide the housing on the cable, strip the ends, solder it up, screw it together and bam! you’re done. Two minutes an end, tops. Best of all, they’re comparably priced with the NC3 series. 

I’ll still order NC3s if the AAAs are out of stock, but when I can get them I use AAAs. Always get the metal housings, too. Don’t cheap out and try the plastic to save a few cents. You will be disappointed. 

For speaker cables, you can’t beat the Neutrik Speakon series. Get rid of those 1/4″ cables on your wedges and go Speakon. You’ll have a lot fewer monitors coming unplugged accidentally…

Later, we’ll talk about making video cables, too; so I’ll throw in a plug for those parts. Again, I’m sold on one type of connector that I’ve used thousands of times. Kings 2065 series is the way I roll. You have to get the right connector to match your cable, but that’s not hard. I keep things simple and stock one cable, Canare LV-61S RG-59, and one connector 2065-7-9. LV-61 is the 2792 of video cable. 

So there you go. Order up a mess of those connectors and a few hundred feet of cable and we’ll get going. Onward, Christian Solder-ers!

When to Hire a Tech Arts Director

Robert posed an excellent question as a response to a previous post (Helps for Scheduling Volunteers).

How do you keep your volunteers sticking around? We are a large church approx 3000 members running 5 services and everything is volunteer run. The engineer that runs the services that weekend is there for about 20 hours on the weekend, and the schedule has them running every other weekend. At what point does a church hire a position to “lead” a technical group in scheduling and training?

I seem to get asked this question a lot. Not surprisingly, I have some opinions on the topic. But before I share my thoughts, I have to admit a certain amount of confusion when this question comes up. The question is often phrased similarly to Robert’s, and I’ll translate what I think the question really is; “We’re a good-sized church that places a high value on our production values. We want good sound, good lights and good presentation. We’re not getting it however, because our volunteers don’t seem to have the skills or desire to learn or stick around. How can we fix this (without spending any money)?” Often, the church in question is pretty well endowed technically. I’ve talked to one church that has a PM5D, a big fancy Strand lighting console and some high-end video gear, yet no staff dedicated to technical leadership. And for some reason, the volunteers either don’t really know what they’re doing or burn out and quit.

Pardon the touch of sarcasm… ‘;-).

Here’s where my confusion comes in. Does this church rely strictly on volunteers for their kids ministry department? Nope. Youth ministry? Nope. Adult ministry? Nope. Do they have a full-time worship leader/music director/worship pastor? Yup. Why? Because these are important ministries that require the attention of a staff member to keep on track. And yet, I find church after church expecting great things from their technical volunteers without providing them any leadership. The results are predicable. They don’t show up when scheduled. They get tired. They don’t do a good job. They quit.

Now, keep in mind, this is not a ding on volunteers. The ones I know are dedicated, and really want to do a good job. But just like you would never send an infantry unit into battle without someone in charge to say, “Here’s our objective and here’s how were going to achieve it,” you can’t tell a volunteer, who already has a full-time job, that you expect full-time performance out of them. Well, you can, but you’ll be disappointed in the results. 

It’s important to keep in mind that I don’t share this perspective from the ivory tower of academia, or from a lofty view out a full-time tech director’s window. I was the lead volunteer in 2 churches for a combined 15 years. After 10 years at my first church, I was completely burned out. I had begun to resent the demands that were placed on me. I wanted to do a good job, but I wasn’t really empowered to do it, nor was there a clear direction on what was even considered a “good job.” I ended up leaving the church and taking 6 months off. At the next church, I was quickly recruited to take on a similar role. This time, the burnout only took 5 years. So I know of what I speak.

So what is the solution? A technical leadership position. Call it Technical Arts Director, Tech Director, Minister of Media, Pastor of Weekend Technology; heck, you can call me Al if you want (but only if I can call you Betty). I believe this person’s job description needs to include the following: Caring for existing volunteers, which includes scheduling, training, equipping and leading them; recruiting additional volunteers; and providing a clear direction of what constitutes successful job performance. As much as I love being a hands-on techie, I think the TAD should remain as hands-off as possible for weekend services. The technical team is a great place for volunteers to serve and make a huge contribution to the church, and we need to empower them to do, and do it well.

In the case of Robert’s church, I think they are crazy asking volunteer sound guys to give 40 hours a month. Does it really surprise anyone that they don’t stick around? To be fair, recruiting sound people is the hardest recruiting job in the church, hands down. The pool of possible candidates is perilously small, and the demands of the job are high. It’s also one of the most rewarding volunteer positions in the church if it’s done right, which is why I like to keep it volunteer as much as possible. 

To that church, I would say you are long overdue for a full-time tech arts person. That staffer’s first responsibility is to reduce the workload for the sound guys. That might mean finding more sound people, developing a set-up team so the engineers can come in later, develop a tear down team so the engineers can leave earlier, or running sound for Saturday nights. You’ll need to develop a short-term fix, and a long-term plan that is sustainable.

I’m also a firm believer that the TAD’s position should not include dealing with every single technical need in the church. I’ve seen job descriptions from some churches that are just laughable. This poor chap is expected to be an expert in sound, lighting, video, presentation, video production, the heart of a pastor, a theology degree, full understanding of IT issues, etc.; will be responsible for all weekend and mid-week A/V needs for all ministries of the church (min. 55 hrs./week). And oh yeah the max. pay is $35,000. Good luck with that one. At best, you’ll get someone who can do 50% of what you want, will be a recent college graduate and will be gone in less than 2 years. Don’t go there. 

Most churches don’t understand the depth of the void they have. If the TAD position is new, there’s the tendency to think that because they have been “getting the job done” with volunteers (and I quote “getting the job done” because by asking the very question above, they are admitting the job is not getting done), that there won’t really be that much for the TAD to do. They think that it’s at best a 20 hr./week position, so they look to fill up their time with other stuff. I actually used to think that. I was wrong. 

My work ethic is off the chart, I’m an efficiency maven and I have developed some really good systems to make myself as productive as possible. And I could work 60+ hours a week and still not keep ahead of my to do list. Developing top-notch technical teams takes a lot of work. Period. So don’t short-change yourself by thinking that it’s not a big deal. In fact, you might find that the TAD needs a part-time assistant to handle some of the admin tasks they will be faced with.

Back to the original question, “At what point to you hire a lead tech person?” You hire them before you get to the point that you need them. And if you missed that point, you hire them now. As churches grow, they naturally add staff to keep up with the demands of the ministry. In most churches, the worship service is a big deal. It needs to happen well. Good leadership is required  to make that happen. Most see the need for paid kids ministry staff, but that really only benefits a sub-set of the church community. Same for youth, adults and seniors. But everyone is affected by the worship service. If anything, one could argue you should hire a TAD before you hire a kids ministries director (heresy…I know…).

A good TAD will become invisible in the church. Worshipers won’t brag to their friends about how great the technical arts ministry is (like they will the kids ministry). But a solid TAD will make a huge impact on the life of the church nonetheless. Worship services will flow more smoothly, people will interact with God distraction-free, and there will be a sense that God is present like never before. I know, I’ve seen this transformation first-hand. 

So there are a few of my thoughts on this topic. I have more, but I’ll save them for another rainy day ‘;-)…

Help for Scheduling Volunteers

Scheduling volunteers is probably the least favorite part of my job. It’s not that I don’t like my volunteers, but keeping track of the schedules, and keeping everyone on the same page is a big job. Now that I’ve taken on scheduling the support teams, the list of volunteers I’m responsible for has grown quite a lot.

I’ve tried a lot of ways to keep the schedule straight, and the biggest problem is making sure the volunteers have the dates they need. More than once, I’ve been at church calling a volunteer and asking, “Are you on your way?” Often the response is, “Oh, am I on today?” So in an effort to keep this from happening, here’s what I’ve come up with. The solution for me, so far, has been part product, and part procedure. 

The Product

I have tried using calendars, but I find them cumbersome. I prefer to have the list of dates listed out in a spreadsheet. Originally, I kept the spreadsheet on my laptop. Now, I keep it on Google Docs. Having it hosted on Google Docs gives me the advantage of being able to share the schedule with the team. 

I can edit the sheet from anywhere, and the team can bookmark it and see when they’re on at any time. The spreadsheets in Docs are very similar to Excel or Numbers (and you can upload an existing sheet very easily, if that’s how you already keep your schedule). Sharing the sheet is a simple matter of clicking on the “Share” tab.

We used the hosted app feature of Google Docs for our church, so we can share docs easily with other users in our domain. But it’s also easy to share with others outside the domain. And if you don’t want to host your mail there and use the domain feature, you can set up a single user and do the same thing.

Once you invite people, you can decide if they can edit the sheet, or just view it. I have our schedule set up so that I can edit, as can our Creative Director and volunteer producers. Everyone else just gets to view. You can also publish the sheet as a web page, and you can easily send anyone a link to the page (which is what I do with our support teams). Because one of the pages on our production schedule has everyone’s contact info, I have that set up so people have to be invited to view. The system creates a unique link for everyone that provides some level of security.

click to enlarge

Another nice feature is the ability to send an email to all the collaborators and viewers with a single click. The only limitation is that you can’t select individual viewers, or email a subset of the list.

The Procedure

 That’s how we do it; here’s what we do. I’ll start the scheduling process by asking people to send me dates for the next 3-4 months that they know they are unavailable. I have an “Unavail” column in my sheet, so as those dates come in, I add the names as appropriate. We run our lighting and presentation teams on a 1 week on, 3 weeks off schedule, while sound is 2 on, 2 off. I start by populating the sheet with that pattern, and make adjustments as needed to move around unavailable dates.

Once I’m done and all the slots are filled, I’ll use Google Docs to send an e-mail to everyone and have them check out the schedule. Often people are reminded of a date they can’t work, so end up making a few adjustments. Once we get through that round, the schedule is “fixed.” Any changes from that point on need to be swaps between team members. They then e-mail me of the change, and I adjust the schedule.

Every Tuesday, I send a quick reminder e-mail to the team scheduled for the upcoming weekend. I ask them to ping me back as a confirmation. When they do, I bold them on the schedule. That way, others on staff can see who’s in for the weekend. If I don’t hear back by Thursday or Friday, I try again, or call. The team is used to this now, and normally I know by Wednesday morning that everyone’s good to go.

And that’s it. It takes a few hours to work out the schedule initially, but once it’s done, it takes less than 10 minutes a week to manage. I follow the same basic procedure for the support teams, but because they run on a fixed team-based 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off schedule, the dates are set for the ministry year. I still send out confirmation e-mails weekly, however.

We also use Google Docs for creating our cue sheet for the week. That is shared with the team on Friday when it’s done. I typically create an input list (in Google Docs) on Friday as well, and send that out to the sound team, so they can see what they’re walking into. I live by the motto, more information=good.

While it’s not a perfect solution, it works pretty darn well. And it’s free. As in nada. So if you’re a smaller church that’s looked into those hosted solutions, but just don’t have the budget for it, check Google Docs out.

Another Solution

There is a hosted solution that I do really like, and I think we’ll be transitioning to it in January. It’s called Planning Center Online. It’s built from the ground up to help churches organize their people and their service documents. It offers scheduling, charting, service planning, and even streaming MP3s for the band and tech team. You can share files and even transpose charts. It’s really slick. Best of all, once you build the schedule, the system automatically sends reminders out to the team, and the team clicks back in to confirm. There is a cost, but it’s pretty reasonable.  

 

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They have a free version (which is limited to 10 people) and other versions have a 30 day trial. Since it costs nothing to try out, give that shot, too. 

So there you go. Two ways to improve your volunteer scheduling. I’ve found this to be a huge boon to my ministry. By communicating well with my volunteers, they feel cared for and valued. And by having a good system in place, I spend less time on this task, and I get a full crew almost every weekend. Give it a shot.

Another Doh! Moment

Training is a great way to learn things. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of videos, read books, attended seminars and learned from real, live people. This is all very useful, but has the disadvantage of also being easily forgettable. Much like our own lives, the lessons that stick with us the best come when we are under pressure. It’s easy to forget God when things are going well; however difficulties tend to draw us close to Him. Likewise, it’s easy to learn a product feature in a seminar, but if you really want to sear it into your brain, wait for the day when the service is actually running and something goes wrong. That’s when you learn things.

Such was the case yesterday at church. We had a new lighting volunteer, though since he’s been observing for the last 4 weeks, he’s not really new. He had no trouble programming the cues for the service, and everything ran perfectly during run through. We thought we were all set for the beginning of the service. When it came time to dip to black for the intro video, all the lights stayed on. And the band lights (with color changers) actually looked brighter. What the heck?

Since the video was already running, I grabbed the grand master and pulled it down. I went into the blind and looked at the cue. It looked fine. All the fixtures were at 0. Now I was puzzled. But the video was ending and we needed to come back up. So we fired the next cue, pulled up the grand master and waited to see what happened. The lights came on, and everything appeared normal.

However, when we went to run the next video, the same thing happened. No lights were going down. We scrambled around for a bit, and used the grandmaster to get us in and out, but things were not right. The band lights were all up when just the speaker lights were supposed to be. I looked at the cue in the blind, re-recorded it and fired it during the prayer. Same thing. Band lights, and speaker lights. We managed to muck our way through the rest of the service, but it was not pretty.

Between gatherings, I started playing with it. We went to top of the cue list, and starting firing off cues. Same thing. Somehow, the lights just wouldn’t go down. I tried a whole bunch of things before I had the “Doh!” moment. Somehow, the operator accidently fired a cue in the C/D masters, and that took over most of the lights. Normally we run everything in the A/B masters, but since the C/D side already had most of the lights lit, all we were doing with the A/B side was bringing the color changers in and out. I hit clear on the C/D faders and everything returned to normal. Crisis averted, time for dinner.

Lessons Learned

So what can we learn from this? First of all, it’s important to realize that mistakes happen. I wouldn’t blame this on the light op, because I could just have easily hit “Go” on the C/D bus as on the A/B bus and had the same problem. Now that we know the result of that kind of mistake, we focused on prevention. We but a piece of board tape below the A/B Go button and drew a big arrow to it. That will help. If I really wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, I could create some kind of cover for the C/D buttons to make sure they’re not hit. But that’s just prevention.

What about when something like that happens again. I’ve written about this before, but the first thing to do is not to panic. After you’re done not panicking, you need to quickly come up with a temporary fix to keep the service moving forward. We needed to take the lights to black, so I grabbed the grand master and pulled it down. That bought us time to think. Second, look at the big picture. Barring outright equipment failure (which happens less often than we initially think), most of the problems we encounter with our gear are man-made. We push the wrong button, assign the channel wrong, improperly place a mic. 

I initially blamed the board, and though it went out of control (I’m only partially justified in this, as our previous lighting system did occasionally go rouge). Had I taken a deeper breath and stood back and looked at the board, I would have seen that there was cue fired in the C/D bus, hit clear and we’d have been back in business before the video ended. To his credit, the new lighting op said he saw that, but didn’t know what it meant. Another point of training. He saw it and didn’t know what it meant; I didn’t see it, but would have known had I seen it. What was missing there was communication. If you’re troubleshooting with another person, speak what you see. You may not know the significance of it, but they might. And don’t assume that what you see is not significant, even if you have far less experience that the other person. Sometimes, problems are solved when one person says something that triggers a thought in another person and the trouble is found. Talk to each other (it’s a good rule in life, come to think about it…)

Get to know your equipment, and learn how it works. I’ve gotten pretty good at our lighting board, an ETC Expression 3, but I’ve not played with using the two master busses much. Had I spent more time with it, it would have been more obvious to me what the problem was. Next time it happens, I’ll know. The same thing can happen with other types of gear. One of the first times I mixed on the M7, I spent a good 2-3 minutes trying to figure out why the bass wasn’t coming through. I had input signal, but it wasn’t coming out anywhere. I checked my patching, the master, inserts, finally, “Doh!,” it was assigned to the wrong DCA, and that DCA was turned off. Had I glanced at the DCA assignments in the channel overview page, I would have checked that earlier.

Share your mistakes and solutions. One of the things I’ll take away from this experience is to make sure I go over this with the other lighting operators. I’ll show them exactly what happened (I may even simulate it, and have them try to solve it), so they’ll know too. The only thing worse than having a problem like that in a service is having it happen again because you didn’t train everyone on it. We all make mistakes. What separates good technicians from the great ones is that the great ones learn from mistakes–theirs and the mistakes of others. Perhaps, this article will help bail someone else out of a jam. That’s my hope anyway!

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