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In the PM

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One of the bigger challenges of the last couple of years for me came from adding two more services on Sunday. When I originally came on staff our service times in the East Auditorium were 9am, 11am, and 12:45pm. We had one crew for the day, and they would just handle all three services. A couple years ago we cancelled our 12:45pm service and added 4:30pm and 6:30pm service times, and that has made things interesting.

At the time we added the services, I didn’t believe it would be sustainable for one person to mix all day. I have very strong memories of my first year working for a church where I’d be in around 7am, work the morning “big church” services, grab a quick lunch and be back by 1pm to start preparing for a middle school service in the late afternoon, get a little downtime followed by a high school service, then strike everything and go home sometime around 9pm. Within a year this had seriously burned me out. I learned a valuable lesson through this, though, in terms of setting limits for myself, and there’s a reason there are studies floating around that show once you move past an 8-10 hour day productivity goes down, but I digress.

So with my previous experiences still floating around my head, I knew over the long haul having one person mix all services for the day would probably not be sustainable. Since implementing our PM services at North Point, I have mixed all day on occasion, and while it’s certainly doable here and there, as many of you who mix many weekend services already know, it’s rough to do on a repeated basis. So my goal from the initial launch was to put in place a plan that could be sustainable for myself and the rest of our crew for the long haul, and that meant splitting the load amongst our team.

The way things have settled in and currently stand is we have two audio crews on Sunday: an AM crew and PM crew. The AM crew is in around 6-6:15am and work the morning rehearsal, 9am, and 11am services. Then the PM crew comes in around 2:30pm for afternoon rehearsal, 4:30pm, and 6:30pm services. The AM crew consists of an A1/FOH engineer, Monitor engineer, and A2. The PM crew uses only a FOH engineer and Monitor engineer. I don’t typically have an A2 in the afternoon because by the time it rolls around everything is pretty much dialed in, and the crew doesn’t usually need the additional help. Wednesday night rehearsals are primarily staffed by our AM crew, although I try and have as many PM guys on hand as possible so they know what’s going on before they show up on Sunday. They’re also a big help at rehearsals if we’re short-staffed in our other auditorium or if there are new crew members training that night.

The biggest challenge in implementing two crews has been the hand-off from AM to PM. Traditionally I’ve tried to keep workflows somewhat open for our engineers in that I’m not as concerned about how things get done so much as they get done and get done right. For example, different engineers may like to lay the console out differently and use different processors/mics/etc., but ultimately the end goal is the same for all the guys on our crew. So my thinking has generally been to try and let guys work in ways they are comfortable. At the end of the day I’m more interested in whether the mix is great and the band is happy with their monitors than how someone got it there. But going to multiple crews changed this a bit.

If you let everyone do things his way, it’s much more challenging for the next guy to take over their mix which is essentially what we’re doing with two crews. I’m still maintaining some of the individuality of different engineers, but there are certain ways of doing things that we have had to make a little more standardized in order for our PM engineers to be successful. For example, console layouts stay pretty much the same, and notes need to be left and communicated to afternoon crew.

In terms of FOH engineers, I went from mixing maybe 2 or 3 Sundays a month to mixing every week outside of me taking personal/vacation time. One of the interesting things I found with FOH was when guys came in behind me to drive my mix, the afternoons were close enough to the morning that everyone was happy. However, when I would bring those same afternoon guys in behind different AM engineers, consistency between AM and PM services dropped. And these other AM engineers were not sub-par by any stretch: these were all guys I trust and have even stolen tricks from.

As far as how the hand-off works, most of the PM FOH engineers come in a little early and flip the console over for virtual soundcheck. They can play through tracks from the morning figuring out their moves, and they also have the ability to pump the AM mixes direct into the PA so they can listen to them exactly as they happened in the morning, mix moves and all.

I currently have three engineers who mix FOH for the PM services. One of the guys has been working with me for a very long time so I don’t typically need to stick around in the afternoons if he’s on. With our other engineers I usually sit with them a bit while they play through virtual soundcheck so I can give them some tips and feedback. Then I’ll stay for our afternoon rehearsal and give any additional feedback to them if necessary before I cut out and head home. Right now I’m working towards not needing to be around at all in the afternoon unless I want to be there, and I feel like things are on track for me to be able to do that later this year.

Monitor world is a little different story. Our engineers do ride things here and there in monitor world, but the mixing during the services isn’t typically as intense as it can be for our FOH engineers. There might be some adjustments that need to happen from song to song for some players, but to my knowledge our guys don’t typically do a lot of riding of instruments in mixes–it’s mostly effects and audience mics and getting videos and talking heads in and out. Sometimes the AM engineers leave notes for the PM engineers on changes, but lately I’ve seen the AM guys start to use snapshots more and more to manage these changes.

Personally, I’ve even started using snapshots a bit more than I probably have in the past, and a big reason for this is also the handoff to the PM engineer. The last thing any of us wants is to have guys who just come in and hit Next, Next, Next, Next to go through the service, but I think using snapshots to mark the big things can definitely help with consistency.

Since the bulk of monitor mixing for our guys happens at rehearsal and in the morning, the PM services have become a great training ground. Our musicians might want some little tweaks in the afternoon, but with everything really dialed in there is much less pressure on the PM engineers so they can use these services to become more familiarized with the gear and simply being in “show mode”. It also lets them really focus on listening to the different musician mixes and to start to get a feel for what different players are looking for. This way if these engineers move into our AM services, they are much more confident in their ability to navigate the console while there’s a band on stage playing in front of a room full of people.

The challenge for monitor engineers for me with PM services, though, is more on the staffing side. While we have a couple engineers who rotate through most weeks, I’ve been trying to get all of our engineers to rotate through an afternoon. Part of this is because some of the PM guys are getting to the point where they can start mixing our AM services. Another part of this, though, is so the AM engineers can understand what it’s like to come in behind someone and feel that tension of inheriting a mix.

While I feel like things are in a good position, I still see this as a work in progress, and I’m always looking for ways to make it better. For example, I think some of the PM crew guys are starting to feel a little isolated from the rest of our team since they are serving on a smaller crew. In the morning we have two auditoriums fully staffed so it’s a nice little group we have every week. So one of the things I’m looking at this week is how I can make the community side of things better for the guys who are primarily PM engineers.

If you’ve got questions or even some of your own ideas on how you’ve made managing a lot of services spread over a weekend work, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

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My Road to Sundays

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I was asked not too long ago in the comments section of one of my articles if I could talk about how I go about prepping for Sunday services. Since my job doesn’t involve much outside of audio production for our Sunday services, I think the best way to explain it is to just give an overview of my week. This isn’t set in stone and some things tend to shift from time to time depending on what’s going on, but I’d say this is probably my week 80-90% of the year.

Sunday

I’m in around 5:45am for our morning Sunday services. I’ll get everything powered up, do a quick virtual soundcheck, do a transmission/sync check for multicampus message transmission, and walk around to check on the rest of the audio crew.

Depending on who I have mixing our PM services, I might stick around through our afternoon rehearsal. Right now I’m probably around through rehearsal 2-3 Sundays of the month, but ideally I’ll get that down to once a month or less this year. Getting the handoff from AM to PM services has been one of my bigger challenges over the last couple of years, but I think I’ve just about got it sorted out.

Monday

Mondays are primarily a meeting day. We start the day with our Service Programming Division meeting. The meeting typically consists of some team leadership development followed by an evaluation of our services from the day before followed by talk of the coming week or two of programming. That meeting rolls right into our Production Team meeting over lunch where topics can range from upcoming production needs to general team stuff. We follow that with our Tech Meeting which is focused strictly on the technical side of executing the services for the next two weeks. The morning programming meeting is more big picture overview of what’s happening, and our tech meeting gets into specifics such as where people will be standing on stage, where is a video coming from, how we’re going to handle transitions, etc, etc, etc.

I get maybe thirty minutes to an hour between our production team meeting and our tech meeting and then I usually have a couple hours left at the end of the day that I typically use for my own admin stuff. I’ll pay contractors and vendors, take care of scheduling, push through email, etc. I’ll start on the input list for the upcoming week if there’s time. I might also clean up any gear left out from Sunday.

One big thing I typically always do on Monday in my admin time is to work on scheduling the audio crew. I try and maintain a crew scheduled 4-5 weeks out so on Monday I schedule the next one. I’ll also go through and make sure everyone is confirmed in the weeks leading up to that next one and resend Planning Center invites for anyone who hasn’t confirmed.

Tuesday

Tuesdays are my day. This is a good day to schedule any meetings I need to do which could be with our other campus audio staffers or a volunteer. I might also have a 1-on-1 meeting with my Production Director. These are also good days to meet with vendors or manufacturers.

Tuesdays are also typically my main project day. I might do some audio post for a video like our baptism testimonies. I might take care of equipment maintenance or track down equipment for a future Sunday or event. I might work on new training material or vision stuff. I could end up tuning/tweaking a PA in one of my rooms or elsewhere on the campus. I might do some audio experimentation with new gear or a new technique. These things all seem to go in seasons, but Tuesday is the day they usually happen on.

I’ll also use Tuesday to finish up any pre-production I still need to do for the upcoming Sunday such as our input lists. Depending on what’s going on, I might even start turning the stage over for rehearsal on Wednesday.

Wednesday

Rehearsal is the name of the game on Wednesday. Since I work late Wednesday night, I usually don’t come in until after lunch. My main priority on Wednesday is getting everything set for rehearsal. Sometimes I’m still finishing input lists if things were still in the air on Tuesday. Then it’s getting everything set on my two stages, making sure everything is patched, and finally setting up all FOH and Monitor consoles–remember, I have 4 of them to do. If I have any free time in the afternoon outside of rehearsal setup, it will usually get spread amongst doing general admin stuff or projects.

Our audio crew starts showing up for rehearsal between 5-6pm. Between 6-6:30pm we get everything line checked and try and soundcheck the drummer in that time as well. Then we head to the green room for dinner. Soundcheck starts between 7-7:30pm. Then the band rehearses each song until they get it to a place where they’re either happy or the point of diminishing returns. Finally we record all the music to get a sense of timing and flow and to provide materials for our other production areas to get ready for Sunday.

After rehearsal I’ll usually try and head next door to our other auditorium to listen to the multitrack of their rehearsal. We’ll also often work in virtual soundcheck at this point. I typically am out the door sometime between 9:30-11pm depending on how much music there is for the week, and the shape of things.

Thursday

Thursday is for wrapping up any loose ends related to Sunday. I’ll usually use virtual soundcheck to refine the mix in the auditorium I’m working in on Sunday, and that usually amounts to probably a little over half a day’s worth of work spread across the entire day to take breaks and rest my ears. The rest of the day gets used for miscellaneous admin and projects that I can work on in between mixing. Thursdays can also be good days for lunch meetings with volunteers, manufacturers, vendors, staff, etc. I try and leave early just about every Thursday, but it never really seems to happen.

Friday and Saturday are my days off, and I’m very protective of them.

That’s my week, but hopefully you understand this isn’t everything that happens every week. Sometimes I work at home in the evening doing research or maybe on a schedule or input lists or just generally trying to keep myself educated on what’s going on in the world of audio. We might do an audio team meeting or training event on a weeknight at some points in the year. Conferences and special events also throw this off. But, ideally, this is my week.

What else would you like to know?

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A Long December – Week 3: Big Finale

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40 musicians on our stages. That was the name of the game for week 3 of our December music as we wrapped things up with a Gospel/R&B/Neo-Soul inspired set of music featuring 20 people on each of our two stages.

This was the week I knew would push our limits because, quite frankly, we were not equipped to handle it when the idea was initially presented. The instrumentation for this week consisted of: drums, bass, a percussion setup, two keyboard players, an electric guitar, 4 horns, 3 strings, 2 lead vocals, 5 background vocals, and, of course, a few backing tracks.

From the input side, this was probably one of the first weeks since our last Drive Conference where we filled a lot of them, but there was still a bit of margin which is always nice to have. The real challenge, however, was on the monitor side.

VENUE will only do 24 outputs which breaks down to 12 stereo mixes. So the decision was made to put most of the vocals on mono mixes since this would increase our monitor mix output capacity. Most players I know would rather have their own mono in-ears mix than share a stereo one. Plus we knew a lot of the singers would happily pull an ear anyway reducing their mix to mono. I still discourage this behavior because it’s pretty dangerous in the long run for your hearing, but this week it definitely helped us on the production side. The rest of the main rhythm section of the band got stereo mixes with the string players on mono mixes and the horns sharing a wedge mix. This was one of the many things I’m thankful our other audio staffers helped figure out for approaching these bands.

As for microphones, the drums and guitar got my standard setup I’ve been using for quite a while now; you can probably search the blog and find it in a “Sate of the Mix” article somewhere. The percussion setup got a couple Shure KSM32’s for overheads with a couple of Shure Beta98’s on the two conga’s. The horns were mic’ed with Shure Beta98’s. The cello got a DPA 4099, and the violin and viola got a couple of our DPA 4061’s. The horn, perc, and string mics were assembled from several of our campuses and traveled with the band along with a pair of Meyer Sound UPJ’s as wedges for the horn section.

This week wasn’t so much hard as it was just a lot of work to make happen. Coming off of the electronic bands last week and moving back to acoustic instruments meant completely rewiring two full stages. We also put the drums on a taller riser than usual which required some creativity in using our drop-snakes since the normal ones are for all intents and purposes somewhat permanently mounted now on our new risers we started using a couple weeks ago. Fortunately when we put the new snakes in four years ago I had the foresight to make sure they could reach to opposite ends of the stage where we ended up pulling some of them this week to make it all happen.

It had been so long since I’ve had to pin two complete stages from scratch, I’d forgotten how much work it can be. Our drums alone are at 15 inputs plus another 8 for tracks coming from a computer on the drum riser. Then there’s our normal guitar and keys stuff followed by the additional horns and strings this week. Then there were some hardwired mics for all of the background vocals in one of our auditoriums because we don’t have enough RF handhelds to accommodate all the vocalists spread across both stages this week. Add to that the wedges on both sides along with extra hardwired packs. Then there was a lot of reprogramming of RF IEM packs to run in mono. It just all adds up, and by the time I was finished with everything including checking console programming and finishing up programming my FOH desk I had band members starting to show up for rehearsal. All in all, by my estimation getting everything set on two stages for 40 musicians took me a little over two full days worth of work, and that was with some help from a couple of our other production guys.

Once the setup was done, though, it was really just another day at the office, although, there were some different aesthetics to keep in mind. I’d been listening to a fair amount of R&B/Neo-Soul stuff since the summer when Jared in our music department started casting vision for this week trying to get my head around some of the things that make this style of music tick. One changeup from my usual approach was to go drier on most of the instrumentation and vocals. Reverbs were usually pretty short and theoretically transparent this week, and I think I only used one delay.

Something that got a bit more use this week was the Waves PS22 plugin. This has turned out to be the plugin of the month for me. One key place I ended up using this was on all the background vocals. One of the things that stuck out to me getting ready for the week was how wide the panning often is on background vocals for modern R&B. This just stuck out to me as part of the aesthetic of the genre so I wanted to try and capture some of this if I could. Of course, I can’t hard pan vocals in my room because that’s just not gonna work for live sound so I gave the PS22 a try. I wasn’t sure how I’d like it on vocals, but it really helped get them feeling wider and bigger in the room while preserving the musical content throughout the room. The backgrounds also got some split-harmonizer added along with one of my other new favorites, the Waves Reel ADT. All input processing for the backgrounds was handled by a Renaissance Channel.

I routed the horns to their own group where I treated them with another Waves PS22. Slapping a Renaissance Axe plugin across the group also made me happy so thanks to Andy Meyer for the idea. The horns got a little bit of reverb added courtesy of TrueVerb and finally a C6 across the group helped keep the upper-mids under control.

The strings were a combination of tracks and a bit of the live mics. The tracks we used were actually recorded during rehearsals so they were tracks of the actual players on the stage using the same mics just without all the drum kit and PA bleed. I routed all of these to a group where I did a little overall compression with a Waves CLA2A and a C4 multi-band for overall frequency smoothing. One nice trick I got from my friend, Chris Briley, was to gate the live string mics and key them off the string tracks which helped keep the mix tighter and cleaner when the strings weren’t playing. Parenthetically, this trick works nicely on choir mics, too, boys and girls.

In terms of the overall mix itself, I tried to approach it from a different angle than our normal band since stylistically this wasn’t supposed to be the rock show. I pushed the vocals a little more out front this week and pulled the drums back a bit. I also tried to stay away from the big, fat rock snare as much as possible; Tim Corder recommended manipulating the transient on it a bit so I employed the SPL Transient Designer plugin for the first time in quite a while to help with that. The keyboards ended up getting featured more, and I didn’t dial in the guitar to cut quite the same way as I usually do which I think in hindsight actually bit me on at least one of the songs where I missed some nice guitar stuff that could have been featured more. Outside of that it was just a lot of fader riding to feature different stuff at different times.

So this brings up a great opportunity to do a little demonstration. I think Tim Corder’s online mix of our opener was a good example of why I like that we do a separate broadcast mix. So here’s Tim’s mix.

121414 Christmas Jazz Opener from North Point Online on Vimeo.

Now here’s an embedded version of my FOH mix that starts about 2:27 into the video above.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Personally, I’m fairly happy with the way my FOH mix came out, although, I think it felt a lot better in the room as it should have. Something to note in the FOH mix, though, are the exaggerated pushes compared to the online mix. For example, check out the lead guitar lick in the first verse, and how it’s overcooked. Some of the horn stabs and string lines get similar pushes through the course of the song. I think Tim’s mix, on the other hand, feels much better listening at home. I wish I had gotten that bass tone he had, but since I relied more on the subs for it this week it doesn’t quite translate the same outside the room. Ultimately, though, I think these mixes both also illustrate a great point: there is no ONE perfect mix.

This was the final week in our December mini-tour, and I think it was a good note to end on. Our Christmas services were sort of business as usual with added Christmas songs. I’ve enjoyed relaxing over the last week or so from the month of December, but now I’m looking forward to getting back to work in 2015.

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