Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: January 2009 (Page 2 of 2)

Doing More with Less

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that big changes are afoot in my church, Upper Room. Having been a sub-ministry of Christ Presbyterian Church for 7 years, we’re about to launch out on our own. While this is all highly exciting, it’s a bit like a teenager graduating high school and going out to live on his own. Instead of living with mom and dad where room and board are provided, he has to provide for himself. His budget will get tighter and he’ll probably have to make do with less. This is right where we find ourselves.

This move comes at a time when many other churches are struggling as well. I know of several who have had to lay staff off just to keep the lights on. Those are tough decisions, and we know them well. Our staff has shrunk by almost half since I started a year ago. However, the work still needs to get done, so the remaining staff have all had extra roles added.

As I was working on my Ministry Action Plan, it occurred to me that I probably have the equivalent of about three full-time jobs, at least by overall responsibility. As much as I love what I do, I don’t love it enough to work 120 hours a week to get it all done. Somehow, I need to get more done in the same amount of time.

One thing I’ve noticed about many techies is a tendency to be high-achievers. We just love to get stuff done. This is my bent. Give me a job to do, and I attack it with all I’ve got. I only tend to ask for help when I can’t reach something. However, in my new job paradigm, this won’t cut it. I simply can’t work hard, fast or long enough to get everything done. That means a new strategy.

I’ve decided I need to really start developing volunteer leaders to start taking over portions of my job. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you this is not driven from laziness, but from the knowledge that I can’t get it all done. As a bonus, it allows people in our community to have a tremendous impact in our church, and empowers them to advance the Kingdom.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I plan to implement this grand strategy.

Buying a New Mixer Pt. 3

I didn’t intend for this to be a 3-part series, but Justin raised an excellent point in a comment to my last post. I’ll reprint his comment here:

Having just gone through the whole mixer selection process, I wonder do you think there is a tipping point, so to speak, where the benefits of a digital desk more than account for the extra cost over a large analogue? For example, the absolute minimum requirements for us were 32+4 and 8-10 aux. In Oz this puts us in the 10k price range, where the Yamaha LS9 and Roland M400 come in at about 12k and 14k respectively.
I couldn’t justify 10k on a large analogue which hardly allows for future expansion and growth, when for a bit more you get more channels, double the aux sends, inbuilt FX and EQ, dynamics, scenes, better channel eq, VCA groups (roland), matrix mixing etc. I think in a few years I would have been cursing myself for not recommending a digital option.

[EDIT] It’s been pointed out that here in the states (I believe Justin is in Australia) an LS-9-32 can be had for $8,000 or less with no optional cards, and an M-400 is just a little bit more, depending on which digital snake option you choose. An analog desk that would meet his specs might be an A&H GL3800, which can be picked up for under $7,000. While our numbers are a little lower, the concept is the same. Thought I’d clarify that. [END EDIT–1/10/09]

I totally agree with Justin–there is a point where the two paths converge (or at least get close) and you must decide. In this case, a large analog desk would do the job, and be a little cheaper–at least initially. However, when you factor in needed outboard gear, and future expansion, the analog desk is going to be quite a bit more expensive.

One thing I can’t stand doing is buying something twice. Certainly companies do this, but churches are notorious for it. We all know the old saw, “most churches are on their third sound system.” That’s because they bought for the short term twice. They thought they were saving money, but they were spending it in the future.

Let’s take Justin’s example, because it serves the point well. He could have spent $10K on an analog mixer that would meet the needs of today. However, in a growing church, there are always new additions to the sound system, which means the need for more inputs and outputs. As the programming complexity increases, so too will the demands on the audio system. With the extra features (as listed above) a digital desk provides, spending an additional $2-4K today will save you $10K down the road. Not clear on the math? Look at it this way: Spend $10K now and in 3 years, spend $15K on the digital desk you should have bought today (you don’t think they’ll get less expensive, do you?). Total price for the digital desk=$25K, minus whatever you can get for a used analog board in 3 years. Or, you could spend $12-14K now, and be done for a good long while.

We must always think ahead when we purchase equipment. I know I’ve written this many times before, but for the new readers, it bears repeating. And, it’s always worth looking at higher end options, because quite often, you can get a lot more functionality for not a whole lot more money. For example, I’m in the market for a multi-function copier/printer/scanner for our church. When I priced out a 20 page per minute model with modest capabilities, it came out to be $3 more per month to lease a 25 PPM model with significant upgrades in features, quality, finishing options and speed. I’d be a fool not to recommend the higher model.

My rough rule of thumb is this: If spending 20% more today gives me an extra 5+ years of service on a piece of equipment due to increased functionality, service life or expansion, it’s worth it. Sometimes that threshold is higher or lower depending on actual dollar amounts. Alternately, if spending a little more now will add significantly to the feature set, even if you hadn’t identified those features as critical, it’s worth looking at. You may discover that those features will save a lot of time, make operation easier or simply add new functions you didn’t know it had. Often it’s worth it.

You do have to be careful, however. It’s easy to get sucked into the “just a little bit more” trap. Like extended fabric protection and rustproofing sold at the auto dealership, it’s easy to spend more for features that don’t add any value. Back to my copier example, I could spend a little bit more to get a hole puncher. Someone on staff even asked about it. However, we do so few pages that need to be punched that it’s more cost-effective to simply purchase drilled paper and print on that when we need to. Or spend $12 on a 3-hole punch. It’s not worth $35/month for 4 years. It would be cool though.

Thanks, Justin, for an excellent question. That’s one thing I really love about this forum–we can all learn from each other. All of us are smarter than one of us!

If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, well, there they are.

Buying a New Mixer Pt. 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday in our discussion of deciding on the best mixer…

Feature Set

What types of new features are you looking for? More groups, VCAs, a bigger Matrix, better EQ, better metering, direct outputs, mute groups, and/or automation are all found on boards at various price points. These are all great features…if you need them. If you don’t, it’s extra confusion for the people who run the board. On the other hand, don’t skip over this step. Really think through if you would be better served with groups for VCAs, and buy accordingly. 

Performance

It’s a fact that some boards sound and work better than others. If you can, get a loaner or rental board to try out in your room to see how it sounds, and how it works. Sometimes seemingly insignificant details can make the job a lot easier or a lot harder. It’s good to know that up front. Sometimes the new “upgraded” board doesn’t sound as good as the old one. If that’s the case, keep looking. 

Also consider the warranty, local and manufacturer support. One thing I really appreciate about Yamaha’s higher-end consoles is their 24/7 support. If something goes haywire with the M7 at 9 PM on Saturday, someone will answer the phone and try to talk me through a fix. If necessary, they’ll put someone on a plane to deal with the problem ASAP. Depending on your application, that might be necessary. 

I once had a Soundcraft Series Two power supply go bad at 7 PM on a Friday night. Thankfully the local shop was open on Saturday and we got the board in for repair. It took a week and I had to borrow the board out of the youth room to make church happen, but we were back up and running the next weekend, and the services went on. That’s important. Find out if your local dealer is also an authorized repair center, or if they have to send it out.

Digital or Analog

This is the first question most people ask, and it should probably be the last. Without figuring out the previous list (and I haven’t been all-inclusive in the list, there are dozens of smaller questions), you really can’t make a good decision about this. Going digital just because it’s the latest thing and all the mega churches in town are digital are not good reasons to do so. Digital has a lot of advantages, but it also carries some baggage. It’s important to know if the trade-off is worth it.

First, consider your existing complement of equipment; your snake, outboard gear, patchbays and the like. What kind of shape are they in, do you have enough, how easy is it to pull a new snake? How many stage inputs do you have now, and are they enough? Will a new snake be more cost-effective than a digital cable? Sometimes it is, believe it or not.

Think about who will be operating the board. Anyone with a reasonable amount of skill and time behind an analog board can learn a digital one–at least the lower end ones. However, who else uses it, and how easily will it be for them to make the transition? Most digital boards have permission setting ability that makes it easy to keep inexperienced operators out of trouble. But is there someone at your church who can figure out how to program the keys?

Digital boards have a lot of advantages, but they tend to be more complex to use and set up. On an analog board, it’s easy to teach someone how to use the Aux sends or EQ. It’s right there in front of you and it’s easy to visualize. A digital board has a bunch of multi-purpose encoders and it’s easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention. I’ve done a lot of mixing in my career, and once in a while I still adjust the wrong monitor mix on the M7 or select the wrong channel. Mastery of digital is by no means impossible, but it does take time. Are all the stakeholders (volunteers, leadership, board, etc.) prepared for that?

If you already have a significant investment in quality outboard gear (compressors, gates, FX, etc) and you have a decent snake installed, going digital may not make a lot of sense if all you really need are more inputs. On the other hand, if the snake is old and failing, you’re always short gates and comps and you really could use another 16 stage inputs, a digital upgrade can fit the bill perfectly.

Even with digital you have some choices. Some boards, like the Yamaha M7 and LS9 are hybrid boards; that is they are designed to be dropped into an existing analog infrastructure. You can get digital snakes for them, but they add significantly to the cost. The work great if you have an existing snake that does the job. Others, like the RSS M-400 at the low end and the Digidesign Venue and Profile at the high end, are based around a digital snake concept. Those are perfect if you need the advantages of digital and you either don’t have a snake, it’s not big enough or the one you have is failing.

Decisions, Decisions

Clearly, there are lot of questions to ask when buying a new board. I haven’t even tried to be exhaustive, but this structure will get you thinking. You really need to think it through. Then ask some people to help you think it through. Then go play with the board. Whether you’re spending $2,000, $20,000 or $50,000, it’s a big deal. That’s money that could be going to a dozen other areas of ministry, and it needs to be spent  wisely. We also need to invest for the long-term. Asking for a new board every 3 years because you chose poorly is not a way to win friends and influence people. So think it through…everyone will be better off!

Buying a New Mixer

Almost weekly, I receive an e-mail asking for advice on which mixer to buy. The answer, of course, is always the same; it depends. No seriously, that’s the answer. Because there is no “one” right mixer for every church. There are quite a few that hit a sweet spot in terms of a performance/value ratio, but even those are not right for every situation. So what I thought I’d do is walk through a process that I use when spec’ing out a new mixer for a church. Keep in mind that every single gear purchase is a compromise. What we try to achieve is the best compromise for the situation, with some room to grow. So with that in mind, here we go.

Primary Objective of Upgrade

It may seem obvious, but a lot of churches are “convinced” they need a new mixer, but can’t articulate why. “Ours is old and it’s not doing the job,” is not sufficient. What part of the job is it not doing? Does it lack inputs? Is it noisy? Do some of the faders not work? Too few outputs? Too big? Don’t like the color scheme? 

Seriously, we need to consider what we are trying to fix before we can find a suitable replacement. And sometimes it really makes more sense to replace a few faders than it does to buy a new desk. Keep that in mind. But once we know what we don’t like about the old one, we can decide what features and what kind of performance we need from the new one. 

Input Count

You might think that the digital/analog question might be first, but I prefer to save that for later. First we need to determine how many inputs are currently used, what the short term (ie. 2-3 years) growth plans are and then figure in some cushion. I like to start with this question because if a church only uses 3 microphones and a CD player each week, a PM5D is probably not the best choice, even if they can afford it. Nor is an M7.

It’s important to note the number of mic inputs and line inputs. You also want to consider how many inputs you would like to be able use if you had them available. For example, if your current 16 channel mixer is full, consider what you would like to be able to do right now before you run out and buy a 24 channel. You may find that one full sooner than you expected. 

I always advise churches to count up their maximum ideal channels for weekly services (once or twice a year events are another matter), then add 8 channels to that. Start looking at consoles with that channel count at a minimum. If you end up with 30 as your ideal number (current use, planned upgrades plus 8 spares), you may find that going for a 40 channel board isn’t that much more, and might make sense. On the other hand, 32 might well be sufficient. Think it through.

Output Count

Again, this might seem obvious, but outputs get used up in a hurry. Obviously you have the mains, which usually means 1-2. Then you have monitors, 4-6 is common on smaller boards, but think about how many you’d like. If you’re still using wedges (I’ll pray for you), remember that for each monitor mix you need another channel of amplification. If you’re using ears, it’s beneficial to get everyone on their own mix, and even small bands will max out the Aux sends of smaller boards.

Don’t forget the “forgotten” outputs–cry rooms, record sends, lobby, DVD record, green room, overflow rooms–this list can get long as well. Think about how you are going to use those sends, and what makes the most sense to get them there. Sometimes, you need an Aux send, other times a matrix works better, still other times a group out makes sense. How many do you need now, what might you need, then add a few extra. 

For example, if you determine that you’d like to do 7 monitor mixes, a main left and right, a record send, a cry room, lobby and DVD record feed, don’t bother looking at a Mackie Onyx 32.4, even if you don’t need 32 inputs–you’re out of outputs on day 1.

Tomorrow we’ll consider a few other questions, and finally get to the greatest question of all–digital or analog.

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

I’m sure it will be comforting to many of you that I’m back in the land of the connected. Actually, I never left, I just pulled the plug for a bit. It was an experiment of sorts to see if I could survive a week without blogs, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Turns out it was easier than I thought. When I came back online this morning, it took me less than 2 hours to go through my e-mail and get caught up on the blogs I follow. I checked in on Facebook (not a whole lot new there either) and just let my Twitter feed go. Maybe it’s because this is a holiday week and everyone has slowed down, or maybe I place too much importance on those things during the rest of the year.

So what did I do on my week off? Not a whole lot. And that was by design. I slept in every day until at least 9 AM. I normally don’t sleep that well, and it takes taking a week off to realize how tired I am most of the time. Possible goal for 2009; go see a sleep specialist and find out why I can’t sleep.

My wife, oldest daughter and I walked up and down Summit Ave. in St. Paul one afternoon. For those unfamiliar, Summit Ave contains the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the US. There are some simply amazing houses there. I would have pictures except every one of my rechargeable batteries failed in my camera when I tried to take a few shots. The sidewalks were largely iced over, so it was as much an exercise in balance as anything else. We’ll go back in the spring…

After the rechargeable battery debacle, I spent several hours researching battery chemistry. I learned a lot, and once my new batteries get here, I’ll have more to say about that. Like everything else, the equipment has to be matched to the application, and mine was not. In the end, it’s good news for churches who are looking to spend less money on batteries. Look for some posts on this topic in the coming months.

I got to run the snow blower a few times, which is always fun when you have a new snow blower. I’m sure that will wear off by March, but for now I’m looking forward to more snow…

We watched a lot of Discovery HD. I missed Planet Earth the first time it came out, so I TiVo’d the ones they’re running this week. It’s truly fascinating, and I found myself asking over and over, “How did they get that shot?” Even the girls enjoyed it. I also became totally addicted to Storm Chasers.

I bought a new DVD player when our 10-year old Sony decided to stop playing brand new CDs. I still can’t quite justify spending the coin on Blu-Ray (especially since I can download HD movies to my TiVo from Netflix), so I spent $58 on an upconverting Toshiba. I’ll have to say the picture of an upconverted DVD sent to my 50″ DLP is pretty amazing. We watched Prince Caspian last night and the picture blew me away.

I also spent some time just listening to music. I haven’t been able to do that in a while, and it was good to sit and listen. Of course, I had to fiddle with the various surround modes of my receiver, tweak the tone controls and mess with speaker distances, but I did enjoy the music.

Having some time off gave me an opportunity to read as well. I re-read a book from my college days, On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I had forgotten what a great book that is. I have also started The Shack. I wasn’t prepared for how good that was going to be either. 

Finally, I put some structure to a book that’s been rattling around in my head for nearly a year. I have started writing it twice, and now that I have a plan, I expect to make some good progress on it by mid-year. Though the primary topic is the technical arts in the church, it’s probably not going to be what you expect. More to come.

So that was my week off. I still have 3 more days before I’m back to work. We have a few more movies to watch, and tomorrow the girls and I are trekking down to Minneapolis to walk around and have lunch. And it’s supposed to snow, so I may get the snow blower out again!

Happy New Year!

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