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A Long December – Week 2: Light Show

Photo by North Point Community Church

Week 2 of our December programming’s music genre was electronic music inspired by the EDM stuff that’s en vogue right now. Being electronic music, you might think things were simple, although, that was not the case. Instrumentation consisted of two keyboard players, electronic drums, a Moog Sub Phatty, electric guitar, pre-programmed tracks galore, 1 acoustic cymbal, and four vocals.

From a logistics standpoint, this was probably the most technically challenging to get setup. We had about 24 inputs coming from various computers, and I find whenever we start using computers that things get hard. Plugging everything in is easy because you just go TRS to XLR into the house snakes, and it’s a done deal. But getting everything configured on the computers to output properly at consistent levels never seems to go as smooth as it should.

I’m still waiting for–or trying to find–someone with a computer audio interface that doesn’t have a screwy software mixer or goofy mixer built into the box itself that always seems to mess things up. We don’t need any of this. We don’t need a box with a lot of frills. We just need to be able to route things out within the software we’re using. Just give me a good D to A converter and the ability to route to whatever output we want within our software of choice. No level adjustments. No mic pre’s. Just line outs. I’m ready to drive a lift over some of these interfaces. This shouldn’t be so hard.

On the console side, the biggest challenge was just managing the inputs. Most of the electronic instruments and tracks folded down into stereo channels so while there were a fair amount of inputs in use, everything fit on one bank of the desk. The challenge, though, was understanding what everything was. Since a lot of inputs were “tracks” or “synths”, it took a some exploration to understand exactly what parts were coming down what lines and when.

The next big thing I ended up doing was snapshotting a lot of EQ’s and compressors on a song-per-song basis. Since so many sounds were changing from one song to the next, it was the only way to manage the shifting frequency spectrum and dynamics. I had to stop looking at some of the EQ curves because they looked so wrong and sounded so right. Sometimes things had zero EQ or compression and other times things hit hard.

I actually did most of my processing this week using the console’s onboard channel EQ and compression, but there were some plugins in use as well. Waves Renaissance Bass was often liberally spread amongst inputs to help warm and fatten up some of the brighter electronic sounds and fill out the lower-mids. I also employed a few Waves Renaissance Compressors that I side-chained to the kick drum to help make some stuff pump in EDM fashion. All of these plugs were snapshotted and sometimes moved around to completely different inputs on a per-song basis.

One final thing employed was Wave’s Lo-Air plugin. I fed this off an aux and snapshotted what I was sending to it. Not every song featured it, but I felt it was very important to have enough low-end this week to balance against the brighter side of the programmed stuff, and Lo-Air helped extend everything down to the limits of of our subs.

Vocals got my standard treatment of a the Massey Deesser followed by Waves MaxxVolume for compression and finally a Waves C6. Vocal FX were a little more obvious this week, and I basically had everything running: a plate and a hall, a couple delays, and lots of split-harmonizer. It seemed to fit stylistically with the music so I ran them up. Using more FX, though, required a bit more EQ than usual on the returns to keep the low-mids from muddy’ing up the vocals. Instrument FX were very minimal if at all. I think I used some reverb on the electronic drums in a couple of places, but most–if any–FX on the instruments was already coming from the stage so I didn’t need to worry about them.

I guess the bottomline this week was I had to take an almost studio-esque approach to mixing the songs where each song was its own entity instead of dialing in a “band sound” and tweaking small things for each song. While the music was different conceptually, I don’t think it was actually as far off from what we consider our normal fare as some of us thought it would be. There was maybe a little more low-end than usual, and the drum sounds were different but a lot of the same kinds of elements we used this week have been showing up on regular Sundays. It was just fitting this week to make them more prominent and to drive things more instead of support the acoustic stuff on stage.

Two weeks down now. One to go.


A Long December – Week 1: Unplugged

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For our first week of December music, the genre was acoustic. The band consisted of: a cajon & cymbal, upright bass, dobro, mandolin, 2-3 acoustic guitars, 1 electric guitar, and 5 vocals. Sounds pretty simple on the surface, but it actually was fairly involved to maintain a natural sense within the mix. So let me break down how I approached this.

The acoustic bands were the only bands that never rehearsed with audio production in October and November so they were the last bands to get pre-production finalized. We rehearsed for Sunday on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I don’t think I finished the input lists until that morning which was cutting things a little close for my tastes. In spite of the simplicity of the band, I still needed to wipe a most of our console templates because the instrumentation was quite different from our normal stuff.

One way to do this would be to just select everything and reset the channels in the console. The problem with doing that on the VENUE is it wipes settings for that channel and un-patches it, BUT it doesn’t reset the mic pre because the pre’s could potentially be patched to multiple console inputs. For me it was very important that the pre’s get zeroed, though, because I knew the gain staging for this was going to be completely different from what’s normally plugged into some of those mic pre’s. Personally, I believe it’s better to turn something up than to have to turn something down because there is often pain involved when something needs to be turned down especially when in-ears are involved. So I have a channel preset at FOH and Monitors that resets and renames an input while also zero-ing the mic pre.

Once the preset was loaded on the inputs I needed, I reset them to un-patch them, renamed them, and re-patched them. Normally no big deal, but I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy this partiular week because by the time I got around to this the band was set to arrive within an hour and I had four consoles to set. Plus there were some additional things that still needed a bit of setup since, again, the band was completely different. For example, I wanted to make sure there were extra reverbs ready to go at monitor world for some of the acoustic guitars. Fortunately, this was the first band in a very long time that I could fit on one bank so I had everything ready in time.

In terms of mics, the cajon was mic’ed with a Sennheiser e902 in the rear hole to get the thump and a Shure sm57 in front. The cymbal got a Shure KSM44 overhead, although in retrospect I wish I had under-mic’ed it with one of my KSM137’s; it would have gotten the job done just as well and looked better in the ensemble. The electric got an sm57 and Sennheiser e906 on the amp. Everything else on the stage got a DI. One of our acoustic guitar players brought his little Neve Portico box that we used as a DI/Pre for his guitar, and the upright bass player had a Reddi DI we used for his bass. The rest of the DI’s were Radial J48’s. Pretty simple.

I found the mix side of all this to be pretty challenging, though. Personally, I find getting acoustic instruments to sound right when using DI’s to often be a bit of a challenge. Plus, given the style of music, I wanted to use an absolute minimum amount of processing on everything. It wasn’t quite bluegrass, but it was still a style where I knew I wanted to give things room to breathe wherever possible. In the end, I used a lot of stuff on the mix, but it was all in very small amounts. Just a bit of seasoning here and there, if you will.

The sources coming from the stage were all very good to begin with so I there was minimal EQ–maybe 3dB max–on the instruments just to clean them up a little here and there. I also had the high-pass filters set as low as they could go, and I warned the band to hold on to their instruments to keep them from the strings from ringing when not being played.

I used a little bit of channel compression on just about everything. I initially tried to avoid this to stay as pure as possible, but it just helped everything get together. I think if the band hadn’t been on in-ears I wouldn’t have needed any compression, but I think in-ears do something to the way musicians hear dynamics which affects how they respond and play to them. Depending on how someone is hearing things they may play with more or less dynamics which isn’t always consistent with the dynamics of the other players. So when I think about using compression to even something out in a situation like this, I’m trying to get it leveled to match the rest of the band and not just leveled for the sake of leveling it. It’s about trying to get and/or keep everyone on the same dynamic page.

The compression that was used, though, was usually a pretty low ratio–mostly 2:1–with medium to slow attacks in order to preserve the transients of the instruments, and I rarely did more than 3 dB of compression. In the case of the mandolin, I used a Waves Bluey CLA76 with a medium to slow-ish attack and fast release to make the instrument a little more aggressive to bring it a little more forward.

The upright bass got a lot more EQ and compression than everything else, though. I find getting upright’s to actually sound like uprights to be very challenging. It’s difficult to get enough gain before feedback when using a mic on stage, and using a pickup is hard to make sound natural. In this case I used the Waves SSL E-channel to handle all the processing. I used the hi-shelf around 2k bumped up a bunch to bring out the pluck and finger attack on the instrument. Then I used the compressor with the slow attack setting and a medium-ish release to even out the playing. I also patched the upright to a 2nd input and ran it through the Waves GTR plugin using one of the bass amp models. This got feathered up a little bit under the bass to help the mids cut a little more in the mix.

Every input, with the exception of the vocals, also got a Waves NLS channel. I primarily used the Nevo setting to help give everything a bit of analog-ish warmth and depth, and I think this helped keep the upper-mids from taking over too much in the mix.

Per my usual mixing strategy, I split the instruments into groups to manage and process things collectively. The groups were: perc/bass, electric guitar, acoustics, and then a final group for the dobro and mandolin. The acoustic groups all got a Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter inserted with a little bit of the processing dialed into taste. I like the way this can bring out some top and sparkle on things in a different way than simply boosting an EQ. Too much can make things brittle, though, so you have to season lightly.

I also inserted the Waves PS22 on the dobro/mandolin group, and the electric guitar. The PS22 basically works by alternately panning frequencies between left and right. One of the hardest things with this band was achieving a sense of width, depth, and separation in the room while maintaining all the musical information everywhere.

With everything panned to the center and the faders up, it was good but ultimately felt flat sonically. This is one of the tensions we sometimes deal with in live sound, though. I know I’ve talked before about how live sound is often “wide-mono” at best. The problem with mono, though, is it can be a challenge to give the room a sense of envelopment especially in an acoustically treated room using modern line arrays. When you have musicians spread across a stage and it all sounds like it’s just coming from a single loudspeaker, I think there’s a disconnect. So I feel that stereo effects and cheats can actually help things feel more natural in the room. The PS22 was one of those cheats for me this time.

Another thing that helped the width and depth side of things was reverb. All of my groups feed a matrix which in turn feeds a stereo reverb. I started doing this at some point over the last couple of years to help put the band in the same space, and it ended up making things feel a little wider and more spacious in the room. I thought it was especially important this week to help give all the DI’ed instruments more of a natural feel.

My vocal chain stayed pretty close to my normal chain on lead vocals just swapping out MaxxVolume for the Waves CLA2A to handle compression. Again, I wanted to keep things a little more organic and pure so I opted for the smoothness of the CLA2A because MaxxVolume can be a little more aggressive. I also employed the Maag EQ4 plugin on Candi’s vocal to bring out some air with its AIR BAND® and accentuate a little breathiness in her vocal.

I used a couple of Waves Rverbs for vocal verbs combining a chamber and a hall setting. I initially had just the chamber in the mix, which was a preset I stole from John Cooper. It’s become my go-to setting when I want space on a vocal without the sound of reverb which I thought would be appropriate for this style of music. However, it felt like it still needed something more, and I really liked what happened when I mixed my hall preset in. On one of the pre-service tunes we did I swapped my Rverb hall for TL Space with a dark hall impulse I have from a Bricasti which, by the way, I want very badly to have.

One of the challenges for me in these weeks of different musical genre’s is console layout. I’m a big proponent of putting everything in the same place on the desk so playing my instrument is very intuitive, but these different music styles with their completely different instrumentation have thrown me off a bit. One of the things I’m spending a lot of time on is being very deliberate with VCA assignments so I can live primarily on those which isn’t any different from my normal approach. The only difference is the VCA’s are different things for me for these weeks. Essentially, I’m trying to give every musician on stage their own VCA whenever possible and so far that’s working well.

This week was definitely a challenge for me. It went off great and the feedback on it was all very positive, but I never quite got to the satisfaction point I like to get to. There’s sometimes a fine line between raw and polished, and I’m not sure I landed this one where I wanted it. I know there were a lot of little details happening in the playing at times, and I’m not sure I was able to feature them as well as I would have liked. It’s probably just me getting nitpicky, but that’s what I get paid to do. But the show must go on, and now it’s on to week two.


A Long December

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Longtime readers probably noticed I haven’t published as much over the last few months, and I feel like I can finally get into why that is. Our December programming pre-production began consuming a very small part of my brain back in July and has been expanding within ever since. So let me give you a little glimpse into what we’ve been working toward.

Every year, the Christmas Loudness Wars continue to escalate, and that usually puts an ever-growing burden on our music department to come up with engaging musical programming for the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year the music departments at all our campuses decided to join forces so instead of the 5 departments trying to come up with their own individual stuff, they collectively formed a plan to figure it all out together well before December arrived.

The idea settled on was to create a mini-tour of bands for our campuses. At conception, we had 6 stages needing Sunday programming so the music folks put together 6 different bands to tour around to our campus stages for the three weeks leading up to our Christmas celebration on December 20th & 21st. Each week would feature a different genre of music so each band was assembled to perform a specific genre with two bands assigned to each genre. This way each campus would get one of the bands of each genre of music over the course of December. And since the bands would stay the same week to week they would also likely get really good at playing the same music set.

Now, there is nothing particularly hard about this idea on the surface, and I think it’s actually a very good idea from a musical perspective. However, since the way we operate week to week in audio world is based on repeating systems built around a specific type of service and a very similar band every week, whenever we depart from those systems, it’s not always so easy. And this idea is a definite departure from our norm.

Think back to grammar school–maybe not so far back for some of you–and what it was like when a substitute teacher would come in. On the one hand it’s kind of nice to have a change, but on the other hand now you’re working with someone who likely has no idea what your systems are usually like. Sure, a classroom is a classroom in some regard, but every teacher has their own unique way of running the show and when everyone is accustom to it, doing something else isn’t always easy or smooth.

Something I think that gets misunderstood about North Point Ministries is our multi-campus approach. I think when most people think multi-campus, they think one church in multiple locations, but that’s not exactly how we work. There’s definitely a bit of that because throughout most of the year all campuses receive the same message on Sundays. Plus all our campuses are a part of our parent organization, North Point Ministries, so there is common DNA running through all of us. All that said, each campus operates largely autonomously.

We all have a lot of similarities in how we operate, but each campus operates their way. The campuses, in a lot of ways, are like siblings. We’re all cut from the same cloth but still unique with our own families. If you saw us all together, you’d probably put us all together but when you zoom in and look at the details there’s more that’s unique then you initially realize.

So let’s look at how this plays out in terms of audio production. Each campus makes much their own budget, spending, and staffing decisions. For example, Campus A might choose to invest in outboard gear while Campus B prefers to invest in microphones while Campus C focuses primarily on just keeping existing gear working. Some campuses rely on volunteers for all positions. Some use purely contract engineers. Some use a mix of the two. Input lists are different. Capabilities are different. We are different, and yet much the same.

We all love getting together to talk shop, and I think these differences have traditionally been a strength for our organization. They have given our staff exposure to different ideas and approaches that have helped all of us grow as leaders and engineers. I know I have learned a ton over the last 8 years that I owe to our other campus audio guys past and present. However, I think these differences add a challenge within the context of doing a truly multi-campus type of programming like this tour. So what exactly do I mean? Well, let’s look at an example.

Consider monitors. When we start to consider the idea of touring bands, one thing that comes forward in my mind is maintaining a level of consistency for the bands. I knew a couple of these bands would truly push the limits of our monitor infrastructure, so we all knew it would be important to maintain consistency especially for those bands. Part of this is to ensure a consistent, excellent experience for the musicians, but it’s also to keep the stress on our own teams down because if something is pushing our technical capabilities the odd’s are it’s pushing us personally as well. And none of us wanted a scenario where a band showed up at our campus and one of the first things out of a musicians mouth was, “Well, when I was at X campus, THEY were able to give me….”

There’s enough change going on just by moving from one venue to the next so we wanted to make things as consistent as possible for the bands because when a band gets comfortable and used to something they will play better because they stop focusing on the tech and more on the music. If the tech side is going to keep anyone up at night, it should be our crews and not the musicians.

But we all have different ideas and approaches for achieving solutions. In this case, some of us wanted to bring in more in-ears. Some of us were fine with moving some things to wedges. And those are just the personal preferences. There are also logistical non-negotiables that are different at each campus related to things like scheduling and setup time, input abilities, RF availability, whether a stage needs to be completely cleared after the music, etc., etc. etc. It’s different for each of us, but we all wanted to find an approach that could work for all of us.

So there have been a lot of questions going through my mind and the minds of our other audio staffers for the last several months as we tried to figure this all out: Do we give each band their own FOH and/or Monitor engineer(s) to travel with them? If we do, who would that be? Can console show files travel? Well, what about X campus that uses a different desk? What about existing campus needs that are different everywhere? Can only monitor show files travel? Should we have a mic package travel? What about wedges? Does anyone even still have wedges? Can our existing crew still excel working in completely different musical genres than we’re used to? And what about rehearsals? Are the bands willing to rehearse the same sets every week at each campus just for production? If not, how could we make that work? How much will I need to reinvent the wheel to pull it all off? What do we compromise within our normal ways of operating in order to accomplish this idea? And on and on and on.

I started having conversations with our music guys back in July, and I’ve been thinking and working through all of the logistics involved from an audio standpoint since then. Our campus audio guys started loosely conversing about things in August, and in September everyone joined the party. A lot of what we figured out is owed to those other audio guys, and it took several pretty long meetings to get it all figured out. Truthfully, I spend less time prepping conferences than we spent on figuring out December this year. We didn’t always agree, and believe it or not that’s actually a GOOD thing because it’s the friction that refined things. We figured it all out, though, and now we’re making this happen one week at a time.

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In October the bands began rehearsing at my campus woodshedding things a bit and working out arrangements with rehearsals continuing through November which compressed my own time to finalize my pre-production. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but to pull some of this off we didn’t have all the gear in my rooms. So there was a bunch of new gear purchased along with a lot of gear borrowed from our other campuses after running into dead ends trying to rent things. There was also a good amount of time spent wiping console templates and rewiring patch bays to pull off rehearsals in between Sundays.

This last Sunday we kicked things off, and the first week went quite smoothly. I’ll try and be back a few days week with some specifics on the first week for you.

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