Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: September 2011 (Page 1 of 2)

The Department of Redundancy Department

Photo credit: b0jangles on Flickr

I’m a big believer in redundancy, and I’ll tell you why: Because stuff breaks. Things go wrong. Plans fail. And when it does, I want to make sure I have a backup. Like this past weekend for example; we had all sorts of weird things going on all day Saturday, but with some persistent troubleshooting and effort, things ran smoothly for service. Sunday morning appeared to be going well.

But when I headed up to the booth between services, I found my FOH engineer struggling with Reaper.  He was working on the podcast, which is what I was heading up to do. Something was clearly wrong. But first, let me back up a second. We record every service, but we typically use the 9 AM for the podcast. To make sure we get it, I record a two track board mix and a mono track of the pastor’s mic in Reaper. We also record a CD of the whole service, just in case. 

When I started looking at the Reaper project, something was clearly amiss. Somehow, the track had been split somewhere in the middle of the message, and when we dragged it out, instead of revealing the rest of the message, it simply looped. I thought this was odd, so I looked at the board mix. Same thing. So I went to Finder, found the raw recordings and dragged them into the project. Same thing. 

Now this was weird. I’ve never had an issue with Reaper messing up a recording, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Maybe it was user error—the FOH guy wasn’t that familiar with Reaper—or maybe something strange just happened. Either way, the recordings were gone. After messing with it for a bit, I decided to bail and just grab the CD. I’d rip it real quick and get on to editing. 

That’s when I noticed the CD-R was still sitting there with 79:59 left on the counter. Bummer, we forgot to hit start at the beginning of the service. So here we sit; our primary, secondary and tertiary recordings where useless. In fact, the CD never even happened. 

Thankfully, we also record every service to FinalCut Pro, and in the case of the 9 AM, to DVD. I walked down to video, did a quick edit, exported an AIFF of the message, copied it to the Reaper computer and set about editing the podcast. 

When things go well, we have 5 copies of the 9 AM message every week; a board mix, a mono track, a CD-R, a DVD-R and a FCP video track. On this particular Sunday, we had the first three fail. Thankfully, we still had backups of our backups. This is how I like to approach redundancy.

Some might think this is excessive, but in this case, it paid off. I didn’t have to explain to my pastor that we had to use the 11 AM because the 9 AM recording failed. I was instead able to carry on like nothing happened; and in fact, unless my boss or anyone else on staff reads this post, they’ll never know anything even did happen. And that’s the way I like it.

When it comes to stuff that only happens once, like the preaching of a sermon, I like to have as many chances to get it captured as practical. In the case of our message recording, it costs about 70¢ to record it five times on four different media. I’m good with that. 

Now, obviously we can’t have that level of redundancy with our hardware, but it doesn’t cost anything to set out an extra wireless mic in case something goes wrong with the pastor’s or announcement mic. In fact, I even wrote a wireless mic failure plan so all our producers know what to do if something goes wrong during a service. 

We keep extra batteries just off stage in case we loose a guitar or wireless pack. We can run our lights from the Paradigm touch screen in case the Hog goes out. I can mix from the remote computer in case the SD8 surface crashes. We can switch to a laptop in case the ProPresenter MacPro goes down. Though come to think of it, that’s not a near-line backup; I’m going to have to do something about that. 

Those are some things I do to make sure that when something fails—and make no mistake, things will fail. How about you; how to you prepare for equipment or process failure?

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Breaking News: ProPresenter 5 Announcement

Information from sources close to the company have informed me that ProPresenter 5 will be announced this Saturday, October 1, 2011. Based on information that I may or may not have gleened from sources I can’t disclose, it appears to be a pretty significant update. 

ProPresenter 4 already sets the standard in live presentation software, and Pro5 is looking like it will build on that mountain. There may or may not be some really cool new features that I am really looking forward to writing about when I’m able to. 

Keep your eye on the Renewed Vision website Saturday, or follow @renewedvision on Twitter to hear about as soon as it’s released. 

More to come!

Input Sheets Pt. 2

Last time we went over some input sheet basics, and I showed you a few early versions of the spreadsheets I’ve used for creating the input sheets. Today, I will unveil version 3; our mac-daddy input sheet. While I designed the basic layout, Isaiah did most of the hard work in getting it set up. Since he’s been gone, I’ve made a few minor tweaks, but by and large, all the programming is his. And it’s pretty stinkin’ impressive. 

Whereas I built the parameter selection right inline in version 2, Isaiah took a different approach. He created a data input sheet that sends the data out to everything else. We have two versions of the input sheet; one for the stage set up team, one for FOH. We differentiate it because the two need different information. The FOH engineer doesn’t need all the detail of what snake channels are used, but he does need to know which inputs need phantom power. 


Click to enlarge

Let’s look at our data entry sheet. On the left side, we have our band variables. Each of those are pop up menus with all our common values pre-programmed. Everything else is driven from those values. When we select a given player, any pertinent information for their instrument set up is automatically entered. 

A little lower, we see the same thing for the wireless mics, as used by the vocalists. The big table on the right is our master M-48 label template. We work from this template every week, making changes as needed. The reason we put all this information on one page is because it’s a lot easier. When we start to look at the rest of the pages, it quickly becomes apparent that the data is scattered all over the place, and it’s much faster to enter it all in one sheet.

Now, you may be wondering why go through all the trouble to program all this? After all, this is but one example of the many formulas in the sheet:


The answer to that is simple: I’m a busy guy. I don’t want to spend any more time than necessary each week filling out input sheets. They’re very important, which is why we do them, but I want them done as quickly as possible. Sure we spent a lot of time initially building this, and the truth is it was built over time as Isaiah filled out the sheets week after week. Once he got a handle on what the common variables were, it was a simple matter to write some statements to auto-populate everything.

To show you the power of this system, I will now demonstrate, via screencast, how quickly an input sheet comes together.

Input Sheet Demo from Mike Sessler on Vimeo.

Not bad, right? The only real caveat to this system is that you have to be using Numbers to use our sheet. That’s not a bad thing, I would rather have dental work done than use Excel, and you can buy Numbers for $20 in the App store. Windows users, sorry, you’re on your own.

Here is the template I use every week. Feel free to adapt it and make it your own.

Coast Hills Input Sheet v. 3

Coast Hills Input Sheet v. 3 (Numbers ’08 version)

Note: The Numbers ’08 version breaks a few formulas and some conditional formatting that’s not supported in that version. I’m uploading it by request. The ’09 version is better…

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Input Sheets Pt. 1

I’ve had a few questions on Twitter lately about input sheets. While I believe input sheets to be absolutely necessary each week, they don’t have to be that hard to put together. As we’ll see over the course of this and the next post, there are several ways to go about making an input sheet, from the simple to the complex. The information that I included in my input sheets, while serving as a good launching point, may not be the information you need in yours. 

First, let’s consider what an input sheet is for. At the most basic level, it gives everyone involved in the audio production a blueprint for how things should be hooked up. Unless you have the exact same stage set up every single week, chances are you will be plugging in cables and mics, and moving some things around. Sure, you could do this on the fly, making it up as you go along, but it’s so much easier to think it out in advance.

I started doing in put sheets about 5 years ago, when took over as TD of a church in Western NY. We had a retired couple who were willing to come in and set the stage each week. To make it easier, I came up with an input sheet and stage diagram that I updated weekly to reflect the band configuration for that weekend. That church had four rotating bands of varying configurations. I came up with a common input layout that accommodated everything with minimal re-patching and tweaked my template each week. Here is what the input sheet looked like.

It wasn’t very pretty, but it got the job done. As you can see, we were running a 32-channel board with four monitor mixes and five Avioms. The input sheet gives both the stage set up tech and the FOH engineer all the information they need to be successful. Everything should be pretty self explanatory, so I won’t spend any more time on this version. 

Fast forward to 2009 when I arrived at Coast Hills. I’m skipping my time at Upper Room mainly because I can’t for the life of me find any input sheets I used during that time. Go figure. When I arrived here, we were using a PM-5D EX (a PM-5D with a DSP-5D) for FOH. The interesting thing about that configuration is that it behaves like two consoles; the 5D is just a control surface for the DSP-5D. Since the DSP-5 fits neatly in a rack, we housed that on stage. All our stage inputs went to the DSP, and the only thing going into the 5D were local inputs at FOH.

This version of the input sheet was what they had been using before I got here; I’m not sure who originally put it together. Again, it’s not pretty, but it does have most of the relevant information available. As you can see, we were also running a separate monitor board (an M7), mixing a bunch of wedges. 

This scenario is exactly why an input sheet is so important. With 34 inputs (this week anyway), 11 monitor mixes and 11 people on stage, there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. The input sheet makes sure we plug things in to the right spot and everything is patched correctly on the digital boards. 

Again, this is pretty self-explanatory. As you can see, we also list out monitor mixes, matrix mixes and various stereo inputs. This input list worked out reasonably well for a while, but after a bit, I realized I was making a lot of the same entries week after week. 

For example, we have a percussion player and a woodwinds player who don’t necessarily alternate, but are never on the same weekend. We use the same set of three channels for both players, but the input configuration is completely different. For perc, we use three mics; two e904s for congas and an SM81 for overhead. For winds, we just drop a stereo pair that he plugs into his rig. 

Rather than change all those parameters by hand every week, I decided to create a pop-up menu and write some If-Then statements to fill in the rest of the data for me. 

This worked great. But it was only the beginning. A few months later, I hired a new ATD, Isaiah Franco. Turns out, he enjoyed automating input sheet entry even more than I do. But that’s the next post.

All of the sample spreadsheets are available for download below. The basic sheet and version 1 are available as XLS sheets; but version 2 is only available as a Numbers sheet because Excel doesn’t do drop down menus. And as you’ll see next time, that’s a big deal.

Basic Input Sheet

Coast Hills Version 1

Coast Hills Version 2

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Gurus of Tech

I’m probably about a week late in posting this, but I wanted to make sure you were all aware of the Gurus of Tech conference. Gurus of Tech is a few years old and seeks to encourage and equip techs in the local church. The conference is held twice a year. In March it was held in Chicago; next week we will be meeting at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY. 

The conference starts on Monday, Oct. 3 and wraps up Wednesday at noon. The conference will be full of great breakout sessions, including one I’m really looking forward to with Scott Ragdsale of Willow Creek and Dave Stagl of North Point. Dave and I have been friends for 3-4 years but have never met in person, so I’m really looking forward to that. 

In fact, that’s what I love about conferences like Gurus; they’re great opportunities to develop IRL (In Real Life) relationships with people we’ve known online. One other great thing about Gurus is that it’s free. If you can get there and find a place to stay, you can get in. But you need to register

If you’ll be there, make sure you say hi. I’ve been informed that I’ll be speaking during the main session on Tuesday morning. I’ll also be around the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday. I hope to see you there!

Review: Matrox Convert DVI Plus

A few months ago, Matrox sent me a Convert DVI Plus to play with for a while. The Convert DVI Plus is  a scan converter that also supports region of interest selection. Basically, you shove a DVI signal into it, and it spits out video on both HD or SD SDI and analog component, composite or Y-C. You are able to select between various output formats; 480i, 720P, and 1080i in various frame rates (see below). 

You have a good selection of basic video output formats, and you can program a stand-alone mode so it doesn’t need to be controlled by a computer to work.

The timing was excellent, as I also had a Blackmagic ATEM in house for another review. This gave me a place to send both SDI and component videos to see how it all looked. I’m going to break convention and give you the conclusion first: The Convert DVI does a great job converting a DVI signal to SDI. Getting there however, was a bit of a challenge.

Some of the issues I had in the beginning were due to the fact when I initially received the unit, the only control drivers ran under Windows. I tried to get it working using Parallels, but be warned, due to the way the Convert DVI sets it’s incoming scanning frequencies, it won’t work if you try to configure it that way. Until last week, you had to hook it up to a Windows PC, inline with a monitor to get the configuration set up. 

When I talked to Matrox about this initially, I told them that Mac drivers would be pretty much a requirement if I were to even consider this product. Somewhat to my surprise, they listened and I had a beta of the Mac software in about a month. The final version 1.0 of the driver software was released last week. 

Once I had the Mac drivers, it was actually very easy to configure the Convert DVI. You have a number of options on programming in EDIDs that the computer will see, and you can program the device to operate completely in stand-alone mode, which I did. One irritation is that the Convert DVI needs to have the computer reboot to finalize the programming. This is irritating, but thankfully, only has to be done initially. After the programming is done, you can unplug the USB control cable and use it as a stand-alone converter. Once I had it set to present itself as a 1280×720 display, I hooked it up to my MacBook Pro, fired up ProPresenter (which is expecting to see a 720P external display) and cued up some graphics. 

You can load in a set of EDIDs to present to the computer, and as you can see, they show up. Click to enlarge.

The converted graphics looked great running through the ATEM at 720P. Since we currently run our IMAG system in 480i, I set the Convert DVI to down convert the ProPresenter graphics to 480i. Again, it looked great. Video, both HD and SD sources, played flawlessly and looked great. 

What is nice about the Convert DVI Plus is that it outputs both analog and digital signals, so if you need both, you have it. They also include a DVI loop through for a local monitor. You can input audio from your computer and it will embed it into the SDI signal if you choose. You can also pull audio from the device on RCA jacks (which would make it the world’s most expensive 3.5mm to dual RCA adapter if that’s all you used it for). 

There are two models in the Convert DVI line; the Plus and the, well, not Plus. The Plus adds region of interest support, meaning you can select a portion of your screen and send just that section to your video system. That could be handy if you have, say a 23” Cinema display running at 2540×1400 and you just want to output a YouTube window. 

The downside is, right now, you can’t do that in the Mac driver. They plan on adding full feature parity to the Windows driver soon, but be aware if you want to do region of interest, you must use a PC. There’s a good chance this will change by year’s end.

The Plus will set you back another $500, something I’m not sure I’d pay for. The way I would use this would be to take the DVI output from my Mac Pro, converting it into HD-SDI for use in a video switcher. At that point, I’m going to send a 1280×720 DVI output, and want the whole screen. I really would just want it converted to a SDI signal. 

Another good use of this product would be to convert your DVI signal to SDI for sending straight to a projector. Trying to run DVI over about 15’ is sketchy at best, and most of the time, our projectors are farther away. SDI is easy to run, and relatively cheap to cable, so this would be a great intermediate piece of gear to make that work.

If there was any latency in the device, it was imperceptible. They include genlock support, with timing functions so you can really dial it in to your system.

I wasn’t able to compare this to a Blackmagic or AJA HDMI to SDI converter (both run about $500, or half the cost of a Convert DVI) to see how image quality differs between the two methods. However, I can tell you the Convert DVI looked really good. The fact that it will scale multiple input resolutions to standard video outputs, giving you both analog and digital video out could be exactly what you need for your system. At $995, or $1495 for the Plus, it’s not cheap. However, I remember paying $2500 for a SD scan converter 10 years ago that didn’t look nearly as good. So it’s all relative.

With the addition of the Mac drivers I can now recommend this product. It’s not the only thing out there that does what it does, but it’s certainly worth a look. 

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Remix: The Rule

I was perusing through my old posts the other day, because it’s always fun to see what I was thinking about 3 years ago (one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place—it’s a journal of sorts). When I came across this post, I thought it still has plenty of merit. And since many of the people who read this blog today weren’t reading when it originally aired, many may have missed it. So please enjoy, The Rule.

'Arcade Rules' photo (c) 2006, David Goehring - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

You’ve probably had this happen. Rehearsal and run through went smoothly, all systems appear to be go. Then, just before the service starts, something appears wonky. You see signal present LEDs lighting up on channels that shouldn’t be. There isn’t signal where the should be. The presentation computer doesn’t seem to be acting right. The lights don’t respond. What’s happening? Sometimes, it’s just equipment failure. In that case, you can troubleshoot as quickly as you can, fix it or switch to plan B. Other times, it’s a symptom of “What’s this button do?” syndrome.  Let me explain.

We techies tend to be a naturally curious lot. That’s what makes us good at what we do. On the other hand, sometimes that curiosity gets us in trouble. Remember Curious George? We can be like that. I was thinking of this a few weeks ago. We started producing our videos with dialog on one channel and music and effects (M/E) on the other. Simple enough. That way we can better control the mix in the sanctuary, where it can be hard to hear dialog.

Normally, we run our video’s audio feed into a stereo input on the M7. This works fine until you want to adjust the relative balance between the two input channels. There’s no way to do it. So, we patched it up to channels 40 & 41. No problem. Works great. Then between run through and doors open, our engineer decided it would be more convenient (and less of a reach) to patch it down to 38 & 39. Makes sense, we’re not using those for anything, and they’re a little closer to where he stands. The problem was gain. Those channels had been used for mics previously, so the gain was turned way up. When we routed a +4 line level signal into them, we had huge amounts of noise. Fortunately, he noticed it, and called me on the com before we ran any video.

Doors hadn’t opened yet, so we did some quick troubleshooting. I checked the audio interface, it was good. I checked the switcher, all clear. I re-booted the computer (you never know…). No change. Finally, I looked at Studio Manager running on my laptop in the tech booth. I saw the gain knob set to 3 O’Clock. “Well there’s your problem,” I said. He dialed the gain back, everything was fine.

Thankfully, he caught it and we were able to fix it before the opening video ran. If we hadn’t, we may have had speaker components leaving their home and coming to rest in someone’s lap.

I’ve been guilty of things like this in the past, too. During the sermon, I occasionally get bored and start thinking, “Hmm, how would it work if we did…” That can be dangerous. On more than on occasion, I’ve had to say to the entire congregation, “That was me…” It can happen with the presentation computer, the light board, sound, whatever. If it has knobs and switches, it’s easy to fiddle. And when we fiddle, bad things can happen. That is, unless we follow The Rule.

The Rule

Don’t change things once rehearsal/run-through is over. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, and exactly what the outcome will be, without question, leave it alone. And even then, you’re taking a risk.You can try it between services if you have time to test, but in general, once doors open, we’re done. That means no re-patching, no clicking on new icons in ProPresenter (those things just seem to show up every time there’s an update!), no checking to see what this button does on the light board.

Once you know everything is working, leave it alone! I say this to my team, and I say this to myself. There are so many things that can go wrong when you start changing things, it’s just not worth it. What I try to do now is write down the experiments I want to try and play with it during the week. I’ve been using a program called Evernote for that purpose. I run it on my iPod Touch, my MacBook Pro and my Mac Pro. It keeps my notes in sync, so I can always remember what I was thinking of doing on Sunday.

You can also try a few things during rehearsal; just be aware that if you mess something up, you could be wasting a lot of people’s time while you recover. So use that freedom judiciously. Follow The Rule and you’ll look smarter and more capable to the people around you. Experiment during the week and bring your learnings out on the weekend, and you’ll look smarter still!

This post is brought to you by Horizon Battery, distributor of Ansmann rechargeable batteries and battery chargers used worldwide by Cirque du Soleil and over 25,000 schools, churches, theaters, broadcast companies & businesses. To learn more about their wireless mic batteries and battery chargers – and a FREE rechargeable evaluation, visit their website. Tested and recommended by leading wireless mic manufacturers and tech directors. 

Thunderbolt Strikes!

Earlier this year, Apple started releasing laptops equipped with Thunderbolt connectors. Developed in conjunction with Intel, Thunderbolt is a pretty amazing interface. Standard Thunderbolt ports can carry two 10 Gbps bidirectional data channels and two channels of DisplayPort. Intel has recently announced a few new controllers that will vary the number of data and DisplayPort channels for different applications. 

Like many new interfaces, it’s all pretty ho-hum until peripherals start showing up. Right now, about all that’s available is a RAID box from Promise Technology and the new 27” Thunderbolt Display from Apple. That display is pretty impressive by itself (it includes FireWire 800, Ethernet and USB on the back), but it’s just the beginning of what’s coming. 

Last week at the Intel Developer Forum, some new products that will be very applicable to what we do were announced, and I think the future looks pretty bright. 

First up, we see AJA is announcing the Io XT. The Io XT can do hardware-based up, down and cross-conversion, includes 3G SDI I/O, HDMI I/O and SD & HD component output. With two Thunderbolt ports, it doesn’t have to be at the end of the chain. Best of all, it’s priced at $1495.  

Blackmagic has already announced the Intensity Extreme ($299), which appears to essentially be a Thunderbolt version of the existing Intensity Pro. It will input and output HDMI and analog video and is Thunderbolt bus powered. Pretty slick. 

The new UltraStudio 3D can capture two streams at once for 3D (though if you ask me, 3D is dead already, but that’s another post). With dual-link SDI in and out, HDMI 1.4a in and out plus a breakout cable for analog I/O, it will capture pretty much anything you might need. Oh, and the price is $995. Not bad.

One of the main reasons Apple need to keep the MacPro around is for PCIe cards. Even though the 27” Core i7 is the fastest Mac made today, the inability to add PCIe cards, primarily for video capture or SAS or FiberChannel, is a big drawback. But there are a few offerings ready to change that. 

The Echo Express PCIe 2.0 Expansion Chassis will be available in two versions; one to hold a full-length card, another for half-length. While it only holds one card, most of the time, that’s all we need. Drop your PCIe card in the chassis and hook it up via Thunderbolt and you can use the card. Cool. No pricing yet.

Now, if you need more than one card, check out the Magma ExpressBox 3T. Magma has been making expansion chassis for a long time, and the 3T will hold, you guessed it, 3 cards. It even comes with a travel bag. Again, there has been no pricing announced yet, but I love the fact that you could hook this up to an iMac or Mini and be able to do pretty much whatever I would want to on a Mac Pro. 

Now, I don’t know for sure this is coming, but I would have to think that RME is also working on a Thunderbolt version of the MADIFace line. Another product that has been announced is the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock. The Thunderbolt Express Dock comes equipped with three USB ports, a FireWire 800 port, and a Thunderbolt port. I have a feeling that Apple is going to be dropping FireWire in the next rev of the Mac line, but many of us still have FireWire devices we’ll need to use for a bit. This will be a great way to make that happen.

Personally, I’m pretty excited about this whole Thunderbolt thing. 

One thing I learned a few weeks ago is the reason why we’ve not seen more Thunderbolt products released yet. The issue is that Intel has not released the chipset to more than a handful of primary partners. In fact, the guys at ProMax told me that they won’t likely get actual chipsets before the first quarter of next year. They figure they’ll have to buy a few of whatever hits the market first, take it apart and use the chipset in development of their products even before they have wholesale access to them. 

So the bad news is that it’s still going to be six months to a year before we really have a bunch of Thunderbolt devices to connect to. But the good news is that once we get there, it’s going to be pretty amazing.

What are you looking forward to with a Thunderbolt interface?

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