Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: October 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

Tech Team Radios


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Whenever I hang out with fellow production guys at concerts, or at many larger churches, the tech guys always have radios. Usually compact Motorola or Kenwood units with those cool clip-on mic’s over their shoulder. While I certainly saw the usefulness of those radios, I figured we didn’t need them for our church. We’re not really that big, and the productions we do aren’t that involved. Then came VBS…

For a variety of reasons, VBS was crazy production-wise. It was made crazier by the fact that I had an incredibly difficult time communicating with my ATD Jon. Though we had Clear-Com stations on stage, I spent an inordinate amount of time hitting the call button waiting for someone to answer. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it was frustrating.

FRS Radios Don’t Do It For Me

To try to solve the problem, I pulled out the FRS radios we had bought a few years ago. Those didn’t help. In fact, they actually made the situation worse. Because we didn’t have mic’s for them, we could hear when one of us called. In desperation, Wednesday afternoon I started looking for a real solution. I ended up with a pair of RCA BR-250’s along with a pair of speaker mic’s. They arrived Friday afternoon just in time for tear down. 

Initially, I was bummed because I didn’t think we would really need them on weekends. But as fate would happen, we had a few issues that needed to be figured out with one person on stage and another in the booth. Radios to the rescue! It was magical. We both agreed by the end of the weekend that a good set of radios is a life saver. 

Since summer, the radios have become a regular part of our weekend routine. As soon as we arrive on Saturday or Sunday, we clip them on and go to work. It’s amazing how nice it is to quickly ask a question, clear something up or relay some information by simply tipping our heads and talking into the mic. 

Time Will Tell…And It Does!

Having used them for about 4 months now, I can’t imagine doing production without them. The last few weeks, while Jon was off getting married, I gave a radio to our teen volunteer lighting and sound techs (I’ve since bought a third). Again, it was fantastic to be able to answer questions quickly without shouting all over the auditorium. And I think the guys liked wearing them, to be honest.

Most major cities have dealers that sell business class radios; we bought ours from Discount Two-Way Radio. They are located north of LA, so it was a quick ship for me. We bought RCA because I found them quickly, they had a great feature set (though our needs are simple) and they were cheaper than the Motorola units I saw. They also have a 3-year warranty. 

When I was in the fire service years ago, all our radios were Motorola, and they were bulletproof. You certainly wouldn’t go wrong with them, either. I would discourage anyone from trying cheap (sub $125) FRS units you can find at the sporting good store. They just aren’t solid enough for production. The RCAs were about $250 each with the mic and charger. While not cheap, they are well built, and most importantly, sound clear enough to be heard over the band during rehearsal. We can use them anywhere on campus and have no issues communicating. 

More On The Way

I’m up to three of them right now, and I plan on adding at least one more this budget year to help out with larger events. Yes, they’re a bit expensive, but I’ve kind of reached the point where I’m done buying cheap stuff hoping it works. I actually threw the FRS radios in the trash one day because I was so frustrated with them (I later pulled them out and gave them to someone else…). I need stuff that works, and these do. Like I said, I can’t imagine doing a weekend without them now.

Today’s post is brought to you by GearTechs. Technology for Worship is what they do. Audio, video and lighting; if it’s part of your worship service, and it has to do with technology, GearTechs can probably help. Great products, great advice, GearTechs.

Church Tech Weekly Episode 170: Origin Story


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Your musicians and vocalists prepare for a weekend, but how does the tech team? For that matter, how do you train your tech team? And how do you handle disasters, vacations or simply not being there? We cover it all this week! 

More… 

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Setting Up Input Gain—In Conclusion…


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For the last few posts, I’ve been delving into the topic of setting input gain. Apparently that struck a nerve, as it’s generated some great conversations on Twitter. I’m all for this, as we can always learn from others. 

Some people (cough…Jake Cody…cough)* took issue with the concept of the Fader Unity approach. That’s fine; I’m not married to a particular method, but I think his issue is the result of a fundamental lack of understanding of what I was saying. To be clear:

In all cases, the input gain still needs to be set properly. That is to say, you should be within 6-12 dB of optimum input gain across the board. Some seemed to think I was implying it was OK to run your inputs at −40 so long as the faders stay at unity. That is not correct. If you find your inputs are consistently that low with your faders at unity (and with the output somewhere near unity as well), you have a an overall system gain issue, and it needs to be addressed. 

When I set my faders up at unity, I find my inputs are generally within 6-8 dB of each other—and are in the ballpark of being where I think they sound the best (in my console’s case, about −12 dBfs). And while I could sweat those lost dBs, I don’t. Mainly because it’s not that big of a deal. 

In the interest of clarity, I’ll rephrase this again:

If you input levels are consistently way too low or way too high, you need to look at system gain. Find out where your preamps sound the best, and strive to get close to that level on most of your channels. Then adjust the overall system levels to achieve proper volume in the room. At that point, you can decide between Maximized Preamp Gain and Fader Unity, and it honestly won’t make a huge difference in the overall sound. 

Then there is the digital bits argument. Others (cough…Lee Fields…cough)* argued that you have to run every input to the maximum level to achieve the maximum resolution. While that is theoretically true, I would argue that it’s practically not a major issue in this century. Back when digital audio was in it’s infancy, there wasn’t that much resolution to begin with. Now that we’re using 24-bit and higher Analog to Digital Converters (ADCs) and 40-bit floating point internal processing on modern digital desks, the practical difference between 0 dBfs (full scale) and −12 dBfs is pretty minimal. And by practical I mean what you can actually hear in an actual live mix.

Again, I’m NOT saying run your inputs at −40 dBfs. I’m saying don’t stress out about trying to use up every last bit in the digital process. It just doesn’t matter that much in practice. In fact, if you try to use up all the bits, you may make things worse. Musicians tend to play louder in front of a crowd, so if you max out your gain during soundcheck, you’ll likely be into distortion come service time. And digital distortion is not so pretty; though again, through modern trickery, it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.

Also, if you have some time to kill and want to hear some interesting examples of this, head over to Ethan Winer’s site and look through his tests on dither and bit depth. Fair warning; once you get started there, you’ll find hours go by pretty quickly. 

The reality is this: there is way more going on in live sound that simply maximizing preamps or bits. In 99.5% of live music venues, there are way bigger problems than absolutely ideal input gain. And based on many of the mixes I’ve heard at various events this year, the biggest problem is not the gear at all. But that’s a different post. This is not to say that gain structure is not important. It most certainly is. I said as much at the beginning of the series. However, once you’re in the ballpark of proper input levels, there are dozens of other factors that will make far more significant impacts on your sound quality. Not the least of which are the musicians on stage, the PA and the room acoustics. 

Settle on a method that works for you. You need to choose a process that works well for you, your team and your church, is repeatable and delivers consistently good results. Do that, and don’t worry about the rest. Remember, if you ask 10 sound guys how to best set up input gain, you’ll get 11 answers.  And for every one who insists that preamps always sound better when cranked up as much as possible, you’ll find another who believes preamps sound better when dialed back a little bit. And there’s always another who doesn’t believe you can hear the difference anyway (check out Ethan’s listening tests…).

In conclusion, relax…deep breaths…and focus on putting up a great mix. And enjoy the process.

*Notes: Both Jake and Lee are good friends of mine and I’m just giving them a hard time. Mainly Jake, because he blew up my Twitter feed last week. Which did help my “engagement” scores on Klout. So thanks for that! In fact, I wanted to start off this post with, “Jake doesn’t know what he’s talking about…” and I told him that Friday. He laughed and said I totally should, but I thought it could be interpreted wrong. So we’re just having fun here, OK?

Today’s post is brought to you by DPA Microphones. DPA’s range of microphones have earned their reputation  for exceptional clarity,  high resolution, above all, pure, uncolored accurate sound. Whether recording or sound reinforcement, theatrical or broadcast, DPA’s miking solutions have become the choice of professionals with uncompromising demands for sonic excellence.

2.5 Ways to Set Input Gain Pt. 4


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This is the last in our series of input gain setting posts (at least for now…). We’ve so far hit on how not to set input gain, and discussed both the Fader Unity and Maximized Preamp Gain approaches. In the title, I promised 2.5 ways to set up gain, and today, we’ll get to the .5. It’s really a hybrid approach, and it’s made possible by the equipment I mix on (a DiGiCo SD8). It should be noted that it’s possible to do this on other consoles; you’ll just have to poke around to find the controls you need.

In my hybrid approach, I aim to keep my faders at unity and maximize preamp gain. This is all made possible by the inclusion of a digital trim control immediately following the analog preamp gain on all DiGiCo consoles. Here’s how we use it.

During soundcheck, I dial each input up to optimal level for our preamps—usually between −12 and −8 dB. That’s where I think they sound the best, and I still have enough headroom for the “live audience volume boost” effect. After the input levels are set, I’ll use the digital trim to boost or cut the signal to appropriate house levels, while the faders stay at unity. 

This gives me the best of both worlds—maximized gain and faders at unity. Because the digital trim is so clean, it has no real detrimental effect on the sound. Because our overall system is set up well, we rarely find ourselves using more than 3-4 dB worth of trim, and at the most, we cut 7-10 dB on our cymbals. 

My personal mixers are getting consistent levels (though we can adjust those in software anyway), and all my processing remains pretty consistent. Even though we snapshot the beginnings of all our songs, it’s still very easy to bring things back to a “normal” mix throughout a song. 

As an added benefit, since our mix position is far removed from the congregation, I can walk the floor with an iPad during rehearsal, adjusting trims to get us to a good mix starting point and know that if I go back to fader unity, the mix should be pretty solid.

Of course, there are tons of variables to this, and you still need to mix throughout the songs. Setting gain properly doesn’t relieve you from the responsibility to continue to work to make the band sound great throughout the set. However, once the gain is set correctly, it’s a lot easier to mix, and dare I say, more fun.

All these approaches assume your overall system gain is set correctly. Whichever method you choose for setting your input gain, you also have to be aware of how the mix bus sounds, where the master fader ends up, as well as your system processor and amps. You can get the input gain set up correctly, but still find you’re running the master fader at −30 or +10 to get the right level. In that case, you probably need to make some adjustments further down the chain. 

It’s a good idea to go take a look at the input and output levels of your system processor as well as the amps to see if everything is within normal levels. I’ve seen systems where you couldn’t push any channel or the master about −30 without it feeding back, only to find the system processor input gain all the way up, and the output of the processor and the amps all the way up. Everything in the chain needs to be set correctly for the best sound. And of course, there are few schools of though on how to do that. But that’s another series…

UPDATE: I hadn’t planned on doing another post on this subject, but after Twitter lit up last week, I felt there were some final thoughts that needed casting. So this is the conclusion to this series. END UPDATE

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2.5 Ways to Set Input Gain Pt. 3



So far in this series, we’ve discussed what input gain is, some of the problems associated with getting it wrong, and last time, one approach to setting gain which I’m calling the Fader Unity method. Today, we’ll discuss the other major school of thought, which I’ve labeled the Maximized Preamp Gain approach.

In Maximized Preamp Gain, we first set the gain of each channel to optimal levels then bring the fader up to the appropriate level for the house mix. Essentially, it’s the opposite approach to the Fader Unity model. In this case, we’re going to see input levels that are all pretty consistent across the board. What that level will be depends largely on the console, and that’s something you’ll have to determine on your own. On my console, I find input sound best when I’m hitting the preamps at about −12 to −8, but I’ve mixed on others that sound best between +4 and +12. It takes some experimentation to figure this out. 

There are some obvious pro’s to this method:

Signal to Noise ratio is maximized and you achieve arguably better sound. When the preamps are running at their optimal levels, you get the most amount of signal and the least amount of noise, so that’s good (unless of course your mic choice and/or placement is wrong and you’re just amplifying noise on stage—but that’s another post). Some will say they can hear preamps sounding better at the right level, and that may be true. I would argue that there are few church PA’s where the sound of the preamp is a determining factor, but if that’s important to you, this is your method.

Because the input levels are even, it’s easier to mix monitors and personal mixers. With every channel consistent, the band will have an easier time getting their mixes dialed in, and you’ll do better with monitor mixes. Once you determine the best level for your personal mixer’s input module, making every channel the same makes it easy to keep things sounding good.

On the other hand, this method is not without con’s.

Your faders may end up all over the place. Some would argue that the purpose of faders is to mix—and that’s true. But when you have 32 faders that are all at different levels, remembering where they should all start a song can get tricky. It’s a lot easier with digital because you can snapshot it, however. 

Fader resolution can be an issue. There is the aforementioned fader resolution issue that you still have to contend with, though arguably, the channels with low fader levels are probably ones you’re not going to touch much anyway.

When to use this method:

If you’re an audio purist who believes in maximizing the preamps, this is your approach. Also, if you’re using Avioms, this is a great way to help them sound better. In fact, almost any personal mixer that uses an input module will sound better if you’re feeding it consistent levels. 

It’s also an easy way to teach volunteers how to set up proper gain levels. Once you’ve determined the best-sounding level for your preamps, you can tell them to set every channel up to that level. Again, if everything else is optimized in the system, the overall variations should be fairly minimal and easy to accommodate. If you’re finding fader levels varying by 20-30 dB, you may want to make some adjustments to mic’s, DIs or whatever inputs you’re using. 

OK, so that’s the Maximized Preamp Gain method. Next time we’ll finish up this series by discussing the .5 approach—a hybrid model that I employ most weeks.

 

Today’s post is brought to you by the Roland R-1000. The R-1000 is a multi-channel recorder/player ideal for the V-Mixing System or any MADI equipped console or environment. Ideal for virtual sound checks, multi-channel recording, and playback.

Church Tech Weekly Episode 169: The Texas of Canada


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We’re live from SALT13! A large group of technical artists assembled in Stephen Proctor’s living room, and we were there to record it. It’s a great discussion on the tools of our craft, and a reminder that we all face similar challenges. 

More… 

Today’s post is brought to you by Ultimate Ears. Housed within a custom shell designed to fit your ears, high quality multiple armature speaker systems provide an unparalleled sound environment, as well as 26 dB of passive noise cancellation.

2.5 Ways to Set Input Gain Pt. 2


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In the last post, we talked about the basic concept of gain staging your input channels, how not to do it and introduced the two major schools of thought for setting gain. For simplicity, let’s call the two schools Faders at Unity and Maximized Preamp Gain. Today, we’re talking Faders at Unity.

In this model, we first set each channel fader to unity, then dial in the appropriate gain level for a good starting house mix. If you’ve chosen mic’s carefully, placed them well and your overall stage levels are consistent, you’ll find that your input levels are all pretty close to each other. But there might be some channels that simply don’t need to be that loud in the house PA—cymbals for example. This is largely venue dependent, so keep that in mind. 

There are several pro’s to using this method.

When the faders are at or around unity, you are at maximum resolution. Look at the markings on your faders; notice that the distance from −10 to +10 is almost the same as the distance from off to −20. That means you can make much more subtle adjustments to your mix when the faders are near unity. When the fader is parked at −30, a slight bump might be a 5 dB gain, whereas around unity, that could be 1 dB. 

It’s easy to get back to a “normal” mix when all faders start at unity. This is especially helpful when mixing on an analog console. You can make all kinds of fader moves during a song, then return the faders close to unity for the beginning of the next song and know you’ll be in the ballpark for good sound. This is great for helping less experienced volunteers learn to mix—tell them to keep the faders near unity and make subtle changes and see how it sounds. 

Like anything, there are also some con’s to this approach.

You may not maximize gain for each channel. Some of your very loud acoustic instruments—and I’ll pick on cymbals again—may be set fairly low for a good house level. This will lead to a lower level for everything else, including monitor mixes, broadcast mixes and personal mixers. If you have a bunch of these types of channels, the noise floor can begin to rise, and you should perhaps look at other ways to get the levels closer to each other.

Personal Mixer levels may vary quite a lot. If you’re using direct outs to feed a personal mixer, some will come in at optimal levels, others may be quite low. Avioms in particular are very sensitive to gain structure; if you over- or under-drive the input module, they won’t sound good at all. Large variances in levels will make it harder for your band to get their mixes dialed in.

When to use this method:

I like to use this approach when I have a good, clean sounding console that isn’t going to give me fits if the gain is a little low. As long as the overall level variations are within 10 dB or so, I can get monitor mixes or personal monitors to work well with minimal complaining from the band. 

I also tend to go this route on smaller mixer with 60mm faders. With short faders, you have a very limited band to mix musically; drop the faders too low and suddenly making subtle adjustments gets very touchy. Of course, smaller mixers with 60mm faders tend to be cheaper models with noisier preamps that benefit from a more optimized gain structure, so you have to keep that in mind. Like I said, it’s all about making the best compromise.

OK, so that’s the Fader Unity method. Next up, we’ll talk about the Maximized Preamp Gain model.

Today’s post is brought to you by DiGiCo. DiGiCo audio mixing consoles deliver solutions that provide extreme flexibility, are easy to use and have an expandable infrastructure, while still providing the best possible audio quality. Visit their website to learn more.

2.5 Ways to Set Input Gain Pt. 1


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When it comes to live sound, input gain is one of those things you have to get right. If your gain structure is wrong, no amount of EQ, compression or fancy plug-ins will fix it. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of gain disasters, and have found many who simply don’t know how to properly gain stage their console.

In this short series, I’m going to give you two ways to set up your gain, plus a hybrid approach (the .5). There a few schools of thought on how to set gain, and it’s hard to say that one is “right;” it really depends on many factors. There are some wrong ways to do it, however, and we’ll get to those in a moment. First, let’s define input gain.

Input Gain is the gain applied by the console to mic and line level inputs coming into the each channel. Most consoles have a gain knob at the top of the channel strip labeled “Gain,” “Input Level,” or sometimes confusingly, “Trim.” The knob controls how much gain is applied to the microphone preamp, which is necessary to bring the level up from the lower mic level to the working level inside the console. Things are a little different for line-level inputs, and for clarity’s sake, we’ll focus on mic inputs for now. 

How Not To Set Gain

Running your input gain way too high will generally result in distortion. There are a few consoles—typically expensive analog ones—that will handle overdriven mic preamps with grace, and even sound good. But generally, you want to avoid lighting up the peak, overload or clipping lights. This is especially true with digital consoles. 

You can usually tell the input gain is set too high on your console if you find yourself running all your faders below −20, and the master is also turned way down. It will also sound bad. That should be the first clue, in fact. 

Conversely, you can also run the input gain too low with adverse effects. When the input gain is too low, your channel faders will all be pushed way up, the master will be all the way up and there will be plenty of noise in the system even when there is nothing playing. If you are also mixing monitors or using personal mixers with your desk, they will be very noisy as well.

Proper Gain Structure Makes Life Better

Clearly, there needs to be some kind of happy medium here. We need to find the proper amount of gain to apply to each channel that will be the best compromise between headroom, sound quality and ease of mixing. 

The two most common schools of thought are separated by the question of what to do with the faders. The first way to approach gain is to set the faders at unity, then dial each channel’s gain up to an appropriate level for a good starting house mix. The second way is to maximize the gain of each channel, bringing each mic preamp up to optimal operating level, regardless of relative volume in the house. 

There are good reasons for each method, and often times, they are not that far apart when it comes to actual implementation. But as we all know, live sound is about compromise, and we have to determine what the best compromise is for our settings. 

Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack these two methods and then give you my method which is sort of a combination between the two based on my available equipment. So next time, we’ll look at Faders at Unity.

Today’s post is brought to you by GearTechs. Technology for Worship is what they do. Audio, video and lighting; if it’s part of your worship service, and it has to do with technology, GearTechs can probably help. Great products, great advice, GearTechs.

Application Launch Scripts


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I love automating things. One thing I’ve noticed in my 40+ years on earth is that people tend to forget things. Whether it’s taking out the trash, remembering birthdays or starting the video recording at the right time, we forget. I’ve also noticed that computers are pretty good at remembering things. If you tell your computer that it should remind you of something two weeks from now, it will do it. 

Moreover, if you want something done the exact same way every time, well, computers are really good at doing that, too. I started playing around with this a year or so ago when I had an issue with Media Express wouldn’t hold the preference settings properly. It kept dropping back to a different codec and would fail to save the default save directory.

I decided to write an Automator/AppleScript action to launch Media Express, then set the preferences. That took an Automator function called Watch Me Do, which moves the mouse for you. Somehow, that problem magically fixed itself, but it occurred to me that I could automate some other functions of our start up process. 

I re-wrote the startup AppleScript to do the following:

  • Launch the app
  • Switch to Recording mode
  • Enter some parameters in the clip name fields

That seemed pretty easy, and it was. Unfortunately, Media Express is not GUI Scriptable, so I can’t get it to click the little plus signs that actually add the name elements to the clip name (I guess we have to give the video director something to do, right?). 

After that was working really well, it occurred to me that one other issue we have is our capture drive running out of free space. While it’s a 5 TB RAID, we do need to clear it out every so often. While it’s true that I could check it each week, I figured AppleScript could probably do that for me, and it won’t forget.

So I added a few lines to my launch script. After Media Express is launched and the name fields entered, the scrip polls the drive and figures out how much free space is there. If there is more than 300 GB of space open, it pops up a dialog that says everything is fine. If there is less than 300 GB, it alerts the operator that we need to clear off some space. Here is the script: 

tell application "Blackmagic Media Express.app"
activate
end tell
tell application "System Events"
keystroke "1" using command down
--enters record mode
end tell

tell application "System Events"
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
keystroke tab
--tabs to the correct field
set CurrentDate to month of (current date) & " " & day of (current date) & ", " & year of (current date) as string
--gets current date and puts it in a text format
tell application "System Events" to keystroke CurrentDate
--enters the date string in the field
keystroke tab
--tabs to the next field
tell application "System Events"
tell application "System Events" to keystroke "9 AM"
--enters 9AM in the field (we manually change it to 11AM)
end tell
end tell
tell application "Finder" to set free_bytes to free space of disk "Mac Daddy RAID" -- the number of free bytes left on the disk
set free_Gbytes to (free_bytes / (1024 * 1024 * 0.1024) div 100) / 100
--calculates current free space
if free_Gbytes < 300 then
tell application "SystemUIServer"
activate
display dialog "The Capture Disk is getting full (" & free_Gbytes & " GB of space left). We need to clear off some space. Better get Mike or Jon."
--if free space is less than 300 GB, displays the above alert
end tell
else
tell application "SystemUIServer"
activate
display dialog "Everything's shiny, Cap'n. Have a great weekend!"
--if free space is good, displays this dialog
end tell
end if

As you can see, it’s not a complicated script. I pulled much of the disk calculation code from a forum on AppleScript. The Google is a wonderful tool for figuring this stuff out. 

Now that I have this running on my video capture computer, I’m going to set it up on our audio recorder as well. There’s nothing worse than discovering your drive is full mid-service. Here is a link to the AppleScript if you want it in actual script format. Feel free to use, adapt and modify as you need to.

Today’s post is brought to you by Heil Sound. Established in 1966, Heil Sound Ltd. has developed many professional audio innovations over the years, and is currently a world leader in the design and manufacture of large diaphragm dynamic, professional grade microphones for live sound, broadcast and recording.

And by CCI Solutions. With a reputation for excellence, technical expertise and competitive pricing, CCI Solutions has served churches across the US in their media, equipment, design and installation needs for over 35 years.

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