It’s the last show of the year! We take a look back at the biggest stories and products of 2013, and make some predictions about what’s to come in the new year. Plus, a special call in from our producer, Katie. You won’t believe from where!
Several people have asked if I was going to write up our set and program from Christmas Eve. Since that’s pretty much what I do, here you go! This Christmas Eve was a lot like the past two, at least from a programming perspective. The look has been similar but different each time. In 2011, we stopped doing our big Christmas production and instead did Simply Christmas; four services on Christmas Eve. I joked at the time that I was glad we didn’t do Complicated Christmas, because from a production standpoint, it was anything but simple. But we made it work.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past
The look for that year was designed to be warm and inviting, simple and down to earth. My design principle was to put together something some kids would build if they were in a barn in the country putting on a Christmas service. We used a lot of OSB, hanging antique lights and an old piece of muslin for a screen.
Last year, we kept the hanging lights, but cleaned up the look a bit. Instead of OSB, we build luan panels and the block wall. It was still warm and inviting but a little more sophisticated.
Similar, but Different
This year, we changed it up some more. Instead of the giant, artificial Christmas tree we’ve used in the past, we build a 16’ tall one out of pallets (and a few smaller ones). Instead of hanging the bulbs, we made the CMA lights. And we repurposed some old PAR cans from a student room and created our version of the Dewey.
In past years, we’ve never been able to do much with lights, because, well, we just didn’t have that much to work with. This year, as part of our end of life equipment replacement fund, we picked up a dozen Elation Impression 90s, and another eighteen FlatPars. This gave us an incredible amount of color to work with. The past two years have been a lot more about the sets, this year, it was a lot more about the lighting.
Our older Studio Colors are now in the house and give us options there, while we kept the Martin 518 RoboScans as a cool beam light upstage.
Rentals that Almost Didn’t Happen
Due to a rare accounting glitch, we found ourselves with no budget for Christmas this year. I had planned on renting six VL2500s and three snow machines from our usual supplier, but when the price came back, we couldn’t do it. Even after they lowered it, it was still out of reach. Then I talked with a new CTA sponsor and local rental house, Pacific Coast Entertainment. They put together a package of six Elation Platinum Spot 5r Pros and three Antari snow machines at a price low enough for me to move some money around in my operating budget. So we were able to make it snow again for Christmas.
The Platinum Spots, while not nearly as bright as the VLs, were certainly good enough, and the Antari snow machines were actually much better than the ones we’ve been renting. You can see the Platinum Spots on the upstage poles, surrounded by Color Blasts.
A New, Brighter Look
With all the new lighting we have to work with, the service was much brighter than in years past. We’ve completely re-hung our front light this year, and that’s driven a lot of the new look. Of course, having two dozen moving heads on stage gave us a lot to work with as well. I have to give a lot of credit to my LD, Thomas Pendergrass. He did an amazing job not only with the lighting design, but programming as well. And of course, the rest of the team pitched in and helped make the set possible.
Overall, I was very happy with the way the service looked this year. About the only thing I didn’t like is how cluttered the stage looked. We added three musicians this year, which meant more cables, more M-48s and more mic stands—not to mention keyboards, music stands and all the cabling. It just looked cluttered to me; not sure how we’ll address that in future years, but it’s something I want to look at.
So that’s a little bit about the set. Later this week, I’ll talk about mixing it, and talk about a calculated risk I took that didn’t really pay off. In the meantime, if you want to see the service, here it is on Vimeo.
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As you read the Bible, you see one consistent theme; God desires to be with us. In Genesis, God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. In John, we see Jesus coming to earth, God with us. The book of Revelation reveals that in the new heaven and new earth, God will again walk with His people. From beginning to end, and all through the middle, we see God desiring to be with us.
What does that have to do with Church Tech? Everything! I’ve been reading a book the last few weeks that has really been messing with me. It’s called With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani. His premise is that most of us relate to God in one of four ways:
Life Over God—living as if God doesn’t exist
Life From God—living as if God is a cosmic therapist and butler
Life For God—living to accomplish great things for God
Life Under God—living under cause and effect; we obey God, He blesses us
As I read that, I identified with a combination of Life For God and Life Under God; I suspect many of you would too. The way we technical leaders are wired, we want to serve, accomplish and make God’s glory known. We also understand process, so cause and effect is a native concept to us. It’s also a popular notion in the largely Evangelical churches we typically serve in. Skye is careful to point out—and I want to do the same—that to some extent, these ideals are good.
But then he asks the questions that has really messed me up the last few weeks; What if there is more? What if God doesn’t want me to just accomplish things for Him? What if He doesn’t act like a system I built wherein if I do this, He does that? What if He just wants to be in relationship with me?
In John 14:20, Jesus said, ““In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” I love how Skye unpacks that:
“This call to dwell or abide is an ongoing state of being, not an invitation to chat once in a while.”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not close to knowing what it means to live this concept out. In fact, I’m not even going to try to unpack more than this right now because I’m still working through it.
What I do know is that I often find myself working really hard in service of the mission of God, but forgetting about the God of the mission. I know I need to reframe my thinking. I’ve said before (and I’m sure I’ll say it again) that I believe we are about to enter a pretty significant period of change in the church. The way we deal with and interact with production technology is going to change. And if our sense of self-worth is based in how much we think we’re accomplishing for God, we’re in trouble.
There is so much more in this book that will shake you up. Rather than try to explain it, just go buy it and start reading. Aligning with what God has for us could be the most significant thing we do in 2014…
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Being that it’s Christmas week, we solicited fun Christmas stories from our listening audience. And boy did we get some! We even throw in a dramatic reading of one! And somehow, we end up talking about LED lights at the end. Go figure.
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The other day we had our first rehearsal for Christmas Eve. Like many churches, Christmas Eve is a big deal for us. We tend to pull out all the stops and field a really big band and vocal team (whether or not this is actually a good idea is a topic for another post). So instead of our usual 4-5 musicians and 2-3 vocals, we had 11 musicians and 6 vocals—each with their own monitor mix. Moreover, some of the musicians were playing multiple instruments, depending on the song. So there is a lot going on. And I haven’t even mentioned the 6 readers and 3 pastors…
If you’ve been doing production in church of any length of time, you know a rehearsal of that size can quickly spiral out of control. Even a simple soundcheck can take hours if things aren’t patched right, monitor mixes aren’t coming together quickly and people aren’t prepared. To make sure that didn’t happen, we prepared. A lot.
Start preparing weeks or months ahead of time.
I’ve said this before, but I had my show file for the audio console mostly done by Nov. 1. I’ve tweaked it about six times since then to adapt to changing input needs, but it was mostly done months in advance. That allowed me time to get really comfortable with how I put it all together, where I patched things and simply mull over if what I was doing was the most efficient.
We also built all the M-48 files a week before the rehearsal. We got all our channel naming done, assigned all the patching and ran through it to make sure we weren’t missing anything. Being able to do this on a Thursday afternoon with no one else around is far more accurate and much less stressful than trying to make it happen while the band is waiting to get started.
Know the program and music as well as the band.
I ask for my tech book to have band charts in it along with lyrics. I’m not really a musician, but I can read music well enough to find my way around it. I also have a chart from our worship leader telling me who is playing what on each piece. And we have recordings of all the songs we’re playing available on Planning Center.
With that knowledge, I pre-built snapshots for all the songs. Those snapshots are really rough starting points for the mix, but more importantly, they have all my assigning done. This includes selecting alternate inputs for a different instrument for example. Or moving a vocalist from a BGV to a lead. Or turning certain channels on or off. Basically, it’s all the administrative stuff. That way, when we get to rehearsing that song, I fire off the snapshot and at the very least, the right things come on (and because of the way we’re doing monitoring, all the routing is correct). This takes several hours to set up, and I have learned over the years that it’s better to do that at a time when the band is not waiting for me to figure it out.
Check everything, then check it again.
We line check everything every week. We make double-sure everything works for a big event. Because we’re getting creative with the patching to make it all work, it’s easy to miss stuff. During our line check, we discovered the keys were patched wrong. It’s much easier and less stressful to fix when it’s just me and Jon, not the whole band. We checked the outputs, too. I wanted to make extra sure each monitor was patched right. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re making changes to Gina’s monitor, only to find out you’re actually adjusting Kelley’s because it’s labeled wrong.
Think through as much as you possibly can—ahead of time.
I spent hours staring at the console, our M-48s, the spreadsheets we build and the stage to make sure we were as prepared as we could possibly be. And it paid off in spades. Soundcheck took just over 30 minutes and the rehearsal ran as smoothly as any I’ve ever been a part of. I received multiple compliments from the band as to how well it all ran. I say this not to boast, but to give you encouragement that you can pull off an amazing rehearsal; it simply takes a bunch of work ahead of time. Do the hard work up front, and rehearsals—even for huge events—can actually be a lot of fun!
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Connecting consumer-grade equipment to a professional sound system is always a pain. It happens to all of us, though, so we had better come up with some plans on how to handle it. Sure, you can get a 1/8” to dual 1/4” cable made, and that might work OK when the laptop, iPhone or iPad is at FOH. But what about those times when a visiting speaker wants to run some audio from his laptop on stage? Or the MD decides this would be a great week to do an all iPad band? Or you just need to run a click out of a smartphone on the drum riser?
We can root around in the adapter box and come up with janky solutions that will work, but as often as not, you have problems with buzz, noise and hum. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t look professional. Enter one of the newest creations from those smart Canadians at Radial Engineering; the Stage Bug SB-5 Laptop DI. Laptop DI’s aren’t new—in fact Radial makes others, the ProAV1 and ProAV2—but this has a few features that make it unique.
First, it comes hardwired with a 5’ cable terminated with a 1/8” plug that conveniently stores wrapped up around some heavy duty cleats on the side of the device. I was glad to see the 1/8” plug was small enough to plug into my iPhone without removing the case. It has both a set of stereo, balanced TRS outputs and a summed mono balanced output on a single XLR. A −15 dB pad drops hot inputs to a manageable level, and a ground lift switch ensures you won’t have any ground loop issues.
Like all Radial units, the housing is heavy gauge steel, and it’s likely it would survive being run over by the tour bus. Inside that housing is a set of custom wound transformers that drop the impedance and balance the signal. Radial claims cable runs of up to 300’ are possible with the SB-5, something I didn’t test, but have no trouble believing. We have quite a few Radial DIs on our stage, and I’ve never had any issues with them.
I really do like the fact that the 1/8” cable is hardwired to the unit. Those things can be incredibly hard to find during a soundcheck when you’re scrambling to find a way to hook up a rogue device. And invariably, one side doesn’t work, which sends you looking for another. The fact that it’s permanently attached to the box means you’ll never be without it. I suppose the downside would be if the cable goes back, the SB-5 is dead. But Radial has a good warranty, or you could just solder on a new one.
Radial has a well-deserved reputation for high sonic quality and the SB-5 is no exception. Before doing any real listening, I hooked up my laptop to my studio Mac Mini using the SB-5. I ran the 1/4” outputs into my Focusrite Saffire interface, using the front mic inputs (the SB-5 outputs mic level, even on the TRS jacks). Using SMAART, I set the laptop to output pink noise and looked at the result on the Mini. I expected to see a reasonably flat trace with some roll off at the low and high end. What I saw was a laser-flat trace that was flat from 20 Hz to 20 KHZ. I honestly didn’t think I would see that kind of frequency response out of a headphone jack.
I switched over to some music to listen to, and was equally impressed with the sound. The Eagles Hotel California sounded as haunting as ever. The low end was very tight and the cymbals sounded just like they should.
I was going to compare the output of the laptop running directly into the interface, but decided not to. Given that the frequency response was so flat with the SB-5 in the loop, it’s clearly not doing anything adverse to the signal.
Real World Use
My daughter plays keyboard in the band at times, and likes to use her own keyboard. The challenge is that it only has a headphone jack. So I figured it would be a great test of the SB-5. I put a 1/4” to 1/8” adapter on and plugged the keyboard in using the Stage Bug. We have a grip of male TRS to XLR adapter cables, so we used those to get to mic inputs. The result was perfectly clear sound. No hum, no noise, no buzz. It’s worth having one of these for something like this alone.
At a street price of about $100, the SB-5 is certainly more expensive than a cheap 1/8” to dual 1/4” cable. But you’d never get a 100’ run out of such a cable, let alone 300’. And the ability to lift the ground might be the thing that saves the day. The SB-5 is very small, roughly a third smaller than their standard sized DIs, so it will easily fit in a backpack, workbox or hard case. This is the kind of tool that just about any traveling audio guy should have, and it’s equally useful for the church environment. In fact, even though they gave me this unit for the review, I’m going to order a few more to have around the church—I can see that many uses for it.
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We decided to take this week off from CTW as we’re all busy preparing for Christmas. However, we’re going to try to record a show this coming Sunday night. We’re hoping to round up a nice big panel to share Christmas stories. And here is where you come in.
Many of us have Christmas stories—funny ones, tragic ones, disasters and triumphs. We’d like to hear them. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll do dramatic readings of the good ones on the show. So don’t be shy!
Great stories will make a great show—send them in!
Or is it a Christmas Tree-shaped pallet?
Continuing our theme of the Christmas set, today we’ll talk Christmas trees. In past years, we’ve set up a giant, 20’ artificial tree on stage. It looks good enough, and is pre-lit, so it’s not really that hard to set up (after we finally got all 9 sections labeled properly…). But this year, we wanted something different. I had been looking through ChruchStageDesignIdeas.com and saw this set from Grace Church in Camus, WA. I liked the look of it, and it fit in with our “vintage” look that we’ve been going for. But we had a few challenges.
Where do you find pallets?
Pallets proved to be harder than we thought to acquire. My ATD Jon spent a few days calling around and we eventually spent a morning with a trailer behind his truck picking up pallets in various states of disrepair. I have to admit to being really nervous about how much would we could harvest from the pallets, thinking we wouldn’t have enough. Our big tree is 16’ tall and required over 30 courses of wood to complete. That seemed like a lot of wood, so we collected over 20 pallets (and I didn’t think it would be enough).
As it turned out, we were fine. I think we broke down about a dozen pallets and had more than enough wood to build the 16’ tree and three 8’ ones. Now we have to get rid of the extra pallets…
A good structure is needed.
I’m not really a set carpenter; I’m a residential/commercial carpenter. For that reason, it’s possible I tend to overbuild things. My dad and I used to joke that if we ever started a residential building company, we’d call it Sessler & Sons General Contracting and our motto would be, “If it ain’t overbuilt, we didn’t build it.”
My big fear with a 16’ tall tree made of pallet slats was racking. I knew we would be using two slats per course on the bottom half, and that would mean we would need at least three points of connection per course. I designed a basic box frame with a 16’ tall center pole, two 10’ tall outer poles, all tied together with 18” spacers. I planned four courses of spacers, but one of my volunteers talked me out of one of them (it probably was overkill…).
I used 2×8 for the frame for two reasons. First, I knew it would be more than strong enough to stand up straight without racking. Second, we had a bunch of 2x8x16’s laying around from another project. I had some of our teen volunteers paint them black a few weeks ago, so we would be ready come build day.
Breaking down pallets is surprisingly hard.
Those things are built to last, and they don’t come apart easily. We used a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade to cut the nails off behind the slats. Once we had a good collection of slats, I sorted them by length and width. I started by laying out the outline of the tree on the floor with tie line. A basic triangle with an 8’ wide base, a 1’ wide top and 16’ tall. Once I had a general spacing layout to work with, we built the frame.
We cut some 2” spacers from scrap to keep our course spacing consistent. It took a while but eventually we got into a good rhythm of selecting boards, laying them up, marking the length, getting them cut and screwing them in place. Once we moved to the actual frame, we screwed down the bottom and top courses and stretched some tie line very tightly between them to define the side shape.
Once all the courses were in, we stood it up and used another 2x8x16 as a diagonal brace. We thought we would need to sandbag it, but there’s enough weight back there that it doesn’t need it.
Smaller copies complete the layout.
We also made three 8’ versions. These were much faster to put together; the big one took us about 3 hours, while the small ones took about 30 minutes each. The small ones are made from a single 8’ 2×8 with a 40” piece of 2×4 screwed to the back of the 2×8. The 2×8 is wide enough that a few sandbags on the 2×4 give us plenty of tip resistance, so we didn’t diagonally brace them.
Lighting really makes them sing.
While the trees look good on their own, we are going to use ETC Parnells to light them up from the ground. The warm light of the Parnells makes them glow wonderfully, and accentuates the rustic nature of the wood.
So there you go. That’s our version of the pallet tree!
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I’ve been saying this for a while, but there is a change a comin’ in the church. While some disagree with me, I suggest that we are nearing the end of the era for big church buildings with big production going on. Not that big buildings will disappear all together, but there will be fewer of them and they will not be the sought-after goal of most churches.
I’m hearing similar thoughts from other church leaders, and the latest to chime in is Thom Rainer. Last week he wrote a post listing seven reasons church worship centers will get smaller. Unlike the last time I referenced a post on his blog, I am pretty much in agreement with him on this one. I really believe this is coming, and it’s going to affect what we do as technical leaders. Let’s consider some of his points.
Multi-Site & Multi-Venue Churches are on the rise
We see this everywhere. More and more churches are discovering that they can have a significantly more powerful impact on their community by launching multiple, smaller campuses instead of one big one. Or perhaps they will do multiple venues with different worship styles. Either way, this tend is here to stay (until the next trend, anyway).
What does this mean for us? On the plus side, all of these venues will need at least a basic production technology package. Often, it will need to be portable. So we’ll have a lot of gear to manage. However, with smaller campuses, come smaller congregations (that’s kind of the point, right?), and smaller budgets. Not many churches will be hiring full-time guys to run campuses. I suspect what we’ll see is churches hiring one or maybe two technology directors who will oversee all the campuses, helping recruit, train and keep volunteers going.
In this scenario, technical leaders won’t be nearly as hands-on; we won’t be able to be in five places at once. But we will need to be really good at putting together packages of gear that can survive being loaded in and out by volunteers each week. If you have holes in your technical systems knowledge, now is the time to fill them in.
We’re seeing a shift from Big Worship to an emphasis on Groups
Thom points out—correctly in my opinion—that churches are starting to move away from the worship service being the central event of the church. It’s not going to go away, but there will be more emphasis on groups. Churches will be needing to raise up more leaders who can lead groups.
What does this mean for us? We’re already seeing it. Churches are becoming less interested in hands-on techs and more interested in technical leaders who can train and develop others to do the work. Again, this won’t be binary. There will likely always be churches with large tech staffs who do the work. But I suspect we’ll see a shift towards volunteer teams, even in larger churches. If you’re a hard-core tech with no people skills, this is going to be a challenging transition for you. But if you are a builder of people and teams, you will do well. Now is the time to start honing those leadership and discipleship skills; you’ll be needing them!
We will be spending less on buildings, more on ministry
Again, more and more churches are foregoing a large, expensive worship center (or sanctuary, auditorium or whatever you want to call it), so they have more funds to invest in community ministry programs. I’ve always been conflicted with how much production technology costs. On the one hand, I believe if we’re going to commit to doing production, we should do it well, and that takes money. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if our priorities are misplaced. I’m not settled on this, and I suspect we’ll always live in tension in this regard.
What does this mean for us? Budgets will continue to shrink. We’ll have to find ways to do more with less. We will need to get very creative in how we do production. It may be that we do less production, but do what we do very well. Hard choices will need to be made, and this will be a problem for some. If you refuse to work on anything but a Grand MA2 or a Digico SD7, this may be hard for you. But if you’re open to scaling back and still doing production with excellence, this is going to be a lot of fun.
There is so much more to talk about regarding this topic, but we’ll save it for later
Last time, I talked about some of the places I use to come up with ideas for stage designs. Today, I’ll share with you one of my adaptations. We called these “CMA Lights” because I saw something like them on the CMA Awards show a few months ago. This video shows Little Big Town doing one of their songs out the audience surrounded by these cool, vintage-y looking lights on poles. I liked the look instantly, and as we’ve been doing vintage lights for Christmas Eve the last few years, figured I’d adapt the design.
First, The Easy Parts
The bulbs are easy. My go-to spot for vintage bulbs is 1000 Bulbs.com. Not only do they have many different styles, they have lots of other useful parts. For this design, I needed a keyless socket to mount the bulbs in. I wanted keyless because I don’t need a switch to turn the bulb on and off. I found this at 1000 Bulbs, and because it’s nickel in color, it works perfectly with my plan. Once I had the top figured out, I needed to develop a plan for the pole mount.
Plastic Pipe is Cheap & Easy
I don’t know what they used at the CMA’s to build these, but it occurred to me almost immediately that 3/4” Schedule 40 plastic pipe would be perfect. I mounted a coupler on top to give me a little larger diameter hole to glue the socket to. Clear silicone is more than enough to hold the socket in place.
So now, the bulb is in the socket, the socket is on the pipe, but how do we keep the pipe pointing upright? There are probably a dozen ways to do it, but this is what I came up with.
Wooden Bases Fit The Bill
My plan was to use 12” square plywood or OSB bases. Those are easy to make, and cheap, and as we’re only making these about 3’ tall, will have plenty of tip resistance. The tricky bit was figuring out how to mount the pipe to the wooden base.
I had already devised a plan to use a two-part base system for another project. Basically, we drill a 1 1/2” hole in the center of the base, then cover that up with a 4” square piece of plywood, glued and screwed down. This provides a clearance for the rod and nut and keeps the bottom of the base flush. But how to bolt the PVC pipe down?
I wandered Lowes for a good 30 minutes before I stumbled upon this solution. A 3/4” threaded adapter has a perfect little shelf inside of it for a 1” diameter washer. When bolted to the base with a 3/8” in bolt, voila! It’s all good to go. Because these are light-duty light poles, I don’t need a ton of lateral strength. All I need is for them to stay upright, which they do quite well. The bases are small enough that we can put them almost anywhere, and we’ll be spreading ours out across the stage. A small hole near the base of the pipe gives us access for the electrical cord, which is just 18 gauge lamp cord.
If I were doing something like they did at the CMA’s, I would probably use a bunch of PVC T’s and a PVC base. That would enable higher densities and nice long rows of lights.