Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: August 2014 (Page 2 of 2)

Four Years Later—DiGiCo SD8 & M-48s

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 1.48.34 PM.jpg

I was just over four years ago that we sent the PM-5D packing. I had been researching options for quite a while and initially decided on an Avid Profile and Avioms. But I decided to buck convention and go with a DiGiCo SD8 and Roland M-48 system. As I often do, I took a lot of flack for it. A lot of people told me I should go with Avid because DiGiCo’s were terribly unstable and crashed all the time. I really liked the DiGiCo interface however, and loved the flexibility of the system. So we went for it. Four years later, do I have any regrets? 

Nope. I’d do it Again

The dire predictions of constant crashes and major issues never materialized. In fact, I have personally mixed several hundred services on the desk and managed to crash it twice. Both times, audio continued to pass, and I finished the service on the remote. After both crashes, I had extensive conversations with DiGiCo. And, later updates have made the console even more stable. In fact, I don’t think it’s crashed once in the last 2-3 years. 

The M-48s have been outstanding as well. Once in a while, one will get a bit weird, and we have to reboot it, but overall, the musicians love the sound and I love the flexibility. It’s pretty rare that any of the musicians would ask for something in their mix that we couldn’t accommodate. I love that kind of power. And because of the extensive library system, it’s easy to access and use every week. 

Favorite Features

There’s a lot to like with the DiGiCo platform. First, it sounds great. And because it’s built on an incredibly powerful FPGA, they can add new features like De-Essers, Side-Chained Compressors and more Dynamic EQ and Multi-Band Comps with a simple software update. Those updates have always been free, by the way. I love that any channel can be made into a stereo channel by pressing a button; and we don’t lose channel count when we do that. The fact that we can create any combination of stereo and mono groups and auxes that we need—up to the 25 bus limit—has been incredibly helpful. I’ve done services with 10 stereo auxes, 10 stereo groups, 2 mono auxes and 3 mono groups and the desk isn’t even breathing hard. 

Then there are all the new features. A recent software update brought us the Copy Audio Matrix. This amazing feature makes it simple to route audio between MADI busses for recording, monitoring or just signal routing. I need to do a full post on that sometime. The Multi-Channel feature is also pretty cool. It allows one to fold a bunch of channels into a single fader that can be unfolded with a simple button press. As channel counts grow, it’s a great way to keep channels close at hand, while maximizing faders on the surface. 

With the M-48s, the ability to give each musician any combination of the 40 channels in 16 stereo groups has to be my favorite feature. It makes it easy for them to operate; they only have 16 levels to deal with. But through software, we can fine tune that mix to give them just what they need. And of course, they have a 3-band EQ, plus reverb available. The engineer’s monitor is a feature I helped develop, and it’s a great way to help a musician that’s struggling with their mix. We can listen in on the mix, tweak it and give it back to them without leaving FOH. 

What’s New?

If I were doing it again today, would I do anything different? Probably not. In the last four years, DiGiCo has continued to innovate, upgrade and develop new features and consoles. Avid came out with the S3. There have been a lot of new players in the personal mixer space, but for what we wanted to do, I don’t think there is anything that would work as well as the M-48s. The Pivitec system would probably be the closest to what we needed, especially since they now have a MADI to AVB bridge. That would take some more investigation. Speaking of which, I really need to demo that system…

Of course, Yamaha has made a big splash with the CL-series. And they are great consoles to be sure. They are arguably easier to teach volunteers how to use, but I think I would feel limited by the fixed architecture. The Dante integration is great, however. Then again, the times, they are a changing. So maybe a CL would be fine today. But if I had my choice, it would be DiGiCo all the way.


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What’s the Difference: Polarity vs. Phase

I’ll be honest, I’ve been putting off writing this one. Mainly because this could go down the rabbit hole very quickly and I don’t want to do that. So I’ll say at the start that I’m going to keep this fairly simple and not delve into a deep treatise on phase. I would suggest you listen to our podcast with Bob Heil if you want to learn more about phase. He’s pretty smart in that area. With that out of the way, what’s the difference?

Phase has a time component, Polarity does not.

That’s about as simple an explanation as I can give. Polarity is the reversal the positive and negative terminals in a balanced circuit. As you may recall from our previous discussions of balanced and unbalanced circuits, you’ll recall that a balanced circuit has a positive pole, a negative pole and a ground. It is said to be balanced because the voltage that exists on the positive side is the same as the negative side; it’s just that one is + voltage, the other is – voltage. 

When you press the polarity button—which is often labeled with a or symbol—what you are doing electrically is swapping the positive and negative poles of the input. That has the effect of flipping the phase 180° relative to itself. If you were to have two mic’s right next to each other pointed at the same source, flipping the polarity on one would cause a near total cancellation if you brought both channels up. 

Down the Rabbit Hole

Here is a pretty vast simplification of what we’re talking about. Thanks to the desmos graphing calculator for the visuals. Below are two signals that are out of polarity with each other; that is, we’ve swapped the + and – making them 180° out of phase. For every + voltage on one signal, there is a corresponding – voltage, which would cause total cancelation of the signal. 

Below is the same thing, only the polarity of both signals is the same. It’s hard to see but both signals are overlaid on top of each other. In this case, the resulting signal would be twice as loud as one of them alone because they would add.

To further our discussion, below is one with one of the signals shifted over in time. This causes a phase shift.

Phase is Time

When I took the Rational Acoustics Smaart course last January, Jamie Anderson said, “Phase is the most demonized and BS term in the industry today.” He also said that, “Filters don’t have phase shift; filters are phase shift.” Phase has a time component, whereas polarity does not. I said that again in case you missed it the first time. 

So don’t say, “Flip that channel out of phase, would you?” Instead the correct phrase is, “Flip that channel out of polarity, please.” 

Why Change Polarity?

You may want to change polarity for a few reasons. When I mic up a Leslise 122 rotary speaker cabinet that is being driven by a Hammond B3 (we’re getting really technically correct here at CTA today…), I like to put two mic’s on the top horn. I place them 90* to each other and flip one out of polarity with the others. That results in a really wide stereo image of the top horn.

I also find when I have an interview situation on stage polarity reversal can come in handy. Let’s say you have a pastor on a headset mic interviewing someone with a handheld mic. The headset mic may also pick up the other person, but because they’re a foot or two away, it will be out of phase with the handheld mic (phase is time, remember?) Sometimes flipping one of them out of polarity will minimize the phase interaction. Basically, that shifts the phase offset by 180°, which may make it less destructive.  

When mic’ing a snare drum on the top and bottom, you’d want to flip the polarity of the bottom mic. The wave front coming from the bottom of the snare is 180° away from the top of the snare, and you need to flip polarity so you don’t get cancellation. That’s a bit of a simplification, but try it sometime. The reason you don’t get complete cancellation is because is because rarely are the mic’s pointed straight up and straight down at the snare heads, so you’re not technically 180° out on either of them. But if you don’t flip the polarity on the bottom mic, there will be some cancellation, which will make the resultant sound very thin. 

 Well, we ended up down the rabbit hole after all. I made a video a while back that demonstrates some phase shift concepts that may help further explain the concept. Check it out if you want to learn more.


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Jesus Didn’t Have a PA

The other day, I was reading through some blogs and came across a post on Phil Cooke’s blog that I thought was interesting. The post itself wasn’t what inspired this post, however, it was one of the comments. Here is what one commenter wrote: 

I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t have to use special lighting or a tech manager when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. And he got the message across just fine.

Before I develop my critique of this comment, I want to start by saying I’m not opposed to simpler, more traditional services. If you want to attend a church or service that doesn’t use special lighting, a loud PA or any other production technology, that’s totally cool. I think there is even a need for those services. So don’t take this as a blanket condemnation of traditional services because it’s not.

Jesus Didn’t Have a Lot of Things

It should be obvious, but Jesus didn’t have a lot of the things we take for granted today. In fact, Jesus didn’t have a big pipe organ, choir or piano to lead the 5000 in worship. He didn’t have a car to get him from place to place. He didn’t have coffee makers to provide a morning wake up for the crowds. He didn’t have those things because they weren’t invented yet. Now, we can debate all day long whether he would have used those things (I suspect He would have), but I don’t hear people like the commenter above calling for a ban on pipe organs because Jesus didn’t have one. 

I generally find those making the “Jesus didn’t have one” argument only when it conveniently supports whatever they don’t like in the contemporary church. And that is amusing to me. Much like quoting Scripture out of context to support our own agenda, it’s really a poor way to construct an argument. 

Can We Just Admit it’s a Preference?

You see, what we’re really talking about here is preference. Again, I have no problem if your preference is a more traditional style of service (which, lest we forget only really developed over the last couple of hundred years—it’s not “biblical”). But to broadly state that Jesus wouldn’t “put on a concert” is missing the point. Jesus spoke to the crowds using the idiom of the day. He was as contemporary as any mega church service is today. He communicated to the people in the language they understood. The modern church seeks to do the same through the use of lighting, visuals and audio, because that is the language of this generation.

Now, we can argue whether some of that goes too far and creates a consumeristic, non-engaged, concert-like experience instead of a worship service. But that’s another argument. To be sure, some services really are much more like a concert and less like a worship service, and that can be a problem. However, I’ve been a part of some really loud services that had plenty of lighting, haze and moving backgrounds that were amazing experiences of worship. I’ve also experienced a spontaneous service that had no technology at all, just voices, and it was amazing. 

It’s a Matter of the Heart

We are commanded to worship God in spirit and truth. If you can’t worship at our current church, perhaps we need to find one where you can. If you can’t find one, perhaps you have an issue of the heart. If you are older and are attending a church that is changing to meet the needs of a younger generation and you’re bitter about that, you have an issue of the heart, not volume. You can either choose to support the efforts to reach the next generation for Christ or get pissed off that your personal needs aren’t being met. 

As I get older, I already know there will come a day when I don’t really care for the style of music of 20-somethings. But boy do I ever want to be part of a church that is doing a great job reaching that group of people. And who knows, maybe I’ll split my time between an 80’s style service with 4 second reverbs and a “modern” service with whatever music it popular at the time. 

But the point is, don’t confuse your preference with what Jesus would or would not have done. Because I’m pretty sure He wouldn’t do that


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What’s the Difference: VCAs and Groups

So far in our What’s the Difference series, we’ve considered AFL/PFL and Pre-Fade/Post Fade. Today, we’re going to look at another pairing that I see confused all the time. That is the difference between Groups and VCAs. 

Here we have a couple of VCA's (blue channels), a group (red) and input channels (grey).

Here we have a couple of VCA’s (blue channels), a group (red) and input channels (grey).

A Group is a Mix Bus

A group is a place to send channels post-fader. To make this clearer, the LR main output on your console is technically a group. So is the Mono output if your mixer has one. When you send a channel to a group, it is after all processing and the fader, so it is truly the final step on the way out of the console. You can assign channels to as many groups as you want; up to the number of groups you have. The level of the channel going to the groups will always be the same. In this way, groups are different from auxes. With an aux, each aux send goes out at its own level. Sending a channel to two groups sends the same exact signal to both groups. 

A VCA is a Remote Control

A VCA (short for Voltage Controlled Amplifier) is really a way to remotely control the level of a channel or group of channels from a single fader. When you assign a channel to a VCA, you can add and subtract gain from that channel using the VCA fader and/or the channel fader. Moving the VCA master up by 5 dB will have the same effect on the channel as moving the channel fader up 5 dB. Turning off the VCA master will effectively mute the channel(s), making it easy to turn entire groups of channels on and off with one fader move. 

When to Use Them

I wrote a much longer series on this topic some time back, but here’s the shortened version. Groups are useful for applying the same processing to a group of inputs. Clever, huh? For example, if you want to do some parallel compression on the drums, you can assign all the drum inputs to a group and insert a compressor on the group. Mix that with the uncompressed version and you have parallel compression. Or perhaps you want to subtly compress all the BGVs. Same thing. Only don’t assign them to the main LR bus; send them to the group, compress then send the group to the LR mix. 

VCAs are useful for mixing similar types of instruments. On digital consoles,  you may not have the faders on the surface for all your inputs. Really large analog consoles may be a long reach. So, you can combine channels into one to make it easier to manage. For example, you may set up the mix for the drum kit, then assign all the drum channels to a VCA. Because the drums are one instrument, you can adjust the level of the drums with the VCA. Some engineers like to put the bass and kick on a VCA and move their level together. Others will assign all the keys to a VCA and all the guitars to another. 

It’s important to note that a VCA is not better than a group, nor is a group better than a VCA. They are different. Not all mixers—especially small ones—have VCAs so you have to make do with groups. But when you have both, use them for what they are good at. 

VCAs and DCAs

On some digital consoles, Yamaha for example, VCAs are called DCAs. DCA stands for Digitally Controlled Amplifier. The function is the same, but the underlying technology is different. For all practical purposes, they are the same. 

This is a pretty simplified explanation. For a lot more detail, check out some of the posts below. 

Other posts with more detail:

CTA Classroom: Understanding VCAs and DCAs

CTA Classroom: Defining Auxes, Groups, VCAs & Matrixes Pt. 1

CTA Classroom: Using Groups

Groups, VCAs and DCAs

Groups, VCAs and DCAs Part Two


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CTA Classroom: Making Mono Sources Sound Stereo

This is a video I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I finally got around to getting it done. You’ll want to listen on headphones or decent studio monitors to really hear the effects; it won’t really sound much different on laptop speakers. 


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My Sabbatical

Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/oliverkendal/

Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/oliverkendal/

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m no longer working at Coast Hills, or any other church for that matter, as a TD any longer. I wrapped up in May and have begun a whole new adventure as system designer/project manager for Flexstage, which is part of the architecture firm, Visioneering. Several people have asked me recently, “So, what does your Sunday morning look like now?” When a question comes up more than a few times, it usually becomes a blog post. So here you go.

I’m on Sabbatical

Usually it’s the pastoral staff that gets to take sabbatical. Every few years, pastors often take a month, two or several off to refresh, pray and study. It’s a good concept, and one that I fully support. We all need time to recharge. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. For the last few months, my Sundays have been sleeping in, writing, going for walks and sometimes watching a NASCAR race in my PJs. 

I had originally planned on taking a month off, but it’s turned into more than that. Now, I feel compelled to give some disclaimers at this point. I am not mad at the Church. I don’t feel burned by the Church. I don’t hate the Church. I’m not quitting Church to focus on my business. I just need a break. I will be back.

It’s Been a Long Time

I didn’t grow up going to church. My family and I went once in a while, but in the absence of any meaningful experience, I didn’t stick around. When I met the Lord in 1988 (almost 26 years ago to the week…), I immediately started attending church weekly. Except for a 4-month period in 2002 when I had to work weekends, I’ve attended church pretty much every weekend since 1988. I calculated that by my last weekend at Coast, I had worked approximately 380 of the previous 400 weekends. In that time, I mixed, lit, ran slides for or TD’d well over 1,000 services. 

Along the way, I started equating, at least at a subconscious level, going to church with working. I didn’t even know I was doing it until I stopped. It really wasn’t until a few months ago that I figured it out. So right now, I need to re-program my mind. 

Building New Models

As I write this, I keep thinking back to January when I took Jamie Anderson’s Smaart class. He kept saying, “This is hard because we’re building new models of how sound works in our heads. Building new models is hard. Don’t worry, it gets easier.” That’s what I feel like I’m doing. I have to build a new model in my head of what going to church is. 

Of course, I know what going to church is. But in my mind, I need to get to a place where I’m not critiquing the mix or lighting while I’m there. I need to be able to not feel like I should be working while I’m there. And quite frankly, I need time to rest. My new job has been great, but because I’m learning and refining a whole new skill set, it’s mentally exhausting. Working on staff at a church takes it’s toll even under the best of circumstances. I’m realizing now, three months out, how taxing my time at Coast really was. 

Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

I say this a lot, but I’m telling you what is going on with me, not what you should be doing. I know guys who have been doing the TD thing for many more years than I have and they’re well-adjusted and happy. That is wonderful. This is just what I’m doing right now, nothing more. Like I said, I’m not mad and I will be back. I just don’t know when. 

I remember my first pastor, Ron Boehm, going on vacation one time and saying that he didn’t go to church that weekend just to prove to himself that he could do it. I think it’s important that we know why we’re going to church. Do we do it because we work there? Do we go because we need to get our card punched for the week? Is it to see our friends or social circle? Is it just our habit? Or do we go because we can’t be anywhere else? Because we are compelled to go. Those are important questions. 

Right now, I’m experiencing my time with the Lord in a new way. It’s a lot less programmed and more organic. And it’s very refreshing. I look forward to going back when I’m ready. Until then, I will continue to serve the church through this blog, the podcast and my work with Visioneering. It’s what I feel called to right now. And it’s good.


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