Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: May 2007

Be a Soundman – In Two Hours!

Recently I was given a challenge. It wasn’t posed as a challenge, but the more I thought about it, that’s what it was. We have a new ministry starting up in our church, and like most of our ministries, they needed technical support. Early on, they established the laudable goal of recruiting and training (well, I would train) volunteers to provide that technical support (sound, lights and video). A few weeks ago, they had some new recruits, and wanted to schedule some training. Now here was the “challenge;” I was asked, “Will 10 AM – Noon be enough time?”

Sounds innocent enough, right? Is two hours enough time to train a group of volunteers with little or no experience in the technical arts how to do what I’ve spend the last 20 years learning how to do. All I could say was, “Uhh, sure, that will be fine.” As I sat there staring blankly at the open door of my office, I started thinking about all the things I’ve tried to teach in 2 hours. Recently, I taught a 2 hour class on how to use compressors (could have used more time…). Before that was 2 hours on EQ and basic mixing techniques (went 30 minutes over…). Shoot, last summer to teach a group of Jr. & Sr. high school students how to do tech in that same room, I did two 3-hour sessions!

Once again, I got to thinking…there is a lot to this tech stuff we do. Precious few people can walk up to a soundboard, even a small one and start mixing. Some people can pick up on how to use Media Shout in an hour or two, and while programming a simple light board isn’t rocket science, it’s not exactly intuitive if you’ve never done it before.

I came up with an analogy (I love analogies…). Trying to teach someone how to do tech in 2 hours is rather like trying to teach someone how to play guitar in 2 hours, and then have them stand on stage and lead worship. Some years ago, I tried to learn to play the guitar. After about 4 months I gave up. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I would “play” for several hours a night sometimes. Turns out, playing the guitar well is hard. The same goes for the technical arts.

Sure I can show someone how to advance a script in MediaShout, maybe even talk about how to add a song or a graphic. But once the lights go down and it’s showtime, it’s another world. I can show someone that “this is a fader, it makes the mic or instrument or CD player louder or softer in the house,” but go beyond that to patching stuff in, setting up multiple monitor mixes, effects, EQ…by now most people’s eyes are glazing over.

If you are a faithful volunteer or staff person who has mastered some level of proficiency in the technical arts, give yourself a pat on the back. This is complex stuff we’re doing here, and getting more so all the time. Have a commitment to learning all you can to improve your craft and don’t let anyone call you a button pusher. Yes, sometimes we do push buttons, but it’s knowing which buttons to push when that sets us apart. We’re no more button pushers than the lead guitar player is a string plucker. To all the technical arts people out there – I applaud you. Thank you for using your technical aptitude to serve the Kingdom of God. The service could not go on without you.

So what did I do with my 2 hour training window? Well, I simplified everything as much as possible, sent out a 7 page handout in advance for them to study and wrote a 15 page booklet with as many diagrams and screenshots as I could get in there. I talked as quickly as I could and hoped I covered enough so that they can get started. Then I invited all of them to my upcoming 2 hour session on basic mixing…

How Loud is Too Loud?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how loud we run our services. I got to thinking about this recently while going through a thread on the church sound forum. The question was posed, “How loud at FOH?” The answers varied greatly, from in the mid 80s to well over 105 dB SPL. Then a debate ensued about whether the metering of the sound should be done with A-weighting, C-weighting, fast or slow response and where the meter should be placed. Because I’m a geek at heart, I really enjoyed the discussion, and ended up doing a bunch of extra research to better understand the whole topic of sound level metering.

But something was bothering me. The thought that we can quantify how our various congregations perceive loudness and represent that with a single empirical number troubled me. There are so many factors that affect perceived loudness. Consider these factors as a non-exhaustive list:

  • The acoustic signature of the room
  • The tuning of the speakers
  • The quality of music on the stage
  • The skill of the FOH engineer
  • The type of music
  • The temperature, humidity and loading of the room
  • The mood of the congregation (are they into the worship, or more passive?)

Those are just some of the factors. Some we can control or change, and others we may be stuck with. For example, consider the tuning of the loudspeakers. A while back, we had an issue with the tuning of our room. People were actually leaving the worship service because it was “too loud.” From a purely SPL standpoint, it wasn’t that loud; maybe 90-92 dBA. However, when a vocalist really belted it out, or the drummer hit the cymbals hard, it would just about take your head off. It hurt to be honest. Because we were still using floor wedges, we had to keep the FOH level high to cover up the stage wash. Now, when people are walking out of the worship service because it’s too loud, there is a problem. So we fixed it.

By switching to personal monitors and EQ’ing and time aligning the all the speakers, we’ve improved the situation by a large margin. Now we can mix the house sound without having to just cover up the stage wash, and while we still run peaks between 88-92, people have actually thanked me for turning it down.

Or take the skill of the FOH engineer (and I have no one in particular in mind here…). If the sound tech is not particularly adept at mixing, he or she could construct a mix that is painful to listen to regardless of the actual level. Improper EQ on vocals is a prime offender. Because our ears are generally more sensitive in the mid to upper midrange, if the vocals are too hot between 2-3K, the entire mix will sound “too loud.” Or if th music is overtaking the vocals and the mix lacks clarity, it will sound “too loud.”

Even the style of music will dictate what is too loud and what is not. A soft reflective ballad of a worship song may sound just right at 80 dBA in our room, while a really rocking number feels perfect at 92 dBA. However take that same ballad up to 92 and it sounds “too loud.”

So I propose this: If it sounds too loud, it is – regardless of what the meter says. Now, if this doesn’t open up a can of worms I don’t know what will. Who is to be the final arbiter of what “sounds too loud?” I suspect that will vary from church to church, but there should be consensus between the music pastor, senior pastor, sound tech and the congregation. This is not to say that we take a poll, but let’s face it, if the congregation is leaving during worship or complaining because it’s too loud, it’s too loud. Once a philosophical level has been agreed upon, the SPL meter can be useful for making sure things don’t get out of control.

For example, in his book The Heart of Technical Excellence, Curt Taipale talks about a plan where more experienced sound techs are allowed to mix with peaks ranging in the 90-92 range (this range will depend totally on your room), while less experienced techs are only allowed to go to 86 – 88. The techs then need to be trained to understand what music needs to be near the top of their allowed range and what needs to be lower. In any case, exceeding the top of the range can be cause for a “time out” of no mixing for a while. The ranges were set and agreed upon by the music director, technical director with input from those in the body and pastoral staff.

This is getting long, but I guess my point is, don’t blindly follow the number on a little meter as your final determining point of loudness. There is so much more to it that we can’t simply say, “The meter says 92 – it’s not too loud!” That may be true, or it may not. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter – this is by no means the final word on the issue!

Improving Videos – Get a Good Mic Pt. 2

If you’re playing along at home, you may have noticed that I skipped the second suggestion for improving videos, Don’t Zoom. That’s because I think this is more important. We’ll get to not zooming later. Another disclaimer – I receive no benefit from any of the product or companies mentioned in this post. When I tell you a product or company has been good to me, it’s because it(they) have, not because I’m on the payroll (nor am I making any accusations that any other bloggers are on someone’s payroll). Anyway… back to improving your videos.

Repeat after me – I will not use my on-camera mic for anything other than general sound. I will not use my on-camera mic for interviews. I will not use my on-camera mic for short films. On-camera mics have one major drawback – they are too far from the sound source. Let’s talk physics for a moment. There is a law in physics known as the “inverse square law.” It has many different uses, but for our purposes in sound reproduction, it applies thusly: As the distance from a sound source is doubled, the acoustic energy is reduced by 1/2 (or 6 dB).

So, let’s say you have someone speaking on camera, and that person is 8 feet away. A mic right next to their mouth may receive a signal of, say 55 dBA SPL (normal talking). As the mic moves from 3 inches away to 6 inches away, the signal level drops by 1/2, or to 49 dB. When we get to 1 foot away, it’s in half again, or 43 dB. At 2 feet it drops by half again, to 36 db. By the time we get to 8 feet (where the on-camera mic is), the once strong 55 dB signal is now down to 24 dB. Can an on-camera mic pick this up? Sure, but it will turn the gain up so much that it will also pick up everything else in the room that is at or above the signal level of the talent, including the sound of the tape transport in the camera! To paraphrase Alton Brown, that is not good sound.

The answer, of course, is to get the mic closer to the sound source. If you can’t get the camera to within 6 inches of the talent’s face, you need a remote mic. You have several options here, as I mentioned in the previous post. You can use something as simple as a hand-held dynamic mic (like an SM 58) and use it like a television reporter. If you are going to do a lot of “reporter” type shots, the hands down way to go is a noise canceling mic like the EV 635 or it’s shock mounted cousin, the RE50. Long favorites of ENG news crews, these mics will allow the talent to stand in the middle of a football stadium and will still deliver great sound of just the talent.

EV 635 & RE50

If you want to be a little less obtrusive, you can use a shotgun mic (like the Audio Technica AT 853b), and either suspend it from the ceiling, a mic stand or a fishpole. A fish pole is an extendable aluminum or carbon fiber pole that is designed to be held overhead by another person, and allows the mic to be placed just out of the frame above or below the talent.

Shotgun Microphone

If you plan on using the shotgun on a fishpole, make sure you use a shock mount.
AT Shock Mount

The purpose of a shock mount is to isolate the mic from the inevitable handling noises that a fish pole will cause. The shotgun on a fish pole gives you a lot of options if you have a second person to hold it. That person had better have strong arms though. I really like this option because the sound quality is generally pretty good, and it doesn’t cost a fortune. I recently purchased a shotgun mic, shockmount and fish pole for our church and spent less than $300.

Another option is a lavaliere mic, just like you would use on a pastor or speaker during service. Ideally, you would use a wireless mic that has a camera mount reciever, such as the Sennheiser EW100 series. The wireless option gives you the most flexibility because you have no wires to connect you to the talent. As long as you stay in range, and choose a clear frequency, things work great. Be wary of cheapo wireless mics, however. If a camera mounted reciever and bodypack combo doesn’t cost $400-500 at least, keep looking.
Sennheiser EW100 Series

You can also use a wired lavaliere mic. I have used these extensively professionally with great results. You don’t have to worry about interference and the sound quality is excellent. For wired mics, I really like Sony’s ECM-77, though the ECM-66 and 55 are pretty good too. The 77 is great because it is tiny, can be hidden almost anywhere and sounds terrific.

A final option is to use a wireless mic that you would use in a live sound application. I do this a lot at church because we don’t have a camera mount wireless system yet. I’ll just take one of our old Shure UT series mics, set the receiver on the floor next to my tripod, and strap the transmitter on the talent. It works great, though it is a bit of a pain every time I move the camera.

All of the applications are assuming your camera has XLR inputs to work with (though the EW series also comes with an 1/8″ cable). Each of these mics are professional grade solutions for prosumer cameras and above. If your camera has only a 1/8″ mic jack, all is not lost. You might be tempted to make up an adapter to take XLR to 1/8″. Don’t do it. The pre-amps on consumer grade equipment will not function well with these types of microphones.

The better solution is to use an adapter box made just for this purpose, such as the ones from BeachTek. They have a variety of solutions that include phantom power, metering and variable gain. They are well worth the investment (as low as $199).

Finally, when you are recording, plug some headphones into the camera and listen to what you are recording. I am amazed and confused when I see people recording audio, but not monitoring it (and I’ve seen it with professionals as much as non-professionals!). When you listen in, you can hear trouble before it is too late. Make sure you use good headphones that provide good isolation. I’ve been burned before using cheap “walkman” type headphones and thinking I was hearing clean audio, when what I was really hearing was the person talking in the room.

Hopefully you’ve found this helpful and you will be on your way to making better, more effective videos that will tell the story without being distracting.

Improving Videos – Get a Tripod Pt. 2

Well, I guess it’s time to get back to improving our videos. I was thinking about this the other day as I was going through the footage our student ministries team took on their recent missions trip to New York City (disclaimer: I’ve already talked to the person who shot the video, so I’m not talking behind anyone’s back…). Since it was student ministries, we sent them off with a small, Digital-8 camcorder. As I scanned through the 2 hours of footage, looking for a shot (yup, a shot), I thought about the need for a tripod. You see, all the footage was shot with the camera moving. It never stopped. Just watching it gave me vertigo. Out of 2 hours, I found less than 3 minutes of usable footage. Now, this is not to pick on our intrepid camera man here, but let’s talk about how to avoid this.

Here’s the deal – watch some TV, or a few films and here’s what you’ll find (save the “reality shows”): You’ll find well composed, static shots. Most of the time, the camera doesn’t move, and if it does, it’s on a tripod or dolly or crane. If and when it does move, it moves slowly and smoothly. Doing this takes practice and good equipment. A while back, I wrote a post called, Being Excellent with Less. In that post I suggested that if we don’t have the personnel or equipment to do a certain task, we should scale the task back to the point where we can achieve excellence. Don’t have a $50,000 Chapman crane for your camera? Then put it on a tripod and work with what you have. Don’t have a tripod? Get creative – the most usable footage we got from the students was when the camera was set on a table and the students shared their experiences.

If you don’t have a tripod, you really should get one. They’re not that expensive in the grand scheme of things, and I would suggest it will make the second biggest improvement in your videos (microphones are #1).

I’m guessing a lot of the readers of this blog don’t have a bunch of professional experience shooting videos, yet you are being asked (or are volunteering) to make them for an audience ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. If that’s the case, how can you go about improving your work? First, realize that there is very little truly original video out there. For the most part, there are accepted rules, and methods that generate good results. So watch some professionally produced programs (they’re free on TV!). But don’t watch them for the story line (at least not for this exercise), watch them for the technical production details. How did they frame the shot. How does the camera move? What angles did they use? How is it lit? Where was the camera placed in the scene? How do the people in the program interact with the camera?

I’ll let you in on a secret: professionals do this all the time. I recently cribbed a really cool visual effect from CSI: Miami for use in a video for one of our students. I was watching a show on Discovery channel and saw a lower third title treatment I liked and copied it for another video. When I watch a film with really good cinematography, I will watch it again and study what the cinematographer did. Then I look for opportunities to copy it.

Here’s the why: The people sitting in our churches every week watch TV too, and they have high expectations. Imagine a couple coming into a church for the first time in many years only to see a poorly produced video that bounces all over the place, with poor audio, bad color and is poorly projected. Will that keep them from returning? I don’t know – but it can’t help. If they are on the fence, they may say, “See, I knew church was irrelevant – this a joke.” Remember, our job in the Technical Arts is to remove all barriers to an authentic worship experience. That’s why it matters.

Your thoughts?

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