Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: June 2009 (Page 1 of 2)

More ProPresenter Tips

Today marks my soft re-entry back to blogging. While I’ve missed writing these last two weeks, my head has been pretty full of weighty stuff as my family and I wrestle with the future. Things are going well and we have some excellent options to consider, and we’re anxiously awaiting God’s clear direction. Thanks to all who have prayed and offered encouragement to us–it means a lot. With that out of the way…

These tips were written by one of our veteran ProPresenter operators, and I thought they would be helpful to pass along.

  •  Have one hand on the mouse and one hand on the spacebar for songs (enables you to skip around quickly, while maintaining a good rhythm).
  • Write down notes or changes if you can’t edit them now. Don’t say you’ll remember–you probably wont!
  •  Use spare time to go over song lyrics or troublesome spots.
  • Pay attention during music rehearsal. Changes the worship leader makes might affect you, too.
  • If you mess up, don’t freak out! Find the spot and jump back in.
  • If you get into the song too much, you’re probably not cuing early enough. Think of people who don’t know the song.
  • If you’re mind gets distracted, you’ll mess up unless you’re really lucky. Focus!
  • Don’t let your eyes dart around the screen too much. If you miss something, it will take an extra second to find the problem.
  • Follow the sermon notes! Winging it might seem impressive, but it has “mess up” written all over it.
  • Keep your area clean. So much easier to find stuff.

As I said, these were written by one of our veteran presentation techs. She’s fluent in both MediaShout and ProPresenter as well as Keynote. And while I might be a little biased, I think she’s one of our best assets. She’s almost 13–and she’s my daughter. Yes, it’s a proud father moment. Good tips though, eh?

Taking a Break

Regular readers have probably noticed that the once regular posts have slowed down here a bit. That’s because I’ve been out in California interviewing at a great church for the last few days. We fly home today, though we’ll miss Sunny SoCal. I wrap up my last few days with Upper Room the rest of this week, and on Saturday, I fly to Ohio to interview with another church there. The following week, we’re taking a much needed family vacation.

As an introvert, the interview process is draining, though I’m really enjoying it. I see God doing a great work in these churches and am excited to see where He calls us next. I’ve also decided to take a short hiatus writing blog posts for a bit while we sort this out.

I know many of you have been praying for me and my family in this transition and I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You!” and keep it up. We’re in a good place and are confident God will make His will known shortly. The last few days have given me a lot to think about and I’ll be back soon with more posts. In the meantime, dig back through the archives or check out the other blogs in the blogroll.

As Bartles and Jaymes used to say, “We thank you again for your support!”

Cutting the Cord

I have a love/hate relationship with cords. I love making cords, I love designing cable assemblies and I love the sense of satisfaction I get when I successfully wire up a rack and everything works. On the other hand, cords area  nuisance. They seem genetically predisposed to tangle themselves and others together, they wrap around other objects and cause nasty falls. I really wish I could make them, but never have to use them.

While I’ve gotten annoyed by cords in all kinds of applications, the one that wins the prize for most annoying is doing handheld camera work on a crowded stage. Not only are you in constant danger of whiplash and a black eye (when the cable snags and tries to pull the camera off your shoulder), it’s not that hard to pull over a cymbal stand or guitar cab as you’re repositioning. I’ve never do the latter (though I did accidentally kick a 1/4″ out of a DI during a Petra show once–sorry guys!), I have come home with a black circle around my right eye. Yup, camera cables are evil.

And I’ve used them all. By my best, and most recent count, I’ve been stage camera operator for over 200 concerts. I’ve shot with 2 BNCs and a mic cable taped together, 26 pin multi-core and even triax. And even though I had a grip for many of those shows (though only 1 of the grips was any good–I really missed you on the last Alive, Zach!) the cable was always a problem.

There have been wireless video systems around for a while, but they’ve either been of such poor quality that they’re unusable in the real world, or expensive microwave systems that require a crew just to keep them running well. Thanks to advances in wireless data transmission, IDX has recently introduced a product that just might work; the CW-5HD Cam Wave wireless video system.

The IDX Cam-Wave The IDX Cam-WaveI’ll warn you, it’s not cheap (a shade over $5,000). However, it does transmit up to 1080i HD-SDI video with 2 channels of embedded audio 150 feet, line of sight. It operates in the 2.4 and 5 GHz range, so it shouldn’t interfere with wireless audio, and requires no FCC license. It mounts to the back of a camera via either a V-mount or Anton-Bauer mount and weighs about 2 pounds. Since it only draws 12 watts when running at high power, it shouldn’t be too detrimental to battery life. Latency is rated at 1 ms, so the signal should cut right in with other hard-wired cameras just fine.

The transmitter fits right between the camera and battery. The transmitter fits right between the camera and battery.Now is a tough time to justify spending $5K on a wireless camera system; I get that. And not every church even has a handheld camera on stage, let alone one that’s capable of sending HD- (or SD-) SDI. But this is good news, folks. Ten years ago, I looked into renting a system like this for a shoot. I was going to cost us over $5K for the week. Now we can buy the system for that. In few years, they’ll be down to $3,000 or less, and it’s going to be an easy sell. After all, can you really put a price on not pulling over the lead guitar amp while your cameraman is repositioning during the prayer? I think not.

Stage on Wheels

You probably know by now that when it comes to moving stuff, I like wheels. When some of our long lost ancestors invented the wheel, they hit on something big. Yet for some reason, we still insist on carrying stuff. Well not me. If I can put wheels on it, I do. Even on stuff that is built light for easy carrying.

You may have read the post a few months ago on our new stage platforms. I built them out of 1x material so they’d be easier to carry in and out of the sanctuary each week. And they are. However, since we use 5 platforms each week, that’s 5 trips (10 if you count in and out, which I guess you should), and after a long day, the last thing anyone enjoys is schlepping stage platforms down the hall.

There had to be a better way, I though. After a bit of study, here’s what I came up with. The first step was to put four wheels on the back side of the two larger (4’x6’x16″) platforms. After the service is over and we clear the sound and band gear off, we simply stand the platforms up and they’re ready to roll.

Step One: Stand the platform up on edge--and thus on the wheels. click to enlarge
Step One: Stand the platform up on edge–and thus on the wheels. click to enlarge

Well, they’re almost ready to roll. Since the smaller platforms are 3’x5’x8″, it occurred to me that they wold fit right inside the larger ones. In fact, that’s how we’ve been storing them for the last few months. The small ones sit inside the larger ones. I attached a few screw eyes to the large platforms and procured a few bungee cords. Now we’re ready to roll.

The smaller stages fit right inside, with the help of bungees. click to enlarge The smaller stages fit right inside, with the help of bungees. click to enlargeThe nice thing about the smaller ones living inside the larger is that it balances them out almost perfectly. I intentionally made the larger platform lean back slightly when up on the wheels so the small platform wouldn’t fall out while being strapped in. With the extra weight of the small one, it’s possible to move them by yourself. Now we’re down to 3 trips to move 5 platforms, and they store in less space than they used to.

Easy to move, easy to store. What's not to like? click to enlarge Easy to move, easy to store. What’s not to like?click to enlargeThe set up and take down teams are quite happy with these adaptions. And the wheels on the back force them to set the platforms just off the wall so we have a place to run our cables when we set audio.

That’s it for this edition. I’m off to look for something else to put wheels on…

Know Thy Music

Someday I’m going to do a post entitled “The 10 Commandments for Presentation Techs.” Know Thy Music will be number 4 or 5 (I haven’t decided yet). On one level, it seems obvious. However, I have worked with people in the past who don’t know the songs they are presenting for, and it shows. Then again, I’ve worked with some (more recently) that really do know the music, and again, it shows.

A few weeks ago I did a few examples of when to to change slides on fast songs and slow songs. While I tried to provide some guidance for when the changes should take place, the truth is that it’s quite dependent on how the song is played. Really good presentation techs will drop changes between phrases so naturally people don’t even notice that the words change–they just keep right on singing. Doing that requires a great familiarity with the music.

I had to run ProPresenter few months ago because the guy who was scheduled didn’t show up. This was back in our old building and I was also TD’ing the service and switching video. However, because I knew the songs really well I was able to grab my Apple Remote and cue the slides, often without looking at the iMac’s screen. I say that not to brag, but to point out that when you know the songs, and you know the presentation, you can get really good at presenting.

So how do you get to know the songs? A great way is to listen to them in advance. One thing I was looking forward to at Upper Room was being able to include the tech team in on the worship song distribution list. With our new church management software, we can post MP3 files for the band and tech team to listen to. Spending some time during the week with the music will help you listen for natural breaks and cueing points for slide changes. While we have to be careful with copyright issues (and there are ways to accomplish this legally), giving the tech team the ability to listen in advance is a great idea.

Another way is to really pay attention during the band rehearsal. We have tried to schedule our presentation tech’s time in such a way that they can follow along in ProPresenter during the band’s rehearsal time. The impetus for this schedule is to catch variations in our slides that need correcting. However, it’s another great opportunity to learn the music and fine tune your cuing. A lot of techs I know will just follow along, only double checking lyrics. I suggest it’s a better use of your time to practice your cuing.

Also, if you get copies of the charts (and you should) it doesn’t hurt to look over them and make note of the phrasing and breaks that the songs contain. Again, we’re looking for ways to make the song more singable by the congregation. The more familiar you are as a presentation operator, the more you can do that.

So there’s commandment 4 (or 5). Now I need to work on the other 9…

Podcast Production Pt. 3–Encoding

To some extent, the MP3 encoding process of podcast production is the most important. Sure recording and post-production are up there on the list, but those are fairly easy. And they’re the ones most people pay the most attention to. Exporting as an MP3 is easy (so it seems), so most people don’t give it a second thought. Which is a shame really, because taking just a few minutes to tweak some settings in the right tool is the difference between a very listenable podcast and one that makes you reach for the “next track” button.

So here’s how we roll. For my money, the LAME MP3 encoder is just about the best out there (mainly because it’s free and really, really good). To be fair, I haven’t sampled every audio editing package’s MP3 encoding, but most I’ve heard are lacking. The easiest way to access the LAME encoder is to use it in conjunction with the free, open source Audacity. Now, if you read last week’s post, you know I edit in Soundtrack Pro and then export for encoding in Audacity. I could edit in Audacity, but I don’t like it as an editor, and I don’t like their compressor as much. Use the right tool for the job. If you like Audacity, however, editing there will save you a step.

We encode 2 versions of the sermon every week. One is a high-bitrate (relatively) “master” version, the other is the podcast version. Since we’re talking about podcasts, that’s what I’ll focus on. If there is enough interest in the “master” process, I’ll post those settings as well. For reasons that will become apparent in a minute, I encode the “master” first.

The first step in the podcast version is to run a “stereo to mono” filter on the file. Why? Because what’s the point of a stereo preacher? The goal is high-quality sound at low bitrates, so why waste bits on a totally unnecessary track. Run it in mono, and you effectively double your bitrate. Smart and efficient–what’s not to like?

Second, I switch the project sample rate to 22050 Hz. Again, this is for efficiency. Since there’s not much content in the human voice above 10 KHz, we can safely encode at 22050. There is a principle in digital recording known as the Nyquist frequency. It states that the highest audible frequency that will be produced properly in a digital signal is roughly 1/2 the sampling rate. That’s why CDs are 44.1–because we can’t hear anything over 20 KHz, and that gives a little room for a steep low-pass filter to get rid of digital artifacts.

Use the right sample rate for the job. 22050 is perfect for voice. Use the right sample rate for the job. 22050 is perfect for voice.So, the Nyquist frequency of 22050 is about 11 KHz; which is above the range of all but the highest sibilance harmonics (which are annoying anyway). Again, why waste bits on trying to produce frequencies that we don’t need. Halving the frequency response range again effectively doubles your bitrate. So now, in theory anyway (and it sounds pretty much this way in practice), we can get away with a bitrate that’s 1/4 what we would need to reproduce a 44.1, stereo signal. Sweet!

Once we have our settings right in Audacity (stereo to mono has been run, and project sampling rate is 22050), we can export as an MP3. There are 2 key settings here. They are accessed by hitting the “Options” button in the save dialog box. The first is bitrate. I like to use Variable rate encoding with a quality setting of 8 (65-105 kbps).

[UPDATE] After it was pointed out that there was a lot of digital artifact noise in our recent recordings, I did some testing. Sure enough, there’s just enough room noise in my office to mask most of it in my speakers. What sounded great through the speakers sounded not so great when I plugged in my UM-1s. After a little more testing, I found that bumping the quality setting to 8 made a huge difference. I A/B’d the original recording with the highly compressed version and found it to be quite comparable. The penalty of the higher bit rate is about a 30% larger file, but the trade off is worth it. Thanks to knewhart for pointing this out and making me double-check my stuff. [End UPDATE]

I normally use the Standard encoding speed (it’s a little cleaner, and I’m not in a huge hurry). The most important setting is Joint Stereo. This will create a mono MP3 file from a mono track. If you leave it set to Stereo, you’ll end up with a stereo track; and you’ll be able to hear the difference immediately. In my experience, this is what separates a mediocre sounding podcast from a great one.

My Updated encoding settings. My Updated encoding settings.Our podcasts typically end up in the lower end of the variable range in terms of bit rate, yet sound like they were encoded at 128 kbps. A 30-40 minute message is typically 7-8 8-10 Megs, which is far smaller than other podcasts I encounter, but sound better.

So there you have it. My secret sauce for podcast encoding. You can download Audacity free from SourceForge, and they have full instructions on installing the LAME encoder package. It’s worth the effort.

[UPDATE] On second though, scrap the visit to the UR website. The stuff was not as good as I thought. Here are a few samples to compare the sound quality at 8 and at 9.

test-9-qual

test-8-qual

The test-9-qual is the way I used to encode. If you listen through speakers, you probably won’t notice the artifacts (unless your room is really quiet). The second file is the next quality level up. It’s much quieter. The noise you hear in the file is the result of our (apparently) noisy recording chain. Sorry for the non-embedded audio links, I need to find a better way to do this.

[End UPDATE]

Post 300

I’m going to do something that I don’t do very often (or very well). I’m going to celebrate something which is a bit of a milestone. This is post #300. This blog was launched just about 27 months ago as an experiment. Now I get really excited when I sit down and write. And apparently I’ve done a bunch of it. So that’s just kinda cool.

More impressive than 300 posts are the 800 comments that have appeared in response to said posts. Now, some of those comments are mine in response to others, but there are least twice as many comments as there are posts. I think that’s really cool.

True, I’m not anywhere near the big leagues when it comes to blogging; some blogs get more page views a day than I do in a month. On the other hand, this is a pretty small niche that I’m writing for, and I’m excited to see how many take the time to read what I commit to, well, bits.

So thanks for reading! It’s because of you that I keep writing. And keep up with the comments as well. I love seeing the discussions that happen around the posts. Quite often great additional insights pop up that I wish I could take credit for.

OK, that’s it. I’m done celebrating. Time to get started on the next 300… ‘;-)

Sustainability–The Reasons We Blow It

Last week we looked at what sustainability was not. This week I want to explore some of the lies we tell ourselves as we work at an unsustainable pace. But first, let’s consider the phrase, “sustainable pace.” When I talk about a sustainable pace I mean this; Working at a pace that enables you to remain fresh and enthused about what you’re doing, month after month, year after year. I qualify it that way because there will be weeks, and occasionally months that have us moving at a pace we could not sustain for long. Christmas and Easter come to mind. During those seasons, we work like crazy; after those events, we need some time off to recharge. It’s not a flatline pace, but the average needs to be comfortable.

Young church techies are especially vulnerable to running too fast, too hard for too long. Because we love what we do, we pour ourselves into it. As geeks, we often have no life, so we spend every waking moment at work trying to make it “1” better. After a year or two, we burn out and quit. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.

As I’ve considered this phenomenon, I have identified three factors that keep us working too much. To be fair, sometimes church leadership places unrealistic expectations on church techies. They don’t understand the process, don’t appreciate how longs things really take to get done, and don’t provide the resources necessary to do that job. Most of the time, however, it’s our own fault. See if any of these sound familiar.

We think of ourselves more highly than we ought.

I’ve talked to plenty of sound guys who will say with a perfectly straight face, “I’m really the only one in this place that knows how to mix.” Shoot, I’ve been one of those guys. We can easily convince ourselves that we are pretty much God’s gift to this local assembly and if we’re not here, everyone else may as well stay home.

Here’s the real deal, though. We’re not that good. And everyone else is not that bad. The truth is, God has been moving for a long time without perfectly EQ’d vocals. Sure it may not sound or look quite as good if you take a week off, but where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, it’s church, and He’s going to show up and change lives.

We don’t train others.

This is kind of a corollary to the first lie. Because we’re pretty sure there’s no one else around with nearly as much talent as we possess, there’s really no point in even trying to train someone else. This lie is a double-whammy. First, we prevent other people in the body from using their gifts to serve God. And that’s a problem. Second, it puts us in a position where we need to be there all the time because no one else even knows how to turn the dang system on.

I know of church techs who kept so much knowledge to themselves, they made themselves indispensable. Churches that allow this to happen are in danger, and are partially at fault. I constantly say to people at my church, “Here, let me show you how to do this so I’m not the only one who knows.” I call it the, “if I’m hit by a bus,” strategy. We need to train others. If only because there will come a day we just can’t make it in.

We are insecure.

I read a great quote the other day (though sadly I can’t recall where). “The creative personality is a 50/50 mix of ego and insecurity. During the day, we’re on top of the world, confident every decision we make is the right one. At night we go home wondering if we have what it takes to fool them again tomorrow.”

Sometimes, it doesn’t take me even 8 hours to swing from, “Man, I’m really good at what I do,” to “I suck at this and should be flipping burgers at McDonalds.” We can be insecure about watching our students become better than the “master.” We can be insecure about someone else getting credit. We can be insecure because an usher told us the music is too loud.

As a result, we feel we have to be there every week to prove, once again, that we know what we’re doing. That we’re indispensable. That we’re worth something. I could go on for a while about this one, but let me leave you with this thought–and it’s been one I’ve had a hard time learning most of my life.

God doesn’t love you for what you do.

He loves you for who you are.

Read that as many times as you need to for it to sink in.

God doesn’t love you more because you created a great mix last weekend.

He loves you because you’re His child and He created you.

He doesn’t get mad at you for taking a day off. In fact, He modeled that for you.

God wants you to do what He created you do to, and enjoy doing it. For a long, long time.

Slow down. And find the right pace for your life.

Google Wave

The other day I was completely sucked into a preview of  Google Wave. I heard about it on Twitter, went to the site with the full intention of watching the first 20 minutes or so then going on with my day. An hour and 20 minutes later, I was staring at my screen, shaking my head saying, “Wow!”

If you haven’t heard of Google Wave yet, don’t fret–it’s not officially out. It’s still in development, but I think it holds tremendous potential as a communication platform for the Church. What is Wave? Well, it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of like e-mail, instant messaging, collaboration, white boarding, media/content publishing all rolled into one. The concept revolves around a Wave, or threaded conversation. The Wave can be an e-mail-like conversation, or an IM, or document. The demo showed off some really cool features for collaboration and publishing.

What a basic, e-mail-like Wave might look like. click to enlarge What a basic, e-mail-like Wave might look like.click to enlargeI was really excited about the ability to create a Wave, use an API to publish it in a blog, then update the blog from the Wave, and the Wave from the blog. It’s a real “write once, publish multiple times” platform. It’s also open-source, and they’re inviting people to develop gadgets for it.

It's easy to integrate a Wave into a blog, then push changes right up to the blog in real-time. click to enlarge It’s easy to integrate a Wave into a blog, then push changes right up to the blog in real-time. click to enlargeAs I was watching the demo, I immediately thought of how cool it would be to use this for collaboration on creative ideas for a church with satellite campuses. Rather than “replying all” on a big e-mail, a Wave could be used to track and develop a service plan. One cool feature was the ability to add people to a Wave already in progress. When the new person comes in, they see the current state of the Wave. However, if they want to see how it got there, they can use the playback function to see the original, and all subsequent additions.

Like in Google Docs, when multiple people are editing a Wave, the changes are reflected in real time. They actually have it working so fast it was updating pretty much at character speed; type a character and it appears on another users screen. Pretty sweet.

And, they have it running on mobile devices such as Android and the iPhone. This means you don’t need to have your laptop with you to stay up on the ongoing conversation.

Waves running on Android and iPhone. click to enlarge Waves running on Android and iPhone. click to enlargeThe demo was not only interesting, but entertaining (which explains why I was sucked in). There was a lot of humor, and the presenters, Lars Rasmussen (co-inventor of Google Maps) and Stephanie Hannon (Product Manager), made plenty of jokes when things didn’t go as planned–“OK so let’s take a look at this…fail spectacularly.”

Just watching it made me think of all kinds of cool uses for it. But you really need to see it in action to understand the power of it. Be warned however, the demo is addictive. You’ll spend 80 minutes watching, because you won’t be able to pull yourself away!

A Couple Useful Links & A Personal Update

Well, it’s Miscellaneous Wednesday, so I thought I’d share a few things with you that I’ve found useful. First of all, I saw a Tweet last week from @Macs In Church that was a link to a pretty interesting site if you work with video at all: Zach Poff Software. Zach Poff is a New York area digital media artist, educator, and maker-of-things, according to his bio. He has some pretty cool tools on his page, all of them free. For example, he has a motion detector program that will start recording if movement happens in up to six targets in a frame. He has some live, preview green screen software to help you get your keys set up correctly. And, there’s even a multi-screen playback software that synchronizes QuickTime files on multiple computers on a LAN (which sounds kinda like ProVideoPlayer–only free!). Check it out.

Tim Corder has been posting some really useful comparisons lately. Last week he posted a comparison of various guitar mics; then a few days later posted some tests with kick drum mics. This was particularly interesting because he was playing around with the Yamaha SubKick. I’ve been intrigued by this cool little device ever since I saw it a few years ago, but have never had the occasion to play with one. I won’t give it away, but you should go listen to the audio files he’s posted. Good stuff.

A Personal Update

Many of you have asked either on Twitter or via e-mail how I’m doing, and what’s going on. The answers are “quite well,” and “a lot” respectively. I’ve been really amazed at how many opportunities have presented themselves, and it’s great to have some solid options. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone with various churches all over the country and feel very positive overall. I’m confident God is going to open the right door for us at the right time.

In the meantime, I’m wrapping up my work with Upper Room, doing some writing and getting a little extra rest. Though I’ve been talking to churches all over the country, if anyone knows of a church in need of someone with my skill set in the Twin Cities area, my daughters would be oh so grateful if you would pass that along. They’re doing OK with the prospect of moving, but would much prefer to stay here. Ultimately, we want to be where God is calling us, and we don’t want to miss out on that.

Thanks to all who have prayed, called and Twittered your support over the last few weeks. It’s meant a whole lot for me and for my family. I often share the notes with my family and I see how it positively affects them, and I want you to know that. We have some exciting trips coming up that will help us decide what’s next, and I’ll share more of that when it’s appropriate. Thanks for reading, and we thank you again for your support.

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