Mixing Silence In The Dark

blackout

As I mentioned in my last post, this past Sunday we lost all power during our service.  It was the nightmare of every tech person I know.  Right after the second verse of the second song, we lost everything.

In all actuality, if we had planned the power outage, it could not have happened at a better time.  Our first song was relatively new to the congregation, and there is no way they could have continued singing that without the words.  Our second song was a new version of the old hymn, It Is Well.  The congregation went straight into the chorus as if nothing had ever happened.  It was a really powerful moment.  At the end of the song, our preacher came up and began his message without power.

One thing about our room, we have two giant walls of windows along the side walls of the room, but we have shades that we typically close during the service to darken the room and create a more intimate environment.  Of course, when the power shut off, the blinds were closed, and we had no way to open them up.  Needless to say, the room was very dark.

The power came back on about 5 minutes into the sermon, for just long enough to almost complete the power up procedures for the tech equipment before going out again.  After another 5 minutes of darkness the power came back on for good.

A few lessons to share from all the excitement:

  1. Go With The Flow: There are certain things you can’t really plan for.  I am sure we have some sort of power outage plan, but there is no way it could cover all the potential issues that might come up.  And it is good to have a plan, but in the heat of the moment, we just have to keep our cool and do what we can to make the service work.  Because we kept our heads, we thought to open the shades as soon as the power came back on.  This gave us natural light in the room while we waited for the lighting console to come back up, and prevented us from going back to complete darkness when we lost power a second time.
  2. Test Your Backup Systems: When the power goes off during a service is a bad time to discover that your battery backup for your console is not working properly.  For us, it should be set up to give us enough time to save our show file, and properly shut down the console.  It wasn’t.  I lost power to the console as soon as the lights went out. My digital console automatically powers up exactly how it was shut down, so when we fired the console up during the un-amplified sermon, every band channel was un-muted and turned up.  That created a rather loud pop that startled both the congregation and preacher.  Also, the loop track we use for worship started playing through the speakers immediately after the pop.  As the console continued the power-up procedures I muted everything, which saved me from any more loud noises when we lost power a second time.
  3. Communication is Key:  When the lights went out, the rest of the service became a series of audibles.  We were not quite Payton Manning efficient, but we did play better than Eli.  The original schedule had another song, communion, and offering before the sermon.  So when the preacher stepped up at the end of It Is Well, the rest of the team had to reschedule the rest of the service.  We wrote out the new service flow, and made sure everyone on the tech team had a copy, but we don’t have a dedicated confidence monitor to communicate with the speaker on stage, and we had no way of commuting with the ushers, who were sitting throughout the congregation with their families.  At the end of the sermon, our worship leader went up on stage a little early to communicate to the speaker that he would take over.  After the sermon prayer, the first words from the worship leader were, “as we prepare for communion…” which got the ushers moving.  It was a little clunky, but considering everything, it was a pretty smooth transition.  After communion and offering, our worship leader said, “as we sing this last song….” which communicated the new flow to the speaker, who got up to give the commission at the end of the service.  What made it all work was communication.  It took us a few minutes to figure out how to communicate the service flow to everyone, but it all worked out pretty well.
  4. It Is All in God’s Hands: From a purely technical standpoint, the service was a disaster.  We recovered well, which is the most important part, but we sure did not live up to our vision of creating a distraction free worship experience.  But, despite the problems, God crafted an amazing experience.  He showed up in a powerful way, and we experienced an incredible time of congregational worship.  It is a nice reminder that while our jobs and our tech ministry are important, at the end of the day, we are not necessary.  Even when everything goes wrong (or maybe because everything goes wrong?), God shows up and does something amazing.  That should take some pressure off of our shoulders.

I hope you don’t have an experience like we had Sunday, but if you do, I pray that God takes over.  Let’s use this as a reminder of what our true place should be.  Serving Him and His Church.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Back To The Grindstone

Grindstone

After two weeks of vacation following the birth of my daughter, I went back to work last week.  In some ways it is nice to be back, to have a schedule, and to get out of the house.  But it is hard to be away from my new baby.  But there are bills to be paid, and a growing mountain of things that needed to be done two weeks ago.

Because of the way everything worked out, my first day back at work was Sunday.  The original plan was for me to take Sunday off and come back Monday, but with everything else happening, that just did not work out.  So I walked in Sunday morning after two weeks off, suffering symptoms of sleep deprivation, and without the benefit of having run sound at rehearsal.  Overall, it was defiantly not my best Sunday.  At one point I sarcastically quipped that I had not struggled this much with a mix since High School.  While that was an exaggeration, it was not a great day.  I would love to whine and complain about everything, but I think I need to be more positive.  So I will share a few lessons I learned.

  1. Rehearsal is Important:  There is a reason that we have implemented an expectation that if you can’t make rehearsal, you can’t run Sunday.  This week was an example of a time where that just was not possible, but it highlighted just how important rehearsal is.  Many of my struggles would have been avoided if I had been at rehearsal.
  2. Know Your System:  When I first turned on the system and ran some music, it sounded like it was playing through a tin can.  There was little volume, no depth, and no bass.  After checking my console settings and walking the room, I discovered that sound was only coming from my down fills and front fills.  Since I was very familiar with my system, I could tell which speakers were working and which were not.  After double checking the set-up of my console and finding no problems I knew it was probably the amp rack.  Knowing that my fills and mains shared a send from the board, and that the front fills and down fills were on two of my amps, and that my mains and subs were on three others immediately narrowed down my troubleshooting.  And only the amps for the fills had power.  I found a popped circuit breaker, Turns out that the two amps running the down fills and front fills where plugged in on two separate circuits, but the 5 amps that run our mains, subs, monitors, and foyer speakers were all running off one circuit.  Once that was redistributed, we had no more power problems.  (If I had known my system better, we would not have had this problem to begin with.)
  3. Keep Your Focus:  As I mentioned, I struggled last week.  I struggled with the amp problem.  I struggled with feedback.  And I struggled with my mix.  But mostly, I struggled to keep focused.  The first time the feedback happened, I corrected the problem, but my concentration was gone.  Because I was focusing on my mistakes instead of my next cue, I did not un-mute the pastor’s mic before he started speaking.  Everyone will make mistakes.  That is inevitable.  We can try to prevent them, and that is great, but when we do make mistakes, we have to keep our focus and move on.  If we don’t, one minor mishap can lead to a series of mistakes that all could have been avoided if we had just kept our focus on the next cue.

Hopefully you have learned something from my struggles.  I know I have.

Tune in next time to see what I learned from a Sunday morning power outage.  Yes that’s right, the second Sunday since coming back to work we lost all power during service.  Look for a post soon about the details, and the lessons learned.

Happy Mixing,
Aaron

Mixing Monitors

Floor wedge

A good monitor mix can make the difference between doubt and confidence, good and great, happy and frustrated musicians.  It is not simply a matter of what they hear, but how that affects the music.  Having a good monitor mix can make all the difference in the world.

But all too often the responsibility for that mix is placed only on the musician.  They tell us what they want and we give it to them, whether it is really what they want or not.  Often without stopping to think about what they are really asking for.

For this post, I am going to start by listing some signs that may indicate a poor monitor mix and then talk about how I set them.  Often times, the signs of a poor mix are not the fault of the musician.  Sometimes, things are just off, and it is hard to put a finger on exactly what the problem is.  These symptoms may be a sign of a poor monitor mix.:

  1. Constantly asking for changes.  (Often even contradictory changes)
  2. Continuously asking for more of different channels.
  3. Poor musicianship.  (Singing/playing off key, poor timing, etc.)
  4. General frustration or apathy about the monitor mix.

If your musicians are showing any of these symptoms, they may be struggling with their monitor mix.  (They may also just be having a bad day, so tread lightly).

Here are my basic keys for mixing monitors.

  1. Know My Musicians:  Generally speaking, I have a pretty good idea of what my regular musicians like to hear in their monitors.  If it is significantly different than others, I try to have it set up before they walk in the door.  That way I know what they prefer before they every ask for anything.  I also know what they mean when they say they need a little of something.  Sometimes a little more of something means they want a very subtle bump, sometimes it means more.  Knowing what each individual is actually asking for really helps.
  2. Listen to the Mix: Soloing a monitor send can really help you hear what the musician hears, if your console has this ability.  I even know of engineers who keep an extra floor wedge at the console, so they can hear what the musicians hear.  I have mostly IEMs on my stage, so I just use my headphones.  It is not exactly the same, but it gives me a good idea of what they hear.  Also, if someone is really struggling, it often helps to plug into their in-ear pack.  I have found that clipping and limiters can ruin a mix that sounds good at the console.
  3. Beware of the Mores: Often times a musician who can’t hear something in the mix will ask for a little more of it.  If they are struggling with a bad mix, this can often turn into asking for more of a lot of things, sometimes all at once, sometimes one or two at a time.  Eventually the mix gets to the point where everything is so loud there is no clarity in anything.  Before it gets to this point, I try to bring down the individual sends.  For example, if the drummer is saying he needs more of the entire kit, and most of his sends are pretty high, you get the same outcome by turning down everything except what he wants turned up.  Just make sure to keep the basic mix the same.  If done right, this should bring down the overall volume slightly without impacting the balance, but most importantly, should bring clarity to the mix.
  4. Know What They Need: Many musicians know exactly what they want, but some don’t know what they need.  Usually, it is best to give the musician what they want (within reason).  At bare minimum, musicians need themselves, the leader’s instrument and vocal, a time source (usually kick/snare/click), and any instrument that they need to blend with  (for example, it is a good idea for the lead guitar and keys to be able to hear each other so they don’t step on what the other is playing.)  The same basic needs apply to background vocals, except they need a key reference as well (and if they are on a wedge, they probably have enough natural drum noise without it cluttering the monitor mix.  Many musicians want more than these minimums, and give it to them if they ask.  But if they are struggling with a bad mix, start with the basics and add from there.
  5. Focus on Clarity: When the mix is bad and the musician can’t pinpoint the problem, I will ask if I can listen to the mix during the next song and adjust it.  Often times when I hear what they hear, it sounds a lot like mud.  So I make subtle adjustments to bring clarity.  Sometimes that is EQ changes, sometimes it is bringing down unnecessary extras.  The key is to simplify without losing the basics.  Make sure you make the adjustments in the first half of the song, so they can hear it for the second half.  Then ask how it sounded, and make any additional adjustments as needed.
  6. Communicate Well: By this I do not just mean clearly communicating what you are trying to say.  I mean communicate in a positive and encouraging way.  It is far too easy for a musician to settle for a bad mix, especially when we do not make them feel comfortable when asking for adjustments.  I try to always make the band feel safe to ask for changes.  At the end of every sound check, I tell them to let me know what they need.  I never give anyone a hard time for asking for something.  And sometime during rehearsal I normally ask again if everyone is happy with their monitors.  These simple things show the band that I care about them and want to make sure they have what they need.  I never want them to feel that adjusting the monitors is an inconvenience, even when it is.

Using these basic keys helps me create good monitor mixes.  And this gives the band the confidence needed to play their best.  As the old saying goes, “Good in – Good Out.”  When you give your musicians good monitor mixes, you get better inputs, and therefore a better mix.  So make sure they have what they need.

As always, if you have any thoughts or questions please feel free to add them in the comments section below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Efficient Sound Checks

church-soundcheck

It seems like sound checks are the most important wastes of time in my week.  You can’t mix without them, but you just want to get them over with as soon as possible and get on to the rehearsal or service.  So here are a few key thoughts on how I speed things up.

  1. Be Prepared: Making sure everything is set and ready before the band shows up is crucial.  There is nothing that wastes more time in a sound check than fixing a problem. And nothing more frustrating when you know you could have easily prevented that problem.  So make sure you check everything in a full line check beforehand.
  2. Know Your Musicians:  I keep a close eye on who is playing what any given week.  I have come to learn what many of my regular musicians prefer, so I can have a basic monitor mix set before they walk in the door.  For example, I have a lead guitarist that wants only click, guitars and lead vocals in his mix, so I have that set beforehand, so I have a lot less adjusting to do during sound check.
  3. .Start Early: My worship leader has set the expectation that all musicians should be plugged in, tuned, and warmed up before sound check begins.  (If you do not already have this expectation, I highly encourage you to talk to your worship leader about it).  Of course, that does not always happen with every musician every week, but someone is always there early.  As they are playing and warming up, I start setting their gain structure and EQ settings.  That will be one less line you have to sound check later.  On a good week, I have most of my gain structure set before the scheduled start time.
  4. Set Gain: Many people go through line by line and set gain.  This is good strategy, but time consuming.  In my room, things don’t change enough to make that worth the time.  My bass, rhythm, and lead guitar always run through the same amps, my lead vocal is always the same, and has the same mic with the same settings, My drum mics are usually always in the same positions.  Plus, I have a digital console on which I can recall settings in case anything gets changed.  So, instead of going line by line, I have the band run through the verse and chorus of a song they are very familiar with.  I tweak my gain during this time, but don’t touch any other setting.  Then after this I do not touch gain again unless absolutely necessary.
  5. Adjust Monitors: This step can look a lot different based on your console, your band, and your preference.  With the way my board is set up, it is easier for me to start with one musician and adjust whatever they need, then move to the next musician.  On other consoles, I have found that it is easier to go through channel by channel and see who needs more or less of what.  Find a system that is clear and concise, and use it consistently.
  6. Repeat: I have the band run through the same section of the same song, and check ears again.  This allows us to dial in the monitor mixes so that everyone has what they need.
  7. Move On: This step might seem obvious, but it is important to remember.  Sometimes it is very beneficial to repeat step 5 more than once, but it is far too easy to just keep tweaking indefinitely.  At some point (sooner rather than later) you have to end sound check and start rehearsal.  Typically, I have the band run the verse/chorus of a song twice, adjust ears twice, and than have them move on.  Every single time I end sound check I tell the musicians to let me know if they need anything else.  I don’t want them to settle for a bad monitor mix, but I don’t want to take 30 minutes tweaking one person’s ears.

Typically, my sound check takes 10-15 minutes.  Some days it is faster, depending on how many people arrive on time [read early], some days it takes longer, but that is my goal.  One thing that helps ensure this is efficiently mixing the monitors.  Not just the system of how you progress through the band, but also what adjustments you make.  Look for a post in the near future about mixing monitors.

In the mean time, if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions please leave them in the comments below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Saving Time with Line Checks

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of always preforming a full line check.  Going through each channel and checking that you have the proper signal in the right place can save you a lot of headaches.  But in my busy week, I know it is all to common to try and find shortcuts.  In the past I have skipped a full line check to get to another project, and it always seems to come back to haunt me.

We all too often fall into the mindset that if it worked last week, and no one messed with anything, it will work this week.  For those of us who don’t have to tear down a stage every week, that is tempting.  But that makes two dangerous assumptions.  First, that no one actually did mess with anything, and secondly, that the gremlins that tear apart the audio system did not strike this week.  The gremlins struck me this past Sunday.  A bass amp that was working perfectly at rehearsal on Wednesday was making a loud buzzing noise Sunday morning.  It turns out that the surge protector went bad.  No one touched it, it just worked when we turned it off Wednesday, and not when we turned it on Sunday.  And I am sure everyone has a story like that.

For that reason, every single week I run a full line check.  I check every input and output line before rehearsal on Wednesday.  This does not prevent every problem, but it prevents a lot of them.  That way I have time to find and troubleshoot any problems before the band arrives.  Here is the process that I have developed.  I have found that it streamlines the line check and ensures I don’t miss anything.  I will also share a brief glimpse of my process to set the stage, which can set me up for success or failure during the line check.

Most weeks, the majority of my stage does not change.  But there are always things that do.  I power up the system and start playing music through the mains and monitors.  This not only gives me something to listen to while I work, it also ensures that my outputs are working properly.  As I am setting up monitors and in-ear packs, I can listen to them to make sure they are receiving the audio signal.

As I set my stage, I verify every channel, even the ones that never change.  I visually inspect the mics and cables to make sure they have not moved or been damaged, and that they are still plugged into the correct channels.

For me, this is where I start to contemplate efficiency.  It is natural, easy, and time consuming to jump around the stage from one line to the next.  For me, I find that I save time and energy by following my input list channel by channel, which typically follows my board inputs from right to left.  This means I start with the drums, then click and loop tracks, bass, guitars, keys, and vocals.  Having the same sequence ensures I don’t miss anything, and that I don’t check the same thing 5 times.  (just twice, typically).  I do the same thing for my outputs, once my inputs are done.  From Aux 1-8, I set and verify each stage output.

As I am setting the stage, I am updating any changes on my input list.  Once everything is plugged in, then it is time to check the board patching.  Again, I go through each channel in order and double check it against my input list.  Most weeks very few things change, but I check everything anyways.

Now I get to the actual line check.  For me this can be the most obnoxious part of the day.  Proper line check procedure requires that you check each channel with the other channels muted.  This not only ensures that you are getting the signal to the board, but that it is coming through where you are expecting it.  Many digital consoles allow you to control the board through an iPad or laptop, but I don’t currently have the software to do that with mine.  So to do a proper line check, I would be constantly running back and forth from the stage to the board.  Now I probably need the exercise, and it is not as bad as those who have the board in a balcony, but I am lazy.  So I have enlisted the help of my worship leader.  He comes in for ten minutes and runs the board, so I can check each line.  I know others who do the opposite, and run the board while a second person checks the lines, but I have found that most of my mistakes happen on the stage side, so that is where I work from.

I have my worship leader unmute a channel, I will check a line.  He will let me know that signal came in on that channel and only that channel, mute the channel and we move on to the next.  We can go through all 15-20 wired lines in about five minutes without issues.  I check the wireless channels separately, since I keep the batteries at the console anyway.  If we do come across an issue, I will see if there is an obvious, easy fix; but if it is more complicated, I will mark that channel on the input list and come back to it.  No sense wasting the worship leaders time while I trouble shoot.  He has enough to do before rehearsal without watching me run around.

All in all, my line check takes about ten minutes and does not require me to leave the stage.  The worship leader is happy because any issues are discovered and resolved before the band arrives.  I am happy because the entire band does not have to wait around and watch me troubleshoot a problem only to find out that I never plugged the cord in.

And the final step to improve efficiency, we ask the band to come in and set up early enough to be plugged in, tuned, and warmed up before the rehearsal downbeat.  Because I have already completed my line check, if a problem develops, I can start with their gear.  Now, things have been known to go bad between line check and rehearsal, but this at least gives me a good starting point.  It also allows me to set my gain structure as the band warms up, which really speeds up my sound check.  Look for a follow up post soon about running efficient sound checks.

I have found that line checks are an essential part of my set-up process.  I cannot even express how many issues they have prevented, or how many problems have occurred when I have skipped them.  Remember, this is just my procedure, and there is no guarantee it will work for you.  But I think it is a good starting point.  If you have any comments, suggestions or questions, please feel free to put them in the comment section below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Basic Troubleshooting Guide

broken speaker

As promised a few weeks ago, here is a basic troubleshooting guide.  Whether the problem is no sound, noise, or something else, these steps will give you a good place to start.

  1. Prevent the Problem: As the old cliche says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  This statement is especially true in audio.  It amazes me how many of the problems I have had to troubleshoot could have (and probably should have) been easily prevented.  A line check, while time consuming and boring will save you a ton of time and embarrassment when everyone is in the room.  There is nothing quite like spending ten minutes troubleshooting a bad monitor, only to realize you never plugged it in.  Look for a post about efficient line checks in the near future.
  2. Be Organized: If you have a rat’s nest of cables on the stage that are all a jumbled up mess, not only are problems more likely, they are harder to solve.  There is nothing like trying to follow a wire through a knot of cables to see if it is plugged in to the right channel.  Speaking of that, make sure you have a full input list that tells you where everything is supposed to be plugged in, how it is supposed to be routed.  Put in as much detail as possible and keep it updated.  This really helps to give you a better understanding of signal flow and all the potential pieces that could cause the problem, and gives you a handy guide to where everything should be plugged in and how it should be patched.  I include channel name (and the name of the person using that channel, so I can call them by name if I don’t know them), stage and console patching, whether the channel requires phantom power, and notes on type of mic and specific routing.  If seeing a copy of my input list would be helpful for you, let me know.
  3. Separate and Mark:  This is part of the organizational step, but I am going to list it separately.  Make sure you label bad equipment as bad.  I use gaff tape and silver sharpie for this.  I always write down what is wrong with the item, not just “broken”.  That will save time when it comes to fixing it.  Labeling also prevents you from using bad equipment and having to troubleshoot all over again.
  4. Apologize and Communicate:  Whether it is your fault or not, apologize to the band for the delay.  As a musician, it is very frustrating to be ready to play, and then not being able to.  Communicate what the issue is, let them know you are working on it.  They don’t need to know every step, but let them know you are thinking about them.  Also, if you are going to do anything that might make noise, ask them to take out their in-ears, or turn them off.  Don’t take risks with their hearing.  If you would want to mute it in the house speakers, have the same consideration for the musicians.
  5. Eliminate the Obvious: It amazes me how many issues I run into that probably should not have been issues (see step 2).  For example, a plug not fully seated, an amp not turned on, etc.  If something is not working, check the connections.  Ask the musician to unplug and replug the chord.  (Don’t say, “Is it plugged in?”  Use their name and say please.  No point in coming across as a jerk.  That won’t help anyone.)
  6. Determine the Seriousness: Is this problem something you can live with?  If there is a bit of hum during rehearsal, is it worth delaying the rehearsal, and possibly keeping everyone later, or can this be solved afterwords, or tomorrow, when your troubleshooting is not under the stress of a time crunch?  If it’s Sunday morning, is this a problem that will (or has the potential to) affect the service.  Typically, I follow the better safe than sorry philosophy, especially on Sundays, but there are times where no one in the room but me would notice the problem.  Ask yourself, and your worship leader, is that worth stressing over today?
  7. Find a Work-Around: If you are trying to get something fixed quickly to get a service or rehearsal running, this should be your go to tool.  Often, we do not have time to find and solve the problem, we just need a functioning solution.  Fifteen minutes before service or sound check starts is not a great time to take apart a monitor and check the soldering connections.  That is something to do on Monday.  When troubleshooting in a time crunch, the goal should be finding a workable alternative.  Always keep spare mics, monitors, and cables handy, and make something work, anything, even if it is not the ideal set-up.
  8. Eliminate and Isolate: When you have time to seriously dig in and do the real troubleshooting, this is my process.  Go through the entire signal change start to finish and eliminate all possible causes.  For example, if you are troubleshooting a buzz in an electric guitar channel, look at the entire chain.  It starts with the guitar, then each pedal on the board, the amp, the mic, the cables, the snake, the stage rack, the console.  Use the process of elimination to narrow down the possibilities.  Plug the guitar straight into the amp and bypass the pedal board.  If the problem goes away, you know it is somewhere on the pedal board, if it persists, then the pedals are not the problem.  Try a different guitar, different cable, different amp, different mic, different snake channel, different board channel, different power source, all one at a time until you figure out the problem.  Eventually you will find the problem.  Then isolate that part to confirm that is the problem.  Remove everything else possible from the signal chain and make sure the problem is actually that part and not something else.
  9. Fix the Issue: Now that you have found and confirmed the problem, fix it.  Don’t just put it in the corner of the closet.  The old adage “out of site, out of mind” really applies here.  If you don’t see the problem part, you won’t fix it.  Put it on your desk, so you can’t check your e-mail without staring at it.  Put it in the middle of the floor of your office so you trip over it every time you walk in.  Do not let yourself forget about it.  If you can fix it yourself, great, but if you are paying someone else to fix it, make sure you know the cost to repair vs. replace.  Often I have found there is a significant difference, but sometimes it is not much more to buy a new replacement part then to repair the old one.  Just make sure you don’t replace it with a cheap part that you may have to troubleshoot again in a year.

I hope this guide is helpful to you.  If you have any tips that I have missed, or questions, please add them in the comments section.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron