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.

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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.

Basic Troubleshooting Guide

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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