Friday, April 18, 2014
Perspectives On Touring, Then And Now
Change is the only constant. (“Well, it used to be.” “Oh, what happened?” “It changed.”)
A couple of years ago, I got a call to mix front of house for Uriah Heep on a mini-tour of the U.S. I hadn’t mixed a headliner rock band in a long time. Years back, fate took me down the path of product design and manufacturing, and later, I became a specialist in sound system alignment (a.k.a. “room tuning”) for major events and installations.
So I’ve stayed in the game, but only rarely behind a console. However, I eagerly accepted the gig, issuing adequate warning that I’d be rather rusty on the first few gigs.
Uriah Heep is still a hard rockin’ band, though the guys are in their 50s and 60s. Close your eyes while they’re on stage, though, and you’d think they’re still in their 20s. They are top flight musicians demanding top flight sound services, and they possess a work ethic that would put many younger bands to shame.
So looking back at the earlier realm of regional sound systems, particularly in the pre-digital era, it was fascinating to encounter the host of subtle (and not so subtle) differences in how regional SR companies function in today’s market.
It’s easy enough to point out the obvious migration from analog consoles, outboard effects, and analog crossovers to that of digital consoles and DSP loudspeaker controllers—and I have a few observations to share in a moment.
But what struck me most when reflecting on the past was the really big changes in attitudes and skill levels that seem to ride piggyback on the improvements in equipment and technologies. At each stop (the band was not carrying production, only back line), the warm greeting from the local SR company, the show of support and respect, the skill of the local personnel in handling stage patching, the configuration work on the digital consoles, and a plethora of other support tasks, was virtually equal to carrying a staff of A2s trained just for this gig.
Years back, I remember cold shoulders, unwillingness to accommodate the band’s engineer in any way, and little or no assistance in sussing out a new console, or a new effects device, or for that matter, holding a meaningful discussion on how to optimize aspects of the system in general. The mantra was, “You’re on your own, son.” But now it’s the polar opposite - and how refreshing that is. A good attitude really helps a show go well; the value cannot be overestimated.
More: I encountered guys in their 20s, guys in their 30s, and older company owners closer to my own age (58), and in all cases the competency level was a true eye opener. As recently as 20 years ago I did not find this to be the case, expect in rarefied situations such as the Grammys and Oscars.
The spirit of “we’re here to help” and “what part can I play to take the load off of you?” was highly welcome, and in my case, much needed, as I had not mixed on some of the consoles before.
But the ability of those who offered their assistance was perhaps even more welcome than their willingness. I got a quick lesson on an Avid VENUE SC48, along with assistance on routing and effect selection, that greatly helped to make that night’s show a rousing success. I was coached on a Yamaha M7CL, and it didn’t take long to get a grasp on how it differs from the PM5D. I got some help on a Midas 3000.
Even though analog’s my thing, and I’ve used most popular consoles before, it’s difficult to remember all the ins and outs when you’re not doing this work every day. The impressions of consoles I came away with: I greatly respect the power of digital consoles to make life far better in many ways, especially when there are multiple acts sharing the same desk.
The digital desks that I used sounded fine, though I’ll admit to liking the sound of the Midas better (and I recognize there was no way to directly compare it in any meaningful way). Behavior-wise, some digital control schemes are easier to work with than others, at least when you’re not acquainted with the architecture of the console and how to bend it to your needs.
It’s an exciting time to be in the middle of a true technology transition. The best is surely yet to come. But while we’re waiting for the future to manifest itself, let’s look at the wide range of ways that a console is used, using two polar opposites as examples.
Set It & Forget It Mix
A lot of mix engineers, working a lot of shows, approach the mix from the basis of getting all of the microphones and other inputs up and running at the proper gain settings, establishing an acceptable balance, and then letting the artist create the dynamics.
If the artist has adequate stage monitoring; if the sonic energy coming off the stage is not great enough to play much of a role in the house mix; if the artist knows how to regulate their own dynamic range; and if (by some miracle) the artist can detect the level of ambient audience noise in the venue (or if audience noise is not an issue), then such an approach can thrive, or at least work very well.
Corporate, TV, symphonic, most jazz, and other genres may successfully be addressed in this way. In such cases, the use of layers in a digital mixing console pose no impediment to achieving the best possible results.
Conversely, there are many good reasons to ride the mix from moment-to-moment, such as: changes in vocal levels as the performers alter their delivery throughout a performance; adjustments to stage amps – especially if the sonic output from the MI amplifiers is playing a big role in the venue (as in smaller spaces or very loud stage amps); changes in audience ambient noise; lack of uniformity in physical attack on a drum kit; changes in monitor levels; and numerous other factors all point to the need to ride the mix as tightly as if you’re steering a big rig down I-395 in a thundershower.
A music-sensitive house engineer can add some serious dynamics to a show, once he/she understands the music and the intent of the artist. The result can well transcend even the best that might have been captured in the studio for the album recording. This is where live sound really comes into its own.
We can help our artists shine in a way that’s far removed from the limited experience the average fan might have by listening at home to their hi-fi, or on the go with their MP3 player. When a big PA says “KICK DRUM” with the authority of it’s 170,000 watts, it does it a lot differently than within the confines of a studio recording.
And that’s where the Producer Mix comes in. If you can use the sound system, play with the sound system, exploit the sound system, then you can (potentially) produce results “bigger than life” – and that’s exactly what many are seeking from their concert-going experience.
By working closely with the tonality of each instrument, by accentuating the dynamics of the act, by riding the mix so that solos stand out while backing instruments sit in the mix where they should to support the lead lines, we can paint a sonic masterpiece! Of course, we might instead paint a caricature by over-exaggerating level changes and effects sends – so let’s not go there. Needless to say, baby steps…
I’m a big fan of not setting all vocal mics at the same level as the effects—and leaving them there. When a song is sung, the vocal levels should be adjusted in relation to the accompanying music. Backing vocals must fit where they fit, and that varies widely from style to style, and even song to song.
And when the current tune is over and the front-person starts talking to the audience, it’s not so classy (is it?) to keep the level at a screeching +3 dB or +6 dB over the music (which is now silent), so they can say “Hello Philadelphia!” or whatever – drowned in reverb. This is where the idea of a Producer’s Mix comes in again, at the most basic level. All it takes is an attentive house engineer to make the appropriate changes to the level and effects send, so that the speech sounds like one person talking to another.
Mixing in this manner takes 100 percent concentration, 100 percent of the time, and does not lend itself very well to mixing in layers on small digital consoles. Layers make it difficult to grab the specific control that you need, in the quarter-note interval that it takes to make a level adjustment, or change a reverb send, without it becoming obvious that the response was late. (In my world, this is where analog wins the day.)
Getting Better All The Time
Today’s loudspeaker systems are remarkably superior to those of yesteryear. The sonic quality of each of the systems we encountered (which included numerous brands) was very good. Power, headroom, evenness of coverage, flat response – all of these desirable properties have been achieved by most of the well-known loudspeaker manufacturers.
I used CONEQ Acoustic Power Equalization for each of the shows, and that helped to normalize the sonic properties of one system to another. By running CONEQ, I was able to view and store each system’s acoustic power frequency response. The response characteristics among leading systems are surprisingly similar; this is a good sign that our industry has matured a lot in the past 20 years.
The two largest system variances that I observed (after frequency response flattening) were MF/HF distortion and definition in the subwoofers. Although almost all modern systems exhibit less distortion than earlier designs, opportunities still remain to reduce distortion in high-output driver systems.
As for subs, they all kick ass and they all sound good! The differences strike me as being about definition (i.e., transient response), rather than distortion or flat frequency response. That said, I’ll freely admit that physical placement, and how the subs are crossed over to the upper sections of the system, easily plays as great role as any other factor. And suffice to say that subs are fun!
My overall final impression from this recent mini-tour is a good one. All of the various systems were packaged very professionally. Power distro was as pro as it gets. Accessories were readily available. Cases were clean and clearly labeled.
Kudos to all of the rental companies who take pride in their work! I hope to work with you again.
Senior technical editor Ken DeLoria has mixed innumerable shows and tuned hundreds of sound systems with an emphasis on taming difficult acoustical environments, and as the founder of Apogee Sound, developed the TEC Award-winning AE-9 loudspeaker.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Industry Insight: Too Busy To Breathe?
Well it’s that time of year! The start of the summer touring season is fast approaching.
Yes, it’s the time of year when things really start to get busy. Comments like “It’s so busy I can’t breathe” are often heard. Too many balls in the air, and they begin to be dropped. Calls don’t get returned, and hair gets pulled out.
Time management is the key to getting more done in any business. Once at a conference of dealers from another industry, the keynote address included a phrase that really hit home with me: “You need to work on your business, not in your business.”
Boy, does this hit the nail on the head! So often business is all consuming, pulling us into a quagmire of details that have to be handled, all the while leaving little time to plan on significant improvements.
It’s vital to understand the difference between strategy and tactics. Both terms are thrown around frequently, but do most of us even know the difference? Strategy is long-term planning with an eye toward an end goal, while tactics are (usually quick) actions or reactions intended to improve a short-term situation.
Effective planning requires a long-term approach that drives what you do each day.
A solid business plan relies upon the development of a strategic plan. On the other hand, tactics are individual elements that contribute to making the strategic plan take shape and become realizable.
The million-dollar question: how does all of this talk of terminology actually impact time management? Simply, if you’re overwhelmed with tactical responses to unforeseen problems that arise day after day, it’s very likely that you’ll never have the time to create a strategic plan that will truly allow you to grow and thrive.
I term this a “negative feedback loop.” The less time spent working on strategic planning, the more chaotic business will be. That chaos can easily suck you into a vortex of low-level firefighting (read “unproductive”) activity that wastes so much valuable time that can’t ever be regained.
And so it goes, round and round. (Again, think vortex.)
Need Some Help
In my view, controlling time is really the key. Without it, all other issues in your business (and your life) will instead control you.
Breaking out of this mode requires very disciplined time management. How do you get there? As with many things, it starts with admitting some help might be in order.
There are many very good time management programs available. For example, FranklinCovey, a noted business productivity firm, has highly useful materials available, consisting of both classes and materials to assist in both controlling time and planning.
In addition to the available resources, there are some simple things you can do right now to get things moving in the right direction.
For example, when planning the use of time, write it down. Keeping a detailed log will quickly help you pinpoint where time is being spent and wasted. You’ll be able to clearly track how time can evaporate even while you’re “busy” all day, every day.
Chatting with people (be it colleagues or otherwise) is a common culprit. Talking on the phone and “around the water cooler” can account for a significant drain, and often, we don’t even realize it.
It’s also vitally important to differentiate between discussions that “count” and those that are just for fun. Take this further by setting priorities: a “need to do” list of discussions and a “nice to do” list. (I believe you’ll figure out which list gets higher priority.)
A Point On It
Meetings. Ugh, the great time waster. All meetings must have a specific agenda and goals to be attained, and these drive the process.
Attendees should come to meetings prepared to make decisions, not just discuss topics.Every meeting must be assigned a “closed end” schedule, complete with hard finish time. Let’s be honest – the vast majority of meetings should be done within an hour.
My meeting mantra: “Stick to the subject. Come to a decision. Assign duties. And we’re outta here!”
I’ve found that many of the modern organizational tools – electronic organizers, PDAs, software for your PC, and the like – can be of considerable help. Pick the format that works best for you in this regard, and then stick with it.
You’ll quickly notice a difference. The tool itself isn’t all that important; rather, it’s the commitment to using the tool as a mechanism that will then drive you to adhere to better time management. (It’s all in the consciousness.)
Time management is a constant and perpetual challenge. And you will fail - count on it! The important thing is to strive for perfection while accepting incremental improvement.
Realize that backslides are part of the game and you may have to start over (and over) again.
Plan on taking a time management class every year. This will push the topic to the front of your mind, keeping your focus squarely on the value of time.
Then, be fruitful and multiply. Your time management strategies, once honed, must matriculate to the entire organization. With everyone on the same program, there’s the exponential effect of better individual output as well as improved cooperation among the team.
When it’s all said and done, you can only get ahead if you make the time to plan out the path. Without this, there’s simply no way to measure results and begin navigating forward.
Time management is the key, but the trick is making the time to plan for time management
Michael MacDonald is the president of leading production company ATK Audiotek, based in Valencia, CA, and has been involved in the professional audio industry for more than 25 years. Beginning as a freelance mixer/engineer in the 1970s, he transitioned to working for manufacturers and has been employed by, developed products for, and consulted with major companies such as JBL Professional.
CompTIA Presence & Ability To Earn RUs Added To Upcoming NSCA Business Conference-Tech Showcase
CompTIA will clear up confusion about the many IT certifications invading the integration industry, while attendees with CTS certification can earn 11.5 RUs
NSCA has announced two new additions to its upcoming Integration Business Survival Conference & Technology Showcase slated May 15-16 in Chicago: the attendance of CompTIA and the ability to earn RU (renewable units).
CompTIA will be present to clear up confusion about the many IT certifications invading the integration industry. This session will help attendees make sense of the industry’s numerous IT certifications, as well as discover which certifications are necessary.
Attendees will also learn how to use CompTIA’s Certification Roadmap to determine which certifications are right for their organizations. The impact of IT convergence on the industry is only getting stronger – the Integration Business Survival Conference helps integrators head down the right path.
And, attendees with CTS certifications will earn 11.5 RUs by attending the conference. The RUs are available through courses such as:
—Analog to Digital: Problems and Solutions
—Wireless Mic Solutions for Corporate AV
—10 Things You Can Do to Help Profitability
—Creating an Efficient Service Department
—Design Considerations for Mass Notification and Emergency Communications
—The New Rules of Customer Engagement
—Managing and Billing for RMR
This first regional Integration Business Survival Conference will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Chicago North Shore in Skokie, IL. Two additional conferences are scheduled for September 15-16 in Atlanta and November 6-7 in Phoenix. By offering this event in three regions, NSCA gives integration firms the education they need – without a big financial commitment or too much time spent away from the office.
The Integration Business Survival Conference & Technology Showcase was developed based on NSCA member requests for intimate learning environments that offer adequate time for networking, questions, and direct interaction with manufacturers. In small, focused groups, attendees will learn how to thrive when their customers demand more, technology keeps changing, government regulations threaten the industry, and costs continue to escalate.
The Technology Showcase offers hands-on displays and demos of the latest technology offerings from leading manufacturers, such as Kramer, Shure, Lencore, Lightware, Solutions360, Herman, West Penn Wire, and RDL. Instead of traveling across the country to walk a big exhibit floor, IBSC attendees will network with and learn from a handful of leading manufacturers that have news and updates to share – all while staying close to home.
Registration for the two-day event is $249 for NSCA members and $399 for non-members. Registration includes access to the Technology Showcase, manufacturer training, business education, and all networking events. For more information about the sessions, registration, or sponsorships, contact NSCA at 800-446-6722 or visit www.nsca.org/ibsc.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Church Sound: Audio Requirements For Portable Situations
When thinking of a church, most people conjure images of a building with chairs or pews, carpet on the floor, maybe some stained glass. The loudspeakers hang in a cluster near the front and there’s a sound booth in the back. Down the hallway are the nursery and the church office.
While that describes the majority of churches, a growing number of churches are forming that don’t fit that description at all.
Churches that do not own a building are becoming more common, renting a building for Sunday mornings and maybe for Wednesday nights. Once strictly the domain of churches just getting started (called “church plants”), more established churches are choosing not to be burdened with the upkeep and expense of a large facility.
A Church With Vision
Bruce Sanders has been the pastor of Capital Vision Christian Church in Olympia, WA since he founded it several years ago. On Sundays at 9 am, he arrives at Olympia High School’s performing arts auditorium an hour and a half before the service is scheduled to begin.
Meanwhile, Jason Inman and his crew of three volunteers arrive around 8:30 am to load in sound equipment, band instruments and Sunday School supplies. They set out several sandwich-board signs on the streets nearby, announcing the service.
On Sunday mornings in Olympia, more than a dozen churches gather in various rented spaces, including schools, gymnasiums, cafeterias, classrooms, performance halls, community centers, hotel banquet rooms and even other churches. Where climate permits, some even hold their services outdoors in parks or natural amphitheaters.
But just because they meet in temporary space does not mean that these churches don’t value a high-quality sound system, with many offering contemporary services, often centered on a guitar-driven pop- or rock-flavored band.
After Jason and his team set up the system at Capital Vision, one of the crew, often a teenage volunteer, steps behind the mixer while Jason straps on a Taylor acoustic guitar and begins sound check.
Behind him are bass guitar, piano, two keyboards, several backup singers and a drum set. Off to the side, a portable screen is set up, and the computer operator checks the video projector that displays the song lyrics and sermon notes. Other than the school’s piano, all equipment is set up and torn down every weekend.
When 10:30 rolls around, Jason greets the crowd and invites them to stand up and sing with him. Then the band starts into their set, and the next 30 to 40 minutes are essentially a 90 dB contemporary Christian music concert.
Jason finishes the set with a prayer, perhaps with a little keyboard or guitar in the background. Then an emcee gets up and makes introductions and delivers announcements before Pastor Sanders gets up to teach.
A Contemporary Vibe
More like a seminar speaker than a traditional pulpit preacher, Sanders walks around the stage with a wireless lavalier microphone clipped to his open collar. He talks with the congregation, stopping every so often to tell a joke or refer to a current news headline.
The video projector shows an outline of his sermon, interspersed with photos and video clips to support the message. By noon, the congregation is drinking coffee and eating cookies in the foyer, talking about the sermon and other things, like the Seattle Seahawks.
I deal with dozens of churches like Capital Vision, and there are thousands more forming around the country. Several of my clients are just starting, with maybe 40 to 50 people in the congregation, while others have a few hundred members who meet twice a week. A small number are quite large; one portable church has several thousand people meeting in each of three services in a rented high school every Sunday morning, with a band and sound system that is second to none.
There isn’t really a standard sound system for a portable church, because there really isn’t a standard church. However, a sound system for a portable church is not the same as a sound system for a band. There are quite a few components in common, but the goals are markedly different.
System characteristics that are important to a portable church:
1) It must be simple to set up.
Front of house, including mixer is all in one rack. The amps are either in the same rack or a similar rack onstage. Racks have a single AC cord with power distribution in the rack and a single “on” switch. Subwoofers are usually too complex, so 15-inch-loaded 2-way loudspeakers are on stands left and right of stage.
Cables are color-coded or numbered. Mic cables, instrument cables and direct boxes are all in the same storage container. In a larger portable system, multi-pin connectors become important to reduce the number of mic cables used.
2) It must be simple to operate.
Most churches, especially portable churches, have volunteers running sound. A 40-channel console with 4-band EQ and 8 aux sends may be more than a volunteer can handle. Startups, in particular, get by with two or three monitor sends and a 3-band EQ. A 16- or 24-channel console is likely to be plenty.
3) It must be articulate.
Congregation members won’t care if you can get 120 dB in the back of the room. Rather, can they understand the words clearly and without straining in every seat in the house? Loud is great, but only if it’s clear and clean. It’s more important to have 95 dB with crystal clarity than a subwoofer that kicks them in the chest.
4) It must be flexible.
In a typical service, the system needs to handle a live band, background music, and several people speaking to a crowd that may vary in size from week to week. The venue may also change at some point. And in warmer months, the church might take the system to the park for a concert.
5) It must be expandable.
Portable churches are usually growing churches. When the congregation of 75 becomes a congregation of 200, it requires more from the sound system. An upgrade path is needed. Leave room in the amp rack for another amplifier to run more loudspeakers. Begin with a mixer that has at least five or six channels more than needed, so as the band membership grows, the system still works. This is a good time to apply the maxim “buy your second one first.”
6) It must be affordable, but not cheap.
Built from scratch, a good beginning system will probably cost several thousand dollars. Too often, portable churches begin with an inadequate system, and replace it with a second system a year or two later.
This is not a place for the latest, state-of-the-art accessories. Digital consoles might not fit the budget. Effect processors and many compressors are luxuries. Simple microphones, consoles, EQs, amplifiers and loudspeakers (or self-powered loudspeakers) are sufficient. Caution: do not get the wrong gear just because it’s “on sale.”
7) It must be reliable.
Saving a few dollars on an amplifier is not as important as choosing gear that is known to be reliable. Your brother-in-law may have donated an old no-name power amplifier from his basement (a syndrome known as “give your junk to Jesus”), but a new Crown or QSC amplifier for the main loudspeakers will prevent problems. Maybe that no-name amp can be sold to a struggling high school band with the money used to buy a good equalizer.
Keep in mind that volunteers will be loading and unloading this system every week, probably for several years. It had better be rugged enough not to need maintenance every month.
8) It must be supported.
Because most portable churches don’t have a full-time or even part-time technical staff, they need to have a resource person they can trust. This needs to be someone who knows their situation, knows their system, and has experience with what they’re doing. Most importantly, this person must be able to speak in layman’s terms to translate technical issues into common English.
David McLain is a church sound system consultant with CCI Solutions, and has been working with church sound systems since 1978 and with portable churches since 1988. He also runs the Church Sound Guy blog.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Leaving The Comfort Zone
Like the majority of people working in the audio biz, I love music. Growing up in the 1970s, I was fortunate that my favorite FM radio station played a pretty diverse selection of musical styles, including folk, soft rock, pop, disco, R&B, rock, and even heavy metal.
While exposed to quite a few musical styles and artists, I developed personal favorites.
Most Saturdays would find me at the record store, spending the few bucks earned that week from mowing lawns on new records, along with the occasional George Carlin and Richard Pryor comedy album.
To this day, I still have virtually every record, and long ago wore out the grooves on my favorites.
Cassette tapes eventually became popular, with my friends and I making “mix tapes” to listen to in our cars and on a wondrous portable device called the Walkman. And then wiith the advent of the compact disc, I bought many of the same albums again to take advantage of the “new and improved” digital format.
When I started mixing live music (somewhere after cassettes but before CDs), every mix sounded like what I knew and liked best from my stable or records. This was fine for local bar bands covering 70s rock, but not such a good thing for other artists, such as the jazz group that ended up with me behind the console at a local festival.
I learned two simple yet invaluable lessons that day. Lesson one: this traditional jazz band wanted a jazz sound to emanate from the PA. Lesson two: so did the audience. One other thing I learned is that jazz audiences aren’t shy if they don’t like what the sound guy is doing behind the board.
Quickly I realized that if I was to succeed in mixing audio, I needed to know and understand a lot of different genres of music in order to be able to present them correctly. Starting with jazz!
From that point on, I made it a point to listen to all styles of American music, trying to decipher the character of each as well as what elements make that style distinct from others.
Several years later, I thought I had every musical style pretty well defined when a big snafu reared its head. One sunny day at a large festival in Washington D.C. I found myself standing behind the house console, with the next act on the bill a soukous band from Africa. While soukous was (and still is) the most popular music in Africa, and is generally well known throughout much of the world, I’d never heard of it.
Grasping without a clue as to what this band was supposed to sound like in the PA, I ended up making them sound like what I knew best: a 70s rock band. I learned three valuable lessons on that sunny day.
The first two lessons are the same ones learned with the jazz band and audience. The third lesson was to be even better prepared to suit the style of every artist prior to a gig, and also to talk beforehand with unique or unfamiliar acts about how they want their music to be presented.
Years passed, and I really thought I was getting the hang of this mixing thing when I found myself at yet another festival. The next act on the bill was a modern country artist I’d not heard (or heard of). So I made my way through the crowd to the stage and asked the band how they wanted to sound.
You guessed it: 70s rock.
Craig Leerman is senior contributing editor for Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb, and is the owner of Tech Works, a production company based in Las Vegas.
Monday, April 14, 2014
Church Sound: And One Of Them Still Drives Me Crazy…
10 things no one tells you about church audio, and what to do about them...
Once the initial excitement of working in audio production wears off, it leaves one with a few unfortunate realizations.
I’m not saying audio work stops being fun. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still have fun.
I only wish someone would have cracked open the secret envelop and let me see the truth before being up to my knees in XLR cables.
This post reveals these “secrets.” At the end, I’ll explain what can be done so everyone is back to having fun, albeit a lot wiser.
1. Worst-case scenarios really do happen.
If it can break, blow up, catch fire, power down, or in any way outright fail at the worst time possible, it will. I’ve had a mixer blow a fuse. Just last week a wireless mic battery failed mid-service for no apparent reason. Green light to DEAD – no red warning light in between.
Worst-case scenarios can force the tech to learn parts of the audio system normally left untouched. Mix engine reboots, digital mixer configuration settings, under-stage cabling, whatever is normally taken for granted will eventually fail – usually during the church service.
2. Audio production is hard work and mixing is only part of it.
For some, this is a big revelation. Mixing is only a part of audio production. Stage setup, battery replacement, and cable maintenance are all part of the job. And if that’s not enough, see point #1.Oh, did I mention it requires working with people?! (Only sort of a joke for some of us…)
Mixing isn’t always easy. For example, the church has two guitarists and a singer. That’s all they’ve had for years. Next weekend, they will have their first full-size worship team. Time for a new mixing strategy. This isn’t impossible but it does require learning amp miking, drum miking, and a new way of mixing.
3. It requires your A-game and there are distractions.
Live audio is no place for slacking. Once, from the pulpit, a pastor called my name TWICE before I snapped out of a daydream. Talk about embarrassing. Focus is crucial.
Distractions will come. During a service I’ve had congregants ask me questions. I’ve had to fix a video production issue. I even had someone complain about the volume during a worship set. The sound booth is not a place free from distractions.
4. Great mixing doesn’t guarantee great worship.
There are days when the band is great and the mix is great and everything seems perfect. Yet not everyone is worshiping and praising God. Good audio production helps create an environment conducive for worship. That’s all it can do.
5. Converting the worship leader’s vision to a mix is crazy important.
Worship leaders (and the team) spendstime picking songs and setting the arrangement. Many times, they have a vision for a song’s style or keep to their own style. They set a vision for what the congregation should experience, and the sound tech has the final control over that vision.
There are limits to what can be done with the given equipment. And three singers with harmonicas can’t sound like Hillsong. But when the worship leader presents an attainable vision, it’s up to us to make it happen.
6. People talk during the music. (DRIVES ME CRAZY).
Sitting in the sound booth gives one the ability to watch people. Watch who comes in late and who leaves early. Watch who is texting, playing Candy Crush, or checking Facebook. Watch the talkers. Sometimes, they’re close enough to be heard. he band is playing, people are worshipping, and then a Mr. or Mrs. decides it’s time to talk.
I don’t mean, “Don’t forget to call your mother.” I mean, “I’m not sure what we should do for lunch today. I was thinking about seafood but then Bill doesn’t like seafood and then Marge, remember Marge? Anyway, she had that outpatient thing last week and that reminds me, did you make an appointment with your endocrinologist? If not, it’s OK because when I stop by the bank on Monday I can… blah blah and blah.”
Some people just don’t get it.
7. There’s a growth plateau and that’s when the real work begins.
Diving into audio production and learning as much as possible, the immediate return on effort is great. A comparison of your first mix to your tenth mix is like night and day.
But the 20th sounds much like the 10th. Another person mixes the same band in the same room and it’s noticeably better. What’s up with that? Welcome to the plateau.
After learning mixing fundamentals, taking a mix further up the quality scale requires intensive study and practice. This is where the real work begins. It’s what separates the great from the good.
8. A microphone makes a handy weapon.
Live audio production is stressful. The schedule changes. Things break. Personalities clash. And, there are no do-overs. (It’s live, baby!)
There will be days you want to walk out the door. Most professional live engineers I’ve met have had such a moment. But they didn’t walk. Now, they’re touring with top musicians and are highly respected amongst their peers. It can be stressful, but that comes with the job.
9. Compliments are not the norm.
For anyone who needs regular compliments, look for a different line of work. The band and the pastor hear the majority of compliments. It doesn’t matter if the sound booth was glowing with awesomeness, the production team typically doesn’t get the credit.
10. It’s disgusting (someone has to clean those).
Parts of every job are undesirable. I love working with the musicians. I don’t love cleaning out ear wax from their in-ear monitors. But if given a choice between working a desk job and working in live audio (dirty work and all), I’d pick the latter every time.
Now, what to do about it…
1. Study the system and make plans.
Trace the signal flow through the equipment; from the stage through to the house loudspeakers. Make a log of equipment settings – equipment gets bumped or “played with.”
Trace The Signal Flow Through The Mixer
Create plans for dealing with worst-case scenarios. By knowing the system and what could happen, you’ll be prepared when it does happen.
Have You Been Caught By These Five Production Surprises?
2. View stage work, communication, etc. as factors that enable great mixing.
Church audio production is about working as a team with the pastor, the worship leader, and the musicians to present God’s word to the congregation and lead them in worship. Mixing the house sound is important but so is supporting the musicians and meeting their needs. The production work isn’t about mixing, it’s about offering up a gift to God and the congregation.
Working With Musicians And Team Building
3. Learn to manage distractions.
There are two types of distractions: those needing immediate attention and those that can wait. Let’s look at the latter. Questions from a congregant right before the service—or during the service—can be answered with a quick reply or the statement:“Ask me after the service when I have more time.” Smile when saying it. Beware of how the distractions make you feel. Watch what you say – you may later regret it.
Tech Gossip – What Others Hear You Say
4. Learn the spiritual component of audio production.
A great mix doesn’t guarantee a great worship experience but the flip side is really cool; a great worship time doesn’t depend on a great mix. I recall a service when my mix could have been better (it sounded a bit off to me). Afterward, I heard someone say how great the band sounded and how much they enjoyed the worship time. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there will be worship, regardless of the level of production.
Biblical Worship Verses
5. Catch the vision, delight in the vision, and realize the vision.
Become the person who can make a vision a reality.
How To Create A Song Mix Blueprint In Five Easy Steps
6. Not every person loves corporate worship.
It’s a cold hard truth that I wish wasn’t so. Don’t take their lack of participation as a judgment on the audio production. And for the talkers…I don’t have much of an answer. If it’s anyone you know, consider dropping them a friendly email of encouragement filled with…
Scriptures On Praise And Worship
7. Plan on deeper study of mixing.
May every mix be better than the last. This isn’t to say the last mix was bad. It’s to say audio production is a craft and a good craftsman will hone their skills.
Tools Don’t Make The Craftsman
8. Manage the stress.
Know what’s out of your control. Learn from your mistakes. Know that small mistakes are usually forgotten. Find a mentor or fellow tech for post-service debriefing and venting.
12 Ways To Eliminate/Manage Stress
Compliments to the band are compliments to the audio production. Going further, read Col 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
God Sees Your Service
10. Know the outcome is a result, in part, of the grunt work.
It took a bit more than 3,000 people 410 days to build the Empire State Building. This includes installation of approximately 17 million feet of telephone wire. Walking into the finished building would reveal beautiful carpeting and newly painted walls. What’s under the carpeting? Subflooring. What’s behind the paint? Drywall and metal.
Facts About The Construction Of The Empire State Building
Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians, and can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown. Chris is also the author of Audio Essentials For Church Sound, available here.
Friday, April 11, 2014
In The Studio: Eight Simple Steps To Becoming A Better Engineer
Quick tips to help your hearing, your career -- and maybe even your blood pressure...
Regardless of how long you’ve been in the business, there’s always room for improvement. Here are some tips to help your hearing, career, and maybe even blood pressure while in the recording studio.
Praise The Lowered
Work at lower volume levels. If the level must be up, get your sounds, then insert your earplugs, checking the sound once in a while at lower levels. There is nothing in the recording studio as important as your hearing.
Longevity in the recording industry means good hearing for decades to come. Plus the loud level might wake up the producer.
Quality is no accident. Success comes from working every day at your craft. Getting good results every day requires hard work and dedication. You are responsible for keeping the session running smoothly, including setting up the control room, choosing the microphones, organizing the signal flow, choosing the track layout, getting the sounds and pressing the record button.
Good sounds or bad, the buck stops with the recording engineer. The ultimate goal is to be the recording engineer that everyone wants to use because of your ears, your expertise, your vibe, and your impressive collection of Ramones t-shirts.
Recording music is so much easier if you understand music. Music plays a key role in a vast majority of recordings, so most clients prefer musical engineers. If you don’t play in instrument, buy a guitar or keyboard, and learn some basic songs.
While learning to play an instrument may seem daunting, you don’t need to become a virtuoso player, you just need to grasp musical progressions and changes. If you get musical, you get work.
This is your craft, and you must work at it. I have seen engineers lose gigs because they got wasted and became an idiot. Do what I do. Wait until your day off to start drinking at 7 a.m.
Don’t Get Mad, Get Even
An even temperament goes a long way. Mistakes and frustrations happen in all jobs, and in the long run, so what?
A good engineer keeps the session at ease, especially during stressful times. Do you want clients and co-workers to remember you as the engineer who blows up, or the engineer who is a pro and can work around anything?
Make It Look Good
Some engineers go through their careers simply putting up a microphone and pressing the record button. Engineering is an art. Much like cooking and sex, presentation is part of the package.
If you want loyalty in the music business, get a dog. Don’t get too attached to a project. They will say they love you, love your engineering, are definitely going to use you next time, you’re in the club, the sounds are awesome.
Next week you hear they are using another engineer. Well don’t let it bug you. Do your job, take pride in it, and at the end of the day, realize that no matter what they promise, you don’t have the gig until you’re in the chair.
Long Hours Benefit No One
If the client expects you to work 18 hours a day, explain that you really aren’t at your best after ten or twelve hours. Some engineers state before the project that there must be certain limitations on the length of sessions.
Engineering can be draining, and the eighteenth hour is when mistakes happen. You want clients to remember you for your skills as an engineer, not for erasing the kick drum due to fatigue. And once you start working long hours, the client expects it.
Rule of Thumb
When deciding which instrument takes precedence, make the guy who signs your check sound best.
Be the Heavy
Sometimes the engineer must also be the heavy, doing the unpleasant tasks when sessions get out of hand. State firmly and professionally “You can’t smoke in the control room.” “Don’t set your drink on the console.” “You girls put your clothes on this instant!”
From the book “Recording Tips for Engineers” by Tim Crich. Get it here.
Church Sound: A Field Guide To System Renovations
A building project is no small undertaking, and it deserves to be handled wisely...
Since we’re close to embarking on a pretty significant renovation of our main sanctuary at Coast Hills, I thought I would address what it takes to have a successful renovation.
This comes not only from my own experience, but from dozens of others. Just about every month I receive at least one e-mail about a church doing a renovation, and often it’s not going well.
The reasons renovations, or new builds for that matter, don’t go well are not really complicated. The problems tend to stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of how complex even simple AVL (audio-video-lighting) systems are. I’ve heard pastors say, “We’ll just hang some speakers in there, don’t worry about it,” without any thought to how incredibly bad that can be. Of course, they’ll complain about how bad it is later, and probably blame the sound guy.
So let me say this right at the beginning of this series, if you’re talking about a renovation or build project, now is the time to bring the AVL guys into the discussion. Pastors tend to say, “We’re not there yet, we’ll engage you when we’re closer.” And that is the problem. The time to start planning a successful AVL system is at the dreaming stage.
Define the ministry objectives, then design the building and AVL system. Those two design processes should go hand-in-hand. As you begin to dream about the kinds of ministry you’d like to see happening in the building, give the AVL guys a chance to dream about the ways technology can be integrated into that plan. Technology can be incredibly powerful, but only when it’s done in a way that supports the mission and vision of the church. Otherwise, it’s in the way.
As you define your mission and vision and figure out how the building will be used, the AVL guys can be designing a system that supports it. Some churches will protest at this point, saying they can’t afford good design. Those are the same churches that can find enough money to do the job two or three times. Doing things right the first time will always cost less than doing it wrong a few times first. Always.
The AVL system integrates with every trade and building practice. This is another reason to get the AVL guys involved early. Even a simple system uses a lot of conduit. Power is needed in very specific places—and it needs to be the right kind of power.
Structure must be in place to support rigging the loudspeakers, video walls, screens, projectors and lighting. We have to make sure HVAC ducts are not in the way of lighting instruments, speakers and other stuff we’ll be hanging in the air. Building design elements will either help or hurt sound and sight lines.
Just some of the new conduits we’re adding. And this is just a renovation—we already have a bunch in there!
It’s a lot easier and cheaper to have the AVL guys in the room early to call out things like that. Otherwise, we come in with a big red marker after most of the plans are drawn and mark up what we need. This adds cost, time and often, a significant amount of stress.
Don’t assume that the architect knows what will be needed in an AVL system. That’s something else I hear often, “Don’t worry about it, the architect will handle that.” Unless the architect has also been designing sound, lighting and video systems for a decade—systems that are really good—you better get an expert in. I have spent the last 20 years tearing out systems that were “designed” by architects, the cheapest contractor and well-meaning but completely uninformed volunteers. I’m begging you, bring in some experts. Early.
I don’t know if it’s pride, arrogance or both that keeps leaders making the same mistakes. I know they don’t teach the building process in pastor school, yet we have a large enough body of knowledge to do this right.
For some reason, I watch church after church push the AVL guys out of the way, bully them into silence, then beat them up when the system comes out badly.
In 2014, we know how to do a great job with a building. It takes communication, planning, knowledge, good design and having the right people in the room from day one. I think it’s time we stop wasting our congregations’ money on projects that are not functional.
I should point out that almost all of this applies to new builds as well—though I hear from more churches who are upgrading and remodeling than building.
Let’s start by talking about one of the most oft forgotten aspects of an AVL system renovation: Defining the system objectives. Put another way, what do you want the system to do?
Don’t Ask The Wrong Questions
I hear from churches all the time asking for advice. I love to give advice, so I’m happy to oblige. However, sometimes, it’s really hard. I get questions like, “We want to upgrade our sound mixer to a digital mixer. Which one do you recommend?” Or, “Which projector do you recommend for a center screen?” Or even, “We have a 300-seat room, which speakers should we install?”
Those are all questions that are all but impossible to answer. The reason is, they’re asking the wrong question. There are usually several options that I could recommend. But without knowing what they want the system to do, I can’t do anything but give you brands and products I like.
The Right Questions
Before you ask for specific equipment suggestions, ask yourself some questions first.
—What benefit to we expect to see from this new technology? How does it advance the mission of our church?
—How will this improve our services? Will this lead more people into worship or will it be distracting?
—What do we want this new gear to do for us? How should it be better than what we have now?
—Who will be running it? What is their skill level, and how quickly do they learn new things?
—Are we getting into this because it’s cool? Or are there really good reasons for this new technology?
—What specific capacities do we need? If it’s an audio console, think inputs, outputs, mix buses, FX, remote mixing, digital snakes, personal mixers, etc. For a projector it might be how bright do we need, screen size, resolution, inputs, ease of mounting and servicing, or even should we consider a video wall?
—Do you have a budget? Is that budget realistic?
There are plenty more questions we could delve into, but most get pretty specific pretty quickly. That should get you started.
Develop Your Objectives
Armed with the answers to those questions, you should be able to come up with a pretty clear set of objectives for this technology purchase or upgrade. With that in mind, you can start looking at options. The field will narrow quickly when you have a good idea of what you want a piece of gear to do.
You will often find several options that will suit your needs. At that point, it comes down to what brands the dealer you’re working with carries, or which ones may have better service options. Consider which one will work with your existing equipment and even which one you like more.
Most of the equipment I’ve purchased over the years has been chosen specifically because it meets my design objectives. Sometimes it comes down to two products and I choose based on the one I like better. Maybe it’s their software, the interface, or that I have a better relationship with the rep. Those aren’t top line criteria, but they do help you decide at the end.
Above all, know why you want to upgrade or purchase. When you know why, it makes it a lot easier to come up with the what. Next time, we’ll talk budgets.
Develop An Initial Budget
Audio-video-lighting systems are expensive. There is just no getting around it. Even small systems can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, while large systems for rooms seating 2,000 to 3,000-plus can easily run into the millions.
One of the biggest mistakes I see churches making when embarking on a remodel or building project is not setting realistic budgets. I think this is due to a general lack of understanding of what the technology costs, and how many little—and often expensive—pieces need to be added to make everything work. As a quick example, in our little project to install a new PA, add a video wall, some lobby TVs and move our tech booth, I have to order over $1,300 in cable connectors alone!
So many churches go into a building project with what I call the Best Buy budget. Someone from the church (usually not the tech guy) wandered through Best Buy and saw some amplifiers, TVs and loudspeakers and came up with a “budget.” Or perhaps they just pull a number out of the air. Most times, those are woefully inadequate to do a good job, and everyone will be frustrated by the results.
Count The Cost
Luke 14:28 reminds us, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” We might get bids from builders, electricians, architects for the “big” pieces of the job, but fail to take into account the AVL. Perhaps the architect will add a standard percentage of the job for AVL, which may or may not be enough (it’s probably not).
Now, I understand the problem. Most pastors, and probably most tech guys, don’t spend their days looking at spec and price sheets for all manner of AVL gear. And most have no idea how much stuff it takes to make an entire system work. This is where having a relationship with an integrator comes in.
It’s All About Relationships
Remember how I’m always talking about building relationships? Having an integrator or dealer that you work with regularly is invaluable when it comes to working up a budget. Because they spend their days designing, pricing and installing systems in churches, they can give you a rough idea of how much it will cost.
Now, it’s important that I take a moment and remind you of something here. Integrators are in business to make a profit. If we expect to get good service, we need good integrators to stay in business. They are worth their time, and they should be paid for it.
Don’t go to an integrator and ask them to design and cost out a system, the parcel out the buying of the gear to the cheapest vendor you can find online. In fact, the good integrators won’t even do a design until they’re under contract to do the job. And that’s a great business model. They may be able to give you a ballpark budget off the top of their heads for free, but if you want detailed analysis and design, expect to pay for it.
Getting Into The Ballpark
As you start a project, it is important to have a ballpark idea of the cost for the AVL system. You can arrive at this a few different ways. The way I usually do it is to start by talking with my integrator and get rough numbers for big items—speaker systems, video walls, consoles, lighting rigs, etc.
Then, I’ll spend a little time online getting pricing ideas for smaller items. I add in some padding for labor (which is usually a lot more than you think it is), cables, connectors, and glue (pieces that connect one big item to another). Finally, I’ll add 10-25 percent depending on the size of the job.
That should get you in the ballpark. Start with that number to present to leadership. It’s always better to go in a little high because it will likely be cut down. If you go in too high, you’ll get shot down, but if you go in too low, you’ll get hung. To hedge my bets, I prefer to give a range. It’s easier to go a little over if your rough range is $150,000-175,000. You can probably get $185K if you need it. But if you say $130, you’ll never get $180 if you need it.
Alternately, you can ask your integrator to give you a ballpark range. Just be sure to tell them all you are trying to do. Telling them you need a new PA and some projectors for the sanctuary is different one thing. Adding in full AVL in three smaller kids rooms, plus a lobby and overflow room is another. And be sure to tell leadership they can’t hold the integrator to the ballpark budget until a site visit has been completed and a full design worked up. This is just an idea here.
As we go through this series, I’ll also focus on choosing key technologies, designing a system that works for your church, working up reasonable install timelines and commissioning the final system.
It’s a lot; but it’s what a project looks like. A building project is no small undertaking, and it deserves to be handled wisely. My hope is that as we go on this journey together, more projects will go more smoothly. Buckle up—it’s going to be a wild ride!
Mike Sessler is the technical director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 25 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
SynAudCon Digital Seminar Coming To Connecticut On April 28-30
Seminar designed to shorten learning curve while delivering comprehensive introduction to digital audio, signal processing and networks
SynAudCon will be presenting its much-lauded Digital Seminar later this month (April 28-30) in North Haven, CT.
The seminar, approved for 24 CEUs, is designed to shorten the learning curve while delivering a comprehensive introduction to digital audio, digital signal processing and digital audio networks.
Further, it provides a depth of understanding of everything from data formats to networked audio systems.
The seminar staff is a team comprised of SynAudCon leader Pat Brown, Steve Macatee of Rane and Bradford Benn of Crown Audio. The three of them form a tag-team approach to present SynAudCon Digital in a visually effective way.
Together they make learning digital audio fast, friendly and fun. This team not only has the theoretical grounding but also has applied these concepts in the field, so it is not just theory but also real world experiences that are being shared.
Price for the three-day seminar is $995. The seminar site is the Best Western Plus North Haven Hotel in New Haven, located 7 miles from Tweed New Haven airport (HVN), 42 miles from Bradley Intl (BDL), and 9 miles from Union Train Station which goes to New York City and Boston.
For more information about the SynAudCon Digital Seminar and to register online, go here. Registration can also be handled via phone with Brenda Brown of SynAudCon at 812-923-0174.
Professional Wireless Systems (PWS) Names Evan Hall As Project Manager
Will oversee and coordinate frequencies for a variety of PWS events as well as be an integral part of the development of future plans for all PSW divisions
Professional Wireless Systems (PWS), a Masque Sound company, has announced that Evan Hall has been hired as project manager, where he will oversee and coordinate frequencies for a variety of PWS events that require the expert frequency coordination and management needed in the current congested RF landscape.
Hall will also be an integral part of the development of future plans focusing on all PWS business divisions, including live events, music festivals, broadcast, design services, product manufacturing and business development.
“Evan’s wealth of industry knowledge and experience in managing audio and wireless for large events will be a great asset to PWS,” states PWS general manager Jim Van Winkle. “Evan will be called upon to make a positive impact on our business, as well as help grow and maintain PWS’ standing as an industry leader. We are pleased to welcome him to the team.”
Hall brings more than 20 years of industry experience to PWS, having most recently worked for Funa International while holding the position of principle park-wide audio designer for a newly constructed theme park, Chimelong’s Ocean Kingdom, located on Henquin Island, China. Prior to that he spent nine years at LMG as audio manager, mixing engineer and touring audio crew chief for various artists, including Avril Lavigne, Rob Thomas, Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, and One Republic, as well as numerous corporate events for Fortune 500 companies. Earlier in his career, Hall spent five years as an audio engineer and designer with Walt Disney World Entertainment.
“I am excited to be joining the PWS team, and I look forward to working with the company on the upcoming line-up of high-profile summer events and design projects,” says Hall. “To play a role in PWS, a dynamic company immersed in such a diverse range of live events, design projects and product development, gives me the opportunity to continue working in an industry that I know and enjoy.”
Professional Wireless Systems
Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Church Sound: Taking Care Of Business
Avoiding unnecessary bumps in the road through careful planning, maintenance and teamwork...
Talking with sound technicians and worship leaders, I often hear the complaint that from week to week, the quality of Sunday morning varies. I’ve determined that some of this is from training, such as when there’s a problem and the tech doesn’t know how to fix it. Some of it’s skill; certain folks simply have a better ear and command of the equipment than others.
On the same hand, the skill level of the musicians may also vary. I’ve found that with inexperienced musicians, the level at which they’re playing can fluctuate greatly. I attribute this primarily to a lack of confidence. When they know the song they “bang” it out, but when they’re unsure, they hold back.
Today I’d like to focus on another contributor to the problem of inconsistency: equipment status and organization.
It’s 5 minutes before the start of the service and you’re sweating bullets as you have to set up 4 additional players that the worship leader never told you in advance were “joining in with the band.” You’re thinking, “Great, no time for sound check, much less a simple line check!”
You dutifully plug in the mics and direct boxes, and position them as best you can. You then high-tail it to the sound booth for the start of the service. Thankfully you make it with enough time to guess at the input gain and monitor levels, say a quick prayer, and unmute those channels for the opening song.
Then it happens: that infamous bzzzzzzzzzzzzz that makes everyone’s hair stand on end! You throw on your headphones and determine it’s the direct box that the bass player is plugged into. This is when you’re forced to make a split decision as to what to do.
You decide rather than race to the stage to see if the line chord from the bass is bad, if the ground lift on the direct box needs to be switched, or if your mic chord is bad, you’ll just mute the bass player’s channel and work on the mix. Plus you’re thinking that at least his bass rig is working and that output will spill into the house.
So, how many times has this, or something like it, happened you? Was it preventable? Of course it was! As I always say, it’s the simple stuff that kills us. So how could all this have been prevented?
Preempting Equipment Failure
Lets look at the 5 things that should have been done before the sweat and bzzzzzzzz fest.
1. Basic maintenance
On a regular basis check all your chords. See my previous article on this.
Also, organize cables in a logical manner. My approach is to I hang them on a peg board sorted by length. This way if we encounter a bad cable, we know exactly where to go to grab a replacement.
It goes without saying that you should have at least two spare cables for each variety of cable you are using. For example, there to be an extra 1/4-inch to 1/4-inch, XLR male to female, 1/8-inch to RCA—whatever cables and adaptors you use should have spares, and know where they are!
Make sure that you know exactly how many inputs and what type of inputs that you will have from the band on Sunday morning and have them set up and tested ahead of time.
Ask the worship leader (and ask often) if there’s anything else you need to know. Even for those of us who prepare ahead of time, surprises can happen. On a recent Sunday, I had all 6 of our vocal handheld microphones in use, and 10 minutes before the service I noticed on the worship order that a missions report was also scheduled.
Right away flags went up as I figured the update was not going to be from one of the pastors (they all wear headset mics), and thus an additional handheld mic would be needed. I quickly found one of the worship team singers and coordinated a “hand-off” of his mic to the person doing the missions report, and he in turn handed the mic back to the singer in time for the next musical number.
At my church, we typically as a group (pastors, worship leaders and the tech team) communicate very effectively; this just slipped through the cracks, and thankfully I have a habit of running down the worship order and visualizing the transitions before the service starts.
The bottom line is err on over-communicating and asking questions!
4. Plan ahead.
Normally the above scenario would not have been an issue as we always keep a hand held wireless on a stand in front of the stage, “just in case.” But as I mentioned, we had all 6 handheld mics being used by the worship team. In retrospect, if I’d been properly planning ahead, I would have placed a wired handheld in front of the stage.
Always have some sort of plan B in place if something goes wrong and communicate that plan to everyone onstage ahead of time.
5. Have a party!
Once every 3 to 6 months the entire tech team should get together to go through all of the equipment. This will help determine if equipment is missing, in need of repair or in need of replacement.
It will also give the tech team the opportunity to provide input on additional equipment that is needed as well as organize the accessories (cables, stands, etc.) that you have. And by the way, this process is a lot more fun if you order pizza and sodas for the team!
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator with Parkway Electric and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 30 years.
Monday, April 07, 2014
Ahead Of The Game: Console Strategies For Festivals
The goal is to be as prepared as possible. Spring is nigh...
Mixing at festivals – good times! Or is it?
Anyone who has worked as either a guest mixer or system tech in a festival environment probably has stories about the inherent ups and downs and, certainly, the hyper pace and stress that are part of the gig. And we’ve all heard a few horror stories of artists hitting the stage patched incorrectly or without a sound check.
But there’s also the unique thrill of mixing in a hyped environment with tens of thousands of fans on hand, and sometimes in really cool outdoor settings. The goal of the mix engineer is to be as prepared as possible, particularly when it comes to working with the console. Spring is nigh…
Preferences & Strategies
It’s been common for years to see multiple consoles “leap-frogged” between acts, allowing one or more offline consoles to be dialed in while another is live. They may be switched over by the system engineer or sub-mixed to a master console, and in the latter case, gain structure or ground loop hum/noise issues can pop up between consoles. Carrying in-line pads and audio isolation transformers is always a good idea.
Digital consoles have obviously changed the workflow at festivals by allowing preset show files to be prepped and uploaded, which helps in terms of establishing baselines and promoting efficiency. Premium analog boards may still be carried by certain headliner acts, but they’re usually not shared.
Whatever the console(s) in use, advancing the date is still the most important step in a successful gig. Even the best system techs can’t prepare properly if they don’t have enough information in advance. Further, even when this info is available and shared ahead of time, it’s still wise to arrive at the gig with a copy of the stage plot, patch list, input list, and whatever else is important to the production.
Having mixed at plenty of festivals and other multi-act events, I’ve developed a number of personal preferences and strategies. And I’ve observed that the balance of science versus art that we know as “live mixing” tends to weigh heavily toward the science side when the “run-and-gun” mode common to festivals kicks in. After all, things just have just work, first.
A Yamaha CL5 provided by Gand Concert Sound to serve as the house console at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
But as veteran freelance mix engineer Chris McMillan (John Mark McMillan/Promenade Media) told me, “Mixing is much better when the art takes priority over the science, and that means ergonomics can determine how nuanced your mix becomes. I like channels grouped the way I’m used to so that I see what I need and never know anything else exists.”
This is where festivals are so different than tours. Touring engineers get very used to their daily setup being consistent, and can take advantage of that repeatability to achieve highly detailed mixes. System techs that aren’t mixers should try to keep in mind that mix engineers aren’t always crazy or unrealistic when they want their console laid out a certain way.
It’s about familiarity. It really does matter if the lead vocal gets patched to the rack tom channel. Things like this can be dealt with in a pinch, and maybe quickly, but they can impact the end result by either causing a failure or a compromised (weaker) mix.
In talking with Chris and a couple of other festival mixing veterans, and thinking about my own experiences, certain themes are clear. Mix engineers desire a “perfect” console setup and the ultimate processing tweaks to satisfy their mix plans. But when working festivals, they do realize that it’s a daunting task to support many acts a day as opposed to one artist on multiple tour dates. As a result, they just hope for a reasonably well-tuned PA, a thoughtful system approach, solid gain structure, and an intelligent output bus layout.
Input patching is critical – particularly at festivals. What’s the best way to handle it? If the sound company has the qualified hands and there is enough change-over time, it’s great when stage inputs can be updated for each artist on the bill.
Whether the consoles are digital or analog, this extra effort goes a long way in helping keep things familiar for visiting engineers.
And if troubleshooting becomes necessary, engineer(s) are likely to have the stage patches for their artists memorized and know things like “hats are on line 5” and the like. All of this said, it’s simply not all that realistic in most festival situations…
Festival stages are typically patched in a logical order with plenty of lines, and the patches don’t change between acts. If one drummer needs 10 lines and another needs only six, then the latter has four open lines during his set – the overall count remains the same.
“Soft patching” on digital consoles allows laying out input and output channels in any order without making physical patch changes. This is extremely powerful. No longer does snake line 1 have to appear on input channel 1. Each engineer’s preferred console layout can be implemented without impacting the physical patches. But this requires sharing console show files in advance (pun definitely intended) or doing it on site while another act is playing.
It’s common to use matrixes to drive PA outputs such as main left and right, down fills, front fills, delay zones, subwoofers, etc. Many engineers simply distribute their stereo mix across these various zones (either L/R or L/R+sub), while some actually mix to each zone, which requires building specific mixes into each matrix. The exact PA zones and distribution varies per event, per stage, and not all companies do it the same.
But whatever the configuration, it’s imperative that the console’s output patches match the PA. With digital consoles this means soft patching the output patches, and for this reason, system techs need to be careful when loading each act’s show file, as output patching errors or surprises can create a perfect storm and wreck a system real quick.
A Soundcraft Vi6 as the front of house console provided by Premier Production & Sound Services for the main stage at Louisiana State University’s Groovin’ on the Grounds multi-act concert in Baton Rouge.
A couple of times I’ve worked as a guest mix engineer at a festival and then stayed on as a pre-booked system tech. While this isn’t my forte or preference, I found it very interesting to work from the other (host) side of things. Many visiting engineers arrive with an expectation of certain doom, and it was fun to “make their day” with exceptional support and PA organization.
In one case, the long-time mix engineer for a well-known classic rock band clearly wasn’t happy about the digital console at FOH. He just wanted to “get by and get out of there.” I knew this desk inside and out and did everything possible to make it painless for him. He sought to keep it simple, with input faders and EQs accessible, in order, but with no other processing – not even DCA groups.
Further, he actually broke out his console tape and Sharpie and proceeded to label the input channels analog style, in spite of the nice programmable LCD labels! When I pointed out that the tape was only applicable on “Bank A” and would be inaccurate as soon as he banked the faders, he simply replied, “I don’t bank.” The band fit on the 24 input faders without any banking (layering), and by the end of the first song, it sounded absolutely amazing. Simple setup, talented musicians, and great ears.
In considering this topic, I did some Q&A with long-time mix engineers Daniel Ellis (David Crowder Band, Jesus Culture) and the aforementioned Chris McMillan.
Here’s what they had to say.
What do you appreciate most from the host system tech in terms of console prep and work flow?
Chris McMillan: I love it when signal flow and busing are simple. That’s really the most important thing. I want to know I’m just responsible for a stereo mix and maybe a send for subs, and everything else is going to be fine. If that’s right, and there’s a solid talkback situation, then we’re golden. It’s also much appreciated when the system tech has thought through the input list and our specific goals and considered what that means in terms of the system configuration. There’s nothing as useless as taking the time to advance a show only to have nothing prepared and no feedback.
Daniel Ellis: I want to see a production console for videos, emcees, and things that I do not need/want in my show file. This also means that I can load and prep my show file in between acts without waiting for the perfect 30-second gap where nothing is happening on stage.
What’s your take on “festival patch”?
CM: In an ideal world, I stay away from festival patch, although this is pretty much only accomplished with a show file. I like channels grouped the way I’m used to so that I see what I need and never know anything else exists. You know, the typical spoiled brat method of engineering.
DE: As a headliner I want my show to be patched per my input list. The only problem with this is that many festival patch guys for some reason can’t get it right the first time so half of the sound check ends up being “fixing the patch.” At least this is how it works at Christian festivals. Sometimes it seems like a random guy has been hired off the street to patch when in essence, patching is one of the most important jobs.
A DiGiCo SD5 that’s one of numerous SD models supplied by Clearwing Productions for the annual Summerfest in Milwaukee.
Do you carry a show file if it’s a compatible digital console or do you send it in advance? Or neither?
CM: I carry a show file if it seems like it will make a difference. Sometimes the process of conforming a show file or the time it takes to be convinced it’s correct isn’t worth the effort, because patching and busing can become compromised. Anyway, the acts I work with aren’t doing anything so weird that a default festival scene can’t work as a great starting point.
DE: I always try to know ahead of time what console I’ll be using and have a show file ready. Even if it’s a blank show file built on my laptop, I find that it helps because at least I know where all of my inputs are. If you try to run a 48-input show from a festival console file, you spend the entire time switching between banks trying to remember where everything is. It helps me tremendously to have the same workflow every time even if I’m starting with flat EQ and no processing on anything.
Do you find that “artist EQ” or “output bus processing” is usually enough to get your sound or do you often wish (ask?) for access to the PA processing?
CM: Limited bus-style processing is usually acceptable, if not from a creative standpoint, then from the understanding that everyone else is working off of that same tuning.
DE: Lately I often find myself at an Avid desk at festivals, so I just slap a Waves Q10 (10-band paragraphic EQ plug-in) across the stereo bus. Luckily I haven’t had to do much to the systems themselves. Just two or three small cuts on the Q10 in problem areas and I’m usually happy. If it’s a console that doesn’t work with Waves, I simply use the parametric on the master out.
What makes for a good system tech?
CM: I don’t hesitate to communicate with the system tech about expectations and any changes I feel the PA needs. Most good techs can balance the reality of the promoter and their employer’s expressed interests and still meet your creative and technical needs. A good tech wants a good sounding show in reality and not just on paper.
DE: Good attitude and good ears! And please don’t set up a measurement mic in one spot and put in 15 EQ adjustments.
In The Studio: How To Charge For Your Time
A look at the pros and cons of several alternatives for engineers, producers and musicians...
One of the things that musicians, engineers and producers sometimes have trouble with is how much to charge for their time. Here’s an excerpt from The Music Producer’s Handbook that covers the pros and cons of all the alternatives. It’s aimed at producers, but just as applicable to engineers, musicians, and any professional trying to decide how much to charge.
What if a local band asks you to produce them? What do you charge if they’re not attached to a label? There are a number of approaches that you can take, although none will have you retiring to the Bahamas anytime soon. You can:
Charge a flat project fee. How much should that be? So much depends upon the type of project, how many overdubs you’ll need, the artist’s or band’s competency, the artist’s or band’s income level, and the number of songs. A jazz or blues band with 20 songs will usually take a lot less time than a pop band with eight because of the type of music and the layering normally required with pop music.
And if the band has a marginal player or two, that can almost double the time spent just trying to get the parts to match the other players in skill level (unless you can persuade them to use a session player.)
Usually, a flat fee is the least desirable way to get paid since projects have a tendency to go a lot longer than anticipated and will tend to drag on and on when the artist realizes that you get paid the same regardless of the time spent. If the flat fee is the easiest way or only way to get the gig, then that’s what you have to do, but otherwise, avoid it if you can unless you’ll very well compensated.
Charge a per-song fee. This is better than the flat project fee but not by much. All the same problem areas are still there with the exception that it can sometimes cause the artist to scale back from recording 15 songs to 10 (even though it’s a hit in your pocketbook).
You won’t have to worry about the artist wanting to record an extra song at the last minute or suddenly wanting to complete a track originally deemed too weak after basic tracking. With a per-song rate, any additional songs and you have to get paid.
Get paid on spec. This is the way that most fledgling producers start their careers. The deal would be that if the artist or band “makes it” (meaning they get signed by a major label and get an advance), then you’ll get paid either your project fee, points, or both.
The chances of that happening are always long no matter how much you believe in the act, so be prepared to spend your time working for free. The one good thing here is that you’ll be gaining experience.
If you’re going to work on contingency, you’ll need to get two things from the artist or band. The first thing is a larger deal than your normal rate to make it worth your while, since you’re specing your time. That could be anywhere from 20 to 50, even 100 percent more—whatever you can negotiate. You can justify it by saying, “I’m providing a lot of valuable time and expertise that you’re not paying me for right now. Maybe it’ll take a long time to see this money or maybe I’ll never see it. That’s worth an extra premium.”
The second thing is an agreement stating the terms of how much and under what circumstances you’ll get paid.
While you should go to an attorney to get this drawn up, this can cost you money that you don’t have or don’t want to spend on a project that may never pay off. Even if it’s only a single page long, just be sure to get it in writing because people have a tendency to forget or remember differently over time and it pays to have something on paper.
At the very least, put down what songs you’ve worked on (or going to work on), the amounts agreed upon, and a time frame that you’ll get paid (example—30 days after signing a major or indie label agreement), and how you’ll get paid (“in full by cashiers check”) just so no one forgets.
This may not be legally binding or may have plenty of holes that a high-priced lawyer can drive a truck through, but if the people you’re dealing are on the up and up, you’ll at least have a piece of paper to remind everyone of your contribution to their success and how you all agreed you’d be compensated.
Charge an hourly rate. The safest way to go as long as you can get paid, an hourly rate means that when you inevitably spend that extra week on overdubs or mixing, you’ll get paid for the time you’re putting in. The hourly rate keeps people focused and stops them from adding those extra 5 overdubs “just to see what they sound like,” or from trying 10 more takes when you all agreed that number 3 was great.
A combination of the above. Many times payment consists of a little bit of money or a little bit of spec, some items at a flat rate and some at hourly, or some combination. Try not to get too complicated. A simple deal works best for everyone, especially when it comes to getting paid. Just realize that there are a lot of options available.
There are a lot of good books on the subject of how to structure a deal for yourself that are much more comprehensive then what was just laid out above. Even if you decide not to read them, get an attorney if it means any money more than what the attorney will cost. At the very least, always get it in writing.
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website and blog. Get The Music Producer’s Handbook here.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
Church Sound: Setting Input Gain Structure
The keys to an often underrated aspect of proper operation of a system...
Gain structure is one of those very important, yet highly underrated topics in audio. It’s not nearly as glamorous as EQ, plug-ins or parallel compression, but if your gain structure is whack, no amount of EQ, plug-ins or compression will fix it.
Here I’m going to focus primarily on input channel gain structure (overall system gain structure is another article entirely, but I’ll mention it briefly). The impetus for this article came from a simple question: Is it better to hit the preamps hard then turn down at the main output, or run the mains up around unity and dial back input gain to get the SPL you want out of the system?
As a general rule (there is an exception, which I’ll detail in a minute), I would argue the former is the correct (or at least better) method, and here’s why. Most preamps sound best when you hit them pretty hard (at least up to the point of clipping, which is too hard). By running preamps hard—and by hard I mean around -6 dB full-scale on a digital board, or within 6 dB of clipping on an analog board—you are maximizing signal-to-noise ratio.
And for some reason, they just sound better. Keep in mind, that’s a general rule, your mileage may vary. Now, it’s quite possible that if you dial the input gains up so that all of the preamps are running high, the overall system level will be too high.
That’s when you would lower your main level to compensate. This method will keep the signal to noise ratio high throughout the mixing chain, and will attenuate the signal at the last possible moment.
Before we get to setting up the gain structure, let me lay out my goals in for the process.
First, I want to maximize S/N ratio, and use up as many of the bits in the analog to digital (A/D) conversion process that I can. Keeping the input level high meets both goals.
Second, I like to mix with my faders around unity. Mixing with faders at unity is another key ingredient to good mixing. The fader resolution is highest right around unity, so it’s easy to make small adjustments.
If you try to mix with your faders at -20, a slight change in fader position might yield a 3-5 dB change rather than the 1-2 dB you actually desire.
Finally, I want to be sending a very solid signal out of the mixer to the processors for the same reasons (only in reverse) as the first point. That’s why proper system gain structure is important.
Next, how I would approach the process.
Gain Setting In A Digital World
For each input channel, I would have the musician play their at their loudest level.
I then dial up the input gain until I’m within about 8-12 dB of full scale (minus 8-12 dB on the meters). I like to leave a little room for the musician to play louder when the lights go up (they always do).
Many digital boards also have a trim (or attenuation) control in addition to the input gain. I use my trim to dial the level back to where it should be in the mix with my faders at unity.
Because I’ve gained my entire system properly, my main fader is sitting at unity as well, and all is right with the world. As I’m using VCAs to manage groups of faders (drums, guitars, keys, background vocals, etc.) and those live at unity as well, at least to start.
All of this ensures that my signal-to-noise ratio is optimized at the A/D stage (just after the mic preamp), and my starting point for my mix is faders at unity.
Now, if you don’t have a digital trim control on your board, there’s a decision to make. You won’t likely be able to run the mic preamps hard without having too much signal at some point, so it’s necessary to dial the level back somewhere.
Of course, you can always turn the fader down, but then you lose fader resolution. A better alternative would be to use a VCA to keep the fader at unity, though that can get tricky.
Take a drum kit for example: If you optimize the gain on the kick, snare and hat, chances are, the hat will be way too loud in the mix. But more than likely, you’re using a single VCA for the entire drum kit. So now what?
Well, you could break the drums up into zones and use one VCA for each—kick and snare, toms, hi-hat and overheads might work. That way you can pull back the faders at the VCA level (a VCA is really an electronic remote control of the faders), and maintain fader resolution. A similar trick can be done with groups if you have them.
If VCAs are running, break my rule and set the input gain up so that the fader remains around unity for a proper mix. Audio is a lot about compromise, and in this case I’ll give up absolute input S/N to run my faders at unity. I’ve found that to be the wiser trade.
Gain Setting In An Analog World
Really, the process is much the same, though you are much less likely to have a trim control after the gain control.
In that case, the same rules apply as a digital board without a trim knob. You still want to have good input level coming into the channel (for the most part), then turn it down as needed later in the mixing stage.
You also want to keep your faders running around unity. Make the trades where you have to. In either the digital or analog world, what you don’t want to do is underdrive the mic preamps and have to add a lot of gain down the road.
Sure, you can push a fader up for a guitar solo, but you don’t want to regularly run input faders at +8, groups at +10 and main at +5 because the input gain is set too low.
Exception To The Rule
Now, all of this assumes you’re running on a professional grade mixer that has a mix structure designed with proper headroom.
If you’re using an inexpensive mixer, chances are you’ll run out of headroom in the mix bus very quickly. Setting input gains on these mixers the way you should, when all those hot signals hit the mix bus, is not going to be pretty.
The buses quickly saturate and lose all sense of dynamics. In that case, really keep an eye on overall output level and run input gains down accordingly.
This isn’t a dig on cheap mixers—they fulfill a need but you can only expect so much for what you pay for them—it’s just reality.
That’s a quick guide to setting up your gain for an input channel.
As I mentioned earlier, if you go through this whole process only to find that your overall SPL in the house system is either way too loud or way too soft, you have some work to do at the system processor or amplifier level.
But that’s another article entirely…
Mike Sessler is the technical director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 25 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts.
Reclaiming Systems Integration Clients With Sound Engineering
Customers burned by under-delivering integrators can be lured back with custom audio solutions...
Let’s face it: true commercial systems integrators’ reputations have taken a hit by clients’ bad experiences with not-so-true integrators.
Having supported customers for a manufacturer, I can attest that there are many customers left unsure of who to trust. Tired and frustrated, they don’t want to trust any integrators.
There needs to be a vast change in the way integrators handle customers. How we offer to help them, I believe, provides us the best opportunity to resolve their system problems and leave them satisfied with their financial investments.
Commercial integrators must begin by talking to the customer. By fully understanding their problems and concerns, we can begin to build relationships with these customers. They must be lasting relationships, which we hope will continue past the completion of any work we might do.
It’s not merely about telling them what they want to hear, it’s about offering solutions. We need to understand what our customers’ means are, and then we need to work within them.
Bring Integration Back To Sound Systems
Forget about what merely can make a sale. We first need to find out what functionality the customer needs.
They may have their own ideas for future expansions, or perhaps would like an upgrade to the latest technology. This will give us a good idea of where this customer wants to go with the system, and will help offer them the best solution.
If new equipment needs to be added to an existing system, choose gear that will complement what the customer already has.
Avoid adding equipment that will merely add “fluff” to the system. Discuss all facets of the system with the customer.
Many times, if we communicate better with the customer, we can better understand what it is that they want.
As audio integrators, we share a common goal. We design and install sound systems that are custom-fit to that particular customer. They have approached us to come up with a unique system that will fit their needs and budget.
However, our role involves much more than just offering a one-time solution.
Make it extremely clear that even after the last speaker is installed, you will be there for the customer. By offering excellent after-sales support, you can maintain a great future relationship with your customers.
This kind of relationship is what is often lacking, and is what will set you apart as an integrator, not just as a salesman.
Dealing With Scorned Clients
There is nothing worse than coming into contact with a customer that has been down this road before with several companies. They spent a fortune on a sound system, and it never did exactly what they wanted.
How do you cope with such a customer? How do you get them to trust you?
Start by building that trust. Listen to their concerns. Discuss with them their goals of the system. Tell them that things can be resolved and offer them a good solution.
Try to find out what their budget is for performing any work, and make sure it is clearly documented as to what their expectations are. While you cannot help everyone, you can give it your honest effort.
To me, education is a winning key to helping these customers, and winning their trust. Make certain they understand all functions of the system. Prove to them that you understand their concerns. Often, if you show a deep level of concern and a willingness to help them, you will win their trust.
Moving forward, we can offer customers those excellent solutions. If a customer is looking for a sound system with full automation that can be turned on from one button, we should offer them that.
Offering them less than what they have asked for is not acceptable. Integration is about taking many elements and making them work harmoniously together.
It’s about using our experience, technical know-how and creative thinking to offer a truly unique and ultimate solution to each of our customers.
Jeffrey L. Miranda is president of NeoLogic Sound, a commercial integrator specializing in high-performance audio systems. He has been a live sound engineer for theatrical performances, church worship services, in addition to indoor and outdoor concerts.
Go to Commercial Integrator for more content on A/V, installed and commercial systems.