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Quick Thought: Far Ends of the Chain

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I believe when it comes to investing resources, the biggest bang for the buck typically comes from investing in the far ends of the signal chain and working your way in towards the middle from there. By the far ends I mean starting with the source or the delivery system.

When I talk source, I’m talking about the instrument and/or even player itself. Before I worry about upgrading to the greatest kick drum mic ever, I’ll get a great kick drum to begin with. Before I drop loads of cash on the coolest boutique guitar amp for the house I’m gonna make sure I’ve got guys who can really play guitar through it.

The delivery system in our world is typically the loudspeaker system. The delivery system is so important because EVERYTHING comes through it. It’s the master gate-keeper on our sound. It’s also typically the largest expense and hardest thing to get changed. But it is generally the largest limiting factor in how good things can sound so if the PA needs work, it’s one of the first places I try to invest.

So what if I need to make changes but can’t do anything about the far ends of the chain? For example, a new PA is out of the question due to cost, and I can’t even approach the musician side of the equation. The next step, in my opinion, is to look at the next thing in the chain on either end. Maybe some training for myself or an engineer is the answer. Maybe a new console would make a difference. Maybe the greatest kick drum mic ever would help.

And by the way, processes generally go hand-in-hand with the people. Maybe our soundcheck process needs work. Maybe our rehearsal workflow isn’t right. These are things on the far ends of the signal chain where the people tend to also be.

The audio and musical experience can sometimes seem like a nebulous thing to try and make better. If you break it apart into all of it’s components, it can be much easier to see everything involved and to decide where to focus your energy on improvement. So take some time and draw out your signal chain and all the stuff in it. Not everything always needs changing or work. But if I’m trying to make something better, I start on the far ends and see what I can make better there first before working my way towards the middle.

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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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