Top Tip. One of my silver bullets for leading teams is Tom Rath’s book Strengths Finder 2.0
Top Tip. One of my silver bullets for leading teams is Tom Rath’s book Strengths Finder 2.0
There I was, enjoying my morning bacon and eggs, flipping through posts on Facebook. I came across one in one of the production groups I follow that really caught my eye and made me laugh. It read:
TRUE or FALSE: Anyone can be trained to be a great sound technician.
I should have noted the author and group so I could give credit (or maybe it’s good I didn’t…). To me the answer is so obvious, I initially laughed, but then it occurred to me where the answer was coming from. Most likely, the question came from a tech leader at a church—likely smaller—who is getting pressure from their leadership to develop a large, professional grade sound team. And the pastor simply can’t understand why they don’t have a team of amazing engineers. I mean, it’s so easy, anyone can do it, right?
I would (and have) argued that next to the preacher, the FOH engineer is the hardest job on a Sunday morning. To be a truly great sound engineer will take years (yes, Virginia, years) of dedication to training, learning and getting better at your craft. The amount of knowledge one must possess to be a great engineer is staggering. The number of hours one must mix to become great is dumbfounding. Check out my friend Dave’s post on learning to be a great FOH engineer. It Takes Time
Here’s what I have discovered after nearly 25 years of technical leadership in the church. For every 500 or so people in the church, there might be one, maybe two that could be good FOH engineers. Now, that doesn’t mean they have the time, willingness or desire to become FOH engineers, I mean, they could. Most can’t. I know, I’ve tried to train a lot of people with good hearts who want to serve but have no idea how to mix.
It’s More Than Mechanics
I’ve already said it’s not possible that anyone can be trained to be a great sound engineer. But how about an operator? Can we train almost anyone to at least operate the board? No. My wife is a great example. She’s a fine woman but were I to bring her back to FOH and start showing her around the SD8, her eyes would glaze over and she would likely walk out. She’s a former musician and has a little bit of musical/mix knowledge, but learning to operate that console is not in her scope. There are a lot more people like her in our churches than not.
I remember working with a fellow volunteer way back in the day. He was a solid volunteer; always there when scheduled, generally had the pastor’s mic on when it was supposed to be and had a good attitude. But he was a terrible mixer. Sure, he worked as an electronics technician doing board-level repair, but he didn’t for the life of him have any idea how music fit together. I used to have vocalists offering to pay me $20 to take over and mix their special on weeks he was mixing. He knew how the board worked—heck, he probably could have built it—but he had no idea how to mix music.
Art and Science
It’s been said many times that being a great FOH engineer is a weird mix of art and science. We need to understand and almost unconsciously know the technology, but we also need to know music. We need to know how music fits together, and how sound propagates in a space. We also need to be therapists and counselors to the band if we want to get the best performance from them. It’s a weird mix, and most don’t possess it.
Your Final Answer
False. Not anyone can be trained to be a great FOH engineer. In fact, I would go so far to say that most people wouldn’t even make good FOH engineers. I’m not being elitist, this is just what I’ve observed after 25+ years doing this.
Regular readers of this website have likely noticed the falloff in post frequency of late. Listeners of the podcast have likewise noticed that ChurchTechWeekly is more like ChurchTechMonthly as well. It’s been a while since I shared much of what’s going on in my personal life, so I thought I would take a few hundred words to do so.
On The Road Again
That’s been the theme of this year for me. During the first quarter of 2016, I was on the road almost every week for at least a few days each week. Between trips to the office, conferences, visits to churches and commissioning systems, it was a busy time. And I’m not going to lie, it was exhausting. The last month has been a little better, and I’ve only had a few trips in the second quarter so far, but there’s more going on (more on that later).
The thing that’s hardest about being on the road is how disruptive it is for everything else in life. When I get back after a week out, there’s a mountain of mail and other chores to be handled, all before I go back out again. And for those few days that I’m home, I really don’t want to sit around writing blog posts, or reviewing equipment. The work has been good, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the Church, while earning a good living. But the free time is less than it was.
When my wife and I moved to Nashville, our two daughters stayed in California. We were sad to not have them with us, but they’re young adults and they wanted to live their lives, and we applaud them for that. About 8 weeks ago, we got a call from our younger daughter, and she indicated that she really wanted to leave SoCal. It wasn’t going nearly as well as she hoped it would be, and she wanted a fresh start. She asked if she could come live with us for a while she got settled, found a job and saved up some money to move back out on her own, this time around Nashville. Of course we said yes!
So while I had almost a month home a few weeks back, much of that time was spent getting ready for Robyn to move home. Again, this is all good stuff, and we’re excited to have her back with us, even for a little while. But it’s taken time away from my writing pursuits.
One of the biggest reasons I’m not writing as much as I once was is simply the lack of mental bandwidth. When I was a church TD, I worked hard and sometimes long hours. But it was all stuff I was extremely good at and didn’t require high amounts of mental exertion. As a TD, I felt like I was using about 30-40% of my capacity, which is why I wanted a change. Now I have a great job that uses 70-80% of my capacity, which I enjoy, but there’s a lot less left over for ChurchTechArts.
Even when I’m not on the road, I’m pretty worn out by the end of most days as I continue to acclimate to my new role and build processes to make it better. That will come, and at some point it won’t be as tiring, but for now, it’s a lot.
I write all this not to complain or give anyone cause to feel sorry for me. I’m happy with where my life is, and I’m grateful for the opportunities. But it is definitely a new life stage that is causing me to adjust. My intention is to keep plugging away at posts as I’m able for the foreseeable future and, who knows, a year from now, things could be humming along and I’ll be back to three posts a week. Or I’ll be completely worn out and in need of a sabbatical.
So that’s where we are. ChurchTechArts is not dead, and I have some ideas on new CTA projects I want to take on this summer if time permits. Thanks to each of you for being faithful readers and for all the support and encouragement you’ve shown me over the years. I love hearing your stories and hearing how God is using you to build His Kingdom. We’ll continue this journey together!
Continuing on our series on Bid Specs, today we’ll talk about why I think they are bad for churches as well as integrators. We’ve already talked about why I think Bid Specs are problematic in a generic sense, and how they are a challenge for integrators. One might be tempted to think that I’m writing this from a selfish perspective. I do work for an integrator, after all, and if Bid Specs are bad for integrators, it stands to reason that I don’t like them.
But here’s the thing; I’ve worked for churches approximately 5 times longer than I’ve worked for an integrator. And I’ve been leading build projects as a volunteer or staff member for about 12 times longer than I’ve been an integrator. I’ve also helped other churches with their projects, so I’ve seen this from all sides. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a good way to go, even for the church that is looking for the “best deal.” Here’s why.
As previously mentioned, Bid Specs suffer from being either too broad or too specific. Or both simultaneously. In either case, the integrator will hedge his bets so he’s not left holding the bag when the project is finally properly defined. Other integrators will bid low to get the job, figuring they can change order their way back to profitability as the project evolves. Either way, the church is looking at budgets that are either too low or too high.
Again, there is not necessarily malice on the part of the integrators here. While there may be a few out there looking to make a quick buck, most are honorable people who like serving the Church. But given the inherent flaws in the Bid Spec process, it’s almost impossible to do so well.
You’re Paying Too Much
I would be willing to bet that most times when a church does a Bid Spec, they end up paying too much. How is this possible when the whole idea is to get the best deal? Think back over all the problems we discussed: The specs aren’t accurate, the equipment list came from Church Production Magazine, over bidding, under bidding, generic designs. All of these things will lead to a higher cost in the end.
Moreover, it’s likely that the church issuing the Bid Spec is not very well versed on the current state of technology. They may be unaware of newer equipment that is less expensive that will work very well for their application. As a result, they may be spending a lot more paying for the “old standard” while missing out on some newer winners. Every industry has manufacturers and products that fall into the category of, “You can get more but you can’t pay more.” But, with heavy marketing dollars and a good reputation, those are often the products that show up in the Bid Spec.
Lack of Customization
Good integrators pride themselves on delivering solutions that are designed for each client. They may work with packages of gear they’ve standardized on because they know it works, but it will be selected and placed for the specific church in question. A Bid Spec usually eliminates that. Because there is no real design going on, the bid tends to end up in the place of, “We’re pretty sure this will all work OK, and it’s basically what you asked for.”
I’m not going to be proud of a system like that, and ultimately, the church won’t be as happy as they should be. Sure, it could be better than the 15 year old system they have—that was likely Bid Spec’d—but it’s not the ideal solution.
Overall, there’s not a lot to love about the Bid Spec process. I cringe whenever I’m asked to do one, because I know that no one really wins. Sure, we may get the job, and the church may get a bunch of new gear, but do we really all come away feeling good about it? That’s the process we’ll talk about next time: A Better Way.
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.
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 somewhat 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 channels showed up on the console was completely dependent on what inputs they were plugged into Today, with digital consoles, it’s easy put any channel on any fader. 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…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 all the time closest to you, so you’re not reaching all the way to the end every time. 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 mic’s, music playback, video and other utility channels are either to the right or left of effects depending on the console.
I like my VCAs on the right, which puts my vocals right in the middle 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 used to keep my bass in my guitars VCA; but lately, I’ve been putting in with the drums. Others dedicate a VCA to just kick and bass.
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 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 what I was doing. 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.
Production work can be fun. This week, we talk about the most fun we’ve had on a show, when we had to learn lots of new things. We also debate when it’s time to bring in the pro’s for a show.
Last week was the big InfoComm show. As I wandered the show floor, I kept having the same conversation with different guys I met up with. It went something like this:
Me: “Hey! How’s it going?”
Them: “Great! You?”
M: “Great! How’s the show? Seen anything exciting?”
T: “It’s a good show, some good stuff, nothing too thrilling.”
M: “Yeah, me too.”
I even took the conversation further and asked a few people why they thought it was we weren’t seeing anything too exciting. I wondered aloud if I was just getting old and cynical and nothing really excited me anymore, or if there really isn’t that much new and exciting coming out lately. My friend Mark Hanna summed it up well, “It’s a little bit of both, I think.”
In My Day…
I remember just a few years ago when Van and I started doing trade show videos, we would shoot 20-30 videos each show. And that was 3-4 shows a years. Imagine, there were at least two years when we shot a solid 75 new product videos! In the last five shows, I haven’t shot 20 videos total. Again, it’s hard to tell if there just isn’t much new or if I just don’t care as much anymore.
Part of it I’m sure is sitting through literally hundreds of dog and pony shows with manufacturers telling me how great, exciting and new their products are. Each new product promises better this and better that, and it will make my job easier than ever before. Problem is, I’m not sure it’s true.
Gear is Nice, but Give Me Skill
More and more, I am convinced—and I’ve written about this before—that it’s not about the gear. Thinking that some new console will finally make it easy for volunteers who have no prior mixing experience to mix like a pro is folly. To hope we’ve found a PA that is so good we don’t need to care about room acoustics is amusing. 4K video cameras and a switcher will not magically make your IMAG look as good as the Passion Conference.
The Last 10%
To some extent, I wonder if we’ve reached the last 10% of innovation in AVL systems. One of the guys I work with suggested that it seems we’re seeing more combining and re-packaging of technology. Take this thing, that other thing and some other thing over there and combine it into one and voila! It’s amazing! But really, we’ve had all that before, it’s just a re-packaging. And that’s fine, it’s just not groundbreaking.
To be sure, this happens in most mature product markets. Lately, as my love for coffee and espresso has become an obsession, I’ve been researching espresso machines. The machine I bought was released in the early 2000s. There have been no major advances in the art of espresso making in quite a while. Unless you count the little pod machines that don’t really make good espresso anyway. But when it comes to classic espresso—14 grams of finely ground coffee pressed to 30 pounds, extracted at 195 degrees between 8-10 bar for 25 seconds—there isn’t much new.
When I look at mixing consoles, video switchers and cameras, there’s not much “new.” There are refining of techniques, subtle enhancements and slightly better ways of doing things (and definitely lower costs), but few groundbreaking advances. Again, this is not a knock on our industry, it’s a sign it’s maturing.
Like I said, what we really need is a way to improve the skill set of our operators, not new equipment to operate. If we can figure out a way to package that and sell it for a lower price, we’re on to something.
What do you think? Are you gear fatigued? Or am I just old an cynical?
Last fall at LDI, I was given a sneak peak at the new Roland M-5000 audio console. We shot a pretty long video on it, which covered most of the big picture highlights of the desk. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend more time on the desk, this time with current software and audio tracks. Over the course of two days, I probably spent about six hours digging into menus and settings, mixing and generally learning my way around.
For those looking for the executive summary right away, I’ll tell you up front that I really like the desk. It’s fast to get around on, has a ton of features and sounds good. Most of you know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool DiGiCo guy, having mixed on an SD8 for four years, loving every minute of it. I’ve also mixed on plenty of Yamaha, Soundcraft, A&H, SSL and other desks. While I have my favorites, I’m always on the lookout for something new, something disruptive. The M-5000 is both new and disruptive.
What’s In a Name?
Roland has taken some flak for the name of the platform—OHRCA. Cue the Free Willy jokes here. But aside from a funny name, I like what they’re doing. OHRCA stands for Open, High-Resolution, Configurable Architecture. While the M-5000’s main I/O is based on REAC, Roland’s proprietary audio transport protocol, there are two card slots on the back that will accept Dante, MADI and Waves Soundgrid. With those cards, you can connect to pretty much any system.
The M-5000 will run all 128 processing paths at 96KHz, 24 bits (with 72 bit fixed point internal processing). Many people don’t know this but REAC was always designed to run at 96KHz, so any stage box out there will connect right up to the M-5000 and run at 96KHz.
It’s also highly configurable. One thing I loved about my DiGiCo was the ability to place faders anywhere I liked on the surface. The M-5000 takes a unique approach to that. Instead of banks and layers, there are scroll buttons that will basically slide the channels left and right on the faders. If you’re set up for say, 80 input channels, that could get tedious so they created “anchor” channels. An anchor lets you define a point of quick access—the lead guitar for example—and scroll to that point in the channel list with one click.
You also have three completely assignable user layers that you can lay out however you want. Each of the three banks of eight faders can be linked together in the scrolling process or isolated. There are an additional four faders all the way to the right that can be assigned to whatever you need ready access to often. This is a different metaphor for working with lots of inputs and outputs on a small surface, but once I got used to it (it took about an hour), I found it very fast and intuitive.
The Best from the Best
There are some great consoles out there, and the ones that I get most excited about have a few features in common. First is a flexible architecture. DiGiCo has done a great job with that over the years, giving users the ability to decide how to allocate both mono and stereo groups and auxes. SSL took it a step further and gave us processing paths that can be assigned anyway you like. Midas did something similar with the ProX.
Roland took that same idea of processing paths and incorporated it into the M-5000. There are 128 processing paths that can be freely assignable between input channels (mono or stereo, selected on a per-channel basis), matrix mixes, groups, auxes and outputs. Groups and auxes can be mono or stereo, and the main out can be LR, LCR, Mono or 5.1 surround (with built-in down mixing) Re-allocating the processing is very simple and every time I did it, audio continued to pass. That’s right, no re-booting or dropping audio to add another few groups or auxes.
They clearly understand that in today’s large venues, one needs access to a large number of inputs and outputs. You may not need to mix them all, all the time, but you need access to them. To that end, the M-5000 can access up to 300 inputs and 296 outputs at 96KHz. Any input can be patched to any output (or multiple outputs) through separate patch bays, including control of gain and phantom power without having to go through a channel. Gain sharing is slated for the next software release (this summer I believe) so multiple consoles can share the same input racks seamlessly.
There are so many features on a board of this size, it’s almost impossible to cover them all. So I’ll stop here and pick it up again on Friday with some of my favorite features.