Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: November 2015

Is Sound Subjective? Pt. 1 PA Tuning


Image courtesy of  sergio_leenen

Image courtesy of sergio_leenen

The other day I was pursuing one of the many online sound groups and came across a question from someone who I believe to be a volunteer sound tech at a church. He was asking if sound was subjective. He had been dealing with various other leaders in the church and was struggling to come up with a consensus on whether there was “good” sound or if it’s all in the ear of the beholder. 

As someone who has been party to many of these discussions, I’m going to throw my thoughts out here about this topic. The more I’ve thought about it over the weekend, the more I want to break it up into two or three posts—we’ll see how it goes. Because I think we have a few things going on here. 

First I want to tackle the idea of PA tuning, because without a well-tuned PA, good sound is much harder to achieve. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of opinions on how to tune a PA. Second, I want to dig into the difference between “subjective sound” and “personal preference” when it comes to mixing. I think those concepts are often confused, and when we assert one as “correct,” we get into trouble. We’ll see where we go from there. 

You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tune A Fish

That’s probably one of my favorite album titles of all time (thanks, REO Speedwagon!). When it comes to PA tuning, you could ask 10 guys how to do it and get 11 answers. But it basically boils down to two main schools of thought. The first says the PA should be as linear as possible; that is, what comes out of the board comes out of the PA. When you look at a transfer function graph of a PA tuned like this, it should be pretty close to flat across the audio spectrum. 

Before we go any further, I want to stop and say that in an actual, live room, you’ll never get it totally flat. There will always be slight anomalies, but these should be fairly small. And if you do manage to get it totally flat, you can completely change that by moving the mic about 3 feet. So when I say a linear system is “flat,” I don’t mean the trace looks like it was drawn with a ruler. I mean it’s generally flat. 

The other school of thought is to build in some tonal shaping into the tune of the PA. This would normally include what some call the “bass haystack,” a 6-12 dB bump at the low end that looks somewhat like a haystack, and usually also includes some rolloff of the high frequencies. How much roll off and where it starts will vary, but it’s usually in the order of 1-2 dB per octave above 1-4 KHZ. 

Which is Right?

I’m sure there are those out there who will argue to the death about which method is correct (or have their own, far superior method). Because this is that important. [That was sarcasm] As is often the case, much of this is personal preference. I’ve heard and mixed on systems tuned both ways and to me and my ears I prefer the latter approach. I find these systems sound more musical and less harsh. However, good friends of mine will argue that mixing on a system tuned the way I like it is like mixing with blankets over the speakers. I can appreciate that. Their approach to mixing is different from mine and while we achieve similar results, we go about it differently. I think it’s possible to get a great sounding mix on either tune, but you have to approach the mix differently. 

I do believe folks in either camp will agree that the overall tune of the speakers should be accurate. Aside from a bass haystack (or not), and a subtle, linear roll off of the HF (or not), the system should pretty much deliver what comes out of the console. So while we may have be able to build consensus on a couple of different ways that are “correct” to tune a PA, there are a lot of ways to really screw it up.

You Can’t Tune What Wasn’t Designed To Be Tuned

Part of the problem stems from too many badly designed (or not at all designed) and engineered systems that simply cannot be tuned. What kind of system would this be? I’ve seen seating areas fully covered by 2-3 speakers that are at radically different distances from the seats. You can’t fix the comb filtering that will ensue with electronics. I’ve seen systems that use speakers that are entirely wrong for the space. Sure, they make sound, but it’s so uncontrolled there’s no way to make it sound good. Other times, entire seating sections are off-axis of the PA, and there’s no electronic fix for that. Those are all bad. 

I’ve also seen all sorts of crazy frequency response traces from systems I’ve been called in to fix. These are usually the result of someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous going in and playing with all those cool EQ controls inside the DSP. I’ve also seen some, uh, interesting EQ curves on 31-bands on the master bus of consoles. Cleaning all that up makes a huge difference. 

The Bottom Line

While I think there is some room for preference and individual taste when it comes to tuning a PA, if you put 10 top notch sound guys in a room with a competent system tech, you could come up with a general consensus of what sounds good and would be easy to mix on. And it would be relatively easy to spot ways not to do it. 

Next up, is mixing a personal preference or is it subjective?

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Thanksgiving


Turkey, bacon and smoke. What's not to love?

Turkey, bacon and smoke. What’s not to love?

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. And as I reflect on the past year, I am again realizing that I have a lot to be thankful for. Yesterday, I was baking with my oldest daughter in preparation for today and I said, “It’s pretty amazing what’s happened in the last year, huh?” We’ve had so many changes in the last few months our stress-for-change score is pretty much off the charts. But as we settle in to our sixth month in our new home, in a new city, I think we’re beginning to realize the upsides of all that change.

A year ago, we had some pretty big stress in our family that almost caused us to cancel Thanksgiving. None of us felt like celebrating, and we almost gave up on it. But we decided that being thankful was a choice, and while things looked bleak, we chose to celebrate God’s goodness despite our situation.

A year later, most of those issues have been resolved, and we are set to enjoy a great day today. It’s nothing short of amazing what God has done in the last 12 months. Even as recently as six months ago, I couldn’t see where we’d be today, and yet, here we are. This is in no small part to the prayers of so many of my friends. You know who you are, and if I haven’t said it lately, I’m very thankful for all of you!

Every time I show someone around our new home, I’m reminded of how thankful I am for it. After being crammed into a perfectly adequate but really small town home in SoCal, it’s so, so nice to have some room to spread out and host guests. The fact that it costs us 1/2 as much per month as the other house is an added bonus. 

I’m thankful to have joined the staff of CCI Solutions just months before my old company imploded. I get to work with some insanely talented people who love the Church and love what they do. It’s great to be working along side my friends. 

I’m also grateful for those of you who read this website and listen to our podcasts. I hear from many of you, and really enjoy meeting you at trade shows. I’m thankful for what you are doing to further the Kingdom. I’m also thankful I get to play a small role in encouraging and equipping you to do your job. We live in fascinating times. 

Finally, I’m thankful to live in a city where smoking my Thanksgiving turkey is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged. Speaking of which, I need to get back to tending the smoker. Which is really just my way of coming up with an excuse to stand out there and enjoy the smell of hickory and oak turning my ordinary bird into something extraordinary. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Roland

Today’s post is brought to you by Digital Audio Labs, The Livemix monitor system is simple for volunteer performers to use while providing professional tools for great mixes. Featuring outstanding sound quality, color touchscreen with custom naming, 24 channels with effects, remote mixing, intercom, ambient mics, and dedicated ME knob, Livemix provides more and costs much less than competing systems.

Redefining Rest


With few exceptions, the tech guys I know are all blessed (or cursed, depending on the perspective) with a high work ethic. We all tend to live by the “get it done no matter what it takes” creed. That leads to long days, late nights and many weekends not taken off. Generally speaking, those are good traits. This country needs people who will work hard for a good cause. And since Sundays keep showing up with alarming regularity, a good tech guy or gal can be the difference between a service that connects people with God or one that’s distracting. 

The downside of this work ethic however, is that we almost never take time off to rest. I put myself in this category. I realized the other day that I haven’t taken a week off since March of 2014. That is way, way too long to be continually working. Sure, I’ve taken a long weekend here or a random day off there, but not an entire week. A full week is really what’s needed (sometimes more) to reset our internal systems to we can keep on going. But even when taking a week off, there is a problem.

Be Productive!

I keep hearing that phrase in my head. I want to be productive. And no matter how much I really just need to lay in bed until 9, enjoy a lazy morning and then take a hike through the woods, I have this clamoring to be productive and get stuff done. I want to build shelves in my closet, fix the gutter on the shower door, clean my office, move the website, reply to emails that are 5 months old (sorry if you’ve emailed me; I’m really behind…). I feel like I simply need to keep doing something. I need to rest, but I justify it by saying because it’s not “work,” I am getting rest. But I know it’s a lie.

Redefine Rest

Yesterday, I had a bit of a revelation. As I was struggling with how to spend my afternoon, it all of the sudden hit me that I need to re-think my time off. Instead of simply considering it time I’m not working—at my job—I need to create an actual goal I can accomplish. I’m task-driven. I like to figure out how I’m going to accomplish something and then do it. It’s why I’m good at my job. But it can be a problem when I simply need to chill out. Unless I redefine my goal.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that what I need to do is set a goal to rest. I need to remind myself that the point, the goal, the successful outcome of this week will be to get rest

I am tired. I have been running at a pace that is not sustainable and I need to do a better job of pacing myself. I need to take more regular breaks. I know all this. But the start of that process is to get some rest, plain and simple. So I decided that the only way I can consider this week a“success” is if I get a ton of rest. And that means not doing a whole lot. Sure, I’ll take some hikes, go to the range, spend a bunch of time in the kitchen with my wife and daughter and maybe I’ll even build those shelves. But the real goal of this week is to rest. All those tasks can wait.

You Need To Rest

Why am I telling you this? Partially it’s to keep myself accountable. When I put this out on the old inter-webs, it’s harder for me to start taking on a ton of work. But it’s also largely because I suspect there are some of you out there who need to hear this. You need a break. You need to give yourself permission to take a week off and sleep in. You need a whole week of doing nothing. But you struggle with it because you feel you need to be productive. 

So here you go; I give you permission to take a week off and rest. I’m following my own advice here; I was going to write this yesterday, but I went for a walk in the woods instead. Managed to get within about 12 feet of that deer up there. That was very relaxing. Except for my knees—they’re still sore… 

Relax, take time off, do things that are fun and restorative for you. The work will wait. Believe it or not, the world will keep on spinning even if we’re not there to make sure it does so on cue.

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Don’t Forget to Check the Cable


We’ve been talking about the transition to IP-based networked AVL systems for quite some time. I just finished up a big install for a church in which every system is IP-based. Audio is Dante, lighting is Streaming ACN and while video was SDI, the router and switcher lived on the network and were remotely controllable. All these systems are extremely flexible, powerful and offer the church great capabilities. They also come with some setup and configuration challenges. I spent as at least 2-3 times the as long getting everything playing nicely as I did actually tuning the PA and building show files.

These system can also be challenging to troubleshoot. And with everything now in IT switches, it’s easy to assume that any problem you have is IP related. However, sometimes, it’s something far more simple—and frustrating. Here are few examples of things I ran into that turned out to be a lot simpler than we originally thought. 

Is It Getting Power?

We installed an RGBW house light that was driven by DMX. The fixtures have their own control box that sends out a proprietary control signal that we initially had some challenges with. Once we worked that out, it all seemed to be working, until we lost half the lights in the youth room. The lights were split into two circuits and two runs of control. Those runs coincided. I spent a few hours trying to troubleshoot the control signal, wondering why it wouldn’t turn on. 

Finally, I grabbed by non-contact voltage tester and found out they weren’t getting AC. I went back to the relay rack and found a fuse blown on the relay tray. Curious as to how the fuse was blown, I shut power off to the relay panel and tested all the hot busses for shorts. Sure enough, we had a short in a different circuit. The electrician accidentally landed a neutral on a hot lug and when we put the relay tray in, it blew the fuse. We didn’t know that, as we hadn’t used that circuit yet. And when we pulled the trays out to connect DMX, we mixed up the order and ended up with the blown fuse in the house light slot. Before you go spending a ton of time trying to sort out IP/IT/DMX/SCAN issues, make sure the fixtures are actually getting power. Lesson learned. 

Is the Pinout Right?

In this same system (it was a frustrating day), we came out of a SCAN gateway to DMX to drive the control box. The gateway used a terminal strip, and the control box used a 5-pin connector. So, we cut the end off a 5-pin cable and landed the wires. My installer had done the exact same thing in another room in this install, so it seemed logical to land the wires the same way.

Three hours of troubleshooting streaming ACN, DMX, gateways and all that nonsense and one of my guys suggested opening up the 5-pin to verify the pinouts. Sure enough, the manufacturer of this 5-pin cable (who will go unnamed, but will not see a ton more business from me) decided that sticking to a single color scheme for all DMX cables is simply too much work. In one cable, shield, data + and data – were bare wire, black and red, respectively. In the other room where I had so much trouble, it was bare wire, red and green. Once I swapped wires, all worked fine. 

Lesson learned; never trust a cable manufacturer to do a good job managing colors in 5-pin (or even 3-pin for that matter) cables. 

In each of these cases, a simple analog cable caused me a ton of headaches. I should have checked them first, but I was sure it was a network issue. When troubleshooting newer systems, don’t forget the basics. Is it hooked up properly? Is it getting power? Is the In cable going to the In port? Often, we spend a lot of time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Roland

Backstage at the CMA Award Show


Image courtesy of  Disney | ABC Television Group  (this was last year)

Image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group (this was last year)

Every once in a while something totally unexpected and totally cool pops up. As I write this, it’s the Sunday before the 2015 CMA Awards show. Yesterday as I was eating my Cowboy Eggs and Bacon breakfast, I read an email from long-time CTW listener. He said he was in town doing coms for the CMA’s and wondered if I would be interested in a backstage tour. It didn’t take long to say, “Yes!” 

I just got back, and thought it would be fun to share some of it with you. I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to be “that guy,” but I’ll try to describe some of the very fascinating things I saw. Much of this is pretty typical for an awards show like this; in fact, many of the same trucks and crew to all the major award shows. Still, it’s cool to see, and I came away with a few very important thoughts that relate to church production.

Two of Everything

Most people know the CMA’s have two stages in the venue that alternate performances. Because of this, there are two of almost everything. But it’s not always split for Stage A and Stage B. There are two separate monitor worlds, one for each stage. And there are two consoles at FOH, but one is for all the band mixing, while the other is for everything else. There are two broadcast audio trucks, but one is “live” and one is “preset.” There are also two video trucks but there is so much going on in both it’s hard to tell you what is what. 

I’m not sure this is 100% true, but it also looked that most of the key production positions also had a primary and secondary tech working them. I know from experience that having a dedicated A2 on a big weekend can be a huge stress reliever, and I regret not learning that lesson earlier in my career.

By the Numbers

Everyone wants to know how many channels of this or that there are, so I’ll see how I can do with recall. I believe the FOH guy told me they are running about 242 inputs at FOH. All the live desks are DiGiCo SD5s and SD7s, while the broadcast consoles are Calrec. The show has 16 cameras, including 5 jibs and a SteadiCam. There were some 250 channels of wireless between mic’s, IEMs and coms. Each stage has 10 wireless IEMs, 4 wired IEMs, and there were 16 wedge mixes, though I don’t think that was per stage. Coms is an interesting blend of digital point-to-point and analog party line depending on application. I think there were some 90+ com packs.

Lessons Learned

Whenever I get the chance to do something like this, I always try to see what I can learn that will improve my productions. Here are some of the takeaways. 

Give yourself enough time. The show is Wednesday night, and they’ve been there for almost a week already. I believe one of the reasons for the low stress I sensed is because they all had enough time to do their jobs well. It helps that the same companies do this show every year, and it’s pretty dialed. But they also know how much time it takes and allow for it. Too often, we try to cram 3 weeks worth of work into 1 and kill ourselves. My best Christmas productions where the ones where I started way in advance. 

Have enough help. The number of people back stage was staggering. Everyone had a job, and typically it was just one job. I didn’t see anyone trying to program lights while simultaneously fixing audio problems or setting up drum risers. We often complain about the lack of help in church productions, but I wonder if it’s because we don’t ask enough people to help. Or perhaps if we’re trying to do productions we can’t reasonably do because we don’t have the help. 

Don’t be a jerk. As Keith took me around, he introduced me to many of the high level production folks. Every single one of them stood and talked with us for a few minutes, even though they had no reason to do so. I’ve been guilty of this at times, people will bring family members by during a production and I’ll say hi and rush off to do something “important.” Perhaps because I didn’t have enough help or enough time. Hmmm… But everyone I met was super-cool and gracious. 

Those production guys are real people. I have frankly been quite embarrassed during some award shows some years as I watch the social media stream just rip the production—and thus, the production crew—to shreds. Now, I’ll agree that there are certain shows where the audio or camera work or whatever is less than stellar. But before you hit Tweet on that scathing critique, think about how it would feel if every member of your congregation tweeted about your last mistake.

I got to meet and talk to the guy who does the final 5.1 broadcast mix. He basically gets stems and puts them all together, while he has about 20 people talking on the coms the entire time. When I told him that I felt the CMA Awards had the best broadcast mix of any award show, he was genuinely grateful for the praise. He told me that they usually don’t hear positive comments like that from viewers, so it meant a lot. Think about that before you tweet next time, OK?

Overall, it was a great couple of hours. I want to thank Keith for inviting me and everyone I talked with for just being cool. I’ll be out of town on Wednesday, but you can bet I’ll have my DVR set so I can watch the whole show when I get home.

Roland

Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.

Why Make it Beautiful?


Image courtesy of  http://kevinashphotography.com

Image courtesy of http://kevinashphotography.com

I recently happened across a discussion that was started by a pastor who was looking at the bland, white walls of their sanctuary with terrible acoustics and struggling with the why of making it look nice. Thankfully, he understood the need to fix the terrible acoustics. But he was legitimately struggling with the why of making the room look better than blank white. 

Now, as a technical artist, you might think my first thought would be to attempt to justify the need for a ton of LED lights, environmental projection and cool stage sets. And while I think there is a place for that, I didn’t go there first. My first thought was the great cathedrals of Europe. Then I thought of what the Temple of David must have looked like. I’ve seen some artist’s renderings of the temple, and it had to be amazing. 

Who Do You Worship?

Looking at those temples and cathedrals, one has to ask, “What is the motivation to create such an awe-inspiring structure?” In the case of the temple, David wanted to create a temple that was as amazing as God himself. That’s probably not possible, but he sure gave it a shot. The great architects and builders of Renaissance tried to build spaces that would put all who entered into a state of awe and wonder. They figured that since we worship a great, awesome and amazing God, the buildings where we worship should be great, awesome and amazing. 

When you enter such a building, or even see pictures of them, you can’t help but be inspired. The longer you spend in them, the more the Gospel story unfolds itself. Those architects were master story tellers and managed to tell a complete story with the building itself. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the artwork and paintings that often filled the space. 

Little White Boxes for You and Me

Fast forward to today and what do we have? White boxes. Instead of creating buildings that inspire wonder and awe, we build the cheapest, most boring church buildings we can. Well, not all of them, but many fit this description. Contrast this to the mall or the Vegas strip. If one were to evaluate what we value based on the time, energy and money we spend on the architecture, one would potentially come to the conclusion that we don’t really value our God much. 

Spend Money on Ministry!

The cry we often hear when it comes to not spending any money on the building is that we should be spending it on ministry instead. While I think spending money on ministry is a good thing, I think that argument is based on a fundamental lack of faith. The great cathedrals of Europe cost a small fortune to build, and often took a century to complete. But look at the results! Hundreds of years later, they’re still wonderful. 

Today, we live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and we scrimp and build our “houses of worship” with the lowest bidder. The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’s not really concerned about finances. Yet we pinch every penny and build the most boring, uninspiring building to worship the God who created the entire universe. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? 

Strike a Balance

Now, I understand we live in a different time and place. A $100 Million cathedral might not be the best idea today. However, our buildings don’t have to be ugly and boring. I think it’s more important to be intentional about creating a space for worship than it is to spend a lot of money on it. 

I travel to a lot of different church buildings and I’ve seen the ugly white boxes and I’ve seen buildings that are incredibly cool and welcoming that didn’t cost a fortune. It’s all about creating a space that is inspiring, calming, welcoming or engaging—depending on what you’re going for. It could be as simple as a few thousand dollars worth of ultra short throw projectors on those blank white walls (they’re good for something!). Or it could be a paint and some cool found objects arranged in a way that tells a story. 

Technology is Changing

A few years ago, every church that wanted to be “relevant” (in quotes because it’s been so over used I’m not sure it’s relevant any more) put up a bunch of moving lights, fired up the hazer and tried to do a rock concert every weekend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you do a terrible job of it. Or it’s not at all the culture of your church. Some of the best worship experiences I’ve had were in very simple, but very intentional rooms. They used technology—lights, haze, video, graphics—but that wasn’t the focus. You don’t have to go crazy. But you can make it beautiful. You should make it beautiful. It should match who you are as a church. And it should reflect the God who created the universe all around us. How’s that for some inspiration!

© 2021 ChurchTechArts

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑