Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: September 2010 (Page 2 of 2)

Paying Musicians and Techs

This is one of those, “Thinking out loud” posts for me. It’s been a topic of conversation at our church for the past several months, particularly as budgets have been cut (again). Actually, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since I moved to Minneapolis in 2007; that’s when I first encountered paid musicians and techs in the church. Prior to that, all the musicians and techs I’ve worked with had been volunteers. Honestly, it’s one of those topics that has left me still working on a position. Before I dive into my still-forming conclusions, let’s consider both sides of the debate.

The Case for Paying Musicians (I’ll get to techs in a minute)
Those that support paying musicians in church are likely to point out that the church has a long history of supporting the arts and should continue. Paying the band—that is, artists who make their living playing or teaching music—is a continuation of that tradition. Supporters would also agree that the musical worship time of the service is important, and paying for professional musicians will deliver better results with less rehearsal time. It’s also important to note that a band that’s paid is under a little tighter control of the worship leader or music director. They tend to show up closer to the call time (or they don’t work as often), and it’s easier set and enforce expectations. As a general rule, the quality of musicianship tends to be higher with a paid band, and that even makes it a lot more fun for the FOH engineer (who may be paid or volunteer). I’m sure there are other reasons to pay musicians, and the ones I just mentioned are all good ones. Honestly, I don’t really disagree with any of them.

On the other hand, where does it stop? Surely the FOH or monitor position requires just as much skill and training as does a band member, so should we pay those positions? Over the history of Coast Hills, that’s been the tradition. However, based on my budget for the year, that tradition is coming to an end. When I was in Minneapolis, I always found it odd that the musicians were paid but the FOH engineer was not. But what about the guy who helps out doing graphic design for the church? If he’s a freelancer, he’s an artist making his living doing design; if we want to support the arts, do we pay him as well? What about the teacher who leads a kid’s Sunday School class? Do we pay her also? Or the carpenter who helps out building sets for the Christmas production?

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, but at some level, you can make the case for paying almost everyone who volunteers their time at a church. Might we get friendlier ushers if we paid them? Maybe, but at what point does paying people to “serve” turn church into an attraction to be visited rather than a body that serves?

Part of the equation that further muddies the water is the distinction between bringing in outside musicians and contractors and people from the body. In our case, we have both serving every weekend. Actually, we often have three classes of musicians; outside contractors who don’t call Coast Hills their home; professional musicians that are part of our body, and are paid; and volunteers who may be project managers or firemen but also play a mean instrument. This strange mix has never been a source of consternation (at least that I’ve seen), which is a testament to our team’s leadership. However, it is interesting. What is more interesting is seeing what happens when budgets get cut and people who used to be paid can’t be paid any longer. Some keep on playing, others sit out.

The Case for Volunteers
The other side of this coin is to use all volunteers—that’s been my experience for most of my church life. In fact, I’ve been a volunteer TD far longer than I’ve been a paid one. I made my living working in the professional production world and gave my time at church. The way I saw it, I’m not good with kids, I don’t like to greet people and I can’t sing. But I am a good tech, so that’s where I served. I’m sure I’ve given thousands of hours to the churches I’ve been a part of over the years, and loved (almost) every minute of it.

We talk a lot about putting ministry back in the hands of the people at Coast. When I use that phrase, I mean trying to find people who are gifted in various areas (in my case, tech) and empowering them to serve. For me, it’s not about saving the church money (though that is a nice side benefit) it’s about giving people the opportunity to serve. It’s like giving of our finances; when we give, we benefit more than the church does. It’s about obedience and becoming more like Jesus (who is our example for being a servant). There is no better way to grow in our walk with Christ than to serve, and a big part of me thinks that when we bring in paid people from the outside, we deprive those in our midst of growing in their walk with Christ.

So where do I land on all this? I don’t know yet. I see the case for paying musicians, especially the ones in our midst. I love those guys and I know how hard it is to make a living as a musician; I want to support them. I also know that the positions we’re talking about (musicians & FOH engineers) take highly specialized skill sets. You can’t just cut a budget and say, “The band and FOH have to be volunteers from now on.” I figure it takes a solid year to train someone to mix FOH at the level we expect at our church (unless the volunteer is committed to doing it every week, then it goes faster). And truthfully, few are cut out for it.

At the same time, some of my greatest experiences in life happened when I was volunteering at church. I want to open as many doors for that to happen as possible. On the other hand (I told you this was a complex issue…), everyone—and I do mean everyone, Sr. Pastor & board included—have to be willing to accept the compromises that come with non-professional talent on stage and behind the board. It’s not going to be perfect. Notes will be missed, mics will be muted when they should be on. We all have to be willing to live with that.

What say you? Are musicians and techs paid at your church? If so (or not) how do you feel about that?

Great Info on System Tuning from Dave Stagl

My friend Dave over at Going to 11 has been writing a series of great posts recently about his quest for better system tuning. Yesterday he wrote a really good one talking about how he compensates for the differences in our hearing at different SPLs. Based on the Equal Loudness contour research, Dave points out that our ear’s frequency response is different at 80 dB SPL than it is at 100 dB SPL. That frequency response difference can make CD recordings or web broadcasts that are based on the board mix sound flat and lifeless. It’s a great article full of practical tips on getting better sounding recordings of your services. You can read the whole article here. And while you’re at it, go back and read the rest of the series here, here and here. The posts are long, but well worth the time invested.

Good work, Dave!

Setting Input Gain Structure

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this topic, and as the question has come up a few times in reader e-mails, I figured it was high time I do an update. Gain structure is one of those very important, yet highly underrated topics in audio. It’s not nearly as glamorous as EQ, plug-ins or parallel compression, but if your gain structure is whack, no amount of EQ, plug-ins or compression will fix it. For this post, I will focus primarily on input channel gain structure (overall system gain structure is another post, but I’ll mention it briefly).

The impetus for this post came from a simple question; is it better to hit the pre-amps hard then turn down at the main output, or run the mains up around unity and dial back input gain to get the SPL you want out of the system. As a general rule (there is an exception, which I’ll detail in a minute), I would argue the former is the correct (or at least better) method, and here’s why. Most pre-amps sound best when you hit them pretty hard (at least up to the point of clipping, which is too hard). By running your pre-amps hard—and by hard I mean around -6 dB full-scale on a digital board, or within 6 dB of clipping on an analog board—you are maximizing your signal to noise ratio. And for some reason, they just sound better. Keep in mind, that’s a general rule, your mileage may vary. Now, it’s quite possible that if you dial your input gains up so that all your pre-amps are running high, your overall system level will be too high. That’s when you would lower your main level to compensate. This method will keep the signal to noise ratio high throughout the mixing chain, and will attenuate the signal at the last possible moment.

Before we get to setting up the gain structure, let me lay out my goals in for the process. First, I want to maximize S/N ratio, and use up as many of the bits in the analog to digital (A/D) conversion process that I can. Keeping the input level high meets both goals. Second, I like to mix with my faders around unity. Mixing with faders at unity is another key ingredient to good mixing. The fader resolution is highest right around unity, so you can easily make small adjustments. If you try to mix with your faders at -20, a slight change in fader position might yield a 3-5 dB change rather than the 1-2 you actually desire. Finally, I want to be sending a very solid signal out of my mixer to the processors for the same reasons (only in reverse) as the first point. That’s why proper system gain structure is important.

Here’s how I would approach the process.

Gain setting in the digital world

For each input channel, I would have the musician play their at their loudest level. I then dial up the input gain until I’m within about 8-12 dB of full scale (minus 8-12 dB on the meters). I like to leave a little room for the musician to play louder when the lights go up (they always do). Many digital boards also have a trim (or attenuation) control in addition to the input gain. I use my trim to dial the level back to where it should be in the mix with my faders at unity. Because I’ve gained my entire system properly, my main fader is sitting at unity as well, and all is right with the world. As I am using VCAs to manage groups of faders (drums, guitars, keys, bgvs, etc.) and those live at unity as well, at least to start. All of this ensures that my signal to noise ratio is optimized at the A/D stage (just after the mic pre), and my starting point for my mix is faders at unity.

Now, if you don’t have a digital trim control on your board, you have a decision to make. You won’t likely be able to run the mic pre’s hard without having too much signal at some point, so you’ll need to dial the level back somewhere. Of course, you can always turn the fader down, but then you lose fader resolution. A better alternative would be to use a VCA to keep your fader at unity, though that can get tricky. Take a drum kit for example: If you optimize the gain on the kick, snare and hat, chances are, the hat will be way too loud in the mix. But more than likely, you’re using a single VCA for the entire drum kit. So now what? Well, you could break the drums up into zones and use one VCA for each; kick & snare, toms, hat & overheads might work. That way you can pull back the faders at the VCA level (a VCA is really an electronic remote control of the faders), and maintain fader resolution. You could do a similar trick with groups if you have them.

If you’re running short of VCAs, I would break my rule and set the input gain up so that the fader remains around unity for a proper mix. Audio is a lot about compromise, and in this case I’ll give up absolute input S/N to run my faders at unity. I have found that to be the wiser trade.

Gain setting in an analog world

Really, the process is much the same, though you are much less likely to have a trim control after the gain control. In that case, the same rules apply as a digital board without a trim knob. You still want to have good input level coming into the channel (for the most part), then turn it down as needed later in the mixing stage. You also want to keep your faders running around unity. Make the trades where you have to.

In either the digital or analog world, what you don’t want to do is under-drive your mic pre’s and have to add a lot of gain down the road. Sure you can push a fader up for a guitar solo, but you don’t want to regularly run your input faders at +8, your groups at +10 and your main at +5 because your input gain is set too low.

The exception to the rule

Now, all of this assumes you’re running on a professional grade mixer that has a mix structure designed with proper headroom. If you find yourself mixing on a Mackie or Behringer (or similar music store brand), chances are you’ll run out of headroom in your mix bus very quickly. If you set input gains on a Mackie the way you should, when all those hot signals hit the mix bux, it’s not going to be pretty. The busses quickly saturate and you lose all sense of dynamics. In that case, you need to really keep an eye on your overall output level and run input gains down accordingly. This isn’t a dig on cheap mixers—you can only expect so much for what you pay for them—it’s just reality.

That’s a quick guide to setting up your gain for an input channel. As I mentioned earlier, if you go through this whole process only to find that your overall SPL in the house system is either way too loud or way too soft, you have some work to do at the system processor or amp level. But that’s another post…

Church Tech Weekly Episode 12: Technology will Fade Away

MIke is joined by Van Metschke and Bill Swaringim. The trio discuss various options for doing multi-site (including a very cost-effective way for getting video to remote venues), the future of tech in church and list their picks of the week.


Van Metschke

Bill Swaringim







Generally speaking, technical people are a somewhat unsocial lot. Most of us are introverts, and typically we’d prefer to work alone rather than be around a big bunch of people. That’s not to say we don’t love to talk with other people (most of us can go on for hours when we start “talkin’ tech…”), but being around a large group tends to drain us. I recognize that in my own life and try to intentionally find time to be alone to recharge. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need community. I would go so far to say that we were created for community. God wants us to be in relationship with other people. And I think he wants us to be in community with other tech people.

One thing that has excited me more than almost anything else is the rise of a technical artist’s community over the last few years. Technology itself has made it possible for church techs to connect with each other, even if we’re scattered all over the country. Now, I’m clearly a Twitter fanatic (check my stats…), but that platform alone has made it possible to connect with a great group of people (not just church techs) all over the country. Often, I find myself DM’ing or @replying to people even locally rather than texting; sometimes it’s faster. There are so many people that I’ve gotten to know over Twitter, and a good number of those online relationships have turned into great friendships. Sometimes we even get to meet in person (or IRL, In Real Life, as they say).

While online relationships are great, and I value those that I have, I think we also need to be in community with other people around us. It fascinates and puzzles me when I hear about a local church TD who doesn’t really have any desire to get to know other TDs or spend any time with them. I really don’t know why that is. I know we’re all busy–I have a to-do list that grows by the hour–but still I make the time to meet with other TDs around here. The reason is simple; no one else gets me like another TD. We all know ministry is hard, and technical ministry is really hard. Typically, there is just one or two tech people on any given staff. That means there is no one else in your church who you can complain to, bounce ideas off of or talk things through. Few people have any idea what we even do, let alone understand it. That’s why at least once a month, I try to have lunch with a TD from my local area. Sometimes “local” means a 45-60 minute drive. But you know what? It’s totally worth it. I know I walk away from those meetings encouraged, and I’m told those who have lunch with me are encouraged also. And it’s not because I’m this great encourager; there’s just something about spending time with another TD that makes our own troubles seem smaller.

Another high point for me is the local SoCal CDTRT meetings we’ve been having. This past Monday marked the third “official” SoCal CTDRT Meet Up, and we once again had over 15 guys, some of whom drove 2-3 hours to get there. Why did they do that? Because they recognize the importance of meeting with other TDs. Sure, we played with some cool gear and got free lunch. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the draw. The reason they all came is the conversations that happen around the tables at lunch, and all afternoon. I’m an introvert, so those meetings are draining for me, but I love them. I have gotten to know some great guys at these events, and I want to spend more time with them. So we’ll do another in January.

So what can/should you do if you’re a TD? First, seek out other TDs in your community. Look in the CTDRT directory and see who’s around you. If you’re not a member of the CTDRT, join. If you can’t find anyone, start calling around to larger churches and see if you can figure out who the tech guy is (websites are great for this…). Go out to lunch or coffee with them. Or stop by and visit to check our their facility. Maybe even stop in for a service if you can swing the schedule. Perhaps you need to be the one to organize a local CTDRT meet up. It doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to bring in gear to demo or even find a sponsor to buy lunch. Just meet at a restaurant and have lunch (that’s how the SoCal meetings started…). The bottom line is you have have to make the effort. Pretend you’re a jock and “Just Do It.” Trust me, you won’t regret it.

UPDATE 9/3/11: The CTDRT has be re-formed as CTL, Church Tech Leaders. That site can be found at www.churchtechleaders.org

Line Array vs. Point Source Webinar

Last week, Dave, Jason and I had a lively discussion of the relative pros and cons of the two most prominent types of loudspeaker systems on the market today; Line Arrays and Point Source speakers. A lot was up for grabs, and you’ll find out quite early that we all have some pretty strong opinions on the matter. It was a great discussion and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

As always, you can listen to the audio here using the player below, download the file from the link or subscribe to the iTunes podcast feed. Thanks for listening!

Church Tech Arts Webinars: Line Arrays vs. Point Source

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