Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Category: CTA Classroom (Page 1 of 9)

Better Broadcast Mixes

It seems that almost every week someone reaches out for help with their broadcast mix. Now, that mix could simply be “broadcast” into the lobby or cry room, but it seems to be an ongoing issue for many people. As I keep telling more folks about it, it occurred to me that I should do a video that I can send people to. So here we are.

I can’t take complete credit for this. I wrote this up as a four-part series some years back. I had been working on some ideas a good seven or eight yeas ago when I got spend the evening in deep discussion with my friend Andrew Stone. Somewhere about hour 6, I asked him about how he set up his broadcast mix. Several hours later, we headed to bed with just enough time to sleep for a few hours before we had to be back at the conference.

What follows is a hybrid approach. Some of this is from Stone, some is from me. I say this mainly to give credit to where credit is due. Over the years , I’ve refined this pretty well and it gives great results every time. Check out the video below and search the site for more detailed write ups.

Upgrading


“This will take a while.” Great…

“This will take a while.” Great…

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when a young tech directors thoughts turn to…software upgrades. With the recent release of ProPresenter 7, the internets are all abuzz with discussions about upgrading software. Now, this article isn’t about ProPresenter per se. I have no experience with it and no particular thoughts about it one way or another. It’s simply a catalyst for me thinking about upgrades in general.

On the bookFace groups I follow, I often see questions about upgrading software stuff. Having done my fair share of it, I thought I would share some observations and ideas on what I consider best practices.

Not on the Weekend
The first rule for me of upgrading is to never, no not ever upgrade on the weekend. I turn off all automatic updates on all my production machines and make sure they are not even checking on Saturday or Sunday. In fact, it’s a good argument for production machines being on their own network, air-gapped to the outside worlds. Windows 10 can’t install its next group of productivity enhancing features providing unparalleled levels of productivity if it can’t talk to the servers.

You never know when an upgrade won’t work, or will break something else. The last thing you want to be doing during what was supposed to be soundcheck is tracking down new drivers and updates so the teleprompter…er…confidence monitor will work.

I personally put Wednesday as my hard stop for updates. That was the last day I would attempt software or firmware updates. If I ran out of time, I did not do it on Thursday, nor Friday. Why? Well, one time I installed firmware and it bricked the hardware. I had to have new hardware overnighted to get it working. Well, it would have been overnight except I found myself with bricked hardware on Friday afternoon. We had missed the shipping cutoff for the day and it wasn’t going out until Monday. That was an uncomfortable weekend.

If you break something on Wednesday, you have all day Thursday to get something new moving your way and there’s a good chance you can have something delivered Friday or maybe even Saturday. Now, to be fair, that rarely happens. But it only takes one time.

If it ain’t Broke…
I generally take the approach to software updates that if what I’m using isn’t broken, I don’t try to “fix” it. Over the years, I’ve had updates or “upgrades” cause more problems than they solved—especially when there weren’t problems in the first place. Sometimes it’s not even the software in question that causes the problem.

You might, for example, find that to upgrade to the latest and greatest version of software X that you need to update the OS. No problem, you think, it’s time to do that anyway. So, you update the OS and X turns out to be super snazzy. You play around with new features of X and it’s great. Then on Sunday you show up and find out that Software Y now needs to be updated, and you need it for the weekend. Worse, once you update Y, you discover the drivers for hardware Z no longer work. Three hours later, you’re finally back in business; right about the time the pastor is starting his message…

It’s even worse when you upgrade and then discover your hardware no longer works with the new software. I’ve seen this with video and audio interfaces. Or maybe the drivers simply haven’t caught up yet. This is a great way to take an entire system off line if you’re not careful.

If You Don’t Need It

I always read over the feature upgrades or bug fixes in software updates on my production machines. If there isn’t a really compelling reason to update the software or firmware, I don’t do it. Sometimes an update will fix a bug I’ve never experienced. And since I’ve never seen an update that doesn’t fix bugs introduced in the last “bug fix”, it seems each update introduces other bugs that will then be fixed in the next release. If I’m not dealing with those bugs now, I don’t want potential new ones unless there’s a feature I can really use.

For example, I’ve noticed that newer versions of Mac OS X have really jacked up wired networking. I had nothing but trouble with it using my (former) new MacBook Pro running Mojave. It’s (former) because I just sold it and went to a Lenovo laptop that cost 25% as much and actually works with Ethernet. Since much of my work revolves around connecting to hardware via Ethernet, that cool new MBP wasn’t much of an upgrade. In fact, my 2013 running High Sierra is much more reliable with Ethernet. Why High Sierra? See point #2.

You really have to ask if those new features outweigh the potential risks of breaking something that’s working. Back when I was a TD, our ProPresenter machine was 5 years old, running 4 versions back of the Mac OS and I think two version back on ProPresenter. Why? Because it worked every weekend and the new versions of all that software offered nothing compelling enough to risk changing it. In fact, I remember updating ProPresenter one week and finding a bug that really caused some significant issues. They fixed the following week, but that weekend wasn’t fun. I’m not sure I ever upgraded any of that stuff again.

Again, this is not a dig on ProPresenter in particular. There are simply too many combinations of hardware and software in the world for any developer to ensure their software is going to work without issue with all of them. Renewed Vision is generally really good at getting their software up and running again, but you have to give them a little time. And you may not have that time.

Even Hardware Upgrades are Scary

As I’m writing this out, I’m remembering a time with a client of mine that found some very interesting issues with upgrading. They were in an area that had very unstable power delivery. I believe their incoming power varied from 57 to 64 Hz or something like that. Most equipment can handle that, but it was causing problems with lip sync between the ProVideo Player/Blackmagic Ultrastudio and the switcher. As there sermon went on, the lip sync would drift, but it drifted both forward and back as the power drifted.

So, we decided to genlock the Ultrastudio. That fixed the lip sync problem. However, it introduced a really weird AM modulated digital noise into the audio signal. My client spent an inordinate (or normal, really) amount of time on the phone with Blackmagic and it was discovered that the genlock input leaks voltage to the audio output stage. This caused the amplitude modulated distortion.

The ultimate solution was to use a Radial USB audio DI to send audio into the mixer and only use the Ultrastudio for video. Now, that’s a border case that you don’t come across every day—which is one reason it took so long to solve. But it illustrates the point that upgrading one thing can have a cascading effect on other things that you hadn’t considered; and that goes for hardware as well as software.

Which is why we should approach all upgrades with care. If at all possible, have a test bed for any new upgrades and put them through their paces off line first before going live on a weekend. This is often easier with software than hardware, which is why I have the Wednesday rule.

Proceed With Caution
At the end of the day, my advice is to approach all upgrades and updates with extreme caution. With our own personal machines, it’s fun to upgrade and try new things. If we’re practicing best practices, we have backups that we can restore to if things go horribly wrong. But with mission critical production systems, at least for me, there has to be a really good reason to upgrade. Some things to think about.

Audio Console Layout for Success


Digital consoles make it easy to lay inputs out in the way that makes the most sense for your setting.

Digital consoles make it easy to lay inputs out in the way that makes the most sense for your setting.

A few weeks back in my post, From Chaos to Organization, I mentioned that I would write a post about setting up your audio console for success. Having been in a lot of churches over the past 5 years, I’ve found few things that annoy me more than the completely random console layouts I see.

Channel one might be the pastor, which is cool. But two is a drum mic, three is a vocal, four is a guitar, five is another drum mic, six and seven are empty and then we have more guitars. Do you even mix, bro?

Based on some of the consoles I’ve seen, console layout is something that doesn’t seem get a lot of thought. However, a properly laid out console not only makes mixing more fun, it can keep us from making big mistakes during a service.

In the Olden Days…
Legend has it that in the early days of mixing, as analog consoles got larger, engineers noticed that channels farther from the master had more noise in them. So it made sense to put the money channels—the vocals—nearest to the master. As the master was typically on the right, that meant the left-most channels became home of the drums—who would notice noise in the drum channels?

Somewhere along the line, a generally common layout emerged: drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals. As consoles and input count continued to grow, we started seeing the master section land in the middle of the console instead of on the right. In that case, usually the band fell to the left while vocals and effects fell to the right.

Back then, where a source showed up on the console was completely dependent on what input it was plugged into. Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader or any fader anywhere. But before we do any patching—digitally or analog—it’s important to spend some time thinking about why channels go where they do.

Why You Do Is More Important Than What You Do
I’ve seen all sorts of…shall we say, interesting channel layouts on consoles. Drums spread all over the place, the lead guitar next to the pastor’s mic, vocal effects in the middle of the keyboards. It’s as if someone just patched inputs into the first open channel or floor pocket without any thought at all.

And while there are all sorts of ways you can lay out your console, the first consideration is to make sure you do it on purpose. Don’t just shove inputs into any old channel. Take some time to think about it and patch it in a way that makes sense. Keep all the drum channels together, and then keep the band together. Having all the vocals next to each other makes it a lot easier to find them. Put the channels you adjust regularly closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end all service. Think about how you mix, then organize the channels in a way that supports what you do.

For Example…
There is no “right” way to organize a console. But here are some ideas of how to do it. Personally, I like to start with drums (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads), then bass, guitars, keys, vocals and finally effects. Other channels like speaking mics, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console.

Some years ago, I had my DiGiCo SD8 console set up with my VCAs on the right, which put my vocals right in front of me. My preference is to mix more on channel faders than VCAs, but I know others who prefer the opposite.

I also know guys who put the bass right next to the kick because they like to work those two together. I keep my bass in my guitars VCA; others put in with the drums or dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass. Do what makes sense for your situation. But…

Stay Consistent
When I mix on analog consoles, I still follow the same basic layout. The advantage of a consistent layout is that I can mix almost any band on any console and without looking. I know where the faders are. In contrast, I’ve watched other guys mix and spend half their time searching the board for the guitar fader, only to miss the solo.

Regardless of how you choose to layout the console, once you come up with a plan, stick with it. Adapt and change as needed, but maintain as much consistency as you can.

Small Digital Consoles are Tricky
The current trend toward smaller mixers (i.e. fewer faders) with higher channel counts makes smart layout absolutely critical. If you only have 16 handles to deal with, you simply must be intentional about what you put where. In that case, I would most likely not use up the first 8 faders on the top layer for the drums.

In that case, it might be more prudent to put a drums VCA on channel one and treat it as one instrument (which, arguably, you should do anyway). As you fill up your fader bank and channels spill into another layer, it is often a smart idea to duplicate a few channels on every layer. For example, you might want to have the worship leader’s mic on the same fader of every layer so you can get to it quickly regardless of the layer you’re on.

The fewer faders you have, the more strategic you need to be with grouping channels into VCAs. How you group the channels will be dependent on your band and your workflow.

I once mixed a 28-input CD release party on 12 faders. I built multiple layers that were very similar, but expanded various sections. For example, layer one had the drums as a single VCA. But layer two gave me all 8 drum channels. Layer three split out all my effects, which were a single VCA on layer one. Things that didn’t get used often were down on layers four and five, but the lead singer’s vocal and guitar were always in the same place on every layer.

I spent about 30 minutes initially setting up the board, then tweaked my layout during rehearsal based on how the set unfolded. Of course, this is easier with a digital board than analog, but the principles remain. Think about your layout and adjust it until it makes sense and works for you.

Have a great weekend!

Moving from Chaos to Organized


Photo by Amber Lamoreaux from Pexels

Photo by Amber Lamoreaux from Pexels

Lately, we’ve been working with churches that are in need of some organizational help in the tech/worship department. These churches tend to run weekends in the “by the seat of our pants” mode. I happen to know a little bit about this. Most of you know me as being hyper-organized and having everything planned out. And that’s true. But, I have worked at churches that weren’t thus. I took it as my calling to turn that around.

The Problems of Chaos
No, that’s not a typo; chaos actually causes multiple problems. The biggest problem is that people burn out. Chaos is simply exhausting. If every weekend is a challenge because you didn’t know what was going to happen, who was going to be on stage, what inputs were needed, who was where…you’d simply get tired and quit. And that’s what most people do. If you’ve ever wondered why that rock-solid volunteer who was there every weekend for 3 years one day announced this was his last weekend, I can bet chaos was a big part of that decision.

Chaos also leads to sub-optimal performance. We can only focus on so many things at once, and when most of our focus is on solving problems we didn’t know were problems and figuring out how we’re going to pull this weekend off, we don’t have much processing power left to make it great. When every weekend is an attempt to simply survive, there’s not much room to thrive.

A Case Study
As I said, I have some experience with this. Years ago, I joined the staff as a part-time TD. The church and the people were great, but they were not terribly organized. The tech team didn’t know until Thursday night when we all showed up for rehearsal who was going to be on stage playing what. So, instead of spending 7-9 rehearsing, we spent 7-8 setting the stage, troubleshooting things and making sure everything was working. The band was cheated out of an hour of rehearsal, and really, so was the tech team.

Being the master of organization that I am, I started sending out an email on Monday requesting the worship leader for that coming weekend send me their band list. And I needed it by Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because that’s when I built my input list and stage plot.

At first, everyone balked at this. But after a few leaders got me their information and walked onto a stage that was completely set and ready to go—giving them an extra hour of rehearsal time—they started getting the picture.

Wednesday I would build the input list and stage plot, leaving that in the office for the retired couple who had volunteered to set the stage on Thursday morning. I showed up 10 minutes early on Thursday night to double-check everything, and rehearsals became more efficient, productive and enjoyable.

The weekends then went off without a hitch because we were all ready to go in advance. The volunteer team health went up by orders of magnitude and we generally enjoyed a year and a half of smoothly running weekend services. I left after a time to work full-time at another church, but it was reported back to me a few years later that they were still reaping the benefits of the work I put into organize everything.

How Do You Do It?
So, how do you become organized and banish chaos from your weekend services? First, use Planning Center Online. Seriously. Use it. Yes, it will cost you a few dollars a month. One or two of your paid staff members might have to forgo their skinny boy decaf soy no foam latte once or twice a month to pay for it. Don’t care. Use Planning Center.

And when I say use it, I mean use it. The worship leader shouldn’t be entering the songs for Sunday morning on Saturday night at 10 PM. I mean by Monday or Tuesday, the people and plans for the weekend should be in there so everyone on the team knows what to expect.

In fact, as a crazy side benefit, you might find you can actually get more people to volunteer to be part of the weekend service when you can schedule them more than 2 days out. I know…mind blown.

But Mike…we have the same team every weekend. Nothing ever changes. We don’t need to schedule. Yeah, yeah, I hear that all the time. Then I also hear tales of woe—from the same churches that tell me that—about how when they have specials, or different people, or people can’t be there or something changes that it’s a mess. Huh. I thought it was always the same. Turns out, it’s not; you just think it is. Use Planning Center. If nothing else, it will help you organize your music library and give your musicians an easy way to practice during the week at home (yeah, I know I’m just talking loco now…).

Input Sheets & Stage Plots
You need to do an input sheet and stage plot. Every week. Yes, I know your stage never changes and the band config never moves around. See the previous paragraph. It does more than you think. Moreover, if it never changes, it’s easy to do a stage plot and input sheet every week; just open last week’s change the date and save it. Now wasn’t that easy?

Well, except Bob is playing bass this week instead of Frank. And Bob uses a DI instead of a bass amp. An active DI come to think of it, so that needs phantom power. Oh, and Tammy can’t sing, so we don’t need her mic. But it’s the same every week. Really…

I actually laugh out loud when people spend 20 minutes complaining to me about how disorganized their services are and how they need help and they don’t know what do to make it better, and I say, Planning Center and Input Sheets, and they say, “We don’t need that.” Yes, you do.

Look, I’ve been doing production as a very serious hobby and/or professionally for 30 years. If tomorrow I joined the staff of a small country church that had three people on stage every week, the first thing I would do would be to make up a stage plot and input sheet. Could I do it in my head? Yes—I could do it in my sleep. However, the best practice I’ve found to making weekends run smoothly is to be organized. Knowing who will be there this weekend, where they are going to stand and how everything plugs in is the bare minimum I need to know to make things run smoothly.

Once you get past that, you can focus on being creative and making it awesome. But if you try to skip the organizational part and go straight to the new Waves Abby Road Saturation Made Easy and Awesome plugin, you’re going to fail. That’s not a dig on Waves, by the way; I hear that’s a super-cool plug.

Anyway, when I talk to really high-level production guys and they tell me that they do input sheets and stage plots every week, and use Planning Center to keep the people and music organized, I look at that as a clue. Those of us that have been doing this at a high level for a long time know that keeping the basics organized is the first step to making weekends great. With the simple stuff taken care of, you have a lot more mental space to think through whether a hall or plate reverb will sound better on the second song.

In an upcoming article, I’ll talk about how to set your audio console up for success. And if you need some help with input sheets, I’ve written a bunch of articles about t
hem. You can find a search result of said articles here.

Advice From An Old Guy: Volunteers Are People


AFOG-Volunteers.jpg

Some of the most heartbreaking conversations I’ve had are with guys (and occasionally gals) who volunteered on tech teams for years. Then, the long-time TD left and a new guy came in and blew the place up. Everything started changing, people with years of experience were no longer respected, and it became clear that the “old people” weren’t needed any longer.

I wish I only had those conversations occasionally, but more and more, it seems like it’s happening all the time. I’ve seen it in my own church—albeit in a different department. One day, there were 20 volunteers on a team. Two months later, there were 2. Straight up—this is the arrogance of youth.

Don’t Change a Thing. Yet.
A long time ago, when I was considering vocational youth ministry (the world dodged a bullet when I changed to tech…), I took a week-long SonLife course in Chicago. Paid for it myself and took vacation from my job, by the way. I’ve been living these principles for a long time. Anyway, one of the things they said that always stuck with me is that when you come onto a new church, you shouldn’t change anything for at least six months.

Back in the early ‘90s, it was the same as it is today. Young guys would get hired to be a youth pastor and they’d go in and completely blow up the volunteer team. They came in with all kinds of enthusiasm and ideas, ready to “change everything” and remake the youth department in their image. The problem was (is), they just got there. They knew exactly jack and squat about the culture of the church. And it would blow up in their faces.

The same thing happens in tech departments today. Young guys with some technical knowledge but little leadership experience get brought in to lead a tech team. They start telling the faithful volunteer who has been mixing twice a month for 8 years all the things he’s doing wrong. He buys a new console and a Waves server and demands everyone use it the way he wants it. Problem is, he doesn’t provide any training because, “it’s not that hard.”

All the volunteers get exasperated and quit. In a few months, our young tech hero is mixing every weekend. And trying to figure out how to trigger lighting and lyric cues at the same time because he’s the only one in the booth.

Seriously. Don’t Change Anything.
I’ve joined the staffs of five churches in my career (one as a volunteer). I have, by no means, done everything perfectly. But one thing I was very conscientious about was not changing much of anything for a good three to six months. Now, if equipment was broken, I fixed it. If there was a huge, gaping problem that was causing a lot of pain and stress for leadership or volunteers, I nudged that into being corrected. But in my last two churches, I didn’t even sit at a technical position for three to four months until I got a solid read on where everyone was.

I used that time to get to know the team. I took them out to lunch and scheduled some evening meetings just to hang out. I asked them what they felt needed to be changed, and how I could better support them in their volunteer role. I tried to find out how healthy they were and if maybe they needed a break. Sometimes, I found some people just shouldn’t be in that role, and I worked hard to find another role for them to fill.

It didn’t always go perfectly, and I made some mistakes for sure. But my intention was to not overturn the proverbial apple cart until I knew whether it simply needed repair or if we needed to light it on fire and watch it burn.

People Aren’t Pieces of Gear
If you come into a tech team and think you can just swap people out like replacing an old projector lamp, you have the wrong mindset. Ministry is a people business. I know you’re a tech guy and you might not even like people that much. And honestly, if that’s the case, you should go work for a production company, not a church.

Your primary role as a technical director is to lead, shepherd and grow people, while helping them be part of the technical team of the church. The show is secondary. The gear always comes after the people. Everything you do all week should be to support and encourage your team. Everything else comes after.

View all the posts in this series.

Advice From An Old Guy: Make Friends


AFOG-Make-Friends.jpg

Back when I was a self-absorbed 20-year old, I used to say, “Make friends with everyone—you never know when you’re going to need them.” At the time, it was meant to be sarcastic. Now that I’m a little older and hopefully a little wiser, I realize the saying has some validity to it.

30 years ago, I wanted to “make friends” with people so they could help me. Now, I realize that making friends with a variety of people has many more benefits, not the least of which is that I may be able to help someone else someday. Turns out helping others makes you feel pretty good, too.

Buy Insurance Before the Accident
Calling State Farm to purchase collision insurance doesn’t help you much when you’re sitting on the side of the road in a crumpled up car. It’s pretty key to get that insurance purchased first. The same goes with professional relationships.

I once called the owner of a company to see if he could possibly bail me out of a jam. When he took my call, he was on the top of a mountain camping with his family. Not only did he take my call, but then called the shop and told them to help me with whatever I needed.

He took my call because I had spent a few years getting to know him as a person. I helped promote his brand, and I believe we have a real friendship. We’re not BFFs, but if he was in town and his car broke down, I’d go pick him up.

When our church wanted to do a multi-camera shoot for our Christmas production, I reached out to a local church in town to see if I could borrow their fly pack. Not only did they lend me the fly pack, they also gave me three cameras to use. All I had to do was pick it up and drop it off.
That happened because I had spent a few years getting to know the TD, hanging out at events, going to lunch and building a relationship. Occasionally he called me for advice on a piece of gear. We helped each other because of relationships.

A friend of mine was part of a church plant in SoCall once. They were putting together their tech on a real shoestring budget and ran out of money before they bought a projector. He mentioned it at lunch one day and asked me to pray about it. I told him his prayers were already answered; I had two extras sitting in my audio closet that had been replaced, but we kept them around just in case since they still worked fine. He swung by a few days later and they were set for a few months.

It’s All About Relationships
If you ever listened to Church Tech Weekly back in the day, you know it was a running joke to see how fast we got to relationships in each episode. We could be talking about audio compression and ten minutes in, we’d be talking about relationships.

It always saddens me when I get into a conversation with a church tech guy and about the time I suggest he reach out other church techs in his area, he tells me he doesn’t know any other church tech guys nearby. I remember sitting in my boss’s office years ago and mentioning, “How is it that I’ve been here in SoCal for 2 years and I already know more people in more churches than everyone else on staff?”

How is it that church leaders don’t talk to each other? We’re all on the same team—it’s not a competition. Back when I owned a video production company, I knew and talked with other small production companies in town all the time. We borrowed gear and shared experience. I am friends with most of the guys at all the large integrators in the country. And we are in competition with each other!

But the key to it all is building relationships before you need them. When a sprinkler pipe bursts in your auditorium and you have no one to call for help, it’s going to be a rough weekend. On the other hand, if it happens to a church down the road and you can’t help because you don’t know each other, that’s a loss for you.

The Church is stronger when we’re all working together. So go make some friends.

View all the posts in this series.

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