Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: July 2018

Advice From An Old Guy: Learn Your System


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Once you clean up, learn your craft and show up on time (that is, early), it’s time to learn your system. Few of us have the luxury of walking into a new church job and getting to completely revamp the entire AVL system. Most of us will walk into whatever system is there and have to get to work. That means you’re going to have to spend some time getting to know how your system is put together.

Signal Flow
Depending on how competent the designer and installer of your system was, it may be easy or hard to figure out the signal flow of your system. Also, it’s possible the person before you didn’t know how anything was supposed to work, so they jacked it all up. That may mean you need to bring someone in for a day or two of help troubleshooting and mapping out the system. Or, you can do it yourself. Either way, you need to know how your system works.

Why? Because if you don’t, what will you do when something breaks? I had a rude awakening to this in my last church. About 3 months in, we came in on a Sunday to find the DSP that drove the house right hang was dead. I very quickly had to troubleshoot and then re-wire the system during rehearsal. It would have been a lot faster had I known how it was all put together. As it was, I wasted a lot of time figuring out which outputs of the DSP did what.

In that same church, the TD that followed me ran mic lines through the seats from FOH to the stage for something or another. When I pointed out that not only had I installed a half-dozen tie lines for that very purpose, but there were also three empty 2” conduits running that path, everyone was dumbfounded.

Gear
Sometimes we’ll go in to a church to revamp one system and while I’m there I’ll get questions about other systems. When I start inquiring how things are put together or how they are using a particular piece of gear, I’ll get looks like I’m from outer space. You may not have to be intimately familiar with each and every piece of gear, but it’s a really swell idea to know why it’s there and what it does.

It’s also really hard to troubleshoot when you don’t know what you’re working with. It’s important to note that I’m not chiding you for not knowing what all your gear does on day one. But I can tell you that I’ve looked like a genius on more than one occasion because I can use the Google. Plug the model number into the handy Google search bar and you’ll learn a lot. You might even be able to download a manual! Once you know what this piece of gear does, you’ll know when it’s not working. Or maybe that it’s not properly deployed. Or maybe it has capabilities that you didn’t know about and you can do more without ordering new gear. That also makes you look really smart.

Knowing your gear also makes it easier for your integrator to help you expand the system. I’ve shown up to more than one site and said, “Gosh, I wish I had known you had _______.” Sometimes that means things are easier. Sometimes, not so much.

Also note that I’m not demanding you know every single make and model by heart. You just need to know roughly what you have and how it works. When I was re-building my video system, I knew every single piece of gear and how it all went together. But a year later, when we moved on to audio, I probably couldn’t have told you every model number of every piece of gear in the system. However, I knew the principles on which it was built. Also, it helps to have drawings.

Knowing your system is key to successfully running a technical department. Like all things worth doing, it takes a little time. But trust me, it’s time well spent.

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Advice From An Old Guy: Learn Your Craft


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Mixing sound, lighting design, video production (live and post), graphic design—these are all crafts. They all take a tremendous amount of time and dedication to learn and master. I’ve visited churches and had the FOH guy ask me which plugins I would recommend to make their sound better. I invariably tell them they don’t need plugins, they need to learn to mix. You shouldn’t be buying a ton of new intelligent lighting fixtures if you can’t make your static lighting looks look amazing.

While listening to a podcast the other day, Steve Anderson (of That Shooting Show) said the following:

“Technique is the middle of mastery. Technique is not the end of mastery. Mastery is not simply an encyclopedic knowledge of techniques. True mastery is the embodiment of principles.”

That really resonated with me. Being a master of audio mixing isn’t simply having an iLock with the Platinum package on it. It’s not simply knowing 10 different vocal mic’s or 5 ways to mic a snare. It’s knowing the principles of sound, music and mixing, and applying them to the situation at hand. That is developing your craft.

Time, Dedication, Effort
You can learn a lot about mixing by attending an MxU daylong event. One of the things that becomes apparent pretty quickly is that Andrew, Jeff and Lee have spent a long time honing their craft. I’ve been talking with Andrew and Lee about mixing for nearly 10 years now, and I know that we’ve all learned from each other, and from other people. When we all sit down at a table to talk mixing, it’s a free exchange of ideas with everyone contributing. We then go back to our respective consoles and try the ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But we’re always learning.

It’s not a plugin. There is no magic EQ that will make your vocals sound good (so stop asking on Facebook, OK?). You don’t need another mic or console. You need to take time to learn the fundamentals of mixing and music. That will take a long time. You can’t learn by reading Facebook groups. You need to sit down in front of a console with a hard drive full of tracks and mix. Thankfully, this is very easy today. Figure it out and do it.

It’s Easier with Help
Learning a craft is always easier when you have someone who can guide you along the journey. This is increasingly hard to do today because there is a shortage of guys in the Church today who really know what they’re doing. But if you can find someone who will give you honest feedback, you’ll grow a lot faster.

But you still have to do the work. If you want to learn to mix, listen to music. A lot of music. Preferably music that was produced in the 1970’s-1990’s before master limiting compressors ruined music. If you want to learn lighting, watch a lot of concert videos. Watch musicals. Watch any live event that has lighting. Pay attention to what is being done and what is not being done. Sometimes restraint is the better part of lighting.

If you don’t know how your equipment works, get someone in to teach you. This will probably cost you some money. But there is no better investment than you can make into yourself than learning your craft. Ideally, your church sees value in you getting better at your job and will fund this education. But even if not, it’s worth it. When I worked at a church with a staff of 40 and a $4M annual budget, I took vacation and paid my own way to conferences and training because the church didn’t see the value. But I did.

If you really want to get better at your craft, take a job as an assistant to a tech guy who is really squared away. You’ll do a lot of grunt work, but you’ll also learn more, faster, than under any other condition. This is how it should work, really. I wish we had more churches with highly skilled, senior-level tech guys who could hire a new ATD every few years to train up and send out. We’d have a lot better tech in the Church if we did that. Senior pastors, give that some thought, OK?
Ultimately, it’s up to you, though. You have to put in the time, you have to put in the effort, and you will probably have to pay for it. However, once you master this craft, you won’t want for work.

That’s a good thing.

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Advice From An Old Guy: Keep It Clean


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If cleanliness is next to godliness, there must be a lot of really un-godly tech guys. I am actually shocked sometimes when I walk into churches to meet with them and practically stumble across their stage because it’s such a mess. I’ve had to go troubleshoot systems yet I couldn’t get to the racks were surrounded by piles and piles of miscellaneous crap. I understand that a lot of that disappears once the work lights are turned off, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.

Few things say, “I don’t take my job seriously,” more than a messy work environment. When senior leadership is walking through a messy tech booth, or stumbling around backstage, it’s really hard for them to agree that you’re on top of your game. I’ve met with tech guys who lament the fact that no one takes them seriously. Then I see their stage and work area, and I immediately know what part of the problem is.

“I Don’t Have Time to Clean!”
Been there, done that. I’ve been on staff at three churches—and all of them were a mess when I got there. For me, job one was cleaning up and taking inventory. I had to know what we had, where it was and figure out how to store it effectively. Yes, it takes time. Yes, I had services to do and media to make. But spending some time cleaning will pay huge dividends down the road.
First, you can actually find stuff. So when the worship pastor surprises you with a last-minute addition, you know where to grab another DI, mic and cable. Instead of digging through 10 boxes of crap, you get what you need quickly. That’s a win.

Second, your team and your leadership will start taking you more seriously. When they see that you’re treating this like the professional job it is, they will step up their respect of you. Again, I know of what I speak. I came into three churches where the opinion of the tech department was pretty low. I was looked at negatively in two of them. But, after a few months when the stage was clean and safe, the storage rooms were cleaned up and things were working as they should, people started paying attention.

Clean is Safe
When we have people walking across our stages in the dark and there is crap everywhere, we are inviting a trip and fall. Now, the hapless worship team member may not sue the church. But, do you really want your team members tripping and possibly getting hurt because you were too lazy to clean up? To me, that’s just unacceptable.

Step one is organizing all cable runs, and consolidating them to as few bundles as possible. Step two is lining the stage with spike tape for safe walkways. Step three is building or buying snakes to minimize the number of individual mic cables running about.

Organization is Key
I’ll tell you from experience that one of the smartest things you can buy for your tech department is a rolling mechanic’s tool chest. The skinny drawers are perfect for mic’s, DIs and misc gak. The bigger drawers are for cased mic’s, Avalon D5s, tools, whatever. You can pick them up for a few hundred dollars to close to a thousand depending on how big you want. Being on wheels means you can easily move it between locked storage and the stage. Plus, they almost all come with keys so you can lock it to limit access.

You also probably need a bunch of shelves, stacking bins and a workbench. Again, all this is easily sourced at the home center for not a ton of cash. Once you are organized, you’ll know what you have and if it goes missing, you’ll know a lot sooner.

How Much Do You Care?
There’s an old saying, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” A sloppy, disorganized mess of a tech department tells everyone you don’t really care—at which point, it doesn’t matter how much you know. By caring for the stuff under care, people will begin to respect you.

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Advice From An Old Guy: Be On Time


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We used to have a saying back in the day; early is on time, on time is late and if you’re late, don’t bother showing up. The corollary is that, “call time” is the time we call your replacement. Normally, I’m a pretty laid back person and I don’t get too stressed out about my daily schedule. I work from home and can flex as need be. However, if I’m scheduled for a gig, church service or other production event at 1 PM on Saturday, I’m going to plan on pulling into the parking lot at 12:45. If I expect bad traffic, I’ll allow more of a cushion. But I’m not going to be late. I take my job seriously and I will do what I need to do on my end to make sure I end up there on time. Which is, of course, early.

But Muh Grace!
Now certainly there are those out there right now saying, “But Mike, it’s not that big a deal. We’re the church, we are full of grace. If someone is late, it’s OK. We love them and go on.” Sure, that’s fine. But think about this: If you are the TD and you’re late, that means there is a good chance that everyone else is going to have to wait for you to get there and get things going.

There may be 6-8 people in the band who are giving up their Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon waiting for you. The 4-8 tech volunteers who are doing the same will be waiting for you. That’s a dozen or more people waiting. For you. If you’re 15 minutes late, that’s 3 man-hours. In the church, we tend to think of time as free. But time is all we have. And when people consistently find their time is being wasted by others, they get frustrated. When they get frustrated, they eventually leave.

A Pattern of Behavior
Now, I’m not talking about the “once in a while, something really bad happened at home and you’re late once this year” situations. I’m talking about people who are habitually late. Nothing says, “I don’t take my job seriously” like being habitually late. And if you don’t take your job seriously, why should anyone else?

I occasionally hear from frustrated young TDs because they don’t get no respect. When I dig into it, I find out that they are always late, the stage is never set and ready when the band arrives and everyone is continually aggravated at having their time wasted. It’s not hard to see the cause the respect problem.

My Best Compliment
Several years ago, when I was a TD, we had a drummer who played with us about once a month. In addition to being a great drummer, he regularly played with a really big, internationally famous, Grammy-winning band. One day as I was chatting with him as he set up his cymbals, he said to me, “Mike, I gotta tell you; I love coming here to play. I can come in, sit down and play. Everything is set up—the monitors, the mic’s—it’s all perfect. Seriously, this is my favorite place to play. And I give a lot of credit to you and your team. Thanks for making this easy.”

I recount this conversation not to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate a point. Here’s a guy who plays international tours and really enjoys playing on my stage. A big part of that was because while he needed to be there at 2 (and he was always there at 1:45…), I arrived at noon. I allowed enough time to make sure the stage was entirely set and line checked long before the first band member ever set foot on it. Every weekend. Even when nothing changed from last week.

Why did I put so much extra time into this? Because that’s the job. If you need an hour to set and check your stage (and you need to check it—every weekend), you should allow yourself 90 minutes. Now it’s true that most weekends, you’ll be sitting around talking with your tech team for 30 minutes every week. But, having that 30 minute cushion allows for things to break or go wrong, last-minute changes or just getting to know your team. There’s no downside.

Contrast that to the TD that shows up 15 minutes before—or worse, 15 minutes after—the band does and is super-stressed out trying to get everything up and running as the band is setting up. Which TD do you think gets the most respect? One of the easiest things you can do as a TD to start to build the respect of your team, your band and your leadership is be on time. Which is to say, early.

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Advice From An Old Guy


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A few months ago, I was talking with a younger TD. We got to talking about the state of production and leadership in the church today. I mentioned that with all the traveling I do to different churches around the country, it has begun to depress me how things are looking. Sure, the pics on the ‘gram look great, but when the work lights come back on, everything is kind of a mess.

Like most challenges in the church today, I feel this is a problem of leadership—or the lack thereof—and lack of professionalism. When the concept of the Technical Director (or Production Director) began, nearly all of us had years of professional production experience outside the church before joining a church staff. Having either toured or done corporate production for a long time, we came into the church with the mindset that we were pros and ran the departments accordingly.

Then we all aged out. Being a church TD is definitely a young man’s game, and as we get older, we get too tired and too expensive. With church budgets shrinking, churches turned to younger guys with little or no experience outside of the church they grew up in. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. We all started somewhere. However, the current leadership crisis has led to a situation where there is no one to train the younger guys how to be professional TDs. I know a lot of old guys like myself who were explicitly or implicitly told that when our services were no longer required, our opinions, experience and knowledge wasn’t either.

This is tragic because production is a craft—a craft that you learn best from someone older and wiser. I’m thankful to have had several older mentors as I was growing up in the business that helped shaped the way I approach production. Sure, you can figure it out on your own, but it takes a lot longer. And as tempting as it is, the internet is not much help anymore. There is so much mis-information out there that ranges from simply bad to truly awful.

The Facebook groups are mostly the blind leading the blind and often end up like many Amazon questions: Q—“Does this product do X, Y and Z?” A—“I don’t know. But I love mine!” Yeah, super-helpful. Thanks

As I was going on about all this with my younger TD friend, he asked me what I thought could be done about it all. I actually didn’t have any good ideas. Honestly, it’s a bit exhausting to think about. Sometimes, the questions I get make me want to retreat to my reloading bench and spend the rest of my days tweaking powder charges and overall lengths to squeeze the most accuracy possible from my rifles.

But then God got in my head and said, “Seriously Sessler, you complain about this all the time. Why don’t you do something to fix it?” So, here we are. I don’t know that I can fix the entire problem, but I’m at least going to contribute to a solution. This is the first post in a series of advice I would give to young TDs getting started in this business. Occasionally, I do run across guys who are eager to learn from someone with a little more experience. And since I’ve been doing this longer than many TDs have been alive, I may have a few things to contribute to the conversation.

Over the next unspecified number of days and weeks, I’ll be posting short, one-topic articles that will address things I think every TD or Production Director should know and do. Someday, I’ll take on the senior leadership crisis—but for now, I’ll stick to something I know a little bit about. Check back in next time for the first topic: Be On Time.

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