It’s call-in week! Our guest plans didn’t work out, so we opened it up to you, the listeners (well at least 2 of you…). We ended up in a great discussion about budgets, leading up, the CL5 & Lincoln Brewster’s tour and a lot more.
Two weeks from today is Christmas Eve. For the average church tech—volunteer or paid—that means a lot of long days ahead. Whether you’re doing a major production or a lot of services, there is no shortage of work to do.
I’ve been doing church Christmas services for nearly 20 years, and to be honest, I feel like I’m just now getting the hang of it.
For most of those years, I worked way too hard and way too long. I didn’t take the time to actually enjoy the season, or spend enough time with my family and friends.
This year (actually, it started last year) I decided I was going to change that. Sure there is still a lot of work to do; but I’m learning that God is far more concerned about the condition of my heart on Christmas Eve than He is about how much I accomplished.
I wrote an email to myself last year after the Christmas season using FutureMe.org. I scheduled it to be delivered the day after Thanksgiving, and it was a good reminder of why I am not going to kill myself this year. Last year, I was exhausted and spent the first four days after Christmas on the couch. I was pretty close to being ready to quit apparently; and I’d rather not repeat that again.
So this year, I started on Christmas production a lot earlier than usual. In fact, I already have my show file done for the audio console. And by the end of this week, I’ll have ProPresenter basically done.
My hope is that by spreading the work out a little more, I’ll be able to work a little less and enjoy the season a little more. My advice to you is to slow down, enjoy the season and let a few things go undone. The reality is that you and I obsess over details that almost no one notices, and leaving them alone won’t impact the service noticeably. If we want to be doing this for the long term, we have to pace ourselves. This is difficult for us hard-working technical types, but we have to try.
Simplify what you can, pre-build as much as possible and maybe even say “No” once or twice. Don’t allow business to obscure the significance of the Son of God coming to earth. Join me in trying to enjoy Christmas this year.
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Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) sounds like a highly abstract concept. But it’s really not. It’s also something that churches—sadly—tend to miss out on. TCO is simply a calculation of what a particular product or service is going to cost you during it’s life. TCO has become popular in automotive circles, with some manufacturers boasting about the fact that while their car might cost a little more to buy, it will cost less to own. At least in theory.
Missing TCO Calcuations
TCO can be missed in several ways. Sometimes, a church will buy a particular piece of gear—sometimes a very expensive piece—that will dig into their cash reserves pretty significantly. Projectors are a great example of this. A really bright, say 15K, projector can cost well over $20,000-50,000. That’s a lot of money. However, it will also cost somewhere between $2,000 and $6,000 to re-lamp it. And at that brightness level, re-lamping is going to happen every 500-800 hours of use, which is right around a year (at least for us).
So not only did you spend, let’s call it $30K, on a projector, you can figure on another $20K in lamps over the next 5-7 years of life. And we haven’t even talked about filter replacements, electricity costs or service. Costs on this imaginary projector (that’s not that imaginary) will easily exceed $60K over the life of the unit. Did anyone think about that or did the initial purchase price double as a complete surprise?
Other times, a church will buy the cheapest piece of gear they can find, thinking they are saving money. However, what they find out is that the consumeables cost of that gear is far more expensive than a slightly more expensive piece of gear. Ink jet printers are a classic example here. But I’ve also seen churches replace older, heavy duty color laser printers with newer “cheaper” ones because the toner cartridges are 1/2 the cost of the old ones. What no one noticed was that the new cartridges last about 1/8 as many pages, which about quadruples the per page costs and aggravates the users who find the printers always out of toner.
Do Your Homework
Sometimes, it’s hard to choose between two seemingly comparable pieces of equipment. What you need to look at, besides initial cost, is total operating costs. I’ve compared projectors based on bulb and filter life plus electricity and found brand A to be almost 50% less expensive over a 5 year period than brand B. And these are projectors who’s output and picture quality are close enough to being called “the same.”
Rechargeable batteries are another great example. Yes it might cost you a few hundred dollars to get into the game once you figure chargers and the initial stock of batteries. But from that point on, your annual battery costs drop to under $100 to handle replacements. For us, we went from spending over $1500/year to about $200; and the only reason I spend that much is because we now have 5 rooms using rechargeable cells, and the ones in the student rooms go missing more regularly.
It’s Real Stewardship
If you want to win friends and influence people, especially your senior leadership, continually present them with plans that demonstrate you know how to make purchases that represent an excellent value over time. Showing them that you’ve done TCO calculations, and have chosen equipment with that in mind will show them you’re serious about leading your department well.
Of course, TCO doesn’t tell the whole story; it’s just one data point. But it’s an important one. You still have to consider usability, whether the product fits your needs and if the volunteers can use it. Still, TCO can often be the tipping point between brand A and brand B. Choosing the one with the lower overall lifetime cost will pay off in more ways that one. Trust me.
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After sorting our input lists, stage cabling and custom boxes, the next step to optimizing our stage is not really on the stage at all. For me, the final phase is getting an optimized baseline show file for each position. In this post, we’ll be discussing audio files (in the digital world), but much of the concepts apply to lighting, presentation and video as well.
The Baseline Show File
When I refer to a baseline show file, I mean the starting file that we call up each week to use as a starting point. Depending on your console, this could also be a starting scene or memory location. It is important to preserve the baseline file, so the first thing we do once we load it up is to re-save as a different file name (we name ours the date of that Sunday). We also keep our baselines in two different folders in Dropbox, one which auto-syncs to the attached computer, and one that does not. I may talk more about this process in another post.
What to Baseline?
There are some basic things you’re going to want to include in the baseline no matter what your situation is. Output patching, matrix mixes that feed other rooms, basic input patching and channel names, starting grouping and VCA assignments and the like are all great places to start a baseline. Once you have those things in place, you have a decision to make; do you start with a “zeroed” board or “dialed” board? Each has it’s pros and cons, and which you choose will depend on your situation. Here are some thoughts.
The concept of zeroing the board goes back to analog days. Back then (or yesterday if you’re mixing on an analog console still), you would reset the gain, EQ and aux settings to “zero” each weekend and start the mix from there. A digital version of that baseline is easy to do.
Your baseline show could be zeroed out with your gains at their lowest setting, EQ’s all flat, and Aux sends all off. In a zeroed baseline, you would probably not have any snapshots (except perhaps an “all off” with all inputs and outputs down—a trick I learned from my friend Dave). This is a great way to go if your band configuration changes regularly or you have a variety of operators who like to do things their way.
To be sure, there are some good things about this strategy. It doesn’t let anyone get lazy with their setup because it has to be re-built each week. You’re always starting fresh, and that can be really healthy. It does take a little more time each weekend during soundcheck, however. You’ll have to build your gain structure, EQ and aux mixes for the whole band from scratch, and that takes time.
If you have the time, I think it’s a great way to go. But it’s only one way to go. Personally, I prefer the next method, which is what we do.
I call this the “dialed” baseline because we have so much of it preset. Typically, my gain settings are within 3-4 dB of final, I have basic EQ, dynamics and even monitor mixes pre-built based on the last few hundred services I’ve mixed. If time were really a major factor, we could probably call up the baseline and mix the show live and it would be fine—it’s that close. I even have presets for various players and vocalists in my library that I can call up to get me even closer based on the band configuration that week.
None of this means I’m locked into anything, and we can and do change stuff, sometimes quite a bit. But the baseline we use gets me really close right out of the gate. For us, this is important because we have 2 1/2 hours on Saturday to practice and rehearse the service before we kick off the weekend services. Anything we can do to help the process go faster is a big deal. That’s how this whole series came about in the first place.
Like everything else in live production, everything has trade-offs. Yes, I could probably stay a little fresher from a mixing perspective if I started from zero each week; but for me, getting the band up and running in 15-20 minutes is a bigger value as it gives them more time to practice. A more comfortable band means they can give me better source material, which makes my job easier.
We version our baselines like we would software—really, that’s what it is. As of this writing, we’re on version 8.8; that shows you how many tweaks we make. Each version gets us closer to the ideal starting point, and occasionally introduces a few “bugs.” These are corrected with additional point version updates.
Depending on your mixing platform, you may have to come up with different ways to version your baselines. On the Yamaha platform, for example, you may have starting configurations stored in Studio Manager, and use the computer to store your versions. Just push the latest one over to the desk.
Develop a Plan for Your Setting
However you do it, the plan should work for you. Just because I have a fully dialed baseline doesn’t mean that’s the right thing for you. Consider your needs, your band and your operators. I’ve made the choice that I’d rather let the computer do most of the heavy lifting set up for me, which frees me up for other things. But that may not be the best option for your church.
Whatever you do, come up with a plan to back up your baselines. There’s nothing worse than coming in on a Saturday afternoon to discover that someone has overwritten your baseline with a whole bunch of changes. Keeping a spare on a thumb drive in your office is not a bad idea—as long as you keep it current. Dropbox is also a wonderful solution.
Like everything else in the Optimized Stage series, this takes some time. It doesn’t happen over night; I’ve been at Coast Hills for 3 1/2 years and I’m still working on this process. However, every time we implement another step in the process, our weekend set up goes more smoothly and the services happen with less stress on everyone, so I think it’s worth it. Start with a plan, and work the plan; you’ll get there eventually!
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We start out talking about where a young tech can go for an education that will prepare him for technical ministry, and end up in a discussion of how to know if you’re called in the first place. What a journey!
So far, we’ve talked about using input sheets to simplify life, and drawing from those input sheets to come up with custom cables and snakes that make set up go faster. Sometimes you have a bunch of gear that needs to be placed on and removed from the stage every week. In those cases, I like to put it in a rack, box or other enclosure to make it go faster.
Don’t let the word “custom” scare you off; these don’t have to be expensive or elaborate boxes. In fact, the most expensive box on this page was our drum box, and that cost us $30 in materials plus a few hours labor. The other racks we had lying around (and even if we bought them new, neither would be more than $200). When I say custom, what I really mean is that you’ve considered the needs, and tied it all together in a way that makes sense for you. Nothing that I’m showing you here is prescriptive; they are systems we’ve built to address needs we have. Your needs will be different, so act accordingly. Consider these ideas.
The Piano Rig
Up until a few months ago, we used a Muse Receptor II running Ivory II for our digital piano. We have a Yamaha C7 baby grand on stage, and the C7 comes with a built-in MIDI controller. The piano plays and looks like a real piano, because it is. Going digital has made it sound better overall because we never have anything else in the piano “mic’s” because there are no mic’s—it’s all digital, all the time.
Ivory II sounds great, and with some tweaking, our players have come to enjoy playing on it. At least they did until the Receptor stopped booting. I decided to replace it with a tricked out Mac Mini. I bought the $599 version, a 2.3 GHz Core i5, then loaded it up with a 240 GB 6G SSD from OWC, and 8 Gigs of RAM. It now boots from off into Ivory in 21 seconds. Not bad.
For output, we use a Focusrite Saffire 24. As you can see, we have plenty of room in this rack. I’m using a 6-space rack because, well, that’s what we had lying around. Someday, I may order a 4-space and save some room. At the back of the rack, I’ve Velcroed a Radial ProD2 DI. Short 1/4” cables run from the Saffire to the DI, and we wired the output of the DI to the front for easy access.
The Mac is strapped to a rack shelf with a series of crossed zip ties. I was going to use Velcro, but I didn’t want to muck up the bottom of the Mac. Some companies make special racks for Minis, but I don’t mind this (and I’m kinda cheap). I used Velcro to mount the Saffire, however.
Below is our I/O panel. From the left, we have stereo line out, a set of combo jacks that come off the through ports on the DI, MIDI in and USB. We don’t normally need the USB, but once in a while we do have to do some maintenance on the Mac, so it’s easier to plug a keyboard and mouse in. We have a VGA cable out back for the monitor.
The Mac is set to turn on after power loss, so when we turn on the power to the rack, it simply boots up into Ivory Standalone. We shut it down using a VNC client. The whole thing weighs under 10 pounds, so it’s easy to carry out to stage, and lock back up after the weekend is over.
The IEM Rack
On the other side of the stage, we use this vertical rack on wheels for our IEMs. A PSM1000 and PSM900 are mounted herein (well, the 900 is out right now, sorting out an antenna issue), along with the S-4000D M-48 distro, and our input panel.
If you remember our M-48 snakes I talked about last time, this is where they end up. The Ethercon plugs into the S-4000D, while the XLRs plug into the appropriate jacks on the input panel. The input panel simply routes down to the inputs of the PSMs. We also have a PowerCon In connector on the rack to make it easy to plug and unplug the whole system. We used to roll it on and off every week, but decided to leave it out. The PowerCon Out powers our drum box (see below).
There’s nothing fancy here; it’s pretty utilitarian. At some point, we’re going to need to expand this as we will be adding more PSMs. When we do, I’ll probably just build a new one. I like the vertical orientation, as it is very easy to see everything when standing. However, it’s a bit of a mess, cabling-wise, so the new version will likely be horizontal with better cable management.
And that’s what’s fun about custom rigs like this; I put this together out of found parts to fill a need. After we’ve used it for a while, the need becomes clearer and we’ll build v.2 to be even more of what we like.
The Drum Box
Someday we’ll come up with a better name for this, but for now, it’s The Drum Box. The box is simply that; a box. We used to have this weird, ugly step-turned-sideways thing that supported the M-48, with a short stool next to it for the MacBook Pro we use for tracks and the click. I hated it, and decided to fix it.
This is a v.2 product, so it’s designed to do exactly what we needed of it. The M-48 is mounted on a slide-out shelf for two reasons. First, it slides out for easy access by the musician; second, it slides in so we can lock it up. The top is sized to accommodate a 13-17” MacBook Pro, plus our Yamaha metronome. We drilled holes for MagSafe power and FireWire on the side, plus a right angle 1/4” and power on the top for the click.
Below the M-48 is another Focusrite Saffire interface, and below that are two more Radial ProD2s. One D2 is for L&R tracks, the other is used for the clicks (track and metronome). We have both 4-channel and 6-channel Saffire’s available, so if we ever want to do more than a stereo click, we have room to add DIs.
It’s all pre-wired and power comes from the IEM rack. The light-colored groove you see around the front accepts a slide-in cover, that locks in place for security.
The box also makes a nice place to hold spare felts and other drum hardware, a drum key and the occasional iPhone. We will probably add a cup-holder to the other side at some point. And, as you can see, we also have a com unit there for communication with FOH.
None of these units are particularly fancy, but each one saves us a lot of time each week. We used to spend several minutes dragging out DIs, interfaces and the M-48 for the drum riser. Now, we open the box, set the laptop on top, bring out the click and we’re done. The Ivory rig takes 30 seconds to cable and power up, and the IEM rack just is.
Individually, these aren’t deal-makers; but combined with the other steps in our process, they help make an efficient set up go even quicker. Next time, we’ll cover the final installment, baseline show files.