Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: September 2009

Helping Vocalists Master Their Monitors

Let me start off by saying that Tim Corder has done a great job in the last few weeks of writing about monitor mixing. He has several posts tailored for various musicians and even went so far as to include audio examples. If you haven’t already read them, you should. Tim wrote about building IEM mixes for Electric, Bass, Drums, Keys, and Lead Vocal. Check it out when you have a few minutes.

With that said, I was thinking this weekend about helping vocalists set up a useful monitor mix, particularly on a wedge. Though we hope to be putting the band on IEMs soon, the vocalists will stay on wedges for some time. Saturday, I was talking with our worship leader about helping the vocalists–all of whom are volunteers–set up better mixes. In my experience, setting up a good monitor sound for a volunteer vocalist is one of the hardest jobs in church audio (perhaps all of audio for that matter), mainly because they often don’t really know what they need. Most vocalists tend to think they need the entire band in their wedges, all mixed to sound like a CD. While a professional singer (who recorded the CD in the first place) might be able to get away with that, I’m not convinced that technique serves the volunteer vocalist. So here’s what I recommend.

I’ve been using this technique for a good many years, and it was confirmed 2 years ago by non other than Robert Scoville during a session I attended (with Tim, incidentally) at the Willow Arts Conference. I’ve found that putting too much stuff in the mix for a vocalist only causes confusion. The more we put in their wedge, the harder it is for them to sing on pitch–because it’s a lot more for the brain to process. So I suggest, and Robert concurs (hmmm, probably should be the other way around) that vocalists need 3, maybe 4 things in their wedge:

  • Tempo reference
  • Pitch reference
  • Their voice and (optionally)
  • Harmony reference

Tempo Reference

This could be snare, kick, hi-hat or perhaps overheads. It doesn’t need to be (and arguably should not be) a complete drum mix. Which part of the drums they need for time will depend on how the drummer plays and what songs they are doing. In the end, all they need to know is the tempo. Personally, I like hi-hat for this because it’s up and out of the vocal range and thus easy to pick out. It’s also subtle enough that it doesn’t overpower the mix. Your mileage may vary.

Pitch Reference

Again, depending on the band and orchestration, this could be piano, keys or perhaps a guitar. Also again, it should not be all three. Whatever the source, it should provide pitch and key reference. And that’s about it. 

Their Voice

One might think this is the most important element–and it is. Singers need to hear themselves. In fact, what is most typically asked for in a monitor mix? More me. The challenge of course, is that if the whole band is in their wedge, we have to put a whole lot “more me” in there so they can hear themselves. Then they sound unnaturally loud (at least to their ears), so they ask for more of everything else. Which leads to another round of “more me.” Stripping the mix down to Tempo, Pitch and themselves makes it easier to keep levels under control and gives the vocalist what they need.

Harmony Reference (optional)

If you have a group of singers who are singing harmony together, it is sometimes helpful for them to hear the other parts of the harmony. Use this sparingly, however, as it’s really easy to get into an out of control level situation again.

Vocalists need to spend some time learning to hear their voice. It’s a matter of training on their part. By the same token, we can help by not giving them more than they need (which ultimately confuses them). Now we know what they really need; how do we convince them that this is actually good for them? I’ll tackle that one later in the week.

Worship Arts Gathering

Last night we hosted a gathering of all our worship artists. We invited band members, vocalists, photographers, tech people, set designers; just about anyone who is involved with the worship arts at Coast Hills. As this was my first one, I don’t have anything to compare it to–however, I’d rate it a resounding success. Brining 30-40 people together to cast vision, talk about upcoming projects and fellowship is a great feat. And while I’m writing about it, I should make it clear that I had nothing whatsoever to do with pulling it together. It’s the brainchild of our Pastor of Weekends, Todd, ably assisted by Ginny and Gina. They really get the credit.

Todd casts some vision. Todd casts some vision.The reason I’m writing about it is because it’s an idea that I think you should steal and implement. We had a few main goals for our assembly, and I think we hit them. Those goals, in no particular order were these:

Cast Vision

The Bible is pretty clear about the need for a vision in any ministry. The worship arts is no different. Without vision people quickly lose interest in what they are doing. Without vision, the reasons for showing up every weekend become clouded. Without vision, people leave your ministry and don’t return–and you don’t know why. Todd did a great job of casting the part of the vision that we’re developing for our ministry right now. And I was able to share some of my heart for the technical side of things. At the end of the day (or weekend in our case), people just want to know if the 4, 6, 8 or 10 hours they just put in accomplished anything. Did their service move us closer to a goal? Cast the vision well, and they will know for sure. To paraphrase the great theologian Kevin Costner, “If you cast it, they will come.”

Team Building

This is another key aspect of why we do these gatherings. We built in time for musicians to mix with technicians. For photographers to hang out with staff. The more relationships we can build in our ministry, the easier it is to move everyone toward the same objective. Building relationships implies building trust. And when we have trust we can accept change. And it’s a lot harder to get ticked off at a musician when they ask for another monitor change when you just hung out over an ice cream sundae a few nights ago.

Excitement Generation

People want to be a part of something exciting. When our worship artists get excited, that excitement becomes contagious. Recruiting new volunteers is a lot easier when the people who are currently part of the ministry are energized about being there. It’s a lot harder when they’re not. By sharing details of where we’re going, what our equipment plans are, what we’re doing for Christmas (and it’s going to be great, by the way!), people get excited. You could sense it in the room tonight, and it felt good!

Those are a few of the things we hoped to accomplish. As I said, I think we hit it. Our plan is to have a gathering roughly 4 times a year. Right now it’s sort of a private event–open to current participants in the worship arts. Eventually, we plan to open it up to others who are interested. I think it will really become a valuable recruiting tool when we get to that phase.

There you have it. A look behind the scenes. Feel free to copy and repeat!

ProPresenter 4 Is Coming!

proPres4

I haven’t been writing much about ProPresenter lately. Mainly because I haven’t been using it that much since my transition to Coast Hills. Right now, we use Keynote exclusively for our presentation needs (at least in the main room). That’s about to change, however. Recently, Renewed Vision announced Version 4, and have already revealed a few key new features that will be, in my opinion, game changers.

One thing that has kept us from making the change to ProPresenter is it’s very limited type engine. Sure, you can align top, middle and bottom; left, center and right, but that’s about it. We have a very talented woman doing our lyric graphics each week and she likes a little more control. ProPresenter 4 is going to make her very happy. Soon, we’ll have the ability to have multiple text (and other) objects on a slide, wherever we want. Combine that with additional typographic controls and you have a new display engine that may at least come close to what we can do in Keynote from a layout perspective. That’s a biggie, but the next feature is even bigger.

Right now, we run two presentation computers; each running a different version of our weekend graphics package. One goes to the big screen, the other goes to a stage display for the band and vocalists. The big screen is all styled and pretty with backgrounds, the stage display is white on black. I don’t have to tell you what a pain it is to have to manage two Keynote files, on two computers, not to mention cuing them at the same time. Well no more. ProPresenter 4 will have the ability to output to a third display. The display appears to be pretty customizable, with the ability to do just what we need–big white type on a black background. It even includes a clock and a timer. I have to say, the timer is a huge feature for me. We have this crazy clock/timer that takes a masters degree in engineering to figure out how to set and run the countdown timer. I’m hoping the one in Pro4  will be something like, click on a timer window, enter a time and hit go. ‘Cause that would be awesome! (OK, I’ve been struggling with the clock of late–what can I say…)

They also included new presentation views, including the ability to view your playlist as one continuous strip, much like MediaShout does. It looks like you can see just thumbnails or small thumbnails with text. Pretty cool if you want to just run straight through a program.

On Friday, it was announced that Pro4 will also include a PowerPoint importer. PPT files can be imported as JPGs will all graphics and formatting in tact, as new text slides that you can format yourself, or as text slides with the graphics and backgrounds. I asked Brad Weston about a Keynote importer on Twitter and he replied that Apple does not have sufficient communications abilities in Keynote for them to do it. Bummer! So that means we’ll still be exporting as JPGs and running sermon notes that way. Unless the new version of Pro has sufficient tools to create the sermon notes right there. Could be!

As always, I’m excited to see what they come up with next. Renewed Vision has been announcing a new feature every few days. You can follow them on Twitter, or check out the special Version 4 page on their website. Actual availability is expected sometime in October (if I had to guess, they’re shooting to have it ready by WFX). More to come as soon as I get my hands on a version to play with!

Follow Set

Last week we kicked off a new series at Coast Hills. The title is Follow: Jesus on Discipleship. We kicked around a lot of ideas for the set design, and here is where we landed.

follow-17

We intentionally went for a simpler look because the theme of the series is about getting back to basics and simply following Jesus. The letters for FOLLOW were made by a sign shop owned by a guy who goes to our church. They are 48″ high and 4″ thick. They are made from expanded polystyrene–the same stuff coffee cups are made up. We were originally going to have one side skinned with white paper to give a crisper look, but that became cost-prohibitive.

follow-18

One of the challenges was to figure out how to keep the letters standing up and not get knocked over, or in the case of the “Os” have them rolling away. We came up with a simple solution: 1×6 pre-primed MDF. We sprayed it black so it would blend in with the floor. We drilled some pilot holes in through the bases and applied some construction adhesive suitable for foam. We used 3″ coarse thread drywall screws to screw the letters to the bases. Honestly, we were all surprised by how much the screws bit into the foam. We could strip them out easily enough, but if we were careful, the bases snugged right up.

follow-20

To stabilize the “O’s” a little more, we cut some small blocks and wedged them in the corners. I loaded them up with a good amount of adhesive to lock them all in place. After the glue set up, they felt pretty secure. The letters are a bit fragile, but we’re hopeful that they’ll last the entire 10 weeks.

follow-19

The hanging signs are about 42″x70″. We had them printed on white paper and mounted them ourselves to 3/16″ Gator Board. Gator is a little heavier than just foam core, and we chose that so the 40# test monofilament wouldn’t pull through over time. We suspended them from our lighting truss and lit them from the ground with some old Lekos I found lying around. It’s a little big ghetto, but it works.

One thing I did that I think will save me a few times was to mark the locations of each letter and each light on the floor with a strip of gaff tape. You can faintly see it in the picture above. That way when we have to move the letters around, or someone knocks over a light, we can get them back where they belong quickly.

We got a lot of compliments on the set this weekend. Props have to go to our Communications Director, Ken; our Presentation Tech, Holly; Volunteer Lighting Guy, Daniel and my boss, Todd for all the work coming up with this set. All I really did was figure out how to hang the stuff.

The Good Enough Principle Pt. 2

Monday, I talked about the trend toward things being “Good Enough.” It’s happening in electronics, music, TV and many other disciplines. The question before us then is this; how does this impact my work as a church TD?

Monday, I talked about the trend toward things being “Good Enough.” It’s happening in electronics, music, TV and many other fields. The question before us then is this; how does this impact my work as a church TD?

For starters, I’m re-evaluating how I spend my time. In the past, I would labor over pretty much everything I did, trying to make sure it was as good as it could possibly be. As I think this through, however, I find I’m spending my time getting something good enough, then moving on to the next thing. What I’m finding is that I get a lot more projects done and no one notices the difference.

What’s important to note is that good enough doesn’t mean bad or mediocre. Good Enough does not mean that I’m doing sub-par work.  Good Enough means that the job is done in such a way that the vast majority of people will say, “Wow, that’s really good!” Real-world example–how many of you sound engineers have had a conversation like this:

Random Congregant: “Hey, the music sounded great today!”

Perfectionist Sound Guy: “Oh it was OK. The room is a bit peaky at about 2K, and the subs are sounding a bit muddy. We need some bass traps to soak up the 80 Hertz build up in the back and the side walls are creating a nasty flutter echo.”

RC: “Huh, uh well, I thought it sounded great.”

In other words, it was good enough. We could repeat the same conversation with lighting designers, video engineers, graphic artists, presentation techs and service producers. And that’s not a bad thing! As professionals, we should notice the things that are not as good as they could be. However, we need to step back and not put undue emphasis on the finer details that almost no one else will notice.

This is not to say that we should not bother trying to make things better. Often times, the things we fix are noticeable, but most people lack the language to describe them. For example, last week our Sr. Pastor passed along a message that the music was too loud. In fact, from a SPL standpoint, we were right where we should be. However, the room had gotten a bit harsh in the octave centered around 2.5K. We tweaked the house EQ by a few dB and when I checked in with him afterward, he said it was much better. Now, I still hear things that drive me nuts and that I want to fix. The challenge is that getting to a more noticeable improvement will take a lot of time and a lot of money. So for now, it’s good enough.

I could start lobbying for a whole new PA and significant changes to the interior structure of the room to make it sound better. But given that we have a failing lighting system, and a video system that’s not doing what we need it to, we need to live with good enough for the time being.

I know of a church that stresses the fine points so much that they will evaluate the service transitions down to the second. Between services, the service producer is known to say, “We need to get him out there 2 seconds earlier–the transition wasn’t tight enough.” And they literally mean 2 seconds. Is 2 seconds earlier perfect? Maybe. But I can pretty much guarantee you that no one in the congregation will notice. When we put our volunteers and staff under that much pressure to get that close to “perfect,” we do ourselves a great disservice.

I could expand on this a lot more, but then this would turn into a book chapter (which it just might…). In lieu of that, what do you think? Is Good Enough good enough? What have you been killing yourself over that you need to dial back on?

The Good Enough Principle

Shawn Wood, Experience Pastor at Seacost Church wrote a post a few weeks ago that I found very interesting. His topic: The Good Enough Principle. Later that week I read an article in Wired about the same thing. There seems to be a movement afoot to make things good enough.

Shawn Wood, Experiences Pastor at Seacost Church wrote a series of posts a few weeks ago that I found very interesting. His topic: The Good Enough Line. Later that week I read an article in Wired about a similar concept. There seems to be a movement afoot to make things good enough.

Now, if you’ve read this blog at all before, you know that I’m all about doing it right. I aim for excellence in what I do. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Lately though, I’ve started wondering if good enough is in fact, good enough.

The Wired article I mentioned referenced a study done by Stanford University. They have been testing incoming freshmen to see which they prefer; the sound of CDs or MP3s. They are played the same song twice–once from the CD, once from an MP3. Interestingly enough, over the last few years the trend has been to prefer MP3s. Audio engineers everywhere are now up in arms, but as it turns out, MP3s are good enough.

The article also talked about the 20/80 principle. In the church, we’ve hijacked that phrase and say that 20% of the people are doing 80% of the work. However, the phrase originally stood for 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the results. Put another way, to get to the final 20% of results, it takes 4 times as much effort as the first 80%. My experience indicates that the same applies to dollars, at least generally (though it’s probably more like 60/90).

Examples of Good Enough are everywhere. When I started in video production, the golden standard was “Broadcast Quality.” Images that were broadcast over the air were the pinnacle of excellence. Obsessive engineers spent hours tweaking Betacam SP decks to perfection. If you were trying to sell a new piece of gear, you slapped “Broadcast Quality” on the sell sheet.

Today however, Broadcast Quality means whatever image we can get on the screen. Though we now have HD cameras that make absolutely beautiful images (and put the Broadcast Quality images of old to shame), CNN, Fox and other networks regularly broadcast cell phone video. Why? Because it’s good enough. It tells the story. When we can’t get a hi-def camera to a remote part of the world, a cell phone is better than no image at all–it’s good enough.

The reason for the shift from highly-tweaked near perfect video to jerky, grainy and out of focus cell phone video is simple; we have shifted emphasis to different measures of quality. Rather than spot-on color, we now emphasize getting an image on the screen.

Going back to the CD versus MP3 debate (and throw vinyl LPs in there if you want), the reason we have a rise in the acceptance of MP3s is because the qualities we now value are portability–the ability to listen to our music wherever we are, and sharing. MP3s make that easier, and the quality of the music is good enough.

So that’s where we are today in the world. What does that mean to us in the church? That is the topic of the next post.

New Design, New Host

This is a quick little post to make sure I haven’t broken the RSS feed for the site. You’ll notice (if you come to the site–not if you just read via an RSS reader) that there is a fresh new design. More changes are coming now that I have a host that can really make WordPress sing.

Thanks for reading!

Setting Priorities Pt. 2

Yesterday we started off talking about how I approach coming into a new church. Today, we’ll pretend I’ve been here a while and talk about how I’m going to prioritize systems upgrades in a building in which every system needs to be upgraded.

As I alluded to yesterday, a big part will be meeting with the Sr. Pastor and finding our what his desires are. The reasoning on this is simple; he’s the boss–and if I can work with him, things will get done a lot faster. I have seen a lot of tech people come into a new church and immediately start working on problems that bug them; often to the neglect of problems that bug the Sr. Pastor. When said tech people start asking for money for these projects, they get push back and don’t understand why.

Here’s a little tip. Senior leadership will find the money to fix the problems that are important to them. If it’s not in the budget but they know it needs to be done, they will raise the money to make it happen. This is actually a mark of good leadership. What we need to do is work with this principle.

You see, as a tech guy, I see every problem with every system. And every one bugs me. I wish I could start tomorrow and fix them all. But I can’t–and I couldn’t even if money were no object. So what I need to do is find out which ones bug our Sr. Pastor and start working on those. All the problems bother me, so in a sense, it doesn’t matter where I start. And here’s the secret–once we get a few things done that bugged the pastor, he will become our biggest fan. If he says, “We have to fix video so we can get our services on the web,” and we make that happen, he’s happy. It’s actually a win-win-win. First, he’s happy his problem was solved. Second, he’s happy with us for listening to him and working on his problem. Third, we build trust so that when we say, “I’ve noticed that the PA is not what it can be–can we talk about some options to upgrade it,” he’s open to it.

Don’t fight against senior leadership thinking that you’re the expert. Just because you think something is a priority doesn’t mean that it is. On the other hand, you have valuable insight into things that when presented properly can also build trust.

For example, most of the major wireless mic manufacturers have extended rebates to the end of the year for upgrading out of the 700 Mhz range. If you don’t take advantage of that, you’ll miss out on saving some major coin. Present that need to upgrade with by demonstrating that we’ll save $10,000 if we do it before December rather than after, and it’s a lot easier to make it happen.

The bottom line is this: Make your priorities senior leadership’s priorities and you’ll get a lot more done a lot faster.

Setting Priorities

When I was in college, there was a professor who was known for shooting straight. When a student tried to excuse his unfinished assignment by claiming there were so many other things he was trying to work on, the professor simply waved his hand and said, “Priorities, son. Priorities.” That phrase has been rattling around in my head a lot the last few weeks.

By know, most of you know I’ve recently started as TD of Coast Hills Community Church. It’s a great church with a great history. Originally formed by a husband and wife with a huge heart for the arts, we have perhaps one of the best performing arts facilities in Orange County. We also have a facility that needs every major system upgraded, repaired or replaced. Sound, lights, video; they all need love. We need a new PA, new wireless, there’s a ton of cable to be replaced and removed and we’re contemplating the switch to in-ear monitors. Our entire dimming system needs replaced–complete with every inch of wiring. Even the battens are the wrong size and need to be taken down and replaced. We have two unmatched cameras–one good, one 20+ years old. They feed the side screens (Christie 8K projectors) via a composite video cable fed from a Panasonic MX-50. Even the tripods, while not bad in and of themselves, are the wrong ones (way too big) and need to be replaced.

Even though we’re in Orange County, one of the more affluent regions in the country, we still have a finite budget. I wish I could tell you that I’ve been given carte blanche to replace any and every system. That is not the case. I told my boss before I came in that we needed to come up with a 5-year plan for upgrading, replacing and repairing our infrastructure. It’s that big of a project.

I’m sure many of you are in the same boat. You inherited systems that you know need to be replaced or upgraded. You may even feel overwhelmed by it all. So I wanted to let you in on my process. This is not the definitive way of doing things, just my way. It’s worked pretty well in the past, so I’m sticking with it.

First off, I’m not changing much of anything for my first few months. That seems counter-intuitive, I know. However, it always struck me as very presumptuous for a new person to walk in a start making big changes before he (or she) gets to know the people and the systems. In fact, I’m spending a lot more time getting to know people than planning system upgrades. I want to find out where they are, what is working and what is not. I need to learn the processes and procedures and see how efficient they are. This process seems slow and unproductive at first, but it yields huge dividends down the road. Once people realize that I A) know what I’m talking about and B) care about what they say, change comes much easier.

So rather than writing proposals and getting estimates (though I’m doing a little of that), I’m going out to lunch with staff and volunteers; meeting with contractors; and spending time with my boss. Now that our Sr. Pastor is back from his summer break, I’ll be meeting with him to find out what his goals and desires are and we’ll start working up a plan to make them reality.

That’s the initial approach. Once we get a few months down the road, I’ll start prioritizing new equipment. Tomorrow I’ll take you behind the curtain on that process.

Sizing Tripods

I’ve been thinking about tripods lately, or more correctly, tripod heads. I think it started last week when someone on Twitter asked me what tripods I liked. It continued this past weekend as I dialed in the drag and counterbalance settings on the ones in our auditorium. I’ve written about this before, (Improving Videos–Get a Tripod and IMAG–Solid Foundations) but I think enough time has passed to revisit the subject.

Today, I want to specifically cover sizing. I’ve seen a lot of big cameras on really small tripod/heads. I’ve even occasionally seen a small camera on even smaller tripods. In fact, when I first arrived at Upper Room, the only tripod we had was barely suitable for a pocket-sized digital camera and we were trying to use it for a GL-2.

Vinten Vision 11 Series/ Vinten Vision 11 SeriesThe problem with undersized tripods & heads is twofold. First, you will probably not have enough counterbalance in the head (assuming the small head in question) to balance the camera properly. When a camera is sized for the head, you can set the tilt drag frighteningly low, tilt to any angle and the camera should stay put. If the head is under-sized, it won’t be able to do that. Also, an undersized head will not pan or tilt smoothly because the loads the camera is placing on it are too great. Smooth pans and tilts will be difficult at best.

The other problem with under-sizing the tripod is with the legs (or sticks). Lets that are too small will begin to “wind up” as you pan. When you stop panning, they will unwind and the camera will seem to pan backwards a little. You will be constantly frustrated trying to get the camera to stop in the right spot as the legs wind and unwind. It’s crazy-annoying.

Thankfully, with the advent of smaller, palm-corders, under-sizing is less of a concern than it used to be. Back in the day when a full-size ENG camera and dockable recorder weighed easily 18-24 pounds, many people tried to skimp on the head and get one rated for 15 pounds The results were often very disappointing. No, today, the problem we see more commonly is over-sizing.

It stands to reason that a tripod/head that is rated for 18-28 pounds would work great for a camera that weighs 8. In fact, it seems a head rated for up to 40 pounds would be even better, right? Wrong. Actually, it’s worse to over-size than undersize in some regards. That’s the situation we find ourselves in right now.

We have two Cartoni Master Series heads under our auditorium cameras. They are rated for a maximum payload of 66 pounds. We have cameras on them that can’t possibly weigh more than 20. The result? We can’t dial the counterbalance far enough back to keep the heads from tilting by themselves. At least not without a lot of drag. Because the heads are designed for so much weight, they don’t function properly with what amounts to no load. It’s kind of like being in a 1-ton pickup with an empty bed. Sure it will get you someplace, but the ride is pretty rough.

What it all comes down to, again, is choosing the right tool for the job. The heads we have are good heads. The problem is, they’re way too big for our application. It’s so important to read the specs and match the right tool for the job. Talk to to an expert if you feel out of your depth. Don’t spend your church’s money twice.

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