Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: June 2008 (Page 2 of 2)

Arise Session 1—Nancy Beach

The conference opened with a drum line. Very cool. A group of about 10 very energetic drummers took to the stage and amazed all with their chops. Next up was a time of worship with the Willow Creek band. They sounded great. I notice that the rig sounds smoother than it did last year. The mix was quite good (center mezanine). I seem to recall that they implemented a new, lower maximum SPL here not that long ago; it sound quieter than I remember from last year, but no less powerful. Like I always say, louder is not better—better is better.

As Nancy welcomed us, we were invited into a drama. The scene was very powerful—three people struggling with three distinct secret sins. Not that groundbreaking, but thought provoking. It was very well done.

Nancy then shared some thoughts with us. Here are the notes I took.

  • Psalm 40
  • We are called to be faithful, not produce results.
  • Think about the all the times God has rescued me just in the last year.
  • Doing things for God is not what He wants.
  • True worship always leads to a point of surrender.
  • David was given a new song to teach the congregation.
  • It is when we spend time alone with God that the “new songs” come about.
  • Are we guilty of telling the awesome story of God in the same old tired ways?
  • We need to be careful that we do not do ministry from memory instead of imagination. Mark Batterson
  • We need to fight to stay innovative.
  • Are we painting the full picture of God? Are we balancing worship and teaching? Present the Word of God in it’s fullness.
  • God loves the church more than we do. We have to remind ourselves of that. Often.

Finally, we got to see Craig’s story. Craig is a guy who was convicted and sentenced to jail for vehicular homicide. He found God in jail and his live hasn’t been the same. The story was presented via video, and, interestingly enough, dance. Time won’t let me describe it fully, but it was quite innovative. The dance mirrored the words that were spoken not so much in direct action, but in tempo and movement.

I wish I could upload pictures. The set is really cool. There are several sections of truss wrapped in translucent white cloth angling up from the stage. The side walls of the stage have sort of a fish-scale look to them, though the scales look like 14″ cymbals. And the back wall is a huge video screen. It’s bigger than the side LED screens, if you’re familiar with the size of those.

Well, that’s a quick summary of the first session. It’s great to be here again this year and to be refreshed. Gilles Ste-Croix of Cirque du Soleil is up next. That should be interesting!

Day 1 at Willow

I had a good flight in yesterday…except I got busted for trying to sneak more than 3 oz. of toothpaste on board. I am now a toiletries offender. Hopefully it won’t be listed on my permanent record!

Arrived at Willow Creek this morning at about 8:15. Was checked in by 8:20. They really have the process figured out (contrast that to nearly 30 minutes to get my rental car at Dollar last night…and I was one of 2 customers at the counter!). 

It’s hard to say for sure, but it looks like crowds may be down a bit this year. I found a spot to sit upstairs outside the balcony doors; last year there was nary a seat to be found anywhere outside the auditorium. Perhaps the high cost of travel is keeping people away?

I did discover that I left my camera usb cable at home, so I won’t be able to post pictures of the conference as they happen, which bums me out. I had hoped to be able to do that. Oh well, look for a big post early next week with the pics.

I don’t know that I’ll be covering this quite like the guys at Gizmodo covered Steve’s Keynote on Monday, but check back often for updates. I’ll also Twitter a lot, so you can see more stuff there. So far, The wireless is solid. Let’s hope it stays that way!

Revisiting Gain Structure

If you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you know that I recently joined the legion of iPod owners with the purchase of an iPod Touch. What you need to know about that is this: I like music. And I really like good music. I discovered music at age 10, when I saved up enough money to buy a set of Koss headphones (the kind with dual volume controls!). I would sit and listen to records all day long during the summer. I listened to the sounds, and tried to figure out how they made them. It was the beginning of a life-long love of music. 

As I got older, as my income grew, so did my stereo system. I would spend many hours listening intently to all kinds of music. Getting married and having kids made it tougher to find time to listen critically, however. Most of my listening took place in the car, not the greatest hi-fi environment. That is, until now. Now, I’ll admit that the iPod is not the pinnacle of high quality audio reproduction. But with a decent set of ear buds (I also picked up a set of Westone UM-1s), it sounds pretty darn good, especially with high bit rate AAC files.

One of the first albums I listened to when I got my library loaded up was Steely Dan’s Aja. That is arguably one of the finest sounding albums ever made. And it sounds pretty fine on the iPod at 256 Kbs. But then it happened. I started flipping through the rest of my library. I was horrified. What I found was massive amounts of distortion. The kind that makes you go, “Did they really let that out of the studio like that?” Well, upon further investigation, no, they didn’t. They did push the signal to within a half-inch of it’s life, however. 

Seems that in order to “stand out” and “be heard,” record labels keep asking mastering engineers to “turn it up.” The only way to do that is to compress the music to death, and normalize it all the way up to 0 dB. When you then encode that file as an AAC or MP3, it sounds like crap. Consider the following illustration:

Top: Superchic[k] \"Anthem,\" Bottom: Steely Dan \"Aja\"

Click to enlarge

The top two tracks are the opening cut from SuperChic[k]’s Beauty From Pain CD. As you can see, the dynamic range is pretty close to nothing. And it sounds like it. The bottom two tracks are from the title track to Aja. This tune has over 30 dB of program dynamic range, an because they didn’t push the peaks all the way up to 0 dB, it sounds fantastic. Here’s another look:

Note that there is about 8 dB of range

Click to enlarge


This is a screen shot I took while Anthem (the top tracks) was playing. As you can see, the meters are pretty much slammed to 0, and there is very little variation between the current peak, absolute peak and RMS. It sounds just like it looks. On the other hand…


Here we see closer to 30 dB of range.

Click to enlarge

In stark contrast to the first track, in this shot you can see almost 30 dB of variation between maximum peak and RMS values. Even the max peaks never get above -3 dB, which ensures that they never run out of bits.

Now, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old sound guy (I’m really not—I just love good sounding music), the way they’re making albums (OK, CDs) today is not good. To be sure, I’m generalizing, and not all of today’s music sounds bad. However, I could pull 10 discs out of my collection of modern “Christian” music (or modern pop music) and 8 or 9 would look and sound just like the top 2 tracks. It’s uninteresting, boring and tiring to listen to. Worse, when it gets played on the local Christian FM radio station, they compress it even more

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today, though it serves as a good “opening illustration.” Today we’re talking about gain structure. I’ve posted about this before (Ill Gotten Gain), but I think it bears repeating. See, if your meter bridge looks anything like the above negative example, you’re in trouble, especially if you’re mixing on a digital console.

All mixing consoles (all audio gear for that matter) has a certain amount of headroom—once that headroom is exceeded, distortion ensues. Typically, the better the equipment, the higher the headroom. A good desk will handle a whole bunch of channels running at +12 dB or more and not sound bad. A cheaper desk will start breaking up once you cross the 0 dB threshold. 

The key is to find out where your board (or outboard gear) sounds bad, and back off. Do not exceed that level—ever! It’s just as important (perhaps more so) to get the gain on the input set correctly. Each channel of a mixer has a gain control (aka head amp, trim, input gain, etc). This needs to be set correctly each and every time you mix. I’ve seen guys do an entire sound check and never touch the head amp control; they just bring faders up to a “good” level in house and call it a sound check. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

The correct way to do it is to meter the input, either on a meter bridge or through the cue function, and dial up the gain until the peaks are hitting at least 6 dB down from your maximum (distortion inducing) level. On a digital desk, you typically want to start with your peaks somewhere between -10 and -6. I like to start a little low during sound check because inevitably the levels go up during the service. Once you establish your input gain, then adjust the fader for a decent level in the house and work on monitors.

Another point to pay attention to is your output mixes. We typically run 6-8 in-ear mixes each weekend. A while back, I noticed that the output mixes looked like this:

The mixes are running a little hot...

Click to enlarge

And I also noticed that the meters on the PSM-700s were pretty much lit into the red. The musicians kept asking for more of stuff and the sound guys obliged by just turning it up. When we checked to see where the musicians had the volume on their packs, many were set to between 2-4 (out of 10!). Once they turned up to 6-8, we dialed back the level and everyone was amazed at how much better it sounded. 

Here’s the deal: With digital there are only so many bits available to make up the signal. Once you run out of them (ie. turning it up to 11…), you’re out of them—they don’t make more. Distortion comes quickly at that point. Even analog boards will suffer this fate, though it sounds different (and not necessarily better). 

Thinking back to the discussion about modern CDs, I can picture a bunch of young guys sitting in the studio mixing a track and watching the meters all light up red and saying, “Dude! Check it out! We’re crankin’!” Sadly, it sounds bad, but it’s loud. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: Louder is not better, better is better. And you can’t get to better unless you pay attention to your gain structure. 

For more on this topic, check out my previous post on the subject, Ill Gotten Gain.

Oh, and I also found a partial solution to the over-compressed, over-hyped music that sounds terrible when converted to MP3s (even at high bit rates using the LAME encoder). On a whim, I tried dropping the overall level of the entire track by 3 dB. This must give the encoders something to work with because now the MP3s sound pretty much like the CD, which is to say, over-compressed and over-hyped, but at least not distorted. The downside is, it’s going to be a lot of work to fix a few hundred poorly mastered tracks…ahh, the price of good sound…

Countdown to Willow Creek Arts Conference

The countdown is on. Tuesday night I fly out to Chi-town for my second annual Arts Conference. Last year was a great time of refreshment and worship, with a few really good breakouts thrown in. I’m really looking forward to it this year. I’ll try to blog about it as much as I can, and post regular Twitter updates. Last year, their wireless network was totally overwhelmed with the plethora of geeks and techies and our laptops and other wireless devices. I expect the “traffic” to be worse this year, hopefully they’re ready.

I know of a few people that are headed that way this year, if you’re one of them, drop me a note. It would be great to meet up with you.

New Keynote / ProPresenter Workflow

As most of you know, we switched from MediaShout to ProPresenter a few months ago. The process has been very smooth, and I’m very glad we made the change. The only small wrinkle in the system is how we deal with sermon note slides. With MediaShout, we created the slides in PowerPoint, then imported that deck into MediaShout.  MediaShout played the PowerPoint presentation back just like we were actually in PowerPoint. This was both good and bad. It’s good because if we needed to make a last-minute change to a slide, we switched to PPT, made the change and refreshed the cue in MS. That worked well. The bad was that the integration never felt that tight. Sure, it worked, but if you had a build slide, MS only shows one thumbnail and no indication that it is a build. And random access to slides was dicey (then again maybe your pastor never changes up his or her sermon on the fly?).

With ProPresenter, we use Keynote for creating sermon slides. We could use PowerPoint, but Keynote is so much better there’s no point. After we build the slides in Keynote, we export them as JPGs (Keynote automatically serial numbers them, including build steps), and import them into Pro. Once the slides are in Pro, they act like any other element. All steps of the builds are visible and accessible, we can access any one at any time and it’s generally very easy to move through a message. Except…

The fly in this wonderful ointment appears when we need to make a change. Normally, we create the slides in the early afternoon on Sunday (we meet Sunday nights, remember) and import them into Pro. During run-through we proof the slides. It’s not uncommon to find a typo at this point. Thankfully, these are easy to fix, we simply switch to Keynote, make the change and re-export—overwriting the existing files. On playback, Pro calls the new files and all is well in the kingdom. Except…

There are times when we need to add a slide. Sometimes as the pastor is tweaking his message he changes a few things. Other times, we discover there is a better way to present a build (like I did this past Sunday), and we need to do a wholesale re-arrange. This is where it gets sticky.

It all comes down to how you build your Keynote. If you create your build steps manually, it’s not that big a deal. You can delete your existing slides from the Pro presentation, and re-import the whole lot of them and be fine. If however, you employ Keynote’s build feature to create the builds for you, there often needs to be some re-arranging of slides in Pro. Other times we’ll start a build, step out to a scripture slide, and come back to the build. Rather than create multiple copies of the same slide, I just duplicate it in Pro (which simply calls the same file multiple times). The long and the short of it is this; exporting the slides early in the day often leads to a few more steps of exporting and re-arranging. This Sunday, I hit on the solution; Don’t do it. Well, at least not until the last minute.

Our new workflow, starting this Sunday will be to keep the slides in Keynote right up until a few minutes before doors open. We will freeze the presentation at 4:30 (service is at 5:00, doors open at 4:45), which means no more changes. We’ll do a quick export, set it up in Pro (which normally takes a minute or two) and we’re done. We’ll proof the slides in Keynote during run-through, so if there are changes, they can be made on the fly right there, saving us a few steps. Once I get the pastor’s sermon at 4:30 I can scan it to see if we need to make any changes to the way we’re built, then export. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I feel really good about this change right now.

The alternative of course, is to just run the sermon notes from Keynote. My problem with this is twofold. First, when Keynote is in Presentation mode, it takes over the graphics card, and changing from Pro to Keynote causes the screen to dip to black for a second. I don’ t like this (call me a perfectionist if you want…). Second, while I like Keynote’s presentation mode better than PowerPoint’s, I like Pro much better because you can see the whole deck at once. In our world, random access is important. Your mileage may vary.

Looking back over this post, I realized it took me more time to explain it than it will take to implement the change. Hopefully it will save someone some time! 

Wanted: Technical Arts Director

This is a bit of an unusual post for the blog, but then again, we’re in a bit of an unusual situation here at Upper Room. Since we’re co-located with our Mother/Sister church, Christ Presbyterian, we tend to work pretty closely with the CPC staff. As CPC transitions further into the world of contemporary worship, their need for a full-time technical arts director has grown. 

The position has recently been approved, and we are now taking resumes for the position. Primary responsibilities include weekend service preparation, volunteer training, and leading the tech team during services. There is also a need for media production in support of the services. The CPC TAD will also be working with me to define, direct and implement sanctuary technology upgrades. 

CPC is a great place to work, the benefits are really good, and the entire staff is committed to development and each other’s success. I’ve gotten to know the creative team and worship leaders on the CPC staff, and they are quality people, and a lot of fun to work with. 

You can download the full job description here, CPC TAD Job Description, and send resumes and cover letters to bradj [at] cpconline [dot] org.

Too Much Technology?

This is one of those paradoxical posts for me. Just a few posts ago, I was writing about some of the cool new technologies I’ve been playing with lately. And it’s true, I’m a geek and I really enjoy new technology. I’ve become addicted to Twitter, I enjoy keeping up with my friends on Facebook, Skype has allowed me to meet some great new people and record some podcasts, and that’s been a lot of fun. Writing this blog has enabled me to “meet” some great people all over the country who I wouldn’t have even know existed. If you’ve followed my Twitter feed, you know I recently got an iPod Touch, and that’s been a fantastic help in keeping up with my e-mail, calendar, weather, directions and my aforementioned Twitter addiction. Being “In” with Verizon has allowed me to keep in touch with my family and friends inexpensively, even though we live all over the country. iChat has also been a valuable tool for staying in touch. Maybe too valuable, in fact.

I got thinking about this the other day when our webmaster, Mike, was “hoteling” (a space management term used to describe having part-time employees work in someone else’s office since we’re out of room) in my office. I was working on my laptop, he on his and suddenly my iChat window popped open. It was Mike, not 6 feet away from me saying, “Check out this website…” I wrote back that it was great that through technology we could now sit just feet from each other and not actually have to talk to each other. I was joking, as Mike and I get along really well. But, as in all good humor, there was an element of truth. 

This concept was further reinforced the other day when I heard Shane Hipps speak at Mars Hill (not that I was there, I was listening to a podcast on my iPod…oh the irony) on the Spirituality of the Cell Phone. Shane is a former ad agency big-shot who felt a call to full-time ministry. He went from selling Porsches to becoming an ordained Mennonite minister. A typical career track, I suppose. Anyway, Shane talked about how technology is great for allowing us to keep in touch, but at the same time, it’s destroying our sense of community. An overstatement? Maybe, but then again maybe not.

I often think back the neighborhood where I grew up. It was a small town, and we lived on a Y-shaped street. We knew probably 80% of the people on the street (about 2 dozen houses), and were friends with most of them. All summer long there would be cookouts and parties at each other’s houses. The ladies were constantly visiting with each other, and whenever there was a project to do at someone’s house, you could count on help from the neighbors. Contrast that to today. One of the biggest challenges we face at Upper Room is people complaining about being lonely and not having a sense of community. This is in spite of the fact that we offer dozens of ways for people to connect. 

I find even in my own life, I am far more apt to spend time reading the blogs of people I’ve never met than I am walking across the street to chat with my neighbor. When I need to communicate something to my tech team, I am far more inclined to send an e-mail instead of picking up the phone and calling. With the price of gas, I would rather buy a webcam for my mom and sister and simply video chat than drive the 2,000-mile round trip to NY to see everyone this summer. 

At this point, I should probably point out that I don’t think technology is bad. I make my living using it, and I think all the new ways we have to communicate are great. What concerns me, especially in my own life, is loosing the ability to and desire for personal, face-to-face contact. We have gone from being a culture of oral communication, to written communication to digital communication. Along the way, we’ve started to loose some interpersonal skills. 

Techies are especially susceptible to this. Many of us by nature are introverts, and prefer the quiet world of our tech booths to other “out there” ministries. In fact, one could argue that it’s that desire and ability to focus and concentrate that makes us so good at what we do. The downside is that all these new forms of technology enable us to withdraw into our own technological world where we don’t have to interact with anyone. 

Yet I don’t think that is what God has called us to. Jesus didn’t text us and say, “love u and want to save u fr ur sins.” He didn’t set up a webinar to explain His plan for salvation. He came to earth, and interacted with humanity in all of our messiness. He talked to people. I find myself challenged by this to be honest. Sometimes (most times?) I would rather just send an e-mail. 

Again, I don’t think we need to abandon all of these new communication methods. In and of themselves, they are not evil or wrong. At the same time, I am challenging myself (and you too, I suppose) to be more intentional about actually interacting with people, the flesh and blood kind. Personally, I’m trying to strike a balance between having alone-time (I am an introvert after all, I need alone-time to recharge), and being around people. We’re trying to have people over for dinner more often; many weeks the tech team goes out after the services to just hang out. I’m trying to meet with my leaders monthly. We’re starting up training that will give us time to spend together.

If we are called to live like Jesus, and I believe we are, we need to engage the people around us. If we can figure out how to strike the appropriate balance between digital interaction and the live, fact-to-face kind, we can make a significant difference in this world. What say you?

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Another Low-Tech Set

This week at Upper Room we kicked off a series called “I HATE That.” Which made for some fun inter-office e-mailing as we planned for it; Subject: I HATE That Rationale; Reply: Upon further reflection, I hate that rationale too… But I digress.

This week, the theme was Difficult Conversations. As we explored how to move the community beyond intellectual agreement that they may, in fact, need have some difficult conversations with people, someone came up with the idea of putting a giant calendar on stage. The “dates” would be stacks of paper with the number on one side and a suggested action plan for having that conversation on the other. The idea was to come forward, pick a date and write the person’s name on the calendar, and sometime between now and that date, they will have that conversation. 

Quite a few people came forward. I was moved when I watched one young man come forward and stand at the front edge of the stage, looking intently at the calendar. After a few moments, he chose a date, wrote down a name and took his sheet.

Because I was running presentation last night, I was unable to get down and take pictures as it was happening. But here are a few that I shot just after the gathering ended. Hopefully, you can get an idea of the scale of the calendar. It was huge, and quite heavy. It was made from butcher’s paper and black duct tape. We did tape it down to the stage with painter’s tape loops in multiple places (when I say we, I mean my boss and UR Creative Director, Craig). Thankfully (and perhaps surprisingly…), no one slipped on it, and the paper didn’t tear at all. 

Click on the pictures to enlarge…

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