Thoughts I Haven’t Thought Yet

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This time of year, you seem to see posts about busyness on all the church tech blogs.  It always strikes me how crazy this time of year can get.  I am pretty fortunate to be in a situation where we don’t do a major Christmas production.  I may not be as busy as some, but I still seem to be busier this month than any other.

In our church, it seems like there are more videos, more rehearsals, more stuff than normal.  We have basically doubled our average in-house video production, and each video seems to be a bit more complicated than the last.

On top of that, we have Christmas Eve services, and all our regular Sundays.  You may be looking at this and saying, “you really have no idea.”  And that is probably a true statement.  So instead of telling you how to handle your Christmas rush, I will instead share a few thoughts I wish I had thought of at least a month ago…

  1. Scheduled Time To Schedule:  This month, I really needed to sit down before I started and looked closer at my schedule.  Some scheduling issues were above my pay grade, and therefore out of my control.  But I should have had more input into the things I could control.  This week I had a school Christmas concert Tuesday night, rehearsal for Sunday on Wednesday night, rehearsal for the Christmas Eve worship band on Thursday night, and rehearsal for a jazz band for Christmas Eve pre-service music on Sunday night.  Add that to the personal Christmas time plans, and other random time obligations, and there are simply not enough nights in the week.
  2. Don’t Forget Family:  Last week I was talking to my wife about my schedule .  Her comment was, “I really won’t see you at all this week, will I?”  That question struck me like a punch in the gut.  I have a three month old baby at home, and the week before her first Christmas I will spend more time at work than everywhere else combined.  I definitely need to prevent this from happening again next year.  Fortunately, this year it happens that I have a little time off after Christmas.  I don’t think that makes up for my schedule this week, but at least it is something.
  3. Think Through Stage Needs: This probably could have gone under the scheduling thought, but I will share it separately.  One thing I did not think about until much too late is all the times I have had to, and will have to change my stage.  Last week on Friday we had a movie night in our auditorium.  We rented a large screen and projector and set them up on the stage.  It was a great night, but it required me to set-up my stage for rehearsal on Wednesday, tear it down Thursday for the screen, and set it back up Friday after the movie night.  Then Sunday afternoon I had to tear the stage down again for a school Christmas concert and rehearsal on Monday and Tuesday.  Set it back up for Wednesday rehearsal, change it for the Thursday Christmas Eve rehearsal, change it back for Sunday, change again for Christmas Eve, then back to the regular Sunday setup again.  Last month, I should have planned this out better to limit the number of times I have to change the stage, or at least find ways to minimize the differences.
  4. Contingency Plans For Contingency Plans:  I am fortunate that I don’t have to rent equipment for our Christmas season.  However, the month does tax my contingency plans.  Typically speaking, I have a few wired mics, if a wireless mic or two are not working.  I also have a spare wireless handheld mic to use in emergencies.  I also usually have at least one spare D.I. box.  But Christmas Eve, all of those extras will be in use.  So what happens if something fails?  This month I need a backup plan for my backup plan, because my backup plan is becoming my main plan.  And of course, I should have thought this through sometime before a week till Christmas Eve.
  5. Test Early, Test Often: There are a few pieces of equipment that I only get out of the closet once or twice a year.  One example of that are my orchestra mics.  I have a set of mics for orchestra instruments, leftover from a bygone era.  I get the opportunity to play with a couple of these mics each Christmas.  But of course, I don’t think about testing them until the week before Christmas.  Far too late to do anything if one of them isn’t working.  Another testing failure for me this year was a couple of snow machines.  This year the pastoral team asked if we could make it snow on stage on Christmas Eve.  We have a couple of old snow machines that have been in the church longer than anyone on our staff tech team.  This time, I did manage to follow the “test early” concept, and I had tested both snow machines, found clogged pumps, and repaired them in early November (go me!).  What I failed to do was test them again until last week.  One of the snow machines is still working great, the other is dead.  I again took apart the pump, but could not get it to work again.  So we have had to settle with only one snow machine.  The effect on stage is still nice, but we do not have the even coverage we had with two machines.  If I had tested the snow machines again before it was too late, I could have ordered a new pump and had them both up and running for Christmas Eve.
  6. Remember To Stop and Remember:  There is a reason this is such a busy time on the church calendar, and our personal calendars.  It is not just because of the cookies and carols.  We are celebrating the birth of a life that changed the world.  It is far to easy to lose sight of the reason in the midst of this season.  I must do a better job of stopping and remembering why we do all this, or it all becomes meaningless.

I am sure that there are other thoughts I haven’t even realized I should have thought yet.  Hopefully next year I can look at this list earlier and not put everything off to the last minute.

Limiting Stage Volume

In my previous post about volume limits, one of the keys I mentioned was limiting stage volume.  I mentioned I could write an entire post on this topic alone, so here it is…

If you think of the average contemporary church stage, there are quite a few sources of volume.  Drum sets and guitar amps are normally the most obvious offenders, but floor monitors can be just as dangerous.  For this post, we will focus on the different contributors to stage volume, and different strategies to limiting them.

Drums:

This in many churches is the loudest source of stage volume.  Often loud drum sets will dictate volume levels more than any leadership mandates could.  I have been in situations before where we did not mic the drums, and mixed the rest of the instruments to the live drum volume.  I am not recommending this practice, but it gives you an idea of the challenge we face.

The most obvious solution to the drum volume problem is electronic drum sets.  However, whether this is a true solution or not is debatable.  They do reduce stage volume, but unless you splurge to buy a high end electronic kit, you will never be happy with the drum sound, and even with top of the line kits it is difficult.

The second option is sound limiting techniques.  Drum shields and padding are often use to reduce or redirect live drum sound.  Some churches even go so far as building a full cage for the drum set.  Although a full cage is not in the budget of most churches, some level of sound redirection is very helpful.  Just make sure you are not making the problem worse instead of better.  I visited a local church this summer who was having problems with their music mix.  As soon as I walked in the room, I knew what the problem was.  They had built a drum cage out of plexiglass and styrofoam.  I am sure budget issues limited what they could do, but their DIY drum cage definitely hurt, rather than helped.  The natural tendency of a drummer in a cage is to play louder.  Put them in a cage with little or no sound deadening, and you are magnifying the problem, not reducing it.  A good quality shield in front of the drum set would be much more effective.

Another thing to consider with a drum shield is where the sound is being redirected.  Typically, a drum shield will reflect sound up, and against the back wall.  So if you are reflecting this drum sound onto hard surfaces, such as walls and a low ceiling, you are probably doing more harm than good.  Consider adding some baffling behind the drum set, against the wall, or above the shield, or both.

Finally, and most importantly, work with your drummer.  Most drummers simply want to make the band sound better.  So if you talk to them in a polite way, and work together, they can help reduce stage volume.  Talk to them about how lowering their volume on stage will make the sound in the house better.  This step should be the first and most obvious solution.

Amplifiers:

Again, key number one is working together with musicians to lower stage volume.  This can become a complicated issue for many reasons.  One factor is that any many churches, guitarists and bass players typically prefer to hear themselves through the amp, rather than a monitor.  So reducing the amp volume reduces their ability to hear themselves.  To solve this problem, try placing the amp in front of the player, and point it at their head instead of their knees.

Another issue with guitar amps is that volume level effects tone quality.  Many guitarists intentionally run their amp louder to get the tone they are looking for.  So asking them to reduce their amp volume on stage is like asking them to play with bad tone.  So the solution is trying to find a way to reduce stage volume without turning down guitar amps.  Again, pointing them towards the back wall may help, but probably not enough.  If the amp is on stage, baffling it may help.  The other solution is to move the amps off stage.  Many guitarists cringe at taking their amp and hiding it in the closet.  They don’t want to loose the ability to adjust the amp.  But when the choice is between turning down the amp, or moving it off stage, most guitarists I have worked with will choose the later.  Just make sure they get a good sound in the monitors, or no one will be happy.

Monitors:

One contributor to stage volume that often gets over looked are floor wedges.  If you have multiple floor monitors on stage, you have a cascading problem.  The wedges have to be turned up to overcome the other loud volume sources on stage.  Then with the wedges blaring, there is no clarity in the mix, so people start asking for more of everything in their mix.  This just compounds the problem.

The most obvious (and expensive) solution is replacing wedges with in-ear monitors.  This is definitely a great option, but out of the budget of many churches.  And sometimes you will find that a cheap in-ear solution does more harm than good.

Another potential solution is how you set-up and mix floor wedges.  One important thing is to have the musician or singer as close to the wedge as possible.  That way, you can lower the overall volume level of the wedge, and the musician can still hear.  Another key to reducing wedge volume is to mix monitors by subtraction rather than by addition.  They most natural way to mix monitors is to add a little of this, and a little of that.  More often than not, that is how musicians will request changes.  However, the more you add, the louder it gets.  Rather, if a musician needs more of several items, try reducing the other channels instead.  Also, training musicians to ask for channels to be reduced rather than increased will help as well.

Following these guidelines can help reduce stage volume, which can bring a lot of clarity to the house mix.  But please let me reiterate, the key is to work with musicians, not against them.  If the volume struggle becomes an us vs. them battle, nothing will help.  I hope these suggestions help you control your stage volume and make your mixing better, and more fun.