Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: November 2008 (Page 1 of 2)

Thanksgiving Leftovers

You can call me lazy. You can call me holiday challenged. You can call me Al. But we’ll just get it out there that I didn’t get around do doing my “I’m thankful for…” list in time for Thanksgiving. Which is fine by me because if I can’t be thankful for this stuff 3 days after Thanksgiving, then I probably can’t be thankful for them at all. So here we go; stuff I’m thankfu for…not necessarily in order of importance.

My Girls

My two daughters, Katie and Robyn are great. They’re such fun to have around and keep life interesting. I learn a lot from them, and I enjoy trying to embarrass them by pretending to be a lot hipper than I really am.

My Wife

Denise and I are coming up on 18 years in a few weeks. Which seems amazing when I stop and think about it. She’s been a lot more patient with me than she perhaps should have been. And she was fully supportive of moving the whole family across the country to the frozen tundra we now call home so that I could follow my dream and calling. I think that says a lot.

The Upper Room Staff

I get to work with some amazing people. Everyone says that (well, OK, not everyone, but a lot of people do). What I find so special about our team is the way we embrace brokenness in such a unique way. Rather than run from it, cover it up or push it aside, they lean into it and work through it. I think that makes us richer as people and as Christ-followers.


I admit it. I really like Twitter. I didn’t get it at first, but after 6 months, it’s become a big part of my life. I really feel like I’ve been blessed by following a few dozen people scattered all over the country. As I’ve caught a glimpse into their lives, and they into mine, I feel we like the world has gotten a little smaller.  

My Mac(s) & iPod Touch

I admit it; I’m a geek. I really dig being able to keep in touch with people via technology, and these two tools make that easier and more fun. It really amazes me how much technology has changed since my first Mac SE/30 twenty years ago. That had 2 Megs of RAM and a 10 Meg hard drive. Still, it was a blast then, and it is still today. I love being able to grab the MacBook Pro and write out all the thoughts swirling around in my mind wherever I am. And being able to check my e-mail before I get out of bed is just plain cool.


the readers of this blog. You have enriched my life in so many ways. Eighteen months and 200 posts ago I never would have guessed so many people would be reading it, commenting and entering into conversations around the thoughts I spill out here. It’s pretty humbling, really.

The Trinity

Maybe it goes without saying, but I really am thankful for the work God has done in my life. I would not be where I am today were it not for His intervention. Were it not for His grace, I doubt I would still be married, I would likely be heavily in debt, and my career would not be nearly as fulfilling. I’m still learning to understand that grace, and learning to understand what it means to really have God as my Father, but I’m glad I’m in process.

So there you go. For me, leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving. I love turkey sandwiches, and I can’t wait until next week when I will be making my turkey/barley soup. So this list is like that. The same as Thanksgiving…only better!

Give Thanks

Last time, we talked about not being afraid to ask for help when we need it. In honor of Thanksgiving, I present this post. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is to always thank someone after you ask for their help. This was another lesson I learned while networking for my next career. My networking mentor said with great regularity that the first thing we should do after we meet with someone was to send a thank you note. E-mail was acceptable, but a handwritten note was the best. I often did both. I followed up with a quick e-mail thanking them for their time and reinforcing anything that I thought they may need to hear again. When got home that night I wrote out a thank you note. Being the geek I am, standard-issue thank you notes were not acceptable. I created my own design of thank you’s in 14 languages and printed them out on thank you card stock I found at Office Max. I’m an overachiever, what can I say.

So what does this have to do with technical arts in the church? Quite a lot, actually. Before I explain, let me state clearly that I have no agenda in this other than the transference of knowledge. This is not intended to guilt anyone into anything. I’ve just noticed in this day of instant communication, some basic tenants of etiquette have sadly disappeared from our landscape. This is to our own peril. So back to the point. 

As I said yesterday, I receive 6-8 requests a month from readers for help. I am more than happy to oblige as much as I am able. I am what Malcolm Gladwell calls a Maven; that is I love researching new products and sharing that knowledge. When you need advice on what to buy, or how to do something, you ask a maven. I am honestly humbled that people around the country and the globe want my opinion. I enjoy doing it, and enjoy e-mailing back and forth with people until we get the issue solved. 

For the most part, I find that people really appreciate the help. Quite often people write back thanking me for the advice, and one terrific guy from the Philippines even sent pictures of him and his family (thanks for that—that was so cool!). Some of these exchanges have led to friendships, which is really great. But every so often, I’ll spend some time answering a question and never hear from the person again. That really puzzles me.

I could list more examples, but that sounded like sour grapes when I wrote it. So instead, I’ll offer some suggestions that will hopefully make us all better people. 

When you ask someone for help, recognize that their time is valuable. They’re under no obligation to help, though most will because all of us like it when someone asks our opinion. Everyone likes to feel valuable, but when there’s no expression of thanks for the help given, the helper feels used. I know of some people who would have been very valuable to my job search, but wouldn’t meet with me because too many before me asked for their help and took advantage. They were soured on helping and gave up on it. Don’t be a link in that chain.

E-mail thanks are great, handwritten notes are better still. When possible, I like to employ both. I was amazed more than once when I met with someone a second time and saw the thank you note I had sent them after the first meeting sitting on their desk. When I asked about it, most said they were so impressed with the card, not because it was great, but because so few bother to say thank you any more. The fact that I did made them far more willing to help me, and many went over and above what I asked them for.

If someone really helps you, really thank them. A few months ago, I was asked by the leaders of the women’s BSF group that meets at our church to train their tech team volunteers how to use our system. Though not strictly in my job description, I was glad to do it, if for no other reason than I figured it would save me time down the road. I ended up spending a few hours with them, walking them through the system and the changes I made over the summer. They were effusive in their thanks. The next week, I found a Caribou gift card in my mailbox, along with some chocolates. The following week, there was a Subway gift card and some more chocolates. Every time I run into one of the leaders in the hall, she thanks me again for the help. On the few occasions they have had a problem, I don’t mind dropping what I’m doing to help them out again. And it’s not because of the goodies, it’s because I know they really do appreciate it, and it feels really good to help out people who feel that way.

Follow up. One lesson I learned is that after people offer help, they really like to know how it turned out. When I landed at a new position, I sent an e-mail to everyone who I had met with letting them know. Probably 50% of those people wrote back and said they were excited for me and offered ongoing help in the future if I needed it. Two months later, I did. My contract was cut short when the client had a bad quarter. Once again, people were happy to help. Personally, I love hearing how things work out when I make a equipment recommendation. Did it meet the need? Are things better off? I wonder sometimes if I made the right suggestion, and it’s great to know when it works out well. Even if you don’t take the advice, it’s good to follow up and tell the person how the problem was solved. Shared knowledge is always helpful.

These are some lessons I wish I had known earlier in my career. I didn’t ask for help much early on, and I rarely said thank you. I always wondered how some people seemed to get ahead faster than I did. Others seemed to have great networks of people to lean into and advanced their position. Now I realize it’s all about asking and thanking. People love to be asked and deserve to be thanked. 

As Christians, we should be the most thankful people on the planet. We’ve been given (and forgiven) so much, that thanksgiving should overflow from our lives. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I once again thank those who have helped me, and hope that this missive helps you as well. Peace.

Asking for Help

I made a conscious decision some years ago that I was not going to be able to know everything. This may seem like an incredibly obvious conclusion to come to, but up until that time I was on a all-out quest for knowledge of all things audio/visual. But one day, I was reading about Albert Einstein, who remarked once that true intelligence was not knowing all the answers, but knowing where to find all the answers. I figured if that was good enough for Al, it would be good enough for me. Part of that revelation was the realization that there simply wasn’t enough time in my day to mix on every sound desk out there, through every available speaker in every kind of venue. And that doesn’t even get to mics, DIs, and other outboard gear, let alone the myriad of options available for video, lighting and projection.

So now I’m good with not knowing everything. I still have a thirst for knowledge, and continue to learn as much as I can about the equipment and techniques I have at my disposal. But now rather than being on an all-out quest for knowledge, I have learned to learn where to learn. Go back and read that sentence again. Just as important as knowing what you know, is knowing what you don’t know, and knowing where to fill in gaps in your knowledge base as you need to. The good part of all this is that there is always someone who knows more about a given topic than you or I do. The really good news is that most of the time those folks are happy to share their knowledge.

I learned this when I was between jobs a few years back. I began talking to people I didn’t know, and was amazed at how willing they were to help me. I’ve found this to be true in the church tech community as well. I regularly ask others for their opinion about a piece of gear I’m not familiar with, or about a technique that I’m a little fuzzy on, or how to handle a personnel issue. Every time I ask for help, I gain some valuable knowledge. My network grows, and often I end up making a new friend in the process. It’s what Michael Scott likes to call a “win-win-win.”

While it’s often said there are no stupid questions, there are good, better and best ways to go about asking for help. Consider the following scenarios for asking for advice on a kick drum mic.

Option 1: Which kick drum mic should I buy?

Option 2: We’d like to upgrade from our existing Beta 52, and we have a budget of around $350. Any suggestions?

Option 3: We’d like to upgrade from our existing Beta 52, which we don’t like because it just sounds like mush, to a new mic that will give us a little more snap and definition. We’ve tried the D4, and while we liked the tightness, it lacked oomph; and when we tried the ATM250DE, we liked the condenser element and the snap and definition it provided but weren’t impressed with the dynamic capsule as it overloaded often. Our drummers are really good, and the kits are in excellent shape. Our style is pretty progressive, Crowder, Brewster, Tomlin, as well as modernized versions of hymns. Our budget is around $350. Suggestions?

You can see the difference in the three approaches. The first option is so broad, that it’s almost impossible to answer. And if someone give you an answer, it’s not likely to be a good one as you have not provided enough information to give an intelligent response. Option 2 gives some more parameters, which helps narrow the choices. By stating the mic we’re upgrading from, the person being asked knows what we don’t like. Putting a budget in also helps narrow the field. Option three really qualifies what the desired result is, and it’s far easier to formulate a good response.

So who should you be asking for help? That depends. When it comes to equipment related questions, I like to ask disinterested third parties. That is, people who have no financial incentive in the outcome. I’d much rather ask a fellow church sound guy about kick mics than the salesman at the store. This is not to say that you can’t, over time, develop a trusting relationship with a vendor, but you have to be careful and take it slow. Local vendors tend to get asked a lot for advice, then the customer goes out to the internet and buys the suggested product from someone else. This makes it hard to get good advice, and for good reason. On the other hand, the vendor wants to sell you a product, and they want to sell you what they sell, not something they don’t. Nothing wrong with that per se, unless what they’re trying to sell doesn’t really fit your need.

That’s where a third party can come in helpful. When people ask me for advice on something, I’m not invested in what they end up doing in the end, because I gain nothing from the transaction except good will. I have no incentive to steer anyone toward anything. On the other hand, I and other church tech guys may have a more limited pool of experience with a given set of equipment. I’ve worked with a lot of mics, but not all of them. I’ve mixed on quite a few desks, but not all. So I’m likely to be biased toward what I do know. Again, nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize that going in.

As I said before, most church tech people I’ve met are more than happy to offer their advice on a given topic. I get requests a few times a week for help, and I’m sure the other guys whose blogs I follow do to (see the blogroll list to the right). Read the blogs, and see who has a passion for your area of need and ask for help. It also never hurts to get to know fellow church techies in your area. Remember, we’re not competitors; we’re all in this together. The more we realize that, and work together, the smarter we become collectively.

Tomorrow, in honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll talk about what to do after you ask for help. Any takers on the subject of that post?

The Rule

You’ve probably had this happen. Rehearsal and run through went smoothly, all systems appear to be go. Then, just before the service starts, something appears wonky. You see signal present LEDs lighting up on channels that shouldn’t be. There isn’t signal where the should be. The presentation computer doesn’t seem to be acting right. The lights don’t respond. What’s happening? Sometimes, it’s just equipment failure. In that case, you can troubleshoot as quickly as you can, fix it or switch to plan B. Other times, it’s a symptom of “What’s this button do?” syndrome.  Let me explain.

We techies tend to be a naturally curious lot. That’s what makes us good at what we do. On the other hand, sometimes that curiosity gets us in trouble. Remember Curious George? We can be like that. I was thinking of this a few weeks ago. We started producing our videos with dialog on one channel and music and effects (M/E) on the other. Simple enough. That way we can better control the mix in the sanctuary, where it can be hard to hear dialog.

Normally, we run our video’s audio feed into a stereo input on the M7. This works fine until you want to adjust the relative balance between the two input channels. There’s no way to do it. So, we patched it up to channels 40 & 41. No problem. Works great. Then between run through and doors open, our engineer decided it would be more convenient (and less of a reach) to patch it down to 38 & 39. Makes sense, we’re not using those for anything, and they’re a little closer to where he stands. The problem was gain. Those channels had been used for mics previously, so the gain was turned way up. When we routed a +4 line level signal into them, we had huge amounts of noise. Fortunately, he noticed it, and called me on the com before we ran any video.

Doors hadn’t opened yet, so we did some quick troubleshooting. I checked the audio interface, it was good. I checked the switcher, all clear. I re-booted the computer (you never know…). No change. Finally, I looked at Studio Manager running on my laptop in the tech booth. I saw the gain knob set to 3 O’Clock. “Well there’s your problem,” I said. He dialed the gain back, everything was fine.

Thankfully, he caught it and we were able to fix it before the opening video ran. If we hadn’t, we may have had speaker components leaving their home and coming to rest in someone’s lap.

I’ve been guilty of things like this in the past, too. During the sermon, I occasionally get bored and start thinking, “Hmm, how would it work if we did…” That can be dangerous. On more than on occasion, I’ve had to say to the entire congregation, “That was me…” It can happen with the presentation computer, the light board, sound, whatever. If it has knobs and switches, it’s easy to fiddle. And when we fiddle, bad things can happen. That is, unless we follow The Rule.

The Rule

Don’t change things once rehearsal/run-through is over. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, and exactly what the outcome will be, without question, leave it alone. And even then, you’re taking a risk.You can try it between services if you have time to test, but in general, once doors open, we’re done. That means no re-patching, no clicking on new icons in ProPresenter (those things just seem to show up every time there’s an update!), no checking to see what this button does on the light board.

Once you know everything is working, leave it alone! I say this to my team, and I say this to myself. There are so many things that can go wrong when you start changing things, it’s just not worth it. What I try to do now is write down the experiments I want to try and play with it during the week. I’ve been using a program called Evernote for that purpose. I run it on my iPod Touch, my MacBook Pro and my Mac Pro. It keeps my notes in sync, so I can always remember what I was thinking of doing on Sunday.

You can also try a few things during rehearsal; just be aware that if you mess something up, you could be wasting a lot of people’s time while you recover. So use that freedom judiciously. Follow The Rule and you’ll look smarter and more capable to the people around you. Experiment during the week and bring your learnings out on the weekend, and you’ll look smarter still!

Studio Monitor “Shootout”

I was waiting for my daughter at middle school when the call came in. “Mike, I’m headed over to Guitar Center to listen to studio monitors for my production suite. Wanna come with?” I enjoy playing with all kinds of gear, but speakers are perhaps my favorite, mainly because the differences are so profound. The caller was Erik; our lead audio volunteer at Upper Room and CPC’s new technical director. Erik and I are both hard-core geeks, so I knew we would have fun.

I’m not normally that thrilled about hanging out at Guitar Center, but they did have a decent setup for listening to studio monitors. They had a couple of racks full of speakers, a small Rolls mixer and a selector switch. Given that we were surrounded by about $100,000 worth of other studio gear, I was a bit disappointed in the Rolls, but what are you going to do. After rounding up to GC employees to get an iPod cable hooked up, we commenced listening. Erik brought some very high bit rate files, and I had my own collection. 

Disclaimer here: This was not designed to be a test to determine absolute pristine quality. We’re not planning producing hit records with these. We were looking for monitors that were reasonably accurate, and had pleasing tone. That’s why we didn’t worry about not running them through a Manley tube pre. And the reality is, we’re normally working with compressed audio sources in our work anyway, so playing Apple lossless files was perfectly acceptable, as were the 256kps AAC’s. So no flame posts about how we weren’t using high quality sources, OK? Here’s what we heard.

GC actually had a decent selection; and we were there mainly to audition the Yamaha HS80M. Someone had recommended those to Erik, and they were priced well. But, how did they sound compared to speakers costing 2 and 3 times as much? Actually, pretty dang good. In fact, I would contend that they sounded almost as good as the most expensive monitor on that rack, the JBL LSR4328P. 

But before we got the serious listening, we had some work to do. After the GC guys left us alone, we started calibrating monitors for comparable volumes (louder speakers tend to sound “better”), and proper EQ and boundary settings. It’s always amazing to me that retail outlets generally do such a poor job at this. We even found one speaker unplugged, and another not turned on. Kind of destroys the stereo sound field when you only have one side (or one is set 8 dB lower than the other). GC, your speakers are properly set up now.

For those with short attention spans, my favorites were the HS80Ms, the Event ASP8 and the aforementioned JBL. Oddly, that’s in descending order of favorites and ascending order of price. Actually, I may have liked the ASP8s better, but they were almost 3x the price of the Yamaha’s, so it’s hard to justify.

I found the Yamaha’s to have a expansive sound field, very smooth vocal and mid-range response, highly detailed high end, and decent bass. If you’re mixing hip hop they may not cut it, but for everyone else, they should be sufficient. Listening to some Norah Jones, the brushes on the cymbals were plainly heard with pleasing detail and all the smoothness of her voice came through. The even revealed the hint of raspiness she sometimes brings out. The stereo sound field seemed as wide as the room itself, and the overall sound was expansive. A non-ported box, the bass was very tight and fast. One could clearly hear the subtleties of the string bass and the muffled thump of the kick. Overall, a great sound, and a great value. I’ve had Yamaha speakers in my home theater for 12 years now, and am always amazed at how clean they are, and how little I paid for them.

The ASP8s were very similar, with perhaps a tich more high end detail. They also had more low end oomph–they’re a ported enclosure–but the bass didn’t seem quite as tight and detailed as the HS80Ms. As with the Yamahas, the brushes on the cymbals came through very clear, and the vocals were pure. I’ve been a fan of Event since a buddy of mine gave me some PS8’s to demo some years ago. I actually had to buy them because I wouldn’t give them up when he came to pick them up.

I think I would have liked the JBLs more if they had actually run the auto calibration on them. Run flat, they were very detailed, and had decent bass, but the mids seemed a little over-emphasized. I think a bit of EQ could have tamed them, though. Stereo imaging was impressive, however. To me, the exhibited a bit of the classic JBL overhyped mid characteristic that gives them their impressive clarity, but can be grating if you’re not careful. These were on the edge of that. Super clear, but perhaps a little too much so. If we were interested in spending $1,500, we may have played with them more, but this is a church media department budget we’re talking about…

We also listened to the Adam A7. Those little beauties with their ribbon driver had perhaps the smoothest midrange response of anything we listened to. Norah Jones appeared to be singing right in front of us, with all the detail and grain of her voice perfectly reproduced. On the negative side, the high end was lacking in subtle detail and extension. And the string bass was barely audible. I supposed paired with a sub, that would have been corrected. I could have listened to these all day, however.

Other interesting findings were with two models from KRK. Though we weren’t really interested in these, I was curious to hear them, as I’ve heard a lot about them, but never actually listened to them. We spent a lot of time with the VXT8, mainly because they had no bass response at all. Worse than the A7 in fact. And the VXT8 has an 8″ woofer to the A7’s 6.5.” We played with EQ settings, gain, moved them around and nothing. In fact, the VXT6 had better bass extension than the 8’s. I know…weird. We honestly wonder if there was a problem with the demo models, because they just didn’t seem right. Actually, the VXT6s sounded pretty good. The stereo field wasn’t nearly as wide as the front runners, but the detail was pretty good, the mids sounded clean, and bass wasn’t bad. But at nearly 2x the price of the HS80M, they were out of the running.

Then there were the Mackies. We started with the HRT824s because they were #1 on the switch. At first blush, they were OK. If that was all we had to listen to, we might have lived with them. But when we switched to the next set (which I’m blanking on, but it doesn’t matter), it was like someone pulled a moving blanket off the sound. During the hour or so of listening, we kept going back to the 824s and a set of 624s for reference. Each time it was an, “Ewww, those just sound like we’re listening through a blanket,” moment. I know some people that love them, but I’m not one of them. They had no sound field, a barely discernible stereo stage, weak highs and lows, and the mids weren’t all that smooth. Nope, no Makies for us.

Ultimately, the Yamaha won the day. On sale for $269 apiece, they were the cheapest ones on the rack. And both of us agreed that if they weren’t the best sounding, they were in the top 2 or 3, and the other two in that short list were at least 2x if not 3x more pricey. So don’t be fooled. Just because it comes with a big price tag doesn’t mean it’s always the best. And if the price is a good deal, it doesn’t mean it’s not. Judge with your ears before you judge with your wallet.

Blinded by Tech Novelty?

Kent Shaffer over at Church Relevance has a great post about what happens when we get blinded by tech novelty. This is part 2 of 2 (part one largely deals with graphic design, and is interesting, but not what I wanted to talk about).

Kent defines Tech Novelty this way:

Tech Novelty is:

Being blinded by the novelty of an exciting new technology and consequently misusing the technology for novelty’s sake. Misuse of technology may be caused by lack of training and/or from the inability to focus on anything except the novelty.

I see this a lot in churches. I have more to say about the topic, but for now, go read Kent’s post. More to come…

Audience Participation

This weekend we got to use technology in a pretty cool way to engage with our congregation. One of the things Upper Room is known for is our experiential style of worship. Almost every week, we have some type of activity that allows the congregation to engage in the teaching they have just heard. Sometimes it’s reflective, other times it’s very active. We’ve put giant calendars on stage and asked people to commit to having a difficult conversation by a certain date. We’ve asked people to write on walls, pick up stones with a new name, even bring items in to sell on ebay to raise money for Heal Africa. This week was about celebrating our experiential nature.

We set 3 laptops up around our worship space. During the message, we encouraged people to go to a laptop and “blog” about a particular experiential that impacted their lives. Our web guru, also a Mike, designed a simple form on our web site that would take their entries and pass it to a database on the server via php. The form had a prompt question, and a text box sized to limit the length of the entries (we weren’t looking for a novella, just a few thoughts).

Once the person hit submit, they received a confirmation that their message was sent, and 5 seconds later, the page refreshed (Mike B.–you’re good!). Our Creative Director, Craig, sat in the service with his laptop checking the database via our website admin page (which was also custom designed in large part by Mike B.). As the posts came in, he chose the posts that fit the topic the most closely, and instant messaged them to me via Google Chat. I then took the copy and pasted it into a Keynote presentation. I had build at template that would display the words using the typewriter effect. I adjusted the timing based on a simple 3.5 seconds per line timing that we determined was about the right speed.

During the message, I was receiving the IMs and building the Keynote presentation (which actually resided on our iMac running ProPresenter), while our presentation tech followed our pastor with sermon slides in ProPresenter. Near the end of the message, I saved the Keynote and closed it. During the prayer, we took all lights to black, went to black in ProPresenter and flipped to Keynote. The first slide was black there, too, so the change was seamless if anyone was peeking. We then ran the “blog posts” from Keynote in order to take advantage of the typewriter effect.

At the end of this section, we went back to black, returned to ProPresenter and wrapped up the evening. It was pretty neat to see how people have been impacted by the experientials, and very cool to have their comments on the screen just minutes after they wrote them. Of course, we couldn’t have pulled it off were it not for our great Tech Team (props to Jeff, Ronica, Erik & Les). They truly rocked it tonight and brought their A-game. I’ve always said that one of my goals is to work myself out of a job in the tech booth. I love seeing volunteers so good at what they do that I can concentrate on other activities while they make the service happen with very little input from me. And I love being able to use technology to engage with our congregation in creative ways. That’s what we did this weekend… how about you?

Outfitting a Building, Pt. 2

If you’ve just stumbled across this post directly, you should first go back and read Outfitting a Building. Don’t worry, we’ll wait. Alright, here we go.

Today, we’ll talk about the right way to outfit a church. That was a joke. You can laugh now. It would be quite presumptuous to think that A) there is a single “right” way to go about outfitting a church with A/V gear and B) that I know what it is and will now tell you. However, after being around churches and their A/V systems for some 20 years, and being the somewhat OCD thinker that I am, and having recently attended WFX where my thoughts were validated over and over, I would like to share some principles that I think are helpful when it comes to choosing A/V equipment for a church. Unfortunately, this process is hard; harder than just asking the GC for a quote, harder than hiring a consultant, and harder than leafing through the latest Sweetwater catalog. Which is why so few churches do it. But here we go.

Step 1: Figure out who you are as a church.

You were expecting, “Decide between digital and analog for FOH?” Sorry to disappoint. Here’s the deal: Your church is not NorthPoint. NorthPoint is not Saddleback. Saddleback is not Grainger. So often I find myself in conversations with pastors, tech guys or worship leaders who will say, “Dude, I just go back from [fill in the mega church here]. They have this awesome board at FOH, I think it’s a [fill in an awesome FOH desk here]. I think we need to look into that for our new building.” My first question is, “Why?” Very few churches really need a PM5D. In fact, for many churches, it would be gross overkill and a misallocation of ministry resources.

Back to the point. No two churches are the same. Your church needs to figure out who you are, who you are trying to reach and come up with the best way to do that. Depending on the answers to those questions (and a dozen more), you will start to get an idea of what the worship gathering should look like. You may find that going all Prestonwood (full rock band, orchestra, 8 vocalists and a 300+ choir) doesn’t really help fulfill your mission. On the other hand, it might.

You also need to evaluate your technical staff. Are they paid or volunteer? What is there skill and commitment level? What can they learn, and who will teach them? Same goes for the musicians. You need to determine the most effective to reach the type of people the church is missionally called to reach. For some churches, a huge band, choir and orchestra work great. For others, a piano and worship leader work far, far better. It all depends on who you are as a church.

Note also that these are not value judgements on a given style of worship. There is a place in the kingdom for mega churches, and there is a place for coffee house churches. Just don’t confuse the two.

Step 2: Determine what kind of facility you need to effectively reach your target market.

Sorry, we’re still not to picking out equipment yet. Why not? Because we don’t even know what kind of room we need to put it in yet. There are hundreds of questions that need to be considered here, and I won’t pretend to give you an exhaustive list. But think about a few of these and more will follow.

What should the worship space look like; traditional, modern, post-modern? Would a fan-shaped seating area work better, or does stadium seating help us better accomplish our mission? Do we need a room that enables us to pull off services that look like a Trans Siberian Orchestra show? Or do we need to bring together a more intimate “hanging out in the living room together” vibe? Does a big, elevated stage with some separation between the stage and seats work, or perhaps a more “theater in the round” concept?

Keep in mind, though I’m using two extremes to illustrate the point, there are hundreds, if not thousands of shades of grey in between. The point is that no one size fits all. I’ve heard of churches who currently have 100 people, more or less, showing up on Sunday that want to build a 5,000 seat auditorium. Even if they could afford it, which they can’t, do you have any idea how uncomfortable that would feel on opening Sunday?

The type of facility must match your mission. That may well be a huge auditorium. Or it may be a movie theater off the metro line. Or a coffee shop. Or another church you rent on Sunday nights. Just promise me you’ll think it through, OK?

Step 3: Determine the type of equipment that works best in your space, with your volunteers and within your budget.

Finally, we get to choose some gear. But notice that we’ve really done the hardest work up front. When equipment selection flows from missional direction and facility appropriateness, you will find yourself upgrading far less often.

Consider one model; an urban missional church dedicated to reproducing itself in a series of smaller, neighborhood-targeted churches. It’s really easy then to determine that spending $65K on a FOH desk is not an effective use of missional dollars. The church, especially if portable at the beginning may be far better served with a $10,000 RSS V-Mixing system. Or a $4,000 analog desk.

Or think about speakers for a second. Everyone wants line arrays right now (and every supplier wants to sell them). However, they really only work well (the operative word being well) in a fairly limited number of environments. And they’re really expensive. So don’t put them in your building just because Willow Creek has them. Go back to questions 1 and 2 and figure out what is the best use of ministry dollars. What helps further the mission of the church? A $200,000 line array that’s total overkill or a $50,000 distributed mono cluster?

While it may appear that I’m picking on churches for spending too much, other churches will spend too little. Both are mistakes. If you believe the mission of your church will be best served by building a large auditorium and going for a Willow/NorthPoint style of worship, then don’t cheap out on the gear. Because if you do, you will replace it not once, but twice. This frustrates the daylights out of me because churches do it over and over, and it’s so predictable. Seriously, do it once, and do it right. You will save tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Now, I’ve been using sound systems here for most of my examples, but the exact same principles apply to lighting, video and presentation. Do you need to have 18×32 HD IMAG screens in a worship center that seats 300? Probably not. But in a 5,000 seat auditorium, you had better think about it. And know that it’s going to be expensive.

If your worship team consists of 4-5 players and a vocalist or two on a small stage, you probably don’t need to budget for 15 moving lights. In fact, depending on the mood you’re trying to create, a few simple fixtures with gels might be just what you need. Think it through.

We’re working through this process right now at Upper Room. As we work to figure out who we are and who we’re missionally called to reach, I’m beginning to make decisions on the kind of gear I’m interested in. For example, as much as I love the M7-CL 48 we currently get to mix on, we simply don’t need that big of a desk in our new iteration. And while it would be cool to go all wireless in-ears for our band, I’m thinking Aviom because we’ll get through sound check faster. Faster will be important in a portable church environment. I’d love to have access to a bunch of moving fixtures (mainly because they’re cool), but since we’ll likely be loading in, setting up and tearing down every week, those are out. In fact, I’m strongly considering going all LED because of their low power draw. Sure, they’re not as bright, but our worship style works best in low lighting anyway. We like to set a darker, more “candlelit” vibe. So I don’t need to throw 50,000 lux on the stage.

As much as possible, I’m making selections based on our mission, and the facility we will use to implement that mission. And I’m not bothered that NorthPoint uses a DigiDesign Venue in their facilities. That would be total overkill for us. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure a 24 channel analog board wouldn’t cut it for them.

Clearly this is not the be-all-end-all discussion on the matter. In fact, I hope this does nothing more than start a bunch of discussions. We can’t choose our equipment in a vacuum. We can’t choose it because it’s what some other church uses. We can’t choose it because it’s what the GC put in the last church he built. It needs to work for each individual church and their mission. Figure that stuff out first, and the church and the Kingdom will be better of.

Outfitting a New Building

Do you ever have the experience of attending a conference, or reading a book, or hearing a sermon and thinking, “Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.” That was WFX for me last week. For years I’ve been thinking on the right way to outfit a new church building with A/V equipment. And WFX was one of the crystalizing moments where all the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head came together like sugar crystals when you’re making fudge (with apologies for the foodie analogy).

When it comes to making decisions about what kind of equipment we install into our church buildings, I’ve noticed a few disturbing trends. Some churches think about it roughly 3 weeks before the grand opening. They scramble around, make a few phone calls end eventually ask the electrician to hang the speakers a volunteer picked up on sale at Guitar Center. I wish I was making this up, but if you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you know this happens.

Another strategy is to call in a consultant early on with the direction of wanting the biggest, baddest and best sound, lighting and video systems in the city. $1.5 million later, the church does indeed have an amazing system. But get a look at that price tag. And sadly, many churches that take that route don’t end up with systems that their volunteers can run, so they never get the bang for the buck they hoped they would.

A third strategy is for the church to start off with the good intentions of wanting a quality A/V system. But as the project progresses, and the budget begins to escalate, money is borrowed from the A/V budget. Eventually, the system is “value engineered” and significant compromises made. The thinking goes, “Well, we know we’re cutting here, but people won’t really notice, and if they do, we can upgrade it later.” We all know how that turns out. People do notice–they can’t hear the pastor, the music is too loud or soft, they can’t see the screens because they’re too dim–and they end up upgrading sooner rather than later. Which means they pay for the system twice. As the saying goes, “Most churches are on their third sound system.”

What if there was a better way? What if we could find an appropriate balance between going crazy and ending up with a crappy system? What if, and this may sound just radical, we designed our A/V systems to fulfill the specific mission that particular church is called to? What if, instead of having to fight other departments for dollars, the A/V system was thought of as an integral part of the church’s calling and mission (just like the café or the kid’s wing)? Might that be a more effective way to put a system together? Check back tomorrow and we’ll talk more about that.

FaithTools Live at WFX

The latest episode of FatihTools is now available. I got to be part of this podcast while hanging out with Colin and a volunteer from Colin’s church at WFX in Houston last week. We had a great conversation, so check it out.
Faithtools Podcast Ready to Go Faithtools Podcast Ready to Go

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