Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: July 2011 (Page 2 of 2)

The Case for Paying Musicians and Techs

As I’m on vacation this week (and I’m taking a real vacation, meaning I’m not just sitting at home instead of working), I’ve decided to re-post some popular posts from the past. And because I’m an over-achiever, I’m re-mixing them a little bit. So if you read this before, read it again. It’s probably changed some!

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.

Sometimes however, a church is really just looking to save money and cuts out all the paid musicians and tech people. That’s one way to trim a budget, but if the expectations are not adjusted, few will be happy with the results. It takes a long time to get really good at what we do, and while it’s easy to make the decision in the board room, it’s a lot tougher in the field.

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.

I’ve been talking with quite a few TDs about this recently, and it seems that there are a few positions in the church that need to be paid. Quite a few churches are starting to look at the FOH engineer as a necessary paid position because of it’s visibility, importance and the high degree of specialized training required. Whether a paid FOH engineer is a requirement at your church will depend on the level of production excellence required. While I’m busy training new audio volunteers, I’m a bit nervous that when we start getting them on the board during a live service, their performance won’t be up to the level expected by leadership. And that puts us in an interesting position. 

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?

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The Long Run

The Long Road Homephoto © 2010 Carl Wycoff | more info (via: Wylio)
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I can be sustainable in ministry. And by sustainable, I don’t mean going green or doing more recycling (though those are valid concepts that probably do deserve a post). Rather, I mean how can I put myself in a position to be able to continue in ministry for the long run.

Ministry is by nature hard, and tech ministry is one of the hardest ministries. Like many of you, I’m entering another year of doing more with less. We’re all in positions of having our budgets cut (mine is now 33% of what it was 2 years ago!), our staff cut or (not growing) and our contractors slowly (or rapidly) eliminated.

Yet the amount of ministry we need to do has steadily increased. We’re supporting more ministries more regularly and seeing our responsibilities expand far beyond the weekend services. 

The desire to do more with less puts the responsibility for taking care of ourselves squarely on our shoulders. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty tired of late. We’ve been going pretty much full-out for a good 18 months now, with no sign of slowing down. I say that not to garner pity, as I know many of you are in the same (or worse) boat. What it does mean though, is that I need to find ways to rest so I can continue on with the work God has called me to do here. While taking some time out to pray about this the other day, God showed me something that has really challenged me.

It’s Not the Heat, it’s the Humidity

That phrase applies to the weather: In our case, as TDs anyway, it’s not always the hours that kill us, it’s the always-on nature of what we do. Most TDs I know are high-capacity, driven, passionate people. We push ourselves hard and don’t leave at 5 if the job isn’t done yet.

Even when we do leave, we often find ourselves thinking about a problem that needs a solution, developing a process or answering e-mails, texts and phone calls in the evening or on days off. It’s hard to switch off. Anyone else with me here?

Lately, God’s been challenging me that I really do need down time. I wrote about the importance of taking a sabbath a few weeks ago, and am still challenged by that. Now I feel He’s stretching me to go further by not spending so much time thinking about my job on my hours off. It’s hard, but like anything else, it’s a matter of discipline.

I’m trying to change my thinking habits so I’m not going to sleep thinking about all the stuff I need to do the next day. I’m working at not spending my evenings answering work e-mail or even thinking about all that stuff that’s waiting for me when I get there tomorrow. 

The goal of all this re-thinking is to avoid burnout. You know the expression, “You can have good, fast or cheap; pick two.” Right now, most churches are choosing good and cheap. That means we can’t have fast. As timelines stretch out, we need to be able to stick with this for a long time. My original 3-5 year plan to fix all our technical ailments is going to stretch out to 5-7 years. Maybe longer when I show them my long-term capital replacement projections

So if I want to be here to see that plan completed, I need to take care of myself. And so do you. More and more, I believe we need to be challenging and encouraging each other to get the rest and mental breaks we need to stay healthy. This is me doing that for you.

How are you working to stay healthy in your job?

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The Sound Check Process

The other day I was talking with Kevin Sanchez, and he asked me if I had ever written a post about our sound check procedure. I thought I had, but a quick search of the site turned up nothing. So here it is.

I’ve found the sound check to be one of the most important times of the entire weekend experience. It’s a short window in time that allows you to set the tone for the service, either for better or worse. A smooth, well-run sound check will put the musicians at ease and enable them to lead well. A rough one will elevate tension and put the service in jeopardy. 

For me, the key to a successful soundcheck is all in the preparation. That means being there early, getting the stage set and ensuring that everything works before the band sets foot on the stage.

Arrive Early

Our tech team arrives at noon on Saturday; the band arrives at 1:45. That hour and forty five minutes gives us plenty of time completely set up the stage, dress the cables, set out music stands and lights and run a full line check. 

That timeline works for us; your arrival time may need to adjust based on your situation. Normally, we leave much of our stage set up and wired because we can. When we have to do a full reset, we arrive two hours earlier. I would always rather have 30-45 minutes of down time because we finished early than be running 10-15 minutes late. 

Check Everything

We always do a full line check of every single input every week. Even though we leave the drums and bass and guitars wired up the same week to week, we check them anyway. I’ve learned the hard way that troubleshooting with the band on stage is much harder than when no one is there. Making 6-10 people wait while you figure out a bad cable or bad patch is not a way to start the weekend off right.

We also test every monitor to make sure they’re working properly and are assigned the right way. Few things are more frustrating to a musician than asking for a change in his mix only to have that change end up in someone else’s wedge because they’re cross-patched. Catch that stuff in advance.

Communicate

I like to be on stage when the band arrives. It give me a chance to welcome them, hang out and talk a little while they get set up and take care of any special requests they may have. Building relationships is key; and I want my band to know I care about them as people first, musicians second. As the time for sound check approaches, I’ll usually say something like, “OK guys, I’m going to head up to the booth, so if you can get in place and get your ears plugged in we’ll start sound check and get you moving.” That gives them a minute or two to get set. Once in the booth, I explain via the talkback mic what we’re going to do so everyone knows what to expect.

The Process

I always do sound check the same way. That’s true for most of what I do, by the way. I’m a big believer in consistency. I tell the band what we’re going to do, then do it. Here’s how I roll sound check.

First, I start with the kick. I ask the drummer to play quarter notes on the kick while I set the gain and trim to get it where I want it in the house. I then ask him to add snare. After getting that set, I add hat. I’ve found it’s easier for the band to get their levels set when we get all three going at once. Same goes for me in the house. I’ll then ask for toms, quarter notes on each in succession in a loop. So he’ll play tom 1, tom 2, tom 3; tom 1, tom 2, tom 3. What I’m doing there is balancing the level of the toms to each other. Next up, we’ll get the overheads. Finally, I’ll ask him to play a groove on the whole kit. 

This give me a final chance to make sure the kit sounds cohesive, and allows the band to get their mixes dialed in. I’ll usually let this go for a minute or two, then stop. Next up is the bass. I’ll have him play, then ask to drummer to hit the kick while the bass player plays a riff. That helps me and the band get those placed right.

Next we’ll go to guitars. If I have a guy who’s playing both electric and acoustic, I’ll start with whatever he has strapped on, then do someone else while he switches guitars. We’ll do keys (piano, synth and B3), and finally perc or sax if we have it. That gets us through the band.

At this point, I’ll normally ask them to play a verse and chorus from a song we’re doing that weekend, preferably one they know. That gives me a final chance to tweak gains and trims before moving on to the vocals. 

For vocals, I will ask everyone who’s singing to repeat a chorus of a song of the weekend, typically with either piano or guitar accompaniment for pitch. Because I’ve started with a base mix in the vocal wedges, they can hear themselves while I get their gains set right. 

Once the vocals are dialed in, I will usually ask the band to do another verse and chorus with vocals. After that, I take requests for the vocals (remember, they have a rough mix at the start, so we’re just tweaking at this point). 

Typically, the whole process takes about 15-20 minutes. After that, we’ll make minor tweaks to the vocal mixes as needed, and occasionally adjust individual inputs in sub mixed M-48 groups. Otherwise, once we get this done, the band is in rehearsals and we’re dialing mixes in. 

So there you go. That’s our process. I’ve done it differently in different settings, but this is what is working for us today.

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ProPresenter Organization

Someone asked me if I would share our organizational structure for our ProPresenter machine. I’m happy to do so, but it should be noted that the overall system isn’t original to me. Most of it was in place before I arrived at Coast, and because it worked so well, we’ve only made minor tweaks.

Let me start with some perspective. In our Main Auditorium, we run Pro4 on a MacPro. We have a great Communications Director named Ken Hammond who produces most of our graphics for the weekend (save the sermon notes; those are made on Saturday in Keynote by the presentation tech). Ken has a MacPro in his office to create on. We also have a media server on our network that acts as the storage hub and archive of weekend graphics.

Inside the media server, we have a folder labeled Weekend GFX & Videos. Inside that folder is a folder for each year. Inside each year is a folder for, you guessed it, each weekend.

As you can see, the most recent weekend is loose, while the _2011 Archive contains all previous weekends for the year.

Inside each weekend folder, we have two additional folders; Pre Roll & Verbals. Every week, Ken pulls together all the slides needed for the walk-in pre service loop and puts them in the Pre Roll folder. All the slides for the announcements (read live during the service) go in the Announcements folder. To make sure we always have the right slides in the presentations, every week we delete any existing slides from the PreRoll and Verbals (the shortened form of Announcements) presentations, and drag the entire contents of those folders into their respective presentations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s a peak inside this weekend folder. I know…Diapers Pics…we collected 40,000 diapers for a couple of local ministries. You’ll also see two videos and our new series theme graphic.

On the Pro4 MacPro, we have a similar structure. At the root of the hard drive, we have a folder called Keynote (a holdover from the days when they actually used Keynote for presentation). Inside we have the same folder structure as on the media server. Each weekend, the presentation tech copies the weekend folder from the media server to the local HD, leaving it loose inside the Keynote folder. We keep the current weekend folder loose in the Keynote folder as we are in and out of there a lot on any given Saturday. The previous weekend’s folder is filed away in the appropriate archive.

Once the files are local, they are dragged into the appropriate presentations. Also in the folder on the media server might be a video or two, and any other special graphics that might be needed for the weekend. As Ken prepares for the weekend, he’ll file the previous weekend’s folder in the archive on the server. It’s all quite orderly.

Once everything is in ProPresenter, we have a simple system for keeping things organized. Of course we have a complete library of songs that we sing on a regular basis. We keep this library pretty clean and purge it once or twice a year. To my way of thinking, it’s so easy to pull in new songs, there’s no sense in letting the library get into the thousands of songs. If we do a song once, it will live in the library for a while, but if we don’t do it again in six months or so, we kick it to the curb.

Each weekend, we create a new Keynote file for the sermon graphics. That file goes in the local weekend folder in a folder called Message. When the slides are created, they are exported to that message folder with the clever name of message.XXX.jpg. ProPresenter will auto-sort the slides when we drag it into the Message presentation (that has already been purged of last week’s slides).

Our Presentation Coordinator, Monica Castorena, will typically create the templates for each series. She picks out a collection of backgrounds that can be used for the songs and makes up a playlist for them in the Backgrounds/Video tab. Our presentation techs can then pull from those backgrounds for songs. They can also apply a template that works with the background. Usually, she’ll create 2-3 templates per series to work with the varying backgrounds. Again, we try to keep the template menu pretty sparse; having too many is just confusing and we like to minimize confusion.

We have a Weekend playlist and a MidWeek playlist. Those get updated each week with the new songs; though on the weekend, we always use the same playlist for verbals and pre-roll (the slides always all change, however).

Getting back to our image library, we have a huge library locally on the MacPro, and have that organized by image type. Sometimes Monica will pull a collection of backgrounds from there, other times she’ll buy new images. Either way, we typically only populate the library in Pro4 with images we are using for the current series. Each series lasts 8-10 weeks or more, so we’re not moving stuff in and out a lot.

So that’s pretty much it. It’s not particularly magical, nor is it hard to implement. But it is elegant and effective. It’s easy to find things, and we have a high degree of consistency. We also have shortcuts in the sidebar to each folder to make things easier to get to.

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CTA Tests: Shure Beta 181 & KSM353

I’ve been wanting to get to these tests for quite a while, but haven’t had the time to go through the audio files. A few months ago, I took into my possession a demo of the new Shure Beta 181 and new to Shure KSM313. While I had them both at the same time, it never quite worked out that I was able to get recordings of both mics on the same guitar cab at the same time. We played with both mics for a few weeks each, and used the KSM 313 extensively during Good Friday and Easter weeks. 

I also brought the 313 home for a few weeks to let my daughter do some recording with it. We tried it on acoustic guitar and wow, did it sound good. As a side note, we also had a demo KSM 353 that we also tried on the acoustic. While we weren’t happy with those results, it was a stellar vocal mic, at least with her voice. Actually, we recorded both my daughters on the 353 and both came through with tons of richness, warmth and clarity. But that’s another post.

Now, this is not an ideal mic shootout or review. I wasn’t able to get the same source recorded with both mics (plus my normal mic for reference), so it’s a bit hard to make fair comparisons. So while I’m including audio tracks of both mics, take them for what they are; different songs played on different days by the same player, with the same guitar and amp setup. It should be noted that these recordings were made on our rhythm guitar, not the lead.

Shure Beta 181 with a cardioid head.

The Beta 181 is an interesting mic. It’s a small diaphragm, side address condenser mic with interchangeable heads. Available patterns include, cardioid, hyper cardioid, omni and figure eight. Shure recommends it for acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, snare, acoustic bass and percussion. But I’m looking for a new electric guitar mic, so that’s what I tried it on. 

The 181 was up first in our testing, and I noticed an immediate difference in the house. Our normal electric guitar mic is a Sennheiser e609, which works OK, thought I’ve never been crazy about it. It works, but I’m not in love with it. The 181 was at once considerably more crisp and detailed than the 609, and it was much easier to get the electric to sit right in the mix. Our worship leader also liked it quite a lot in his ears.

As you’ll hear in the audio sample, it’s quite detailed with a nicely extended high end. Some of the low end grunt is missing, but that’s partly the clip I have available. I chose a few sections of the song to highlight how the mic sounds like with various levels of guitar distortion as well as lighter picking.

After a few weeks of it, I was reasonably happy with the sound we got out of the mic. Priced around $500 with one capsule, it is an interesting option. Honestly, while it sounded good, I’m not sure I’d use it for the electric. But that’s partially because I got really spoiled with the next mic.

Shure KSM 313. The ribbon is made of Roswelite. Apparently, it’s alien.

The KSM313 came to Shure from Crowley and Tripp. It’s an side-address ribbon mic that retails for around $1300. The 313’s most intriguing feature is the dual-voice design. Addressed from the front, the response is pretty flat out to about 6K where it rolls off pretty dramatically. They call this the “warm and full response for amplified instruments.” Turn it around and the response hangs in there out to 10K before rolling off pretty quickly. This is the “bright for flattering vocals” response. 

We tried both sides on the guitar cab, and actually preferred the flatter response. One item of note is that Shure recommends flipping the polarity of the mic when addressing it from the rear. 

Frequency response curves of the front and back of the KSM 313

When I first heard it, I immediately fell in love with it. It sounded warm, rich and hand plenty of texture. I didn’t feel like I needed to push the guitar up in the mix to make it sit right. It just worked, at least with our band. I used almost no EQ and found it almost effortless to get the guitar sounding just the way I wanted. 

Interestingly, our worship leader didn’t like it at all in his ears. He described it as sounding like there was a blanket over the amp. Everyone that heard it in the house however, agreed that it sounded simply wonderful. There is one negative to the mic; the mic stand mount is stupidly over-engineered. It’s way too complicated, uses too many parts and takes way too long to set up. I would much rather have a simple spider mound for it. 

By now you may think that I’ve purchased the mic, but you’d be wrong. I would like to, but I’m having a hard time justifying the price tag. Yes, it sounds amazing, and yes I would love to mix with it every week. However, we don’t have a second electric every week. In fact, some months we don’t have a second electric more than once. So it’s really hard to justify over $100 a weekend for a year to make the electric sound better. Yes, it’s a noticeable improvement over our current e609, but $1300 worth? That’s hard. I have a lot of other things that I need to buy first, so this is going to have to wait. However, if Shure gave me one, I would use it every single time I had a second electric and would even tweet about it. 

Again, this is not an exhaustive test, but more of a taste of what these mics sound like. Truth be told, they’re both good mics and would be a good addition to a mic locker. Whether they are useful for you depends on your needs and what you have already.

A few notes about the audio files. They were recorded in Reaper straight off the MADI bus, right after the A/D conversion. There was no EQ or compression applied during recording, or with the edited files. I normalized them, but that’s it. They are 256 Kbps MP3 files for your listening enjoyment. Feel free to download them and listen at your leaser. As I mentioned earlier, they are recordings of different songs, on different days. The guitar, amp and player are all the same, however. 

Beta 181 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to save)

KSM 313 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to download)

Sennheiser e609 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to download) 

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