‘The worst sound we have ever had’

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It was about 10.30pm in the evening when the call came through. The Comrades Marathon started early the next morning, and our youth group was going to be braai-ing and supporting the runners from the side of the road. The youth leader had just then decided we should have a sound system and invite bands to perform. He had asked someone to call me to arrange something. I was 15.

Having no PA of my own, I arranged to use the church mobile PA. It was everything you would imagine a mobile church PA to be. Two 12” passive speakers, paired with piezo tweeters in home-made boxes, and powered with an 80W amp. We had no CD player, so I borrowed my parents one (along with every extension cord in the house) – and headed out at 3.30am to start the set up in darkness.

Why am I telling you this story?

Well – the memory of this morning is seared into my mind as a defining moment for me. What followed was, as I look back, an experience that could have completely extinguished my passion for tech, and ministry before I even started.

I remember it being the 3rd band of the morning. They were a ‘hip-hop’ band that sang/rapped over a cd track. They strutted onto the stage (a grass bank) and without looking at me plopped their backtrack CD on the audio console, mentioning that they would have preferred wireless microphones.

Despite my best efforts it didn’t sound great. It sounded pretty bad. It was an out-door gig – the volume was underwhelming, over-compressed, and right on the verge of clipping as I tried to squeeze every precious decibel of life out of those tired, sad speakers. The band did not hide the fact that they were not impressed – from me or from the audience. When they were done they came to collect their CD. As I handed it over, the leader of the band looked me straight in the eyes, paused for a moment, and with a disgusted look said ‘that was the worst sound we have ever had’. He turned, and I watched him walk off.

I was broken.

I wasn’t even angry. I was just complete empty. I had got up at 3am, and spent 2 hours in complete darkness alone, hauling gear onto the side of the road. Called in favors, begged and borrowed for every piece of gear we had – then negotiated with nearby homes to ‘borrow electricity’, stressed about mic stands and kick drums and too few DI boxes. While my friends ate boerewors rolls and cheered on the runners and the bands, I was patching cables and wracking my brains for how we would mic up a 5th vocalist. What I had got in return for my effort was a lambasting by a popular artist – a public assault on my competence, which for whatever reason I felt on a really deep level.

Have you ever felt abused as a tech volunteer? Have you ever got to the point where you wonder why on earth you’d put yourself through one more day of this? You don’t have to do this/! You’re not paid! You’re just doing the job no one else wants to do! Why are you serving, instead of enjoying being served – and putting yourself under pressure for no perceivable gain?

My road to processing and recovering from that complicated experience was and is a long one, that has brought me all the way to where I am today writing this post. As I sit here after 8 years in tech ministry, I’m still not sure I have it all worked out! It may sound nuts – but I can tell you that I think I have just about the best job on earth. It may be the death of me – but I love church tech work! At Grace we are committed to honoring the people who serve in our church. It’s a fundamental part of our DNA. Nothing in our church would operate without ‘Grace people’ giving up their time to serve God, by serving each other – and I think that may be how it’s supposed to work.

What I can say with absolute clarity is that God calls us each to a purpose in his kingdom, (Romans 12:3, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26) and only when you find your place, can you start to understand the paradox of being served by serving others. 


Epic (tech) Fail Pt4

Well… technically this is a band fail. I was told several piano keys were “stuck”.

It seems someone was trying to play the piano with a plectrum??


Out the corner of your eye…

How do you see your congregants?

But really though.

I wonder… Ask yourself honestly. How do you see your congregation? Whether sound or lights or video person, if you’re an admin person, or even a pastoral person.

Close your eyes and put yourself at the tech desk on a Sunday – during the opening song out the corner of your eye you see that person sauntering towards you – they are now telling you how they think you could do your job better, or complaining about the volume, the aircon, and the light in their eyes. The coffee, the parking, the typo and the drums. Also – did they mention the light in their eyes? As they are speaking – what are the words that materialize in your mind? (Don’t write them in the comment section!)

How do you see your congregation?

Are they a distraction? an irritation? Or worse?

I’m an introverted tech person – dealing with people is not the most energizing part of my job, and yet, with much reluctance, over the years I have come to understand that people are the beginning, middle and end of what we do.

I can think of many occasions when I’ve missed this, and grateful for the grace extended to me to figure it out! This is an everyday discipline for me and I’m sure many of you too.

Please understand – I’m not suggesting that you have to pander to everyone’s whims. Pleasing everyone is impossible – and a highway to hatred and burnout.

I’m simply encouraging you to remember that ultimately, no matter how impressive your systems, policies, gear, buildings, lights or staff – they exist to serve the people. Not the other way around.


Epic (tech) Fail Pt3

Ok, ok. This has nothing at all to do with audio – and it might be more of a win than a fail!

Earle & Grant found this while packing up after a conference. It seems one of our HD-SDI video cables worked perfectly fine for 2 days, while under the leg of a chair of a delegate! Signal loss in 3.. 2.. 1..

 

**edit** I have subsequently been told this is not proper HD-SDI cable, but just plain RG59 with HD-SDI being transmitted through it. Anyone know what ‘proper HD-SDI’ cable is called? Comment below…


The “Code”

Finishing up the GLS last week there were many things that stuck with me. (as happens so often at the GLS!)

While Patrick Lencioni and Jim Collins practically gushed over Southwest Airlines – they did so for good reason. It seems the team at Southwest is empowered – from the top down to make good decisions. The communication of ‘the vision’ is so clear throughout the organisation that even the young woman at the boarding gate could make decisions with the same conviction and direction as the CEO.

When boiled down to the simple – is this not the pinnacle of effective leadership? A leader infusing his team with a vision so clear that they live and breathe it? As if it were their own? A mission and direction so clear that I know what my leader would do/say in this situation?

I have experienced this kind of leadership – and I would love to be that kind of leader. I had a conversation with Tom Basson last week, and it inspired me to write out some of my core beliefs for our team. Of course our department has a great mission/vision statement (what we do) – but I was looking for something practical. Something that you could filter a problem through to get an answer. (how we do it)

This is what I came up with: 7 principles that determine how we do what we do.

Technical Arts Team

  • We exist to SERVE. We serve the ministries, and the people running the ministries.
  • We believe in EXCELLENCE. We expect nothing less from ourselves than the BEST we have to give.
  • We believe the DETAILS are important, even the unseen details.
  • We LOVE to go the extra mile. We love to make ‘it’ possible.
  • We PROTECT, SUPPORT and HONOUR our team members. Both volunteers and staff.
  • We will humbly OWN our mistakes, ensuring that we will be BETTER at our jobs today than we were yesterday.
  • We learn something new EVERYDAY. We believe in continually educating ourselves, and developing our gifts.

I hope this doesn’t sound like some idealistic theory. In my environment, this is really what I believe the job of a church tech guy is. I’d be interested to hear your comments!


Grumpy-Old-Man-Tech-Guy

Do you ever feel like the old man tech person? The grumpy, negative guy who is always saying no?

I do!


In creative environments practical people can often be perceived as the party-poopers of the team.

“Out-the-box” thinking and blue-sky sessions are a critical part of the creative process – but it can feel like a waste of time to practical types – especially when they are also responsible for the execution of the project being developed.

“Lets have 12 vocalists this weekend”
“We don’t have enough mics”
“Why don’t we get an 18meter video wall?”
“Nope – we can’t afford that”
“Oh – ok then why don’t we have the pastor fly in from the ceiling with fire-balls shooting off the stage floor?”
“…because we’d set our church on fire, and put the pastor in hospital”

Some organizations solve this tension by separating the creative and practical types, each have their own meetings, one to dream up, and one to execute. Personally I think this is a mistake. For one thing – most often the final product looks radically different from the original idea, (both groups disappointed with the compromises) but more importantly, I think we cheat ourselves out of learning from each other, and letting a new perspective and freedom of thought enrich our personal creative process.

Here’s a couple of things that might help:
1. SHUT UP. For the first 10% of a meeting at least. Let the most outrageous ideas run-a-mock – often the greatest ideas start with the ridiculous!
2. Seek first to understand before being understood. Sometimes creative people need a little longer to explain their ideas – if you give them the time you may discover they have thought through of some practicalities.
3. Always give options, and don’t be afraid to put the ball in their court. If you’re going to say “that won’t work” always follow it up with several “but this might works”. Ask them how they would do it – you’re not expected to have all the answers. Remember: Your job is more about solving problems than identifying problems.


Simply 2012

We started the new year with a scaled-down worship team.

We figured January 1st would be a great time to give our volunteers a break – and a good opportunity to experiment with a fresh approach. One instrument, one lead vocal, one BGV.

Back at the mixing console, it was a really interesting experience for me, because it let me go into the kind of detail that excites me. In a big mix there are lots of places to hide things, and you have a bit of wiggle-room. You can drown a dodgy vocal note in reverb, or ride the acoustic to cover a few unconvincing notes in an electric riff – or even slap a gate on a bass that starts generating a hum during the set.

When you have one acoustic, and one vocal it’s another game altogether.  The essence of each element is exposed. You get to ‘open up’ the channels, and mix as wide and as fat as the instrument can produce (and then some extra). Tiny changes to eq or dynamics have dramatic results, and you’ve got to work really hard at keep your effects layers effective and subtle at the same time.

It reminded me that complexity of a mix is not necessarily proportional to the amount of inputs!

We got a lot of positive feedback around the service, and I’m sure we will get to do something similar in the not-too-distant future.


Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

As we get stuck into a new year of technical challenges, I thought it would be worth pausing and posting a bit around Christmas, particularly around this years’ set.

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I originally had the idea for this set for Christmas 2010 – but in the end I needed a whole year to figure out the best way to design it. The real challenge as it seems is often the case – is the scale. A 2m high structure is a certain kind of challenge, but a 6m high structure behaves radically differently. I would say the build gets exponentially more complex as you scale up. Past a certain size – materials simply don’t behave as your brain thinks they should.

The trunk of the tree we made first – basically just riveted/shaped steel strips, and reinforced it with a trussing core on baseplates. We soon realized that because the tree would be too big/heavy to move on and off stage we would have to wait till the-week-of to build the tree in place.

For the branches we started with some old rusty mild steel rods that were given to us – and got Danny to weld them for us before painting them. The length and weight of the rods meant they ‘bowed’ more than we anticipated when installed with necessitated adapting the design a little.

We secured the rods in three height rows around the trunk, and then cable-tied over 300m of fairy lights to the branches.

We patched all the lights to dimmer channels. We had to ‘load’ every channel we used as the dimmer didn’t like dimming less than 100W LED loads. It made for a farm of heavily-gelled PAR56 cans backstage!


6 Things you Need to Set Design

I’ve been chatting to several groups recently who are interested in ‘upping their game’ in terms of the visual engagement of their stages.

I’m not going to go into any detail (in this post) around why this is an important thing to think about – suffice to say: if a person comes to your church once a year, and everything looks exactly the same as the last time they were there, they could reason that they haven’t missed anything…

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Over the past 4 years we have learned a lot about set design, (or scenic design as its also known) and made a ton of mistakes along the way. Here are six things, practical things you need to think about to get your department off to a great start.

1. Materials

Practically any material you can imagine can end up as part of a set, but we have found that 80% of the time we are using the same ‘basics’.   Fabric (Voile, Pongee and Cotton Lyra) Hung or stretched, gathered or draped. Great info on set fabrics here. Correx/Coroplast – Basically its plastic cardboard. This is the number-1 go-to set design material we are using at the moment. Dirt-cheap, lights well, and easy to bend/cut. I have yet to see the natural or transparent versions on South African shores – but plain white has done well for us so far. Pine (22×44 planks) – Building flats is one of the first things you’ll want to try. Use standard dimensions to keep them reusable.

2. Tools

Some basics make life a lot easier. Here are some tools I use practically every week.

Staple Gun, Rivet Gun, Glue Gun, Nylon Tieing Cord, Electric Jigsaw, Electric Drill, Spirit Level, Tape Measure

3. Lighting

Lighting is such a fundamental part of set-design that the most experienced stage-guys, speak of light and scenic as one-and-the-same. A great set can look rubbish without decent lighting – and you’d be amazed how great a simple set can look when using dramatic colours and angles. More on lighting in this post.

4. Time

Deadlines are deadlines, but I have found your stage design evolves the more time you give it. Typically, if I have to get a new set up for a Sunday, I aim to have the set built by the preceding Monday, and lit by Tuesday, that way I have 4 days to tweak it.

5. Sketchup

A free 3d modeling program from Google. Absolutely invaluable in the design process. Long before you pay for material, you can see what it’s going to look like, measure it up, check sight-lines – and sell the idea to your team!

6. Inspiration

The Internet is a goldmine of ‘how-tos’ but it’s also a great place to steal – I mean – ‘draw inspiration from others’ set ideas. Check out http://www.churchstagedesignideas.com/


Epic (tech) Fail Pt2



This beaut comes from a church I won’t mention. This I’m told is an old Shure SM58 after normal use. If normal use is hammering nails into the wall then I think I understand!

It was Westville Baptist.