Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: August 2010 (Page 1 of 2)

RSS S-MADI Bridge; First Thoughts

Yesterday we unboxed and hooked up our pre-production S-MADI Bridge loaned to us by Roland Systems Group. It was a momentous occasion. I’ve been eagerly expecting this since I saw it at InfoComm several months ago. The S-MADI is an interface that bridges the gap between MADI and REAC, the proprietary protocol used by the M-48 personal mixer and Roland’s digital snakes. It essentially takes the first 40 channels of the MADI stream and makes them REAC.

Installation is simple enough; take a MADI feed from the console into the device, set a few parameters with the front panel switches and make the software connection. This is my only real complaint about the device; it uses a RS-232 serial connection for control. RS-232 is a fine protocol, but there hasn’t been a computer made with a nine-pin serial port on it for years. What RSS needs to do is put either a USB or Ethernet port (on the back please) on the device. I already told them that, and I’m still holding out hope for actual production models…

Anyway, after we got the correct version of the software (still in beta) from RSS, we were up and running. We had a few minor configuration issues (including a real Doh!-type moment), but after a little playing around, it worked exactly as advertised. Which is to say, it’s really cool. After just a few minutes, I had mixes set up for drums, background vocals, guitars and the rest of the band. It all worked and sounded great.
I’ll be posting a lot more as we get the rest of the system set up, but wanted to let you know the future of personal mixing has arrived. As far as I know, final product launch is still slated for November (which might mean December). Pricing is TBD, but expect something in the $2500-2700 range. Stay tuned!

Rechargeable Batteries—After the Switch

Almost six months ago we made the switch to rechargeable batteries. Next month, I’ll be doing some follow up tests to see how well the battery capacity is holding up, but for this post, I thought I’d share some thoughts on how our process has been working out.

To recap, we have stopped using alkaline batteries almost completely. I say almost because I still have a few around for the odd guitar player with a dead 9v (ProTip: If your guitar takes a battery, have an extra one or three in your case, OK?), or for the occasional metronome or other device that shows up on stage unexpectedly. However, for our regular production equipment, we’re completely rechargeable.

We went with a variety of batteries in our system. For the lead pastor’s UR1M, we have two sets of Powerex AAA batteries. Those live in a dedicated 4 cell charger that charges them nice and slowly. There has yet to be a time when the “fuel gauge” on that mic drops below 4 of 5 bars on a weekend. I have a set of eight Ansmann, a set of eight Sanyo and two sets of eight Powerex cells for our UR1s and UR2s, as well as the PSM900 receiver. The AAs get more run time on a typical weekend than do the AAAs, but we’ve never had one drop down below 3 bars. I also bought a bunch of Powerex Imedions for use in our MightyBrite music stand lights. Those are LED-based lights, so the power draw is quite low. The Imedion is a 800 mah, low self-discharge design. I’ve found we can easily get three weekends of stand light use out of them before needing a recharge. We could probably go four, but if we use the same stand lights every weekend, they tend to start getting a bit dim on weekend four. Since it really doesn’t cost anything to recharge them, we do.

We’ve established a really straight-forward process for managing the batteries. I have the capacity to charge 24 AAs at once, so we leave 24 batteries on trickle charge all week. Come Saturday afternoon when we’re setting the stage, we’ll pull batteries out of the charger and load up the mics. Depending on the weekend, we’ll use between 10-18 cells. Saturday night, the monitor engineer collects the mics (and the PSM900) and puts the batteries back in the charger. We always charge using the soft charge mode, which charges at a rate of 500 mah. Sunday morning, we repeat the process. With Alkaline batteries, we would typically try to stretch the batteries for a full weekend (though, they often didn’t make it). With our current process, we may have added a few minutes worth of battery change time to our weekend routine.

For the Imedions, I have a recurring task set up in my Associate TD’s to do list every three weeks. All told, it takes about 10-15 minutes to cycle the batteries out of the lights, into the chargers and back. Since that’s only once every 3 weeks, it’s not a big cost. I have more Imedions than we actually use, so if someone leaves a light on overnight, we’re not in trouble.

A Few Observations

As expected, the batteries are working very well. In the past six months, we’ve not had a single mic go out due to batteries. In fact, none have even been close. We have Wireless Workbench set up at FOH to monitor the health of the packs, and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even think about them anymore.

One thing we have noticed is that the AAs are a little bigger around than Alkaline cells, and that diameter varies between brands. Ansmann are the smallest, followed by Sanyo, then Powerex. The Powerex are a really tight fit in the UR1 bodypacks, and I’ve taken to using Ansmanns in those. In the UR2 handhelds, all of the cells fit, but removing the Powerex cells takes a bit of creativity. I’ve found if you pull the exposed battery out quickly, the force of the spring is enough to eject the other one enough to remove it. Go slow and you’ve got your work cut out for you.

After six months of heavy use, that’s about the only drawback we’ve found to them. Given that we’ve kept over 600 AAs and AAAs out of the landfill and saved over $250 in that time, I feel pretty good about the switch.

As I said, next month I’ll be re-testing the batteries I tested in March and we’ll see exactly how well they’re holding up. From a practical standpoint however, it’s been a great success.

Mixing 21st Century Style

Though I’ve now had the magical iPad for about a week now, yesterday was the first time I had a chance to actually mix a service with it. The service in question was our Sr. High ministry, which normally meets in another room on campus. However, due to some scheduling stuff, they were meeting in the main auditorium. That meant I got to mix on the SD-8, and thus had time to play with the iPad. First I’ll tell you how I did it, then what I thought of the experience.

The iPad gets me a lot closer to the action.The Connections

Our FOH location is far, far away in a balcony. It’s a solid 45 second walk from the main seating area to the FOH location (and involves going out into the lobby, up 2 flights of stairs, back through the second floor lobby, through the balcony and into the tech booth; brilliant I know…). As that location is so far removed from what the people on the floor actually hear, remote mixing has been somewhat of a longstanding desire.

As of this writing, it’s not possible to directly remote into a digital mixer (though I’m hoping that DIGiCo will one day consider adding RDP to the OS…). Thus, an intermediary is required. In our case, we have a MacMini running XP (Bootcamped) running the SD-8 remote editor. The SD-8 editor is nice in the sense that it can be configured to control the audio engine as a separate remote, without effecting the surface. In other words, someone could be mixing on the surface, selecting channels or pfl, adjusting EQ or what have you, while the remote could be doing the same thing. They only bump into each other if both try to adjust the same parameter at the same time. You can also set the remote computer up as a complete mirror if you like.

Anyway, once I launch the SD-8 remote on the Mini, I used an app called Desktop Connect on the iPad to Remote Desktop Connect into it. I like Desktop Connect because it features auto-discovery and will do both VNC and RDP. That means I can very quickly switch back and forth between the Macs and PCs at FOH and control the whole system from one app. Desktop Connect also uses gmail to allow you to sign in to any properly configured machine from anywhere. I haven’t tried that yet, but will at some point.

I’ve used other RDP and VNC apps on the iPhone and none connect as fast or reliably as Desktop Connect. Even when I put the iPad to sleep, it wakes up connected without issue. Score one for that setup.

The Mixing

The band consisted of 3 vocals, 2 guitars, bass, keys and a full drum kit. I had 3 mono wedge mixes, 1 stereo wedge mix and a stereo ears mix. Because of the number of sources and mixes, I started the day off on the SD-8 surface. I got the gains dialed in, set up the monitors and had a rough mix in place. I had also pre-built most of my snapshots for the night.

I then headed downstairs with the iPad. Desktop Connect enables two modes of mouse pointing. One is an offset mode, where moving your finger on the screen moves the pointer. The offset is variable and though it takes a minute to get used to it, it’s very fast. The other is touch mode. I was hoping touch mode would be more useful, as the SD-8 is a touch-based system. However, at least right now, using touch mode was difficult. I couldn’t reliably move faders with it, so mixing that way was out of the question. Touch mode is super-handy for switching screens however, and swapping modes is a simple icon touch.


Overall, it worked pretty well. The only real downside is a function of one of the things I love about the SD-8; it’s complete channel strip display for all 12 channels in a bank. Switching from one bank to another means every single pixel has to change, and that took a good 2-3 seconds to re-draw on the iPad. As I was finishing up this post, I started playing with a few things. I have the SD-8 editor running in Win7 Pro on my MacBook Pro under Parallels. When I connected the iPad to my MBP, bank changes were almost instant. What I don’t know is if that extra speed is a function of Win7, the fact that I’m using VNC and not RDP, or the extra processing power of my MBP (the FOH Mac Mini is a CoreSolo 1.5 GHz…). More investigation is clearly in order, however, it does seem that we will be able to speed it up to a point where bank changes are not a real issue.

The use of snapshots was simple, and I mapped the next snapshot and previous snapshots to F-Keys. Desktop Connect has a Function Key menu readily available; press the Fn icon at the top of the tray and the F-Keys immediately appear. I used those to advance through the show.

Touching the glowing Fn button brings up the Function KeysThe thing that did bite me one time was having a snapshot set up incorrectly, which raised the lead vocal mic level to the point of feedback. It took a few seconds to get to the right screen to correct it. Obviously, on the surface, that would have been a half-second. Lesson learned—make sure your snapshots are clean before the service.

Another lesson I learned is to take advantage of the SD-8’s amazing configurability. I should have set up a fader bank with my most-needed channels in it; vocals, guitars, and a few VCAs. That way I could have easily mixed the entire service from one screen, and eliminated a bunch of switching delays. I’ll do that next week.

The takeaway is that mixing from the iPad is almost there. I think with a few tweaks to my workflow, this will be incredibly useful. Is it the same as having 37 faders, 50+ encoders and a 15″ touch screen in front of me? No. Is it a very helpful way to get a sense of what the audience is hearing, tweak parameters and get the mix dialed in? Yes. Will I continue to use it to make our sound 1 better? You bet. My real hope is that DIGiCo will develop an iPad app that will connect directly to the SD-8 without a computer in between. That would be the killer app…

August Webinar: Point Source vs. Line Arrays

Our August webinar is scheduled this month for Tuesday the 24th at 7 PM PDT (10 PM EDT). Dave, Jason & I will be discussing the relative pros and cons of traditional point source speakers and line arrays, and when one may be a better choice than another.

As you know, these days, line arrays are all the rage; every major manufacturer has jumped on the bandwagon, and every integrator I talk to wants to sell me an array. But are they really the best choice for every situation?

On the other hand, there are some old-school guys out there who insist any speaker they mix on has to be a point source box; no new-fangled array for them. But is that always the right option, either?

Those are some of the questions we’ll wrestle with. We may not be able to answer every single situation, but we’ll work through the thought process you might want to take when deciding between the two technologies. It should be a lot of fun.

Tune in on our LiveStream channel at 7 PM PDT, 10 PM PDT, next Tuesday, August 24 and watch the fun live. As always, the audio will be up on iTunes shortly thereafter.

Why M-48 over Aviom

I tend to be a little non-conventional. A few years ago when everyone wanted a Yamaha M7, I wanted an RSS M-400. Now it seems every church is going with an Avid Venue; I went with a DIGiCo. And while Avioms still seem to reign supreme in the personal mix space, I’m going with the RSS M-48s. Unconventional maybe, but I prefer to think of it as trend-setting. A few people have asked me why I’m going with the M-48s over the Aviom, and as I did with my “Why DIGiCo over Avid” post a few months back, I’ll lay out those reasons for you.

Honestly, I think grey was a good color choice.Greater Flexibility

Avioms have a lot of things going for them, especially if your band is fairly small. However, once your input count rises above about 20 or so, it’s harder and harder to figure out how to cram all those channels down to the 16 channels offered by Aviom, especially when everyone gets the same 16 channels. It’s even harder if you have a few stereo sources. Sure, you can submix and create stems, but it eats up a lot of mix busses on your console, adds extra work for the engineer and still means everyone has to be happy with the same set of stems.

With the M-48 system, each personal mixer is essentially a 40 channel mixer, and each mixer can be configured individually. Thus, if the drummer wants more discreet control of the drum mics he can have it, while everyone else gets a stereo group mix of the drums. You might give vocalists kick, snare and hat, while the keys player might get the whole kit in his stereo group. The simple fact that you can give each musician 40 channels to chose from, laid out in any configuration of 16 stereo groups they want is enough to tip the scales in favor of the M-48. But it gets better.

Stereo Groups

At first glance, it appears the M-48 is a 16 channel mixer, just like the Aviom. However, just as the SD-8’s channels can be mono or stereo, each of the 16 channels–they’re really groups–are stereo. That means if you want to send a stereo source to a stereo group, it A) stays stereo and B) only takes up 1 channel. And if you send multiple channels into a group, say 8 mics of a drum kit, you can pan them in the software to create a real stereo group of the drum kit. All the musician has to do is turn it up or down; however, the mix is in stereo. This is all done in software on the set up end, and can easily be recalled.

Assigning input channels to groups is as simple as ticking off Xs.Better Software

Perhaps that should be titled, Software, as the Aviom doesn’t have any. The RSS software enables you to go into each mixer, set up the groups, adjust the level and pan of the channels in the groups and save and recall presets. It’s all easy to use and actually looks like the mixer.

Personal mixing for your personal mixer.Better Sound

Avioms have never really been known for their great sound. Convenience, usability, and good at reducing stage volume? Yes. But sound? Not so much. In fact, when I was considering a move to Avioms (because the S-MADI Bridge hadn’t been announced yet), every musician I talked with about it was not thrilled because they’ve all had bad Aviom experiences. Now, I’ll admit that a lot of people (churches especially) don’t set them up correctly, over drive them and they sound terrible. I would avoid that problem. Still Avioms don’t sound great under the best of circumstances. The M-48s however, sound fantastic. Rich, warm and full, they’ll be a perfect compliment to the SD-8.

Larger Feature Set

Aviom gives you the ability to adjust level and pan for each channel, mute and solo, adjust bass and treble overall and save presets. That’s about it. The M-48 does all that plus adds a 3-band mid-swept EQ for each channel (plus overall bass & treble), adjustable reverb for each channel, an ambient mic (with volume control), an external 1/8” input jack with volume control, 1/4” and 1/8” headphone outs plus stereo balanced line outs, the ability to record your mix via a 1/8” jack and adjustable threshold limiting.

So that’s my rationale. Once I get the system set up next week, I’ll be able to do some video blogs showing you how this all works in real life. Until then, if you’re considering Aviom, take a good, hard look at the M-48.

DIGiCo SD9 Review

We the SD9 in for a weekend before our SD8 arrived and several people have asked my impressions of it. I’ll tell you what I think of it in a minute, but first let’s go over some specs.

The SD9 is the smallest (currently) in the newer SD line from DIGiCo. The naming structure may be a bit backward; the SD7 is the big daddy, while the SD8 fills the middle ground. On the other hand, they’re in chronological order, so I guess it makes sense. The SD9 is capable of handling 40 input channels. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you read closer and discover that, just like it’s bigger brothers, each of those channels can be mono or stereo. So while it’s not the same as having 80 discreet channels, you can put 80 inputs into it. More than likely, what you’ll find is that having stereo channels anywhere on the board is a huge convenience. For inputs like piano, keys, video, iTunes, or CD, it’s nice to not tie up two channels-and more importantly on smaller-footprint boards-two faders. For the small to mid-sized church, this input count is probably sufficient.

On the output side of things, the SD9 follows in the footsteps of the SD7 and SD8, albeit on a smaller scale. There are a total of 17 groups or aux buses available, each of which can be mono or stereo; how you allocate them is up to you. For example, you could have 16 stereo aux mixes and 1 stereo group (you have to have at least 1 stereo group for main outputs); or 6 mono aux mixes, 6 stereo aux mixes, 2 mono groups and 3 stereo groups; or…well you get the idea. While it seems confusing at first, to me, it’s one of the best features of the console. You can configure it how you need it—which might be different from how I need it. With the SD9, you’re not locked into a fixed architecture. Reconfiguring the console takes just a few moments, and you’re ready to mix. You also have an 8×8 output matrix, the inputs of which can be anything; a group, an aux or a channel. Again, flexibility is the watchword here.

The standard SD9 configuration comes with a 32×8 rack; a new model called the D-Rack. Rather than connecting via MADI, it uses a single CAT5. There is an extra output slot on the rack, which can be filled with analog or AES outputs. It’s possible to combine two D-Racks using only CAT5, and using the MADI input on the console a MADI- or DIGI-Rack can also be connected making the pool of inputs an impressive 132. If you were mixing multiple bands at a festival, you could easily swap between inputs using snapshots, reloading shows, or even using the alternate inputs available on each channel strip. It’s also possible to connect using fiber.

The surface of the console is quite small—not even 3 feet wide—and much of that is taken up with the 15” wide touchscreen LCD monitor built right in. There are 24 faders, each with it’s own multi-color 3-line LCD scribble strip and 8-segment input meter. The faders are arranged in two banks of 12, and each bank has four layers. Like the SD7 and SD8, each fader is completely assignable. It’s very easy to build banks of input channels, groups, auxes and matrix faders on one bank. Like the bus structure, you lay it out the way you want it.

Whereas the SD8 has 3 rows of assignable encoders above each fader, the SD9 has a single row under the monitor. The monitor displays channel strips for one fader bank at a time, something I’ve grown to love on the SD8 (seeing input gain, EQ, comp, gating and aux sends for 12 channels at once is incredibly useful). The encoders are assignable as a group to gain, lpf, hpf, comp, gate, aux and pan. When in aux mode, a set of scroll buttons select which aux is being controlled. While not as fast as the SD8, it is quite serviceable.

One thing I didn’t like about the SD9 is that the monitor is centered over the fader banks, so there is never a time when the monitor channel strips line up with a bank of faders. Coming from the SD8, I found this somewhat confusing at first, however, after mixing on it for a weekend, my friend Kevin Sanchez reports it’s not bad once you’re used to it. Also provided is a VGA output on the surface for an overview display. I use that as a quick view of all my inputs and outputs on my SD8, and would do the same on the 9.

Something DIGiCo has done better than almost any console manufacturer is make the software interface consistent throughout the SD line. In fact, were it not for the splash screen and bus/fader limitations, you’d be hard pressed to tell the three versions of software apart. All three boards share the same SFPGA Stealth Processing, there is just more or less of it available depending on the model. Because of bus structure limitations, it’s not currently possible to directly load an SD7 or SD8 show onto an SD9. However, I’m told they’re working on a “Load Partial” feature that will let you truncate the show to fit within the limitations of the console. Still, the good news with the shared processing and software is that the SD9 sounds just as good as it’s bigger siblings. You also have access to the same effects (in a rack of 4), the same fully parametric EQ (with up to 4 dynamic EQs), built-in compression (with up to 4 multi-band comps available anywhere) and dual insert points on any channel. It should be noted that every input, group, aux, matrix and even the talkback channel has all these features available.

Of course, you also get niceties such as the excellent snapshot system, the macro commands, touch-sensitive faders, dual solo busses and an interface that just screams, “Remote control me with an iPad!” In other words, it’s a lot like the SD-8, only smaller. What’s really impressive is that you have 2/3s the input and bus capability, 3/4 the matrix with a significantly smaller footprint, all for about 1/2 the price of the SD8. A standard SD-9 with a 32×8 D-Rack lists for about $27,000. Add a second, redundant power supply for another $2,000.

Yes, the SD9 is a little more expensive than an M7 or an SC-48. However, with the super-flexible bus and surface structure, and arguably better sound, I think it’s a good value. In the end, it comes down to what is important to you. If I were spec’ing a church install with a console budget of $25K today, I would certainly have the SD9 on my list of boards to consider. Having spent considerable time on the M7, and in the Avid software (though not nearly as much on the surfaces), I would find myself leaning toward the SD9. I have already become spoiled by the flexible bus structure, stereo channels, the surface configuration and the sound of the DIGiCo consoles. In just a few short weeks, I’ve become completely at home on the SD8. Going to the SD9 was not a big leap, and only required a few changes in workflow.

For a volunteer sound team, deciding between an SD9 and an M7 will come down to what you value. If having every fader on the surface is of the utmost importance (because the goal of the team is to simply manage volume), the M7 is a good choice. If you are mixing at a higher level, and your team understands EQ, compression, gating and the proper use of FX, I think the SD9 is quite a bit faster to get around. I also greatly prefer the SD9’s show-based file system with snapshots compared to the M7’s scene-based arrangement. Arguably, the SD9 takes a bit more time to set up, configure and get ready to mix. Once you spend that time with it however, it’s an absolute joy. DIGiCo has been very good about releasing software updates with fixes and enhancements, and I expect the SD9 to continue to grow and develop as time goes on. It’s certainly one you should consider if you’re in the market for a mid-priced digital console.

Perfect or Powerful?

Much has been written on the topic of excellence in the production of church services. In fact, it’s been written about in this very blog. As a recovering perfectionist however, I’m beginning to revise my view of excellence. Some define excellence as perfection; in fact, one church tech I know said if the service wasn’t perfect (from a production standpoint) it was not any good. That is a pretty loaded statement. Perfection is almost unobtainable if you really get down to it, and if that’s our goal, we are destined to be disappointed every weekend. And that’s why I don’t define “excellent” as “perfect.” Indeed, I’m moving away from the whole “excellence” thing altogether.

The reason I don’t pursue excellence as hard as I once did is because it’s such a moving target. To pursue excellence often means we have to keep upgrading our equipment, our techniques, our people. There’s nothing wrong with that; I think we should be in the process of steady improvement. But when that constant pull of trying to improve overshadows the message we’re trying to communicate, we go off track.

My boss and I were talking about this some months ago and he summed it up very well, “We’re not trying to create a perfect service; we want to create a powerful service.” That is a subtle distinction but it’s an attitude shift that has far-reaching consequences.

For example, if my goal is a perfect service, every aspect of production has to be spot on. Every camera shot, every ProPresenter cue, every light move and every EQ of every channel. By necessity that means highly trained (and probably paid) operators at every station. The pressure to perform is high for every operator. If just one thing goes wrong, the goal is missed and everyone is disappointed.

On the other hand, if we’re shooting for powerful, a lot more effort is directed toward planning the service so that the message of the Gospel is clearly communicated. Each element is carefully thought through so it will bring people into a closer relationship with Jesus. When it comes to execution, people are very willing to forgive minor technical errors as long as the overall service is engaging and, shall I say, powerful.

Now, you might be tempted to think that I am lowering the standard and that will lead to people leaving the church in search of a “better” experience. However, I would argue the opposite is true. I believe we are entering a new era in the Church, one in which people are seeking authentic experiences, experiences that will create a difference in their lives.

I’ve been in many church services that were “excellent” at least from a technical standpoint, however I don’t remember many of them. What I remember are the ones that were powerful. Some time back I wrote about my experience mixing for our Sr. High winter retreat. The PA was rather cruddy, the room was small, projection wasn’t that great, and the services had multiple technical glitches. They were also some of the most amazing, powerful services I’ve ever been around. I remember one in particular where God moved in such a tangible way that even after the service “ended” students stayed in the room; some were praying, others were thinking, some were weeping. The presence of God was so powerful, none of us wanted to leave that place. As I write this, 8 months removed from that night, I can still feel the emotions of that moment. That was a powerful service. Students were changed, broken lives were made whole. Those are the kind of services I want to be a part of.

And that’s why I’ve backed off on the whole “excellence” thing. I’m not going to be distracting on purpose, but I’m not going to lose sleep over a missed cue. We need to focus on engaging the hearts of the people in the pews, and hold off on perfection–at least on this side of heaven.

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