Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: March 2010 (Page 1 of 2)

Easter Week

It’s Easter week, so we’ll all be pretty busy. But I thought I would quickly give you a quick glimpse as to what we’re doing at Coast Hills. Our Easter service is a fairly big deal, but the big production is Good Friday. Our Good Friday service is a very special production that contains no spoken words; just music and video. The service walks people through the final hours of Jesus’ life up the His ultimate sacrifice for us. It’s a very powerful service, and will take a good amount of effort to put together. Unfortunately, we’re without my right-hand man, Gary who is out with some medical issues.

We start on Sunday, fulling striking the stage down to the bare deck. We move a bunch of our Steeldeck platforms around and hang the 70’ white cyc. Monday, Steeldeck delivers the remaining decking that we need but don’t own. Tuesday the big work begins:Our lighting gets put in place–we’ve rented eight VariLight VL-2000s, and another twelve ColorBlasts. We’ll also be hanging a 70’ wide white scrim in front of the cyc, along with a ton more fabric. The Steeldeck will be finalized as platforms for the musicians and singers. Tuesday night we start rehearsals. Wednesday is lighting programming day. Thursday will be touch up on programming followed by rehearsals late into the night. Friday, we run the whole service again as a dress rehearsal, then run the service twice for our congregation. Easter Weekend will bring us 5 services; 2 Saturday and 3 Sunday. On Monday, we’ll take it all down. That’s our week. So if you don’t hear much from me during this week, that’s why!

Cranky Old Techs

Along with several other church tech guys, I’ve recently been asked to start blogging over at Church Production Magazine. Today marks my inaugural post on that blog, mike Technically Direct.  I’ll be posting a few articles over there each month and linking to them from here (so you don’t miss anything).Here’s a quick excerpt and the link to the full article.

Everyone knows a cranky old man; those stodgy curmudgeons that seem to have an innate ability to see the fault in everything. If the sun is shinning on a blue-sky day, they are upset because it’s too bright. If it’s raining, well, I guess that’s a given. Generally speaking, cranky old men are not fun to be around—at least for more than about 10 minutes.

If you’ve been involved in production technology for any length of time, you probably know some cranky old techs (COTs). Those guys have been there, done that and are pretty ticked off about having to do it again.

Read the rest of the article.

Connecting to RS-232 Gear

Chances are you have equipment in your racks that you can connect to with the RS-232 protocol. System processors and video scalers are probably the two most likely. Last week I spent some quality time in monitor world tweaking our processors, Klark 9848s. The 9848 is a good processor and has a nice display window on the front panel to adjust every parameter. However, there are hundreds of them and going through the menu would have made my 6-hour job a 20-hour job. Thankfully, Klark has some decent Windows-based control software that lets me adjust everything using a GUI.

The trick is, the original 9848 only connects via RS-232 (newer models use Ethernet, which if you’re listening manufacturers, is the only way to go today!). So how do I hook up my MacBook Pro running XP in Parallels to the 9848? Enter the USB—RS-232 adapter.

I bought this for $20 at CoolGear. It’s a simple device that works with a driver to create an additional COM port for your PC (or virtual PC). Once installed and connected, you can select COM 3 (in my case) and talk to any RS-232 or RS-485 device, as long as you have the right cable. RS-232 usually uses a 9-pin DIN connector, though some, like the Klark use a mini-DIN round connector.

Using RS-232 can be a bit tricky and you may need to adjust some parameters to get everything working. Unlike modern serial protocols like USB the ancient RS-232—it was introduced in 1962—is not auto-configuring. Both devices must be speaking the same language. In this case, you need to adjust bitrate, stopbits, parity, echo and a few others depending on the device. It’s not terribly hard, though it may take a try or two to get it working.

Still, it’s worth the hassle. It’s much easier to use the GUI for a system processor that lets you see the EQ curve, adjust parameter with the mouse and keyboard and save and restore presets than it is twirling knobs on a front panel. And you may find you can do some really cool stuff with that equipment that you didn’t know about to boot!

This is a lot easier…
…than this! (yes, I know this is a 9848e, they don’t have pics of the old one anymore…)

Multi-Track Audio in QuickTime Movies

This year for Good Friday, we need to run some video. But not just any video; it needs to have two tracks of synth/pad and music stuff, a sound effects track and a click track. And each track needs to be discreet so we can mix it with the live music (not to mention send the click to just the musicians). I was pretty sure that QuickTime could handle multi-track audio; I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I spent the better part of a day figuring it out (with the help of the Twitter-verse), so I thought I’d share the process, if only so I don’t forget how! First up, we need to spend some quality time in FinalCut Pro (you could probably do this in Premier, Vegas and just about any other NLE, but I don’t have any of them–so I can’t help  there).
Found under the Sequence Menu; Sequence Settings…The first step is to set up the sequence properly. In our case, we had the need for 4 audio tracks. The default sequence has 4, so we’re good. However, by default, FCP is set to mix down all tracks to stereo, and that won’t work for us. Make a trip to Sequence -> Settings… and select the Audio Outputs tab. Change the Outputs from 2 to 4, then select Dual Mono. The Downmix (dB) setting will switch to -3, change it back to 0. Click OK. You will probably get a warning that your output device does not support 4 tracks (unless you have a multi-track output device attached). Ignore the warning, and don’t tell it to downmix.

Right-click on each track.Next, go to each track and right click over on the left side somewhere next to the green channel on indicator. Select the correct audio output channel for each track. I kept our simple and mapped them 1:1. Stereo tracks on 1&2, FX on 3 and Click on 4. Even though my tracks were stereo, I told FCP to make it dual mono. It may actually work in stereo mode, but I was having trouble with QuickTime downmixing so I changed it. Your mileage may vary.
I’d prefer Compressor, but this works.Now that you have your sequence set up, you need to export. If I had my druthers, I would export using Compressor. However, we have an old version of FCP that is not 100% compatible with our updated OS, so Compressor doesn’t work. So the only way I was able to export properly was to Export as QuickTime Movie. I left all the settings just as they were and clicked OK. It’s important to leave “Make Movie Self-Contained” checked. I wouldn’t recompress all frames. Save your file and you’re all set.

At this point, you should have a QuickTime movie with 4 tracks. However, if you try to play it, it will downmix the tracks to stereo. This is what took me all day to figure out. The trick is to adjust the audio tracks in QuickTime 7 Pro. I believe Apple removed these features from QuickTime X, so you’ll still need to keep 7 Pro around. Here’s the scoop.

From the Windows menu…Open the movie in QT 7 Pro. Open the Movie Inspector. You should see 4 tracks of audio listed. Now, open the Movie Properties box. Select the Audio Settings tab.

Make sure you start at 0, not 1.
Click on Sound Track 1 and from the Channel | Assignment menu, select Discrete-0 (make sure you start at 0, not 1). Set Track 2 to Discrete-1 and so on. That will tell QuickTime to send each track out to a multi-track output device as a separate, discrete track. Save the movie (it will take but a second, as you are just modifying a parameter).

Notice each track says, “Discreet-X”Now look at your Inspector again; it should show each track as a Discrete output. When you get to your playback computer, you need to make sure your USB or FireWire audio interface is selected for output. You can do that from the Sound System Preferences, or from Audio MIDI Setup.

Note that Audio Output is my M-Audio device; System Sounds are still on Built-In.In Audio MIDI Setup, control-click on your output device and select “Use this device for sound output.” I highly recommend you use the Built-in Output for system sounds–that way you won’t get any beeps or other system sound effects through the house PA.

That’s it. I tested my newly multi-tracked movie in Keynote, ProPresenter and QuickTime player. Every one played all four tracks perfectly through my brand-spaking new M-Audio Fast Track Ultra. Happy multi-tracking!

Rechargeable Batteries—Making the Switch

After the last post on batteries, Dave asked a really good question: How does one get started? Other questions were raised as well;  How to you justify the cost of the charging infrastructure? How do you determine charging/cell capacity? Good questions, all and I will attempt some answers. First, some history.

When I first started using rechargeable batteries, we were using 8-10 wireless mics on stage every week. So, I bought 20 charging slots and 40 batteries. I figured I wanted to have enough slots and cells on hand to have a complete set charging at all times. We then changed our batteries between rehearsal and Saturday night service, and between the two Sunday services. That worked well, and we never had a battery go down on us, save the times we forgot to change them. That was also using a 9v infrastructure. I think my initial investment there was a bit over $300, which was a huge savings considering we were spending $20/week on disposables.

Fast forward to today. We are now running 6-8 wireless mics a weekend, all using AAs except our pastor’s UR1M which uses AAAs. I just placed an order with Thomas Distributing for three Maha MH-C800S chargers with 8 slots each. That gives me the capacity to charge 24 batteries at once. Total cost $171. I will have 32 AAs and 4AAAs in stock. That quantity of AAs will set you back about $108. So total investment is about $280. We spend between $300-500 on disposable batteries per year, so the cost is easily justified. I expect to replace the rechargeable cells in 3-5 years at a cost of another $108. Over 5 years, we come out at least $1,300-1,500 positive. So for me, the initial cost is a complete no-brainer. Here’s how I arrived at the counts.

Based on my current testing, I am completely confident that my rechargeable cells will easily get me through Saturday rehearsal and service (about 4.5 hours of power-on time) and Sunday run-through and services (about 5 hours of power-on time). All the NiMh cells I used ran for well over 13 hours in my testing, so even if they lose 50% of capacity over 5 years (which I don’t expect), they will still be working well. Since my 4-year old Ansmann ran almost as long as the new ones, I’m not too worried.

So, given our normal usage, up to 8 wireless mics, that makes for 16 cells. A few times a year, we’ll have 12-16 wireless mics on stage, so I spent an extra $57 on a third charger. Really, I don’t need it, but for $60, I figured why not. With 32 cells on hand, I can have one complete set in use, and  almost one complete set charging at all times, even under our most extreme conditions (I also have another 8-cell charger in our student room that I would appropriate during big productions, so I could charge them all). My strategy for making the switch was to go all in. When I did the math, it is an easy investment. However, if I were going to dip my toe in the water, here’s what I would do.

Start with a single 8-bay charger ($57) and 8 batteries ($26). That equals $83 and you’re in. Try those batteries on 4 of your wireless mics. Do some tests, find out how long they run. I know the UHF-R are pretty efficient, but I would expect most mics that use AAs to run at least 10 hours on the Powerex, Ansmann or Sanyo 2700 batteries.

Because the batteries will easily last through 2-3 services, put them in when you start and charge them when you’re done. Always go straight from charger to mic, and back again. Since you’re charging through the week, use soft-charge mode (500 mAh) and the batteries will last a long, long time. As you get comfortable with them, double your inventory of chargers and cells. With 16 bays of charging and 16 cells, you can run 8 mics all weekend, even if you do Saturday services. That will set you back just over $160 total, and will eliminate the need for almost all disposable batteries in most churches. If you don’t feel you can justify the additional cost for another charger for big events, stock up on some ProCells for that. However, for a big event, you’ll probably spend $40-50 for ProCells anyway, so why not just buy another charger instead?

Anymore, the cost of entry is so low, it’s hard to justify not getting started. I was looking back through our battery invoices of the previous 3 years the other day and saw bills for $70, $140, $70, $300, $140 over and over and over again. Since we paid that much for something we threw away, the cost to buy something we can use over and over again is an easy decision.

Now, you could spend a lot more money and buy one of Ansmann’s super-cool rack mounted chargers. These babies will charge 16 batteries at once. And they will set you back over $500. Honeslty, I don’t think the cost is justified. I’ve used those chargers and they’re great (except the tabs on the charging trays that don’t always lock in, giving you two uncharged batteries). But I can buy a lot of $60 chargers for $500.

The Maha MH-C800SAlso, if you look on Thomas Distribution’s website, you’ll see Maha has two models of the 800 series. The MH-C801D model will charge at 1000 mAh or 2000 mAh, which means you could fully charge a 2700 mAh battery in just over an hour. That sounds great, but in reality, we don’t need that kind of turnover, and it’s a lot tougher on the cell. I go for the MH-C800S model, which is not only cheaper, has a 500 mAh slow charge mode. Because we’re only using 50% or so of capacity anyway, it still only takes a few hours to fully charge them; and it’s a lot easier on the cell. Easier charging equals longer life.

Now, if you use a dozen or two wireless mics every weekend, the initial cost is going to be higher. However, keep in mind you’re spending the money anyway. So again, the way to do it is incrementally. Every time you get ready to place a battery order, instead of sending $100 to Duracell, buy a charger and some NiMh cells. Over a period of a few months, you’ll be fully rechargeable.

I used to say it takes a little more work to use rechargeable batteries, but I don’t think it does any more. I put the batteries in and forget about them until we’re done. Pop them into the charger and go home. I won’t be changing them between services any longer because I don’t need to. And since I’m not trying to stretch ProCells all the way to the end (to try to save money), I don’t need to keep a close eye on the battery level meters.

So that’s how I would do it. The cost of entry is now so low, it’s hard to justify not diving in. And if you really want to do it on the cheap, you could get a 4 cell charger for $25 and spend under $37 to try them out. I have a 4-cell charger that Thomas Distributing gave me for the testing and I’ll be using it for my AAA inventory. It soft-charges at 300 mAh which should keep my AAA cells (rated at 1000 mAh) happy for a long time, so you’re investment won’t be wasted. Like I tell people all the time, “It’s just math.” Do the math and see where you come out. I think you’ll find it’s not a hard decision.

Rechargeable 9v Batteries—Q&A

Several people have asked if I will be testing and reviewing 9v rechargeable batteries anytime soon. The short answer is no. I only have one device (a PSM600) that uses 9v right now, and hope to replace that by summer. Still, I’ve used a lot of 9v batteries in the past, so I’ll put up some thoughts and recommendations here.

First, I’ve had great success with Ansmann 250 mAh 9v batteries and chargers. I’ve used the 9v cells in ULX mics from Shure as well as PSM600s and PSM700s. Run time was always more than two services, and as long as we changed them regularly, they never failed us. The batteries themselves lasted a long time; I have 2 churches worth of experience at 2 years each. Given how expensive a disposable 9v is, the payback period is short.

UPDATE 10/6/13: Ansmann now makes a 300 mAh 9v battery, which I would recommend over the 250 mAh version. Horizon Battery also carries a 600 mAh LiOn battery from HiTech. According to reports, this battery will run 12-15 hours. You must use their charger, however, so be aware of that. Still, it looks like a great option if you are still running 9v batteries. END UPDATE

The question was raised about capacity of 9v batteries, and how they appear to be much less than a AA. Simply looking at mAh ratings does not tell the whole story; we need to look at energy capacity, and for that we need to convert to watts (or in this case, milliwatts). Take a 9v 250 mAh battery. The actual voltage is 8.4 volts. We know that Volts x Amps = Watts, so, 8.4 x 250 = 2,100 mW. In contrast, a AA rated at 2700 mAh works out this way: 1.2 x 2700 = 3,240.

So while it’s true that a AA cell has significantly higher energy density (which is why most mics are heading to AAs…), the 9v is not too shabby.

I’ve also use the 300 mAh Powerex batteries from Maha with great success. Do that math on those and you end up with 2,520 mW. iPower also makes a LiPolymer 9v rated at 500 mAh, which gives you over 4,000 mW. So the capacity is there—just know that run times will be a little shorter with the lower power batteries.

If you only need a few 9v batteries, look at the Maha MH-C490F. It’s a 4 position charger and runs about $30. For higher capacity, look at Maha’s MH-C1090F (8 positions, $50) or Ansmann’s 10-bay 9v charger at $70. Personally, I wouldn’t spend the extra money on the Ansmann rack mount chargers (they are over $500), unless you really need them racked.

You can find the Maha chargers, Powerex and iPower batteries at Thomas Distributing. Horizon Battery handles Ansmann batteries and chargers (and the folks there are super-helpful if you have questions).

Why Digital Presets Aren’t All That

Recently, I was asked to stop by a church in the area to work on the EQ for the pastor’s mic. Their volunteer sound guys were having trouble getting it dialed in and they needed help. Since they work on an M7-CL, it would be a simple matter to dial up some EQ and compression, save it to a library and go on my way. Or so it would seem.

On the way down there, I kept thinking of all the disclaimers I needed to offer before I left. Then I got to thinking about how many discussions I’ve had with people who can’t figure out why when they recall last week’s settings, everything sounds different. The more I thought about it, the more it turned into a blog post. So here we are.

Can we just put this out there; saving your settings on a digital console does not guarantee it will sound exactly the same next week. In fact, I can pretty much promise you it will sound different next week. That was one of the things I told the pastor of the church. The settings I saved will get their sound guys into the ballpark, but I wouldn’t expect it to be spot on.

Consider just a few of the variables that affect how a PA sounds (this applies to house PAs, monitors, and in ears):

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Barometric pressure
  • How full (or empty) the room is
  • Where people are sitting this week
  • How old (or new) the guitar strings are
  • How hard (or soft) someone is playing (or singing, or speaking)
  • How late they stayed up last night
  • Mic placement
  • Ear fatigue (especially true for monitor mixes)

When you look at that list, it’s hard to imagine that a preset library would be of any use at all! We can be sure that all or most of those variables will be different from the time we saved the preset. And they don’t have to be different by much to make a big difference. I once mixed in a church that had such poor acoustics, we had to start the mix over almost from scratch every service because we had a different number of people sitting in different spots. It was amazing how much that impacted the sound. And that’s just one variable; change four of them and you have a minefield of possibilities.

Does this mean that saving presets in libraries is a useless practice? Of course not. What it means is that we shouldn’t be surprised when it isn’t quite right the second we hit recall. We keep a library of EQ curves for our pastors on different mics in our room, and typically I find they get us about 80% of the way there. Usually we do some minor tweaking as he starts speaking and by the first point, he’s dialed in. Even with that, I made some significant changes from Saturday night to Sunday morning this past weekend.

It’s not that presets, scenes and snapshots are useless; we simply need to be aware of their limitations. Sometimes people promote digital consoles as a “store it once and you never have to tweak or mix again” solution; and that’s completely false advertising. There will always be a need for at least some level of talent behind the desk. Presets can help volunteers get closer, faster; but the in no way are the magic bullet.

I’ve had, how shall we say, “discussions,” with musicians on Sunday morning in which they are convinced we completely changed their monitor mix overnight (I normally blame it on the same gnomes who come in during the week and tangle up my cables). In fact, the signal path is exactly the same as it was the night before; however, everything else has changed. Sometimes the changes are small enough and the musician less discerning and it doesn’t matter. Other times, it sounds like a new mix. The solution, is to work through the problem, get them what they need and move on. Setting the expectation up front goes a long way to keep everyone on an even keel.

So the next time someone asks why the sound is different today than last week (or night, or service) tell them very simply–everything has, in fact, changed!

Happy Birthday, CTA!

I don’t do this often, largely because I’m uncomfortable with self-promotion. But I keep reading that we need to celebrate good things that are happening, and especially so with our blogs. In that spirit, I would like to say a happy 3rd birthday to this blog. I’m actually 10 days late; the first post was published on March 6, 2007, and entitled, “Being Excellent with Less.” Since then, I’ve written another 410 posts, at an average length (I’m guessing a little here) of 750 words for a total of over 300,000 words. Which seems like a lot now that I’m writing that.

I am more excited, however, about the 1,116 comments. Now, some of them are mine in response to yours, but it’s exciting and humbling at the same time to see how much discussion has grown up around this little blog. Right around January of this year, we passed the 100,000 page view mark; we’re now over 120K as I write this. Somewhere around 700 people subscribe to Church Tech Arts via an RSS reader, and another 60 get these posts as an e-mail (and another 35 subscribe to the podcast webinars). Currently, it looks like this little url is running around 6,500-7,000 page views a month–not bad for a small church technology blog.

The other thing that blows me away is how many friendships have developed because of this website. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen people who I count as close friends; people that I never would have met had I not taken the risk to commit my thoughts to bytes.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll run out of things to write about. So far, it’s not happened. It seems every weekend presents itself with new things that I want to think about with you. And with that, I will close this short missive. Thank you all so very, very much for reading. It’s very cool to see how God has used this small piece of virtual real estate. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

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