While Mike replaces his water heater, Van & the guys talk about choosing system upgrade components. It’s a great conversation on how to properly choose new equipment.
While Mike replaces his water heater, Van & the guys talk about choosing system upgrade components. It’s a great conversation on how to properly choose new equipment.
At 10 AM PST today, Roland Systems Group will announce a brand-new audio console. Watch the announcement live at LiveStream (click below).
Note, the webcast may show a password protection box. That should go away as we get closer to the actual webcast time.
In the last two posts, we’ve considered two of the characteristics of great technical artists; Situational Awareness and People Skills. Today, we’ll cover another trait that I’m finding sadly lacking in many of the younger techs I encounter (if I’m being honest, and it’s my column, so I can be).
Characteristic Three: Troubleshooting Skills
It seems fairly obvious but apparently it’s not; technical artists work with some pretty complex equipment and systems. Sometimes (and sometimes too often), things go wrong. Cables are unplugged, or plugged in the wrong spot. The wrong file gets loaded, a patch is changed in a console, or a piece of hardware fails outright. If you do this for any length of time, you will run into situations that require troubleshooting.
I’ve written an entire post dedicated to developing troubleshooting skills, and I’m not going into that much detail here. However, it is imperative that you learn how to figure out what to do when something goes wrong. Because something will go wrong. Not if, but when.
It should be noted that becoming a great troubleshooter takes time. A lot of time. One of the reasons I’m so good at it is because I’ve been doing it for a long time (almost 30 years). That big chunk of time gives me a huge database of troubleshooting situations I’ve been in that I can cross-reference against any new trouble I have.
My troubleshooting career spans many disciplines as well; I can usually come up with a solution to just about anything because I’m not at all afraid to taking things apart when they break. But I said I wasn’t going to go into how to troubleshoot. Really I want to talk about why.
If you are a technical artist, you are in that role to make technical equipment work. Your senior pastor probably has no idea how to get sound of your digital console. It’s unlikely that your worship leader can program your lighting board. And let’s be honest, they shouldn’t need to know that—that’s why you have a job (whether you get paid for it or not is inconsequential).
Your job is to make that stuff work. Your leadership needs someone in that role who can “figure it out.” Yes, we all know things break, but the true test of a technical artist is how they pull the service off even when something is broken. Thankfully, for most of us, full-blown hardware failures are rare. Most of the time, the problem is fixable, and great techs can get things fixed quickly and get everyone back in operation with minimal downtime.
This trait is especially important if you are a leader of a technical team. Standing in the booth with your hands in the air while your team looks on does not inspire confidence. Figure it out! Start at one end of the chain and figure out where it’s broken. Get something working. Don’t give up. Developing troubleshooting skills takes time. But like investing for retirement, the earlier you get started, the more you have to work with as life goes on.
A great technical artist knows how to troubleshoot their system and get things back up and running quickly when things go awry. Combined with Situational Awareness and People Skills, and we have the makings of a top tech. Next time, we’ll look at a trait that often get overlooked, musical ability (or at least a passion for music).
Last time, we talked about the first characteristic common to the great technical artists I know—Situational Awareness. Today, we’ll tackle a trait that is too often lacking with techs.
Characteristic Two: People Skills
Now, I know that many of you technical artists out there are introverts and don’t consider yourselves, “people people.” I get that. I’m an introvert as well. But one thing I’ve observed is that the most successful technicians are also pretty good with people. I know that it doesn’t always come naturally, and we have to work at this (I do, anyway). But work at it we must, because it really makes a huge difference.
We’ve all seen the classic “grumpy tech” who constantly complains, never comes out of the booth to talk to the musicians (except to grudgingly change a setup item), and generally gives the band or pastoral staff a hard time about, well, everything. I don’t care how good you are at mixing, programming lights or directing video, if you can’t get along with people, you will never become a great technical artist.
We see this even outside the church; quite often the most successful (from a career standpoint) FOH and monitor engineers are not necessarily the most talented technically. However, they are committed to the artist 100% and they will do whatever it takes to make the artist comfortable.
Being pleasant to work with, and starting with “Yes” will get you much further than being the guy who always says “No” first. Years ago, during one of the webinars I did with Jason Cole and Dave Stagl, Dave made this statement (and I’m quoting from memory here), “You know, so many musicians are used to being treated like crap by techs, so they tend to come in on the defensive. Treat them like a human being, get them a bottle of water or help them set up and see how much better they respond.”
If you are a normally quiet and reserved person, I don’t expect you to suddenly become an outgoing, smiling, back-slapping, life-of-the-party type. However, it won’t kill you to walk down to the stage when the musicians arrive, greet them with a smile, handshake and a friendly hello.
And when someone asks you to do something, answering with a “Yeah, I think we can do that,” will get you a lot further than, “Well we could have done that if you had told me about it Wednesday.” Even if you can’t do it, figure out a way to answer with a no, but in a positive light. Perhaps, “Aw man, I wish we could do that, but we’re not really set up for it. I can work on it next week, and we could do it next weekend, though!” See the difference?
I would take 10 technical artists with above average people skills and average tech chops over 10 people with the opposite mix. Which one are you? (Of course, I would rather have 10 people who are above average in both people and technical skills…)
A great technical artist can relate to people, making them feel valuable and good about the service. When combined with Situational Awareness, we’re really starting to get somewhere. Next time, we’ll consider another characteristic—Troubleshooting Skills.
I’ve been having quite a few discussions of late as to what separates great technical artists from, well, less great ones. More specifically, the discussions have focused on the reasons it’s hard to train people to be great tech artists, and why it takes so long. You see, it’s not enough to simply know how to use the gear. In most cases, that’s the easy part. No, the real challenge is to know how to use the equipment in context and create a moment that would otherwise not be there.
Laying in bed the other night, I was thinking about this and six characteristics came to mind that seem to be present in the best technical artists I know. This is not likely the definitive list; however, I do think anyone who aspires to be a great tech would do well to develop these characteristics in increasing quantity. This is going to be a series, and I’m going to attempt to present not only the characteristic and it’s description, but some examples as well. These are not necessarily in order; indeed I’m not sure there is an order, as I think all are necessary, at least in some degree.
Characteristic One: Situational Awareness
I would define situational awareness as simply being aware of one’s surroundings, constantly taking note of what is happening in the room, what the other disciplines are doing, and of the general mood and feel of the people in the room.
I learned of this phrase years ago when doing some self-defense training. In that context, having high situational awareness would keep you from being mugged, for example. Paying attention to those around you—do any of them look out of place, shifty or potentially dangerous—and taking note of potential escape routes. I used to spend more time in a downtown area, and would always be on high alert, continually scanning my surroundings for potential danger.
Maintaining a high situational awareness in a production environment is a paramount skill. I know many technicians who are decent mixers, but often fail to miss subtle (or even obvious) cues that something needs to change—such as a pastor coming up to pray at the end of a shortened music segment.
It’s easy to get lost in our own little world when we’re mixing, running lights, presentation or directing video. After all, we have these really bright screens, knobs and buttons blinking and glowing in our face. But failing to look up and pay attention to what’s actually happening in the room is the downfall of many a technical artist.
When I’m mixing FOH, I try to keep my eyes up on the stage area as much as possible. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen very carefully to what’s happening in the room, and can almost always say, “Will you pray with me?” at the same time the pastor does at the end of his message (even if I’m working on an e-mail at the time).
We always have to be aware of where people are (are they walking out of the light?), who is speaking/singing (is someone else coming up to pray using a mic other than the one we put in the snapshot?), or what verse we are on (did the worship leader loop back to repeat verse 2, when we thought he was going to the end?). How is the audience responding? Do you need to raise or lower the volume or the lights?
Even during the times when you think you have nothing to do (the sermon for example), don’t check out completely. Be aware of where you pastor is both physically and in his message. Pay attention to the volume; is he too loud or too soft? Is he walking out from behind the pulpit into the congregation creating a potential for feedback? Don’t get lost on those things. Pay attention to your surroundings.
A great technical artist knows what is going on around him or her, and pays attention to what everyone else is doing as well—Situational Awareness.
Next time, we’ll cover every tech’s favorite—People Skills.
How do you build teams that can produce a weekend when you’re not there? How do you build teams at all? As technical leaders, this is one of the most critical things we have to do, and we talk about it in this episode.
A few weeks ago, Tim Cool from Visioneering posted a thought-provoking post of the same name. It’s very good, and I suggest you go read the whole thing. He asks several questions related to staffing, building and designing. As I thought about what he wrote, one particular question resonated with me:
What will it cost to have the wrong audio and acoustics in your worship center? Again, this is not just the cost to fix the issue, but the frustration quotient and emotional capital. What are they worth?
This is one of the things I see churches missing regularly. How many churches have to build multi-million dollar buildings that sound terrible because they didn’t want to spend $20,000 on an acoustician? How many churches have to install hundreds of thousands of AVL gear that doesn’t work properly because they didn’t want to spend any money on design?
As someone who’s mission in life seems to be helping churches undo the bad tech decisions they’ve made (I’m sort of like a Mike Holmes of the church world), I can tell you the cost of getting it wrong is pretty high. In my current church, for example, I’ve spent the last three years pulling out tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that wasn’t thought through, and thus didn’t work. And of course, in addition to shelving all that old gear, we’ve had to spend money to buy new stuff.
It’s easy to see how churches fall into this trap. Most times, senior leadership has no idea how any of that AVL technology works, so they rely on either their staff—if they have them—or well-meaning volunteers when they have needs in the tech department. One of three things usually happen at this point.
First Possibility: The staff or volunteers don’t know what they’re doing and ask for the budget to hire someone who does. Money is tight, so that request is denied, with the comment, “Just find a good deal and make it work.”
Second Possibility: The staff or volunteers don’t know what they are doing but don’t want anyone to know that, so they just try to figure it out. With the knowledge that money is tight, they look for a great deal and try to make it work.
Third Possibility: The staff or volunteers don’t know what they’re doing and ask for the budget to hire someone who does. That request is approved, a knowledgable consultant or integrator is brought in, and a well-designed system is implemented correctly. Sadly, this seems rare.
I supposed there is a fourth possibility: The staff members or volunteers actually know what they are doing and put together a great system. That does happen, though it’s mostly in larger churches with highly qualified technical staff. But as more churches are jettisoning their tech staff, this will happen less and less.
In the first two scenarios, you can guess that the results are not going to be good. Those are the “systems” (and I use that term loosely) that I end up tearing out. Those systems are very expensive because they are paid for twice; once for the first attempt, and once again for the proper fix. Of course that assumes it only gets “fixed” once.
We Have To Fix This
Look, the resistance churches have to paying for good design has to end. We’ve all seen it, and we all know it’s a big problem. There is no savings to paying for something twice. It’s just math; and while I don’t expect senior leadership of the average church to be math wizards, it should be pretty easy to explain that 2x is more than 1x.
This also means we as technical artists—both paid and volunteer—have to take the lead here. I’m not saying you need to bring in a specialist every time you want to buy a vocal mic; but if you’re looking to install an IMAG system, know your limits. If you haven’t designed a well-functioning system or three, bring in someone who has. We have to stop just connecting a bunch of equipment together, hoping it will work.
For us in the technical world, this means holding our ground when we say we need design help. We simply must be willing to say, “I don’t know enough about this to be confident in designing a system. I need to bring in some help.” And we must hold to that position even when they say no. If you don’t think you can properly do the project, don’t do the project. Stop wasting your churches money.
Those in senior leadership have to get over wanting everything for free. Because guess, what, it’s not free. When you try to pinch every penny in the design process, you cost yourself and your church thousands, tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t be that leader. Get it done right, not cheap. Believe me, it actually will be less expensive in the long run.
Last time we talked about what we wanted to accomplish with our podcasts; limited dynamic range, minimum file size and maximum quality. Today, we’ll talk about how we get there. Like most things, it’s a multi-step process to achieve the best results. But before we have anything to edit, compress or publish on the interwebs, we must first record something.
Record as Close to the Source as Possible
If you are working with a digital console and are using a virtual soundcheck system, you are already in great shape for recording the message. That’s how we do it at Coast Hills, using our RME MADIFace to run the audio directly after the A/D conversion into the MacBook Pro and on into Reaper. As I wrote recently in Automating Reaper (Again), I record a 2-track board mix of all three services, and a discreet track for our pastor on both Sunday AM services. I use the discreet track for the podcast; the 2-track is backup only.
Since we’re recording speech (for this purpose anyway), I don’t worry about getting to 192 KHz or anything crazy. 48 or 44.1 KHz at 16-24 bits is just fine. Our system runs at 48 KHz, 24 bits, so that’s what we record as a series of WAV files. WAV’s are uncompressed, so the quality is quite good (AIFF files would also be a good choice). You want to record uncompressed if at all possible.
If you are using an analog system, don’t fret. Use the direct outs—or in a pinch, the output of the insert jacks—to come directly out of the pastor’s mic channel to your recorder. You really want to pick off the output before EQ, compression, or other processing. The reason for this is that most times, you are making EQ and compression adjustments on your console for the room—which is where most people are listening. However, those same settings may not work for the recording, and there are advantages to making some EQ and compression choices specifically for the podcast.
You can record to a CD (we do an archive CD of our 9 AM service each week for backup), but I really prefer to record straight to the computer since we’ll be editing and processing the file there anyway. Even an inexpensive USB interface like a Lexicon Alpha (about $65) will get you great sounding direct recording. Combine that with a laptop, Mac Mini or inexpensive PC and a copy of Reaper and you’re in business. If you’re stuck with a CD, rip it into DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software for further editing and processing.
Process for the Web
What works in the room may not work online. You will have to do some experimentation here, but I tend to high-pass our pastor fairly high (up around 130-140), and boost the upper mid’s by 1-2 dB. I’m trying to add a little bit of clarity to make it easier to listen to in loud environments. But be careful here because you can easily make it annoyingly bright.
I suggest you try some settings, encode a section of the sermon and listen to it on several platforms to see how you did. EQ settings that work in your 7506’s may not work on a cheap set of computer speakers, so check it out. And don’t forget many people will listen to the podcast with Apple’s cheap, white earbuds.
Since my pastor’s voice is recorded pre-EQ, I do some subtle changes to make him easier to listen to. Then I hit it with the compressors. Currently, I’m using R-Channel from Waves to do both EQ and compression. I will say the R-Channel compressor is one of the more transparent ones I’ve heard; I routinely have it hitting 12+ dB of gain reduction and it’s really tough to hear.
Before I had that plug in, I achieved results almost as good with a combination of ReaEQ and ReaComp—both plug-ins come with Reaper. Most DAWs have basic EQ and compressors built-in, so play with those first before you go spending money on plug-ins. However, it would be worth it to sign up for Waves mailing list; they often do super deals on individual plug-ins and you can pick up one or two that will rock pretty cheap.
Limiting for the Win
The final step is to use a mastering limiter to really clamp down the dynamic range. I was using JS: LOSER MasterLimiter (included w/ Reaper) for quite a while along with ArdazMaximzer5. The MasterLimiter allows you to set a maximum level (I went with -.01 dB) that it will allow; it’s a brick-wall limiter so nothing gets over that. It will also do some compression to keep the signal level up. The Maximizer does some other magic to raise the overall level without driving it over the limit. That combination worked really well, and sounded pretty good once we got it dialed in.
Then I picked up the WAVES L3 UltraMaximizer. And that was pretty much that. After setting a few sliders, I can pretty much crank the level like crazy and it sounds amazing. I showed this picture last time, but you can see how little variation in the waveform we have on the rendered file, indicating very little dynamic range. If this were music, I would be upset, but for a speech podcast, it’s about perfect.
Rendering to MP3
Most DAWs can render out to an MP3 file. If you have the option to use the LAME encoder (which you have to do in Audacity or Reaper), use it. It’s a great encoder that produces better-sounding MP3s at lower bitrates than most other encoders. As I said last time, I use the 48 kbps CBR setting, and render in mono. I haven’t had any problems with mono files anywhere, and given that it’s spoken word, stereo unnessisarily doubles the file size.
I got to these settings (and all the ones I didn’t tell you about) by doing a lot of experimenting. I intentionally didn’t show you all my EQ, compression and limiting settings because they don’t really matter—they are all specific for our pastor. If you spend a few hours working on a chunk of the message getting the processing settings right, then tweak your rendering settings, you’ll end up with great results. Then don’t forget to save those settings as presets so you can use them next week.
I’ve mentioned a ton of stuff in this article, but here is a recap of what I recommend for this process. If you have something else that works, by all means, keep using it. If you’re looking for a place to start, consider this list.
Audacity (Free recording/editing software; good basic and free)
Reaper (Full-featured DAW; $60 for non-profit use, incredibly powerful, still easy to use)
Lexicon Alpha (simple 2-track USB audio interface; about $65)
ArdazMaximizer5 (Free maximizing plug-in)
Waves L3 UltraMaximizer (amazing maximizing plug-in; $350, but look for it on sale)
Waves R-Channel (amazing channel strip; $175, but look for it on sale )
If you want to hear the results of this processing, you can check out the Coast HIlls media page. Listen to the MP3 files, those all have processing similar to what we’re taking about here. Keep in mind, since we have most of this stuff in presets, it takes about 5-10 minutes to edit, process, render, upload and post our podcasts. Once we did the hard work, the weekly stuff is easy.