This week, Mike offends everyone with a diatribe on why the ancient practice of getting three bids for an AVL project is a dumb idea. More than that, he’ll tell you the better way to do it. Don’t miss this one…
I’ve never been much of an athlete. I tried a couple of sports in school, but found I wasn’t good at any of them and thus never got any playing time. The only thing I had a modicum of success at was bowling, and that was because I and everyone else on my team was bad enough that we gained so many handicap points other teams couldn’t beat us. We were known as the Bely, Bely, Bely Bad Bowlers.
About three and a half years ago at age 50, I decided to start shooting my pistol competitively. Now, this isn’t as “athletic” as say, football or soccer, but the top shooters are fast on their feet, are in great shape and have a solid mental game. When I started, I had none of those things. I believe I finished my first match 19th out of about 32. The other day, I found myself 1st out of 42. Now, this is a local match, not a big one, but I did beat guys who have won state, regional and national trophies. I beat guys 20 years younger than me. How did that happen? A lot of work, and surrounding myself with people better than me.
In the last three years, I’ve taken 21 classes—some of them more than once—for a total of 130 hours of instruction, at a cost of over $5,000 (plus ammo). For the last 3 years I’ve shot 12,000-15,000 rounds annually. I shot 1-2 matches per month, and spent a lot of time watching the guys who were regularly beating me. I would ask them about their strategy, why they went left instead of right and whether dumping that last round was faster than reloading at slide lock. I’ve had guys shoot video of my stages and run it through software that times everything so I can see where I’m losing time. I’ve asked people to critique my technique. I took classes that were way to advanced for me and got my butt kicked. And I practiced. A lot.
Now, I’m not the world’s greatest shooter, and winning a local match doesn’t mean I’ve “arrived.” But, it is a significant achievement. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, time, effort and money. I feel pretty good about it. And next match, I’ll have to shoot better because everyone else will be a little better, too.
A Better Tech
What does any of this have to do with a church production website? I was thinking about this the other day when someone on one of the Facebook groups asked how he could get better at mixing. I didn’t look at the replies because they tend to frustrate me. But the answer is remarkably similar to what I did to go from 19th place to 1st; work really hard, spend a lot of time and money and surround yourself with people better than you.
There’s really no secret to improving at anything. You simply have to do it—a lot. You need to be instructed on doing it better. All that is going to cost you. “But Mike, I’m just a volunteer at my church. You mean to tell me I’m going to have to spend my own money to get better at mixing?” Yup.
Let me tell you another story. I’ve been mixing live audio for almost 30 years. But it wasn’t until about 10-15 years ago that I got really serious about it. By then, I was on staff at church. You know what I did to get better? I took vacation time, spent my own money and went to every conference I could. While at those conferences, I sought out guys who were better engineers than I and I picked their brain. I’ve had conversations that went into the wee hours of the morning plumbing the depths of various mixing techniques.
When I would get home, I’d boot up virtual soundcheck and try out those techniques. Then I’d turn around and do it again. One year, I went to nine conferences. Those weeks were way harder than a week of work and very often involved very little sleep. I didn’t take a “vacation” because all my days were used up going to shows.
I jumped at every chance I had to mix and I even occasionally sent my mixes off to others for critique. Talk about scary…
Note how the thing I did to get better at mixing are remarkably similar to improving my shooting? In fact, it’s pretty much the same thing we do to get better at anything. If you’re a volunteer or work for a church that doesn’t believe in training budgets (welcome to the club), you’re going to have to spend some of your own money. If you’re unwilling to do that, I’d argue you’re not really ready to get better.
Getting better at anything requires time, discipline and effort. It also comes at a cost. We take lessons, go to classes, hire coaches and instructors. We travel, take vacation time and spend money to get better at things we want to get better at—often these are just hobbies, like my shooting. I’m not going to become a professional shooter anytime soon. But I wasn’t satisfied with 27th, so I did the work to get better.
There’s no plugin, no magical piece of gear, no new speaker tuning that will make you better. You have to do the work. It’s going to require you to get out of your comfort zone, find people who are better than you and talk to them. You may have to invest in the equipment to do virtual soundcheck so you can practice. You need to read articles, blogs, magazines, watch videos and listen to a lot of music. You’ll need to travel, seek out opportunities to learn from others or maybe pay to fly someone in to learn from.
“But Mike, that sounds like it’s going to take a lot of work, time and money. I’m not sure I can do that!” Ok, cool. You can hang out on Facebook and look for the secret sauce that will make you a master. Meanwhile, those who want to get better will be doing the things that will get them there.
Van is back this week with an interview with Brent Allan. Brent talks about his journey from volunteering with Van to a career in tech leadership.
A few weeks back in my post, From Chaos to Organization, I mentioned that I would write a post about setting up your audio console for success. Having been in a lot of churches over the past 5 years, I’ve found few things that annoy me more than the completely random console layouts I see.
Channel one might be the pastor, which is cool. But two is a drum mic, three is a vocal, four is a guitar, five is another drum mic, six and seven are empty and then we have more guitars. Do you even mix, bro?
Based on some of the consoles I’ve seen, console layout is something that doesn’t seem get a lot of thought. However, a properly laid out console not only makes mixing more fun, it can keep us from making big mistakes during a service.
In the Olden Days…
Legend has it that in the early days of mixing, as analog consoles got larger, engineers noticed that channels farther from the master had more noise in them. So it made sense to put the money channels—the vocals—nearest to the master. As the master was typically on the right, that meant the left-most channels became home of the drums—who would notice noise in the drum channels?
Somewhere along the line, a generally common layout emerged: drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals. As consoles and input count continued to grow, we started seeing the master section land in the middle of the console instead of on the right. In that case, usually the band fell to the left while vocals and effects fell to the right.
Back then, where a source showed up on the console was completely dependent on what input it was plugged into. Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader or any fader anywhere. But before we do any patching—digitally or analog—it’s important to spend some time thinking about why channels go where they do.
Why You Do Is More Important Than What You Do
I’ve seen all sorts of…shall we say, interesting channel layouts on consoles. Drums spread all over the place, the lead guitar next to the pastor’s mic, vocal effects in the middle of the keyboards. It’s as if someone just patched inputs into the first open channel or floor pocket without any thought at all.
And while there are all sorts of ways you can lay out your console, the first consideration is to make sure you do it on purpose. Don’t just shove inputs into any old channel. Take some time to think about it and patch it in a way that makes sense. Keep all the drum channels together, and then keep the band together. Having all the vocals next to each other makes it a lot easier to find them. Put the channels you adjust regularly closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end all service. Think about how you mix, then organize the channels in a way that supports what you do.
There is no “right” way to organize a console. But here are some ideas of how to do it. Personally, I like to start with drums (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads), then bass, guitars, keys, vocals and finally effects. Other channels like speaking mics, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console.
Some years ago, I had my DiGiCo SD8 console set up with my VCAs on the right, which put my vocals right in front of me. My preference is to mix more on channel faders than VCAs, but I know others who prefer the opposite.
I also know guys who put the bass right next to the kick because they like to work those two together. I keep my bass in my guitars VCA; others put in with the drums or dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass. Do what makes sense for your situation. But…
When I mix on analog consoles, I still follow the same basic layout. The advantage of a consistent layout is that I can mix almost any band on any console and without looking. I know where the faders are. In contrast, I’ve watched other guys mix and spend half their time searching the board for the guitar fader, only to miss the solo.
Regardless of how you choose to layout the console, once you come up with a plan, stick with it. Adapt and change as needed, but maintain as much consistency as you can.
Small Digital Consoles are Tricky
The current trend toward smaller mixers (i.e. fewer faders) with higher channel counts makes smart layout absolutely critical. If you only have 16 handles to deal with, you simply must be intentional about what you put where. In that case, I would most likely not use up the first 8 faders on the top layer for the drums.
In that case, it might be more prudent to put a drums VCA on channel one and treat it as one instrument (which, arguably, you should do anyway). As you fill up your fader bank and channels spill into another layer, it is often a smart idea to duplicate a few channels on every layer. For example, you might want to have the worship leader’s mic on the same fader of every layer so you can get to it quickly regardless of the layer you’re on.
The fewer faders you have, the more strategic you need to be with grouping channels into VCAs. How you group the channels will be dependent on your band and your workflow.
I once mixed a 28-input CD release party on 12 faders. I built multiple layers that were very similar, but expanded various sections. For example, layer one had the drums as a single VCA. But layer two gave me all 8 drum channels. Layer three split out all my effects, which were a single VCA on layer one. Things that didn’t get used often were down on layers four and five, but the lead singer’s vocal and guitar were always in the same place on every layer.
I spent about 30 minutes initially setting up the board, then tweaked my layout during rehearsal based on how the set unfolded. Of course, this is easier with a digital board than analog, but the principles remain. Think about your layout and adjust it until it makes sense and works for you.
Have a great weekend!
It’s a new year and we’re back with new episodes. This week, Mike talks about his experience designing and installing the Wavefront Precision Mini from Martin Audio. It’s a small speaker system that sounds much bigger than it has a right to.
Taft Avenue Community Church in Orange, CA is like a lot of churches; they’ve been around for decades, and their current building is 50-ish years old. Most of their AV technology is pushing 20 years old and much of it was installed by well-meaning but under-informed volunteers.
Case in point; their speaker system was actually designed by a professional, but when it came time to install it, the church (back then) balked at the price and they decided to do it themselves. Instead of following the design, they spread the speakers out throughout the room. Unfortunately, they didn’t know about delay and thus the resultant coverage was less than optimal (I’m being generous…).
When their current pastor came on board just over a year ago, he recognized the church needed some updates. We were engaged and took them through our 4Site Design Workshop. During that workshop, it became clear that while pretty much all their technology needed to be replaced, the biggest pain points were house lighting and the audio system.
We did a master plan design, which provides the framework for upgrading all their technology as time allows. They gave us a budget number they could work with now, and we came up with a plan to replace their house lighting, DMX distribution, architectural and theatrical control, speakers, audio console, wireless mics and give them a new personal mixing system. At the last minute, an anonymous donor supplied funds to replace and move their theatrical lighting. Let’s go through it system by system.
We originally designed the system with Aquarii Acceleron fixtures, which are very nice white-only units. However, when it came time to kick off the project, those fixtures were back-ordered by several months. I re-worked the design with Chroma-Q Inspires and found I could make it work for roughly the same budget. As a bonus, they got color.
That was actually a fun story; we ended up surprising them with that feature. While the project was being installed, the pastor had said, “Man, I wish we could have gone with the color-changing house lights, but we just couldn’t afford it.” My installer, knowing what we were doing, smiled and said, “Yeah, that would have been cool, huh?” When I was training them on the use of the lighting console, it was really great to see everyone’s face light up when I said, “And if you want to make the house another color, do this…”
Because the ceiling was so high in the room—some 38’ to the peak—we used Inspire XTs for the main floor lighting. The original Inspire was used for the over-balcony areas, and Inspire Minis with recessed kits were placed under balcony. This was the only area that didn’t work out quite as well as if we had gone Aquarii. The Acceleron fixtures are available with up to 110° lenses, which would have evened out the coverage under the balcony a bit. With 65° lenses, the Inspire Minis pool light a little more than I would have liked. Everyone is fine with it, but even another 15° would have helped us out. We could have added fixtures, but that would have exceeded the budget.
Coverage on the main floor and in the balcony is excellent, however. We actually gave them roughly double the number of foot-candles in the seating area they used to have. We used this as another fun reveal on opening weekend. The leadership team decided to set walk-in and worship levels at roughly what their old system would do. I watched more than one person walk in, look up and say to someone near them, “I though it was supposed to be brighter?”
When we go to the scripture reading portion of the service, Pastor Craig stood up and said, “Let’s stand for the reading of the Scripture, and let’s turn the lights up so you can read your bibles.” When the lights went to full, there were gasps and cheers throughout the congregation. That was extremely gratifying.
I lost a lot of sleep on that house light design; what we installed was actually the fifth iteration of the design. Because the room has a crazy multi-layer vaulted ceiling, angled walls, a wrap-around balcony with stairs on one side and nary a right angle in sight, finding a way to let the installers know where to locate the fixtures was a challenge. Thankfully, our guys are pros and we got on the phone and came up with a plan. I located all the fixtures on beams, and was then able to provide them measurements from junctions with other beams. Setting heights was still a bit of a trick, but a laser level on a C-stand made it work. As a side benefit, because all the fixtures landed on beams, the conduit runs were extremely clean.
Theatrical Lights and Control
For theatrical lights, we used the venerable Chauvet E-160 WW light engines. We re-used their existing Source 4 lens tubes and suspended the fixtures from schedule 80 aluminum battens from The Light Source. A Chamsys QuickQ10 provides theatrical control, which is a huge improvement over the three analog dimming controllers and a wall of rotary dimmers they used to have. A Pathway Octo 8 gave us sACN and DMX distribution, giving them the ability to expand to as many universes as they’ll ever need in the space.
For architectural control, I used my favorite controller, the Cue Server—in this case a Cue Server Mini. Interactive Technology keeps improving the software and interface of that system and it’s become incredibly powerful while remaining easy to program. We installed three 6-button wall stations to give them control. Through a little programming magic, I created multiple looks for each set of fixtures, and make them available through multiple button presses. For example, the house lights can be set at full, 75%, 50% 25% or off by pressing the top button multiple times. The second button provides four different stage lighting looks. In this way, we can make the room easy to use for people who don’t want to learn to use the lighting board.
When I first saw pictures of the room, my first thought was Martin Audio CDD. Going through the design process, I tried multiple options from various manufacturers, and sure enough CDD proved to be the best choice. Not only is it budget-friendly, they sound amazing and gave us ±2 dB coverage over the whole listening area…almost. We do lose the very far out seats of the balcony in the top rows. It’s still very listenable, but it is down about 4 dB. Otherwise, the coverage is incredibly even.
One thing I really strive to achieve is the same response at FOH as in the seating areas. This is especially important in rooms like this where FOH is upstairs at the top of the balcony in a room that juts out into the space. As you can see from the trace below, we pretty much nailed it. No more does the engineer need to wander the space to see what’s going on in the rest of the room. What he hears is what the congregation hears.
We originally planned on the un-powered CDD line for this project, but when it came time to order, CDDs were several more weeks out. Martin did what Martin does and took care of us. They got us CDD Live! instead, which didn’t hurt my feelings at all. I love the CDD line, but I really love the CDD Live! line. The built-in amps and DSP make great sounding speakers even greater. When all was said and tuned, I had 4 filters in the system with a max change of 4 dB. They don’t take much to get them sounding awesome once the timing is all set.
Timing was a bit of a challenge as I had multiple dimensions to deal with. We had three heights for the mains and the outer ones were further back than the center. I actually did three complete timing revolutions before I landed on one that worked. In the end, it’s all about being patient and thinking through the situation.
Low end is provided by three SX118 subs flown in the center, powered by a Via 5002 amp. I’m a big fan of center flown subs because the coverage is so even. Yes, you lose a little kicked in the chest by a mule feeling, but this church isn’t about that anyway. What we gain instead is incredibly even low end. And for fun, I did turn it up on the Cirkut Remix of Blow and it did indeed rock.
To replace their aging Allen & Heath 3300, we went with a Yamaha TF-3. While I’d personally prefer an A&H SQ (or a DiGiCo…) for mixing, the TF line has very useful features for less skilled volunteer mixers. They made one-knob control work like no one else has, and the library of starting points for various mics and compression profiles is actually very good. I like the fact—for them anyway—that patching is always 1:1. While I like to be able to double-patch channels, it’s confusing for people coming to digital for the first time. I’ve spend more than few phone calls trying to troubleshoot stuff like that. We gave them two TIO-1608 stage racks which will keep them in inputs for a long time.
For wireless mics, we turned to Shure’s QLX-D line. These are my go-to mics when budgets are a little tight for ULX-D. Paired with an RF Venue Distro4 and DFin antenna, dropouts become a thing of the past.
Digital Audio Labs LiveMix rounds out the system for personal mixing. We went with the Dante input module, which makes it easy to do some limited amounts of foldbacks from FOH without making it too complicated.
Finally, I put in a Symetrix Prism 4×4 for distribution to the subs and assisted listening system (from Listen Technologies), and for EZ control. We mounted an ARC-3 on the wall at FOH, and if they need to run a simple event with a few wireless mics, they can engage EZ mode which bypasses the console and takes the wireless mics into an auto-mixer with the proper levels pre-set. Between this control and the lighting button stations, nearly anyone can use the room with lighting and basic audio with just a few button presses.
At the end of the day, it’s not about how cool we think the system is, but how the church likes it. And they are thrilled. Everyone was blown away with the house lighting, and music and teaching has never sounded better. No more do people have to sit in a “magic” seat to actually hear the message. Any seat will do. The system is designed to give them plenty of room for growth in the future as the church grows.
There’s a really good reason I’ve used all these pieces of gear on many, many projects over the years—it just plain works. And, it’s predictable. EASE showed that we would be down 4 dB on the far outside seats of the balcony, and we are. It also showed we were in great shape everywhere else. The lighting is just as even as predicted, if not more so. All this highlights why it’s imperative to do proper design on a system before spending money on equipment.
So, that’s it. Another successful project is in the books. I can’t thank our manufacturing partners enough for making great gear that does what it’s supposed to do every time. My installers Jake & Bob went way above and beyond on what turned out to be a much more challenging installation process than we all thought. Great gear installed by great people really makes my job a lot easier.
Lately, we’ve been working with churches that are in need of some organizational help in the tech/worship department. These churches tend to run weekends in the “by the seat of our pants” mode. I happen to know a little bit about this. Most of you know me as being hyper-organized and having everything planned out. And that’s true. But, I have worked at churches that weren’t thus. I took it as my calling to turn that around.
The Problems of Chaos
No, that’s not a typo; chaos actually causes multiple problems. The biggest problem is that people burn out. Chaos is simply exhausting. If every weekend is a challenge because you didn’t know what was going to happen, who was going to be on stage, what inputs were needed, who was where…you’d simply get tired and quit. And that’s what most people do. If you’ve ever wondered why that rock-solid volunteer who was there every weekend for 3 years one day announced this was his last weekend, I can bet chaos was a big part of that decision.
Chaos also leads to sub-optimal performance. We can only focus on so many things at once, and when most of our focus is on solving problems we didn’t know were problems and figuring out how we’re going to pull this weekend off, we don’t have much processing power left to make it great. When every weekend is an attempt to simply survive, there’s not much room to thrive.
A Case Study
As I said, I have some experience with this. Years ago, I joined the staff as a part-time TD. The church and the people were great, but they were not terribly organized. The tech team didn’t know until Thursday night when we all showed up for rehearsal who was going to be on stage playing what. So, instead of spending 7-9 rehearsing, we spent 7-8 setting the stage, troubleshooting things and making sure everything was working. The band was cheated out of an hour of rehearsal, and really, so was the tech team.
Being the master of organization that I am, I started sending out an email on Monday requesting the worship leader for that coming weekend send me their band list. And I needed it by Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because that’s when I built my input list and stage plot.
At first, everyone balked at this. But after a few leaders got me their information and walked onto a stage that was completely set and ready to go—giving them an extra hour of rehearsal time—they started getting the picture.
Wednesday I would build the input list and stage plot, leaving that in the office for the retired couple who had volunteered to set the stage on Thursday morning. I showed up 10 minutes early on Thursday night to double-check everything, and rehearsals became more efficient, productive and enjoyable.
The weekends then went off without a hitch because we were all ready to go in advance. The volunteer team health went up by orders of magnitude and we generally enjoyed a year and a half of smoothly running weekend services. I left after a time to work full-time at another church, but it was reported back to me a few years later that they were still reaping the benefits of the work I put into organize everything.
How Do You Do It?
So, how do you become organized and banish chaos from your weekend services? First, use Planning Center Online. Seriously. Use it. Yes, it will cost you a few dollars a month. One or two of your paid staff members might have to forgo their skinny boy decaf soy no foam latte once or twice a month to pay for it. Don’t care. Use Planning Center.
And when I say use it, I mean use it. The worship leader shouldn’t be entering the songs for Sunday morning on Saturday night at 10 PM. I mean by Monday or Tuesday, the people and plans for the weekend should be in there so everyone on the team knows what to expect.
In fact, as a crazy side benefit, you might find you can actually get more people to volunteer to be part of the weekend service when you can schedule them more than 2 days out. I know…mind blown.
But Mike…we have the same team every weekend. Nothing ever changes. We don’t need to schedule. Yeah, yeah, I hear that all the time. Then I also hear tales of woe—from the same churches that tell me that—about how when they have specials, or different people, or people can’t be there or something changes that it’s a mess. Huh. I thought it was always the same. Turns out, it’s not; you just think it is. Use Planning Center. If nothing else, it will help you organize your music library and give your musicians an easy way to practice during the week at home (yeah, I know I’m just talking loco now…).
Input Sheets & Stage Plots
You need to do an input sheet and stage plot. Every week. Yes, I know your stage never changes and the band config never moves around. See the previous paragraph. It does more than you think. Moreover, if it never changes, it’s easy to do a stage plot and input sheet every week; just open last week’s change the date and save it. Now wasn’t that easy?
Well, except Bob is playing bass this week instead of Frank. And Bob uses a DI instead of a bass amp. An active DI come to think of it, so that needs phantom power. Oh, and Tammy can’t sing, so we don’t need her mic. But it’s the same every week. Really…
I actually laugh out loud when people spend 20 minutes complaining to me about how disorganized their services are and how they need help and they don’t know what do to make it better, and I say, Planning Center and Input Sheets, and they say, “We don’t need that.” Yes, you do.
Look, I’ve been doing production as a very serious hobby and/or professionally for 30 years. If tomorrow I joined the staff of a small country church that had three people on stage every week, the first thing I would do would be to make up a stage plot and input sheet. Could I do it in my head? Yes—I could do it in my sleep. However, the best practice I’ve found to making weekends run smoothly is to be organized. Knowing who will be there this weekend, where they are going to stand and how everything plugs in is the bare minimum I need to know to make things run smoothly.
Once you get past that, you can focus on being creative and making it awesome. But if you try to skip the organizational part and go straight to the new Waves Abby Road Saturation Made Easy and Awesome plugin, you’re going to fail. That’s not a dig on Waves, by the way; I hear that’s a super-cool plug.
Anyway, when I talk to really high-level production guys and they tell me that they do input sheets and stage plots every week, and use Planning Center to keep the people and music organized, I look at that as a clue. Those of us that have been doing this at a high level for a long time know that keeping the basics organized is the first step to making weekends great. With the simple stuff taken care of, you have a lot more mental space to think through whether a hall or plate reverb will sound better on the second song.
In an upcoming article, I’ll talk about how to set your audio console up for success. And if you need some help with input sheets, I’ve written a bunch of articles about t
hem. You can find a search result of said articles here.
This week, Mike is in the car talking about the bro deal. Sometimes, the bro deal is a good thing. Other times, it goes very, very badly.
This week, Van interviews Todd Elliott. They talk about FILO So Cal and the glamorous life of a Christian Band Touring engineer.