In the Presence of Greatness Part Two

13 08 2007

You may have read my post on my surprise trip to see Allison Kraus & Union Station last week. That was on Friday night. On Sunday, I found myself once again in the presence of greatness. This time it was not someone famous. Chances are you’ve never heard of any of the people I was around (unless you’re a Crosswinds regular…). Just the same, these are great people. Of whom do I speak so highly? Sunday afternoon after our service, we had a picnic to celebrate our technical team. Nearly 30 people arrived at a wonderful spot overlooking the lake to eat some good food and spend some time together.

Crosswinds has been blessed by God with some really great technical volunteers. We have some 25 that serve on weekends. They are not professional tech people, but I’ve seen every single one grow in their skill level over the past year. The production quality of our services has never been higher because of their dedication to excellence. Not only do they come to serve, and serve well, but they do it with great attitudes. Honestly, they are some of the most joyful people I know. There isn’t an attitude among them and they all love working together.

As I was watching everyone interact at the picnic, I thinking of just how blessed we are here. Then I thought back to some of the other churches I’ve been a part of where we didn’t have this kind of a crew. Maybe that’s your church. So I wondered what is it that makes it so good here. I have a few thoughts as to what might be contributing to our great volunteer team.

First off, we just have great people. People really do make the difference. They are servants, they love God, they love God’s people and they love each other. So, I think the first key to developing a great team is to recruit people like that–regardless of their skill level. Skills can be learned, but if someone does not have the heart of a servant, they’re not ready for a tech team.

Second, this church really, genuinely appreciates it’s volunteers. I’ve spent many years laboring in obscurity, mixing sound or doing lights, with no one ever saying thanks. Tech people by nature are “behind the scenes” people, and don’t desire a limelight. However, we all need to be acknowledged and thanked. The staff at Crosswinds is very intentional in regularly acknowledging and thanking our tech team. We don’t have cookouts every week (though some suggested that would be a good idea…), but we do say thanks a lot.

Third, we really try to provide useful, high-quality training. Nothing is more frustrating for a volunteer than to be expected to perform at a high level of excellence, and feeling like they don’t know what they are doing. Honestly, it’s one of the most unfair thing a church can do, expecting too much without providing proper training. We also try to raise the bar regularly and pull the team to new heights. Notice I didn’t say push. I and our video/lighting director are constantly learning new things, and as we do, we share them. We’re not asking the volunteers to do anything we’re not willing to do.

Finally, we do try to have fun. I often say, “We’re worshiping God, it should be fun.” I’ve been in churches where the tech team is a pressure cooker. One false move and you’re fried, sometimes very publicly. At Crosswinds, we try to plan as much as we can, prepare as much as possible, and then have fun during the service. Most times it works. And when it doesn’t, we try to laugh about it, and then fix the problem.

I wouldn’t say this is an exhaustive list, nor do I think we’ve got it completely nailed. However, we’re doing better this year than we did last. I think it’s a commitment to continuous improvement that  keeps making it better week after week.

Are you blessed with some great volunteers? Tell us your “secret sauce” recipe. Are you struggling to build a great team? Consider some of these suggestions, and see what God does.

In The Presence of Greatness

6 08 2007

It was a pretty normal Friday afternoon when my friend and fellow sound tech, Joel called. He asked if I had anything going on that night. I was free. He told me his son was sick and his wife was going to bail on the concert they had tickets to. He wondered if I would be interested in going to see Allison Kraus. It took me about 10 seconds to decide. If you aren’t familiar with her (and Union Station, the band she has been recording and touring with for many years), go buy a CD or download some songs from iTunes. It’s OK, we’ll wait.

The concert was at our city’s performing arts center, an indoor/outdoor facility. We had great seats under the shell. Here are a few of my observations:

  • Allison has an amazing voice. She can run from low to high, from a near whisper to mezo forte with what seemed like effortless ease, and without a trace of harshness or edginess.
  • The guys in the band are amazing musicians.
  • The JBL Ver-Tec line array they played through sounded exceptionally clear and present (with perhaps a little too much emphasis at 1.2 KHz). However even with an amazing sound system, there is no substitute for talent.
  • There is also no substitute for being able to move large quantities of air to properly reproduce a stand-up string bass. Sorry, but two double 18’s were not enough.
  • Even without adequate bass, it was the best-sounding concert I’ve ever heard in my life.
  • Music is worship. God gave us music, an He obviously blessed these musicians with an incredible talent. To be in their presence as they exercised their gifts was to be in God’s presence.
  • Most of the set was done with just the bass, fiddle, acoustic guitar (or 2), banjo and a dobro. They did a few songs with a B3 or piano, and the drums. I didn’t really miss the drums when they weren’t there (and normally I really like drums).
  • Did I mention Allison’s voice?

I was a little surprised at how the snare sounded. Normally I go for a really bright, snappy, in-your-face sound on my snares. However, for this show, it was rather muffled; Joel described it as muddy. And you know, I really liked it. It was there, but it was clearly in the background. My guess is the FOH engineer didn’t want it to be competing with the sound of the guitars or vocals (which is what we were there to hear anyway). I want to try toning my snare down this weekend and see what happens.

It was also nice to come away from a show without my ears ringing. The concert was a perfect volume—loud enough to hear and feel, but no where near painful. That was refreshing. I spent the first half of the show analyzing the mix, trying to figure out what he was doing. That was highly educational. A big part of learning to mix better is going to listen to people who can mix better than you. This guy was pretty good.

After a while I got wrapped up in the music and was reminded why I love to mix—because I love music. Almost any music. Music is one of God’s gifts to us. It is beautiful and points to God as the Creator of beauty. If it’s been a while since you have seen a live show (and it has been for me…), go see one. If you have the wherewithal, take the volunteer sound techs in the church. Make it a educational field trip. Honestly, if I had known how good this was going to be, I would have done that. And it was good to get out and spend some non-church time with a friend. Thanks for thinking of me, Joel!

Of Cables, Conduits and Labels

31 07 2007

Warning: Rant coming. It might be best to get the kids out of the room for a minute.

One thing I’ve discovered in the last 20 years of doing church tech (and other tech for that matter) work is that in any given cable installation, over a period of time, the once neatly installed cables degenerate to a mess resembling a big old plate of over-cooked #11 Vermicelli. I don’t know if there is a roaming squad of cable trolls who tangle it all up or what, but it’s been true of nearly every installation.

So last night I decided to pull all the cables in our youth ministry center and lay it out again. I wasn’t surprised that all the cables were twisted up, and that a bunch of stuff was not connected correctly. What really aggravated me was that I found a bunch of cables that were laying in the cable tray under the counter with no labels on them. There were RG-59’s that disappeared down a conduit without a trace of where they may go. I found cables running up to our RF DA in the ceiling without a single flag of tape as to which one was input and which were outputs (after toning them out I found out the input cable was connected to an output terminal, explaining why the system didn’t work…). I found eight 1/4″ lines also laying in the tray, with no idea where they go.

I’ve done a lot of wiring in my life, and I’ve learned a few things. One is that putting a label on a cable end doesn’t take that long, and it makes troubleshooting a lot easier. I’ve learned that in a month, I will not be able to remember where all the cables go. I’ve also learned that I will not be the last person working on the system. And this is where the aggravation comes in.

If you start running cables all over your church to connect rooms or booths or TVs or whatever, and none of them are labeled, at some point, something will get disconnected and someone will have to figure out what goes where. If everything is labeled, it’s a whole lot easier to track it down, especially in a large church. We have 5 theaters that are all inter-connected by unlabeled wires. Which makes the wires in the conduit useless. At some point, I will have to spend the better part of a day toning these lines all out and figuring out what goes where. That’s a huge waste of my time, and it could have been avoided by putting something other than a flag of red tape on the end of a cable.

I like to label everything. We have one of those nice label printers with a QWERTY keyboard on it, and I personally have gone through at least four 50′ rolls of label tape in the last year. I label connectors with the tape, and put clear heat shrink over the label (a cable tray full of labels that dried out and fell off is almost as frustrating as unlabeled cables).

While were on the topic of labels, make sure you label it so someone else can understand it. “To Lobby TV” might be a great label—if your church has one lobby and one TV in said lobby. However, when you add on in 3 years and have another lobby with another TV, things will get confusing. For runs that leave the room (whatever room they originate in), I suggest some type of code to go along with the label. If you have all your rooms connected with RG-59, perhaps tag each end of the cable with a serial number, like “RF-1,” “RF-2,” etc. You can also put something on there like “To Min Cntr” so that someone has an idea where to go look for the other end of “RF-2.” Same goes for audio tie lines.

I even label cables in equipment racks and behind soundboards and the like because eventually, it will need to be unplugged. Who can remember what gets plugged into where? If the connector is big enough I’ll label it with where it goes, “To Projector,” and what it gets plugged into, “Octo Output 1.” If it’s a small connector, I’ll just call it what it is, “RF Mod In.” The idea is that one person should be able to unplug everything, and someone else could plug it all in correctly, and without tracing lines all over the place.

Next time you’re about to string some cable over the ceiling, or push it into a conduit, think about putting a label on it. It takes just about a minute to do it, but I can almost promise you will save someone a lot of time trying to trace it out later. You can get a label printer just about anywhere;  clear heat shrink is cheap insurance and available here.

If you happen to be the one who ran cable all over Crosswinds with no labels, I hope I didn’t offend. Perhaps you can come in some Saturday and help me track them down and we’ll label them together.

Mixing Guitars

23 07 2007

Tim Corder found a good article in Mix magazine on mixing guitars. While Mix focuses on mixing in the studio, many of the concepts apply to us live guys as well. Check it out here…

Mixing Guitars

Audio for Video: Using High Pass Filters

23 07 2007

Note: This blog has moved to a new home. Church Tech Arts now has it’s own domain; you can view this post,
along with hundreds of others at the new location. Thanks for reading!

Let’s admit it: It happens a lot. Even when you pay careful attention to the audio you record for a video, and you used a good mic (you did use a good mic, right? if not read this…), you can still end up with a bunch of background rumble and noise in your recording. It happened just the other day to someone at the video production company I work for. They were shooting in a grocery store, capturing some interviews. They used a good shotgun mic, with good directivity to cut down on the ambient noise. However, there were those dreaded coolers all over the store, and if you listen carefully (mainly because our brain normally tunes them out), you’ll hear compressors running. Back in the studio, it sounds like a truck going by the entire interview.

Because it’s a complex noise source, trying to run a noise reduction program on it probably won’t work well (and even when the noise goes away, it is often replaced by unwanted digital artifacts of the FFT process used to perform the noise reduction—but that’s another post). However, we do have one tool in our utility belt that can help (actually two, I’ll get to the second, which should actually be the first, in a second): Enter the high pass filter.

A high pass filter is just what it sounds like—it lets high frequencies pass, while blocking low frequencies. Super-basic HPFs are a simple on and off switch with a pivot frequency (the frequency at which it “passes” signal) and slope (how quickly it drops off the signal below the “pass” frequency) set at the factory. Better HPFs that come with higher level editors like Premier Pro and Final Cut allow you to select the pivot frequency. Here is an example of an HPF with a pivot frequency of 120 Hz, and a slope of 12 dB per octave (that is, at the frequency 1 octave below the pivot frequency—60 Hz—the level will have been reduced by 12 dB).

High Pass Filter Example Graph

You can see how the frequencies above the pivot frequency pass by unaffected, while the ones below get rolled off pretty quickly.

This is when it actually gets useful. For the male voice, the fundamental frequency of the lowest notes one speaks is between 85-155 Hz. For a female, it’s a little higher, perhaps 165-225 Hz. This means that there is no real information that we need below 85 Hz for males and 165 Hz for females. And in reality, because of the way we hear and the way the voice is produced, there are plenty of harmonic frequencies that our brain will interpret clearly to make up for missing fundamentals.

So let’s say we have a compressor running in the background of a female interview. We can safely dial up a HPF with a pivot frequency of 165 and not loose any of her voice. We can take it up even higher to eliminate more of the noise, and the clarity will improve markedly. In fact, the voice will “sound” louder once the low frequency stuff is removed because we can hear it better.

So this is exactly what we did for grocery store woman. We dialed up an HPF with a pivot at around 150 Hz, and it totally transformed the audio. There was still some higher frequency noise, and it was obvious she was standing in the store and not a studio, but the clarity of here voice was improved substantially. If I have time later this week, perhaps I’ll grab a before and after sample and put it up here.

Earlier I mentioned we actually have 2 tools in our tool belt. The other one may be on the mic itself. Many professional shotgun mics (and some interview mics, and the occasional lapel mic) have a HPF built in. For example, my beloved Audio Technica 835B has a switchable roll off at 180 Hz at 12 dB per octave. That means at the lowest fundamental of a male voice the mic will be 12 dB down, which is generally not a big deal unless you’re interviewing James Earle Jones. Normally, I like to leave this switched on because it eliminates a lot of room rumble, AC noise and other nasties right at the source. It’s just a good idea. If you use this when you shoot, you will require less processing in the edit suite.

Of course, you’ll want to listen to it through some good headphones first to make sure you’re happy with the sound. You do have good headphones, right?

More Aviom Tricks

18 07 2007

As I’m sure you know, I really, really like our Aviom system. It has made a huge difference in the main house sound (by lowering stage wash) and has made the job of the FOH engineer far easier. By adding 5 additional monitor “mixes,” we can now give each of the vocalists their own wedge so no one shares. Overall, it’s a great system.

There have been a few hiccups, however. The first problem we had was with the musicians not knowing how to mix. Makes sense, they’re musicians, not monitor engineers. What was happening was simple; when the Aviom starts up, all the inputs are set to 50%. So as the musicians built their mix, they kept turning things up. The problem was, they quickly ran out of headroom. I was getting complaints that they “couldn’t hear themselves.” I’d run up on stage and look at their “mix,” and discover all channels at or close to 100%. Since they don’t go to 11, they were out of room.

To solve this, I’ve created a simple preset that I recall before each rehearsal/sound check. I programmed all the channels to 0%, except the talkback channel, so they can hear the FOH engineer calling for instruments. I programmed this preset into 16, so it won’t accidentally get erased. It takes just a few seconds to recall the preset and gives everyone a blank slate to work from. And I haven’t had a complaint since.

Another issue we’ve run into is with power outages. We have pretty flaky power around us, and it goes out from time to time. When this happens between rehearsal and the weekend, the mixes everyone so carefully set up are lost. Since it just happened again last week, I will be reminding everyone to save their mix before they leave Thursday night. That way we don’t have to start all over again on Saturday.

Since you can save 16 presets, theoretically everyone could be assigned a Aviom unit (one for drums, one for bass, etc.), and each musician could have their own number. More likely, I’ll just have them store it into 1, and it will be re-written each week.

The final trick involves the labels we use. If you visit the links page on this blog, you can download a template done in Excel that you can use to create custom labels. I started doing this a few weeks after we put the system in because we have 4 worship teams that rotate. The challenge was, how to affix the labels to the mixer so they would not shift for the weekend, but not be a pain to remove. In a flash of brilliance, I came up with vinyl report covers. I cut them down about 5/8″ from the folded edge, which gave me a tight “V” shaped piece of vinyl. I inserted some tape inside the “V”, then taped the vinyl to the mixers, over the channel marker strip. Now I print off the labels and just slip them into the vinyl each week. They stay put, and are easy to get out. Total cost, about $2.00.


The Danger of Over-Compression

17 07 2007

A few weeks ago I wrote about compressing pastors and others who speak from the platform. I really like to use compression (judiciously), and would use it on just about every input on the board if I had enough comps (one of the many reasons I want a digital board…). Compression can really help even out the spoken word, especially in smaller venues, and enhance clarity.

On the other hand, when over-used, compression makes things muddy and takes away all the dynamic and punch. I came across the video below on Dave’s Going to 11 blog. It does such a good job visually and audibly demonstrating the dangers of over compressing something I am posting it here. Check it out—it’s really interesting (make sure your speakers are turned up to a good listening level).