Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: July 2008 (Page 2 of 2)

More Sound Geekery

Here’s a little more audio-geekness. On Saturday, I was mixing our contemporary service. We have a drum kit on a sled that we roll out onto stage. The mics are left mounted to the drums, and we have a sub-snake that routes out of sled and connects to the snake, which connects to the patch panel back stage (and that runs up to an obsolete patch bay, and finally to the M7). 

Well, as often happens, some of the mic lines got unplugged from the mics. Due to a marginal labeling job, I was having a hard time figuring out which mics were coming in on which channels. This was exacerbated by the fact that the sub-snake is 8 channels, but we only have 5 mics.

Now, I could have spent 20 minutes running up and down the stairs to the booth, turning on one channel at a time, plugging a mic into each line until I identified it, or tore the whole thing apart (did I mention that the snake is more like spaghetti once it hits the sled? I didn’t build it, I’m just trying to make it work…). But the band was already in rehearsal mode and I didn’t think that would be a good use of time.

Enter the handiest little device I’ve seen in a while–The Rat Sniffer/Sender. My sound engineer, Erik, told me we should get a Rat Sniffer/Sender a few weeks ago. At first I thought we might have a rodent problem. Then he explained that the “Rat” was Dave Rat, owner of Rat Sound (and FOH Engineer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others), and that the sniffer/sender part was a very cool cable testing device.

Now, if you do any kind of live sound work, you probably have a cable checker. And those work great if you can get to both ends of the cable, and bring them close together. But, when you have a situation like I did, and only one person to figure things out, it gets tricky. This is where the Sniffer really shines. The Sniffer will test your cable (and report a whole host of possible faults) using nothing more than phantom power sent from your board. And this is where the geekery comes in.

Being a geek, I have Yamaha’s Studio Manager running on my MacBook Pro (running Windows XP under VMWare’s Fusion). That means I have full control of my M7 from anywhere on the network. Upping the geek ante, we have a wireless router connected to the M7. Now I can mix wirelessly from anywhere in the room. I can also turn phantom power on and off. See where this is going?

I grabbed my MBP and headed down to the stage. Setting in on a table near the drum kit, I plugged the Sniffer into a cable end and started clicking phantom on and off. Once I found the right channel, I connected the cable to the right mic. In under 2 minutes, I had the whole kit fixed. And that includes the time it took to untangle the spaghetti.

Last night, we built a bunch of cables (including a new drum loom for Upper Room so we’ll never have to deal with a mess like that). We used the Sender part of the package to send phantom power down each line to the Sniffer to verify our cables.  Another volunteer was marveling at this little device and said, “What’d that set you back, a few hundred dollars?” “Ha!” I said, “Try $52.” Seriously, it’s $52 (that includes shipping and a slightly cheesy red velvet bag. You could spend another $15 or $20 and get it gift wrapped with a mug and t-shirt, but I’m cheap. I’ve spent a lot of money on audio gear in the last 10 years, but it’s hard to find a piece of gear that is a better value. Already it’s saved me a ton of time, and I’ve only used it once! You really should have one of these in your bag of tricks. 

Secret Sauce for Stereo

Today we have a guest post. Well, mostly guest, I’m going to comment on it first (and probably last–it’s still my blog, after all…). Upper Room’s Lead Sound Engineer and good friend Erik Jerde was mixing in another room on Sunday and came up with the the trick we’re about to share. 

The challenge with stereo is a live situation is that about 3 people actually get a stereo mix, and the rest of the room get something that just doesn’t sound right. On the other hand, if you can get stereo to work, it opens up your sound field and gives you more “room” to mix. I’ll let Erik take it from here.

When mixing on a stereo system the engineer wants to pan sources and create an interesting and acoustically wide mix.  Done well this produces a great mix for people who are in a position to hear the stereo mix.  Unfortunately that’s not the majority of the audience.  The majority of the audience hears a mix different from the FOH engineer because they are hearing primarily the left or right channel only.  This means that anything you want all the audience to hear needs to be kept panned at center, or very near center.  This ends up stacking up everything in the center sonic space and significantly limits the width of the mix.

This morning I was in a situation where I had one BGV which I wanted to pan left.  However due to the reasons mentioned above I couldn’t do that without making it very difficult for half of the audience to hear.  Fortunately for me I was mixing on a digital console with input delay available on each channel and I had spare channels.  I took my BGV input and using digital patching sent that input to two channels.  I then panned the channels left and right to get the width I wanted for the BGV in the mix.  I didn’t go hard left and right, but I did go a little past 3 and 9 o’clock on the pan.  Now comes the secret sauce.  At this point there still wasn’t any kind of stereo feel to the mix.  The key to getting the stereo feel is the digital delay.  I went to my right channel and delayed the input 0.7ms.  Standing in the center of the room the BGV now was noticeably coming from the left side.  This is due to the fact that the left channel audio arrived 0.7ms before the right channel audio which tricks the brain into placing the source to the left.  I played around with various levels of delay, from 0.3ms to 1.2ms and found that in my space 0.7ms gave the pan feel I was looking for while not being noticeably delayed.  I then kept the two channel faders at the same level while mixing.

The end result of all this is that the bgv now had width in the mix, a stereo feel, but remained fully audible and appropriately placed in the mix in all seats in the house.  This has the added bonus of creating more acoustic space in the center of the mix for the lead vocal which allowed me to keep that lower but still maintain clear definition on it and the feel that it’s in a pocket on top of the mix.

Unfortunately this isn’t an option on boards like the M7CL or the LS9 which don’t have input delay.  But if you find yourself on a system where you’ve got the technology, extra channels, and the time to make it work, give it a shot, it definitely makes your mix more fun.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of stereo PA in a room, because for the most part, you end up doing everything mono anyway. But if you can pull this off, it adds an extra dimension to the mix. Thanks, Erik, for sharing this tip!

Back the Data Up Pt. 2

There are a ton of different strategies for backing up your data. What you do depends largely on what you are trying to accomplish, and what your tolerance for risk is. Remember, your hard drive will die one day, and you’ll be stranded unless you have a backup. 

Originally, I was going to try to come up with an exhaustive set of guidelines for backup. But as I’ve researched more and more, I’ve decided that is just about impossible. So instead, I will lay out a number of strategies that I am in the process of implementing, along with the rationale for them. At the end of the article, I’ll give you some links to go for more information. It should be noted that all of the computers I’m working on backing up are Macs. The software mentioned is Mac-based, but the principles still apply. I’m not a Windows guy, so I don’t have much experience with Windows backup software. I’ll give you some links at the end, and maybe Daniel will chime in on with a comment with his experience (Daniel is the Windows Yin to my Mac Yang)

Strategy #1: My MacBook Pro

I’ve been meaning to get my MBP backed up for a while now, but the point was driven home a few weeks ago. I was rushing through airport security theater at O’Hare, trying to fit all my earthly possessions into 3 gray trays. The line was moving fast, and I pushed the trays around the corner and the one containing my Mac (now outside of my backpack for “security” reasons) crashed to the ground. Thankfully, it emerged unscathed. But the point was taken; I have a big chunk of my life on there and recreating it from scratch would be darn near impossible.

What I’ve done for the MacBook Pro is to pick up a 500 Gig quad interface drive from OtherWorld Computing. I partitioned it off into a 150 Gig and about a 350 Gig (it’s less due to formatting losses). The 150 is a full, bootable backup made by Carbon Copy Cloner. The 350 Gig is a Time Machine target for incremental backups.

It could be argued that this is redundant, because Time Machine backups are also full backups (unless you tell them not to be) and you can restore your entire drive from them if need be. However, doing that requires getting a new drive (or a new computer if that’s the case), booting from the OS DVD, and copying all the files to the new drive. That takes a good hour or two (I’m backing up 87 Gigs right now).

With a full, bootable backup, I can plug that drive into any computer that will run OS 10.5 and go back to work. No time wasted. This would be sufficient really, but because I have Time Machine, I use it. Time Machine is a defense against a file getting accidentally erased or corrupted. Since it runs every hour, it’s essentially on-line backup. I have Carbon Copy Cloner set to run an incremental backup (replacing only what’s changed) every Tuesday morning at 10:30 when I head into my creative meeting. 
 
Simple backup, works like a champ.

Doing it this way also gives me 2 copies of my files, albeit on a single disk. Still, it’s a good way to keep moving should my laptop get stolen, or crash off of another shelf.

I’m also using this exact strategy for our ProPresenter iMac. My theory is that if the iMac goes down on Sunday, I can plug the drive into my MacBook Pro, boot from it, and in just a few minutes be back up and running. Time Machine will give me the latest files, and CCC will give me a recent bootable partition.

Strategy #2: My Boss’s & Pastor’s Laptops

My boss, Craig, uses a PowerBook G4 running Tiger. Our pastor, Kurt, uses a MacBook, also on Tiger. Time Machine would have worked great for them, but decided it wasn’t worth the disruption to upgrade to Leopard. So I bought external drives from OWC and we will use SuperDuper! to create full bootable backups of their drives. I’m going with SuperDuper! for them because the scheduling and incremental copy options are a little more flexible. SuperDuper! can do a smart incremental backup (which will update files that have changed since the last backup) or a smart copy, which copies new files, leaving the old versions in tact. This is the option I’ll use. 

A bit more functionality for a bit more cash.

I will work with them to find times when they are likely to have their laptops in the office and able to connect to the hard drive for a bit. We’ll schedule backup events to occur then, but if they aren’t in, the backups will run the next time they mount the drive. 

These backups will also be fully bootable, so if their laptops fail, they can plug into another machine and go back to work while their computer is repaired. I’m a big fan of bootable backups for this reason. 

Strategy #3: My MacPro Editor

This is my third solution. And it’s a bit of a tricky one due to the amount of data involved. As I routinely have a few hundred gigs of video, graphics, audio and other assorted goodies on my RAID capture drives, I needed a large solution for that. I also have 120+ gigs of OS and Applications on my boot drive. Now it’s true that if I lost that drive, I could re-install. But that would be a day-long project at least, especially since every app has been updated several times, and I’d loose all my preferences.

Once again, I turned to OWC, and bought a dual drive case. This case can be configured as a RAID 0 for speed; spanned (2 identical–or not–drives as one large volume, though I would never do this) or set up as a JBOD, Just a Bunch of Discs (in this case, 2). I filled one slot with a 750 gig, and the other with a 500 and set it up as JBOD. Each drive appears as a separate volume, yet only takes one FW 800 port. Very tidy!

The 750 will be a Time Machine target for my video drive, a 500 gig RAID 0. The 500 will be used for a bootable backup of the boot drive. I’ll probably use Carbon Copy Cloner, though the jury’s still out (I may go SuperDuper!). Either way, and you’re probably tired of hearing this by now, if the Mac crashes, I can take the bootable clone, plug in to another Mac and get back to work. If I loose my boot drive, I can drop in a new one in a few minutes, and restore from the backup and the Mac will never know what happened. The copy will take a few hours, but it will be right back the way I left it.

As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of the bootable backup. I figure if I’m going to go to the trouble to backup, I may as well back up everything in such a way that the backup actually saves me time should I need it. 

In all cases, it’s important to be able to set up a schedule for your backups. Trying to remember to do it won’t work. Both SuperDuper! and CCC can be set up to back up as often as you like, and Time Machine defaults to every hour. If you’re not near your backup drive when the schedule kicks in, the software will start backing up when you reconnect. It’s important to get in the habit of plugging in your backup drive, especially if you’re running a laptop.

Now for you Windows users out there, most of the strategies and hardware would work just fine for you. The big difference is in software. In my research, I’ve seen Norton Ghost mentioned a lot, along with Acronis. Both seem to have similar functionality to SuperDuper! and will provide the ability to create backups you can boot from. Lifehacker has a good post (with even better comments) about backing up, and I found another site (aptly named, Backup Software Reviews) that reviewed 18 software programs for Windows. That should keep you busy for a while.

Though their URL is www.macsales.com, OtherWorld Computing is a great hard drive and memory resource for Macs and PCs alike. I’ve been buying from them for years and have never had a bad experience. Of course, you can find great deals at NewEgg (also a favorite vendor) and your local big box store. Drives are getting cheaper every day (the 500 gig I bought last week dropped $4 in the two days it took to go from IL to my office…), so there’s really no excuse to not back up.

As always, no company mentioned in this post pays me to say anything nice about their stuff. But it’s what I’ve been using and had good results with. Your mileage may vary.

Back the Data Up, Part 1

I used to love watching Home Improvement. One of Tim the Toolman Taylor’s favorite sayings was “Back the truck up!” I thought I would appropriate (and modify) that saying for today’s title. So now you can go back and read the title with appropriate emphasis. Ar, ar, ar…

So we all know we should back up our data. But how often do we actually do it? We all know that it’s not a question of if our hard drive (or entire computer) will fail us, but when. But what do we do about it? Before we talk strategy, consider the following tale. 

Our lead pastor, Kurt, was out of town a few months ago. One morning, he went to wake up his MacBook and heard that unnerving sound of a drive that won’t spin up. All he got on the screen was the flashing disk/question mark icon. He took it into the Apple store and after some tests, they couldn’t get the drive to spin either. It was a total hardware failure. All his data was lost. In fact, the only thing he had left, was his iPhone, which had his contacts and music on it. 

After having a new hard drive installed, new system software loaded, and all applications reloaded he went to sync his iPhone. In a perfect world, it would have moved all of his contacts and music back to his new hard drive. Except he didn’t read the dialog box closely enough and he ended up blanking his iPhone. Now it was all gone. Luckily, he had a…no wait; he didn’t have a backup. Now that hurts, I don’t care what planet you’re from!

Now that I’ve hopefully scared you into thinking you actually need to backup your data, let’s consider some options for doing so. 

Network/Server Backup

If you are connected to a server system such as an Exchange server or a Tiger or Leopard server, you are probably backed up on a regular basis. Still, it’s not a bad idea to check in with your network administrator to find out what and how often your data is backed up. One of the great new features of Leopard server is the Time Machine backup feature. It makes backing up your user account very simple, assuming the server has enough storage space to accommodate all users. 

Network storage is great as typically it’s going to be a RAID. RAID storage, when configured properly, gives you some security in case of a drive failure. RAID 1 is a mirror copy–that is, two drives with identical information. One fails, the other still has all the data. Arguably better is RAID 5, which stripes the data across multiple drives and in the event of a single drive failure, the data can be rebuilt. You can even set up RAIDs that will survive multiple, simultaneous drive failures. These are not cheap, however. Your network storage may also be backed up on a tape drive for further security. If you take the tapes off-site, you really have a strong system going.

While this is a great plan, it gets expensive quickly and typically requires some in-depth IT knowledge to set up and manage effectively. 

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Many manufacturers are coming out with NAS devices. These nifty devices are essentially hard drive enclosures with a Gigabit or Fast Ethernet port on them. Hook them up to your network and you can backup right to them. You can pick up a few terabytes of storage for under $1,500, which would accommodate a dozen or so people. They are often configured as RAID systems, so they too provide a level of protection against a hard disk failure. There are a few caveats, however.

First, you typically need some type of software to backup your computer. Often it comes with the NAS device, which is good. Apple’s Time Machine would be great, but it only backs up to Apple’s own Time Capsule, Leopard server or an Airport Extreme base station with a hard drive attached. There are some workarounds, but they are tricky. For a few people, the Time Capsule is a good solution, as would be an Airport Extreme base station and external drive. The downside is that they only work with the Mac, and they will quickly max out with more than few people using them.

The second caveat is speed. Gigabit Ethernet is pretty darned quick, but unless your IT infrastructure is built out to support it, chances are, you’ll only be getting Fast Ethernet speeds. Once you get to the point of doing incremental backups (which we’ll get to tomorrow), the network speed isn’t that big of an issue. But, if you’re like me and have 87+ Gigs of stuff on your laptop’s drive, that first run at backup is going to take a while. Backing up the 250+ Gigs of media on my MacPro editor would be a good weekend project. If you’re setting up a NAS backup, plan on doing one user per day, and start the initial backup first thing in the morning. 

Local Hard Drives

This is perhaps the easiest and fastest to implement. And now that drives are as inexpensive as they are, it might be the cheapest. You can pick up a 500 Gig hard drive at your big box store or online for $150 (less if you stick with USB 2.0). Plug it into your computer, and it’s backup and away. Last week Santa (OK, it was the UPS guy brining a box from my favorite drive store, Other World Computing) brought me three external drives; two 500 gig quad-interface (USB 2.0, FireWire 400 & 800 and eSATA) and a dual drive enclosure with a 500 Gig and 750 gig inside (with USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 & 800). The tab for all this storage (2.25 Terabytes!) was about $600.

Using the FireWire 800 interface, I hooked into my MacBook Pro and had Time Machine go to work. A little over an hour later and my entire drive was backed up. I will be deploying the other drives to different computers in the office this week. 

The nice thing about local hard drives for laptops is that you have essentially off-site storage for your backup. That is, if your laptop is with you and your office burns down, though your backup is lost, you still have your data. If your laptop flies off the roof of your car because your wife put it there while buckling the kids in (this actually happened to someone…), your data is safe at the office. 

The downside of local hard drives is that a backup hard drive is still a hard drive, and will fail eventually. It’s never a bad idea to have an additional backup of really critical data. For that, you can look into tape, optical or even online storage with a company that provides that service. 

Optical Backup

This doesn’t really qualify as backup, per se, but it could be a viable option. Burning DVDs of your iTunes library, photos or other files that you want to keep safe (and that don’t change that often) is a good way to keep them safe. Managing it can be a chore, however. You can quickly end up with a stack of discs with no way to quickly find the files you need. Still, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who burns their photo library to DVD once in a while. 

Well, there are a few targets for backup. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss strategies for making sure you have stuff backed up in a way that’s useful, efficient, and most of all, there when you need it.

How to Keep Volunteers Pt. 2

Back to our topic of retaining volunteers. If you’re just tuning in, you may want to go back and read the first part of this post. Go ahead, we’ll wait… All caught up? Good deal. Here’s the rest of the list.

Invest in Them

Relationships are what keep people connected to a church. In fact, the church is all about relationships. Be a pastor to them, take prayer requests and pray for them. Find out what they do, their kids names and ask them about it. We tend to think if we throw a big party once a year, it’s enough. But it’s really the little things that matter. Sending out handwritten notes mean a lot. Get the team together every few months and spend time together. If the team gets big, get subgroups together. Make it personal.

Nobody said using volunteers would be cheaper and easier than paid people. In fact, it’s probably not cheaper, and it’s definitely not easier, but it’s so important.

Fix It For Them

When someone points out something that is broken, fix it. If it’s something small, get it fixed that week. If you ignore it for weeks on end, it sends the message that they are not important enough to be taken care of. If it’s a large budget item, shoot them an e-mail and let them know you’re working on it. If you don’t have the budget, tell the, but make sure they know you are aware of the problem, and you’re working to fix it. Communicate this regularly. Always thank them for pointing it out.

Feed Them

Not just spiritually, though that’s important, but physically feed them. Make sure they have water, bring snacks. Keep them energized. I feel we do a pretty good job at this right now; each weekend we have a full meal between services, and I do my best to make sure the team gets to eat, even if there are changes. I’ll stay back and do what needs to be done so they can go. I like to make sure I grab several bottles of water so everyone has enough to drink. Sometimes, I’ll even bring snacks. As a career techie, I can always put up with long hours and low pay as long as there’s food. But once the venue or the boss gets cheap with the food, watch out–a tech rebellion is coming!

Empower Them

“The longest lasting volunteers are not the ones who do tasks, but have areas of responsibility.” That’s so good. Give them the room to find better ways to do things. If you have some really good people, put them in charge of something. We have two guys on our team that we dub “Volunteer Staff” because they give so much time and energy. They are the guys who are there early, or during the week, or are e-mailing me suggestions on how we can do what we do better. I love them for that!  My hope is that they’ll stick around for a long time.

I know when I was at my last two churches as a volunteer, I would put in extraordinary amounts of time because I knew the leadership empowered me to do the job. The gave me a long leash and let me improve things. I try to replicate that experience for my volunteers as well.

I want to thank Dennis for sharing his time and expertise with us at the conference. I learned a lot, and while I feel like I’m doing a some of these things well, there’s always room for improvement. Most of all, it was a good reminder that while we may serve in the are of technical arts, our number one job is people. People make the church what it is, and we have the blessing and responsibility to enable them to use their gifts to serve our great God.

How to Keep Volunteers

Continuing my series on stuff I learned at the Arts Conference, today we’ll talk about volunteers. More specifically, we’ll talk about how to keep them happy and serving for a long time. We all know the importance of this; and we all have had key volunteers leave our ministries, often inexplicably. I love to see people serving in the church, and I feel it’s my duty to make their lives easier. Occasionally, a volunteer tech will introduce me to a friend as the Tech Arts Director, “He’s my boss,” they’ll say. I normally correct them and say, “No, I work for you. My job is to make your job easier.” And I really mean that. I see my job as one who empowers volunteers to serve, not do all the tech stuff myself.

What follows are the thoughts and notes I took during Dennis Choy’s breakout session. Dennis is the TD at Northcoast Church in Vista, CA. It’s a pretty unique place–they actually have multiple services running at the same time every Sunday. If you like old-school traditional, they have that. If you like contemporary, they have that, if you like coffee house, they have that. He said it takes 61(I think that’s right) tech volunteers to run a weekend! That’s a lot of people to manage. Here’s how he does it (with some of my thoughts thrown in for good measure…)

Pre-screen Your Volunteers

They use an application to begin to get to know new volunteers. They also use the Meyers-Briggs assessment tool. Doing so helps them find people who fit the churches personality. After the application, it’s time to set up an observation time–a time for the new recruit to observe what they’ll be doing. They think it’s for them, but you can observe them, too. How do they fit in? Watch for their heart. See if they are willing to serve in a non-glamorous position. Find out if they’re teachable. It’s important to find this (and as much other stuff as you can) out before putting them in the rotation. It’s a lot harder to fire people than to hire them.

Simplify Things For Them

This is something I’ve been doing for a while, and it’s worked out really well. When I got to Upper Room, the presentation tech was responsible for building the entire Media Shout program, and creating the sermon graphics in PowerPoint and running the songs during rehearsal, basically all at the same time. It was too much and we often were still building things as the doors opened. After a few weeks, I started pre-building the Media Shout (now ProPresenter) and setting up the templates in Keynote. Now all they need to do is drop the sermon note text into the templates, and they are freed up to run lyrics during rehearsal.

Another important item, especially if you have multiple venues, is to keep all the equipment the same. It’s important to remember that they are not at the church all week working on this stuff. They may not even have jobs that are remotely related to technology. We need to consider them when making changes. Tossing in a new piece of gear every week is fun when you do it for a living. It can be terrifying for a volunteer who hasn’t been there in 3 weeks.

Fire Them

Yeah, that was our reaction, too. But here’s the deal. When you have someone on the team who is just not cutting it, they are bringing the whole team down. The rest of the team feels less successful. We don’t help people by letting them continue doing a bad job. It’s important for the good of the team to find good people, train them well, and keep them there. When you do need to fire someone, always do it in person (never by e-mail, and by phone only under extreme circumstances). Do your best to relocate them to another area if you can. Make sure you are completely open and honest about the reasons why not only with them, but with the rest of the team. We tend to run pretty quickly in this line of work, and it’s easy to ignore these issues, but for the good of the church, we need to deal with them. It’s that important.

Tomorrow, we’ll cover the rest of the list

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