Advice From An Old Guy: Learn To Troubleshoot

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If there is one thing that has bothered me for years as a TD and continues to bother me as an integrator, it’s the lack of basic troubleshooting skills many TDs have. I literally cannot tell you how many calls and emails I’ve received that basically go like this:

Caller: This thing isn’t working.
Me: OK, what have you tried?
Caller: Tried? What do you mean?
Me: Tried to figure out where the failure is? What troubleshooting steps have you already taken?
Caller: I came in, it wasn’t working, I called you.

Awesome. I’m 3,000 miles away, and I now have to try to troubleshoot your system, blind and remotely. The number of times it’s a cable that was plugged into the wrong port is astonishing. Or it’s a bad cable. Or someone changed the configuration. Usually, it’s an easy fix. But figuring that out remotely is challenging. Especially when I don’t know your entire system—and you don’t either.

Point A to Point B
Troubleshooting is not really that hard. If it’s a piece of equipment that has a computer, microprocessor or any kind of a brain, turn it off, wait a minute and turn it back on. That solves 40% of all issues. If that fails, you need to trace the signal path back to the point of failure. This is not hard. Usually.

Let’s say your green room TV isn’t working. First, check to see that it’s set to the correct input. Check a known good source into another input, then into the input you’re trying to use. TV is good? Ok, move one layer up. If you have an SDI-based video system, you probably have an SDI to HDMI adapter behind the TV. Check that. Does it have power? Does it pass signal in another application? Is the HDMI cable OK? If all checks out, move up the chain.

There’s probably a DA or matrix router in front of the converter. Make sure the router is patched correctly. Check the output of the router or DA. Let’s say that output the cable to the converter is plugged into isn’t working. Bypass the DA or router and try a working output from the switcher. Do you get a picture? Likely, there is a problem in the router or DA. No picture? The cable or connectors may be bad.

Troubleshooting is simply moving up and down the signal path until you find the point of failure. Approach it with an open mind, and don’t assume anything. I’ve been burned before because I assumed the “easy stuff” was all working correctly. Does the remote need new batteries? Did the power get unplugged? Did a cable get unplugged? Is phantom power on? Did the wireless packs get put on the correct music stands for the right musician? Are you patched into the right DMX universe?

Things Change
I know it worked last week; but unless the items in question were under your direct control in the intervening hours, anything could have changed. Or, you may simply have a gear failure. Can you see how knowing your system and your gear assists you in figuring out why something went wrong?

If you learn to troubleshoot, not only will you be able to get things up and running faster, you’ll also look like a smart, competent tech. I’m not saying you should never call in someone for help; but you need to have run through a pretty good list of things before you do. You should also have a very good idea of where the failure point is.

It’s often a good idea to consider this question when you start troubleshooting a previously working system, “What changed?” It goes like this:

Caller: Our entire Dante system stopped working!!!
Me: OK, what changed?
Caller: Well, our IT guys were out this week and reconfigured all the switches and plugged them into the house network switches.
Me: Well, there’s your problem.

See? Troubleshooting is easy. If there’s a computer involved, it’s often IT’s fault. Turn off all automatic updates to all tech computers. Yes, I know, viruses and malware. Whatever. AV software often is slow to be updated when the OS changes. Don’t update the ProPresenter iMac to High Mavericks Yosemite Sierra on Sunday morning before rehearsal. In fact, don’t ever update anything past Wednesday. That’s not troubleshooting per se, just free advice.

Think Logically
I tend to think in steps. For me, troubleshooting is easy because I think in terms of step 1, step 2, step 3… Others think more fluidly. Ideas come in random order and they may start in the middle of a story and work out to the ends. That’s fine when you’re writing a song, but when troubleshooting it’s imperative you start at one end and work up the chain, piece by piece.

You may be tempted to pick a spot in the middle and test something, then try something else, then something else. You may even get lucky once in a while and find a problem. But I promise you, over the long haul, starting at one end or the other will yield results faster and more accurately.

Learn to troubleshoot and you’ll be a better tech.

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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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