Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: April 2010

Replacing Good Gear with the Right Gear

While following my normal lunchtime ritual (reading trade magazines while eating my sandwich), something occurred to me. I was reading an article about the new EAW KF740. As I read it, I started thinking about our current PA, made up of KF 750s and 755s. It’s a system that I’ve been advocating changing since I got here, but not because it’s not a good PA. Then as I saw a story about a church that installed an SD-8, I got thinking about our current FOH console, the PM-5D, which I’m also advocating changing to an SD-8. I want to make that change not because the PM-5D is not a good console. But it’s not the right console for us. Same with our PA; the 750s actually sound pretty good about 80 feet out on the balcony. However, since only about 100 of the 1500 people that come on a weekend sit in the balcony, the system is not the right PA for us. I could say the same with a lot of the equipment we have. It may be good equipment, but it’s not the right equipment. And that can be a tough spot to be in as a TD.

One of the harder things we as TDs do is lobby for funds to improve our technical systems. It’s fairly easy when there is a glaring problem with a system; having one good camera and one that’s 20 years old and looks terrible, for example. It’s easy to demonstrate why we need to upgrade that camera. However, to say we have this FOH console, that is arguably the standard in many touring rigs, but it needs to be changed for something else is hard.

As we discussed in our webinar the other night, it’s extremely important that you fully understand the mission and vision of your church, and understand and be able to articulate how the technical ministry fits into that before you start proposing changes in equipment. For example, I have a pretty well thought-out proposal for why we need to change out FOH and Monitor consoles. When I showed it to my boss, he said it makes total sense and we’ll start working on getting the funds in place. The PA is a little harder.

First, it makes sound, and for many, that’s good enough. Second, we have no clear way to pay for it, as we do with the FOH swap. Harder still is that when the system was bought, people were told it was a great system. And it’s really not bad, it’s just the wrong one. It doesn’t provide even coverage, and we have significant problems in the front half of the auditorium getting it to sound good. But it makes sound.

Again, it’s going to take a well thought-out proposal to raise the money for the new system. I’ll have to come up with clearly defined and attainable goals and be able to demonstrate them before we can get the money. This point goes to show why it’s so important to buy the right gear in the first place.

I’ve seen many churches run out and buy the “best” gear they can find, only to find out later that it really doesn’t work for them. Later, they have to justify spending the money again. Don’t ever let a dealer or consultant tell you, “This is the best insert piece of gear here on the market. We installed 50 of them last year.” Because you know what? I don’t care. I want to know what the best piece of equipment is for our church. That’s all that matters. I sometimes feel like a broken record on this subject, but I keep seeing churches repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Do your research; talk to people; try the equipment out. Make sure you buy the right gear the first time. Then, you won’t have to be replacing good equipment with the right equipment.

Optimizing Monitors

A few weeks ago I was having a discussion about the sound quality of our monitors with our sax player. He’s a very discriminating guy who really knows sound. If he says he needs 185 cut 3 dB, he needs 185 cut at 3 dB. As we listened to his wedge, it was clear that the sound he was putting out of his horn was not being faithfully reproduced by the wedge. I knew it would take a while to remedy this, but I set aside a day to go through and fix the wedges.

First off, here is our signal chain: Each mic gets plugged into a splitter (it’s passive, not transformer isolated, which was a bad choice, but not mine). One split goes to an M7 in monitor world. The M7 mixes up to 7 wedge mixes. The omni outs of the M7 go to two Klark-Technik 9848 4×8 processors set up in 4x-Biamp mode. The KTs feed a rack of QSC amps, which in turn feed EAW SM12 monitors. Aside from the split, it’s a decent system.

It took me a little bit, but I finally got my Mac talking to the 9848s (using Parallels, XP and a RS232-USB converter). I should mention that KT’s tech support was very helpful and quick in getting this running. Once I had that going, I had a nice, graphical interface with which to adjust the settings.

I positioned a wedge in the middle of the stage, and placed our Earthworks M-30 measurement mic right about where a musician would stand. I took the following approach: When EQ’ing monitors, you really aren’t worried much about the room as it’s really a near-field monitor. The only real boundary is the stage itself, and my goal was a pretty linear system; that is, flat and set up so that what goes into the board comes out of the monitors.

In the past, I would have started running pink noise through the system and looking at the response on an RTA. But that amount of noise (I measured at 94 dB SPL-A) gets annoying really fast. I’ve been learning more about more modern forms of measurement including swept tone and FFT, so that’s how I went about this process. I’ve found swept tone gets me a lot closer a lot faster than pink noise, without the grating noise.

I started off with a great little program I found called FuzzMeasure Pro 3 (from SuperMegaUltraGroovy Software, the best software company name ever). FuzzMeasure uses swept sine wave deconvolution to report frequency response. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. All you need to do is hook the mic up to a USB interface and press measure. The software emits a quick click that is used for impulse measurements (great for setting delay, but that’s another post), then a swept sine wave from 20 Hz to 20 KHz (or in my case, 50-17K; it’s user-adjustable). The resultant frequency response is shown on a graph. Here’s where we stared.

click to enlargeKeep in mind that each light grid line is 1 dB. So we started off with the low end some 13 dB below the mid- and upper-range; not so good. I made a 12 dB adjustment on the gain for the low channel (actually I cut 6 off the top and added 6 to the low).

click to enlargeNow we start getting a little closer. But it’s still way off. After spending some time with the PEQs built into the KTs, I ended up with a sweep that looked like this:

click to enlargeIt might look a bit wonky, but realize that this time, the heavy grid lines are 1 dB. So the response could be called flat, ±1dB from 80 Hz-17 KHz (the right edge of the graph is 17 KHz, as set in my prefs)—that’s not too shabby. Now, because I was getting more complaints from some musicians that others, I decided to drag another wedge over and take a measurement. I was surprised (well, not that surprised) to see a significantly different trace, even with the same EQ settings as the first one. So I decided to tune each monitor individually. In my new setup, each monitor has a number, and it will always be used with the matching monitor send. Thus, Speaker 1 will be plugged into Monitor 1 on the patch panel. That ensures that all monitor mixes are basically the same, even though production variations give each wedge a slightly different response curve. I’ve applied custom EQ to each one.

The final step was to tweak it a little closer using another cool program called Spectre from Audiofile Engineering. Spectre has a a compare trace FFT function which allows you to look at the signal coming out of the board and the signal coming back from the measurement mic at the same time. With some gentle pushing and pulling of the EQ curves, I was able to get that line almost completely flat. It’s a little easier to see in this view, where the purple is the output of the M7 pink noise generator and the green is what’s coming back from the measurement mic (which is nearly completely flat from 20-20K).

click to enlargeWhat’s fun about this view is that if you add say, a 8 dB bump at 1K on the output EQ of the monitor mix, both curves show exactly 8 dB of bump, in a bell curve that looks just like the graphic on the EQ display. I had now reached the point of it being a linear system; what goes in comes out.

The next weekend, I asked our sax player how his wedge sounded. Without telling him what I had done, he commented, “Oh it sounds much better. Very musical and pretty much exactly what I expect to hear.” Mission accomplished.

In Search Of: The DAW

The last few months, I’ve spent some time on and off looking for a new DAW. I don’t need the power (or expense) of ProTools; and Logic, while great, is out of my budget. Really, I have fairly simple needs for my application. I want to be able to edit a few tracks quickly, apply simple effects like compression and EQ and bounce the finished mix out as an MP3. Now, there’s always Audacity, which is a great, free editor. However, it’s a terrible platform to edit on, and none of the effects happen in real-time so it’s very difficult to audition anything. So while that’s on my HD and I do use it from time to time, I needed a little more.

Ah, Soundtrack. If only Apple would sell it separately…
My starting point for this type of DAW is Apple’s Soundtrack–honestly, it’s one of my favorite audio editors. It’s very powerful, yet has a simple and accessible interface. And the Platinum compressor is one of the most transparent I’ve ever heard on dialog. The problem is that Apple doesn’t sell it separately. It’s only available as part of the FinalCut Studio suite or bundled with Logic. We don’t have extra licenses for either at work, and I really can’t justify the cost of either.

So that set me on a journey to find something like Soundtrack that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I found two so far (and I should also mention that I’m on the Mac platform, so Windows-only DAWs need not apply).

The Ardour interface is very complete and highly customizable.
Ardour

Ardour is an open-source, cross-platform DAW that’s actually quite impressive. The feature set is extensive and simple tasks like editing regions and tracks are just that–simple. It comes with a good collection of plug-ins that can be inserted on any tracks, just like a live-mixing console. Track automation is included as well. The interface looks good, if not a little under-developed. As you use it more, it becomes clearer that it’s an open-source project. The menu system is extensive, and a little less cohesive than commercially developed products. I’ve also had problems doing basic tasks like bouncing tracks out to a stereo file, with automation and FX intact. Also, Ardour is cross-platform. As such, they use a third-party audio routing utility called JACK to get audio in and out of the mixing engine. On the one hand, this gives you a lot of options for how to route your audio. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a pain to set up and configure every time you want to do some editing. It took me a while to get all the boxes checked and all the right selections made before I had it set up properly to record and play back.

Ardour, with the Harrison MixBus Mixer on top.Ardour is essentially free, though they encourage you to donate $40 to help continue development. You can also buy Ardour as Harrison MixBuss. As MixBuss, Harrison has put their DSP processing on top of Ardour for the mixdown process. That interface is very nice and is developed around the one knob for one function model. Right now, MixBus is available for $79, which seemed like a great deal. I was almost ready to go that route until I found my next option.

Reaper’s interface is very clean and fully functional.Reaper

Right up front I want to make it clear that Reaper is not free. I’ve had two people tell me to check it out, use it and it’s great because it’s free. This is not correct. There is a 30-day evaluation period during which the entire program is fully functional. After that time, the licensing agreement clearly states that if you want to continue using it, you have to buy it. Their philosophy is simple; make a good product, let people try it, charge a fair price. Personally, I think this is the right model and we as end users should support by purchasing the product, if it’s a good one for us. A full commercial license is $225, a non-profit and personal use license is only $60; so if you use it, pay up.

With that out of the way, let me say I really like Reaper. The interface is clean; almost Apple-like. Reaper is a full 64-bit capable, cross-platform program. Unlike most DAWs, the application download is 4 MB for Windows, 7.8 MB for Mac; this means it’s not full of 50 Gigs of samples and sound effects you may never need or use. It will handle MIDI sounds as well as audio files, even on the same track. I like that the automation is rubber-band based, making it easy to set levels for your mix (you can playback, mix down then later tweak the points). It comes with a decent selection of plug-ins, and runs most major plug-in types. The program is fast, and requires minimal setup to get it working. I tested the included compressor plug-in on some dialog recording and it sounded almost as good as the Platinum comp in Soundtrack.

Based on my initial testing of the software, I will be sending them some cash and going forward with Reaper as my DAW. One other nice touch is that they give you two full version updates with each license. That means if you purchase 3.4 now, you get free upgrades all the way to 4.99. Know of any other software company that does that?

Now, clearly, I’ve just skimmed the surface of these two products. My intent was not to give you a complete review, but make you aware of them so you can check them out for yourself. In an age where it’s almost impossible to get demo versions of DAW software (I checked, non of the major commercially available packages have demos), these are two refreshing alternatives. Check them out.

The Webinars are Back

Back in February, we told you our March Webinar would be about proposing system upgrades to leadership. And that’s exactly what we planned. Except we forgot that this year, March included that oft-celebrated holiday, Easter. Combined with Dave’s massive PA upgrade, my lighting upgrade and being down staff and Jason’s…well, I think Jason just had sympathy pains for us, and we ended up not having any time at all for a webinar. Which is probably fine since none of you would have had time to join us anyway.

But we’re back. This Friday, April23, we will talking about some best practices for proposing system upgrades. We will once again be utilizing the Church Tech Arts LiveStream channel, so you can tune in at 10 PM EDT, or 7 PM PDT (and all time zones in between). I think it’s going to be a great discussion as the three of us have been or are currently involved in significant PA, FOH, Lighting and Video System upgrades. We think you’ll come away with some strategies to make your presentations more powerful and effective.

So join us this Friday, 4/23 at 10 PM EDT at the CTA LiveStream channel (www.livestream.com/churchtecharts).

NAB 2010

This year, I finally got to go to NAB. I’ve wanted to go for probably 15 years now. It was good to–mainly because I spent the day with some good friends–but overall, it was a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it was because it is so huge and I didn’t really have enough time to see everything, or even go through a hall in an organized manner. Or maybe it was because there wasn’t that much to see that was new and different (except for 3D, which was everywhere, more in a moment). There were a few bright spots, however.

Digico SD8

One of the main reasons I went to NAB was to look at the SD8. We almost couldn’t find one. Thankfully, we tracked one down at the Intel booth (oddly) where I not only got a full tour from one of the top Digico guys in the US, I also met Tony Luna, who has done FOH for, oh, a few shows. As a guy who can mix on anything he wants to, he told me why he likes the SD7 and SD8. It was good to hear from someone who really knows his stuff.

I’ve spent the last few weeks playing with the console software and am pretty much blown away by the power, configurability and ease of use. I wanted to get my hands on the surface and came away as enthusiastic as ever. The SD8 has a ton of power and is amazingly flexible. My current goal is to replace our PM-5D EX at FOH with the SD8. I hope to have a demo in our room in a few weeks; more info to come.

DPA 5100

Another item of note was at the DPA booth. After talking with Bruce Myers about the forthcoming choir and piano mics, he showed up another cool mic; the 5100 5.1 surround sound mic. It’s a lot like the Holophone (for which DPA developed the elements), only better. He showed us some demos and I have to say, it was pretty impressive. The localization was amazing, even with only stereo headphones on. They had a 5.1 speaker system set up with some recorded samples, and I was quite impressed not only with the surround effect, but with the clarity of the system. I’m not sure how much application this mic will have in the church production world, but it’s certainly cool.

Harris Atem

I wrote about the Atem after WFX last fall; since then a few things have changed. First, Echolab will no longer be selling the Atem, sales are moving to Harris. It will still be made by Echolab, so there won’t be any change in quality or feature set (actually, a new software update adds features). Second, there are some new versions. The original Atem is a single ME, 10 in, 8 out chassis. There is now a 18 in, 10 out chassis available, as well as a 2 ME version. The larger chassis will make it a perfect choice for churches who need more than the original 10 inputs. Adding a second ME will make it easier to do advanced mixing on multiple busses.

I’m not sure how many people will actually need the second ME, however as there are some cool new tricks rolled out in a new software update. The big thing is that you can now dissolve (and I think wipe) on an Aux. If that doesn’t immediately excite you, consider this use case. Let’s say you have a building with three screens. And let’s say the center screen is fed by the main ME, and the two side screens are fed from Aux 1 and 2. You could have Aux 1 being fed by source A, Aux 2 being fed by source B. With the new system, you can pre-select source C & D to go to Aux 1 & 2 respectively; hit the take button and both screens dissolve to their new sources–all without using the ME. Combined with the amazingly powerful Super Source feature, the Atem is one super switcher. I hope to install one this summer at Coast once our budget is approved, so you’ll be hearing a lot more about it shortly.

3D

As I said, 3D was everywhere. It was interesting, but really, I just don’t care. To me, it’s a gimmick foisted upon us by the consumer electronics industry to get us to buy new TVs; after we all just shelled out collective billions to buy new HD sets. I don’t see any real application in the live production market, and specifically the church production market. I can’t see us wanting to do 3D IMAG, or even 3D lyrics. Wearing 3D glasses just to look at the IMAG screen doesn’t seem viable. So for me, 3D is a big “meh.”

That’s about it for my NAB wrap up.

The End of My Rope

Ever have one of those weekends where everything seemed to come together reasonably well, but you left feeling totally spent? And if that weekend comes after a particularly busy time of ministry, it can put you in a hard place. That was my weekend. A little insight into my personality; I am a recovering perfectionist with insecurity issues and achievement as one of my top five strengths. I do whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless of the cost to me and my well-being. I’m a technologist and a problem solver, and because of that, much of my time is spent solving other people’s problems with technology. In short, if you’re reading this blog, we’re probably very much alike, you and I.

This weekend was to be a simpler weekend for me. I’ve been short-staffed by 3-4 people  every weekend for well over a month. Last weekend was Good Friday and Easter, which meant an 80 week leading up to a weekend of 7 services in 3 days. But this weekend, I wasn’t scheduled to do anything. Well, except hang some signs for the new set. Should have been easy. Except it wasn’t. The signs took a lot longer, we had issues with the lift, I needed to fix the projector alignment, ProPresenter was giving us some issues, I discovered a broken encoder on the 5D, the lighting board was acting up, and we lost half our house lights.

On top of that, our regular FOH contractor was back, having been gone for a month. At least three times over the weekend, I heard someone say to him, “Man, it’s good to have you back! We missed your ears up there.” Each person meant it as a compliment to our contractor. But what I heard was, “Man it’s good to have you back. It SUCKED with Mike up there.” Last week, I heard similar critisism about our Good Friday program (and from someone who’s opinion I really shouldn’t even care about). Like I said, insecurity issues.

At the end of Sunday, everyone else had left and I had to clear off our 10-high stack of Steeldeck, a set of stairs and the pulpit off the baptistry so facilities could clean it for next weekend. I was pretty shot.

I got home and really wanted to relax. Then my daughter tried to print some homework. The printer started acting up and I had to fix it. It didn’t go well. Not well at all. I pretty much failed Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6 about fathers not exasperating their children.

I had to spend some time and take stock of my current state of being. I’ve realized that I’ve done it again. I cranked myself up to an unsustainable pace. Any of those issues this weekend ordinarily wouldn’t have bothered me. However, I’m so exhausted, mentally and emotionally from working too hard for too long without a break that I have nothing left to deal with that stuff. My emotional gas tank is empty.

Now, why am I writing all this? Is it because I’m looking for pity, encouragement or validation? Not really; though encouragement and validation is always nice. The real reason I’m being this transparent and vulnerable is because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s been here. If you’re a tech guy in a church, chances are you’ve been exactly where I am right now. You may even be here right now. And if not, you haven’t been doing this long enough. One thing that’s become clear as our little community of TDs has come together around blogs, Twitter, the CTDRT and CTAN is that we all have days (or weeks, or months) like this. I hit this point about a year ago (and vowed I’d never let it happen again) and felt like I was a failure as a TD, as a church staffer for getting this burned out. And yet, when I realize that others have been in this place as well, it helps me understand that I’m not the only one. My hope is that by putting this out in the open, at least one person may read this and say, “Oh my gosh, I’m not the only one! I’m not crazy or a failure!”

But the real question is, how do we get out of this? The answer may vary, but for me, I need a vacation. Not a quasi vacation where I come in late or work from home, but a real, don’t think about work, answer e-mail, send out notifications or make phone calls vacation. That’s hard to do, and it takes at least 5-6 consecutive days off for me to actually recharge.

And that’s what I’m going to do. I have commitments for the next two weeks, but 14 days from today, I will be starting a 6-day vacation. That’s going to mean hiring extra contractors to cover stuff at work, and I don’t care. I need the time off. During that time, I’m going to completely fast from e-mail. I’m turning off my accounts on my iPhone and quitting Mail on my laptop, lest I be tempted to “just check my work account to see what’s going on.” I’m changing my voicemail and putting auto-responders on.

I also need to come up with a long-term plan to take more regular vacations. Most tech guys I know never take all their allotted vacation every year. I’ve worked for nearly nine months now, and taken two days off. That’s not healthy. I also realized I have to come up with a better system so I can take the week after Christmas and Easter off, and I mean really off. As in, “all my other duties are covered by someone else” off.

It’s likely that I’ll not get this right all the time, but I really need to do a much better job about not letting myself get to this place. And the harsh reality is, I did this to myself. Yes, I have a lot of responsibility at church, and what I do is important. However, I have the freedom and blessing from my boss and church leadership to take care of myself. And if I failed at anything, it’s that. I didn’t take care of myself. And when I don’t take care of myself, my family suffers. And that’s just not acceptable.

I hope this has been helpful for someone out there. If even one person relates to this and has the courage to make a change, I’m thankful. You’re not alone. And one of the best things we can do is lean on each other. Now, do what I’m doing and get back to your day off.

Good Friday and Easter

Good Friday and Easter is a pretty big weekend at Coast Hills, as it is for most churches. For the last five years, we’ve put together a pretty powerful Good Friday service. It’s done completely without spoken words, instead using video, music and graphics to lead people through the experience. This is my first time through it and I have to say, it got me every time. Even though I was crazy-busy all week working on technical details, and mixed FOH for the rehearsal and two services, I was still wrecked by the end of each service.

We laid out a bunch of Steeldeck platforms for the band and vocalists and draped a bunch of fabric all over the stage. One cool visual effect is the use of a white cyc at the very back of the stage, with a white scrim in front of it. In between, we have a large cross with a mockup of Jesus on it. When the scrim is front lit, you don’t see the cross. But when we back light, the cross becomes visible. There are also lights in the cross, and by combining these lights, we can achieve many different looks.

We also project on the scrim, and it goes through to the cyc creating a cool quasi drop shadow effect.

Fabric is a great effect on stage; and fairly cost-effective. By draping simple fabric and using a combination of up- and down-lighting, we got some dramatic looks. Our lighting consisted of our normal truss hang of pars (gelled blue and red), some old Martin 518 scanners, twelve ColorBlast12s hung on the truss supplemented by twelve rental ones on the floor and eight VL-2500s; two in the house, two on the truss and four on the floor.

After Good Friday, we slightly re-arranged the fabric and moved the vocalists downstage. The lighting was a dramatic change between the two services, with Easter being far more upbeat and celebratory. For video, we drop our screen (the cross was also taken down behind the scrim) which also helps change the look. The idea is to keep the stage similar so changeover time is short. In fact, we turned the stage from Good Friday to Easter in under an hour.

Easter starts with a video of the stone being rolled away (complete with sound effects) and rolls right into Agnus Dei. Each song we sung was accompanied by a video with animated words. To keep everything in sync, we sent a click from ProPresenter to the drummer. We used our 4 track QuickTime system that I wrote about last week. In fact, we expanded it to 6 tracks for a few songs; stereo backing vocals, stereo drum or guitar loop, mono sound effects and click. One thing we did find is that ProPresenter fades in the beginning of audio tracks, which was causing the drummer to miss the first few clicks. We fixed it by putting a second of black at the front of each video.

Here are some pictures from the weekend.

Here’s a shot that shows the projector effect we get from scrim and cyc.
When we light the cyc and don’t light the scrim, the scrim is nearly invisible. We have a few pars on the cross.
We had a great group of high school dancers. They were always on time, sat around for hours waiting and never complained.
For Easter, the look was much more festive and celebratory.
After messing with it all week, my lighting volunteer finally coaxed our into hazer working almost evenly on both sides of the stage.

Post-Easter Recoup

Like most of you, last week for me was a long one. In fact, the weeks leading up to Easter have been long and a bit stressful. And like many, I’m taking some time off this week to rest. Probably not as much as I should, but there will be a few days of sitting on the couch in my sweats watching movies and playing video games. Maybe I’ll even go outside and enjoy the beautiful high 70’s and sunshine.

Even though I’m taking some time off going to the office, one thing that I still find life-giving is learning. I spent some time over breakfast today catching up on some of my favorite blogs and learned some things that have me thinking. So I thought I’d share them with you.

First, Dave Stagl has been writing an excellent series of posts on their new PA and line array theory and practice. He puts forth one of the best discussions on the line array vs. point source speakers I’ve heard in a long time. These are definitely worth reading (and if I know Dave, he’ll keep writing them, so keep an eye on his blog for more. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Second, Dave Rat has a few new videos in this post. The second one is about the Rat Sniffer/Sender, which is one of my favorite cable testing tools. The third is a cool way to test speakers. The first one, however, is really interesting. He describes his console setup for mixing rock shows. Very interesting use of groups, comps and VCAs to keep the mix together almost automatically. I’ll be re-working my virtual mixer on my laptop in the next few days to see if this makes sense for us with our new desk (when we actually get it).

Later this week, I’ll be spending some time writing up and posting pictures of our Good Friday and Easter Services. My tech department is down two people at the moment, but thanks to some great contractors and volunteers, the services came together exceptionally well. Nothing but high marks all around, and I believe God will use our efforts in a powerful way to change lives.

Speaking of which, here’s a post I wrote over at the CPM blog on that topic.

That’s enough for now. Back to the couch and a trip to my Netflix Instant Queue to pick out a movie. Enjoy this week!

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