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‘Tis The Season: Strategies To Make It Work With Christmas Programs

With the right planning, December can be a time of year that everyone looks forward to rather than dreads...

Christmas: it’s the most wonderful time of the year! Unless of course you happen to be a church sound person.

Statistics show Christmas and Easter are the highest attended weekends of the year, and most churches pull out all the stops to make those weekends great. And that tends to make a lot more work for the sound and production teams.

Whether it’s a Christmas Pageant, a giant dramatic production, or multiple extra services on Christmas Eve with a bigger band than usual, we have our work cut out for us.

To make it all happen, we need some extra coping skills. As is often the case, it all starts with “plan early, plan often.” In fact, if you haven’t started your plan by the time you read this, you’re running behind. (Sorry about that.)

The planning process at our church kicks off in June; just brainstorming at first, and then developing the concept throughout the summer. By fall, we know what we’re doing and how much time it will take to pull together.

Once there’s an overall concept of what you’re doing, tech planning needs to get very specific, very fast. Because we do them every weekend, normal weekly services tend to drop into auto-pilot mode.

A large Christmas production, however, can quickly take us way outside of our normal scope of operations.

The first place to start is with a realistic assessment of the requirements. Begin by asking a lot of questions, such as: What is the band configuration? How many vocalists? Will there be an orchestra, and what does that look like? If doing a drama, how many wireless microphone systems will we need?

Further: How many pastors will be speaking? What other special sound effects might we have to do? Will we need tracks with a click fed back to the band? Do we need additional monitor mixes in unusual locations? Will the set pose any acoustical or set up challenges? Is there anything else we haven’t discussed?

Heart Of The Matter

One question in particular brings out a whole host of things that others don’t consider important: Is there anything else we haven’t discussed?

I once asked this at a Vacation Bible School planning meeting and was answered with, “Would now be a good time to talk about the talent show on Friday night?” You think? But I digress…

Once there are answers to these and any other questions germane to your situation, it’s time to build a list of technical requirements.

I’m a strong advocate of an input sheet for every event we do – even our weekly services, which don’t differ that much week to week, get a full input sheet.

The input sheet is simply a chart showing every single input source (mic, DI, playback, video feed, etc.), what it’s used for, and where it plugs into the board. This is often the first filter in sorting out issues. It might show that there won’t be enough inputs on the main console, or there won’t be enough channels of wireless mics to cover everyone, or that there won’t be enough aux sends to cover all of the monitor needs.

Whatever the challenges, they can be overcome if they’re known early enough. The day before rehearsal is not the time to discover you’re six wireless mics short.

Depending on the type of production, there might be a need for specialized mics that you don’t have in the inventory. While it’s true a string section can be mic’d by a single (Shure) SM58, it’s probably not going to provide the desired results.

If you haven’t mic’d a string section before, check with someone who has and gather ideas on how to do it, then figure out if renting or buying mics is the best option. This principle applies to other unusual mic’ing needs as well.

Ideally, you’re sorting all this out by November, which gives you plenty of time to come up with solutions. Items like wireless mics, larger mixers, extra snakes, and monitors can all be rented.

However, keep in mind that Christmas season is in fact a wonderful time of year for rental houses. So wonderful that they often rent out much or all of their gear. Good for them, not so good if you waited until mid-December to start calling around looking for more wireless mics.

More Assembly Required

With all requirements for equipment in place, you can start calling around for rental quotes and put your budget together. In these tough economic times, budgets might need to be trimmed and the production scaled back.

Make sure those in charge of the production know what it’s going to cost, and work with them to figure how to come in at or under budget.

The next step is figuring out staffing needs. For example, any time I do a big dramatic production with more than a few wireless mics involved, I always appoint a wireless mic “wrangler.”

Last year, I had 14 channels of wireless with 18 headsets (meaning some channels were shared). There’s no way to track that from front of house, so I set up a room with all the packs and mics, staffed by someone whose sole job it was to make sure the right actor had the right pack at the right time.

We also ran comm (intercom) into that room so we could communicate if there were issues (and there were).

There may also be the need to add a monitor mix engineer if the band requirements are more than you can mix from the house. Or you may need to bring in a sub mixer to handle additional input channels and, depending on the production, someone to run it. I’ve done really big shows with three house engineers running two consoles –each one was dedicated to a subset of the production (actors, choir/vocals, band).

A previous Christmas fell on a Sunday, and that made it challenging for us to staff our events, with a lot of people leaving town on Friday to spend the whole week with family. Again, now is the time to start finding that out. You don’t want to be calling all your volunteers the week prior only to find out no one is in town.

Big Christmas productions can be the highlight of the church calendar. They’re often tremendous fun for tech teams, and very rewarding from a ministry standpoint.

With proper planning, preparation and communication, December can become a time of year that everyone looks forward to, rather than dreads.

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