Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: October 2010 (Page 2 of 2)

The Volunteer Difference

This post was inspired by my boss, Todd, who is a pretty smart guy who often says pretty profound things that turn into blog posts. One day he was standing in my office and our conversation turned to developing volunteers. He said, “What we do in worship arts is so different from other ministries in the church. Most ministries get their volunteers to do their work for them. We spend a ton of time with our volunteers and do the work with them.” Think about that for a minute, then pause to consider what it means for our volunteer development programs. When our church leaders say we need to bring more volunteers into our ministries, we have a much tougher road ahead of us than most do. This is not to knock what other ministries do; on the contrary, I’m simply pointing out how different our ministry process is.

Consider children’s ministry as an example. To bring a new volunteer in to teach a Sunday school class (or whatever your church calls them), you might sit down with them, lay out the expectations, the rules and show them the teaching materials. You might give them a mentor to work with for a few weeks, but after a relatively short time, you send them down the hall to lead their class.

Now contrast that process with bringing a new FOH engineer on board. Taking someone from, “I’m interested in learning to run sound” to actually being able to run a service on their own can easily take a year, depending on the complexity of your system, your band, and services. Someone who has some experience may be able to get up to speed in a few months. Either way, you’ll spend a ton of time with that person one-on-one helping them learn the system, develop their skills and improve their mixes. Along the way, there may be mistakes that you’ll take heat for and you will probably spend dozens if not hundreds of hours with that volunteer.

Again, this is not to minimize what other ministries do; however bringing on a new FOH engineer or lighting tech is not the same as bringing on a new usher. That’s an important distinction to make when you start getting heat from leadership about why you don’t have more volunteers on your team. What we do takes a lot more time and investment; and the truth is there aren’t a whole lot of people in our congregations who even want to make that investment.

Now, none of this should dissuade us from wanting to develop volunteers. In fact, it should be one of our primary missions. It simply means we must be way more intentional about doing it, and we have to have the right expectations. We need to be the ones developing training programs, improving our systems to make them as volunteer-friendly as possible and keeping an eye out for people who have an interest in what we do.

It’s easy to get discouraged about all this, especially when you see other ministries having their fall kickoff with dozens new volunteers and you’re still struggling to get one or two up to speed. Just remember, what we do is hard. It takes a lot of time to become really proficient in the technical arts (not unlike musicians or vocalists), and we need to pour into those volunteers until they get there.

Virtual Soundcheck

I’ve been tweeting a lot about our virtual soundcheck system the past few weeks, and it’s generated more than a few questions and responses. I figured it was high time to talk about what virtual soundcheck is, how we use it and what the benefits are. First off, let’s define the term “virtual soundcheck.” What we’re doing is replacing the live band on stage with a virtual copy, typically recorded digitally to a hard drive (though it’s also quite possible to use other multi-track recorders). They key for virtual soundcheck, and what distinguishes it from simply recording a board mix is that every channel in use is discretely recorded as close to the mic pre as possible. In other words, we want our record pick off point to be right after the mic pre; before the high pass, before the EQ and before any dynamics.

Most of the time, virtual soundcheck is accomplished with a digital board. It can be done in the analog world, but it’s much more work. Different manufacturers have different processes for setting up virtual soundcheck, and I’ll not attempt to detail them all here. The best processes make it easy to record pretty much right after the mic pre A/D conversion, then re-insert the signal at that point with a touch of a button. And remember, we’re doing this with 20-30 channels, so it needs to be an easy process.

I’ll use our system as an example. At FOH, we have a DIGiCo SD8. Since it’s based on MADI, we use that to our full advantage. The SD8 has two MADI interfaces cleverly named MADI:1 and MADI:2. In the software, it’s possible (through a simple drop-down) to copy MADI:1 (our stage rack) to MADI:2. That takes the digital signal from the stage rack (right after the mic pre and before any processing) and puts it on the MADI:2 interface. Using an RME MADIFace, I take the signal out of MADI:2 into a MacBook Pro 17” (with Express34 card slot) and record the individual tracks in Reaper. I spent some time building track templates in Reaper so getting ready to record the 24 or so tracks we need each week takes about 3 mouse clicks. Once the tracks are recorded (and patched to play back through the MADIFace on the right channels), bringing them back into the SD8 is a simple matter of clicking on “Listen to Copied Audio.” So that’s what it is, now what can we do with it? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Setting Up Channel Parameters

No one likes to sit through a sound check with a drumming hitting tom one for 5 minutes while the FOH engineer gets the gate set up right. With virtual soundcheck, they don’t have to. A few weeks ago, I had a big worship night to get prepared for and I knew soundcheck time was going to be at a premium. I scrolled through past services I had on the drive and found one with the drummer who would be playing that night. I called it up, found a section where he was playing the toms, looped it and got my drums set up. I do the same thing with speakers, vocalists and anything else that needs some time to get dialed in. Lately I’ve been playing more with the multi-band comps on bass, and now that I have all our bassists on disk, I can tweak the settings until I’m happy without tying up the whole band.

System Tuning

Playing a CD through a system as you’re making adjustments is great. But it always sounds different with a live band. I’ve found making adjustments with my virtual band gets me a lot closer to what I want when the real band is there. It’s especially nice when you combine virtual soundcheck with snapshots. For example, if I notice that during the worship set, I have some low-mid stuff in the PA that I don’t like, I can go back during the week, call up the set, recall the snapshot of the mix and play with it. Was it a mixing thing or is it a system tuning thing? Either way, we can address it at a more comfortable pace and get it dialed in the way we like without tying up a dozen people on stage.

Testing New Gear

Right now, I am testing a new wireless IEM that I’ve not worked with before. I don’t really have time on the weekend to play with it and see what it sounds like. And sure, I can play a CD through it, but that doesn’t really give me a true indication of what it’s going to sound like with my band. When the band is on the hard drive it’s an easy test.


This is the one I’m most excited about. Now that we’re making the transition from paid engineers to volunteers, having the ability to spend an evening with a new volunteer going over the board, tweaking parameters, and putting a mix together all without the stress of 800 people watching (and listening!) is going to be a huge benefit for us. It’s one thing to be able to say, “This how a multi-band comp sounds on a bass,” but it’s whole other thing to actually demonstrate it, play with all the parameters and mix it up.

Depending on your system, implementing a virtual soundcheck can cost a few thousand dollars. In our case, we have about $3500 into our Mac, MADIFace and hard drive. For me, it was totally worth it as part of an entire FOH upgrade. If I had to justify it as a standalone purchase, it might be tougher. Still, the benefits of having it are so great, I think I would find a way.

The List Will Never Be Done

It seems I’ve been having the same conversation with a variety of TDs lately. It’s generally revolved around the seemingly endless list of projects and tasks that we need to work on, and the pressure we feel (either internal or external) to get them done; preferably right now. I too am one of those TDs. Just over a year ago I walked into a building that needs every single system updated, upgraded or replaced. In every room. It’s a long list. I know many of you are in similar situations. I started thinking that if I worked really hard just for the next few months, I could get it all done. But I’ve come to realize that’s a fallacy. The truth is, the list will never be complete. That realization can either be frustrating or liberating, depending on how you choose to deal with it.

I’m going with liberating. Here’s what I mean. Now that I know the list will never be done, much of the pressure to get it all done right now is removed. I can learn to be content knowing there is a nearly endless list of tasks to accomplish, and getting them done will be a matter of prioritizing and allocating budget. It’s really that simple. When someone tells me something needs to be done, I either respond with, “It’s on the list,” or “I’ll add it to the list.” Depending on who has made the suggestion, it gets put near the top or near the bottom.

I used to feel like I needed to be some kind of super-TD. You know, the guys who have all their systems completely dialed in, nothing on the repair bench, all processed totally worked out and who spend all their time working with volunteers and perfecting their mixes with virtual soundcheck. What I’ve found is that those guys don’t really exist–or at least I’ve never met any. And I know a lot of TDs. I know TDs of big churches who have tech arts staffs bigger than my church staff, and I know TDs of small churches who are also the IT/Communications/Office Manager guy. All face the same issues. When I visit them at their churches, they all say, “Yeah, we’ve got to work on this or that…” I recently spend half a day with a great TD who moved into a brand new building recently. As we walked the facility, I learned his list of things to be done is longer than mine. And that’s in a brand new building! Even there, things didn’t go quite as planned, they ran short of time and had to jury-rig a few things just to get it working for opening weekend. And now they have a list; just like the rest of us.

So if you’ve been feeling inadequate because your to-do list is seemingly endless, relax. You’re part of a large group of us who also have a long list of projects to work on. Chances are, regardless of how hard you work at it, that list will still be there. Do your best, then go home at night knowing you’ve still got something to work on tomorrow. And the next day. Consider it job security.

Remix: God is in the Details

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve been sick for most of it. So rather than try to create cogent thoughts out of the mush that is my head right now, I’m going back to the beginning and re-working one of my earlier posts. Since a good many of you are new readers, there’s a good chance you missed this 3 1/2 years ago. Enjoy…

It has been said that the devil is in the details. I would beg to differ. I argue that God is in the details. Consider the incredible intricacy of creation for example. If all the details weren’t right, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Before I go any further, let me issue the following disclaimer: I am guilty of everything I am about to talk about. So there.

In the training I do with our sound engineers, I maintain that we have three main charges as sound techs: 1) Accurately reproduce what happens on stage, 2) Remove barriers to worship and hearing the Word of God and 3) Enhance the worship and preaching experience. Making all this happen is harder than it looks, and it takes an incredible amount of planning, proper design and setup plus good training. Once those things are in place, it comes down to details.

For example, the worship set is just wrapping up, people are in an attitude of worship and the pastor steps up to the platform to pray. Except the mic is still muted. Suddenly it’s unmuted, and he’s way too loud. What happens to that worshipful mood? Doh! Or this, after a stirring message, the worship band takes to the stage to lead a closing song. The congregation is ready to worship and praise God for what they’ve heard. Except the battery in the worship leader’s wireless is dead. Doh! At the end of a powerful service, the youth pastor invites the students in attendance to consider their relationship to Christ. In a very powerful moment students begin to come forward to pray. Suddenly all the lights in the room go full bright then dim. Oops.

Oh, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure this has never happened to you, but if it does, I suggest that really blows the mood. I view my quest to make technology seamless, not obvious. When we miss details like the above (and others I’ve omitted), we can really distract from the message. Some might argue that we are all human and mistakes are to be expected. This is true. I also suggest that we should be striving to make mistakes less often. So how do we get there?

I always begin with as thorough a plan as I can develop. The more I have the service planned out in advance, the more I can adapt when things don’t go according to plan. This means figuring out in advance how things will be hooked up (we do a full stage plot and patch chart every week), and testing it in advance. It means paying attention. I am convinced that 80% of technical errors come from loosing focus during the service. It’s easy to do, for sure. We see people we want to talk to, or we get caught up in the worship or message and forget we’re techs that day. Problem is, when it happens, we hurt the experience for hundreds of others.

It also means thinking ahead about what is supposed to happen and about what could happen. Take a look at the order of service in the middle of the last song to see what’s coming next, and you won’t be caught with a muted mic on stage while trying to figure out what’s next. Develop standardized practices and procedures that everyone can follow. Do things the same way every time. We set our board up the same way each week. The kick drum is always ch. 1. Worship leader ch. 25. Pastor ch. 42. Acoustic guitar? Ch. 18. I’m doing this from memory in my kitchen. If I stand up and put my hands on the table, I can mix a service without having the board in front of me. Why? Because it’s always the same and my hands know where to go.

Learn your equipment. The worst time to figure out how the on-board EQ responds is when the pastor steps up to the pulpit and begins feeding back. Once you get settings that work, write them down or save them as a preset. Pay attention when things go right. Look back and see what you did. Then repeat it. Most of all, be willing to change the way you do things.

It’s said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results. If you’re winging it every week and the pastor’s mic feeds back every time he takes the stage, it’s time to do something different. If the sound techs don’t know the equipment well enough to stop problems before they happen, train them, or find someone who can.

It’s important we get it right for a number of reasons. First, for the benefit of those who attend our churches. We need to serve them as well as we can. Second, we need to do it for team and for ourselves, so the entire tech & worship team can feel good about what they do. Finally, we need to do it for God. He didn’t skimp on the details of our redemption. How can we offer Him any less?


Backup Strategies

This is a topic that may seem like it should be tagged “IT,” but in reality it falls under “Audio,” “Presentation” and “Lighting.” The reason is simple; now that we’re using computers to do our audio mixing, our lighting control and our graphics presentation, we need to develop strategies for backing up those show files. This post was inspired by a tweet I saw last week. Someone mentioned that their lighting console just crashed and they lost 2 hours worth of work (I should have saved it, but I did not, sorry I can’t give credit!). The fact of the matter is, computers crash. And when they do, we will loose data. How much data we loose will depend on how well we’re backed up. I really like the 3-2-1 backup strategy which has been greatly elaborated by Richard Anderson in his workflow for digital photography. Simply put, you need to have 3 copies of the file, on 2 different media, at least 1 of which is off-site.

Right now, I feel like we’re doing about 1/2 a good job at backup at Coast Hills. Our SD8 is well backed up, so I’ll use that as our example. The SD8 is basically a Windows computer (running XP Embedded) and as such, it’s networkable. So network we do. We have a Mac Mini running Win 7 at FOH that we use as remote control. When we mirror that computer to the SD8, the show file is transferred to the Mini. From that point forward, we have 2 copies of the show. At the end of a weekend, we sync our SD8 Projects folder with a DropBox account. We now essentially have 3 copies of the file locally (1 on the SD8, 1 in the Projects folder of the Win7 machine and 1 in the DropBox folder). It’s also synced up to DropBox in the cloud, and synched back down to my laptop, my ATD’s laptop and my Win7 virtual machine in Parallels. So that’s more like 7-2-3. If you’re not familiar with DropBox, read this post, then go sign up. It’s free.

With this system, our SD8 hard drive could completely crap out, and we won’t loose anything. We could also have an issue with the FOH remote machine and we’d still be OK. And even if a current show file became corrupted, we have multiple backup copies of our baseline and older shows on DropBox. So I feel like we’re pretty well covered.

Our Presentation system is not quite as well backed up, though we do have an internal drive running Time Machine, and we sync the ProPresenter library up to the server every weekend. That’s more of a 3-2-0. I really need to get a DropBox account for the Presentation MacPro.

Lighting is probably the least protected, with no real backup of our main show config or file. As I write this, I’m again thinking, “I really need to set DropBox up on that machine…”

In addition to DropBox, there are of course other options. Given that we really aren’t talking about huge file sizes here (an SD8 show file is just over a Meg, for example), Mozy would be a great choice. Mozy is an online backup solution that is free up to 2 Gigs. The software is automatic and runs in the background when the computer is idle. You can selectively pick folders to back up and the rest is taken care of for you. Mozy+DropBox would be a great belt and suspenders approach to backup. Carbonite is another option, though they don’t offer a low-volume free version.

Almost any digital sound board can be connected to a computer, and thus easily backed up. Most also come with a USB port on them for further backup (and show transfer). Same goes for lighting desks. Once the files are on the computer, it’s easy to back them up to the cloud.

Also, consider your system processors, lighting system controls and anything else that has a file to it. Whenever I tweak my UX8800 system processor settings, I save a backup to my laptop. My laptop is automatically backed up when at my desk via Time Machine, so I have multiple copies of that file. Same goes for my monitor processors. Think through each piece of equipment you have and see how you can get a copy or three backed up somewhere. What would happen in the event of a complete failure of that device? How easy would it be to get your file into a backup (rental or on-site backup, or new component)?

Remember, there are two types of people in this world; those who have had a hard drive crash on them, and those who will. What’s your plan for when it happens to you?

Helping Vocalists With Their Wedges

Getting a vocalist’s monitor mix right can often be the difference between a smooth worship experience and a difficult one; at least from a musical perspective. The trouble is not typically lack of talent but an artist having a hard time determining what they really need in a monitor mix along with difficulty in communicating those desires to the engineer. In this post I want to give both vocalists and engineers some tips on getting a useful vocal monitor mix dialed in quickly.

One thing you should notice straight away is that I said a “useful” mix. By useful, I mean that there is enough of what the vocalist needs to hear in the mix, and not much else. A lot of times, things get off track by trying to create a CD quality monitor mix for a vocalist. While that may be a laudable goal, it’s not really useful. Let’s start with what vocalists need to hear in their wedge.


A vocalist is going to need some time reference if they are going to sing successfully. Typically, this is going to mean snare and/or hat. I try to keep these fairly low, but present enough that the vocalist can easily pick out the tempo of the song. They really don’t need kick, toms or overheads, and more often than not, adding those to their mix confuses them (especially if you have a really great drummer who plays cool syncopated rhythm stuff).


Vocalists need pitch reference to get on the right note when they sing. Finding a useful pitch reference will depend on your band makeup and the song itself. Sometimes this means piano, sometimes it’s electric guitar. A lot will depend on the orchestration of the music. Here is where communication helps a lot. Talking to the band and finding out what is the best pitch reference for a given song (or preferably set of songs) may be necessary. I know sound guys like to hide in the booth, but getting a good monitor mix means getting out from behind the board and talking to the band. Get used to it.


The only other thing a vocalist really needs to hear is themselves. Some need more “me,” others need less, but quite often I find their voice should be pretty close to the loudest thing in the mix. If you have a multi-part vocal team that is singing harmonies, they may also need to hear other parts so they can fit together well. Ideally, they would know their part cold, but the reality is they often need to hear the soprano part to properly sing the alto (and visa versa).

That’s really all they should need in a vocal mix. Now sure, we can add keys, B3, percussion, violin and whatever else is on stage to their mix, but it doesn’t really help them. Most of the time, it just makes it harder for them to hear what they need to hear.

A Few Other Tips

Remember that the faders go both ways. If you have a vocalist that keeps asking for more of something, followed by more of something else, followed by more of…well you get the idea, start asking what you can turn down instead of turn up. If they need more vocal, but then can’t hear their pitch reference, try backing their vocal down just a little bit. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference.

Start their mixes with their mics on, both in the house and their monitor. When they pick up their mic and start talking, they hear things working and it sets the tone for things going the right way.

Listen to their mix. In an ideal world, you will have a wedge of the same type the vocalists are using at your mix position (whether FOH or dedicated monitor). When are adjusting their mix, you should be listening to it. It also helps to go out on stage and stand next to them. If you can remote into your desk with your iPad or iPhone and make changes, you look like a super-rock star.

Spend time with your vocal team educating them on the best practices of building mixes. Don’t dictate from on high; work with them so they understand the concept. Most vocalists really do want to do a good job—it’s our role to help them do just that. It might even be helpful to go in on a practice night and show them the difference between a full band mix and the basics. That often is enough to convince them the simple approach is easier.

Remember, it’s not about creating a CD quality mix in their wedge. Vocalists, if you want to hear the song in all its glory, stand in the congregation or buy the MP3. When you’re singing, get the basics in your mix and you’ll sing much more confidently and accurately.

What the Latest FCC Ruling Means to You

Earlier this month, our Beloved Commish (aka the FCC; hat tip to TV Technology’s Mario Orazio) issued a ruling that finally brings some clarity to the whole issue of TVBDs (TV Band Devices–formerly known as White Space Devices). Many of the wireless mic companies are applauding the ruling, and generally for good reason. It’s still a bit of a mixed bag for those of us working in fixed installations like churches, but it sure could be a lot worse.

Rather than go into a ton of detail of the ruling itself, I will try to parse out what it actually means for us.

First of all, the FCC has created a “Safe Haven” for wireless mics on either side of channel 37 (608-614 MHz, currently reserved for radio astronomy). The new ruling states that the first unused channel on both sides of channel 37 in any given market will be useable for wireless mics and off-limits for TVBDs. This does not mean that channels 36 and 38 are free zones for wireless mic use; both of those channels could be active DTV stations in your market. For example, in the LA basin, we have to go all the way to ch. 30 and ch. 40 to find the first unused channel on both sides of 37. Shure has a great tool—Wireless Frequency Finder—for determining the TV stations in your area.

Second, as portable TVBDs have been one of the great unknowns in this whole equation, we now know that they will only be allowed to operate from channels 21-51 (512-698 MHz). That’s a lot of bandwidth, but the good news for us is that there will be no portable TVBDs below 512 MHz. Also, portable TVBDs will be limited to 40 mW of power on any frequency that’s adjacent to a TV channel in the area. They will be allowed to operate at up to 100 mW of power in non-adjacent bands. That means if you are using wireless mics that operate above channel 21 (Shure H4 for example), you’ll be safer landing your wireless mics next to a DTV station as opposed to 2 channels away from it. It’s still possible you can be hit with up to 40 mW on a mic channel, but that’s better than 100 mW.

Fixed TVBDs will be allowed to operate anywhere between ch. 2-51 (which gets down into VHF territory and includes the UHF block 470-698 MHz that we use for wireless mics). While fixed TVBDs can operate at up to 4 W, they are prohibited from operating on channels adjacent to a DTV station. Again, another reason to look to adjacent TV stations for landing your wireless.

Finally there was talk of requiring TVBDs to include spectrum sensing technology that would avoid TV stations and wireless mics. Since every test of the existing technology failed miserably, the FCC dropped that requirement in exchange for a requirement to check in with a geo-location database. Still no word on how one might register with the database, who will get to register and what restrictions there will be once registered.

What does all this mean for you and your church? Well, let me walk you through a four step process to determine optimal frequency positioning for wireless mics. I’ll use our system in this example since I have to do it anyway. I’m using a spreadsheet that I built in Numbers to help me coordinate the process.

Step 1: Determine your wireless system’s tuning range.

In our case, we’re using Shure UHF-R and PSM-900. Our UHF-R is in the H4 band (518-578 MHz), and our PSM900 is in G6 (470-506 MHz).

Step 2: Determine your local TV stations

We’re a Shure house so I’m using the Wireless Frequency Finder listed above. It may be easier to use the web-based tool provided by your wireless manufacturer. Once you know where TV stations are in your area, you can block them out on the spreadsheet so you know where not to put your wireless.

Step 3: Determine your open frequencies

Now that you know where you can’t put your wireless, it’s time to see where you can. In a crowded metro area like LA, I have just 5 channels open for my mics and 2 for my IEMs. Based on what we know of the FCC order on TVBDs, we can start to look at what the best open channels might be. As I mentioned, the first open channel below ch. 37 in LA is ch. 30. Since that’s a Safe Haven from TVBDs, that’s the first place I will look for putting my critical mic channels. As chs. 23, 25 & 27 are adjacent to DTV stations, those are the next best places to put wireless mics. I’ll avoid ch. 22 because both fixed and portable TVBDs might show up there.

The same process will work for my IEM. Both 17 and 19 are good slots to work in as they are adjacent to other DTV stations (no fixed TVBDs) and they are all below ch. 22 (no portable TVBDs).

Step 4: Determine an optimal mix of frequencies

I’ll use Wireless Workbench to synthesize a new group of frequencies based on those criteria. Sennheiser, Audio Technica, AKG and others offer software to build frequencies that don’t interfere with each other as well. You can also use the recommended groups of frequencies provided by the manufacturer if you don’t want to build your own list.

If you have a hodgepodge of wireless, you may want to contact the manufacturer that makes the most of your wireless and have them help you put together a set of frequencies that will work for you. One thing to keep in mind is that wireless mic manufacturers want you to have a good experience; if you are having trouble, contact them and they will gladly help you get them dialed in.

As I said, this is a bit of a mixed bag for us. While we do have some key open frequencies that we can more or less count on, I wish I had known which ones would be open when I followed the rules and upgraded our system to vacate the 700 MHz spectrum. This ruling is not a disaster for us, but I may have split our system into half H4 and half G1 to get a better mix of safe channels.

This ruling also means we will have to be more strategic on where we place our wireless frequencies. Since we can typically get 6-8 mics in a TV channel, if we have more than that, we have to place them carefully. In our case, I want to be sure our teaching mics and worship leader’s mic end up in ch. 30—a channel free from TVBDs because it’s the first open channel below 37. Our systems don’t tune high enough to get to ch. 40 on the other side of 37, so we can’t utilize that one. If I can’t fit the whole rack of wireless in ch. 30, I will want to use channels adjacent to other DTV stations as there will be no fixed TVBDs and portable TVBDs will be limited to 40 mW.

So the good news is it’s not all bad. The bad news is that it’s not all good. We’ll have to work a little harder and be a little more selective but we will be able to make wireless mics work for the foreseeable future.

Download the Numbers spreadsheet.

Download the Excel version (not as cool, but it should work)

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