Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: December 2013 (Page 2 of 2)

Stage Designs

From time to time, people ask me where I come up with the ideas for our stage designs. I will let you in on a little secret—I’m not a stage designer. I’m not much of a designer of any kind, in fact. However, I have learned the art of adaptation. When I see a set idea I like, I catalog it for future reference, then figure out how to implement it. I’m a really good implementer. I’m not great at coming up with the initial design idea. But I’m really good at figuring out how to adapt it to our stage, build it with the time, money and tools we have available and work it in so it looks good. One has to play to one’s strengths…

Where to Steal, er, Borrow Designs from?

For sure the best spot to grab ideas from is Church Stage Design Ideas. Long URL, lots of possibilities. I head over there a few times a year and look through the galleries. It’s not long before I have a few ideas that I like and that I think will work for our room. Sometimes, I combine ideas from two completely different sets—that’s OK! 

Another thing I’ll do is watch video online of various churches around the country. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out exactly what the set is, but all I’m really going for is visual inspiration. I’ll figure out how to make it work. Going to conferences and simply visiting other churches is also a great way to get ideas. 

This is the art of adaption, not copying. I know Steve Jobs once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” That may work OK for Apple, but I prefer to adapt. 

Adapt Your Way to Set Design Greatness

For example, for our Christmas set this year (pictures to come in an upcoming post), I’m borrowing ideas from (at least) three different sources. I found a design for “Christmas Trees” built out of pallets on CSDI; I’m finally implementing a lighting idea I picked up from Daniel Connell at Church on the Move (his Dewey’s), and I saw a light on the CMA awards that I liked, so I figured out how to build it (again, another post). These elements all work together well, and will feel similar to what we’ve done the last two years for Christmas Eve, but will look different.

What I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t have to come up with all the ideas; I simply figure out which ideas make sense for us at the time, and which ones work together. And often, my set bears only a passing resemblance to the one I borrowed because I really just went for the feel of it, not the exact implementation. In fact, that’s where I think this gets fun.

It Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

Sometimes I think we tend to get wrapped up in coming up with highly elaborate sets that would not be out of place in a Broadway play. While that’s certainly cool—and if you want to do that, go for it!—but it’s not necessary most times. Simple elements are often best, and I really like simple things that take light well. For example, our crumpled window screen set. I saw a picture of that somewhere (I think it was Duke’s presentation on stage design at Echo), and I mentally filed it away. A few months later, I needed to change our set, so I went to Home Depot, grabbed all the aluminum window screen they had in 3’ and 4’ rolls, and three of us built the set in about 3 hours. Total cost was about $125. It looks great live and on video, and we’ll keep this up for a while (though it is coming down for Christmas).

Some of the best stage sets are very simple in concept, but they are executed very well. And that’s what I strive for: Simple sets that take light well, that we can leave up for months at a time without them looking old. Hit those marks and you’re doing well.

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Church Tech Weekly Episode 176: Tipping Cows for Christmas


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How do you prepare for a building project? Not simply design, but making sure all the right things are in place for a project to succeed. And be sure to choose equipment your team can run. We’re gearing up for building in 2014!

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Today’s post is brought to you by Heil Sound. Established in 1966, Heil Sound Ltd. has developed many professional audio innovations over the years, and is currently a world leader in the design and manufacture of large diaphragm dynamic, professional grade microphones for live sound, broadcast and recording.

Should I Buy a New Mac Pro or an Old One?


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Let’s face it; the new Mac Pro is super-cool looking. Barely larger than a stack of 100 DVDs, it packs incredible power in a small form factor. It’s clearly the wave of the future, especially when you consider the dual Thunderbolt 2 busses with 6 ports. It’s smaller, faster and really not more expensive than the outgoing models. And instead of waiting to buy one in a few weeks (Apple said December…), I went with an older model when upgrading our video capture/edit station. Why?

Black Friday.

One big reason was that I got a screaming deal from OWC on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. They had a pre-Black Friday sale with a deal too good to pass up. I ended up with a refub 2009 model Mac Pro with a Quad Core 2.93 GHz processor, a 240 GB SSD, a 1 TB spinning disk and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics card. That’s replacing a 2006 (original Mac Pro) 2.66 Quad Core. While it may not look like a big upgrade, the difference between the old Woodcrest and the newer Bloomfield chips is significant. In fact, the newer one benchmarks about 3 times faster than the old one; and it feels that way. With free shipping, the new Mac Pro was just a few dollars over $1,500; half the cost of a new Mac Pro. But it doesn’t end there.

Everything has to be new.

While I like buying new stuff, when I totaled up all that we need to buy to convert to the new Mac Pro, it started getting expensive. We currently have two Blackmagic capture cards in our system; one for video capture and one to drive ScopeBox (program and preview respectively). We are also running an external  e-SATA RAID 5 capture disk. That gives me more than enough speed to safely capture 1080i in ProRes. So how does any of that work with a new Mac Pro?

Expensively. We would either have to buy an external PCI-e chassis that connects via Thunderbolt (roughly $1,000) or buy two new Thunderbolt capture boxes (roughly $1,000-2,000). In both cases, our options are limited, though there are enough out there to get the job done. We would also need to pick up a Thunderbolt to e-SATA adapter ($175).

So by the time it’s all said and done, we’re looking at at least $1,200 and probably closer to $1,500-2000 on top of the cost of the new Mac Pro—which when configured the way I want it will be at least $3,500. So when it came down to a choice between $5,000+ and $1,500, it was a pretty easy decision. Especially when I can use the $3,000 I saved to buy new viewfinders for our cameras. 

Cheaper is not always better, but this time it is.

Those who know me know I don’t always advocate for the cheaper solution. In fact, I almost never do. But in this case it made more sense. I can score a big performance update—the faster processor, newer architecture and SSD make FCPX feel very snappy indeed—at a minimal cost. We will be able to get at least 2 if not 3-4 years out of this Mac Pro before we need to upgrade again, and by then the Thunderbolt ecosystem will have developed significantly. 

The point of this story is to simply say that it is important to weigh the options before plunging into an upgrade. Sometimes the latest and greatest makes sense, and when it does, go for it. Other times, buying something a few years old is a better value, especially if it will do what we need it to do. In this case, I’m even keeping the old Mac Pro around as a render node, so it will speed up rendering even more. 

This Mac will cost us about $500/yr. assuming a 3 year service life. That’s not bad at all. In 3 years, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re doing with video (it’s a bit up in the air anyway right now), and the industry should have settled some of the interface stuff out. 

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And on it’s first weekend out, without even finishing the configuration and optimization, the new Mac Pro cut a full hour off my render/upload time, and probably 20 minutes from my edit time. That works for me!

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Preparing for Christmas Pt. 3—Pre-Build Sets


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Continuing our series on Christmas prep, today we’ll wrap up with the other thing I’ve learned to do ahead of time whenever possible. These two weeks feel like the calm before the storm, but I try to get as much done as possible so the week of Christmas feels less like a storm and more like a celebration. That’s why I do all this stuff early whenever possible.

A few years ago, I was really short-handed and had to pull off Christmas with me and one other person. It occurred to me the only way that was going to work was if we did as much as early as possible. Up to that point, we had been doing the “Christmas Week Marathon” method. I always hated it, but we had enough hands to throw at the problem and we got it done. 

After that year, I realized we could spread the workload out over 3-4 weeks, and enjoy the process a whole lot more. So that’s what we do. The thing we tried last year—and it worked so well we’re doing it again—is to build the set pieces a week in advance. 

Build Components If You Can’t Build Sets

If you recall, we did the block walls last year, and instead of trying to cram the entire production process in one week, we build the boxes the week before. I didn’t want the block walls going up before the weekend before Christmas, but we could get them mostly built ahead of time. Then we just had to rig them on Christmas week, which took a few hours. By then, we already had about 30 man-hours into the set. 

This year, we’re starting today in fact. On Dec. 4, we’re gathering our raw materials for the set, and it will take a few hours to pull together. In fact, two weeks ago, I had the guys start painting some 2x8s that we had lying around. Those will be supports (overkill perhaps?) for the set when it’s all done. 

Plan Early

I can’t say this enough. I started working on our Christmas set ideas back in October. I peruse sites like ChurchStageDesignIdeas, and read various design-centered blogs to get ideas. Once I find things I like, I save them to Evernote, and begin to work out the details. 

This year, I’m stealing an idea I saw on the Country Music Awards (you’ll have to wait for that post to see what it is). I liked the look, and while I was watching the show, I figured out how I could replicate the look on a low budget. 

It’s easy to figure out stuff like that when you have time to shop and come up with ways to make things happen. If you wait until build week, you’re scrambling, and you have to make do with whatever you can find. That may work, but it’s usually not ideal. 

Enlist Help

One of the things I love about Christmas and Easter (and I suppose VBS, too) is that it is a great excuse to get the team together. We have a ton of high school guys on the team, and they love coming in to help work on projects like this. 

I do all the design work, and will often build prototypes of what we want, then I can turn them loose to make it happen. Or we can all work together, depending on the project. A few years ago, when it was just me and Thomas, we did enjoy working closely together, but I think we were both pretty exhausted by the end. Last year, we had a bunch of other guys helping and we all got to go home earlier, and have more fun in the process.

Plus, having a bunch of Jr. & Sr. High guys around is a great excuse to go to Dairy Queen for lunch several days in a row…

Well, that’s my set of secrets for surviving Christmas. I again apologize for begin late on this. On the other hand, this also works for Easter and VBS, so consider this early for those two events. How do you prepare for Christmas?

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Preparing for Christmas Pt. 2—Console Prep


Click to enlarge, or you can download a PDF of the whole input sheet. 

Last time, we considered how important it is to get your rentals booked early for Christmas. In fact, if you’re reading this and still haven’t secured rental gear, stop and do so now. We’ll be here when you get back. But those headset mic’s you need might well be gone; mainly because I already booked them. Two months ago… Anyway.

Input Sheets

As soon as the band configuration is set, I begin working on input sheets. For us this usually happens in late October, early November. In fact, I get stressed if I don’t have that done by November 10th or so. That date is entirely arbitrary, but having it lined up by then makes me feel better. 

First of all, I learn what I need to rent, and I get that booked (see last post). Second of all, it helps me figure out how I’m going to lay things out, and I can spot trouble areas. No matter how big your console is, there are a finite number of inputs. And for some reason, at Christmas, inputs expand to fill the channels available. 

I’ve learned that the time to start negotiating with the keyboard players about their need for 10 inputs is November, not the day of rehearsal. It’s also easier to figure out if you can share body packs, mic’s or other items two months in advance when you have time to kick your feet up on the desk and think it through. 

I know I should have told you this in November; sorry about that. I was busy building my input sheets. We’ll do better next year, huh?

Console Prep

With the advance of digital consoles and offline software, the last few years, I’ve built my entire console show files in my office in November. Since this year’s Christmas Eve service is really close to last year’s, I even saved all the relevant snapshots, updating what I could based on new speakers and whatnot. 

With everything patched, the surface laid out, I can load that into the console and run through it a few weeks in advance to see if I’m still happy with it. Most times, I end up making some tweaks once it’s actually on the surface, but it’s nice to be really close at start up.

Pre-Build Monitor Mixes

One of the advantages of not being at a highly creative church is that we do the same thing pretty much every year. So, about a week from rehearsal, I’ll call up the tracks from last years services and pre-build all my vocal monitor mixes (the band is all on M-48s this year). We tend to rotate a few vocals in and out, but I can get close based on the tracks. 

I’ve found, especially with vocalists, if you get in the ballpark with a decent mix from the moment they put their IEMs in, you’re 90% of the way there. Rather than spending 30-45 minutes building eight mixes from scratch at rehearsal, we’ll spend 10 minutes tweaking. 

In this same vein, we’ll also drag out all of the M-48s about a week out, plug them in and pre-patch everything. Because we can save all the patching, panning, naming and grouping in a file, we’ll set it all up, get it ready, save the file, then go back to the normal weekend. I used to do this step during set up week, but I found I had enough to do that week already, and I’d rather simply recall a file than stay in the booth until 10 PM every night trying to get it all done. 

Pre-Build Lighting & Graphics, Too

In fact, anything you can pre-build and save in early December, do it. Now that pretty much everything we do is digital, it’s very easy to get your lighting console set up, all your ProPresenter shows done, even graphics for video can be wrapped up by early December. Shoot, if you need cables run to new parts of the auditorium or building, get them run this week or next.

Well now that you have plenty on your to-do list for this week and next, I’ll let you get started. Next time, we’ll talk about one last thing we can do ahead of time

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Church Tech Weekly Episode 175: Pay It Backwards


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The best way to learn this trade is from someone who has already mastered it. This week we talk about mentoring; being a mentor and having a mentor. We all need to be building into the next generation of technical artists.

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Today’s post is brought to you by Sennheiser.
For more than 60 years, the name Sennheiser has been synonymous with top-quality products and tailor-made complete solutions for every aspect of the recording, transmission and reproduction of sound.

Preparing for Christmas Pt. 1—Rent Early!


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It’s coming. In less than 24 days in fact. Depending on your church, you are anywhere from 1-3 weeks out from one of the busiest weeks of your year. And had I been really thinking this through, I would have written this series before I went on vacation last week. But I didn’t, so here we are.

I want to let you in on my Christmas Season preparation. Having done this a few years (read 20+), I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned a few things along the way. Over the next few days, we’ll focus on different aspects of preparation, and hopefully we’re still far enough out to help. If not, we can both plan better next year, OK?

Rent Early

I learned this lesson almost 15 years ago. I was living in Ohio and was the volunteer audio director. It was my first time through their Christmas season, and it was the first week in December that I learned we would need about a dozen channels of wireless—complete with headset mic’s—to handle the two weeks worth of production (yes, we had a children’s musical followed by an adult musical the next weekend; we changed that the following year…). 

The next day at work, I started frantically calling around trying to find eight channels of wireless (we had four). One of the most instructive things I learned came from on of the larger rental houses in the area. He said, “For late December? Our whole inventory is rented out for all of December by early November. You’re way too late, my friend.” 

This of course means, Plan Early

One of the biggest challenges to doing Christmas in church is that many churches don’t start really planning their Christmas production until, oh, December 2nd. Sometimes you can pull that out, but more often than not, you’re in trouble. I finally found two places that would rent me some mic’s (and one of them pulled new ones off the shelf and charged me a fortune to rent them). But the next year, I started asking about Christmas in September. I figured we wouldn’t get answers until October, but at least we were further out. 

The last few years, I’ve had my my rental contracts signed and done by mid-November. Even out here in LA, if one waits, one can expect to pay a lot more. The first year I was here, we decided to try something pretty ambitious and we waited a little long to lock things down. That meant we ended up renting things from way up in LA, which meant expensive delivery fees. 

Seriously, Don’t Wait

If you’re reading this in early December, and you haven’t booked whatever rental stuff you need, get on it. This week. Hopefully you can still find what you need. Of course, it always helps to have a relationship with a rental company, even if you only rent from them one or two times a year. We don’t rent nearly as much as we used to what with budget cuts and all, but we still have good relationships with a few rental houses, depending on what we need.

Sometimes It’s Better to Buy

Occasionally, Christmas is a great excuse to pick up that extra channel of wireless or three you’ve been needing, or perhaps some new headset mic’s, or even light fixtures. Every year, I put money in the budget for Christmas and Easter, and depending on what we’re doing, I decide if I rent or buy. Do the math and place the order. Just don’t wait. 

This can also be a great opportunity to try out some equipment you’re on the fence about buying. A new, larger audio or lighting console, mic’s, even lighting fixtures are great things to try out with a Christmas rental before you commit to purchase. Just be sure you get them early enough to become familiar with their operation before show day. 

So that’s the first step; book your rentals. Next time, we’ll talk about other preparations to make.

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