Advice From An Old Guy: Do Your Research

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Those that know me are aware that I have a pretty deep sarcastic streak. So imagine my joy years ago when I learned of http://lmgtfy.com. What is http://lmgtfy.com? Let me Google that for you. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that they removed the snark from it. Back when it first came out, it would show you how to use the Google then add, “Now, was that so hard?”

I admit that on more than one occasion, someone emailed me a question that would have been very easily answered by a quick Google search and I sent them a lmgtfy link. Sometimes, I just have a hard time with simple questions. Or, questions that someone could answer for themselves with less than 2 calories of effort.

Research First, Questions Second
Van sent me this topic suggestion and he and I have long lamented how many questions we get from people who are at the top of the question pipeline. Sending me or Van an email asking, “What’s the best PA?” is not a good question. Let me rephrase—you’ll not get a good answer from that question. And for the record, I’m going to preemptively tell you the answer is, “It depends.”

Now, if you are legitimately searching for a new PA for your space, I’m happy to help. However, it’s most helpful if you do a little research first. A quick Google search will turn up information about the various types of PAs—line arrays, point source,  powered, un-powered, flown, ground stacked—and where they are best suited. Armed with this knowledge, the dimensions of your room, and information on the style of worship you are doing, you can begin asking professionals for advice.

A better way to phrase the question would be like this:

“We are looking for a new PA for our room. Our space is about 80’ wide by 60’ deep with non-fixed seating. We have no acoustic treatment on the walls. FOH is off center near the back of the room. The stage is about 40’ wide and comes into the room 10’. Based on my initial research, I don’t think line arrays are the right fit, what have you used in that situation that might work well for us? Our budget is around $130K.”

I can answer that question, and I can do it with specifics. In fact, the answer you receive will help you make a much better decision than, “It depends.”

Look Up Simple Things Yourself
If I had a dollar for every question that went something along the lines of, “Do you know if product X will do Y?” I’d be able to another firearm to my collection. And here’s the dirty little secret; if you ask me that question, and if you get a response, I’m going to Google said product, download the manual and look (assuming I don’t already know off the top of my head). Here’s a ProTip—you can do the same thing!

It can often be difficult to differentiate between actual geniuses and those who know how to Google.

Though I’m increasingly coming to believe that social media is, by and large, a dumpster fire, the Internet is a great thing. Almost all the information in the universe is out there for the taking. And by opening your browser window, you can learn it all. I have but one caveat for you…

Avoid the Facebook Groups
Most of the time—and I’m probably going to cause some butt hurt here—the information you receive from most of the Facebook groups varies between unhelpful to worthless to incorrect. Consider our “Which PA is best?” question. I’ve seen variations on that query on Facebook, and the answers often go like this:

“We just put line arrays in. They’re great!”
“We just installed Adamson line arrays. We love them.”
“It depends.”
“Hire an integrator.”
“You should never use line arrays in a church. Point source are best.”
“Our church has K12s. They sound pretty good.”

None of those answers are helpful. Especially the last one—K12s do not sound good. Ever.

The Benefit of Research
Part of the blame is on the question asker—it’s simply a bad question. The other part of the problem is that most—not all, but most—of the people on those forums have a very limited world of experience. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. So it’s up to you to do some research, educate yourself and then ask actual professionals for advice. The double-bonus of this is that if you’re asking a true professional, you’ll get good advice—and you’ll know it’s good advice. And if you ask a non-professional, you’ll know they don’t really know what they’re talking about because their advice will be obviously bad.

Just know that when you ask advice, almost everyone has some inherent biases. That’s not necessarily bad, but you need to know. I’ve found it’s best to ask several actual experts before making a decision. Compare everyone’s suggestions and you’ll be able to arrive at a good conclusion. But it all starts with you learning something about the topic, then asking good questions.

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Advice From An Old Guy: Find a Mentor

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I mentioned this back in Learn your Craft, but I’m thinking of this in broader terms. One thing I lament in most churches is that no one is pouring into the tech guy. Tech guys (and gals) are usually so busy doing the work of the ministry that no one is ever ministering to them. Having someone pour into you is a big deal, and will help you do this job a lot longer.

Mentors can take many forms. Sometimes, you need someone to help you learn a technical skill. In that case, getting together weekly with a pastor from another church isn’t going to help you much. If you need to hone your craft, find someone who is really good at it, and see if they’ll spend some time with you. This would be a Yoda-like figure; someone who teaches you how to use the Force. Or, how to mix.

You may need someone who can encourage you. This might be your Barnabas. That could be almost anyone, but ideally, it’s someone who is on staff at a church. And probably not your church. Sometimes this is another TD. For many years, Van and I have been each other’s encourager. I can’t even count how many times I called him and asked to go to lunch so he could talk me off the ledge. He did the same with me. We still do that for each other.

I’ve had more of a spiritual mentor in the human form of my friend Roy for going on 7 years now. When I first got to know him, I saw something in him that I needed in my life. I asked him if he would spend some time with me, and for some reason he agreed. For several years, we got together every other week for lunch. ProTip; always pay for your mentor’s lunch/coffee/drinks. Sometimes he encouraged me through a tough time. Other times, he challenged me to reshape my vision. Still other times, he affirmed what I was doing. One of the few things I miss about leaving California is getting together with Van and Roy.

Don’t Be Afraid
A lot of guys are afraid to ask others for help. I don’t know why. Well, I do. But get over it. Find someone you can talk to. I would strongly suggest your mentor be a good 10 years older than you; or at least have 10 years more experience than you. Getting together with peers is great, and I strongly suggest it. However, you need to spend time with someone who knows more and has done more than you.

Don’t think this has to be a lifetime deal, either. Sometimes, people put too much pressure on a mentoring relationship. They think it has to be a weekly face-to-face meeting for life. That’s great if you can do it—and I’ve had the privilege of doing weekly breakfasts with a couple of older guys in the past. I think we met weekly for about 3-4 years. That was a tremendous time of learning and growth for me. But when it came to for all of us to move on, we did and remain friends.

Advice For an Old Guy
I’m going to change it up here and suggest that if you are an old guy, you start looking around for someone to mentor. The best mentor relationships are often developed when the older selects the younger. If you can find someone younger than you to pour into, you both win.

I remember talking with one of my bosses years ago and we were discussing how great it would be if everyone in the Church had someone 10 years older pouring into them and 10 years younger to pour into. As I’ve said over and over, this production business is a craft. It’s best passed on from the master to the apprentice. If you’re a master, you need to find an apprentice. Don’t simply sit around and complain that those young whipper-snappers don’t know anything. Find a whipper-snapper and teach them something.

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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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