under air

Don't want to get you claustrophobic or anything.

When talking to people that are unfamiliar with sound, I like to point out that we live "under air". We live in a sea of air. Just like fish swimming in water, we live and move through this physical thing that is air. Air molecules are just as solid as water or anything else that is around us, it is that they are not as dense and therefore we can breathe them inside and strip off the oxygen and push out what is left.

The cool thing about this is that is helps to realize the real challenge that live audio engineers have to deal with. It is like taking a dropper and putting a drop of color in the water (like a singer projecting out of the mouth). Taking a hose and sucking that color out, processing it so that it is larger in volume (pun intended) and pushing that out of hoses into the same container of water. The goal is to not get any or as little of as possible of the new larger volume of color back into the little sucking hose, but only get the original drops as produced by the singer. That is the art and science of sound reinforcement.

In the studio, you usually are using headphones or in the case of like a TV show, the new larger volume is actually being put into other containers. This is why you can watch a TV show and the performer can have their mic so far away from their mouths. Unless they need loud monitors, the TV audio guy can open the mic way open and pick them up from far away. But the poor live guy has to put that same mic back into the same pond and is pulling his hair out.

Just like fish can't live outside of water, we can't live outside of our air. It is something to think about.


It seems that people attribute a lot more to the sound engineer than what is actually his/her capabilities. Its like all forms of common sense just go out the window and this mysticism sort of guru-likeness is placed on us.

If the person doesn't sound good, we can magically make them better. Yea, there are certain tools for pitch correction now and anybody sounds better with some effects on their voice. Its like the engineer is the crutch for the performer and therefore the reason for all things when its not good either.

I can't make a player play a different note. I can't make a singer sing the correct intonation. But it is assumed that I can. Admittedly, the studio does let you mess with things more but in a live situation, there are limitations.

I see the engineer like a painter or a cook. I am presented with a palette of colors or a pile of ingredients. I then start making the best thing I can out of the ingredients/color choices that I have. Musicians are creators of these things and I am limited to what the musicians create. Like a good cook/painter, I can combine things to make a "whole" that seems better than the "parts", hence the mysticism.

But certain flavors and colors just don't work well. It is always frustrating while mixing sound to have a band that just doesn't get the concept of arranging. I have done so many bands (church's seem to be worst at this) where the instrumentalists just are listening to each other. So I have to spend a lot of time hiding things under things or just flat out not using them. This is not only frustrating to the musicians but also to me since I want them to succeed in their endeavors. But garbage is garbage, all I can do is to try to make it look like nice garbage or just call it "found art".

The actual physical part of my job, I learned while still in a crib. Slide this, turn that. The thing that makes me valuable is to know what to push or turn, when and how much. It always blows people away when they look at a large console. So many knobs. I always try to point out that the bulk of the console is just a repetition of one set of knobs, but people rather like believing that there is a supernatural thing going on around me.

I had this lady in a black gospel church that I worked with years ago come up and tell me that she could feel the angel wings brushing on her shoulders during the music. I asked where she sat. Come to find out, she was right in front of the subs that were soffit mounted in the walls left and right of the stage. I tried to explain that the physics of sound tells us that when a frequency is longer than the object it encounters, it bends around it. Therefore she was feeling the low end push on her. She just ignored that and left me saying how much she appreciated me helping the angels show up.

choir monitoring

So you have a choir and the monitor is so loud that you can't hear nothing but it in the choir mics.

Here is something that I actually implemented successfully at the church. We had a small group choir type of thing of 12-16 singers. We purchased a pre-made FM radio transmitter and little FM radios and ear buds made by Koss (had like a foam to create a seal in the ear). I sent a single mix to the transmitter located right underneath where the group stood on risers.

For a church wanting to do this on a larger scale.

I ran into several churches that required dues or even had the choir members purchase their robes so the concept of letting the choir assist financially isn't a new idea. I was suggesting letting each person supply their own radio with the requirement of some sort of earbud (not phones). Since they were bringing a personal radio, they can keep up with the batteries as well. The church is only out the cost of the FM transmitter.

Another take on this.

There are many performance halls around the world that are wired for multiple language translation by putting in a volume control and headphone jack in each seat. Why not create a handrail/safety rail in front of each choir row (traditional churches already have modesty rails in the first row anyway) and putting a headphone jack/volume control in each position where you are powering all the headphones from some sort of central amplifier.

All of these ideas are cheaper than the "professional" buying one IEM transmitter and multiple recievers for a mass quantity of people. The pre-wired rail idea removes battery costs. Basically each choir member would either pay a due to finance a set of earbuds or provide a set themselves.

healthcare - OT

This is off topic for this blog, but hey, its my party and I can cry if I want to.

So I went in for my normal doctor appointment recently. Here is "my doctor" that I only see for 20 minutes a year. This is someone supposedly that I entrust my health concerns with but if I dare take more than 10 minutes in his presence, I get this distinct feeling of discontent on his part. This is the guy that I have to have sign off on anything in order for the insurance to cover it.

And if I am in an emergency situation, can I talk to him?

No, I must go to an emergency room and deal with complete strangers. And then, after the emergency is taken care of, he walks into the hospital room like he was in charge of the situation all along. If I was an ER doc, I would unionize and force my recognition into the situation.

I find it interesting that in our modern healthcare, that I really don't have a doctor in a personal way. I have a system, a system that is being controlled by the dictator of insurance. I told my insurance representative one time that "I don't have a doctor, but an insurance company." She took a step back and told me that my "health care is physician directed." If this is so, then why does my doctor's office have a sign posted at the check in desk stating that every health insurance is different so it is the patient's responsibility to determine if what the doctor is going to do is going to be covered. Why am I responsible financially if my "physician directed" me to do something and then the insurance won't cover it?

I am so tempted to pull out the cell phone and call my insurance company one day in front of my doctor to get their approval on whatever he is attempting to do. Or maybe while I am lying there in the ER, I must be wheeled outside (can't use a cell phone in the hospital.) to contact the insurance company. Oh, wait, its not inside business hours. I can call that free nurse line and all they say is go to the ER. Oh, wait, I AM ALREADY THERE!!!

This is just a ludicrous system, I have a insurance system that has so much double talk due to lawyers protecting them and a doctors office that has lawyers protecting them with their small print that you have to sign off on. I am paying hard earned money for both of these entities that are trying so hard to cover their tails that they are quickly becoming of little value. So do I need a lawyer to come with me to the office?

I can see it in the near future. Right off the lobby in every doctors building will be a personal counsel service that will attend your office visit. Of course, they will have their own document that covers their tails as well.

lapel eq

Most churches today are or are beginning to use headsets for the VIP's. I think this is great for many reasons. But the interesting side effect of this is that less and less engineers are having to use lapel mics regularly. They haven't honed those skills in dealing with the omni lapel that limits your gain before feedback into a slim margin smaller than the width of a human hair.

I recently read an article where the writer was noting that all live engineers must serve the mistress of feedback. I laughed out loud. A good engineer will always be asking the question of "will this cause feedback" in the forefront of their minds before doing anything, especially during the event.

This last year, I hired to work a weekend at a church because I think that they wanted their lapel rung out. Nothing against the engineers there, its just that I have so many years of experience ringing out lapels that it sorta comes second nature. I believe that was why they hired me that weekend. Not that I like doing it. It is one of those skills that you gain but wish that you never had to gain, not unlike unloading a trailer attached to a burning suburban. Or knowing that you have the right to check out your child from an emergency room no matter what the nurse tells you because you want both children that went through an auto accident in the same hospital, not two that are 45 miles apart. (another story there)

So for those that haven't had the luxury of doing much of this (ringing out a lapel, that is), I will pass on some of my tricks.

If you can have the control over the micing of the individuals you might try a unidirectional mic. I have recently run into the new DPA uni mic and it was amazing as far as not needing an excessive amount of processing. The big downside to uni mics is that if anyone ever does the stupid thing of putting it on facing the wrong way, you look extremely stupid because it is extremely hard to get any gain before feedback in those situations. Even with that amazing DPA, I was right there all night. In the past, I actually preferred omni's simply because it takes the stupidity factor out. Get the mic in the vicinity of the mouth pointed any way you wish and I can get them. Although proper placement always works the best. So placement? I prefer center about armpit level. The less barrel chested the male, the higher you can go. Females are actually harder with lapels. I read an article once that showed the eq curve that placing a mic against the chest does. It puts this amazing cut right in the middle of the female vocal range. But they can be done. The hardest thing is getting them to wear the appropriate attire.

You will need a lot of processing for the lapel. I like to start with a 1/3 octave and a 5 band parametric inserted leaving me the board eq for minor changes that happen over time. I had a 1/3 octave and a 12 band parametric at the last church I worked at. Now I can work with less but if you get all of this eq, you can pretty much make any room work. I will get the primary rings with the parametric and start using the 1/3 octave.

The biggest trick is something that is hard to teach. At some point in the eq'ing process, you will end up in a corner running out of eq. Then you must start thinking in reverse. What frequencies are you not ringing on and give some of those back. You should be able to get at least 3 or 4 dB of more gain by doing the reverse process at the end. If when you get through you end up with all of the eq point down equally, you are not done. Your final curve should be just that a curve of sorts with some spots close to zero.

I have been assuming that you already know the basics of ringing out mics, so if you need more then have a conversation with an engineer or get your hands on a book (of which there are many). Who knows, maybe I will cover that later on.

consultants in churches

Many of my friends keep telling me that I need to get into consulting. The thing is that I actually have a mild hatred for consultants. Hatred is too strong but can't think of the correct word at the moment.

You see, here is a guy that probably knows his stuff. He comes in takes measurements and touches things and in a magical 4 hours or less proclaims victory over your sound problems. Many times he hasn't been in a service, doesn't have the faintest idea of what you do.

We were building a new main auditorium. I go out and get bids. I tell everyone, "Look, we aren't the normal church. We run at near concert volume at times. Make sure you put this idea into your design." We go through everyone and finally pick our vendor. I reminded the vendor several times during the process about our volume requirements. Every time its a response of "This PA will do what you want to do." I suppose I should have put on paper somewhere but we are all gentlemen here.

PA is installed and it sounds great. It will get loud, not quite as loud as I think it should but I think that given the normal circumstances we will be fine. We come around to our big national conference season. Yeah, this church hosted a national pastors conference, a national worship leaders conference, a national children's workers conference and a national youth leaders conference every year. Usually in the same month and usually at least 2 of them in the same week. Maybe I will go into that more someday.

The powers that be decide that we should be louder for the special events (which I never quite understood since people were coming to us to see what makes us so successful - shouldn't we just show them what we normally do?) The PA vendor has a booth at several of these events. I have the owner of the vendor tell me (get this we are 6 plus months after the install), "I have never seen a church run this loud. We have done installs at some black churches and they don't run this loud."

Did they think I was lying? Back to consultants. . .

So the few consulting gigs that I have done, I have insisted that it be in such a way that I come in and look over the rig and do the normal tweaks. But I want to talk with the music minister and the tech guys separately. I want to have a music practice where I can adjust things while the musicians and singers are on stage. The tech guys can look over my shoulder and see what at "soiundcheck" is all about. I then will stay overnight and be there for a normal service to do the minor tweaks once the room fills in, all the time getting some feedback from the tech guy as to how loud I am compared to normal, etc. My goal is to not have the situation of the music minister telling the tech guys to not touch anything, but for the tech guys to feel that they had some input plus can see how I got them to that point of happiness.

But most churches don't want that. They want the magic wand because that is what the consultants have done in the past. The last time I was "consultantized", the youth band leader brought this guy from New York in to tweak the sound. I was expecting a normal consultant but got a guy that mixes stuff. He pretty much sat there during the rehearsal and made like a couple 3 dB cuts in a couple instruments which was more of a taste thing than an actual technical reason. But the band leader thought that he was amazing and gave me that "don't touch anything" speech, only to have me change things the very next week.

So I don't know. i think there is a place for consultants but I think that they need to be involved in what you are up to, not some "miracle" pill.

former soviet union 1990

Did you know that in the former Soviet Union, all airports no matter where, ran on Moscow time. I learned this by showing up for an air flight in Estonia an hour early to find out that the plane was going to take off momentarily. So the only option for us (I was traveling with the guitar player and a band he assembled for this trip) was to take a train. Destination - St. Petersburg or Leningrad as it was called then.

Pile into cabs with the instruments (drums, bass, guitar, small rack for audio). Speaking of that rack, I travelled with this rack all over the US and 3 trips to europe to only have a single hop from Estonia to Leningrad (later that year) on Aeroflot managed to do any damage to my gear. Was a cool ride though. It was an old jet that looked like something from the 50's inside. No overhead compartments, just nets. The stewardess, in a dress, served tea in real glassware.

So, took cabs across town to the train station. This was my first train ride. The air flight is around an hour but the train is an overnight adventure. We get 1 sleeper cabin (upon later observation, we should have gotten two but monetary things were outside of my supervision). Haul the stuff into the sleeper. 4 people - 4 beds - 2 guitars, bass, 2 small racks (guitar and audio), drum kit. Kick drum happens to just hang between the top bunks over the door so you walk under it to get in and out.

I am a little claustrophobic so I head out in the isle. We meet a couple traveling musicians that speak enough english to communicate. We also meet an American who was hired to coach a russian baseball team. He loved the trains because of the tea, to quote him, noticing the girls hanging to his side. The bathroom is basically an outhouse that I decided I wouldn't use, ever.

Each car in the train has hostess who takes the tickets, and such. Our lady looked exactly how you imagine a older Russian woman. Short, stout, talked very sternly and loudly. She would come into our cabin and basically yell at us in Russian. The guys would look at her and say, "English, American, don't understand". She obviously didn't understand us and just kept yelling. I thought it was rude to ignore her so I would just sit there and look at her while she talked but would say, "I don't understand you" every now and then.

The train took off and I went back out into the isle as well as the drummer and bass player. They were talking with those musicians that I mentioned before, but I was basically watching out the windows. I turned around and noticed the lady coming back down the isle towards us.

She came right up to me and started talking to me. But this time she wasn't yelling and she had softened up her voice. I turned around and asked one of the musicians to translate for me. So he comes over, she turns to him and says something. He smiles and looks back at me as tells me that she is asking if I would like to have some tea down in her cabin with her.

I politely refused.

Later that year, we went back to the Baltic states (right before Christmas) with the same band. We had finished a gig and they took us to eat. In the evenings, it seemed that the restaurants were also bars with dance floors. So we go sit down in a corner with the local people that were hosting us.

I noticed as we walked in that there was this tall lady out on the dance floor dancing by herself. I assumed that she had been drinking and just doing what drunk people do and enjoying themselves. We had been sitting and talking for about 5 minutes when this lady came up to the bass player, who was sitting next me, and started talking in russian. He looked to one of our hosts who said she was asking if he wanted to dance. He said no and pointed to his wedding band. She just stood there for a moment and then reached over and grabbed my hand and started pulling at me. I looked at her and said no shaking my head several times but she just kept squeezing harder and pulling harder. Finally the hosts on the other side of the table started yelling "Evangelista, Evangelista" (at least that is what I heard) and she let me go.

The guys in the band reminding me that I had way with Russian women from that day on.

burning the suburban

Here I was driving mid-summer back in 1991. It was a hot day, I remember. Had spent the night where Snoopy's brother, Spike, lived (Needles, CA). I was driving a black 4 wheel drive Chevy Suburban with tinted window, air-ride shocks, pulling an 8 or 10 foot trailer with the PA gear in it. This suburban had a 40 gallon gas tank in it which I filled up right before leaving Needles. The goal that day was to get to Phoenix (Scottsdale) to do a gig at a church that evening with a gig in Colorado Springs 2 days later. This was one of the times that I had my boss (the guitarist) riding with me for this first leg of the trip.

So we leave Needles, noting that it was going to be a hot day and because of the load we were pulling, I was very aware of watching the temperature gauge. Things seem to be going well. The vehicle was running a little warm but not anything near hot. There is this rise just past Yucca (a small 1 horse town before Kingman AZ) where you pass over the railroad tracks that have been on your left for miles. Just as I crested this rise, I distinctly remember watching the temperature gauge take this steady fast rise all the way over past the red and at the same time this whitish stuff (steam?) come out of the front of the hood.

I slow down and get to the side of the road and quickly and calmly as I can. So my boss jumps out and has me release the hood. Both of us were thinking that we had popped the radiator cap and that water would be spewing out onto the engine. So I release the hood and he peers through the small crack to see what is up. I am still sitting in the driver's seat watching this. He then quickly runs to the back of the Suburban where the bottled water was at. He being like many people didn't like tap water and so we kept a supply of distilled drinking water (that day I believe I had 5 gallons of it in the back). He grabs a couple gallons runs to the front (I still thinking that we were just overheated was just sitting there watching the action). Opens the hood and starts emptying the bottles. Now he has my true attention. As I got out of the vehicle, he was on his way back to get the remainder of the bottles. I asked him what was up and he said there was fire in the engine compartment. I get in front and can see flames up next to the firewall on the passenger's side. He by now has dumped yet another bottle or two (things are getting exciting now).

My boss has this guitar - an extremely old Fender - which most people would call a Telecaster, but this guitar is older than that. For you guitar people, you will know that Fender make a guitar called the Broadcaster and then changed the name to Telecaster because there is was a Gretsch drum kit with a similar name. So he has this already near priceless guitar and then he had it carved which devalued the guitar to the purists but now it is a one of a kind piece of artwork that is still a valuable guitar. It was kept in a handmade leather/lambs-wool gig bag. When I first met my boss he showed me this guitar and told me that this guitar stayed on my body everywhere.

So vehicle is on fire. Water seems to not have any effect and quickly running out. I am pondering the use of sand as I also think "guitar!". I run to the back and get the guitar and safely stow it on the sand away from the vehicle. I now think, "wallet" as I go back to the front of the vehicle to aid my boss. Because of all the travel I was doing, I was using a very small daytimer as a wallet so I could keep my schedule on me at all times. Well this daytimer was pretty big and when driving, I would put it in the center console in front. I go to the front drivers side and look in and see flames in the passengers side. I am not that interested in sacrificing myself for my wallet so I just ditch that.

I turn to my boss and we both basically agreed that we needed to get the equipment away from this fire. We go back and try to unhitch the trailer and realize that we don't have the strength to lift it off the hitch. Plan B. Unload the trailer. Which we start on. Boss jumps in and I grab from the outside and start stacking on the side of the road. I have grabbed my second piece of equipment and a guy comes right up beside me and starts helping?

Probably less than 10 minutes before all of this started, we had passed a road crew that was in transit. So as I grab my piece of gear I realize that the crew had caught up with us and had put cones out on the road and were directing traffic to the far lane. Pretty amazing for being out in the middle of nowhere. So i now have 2 other guys helping unload and I hear a helicopter. It was Lifeflight (or their equivalent) flying over past us. I turn to one of the guys and say "Why Lifeflight? No one is hurt here." He responds by telling me that they had called the fire department for us but the engine had ran off the road back on that same hump that we started burning on. One of the firemen was hurt and now that accident took priority. So the unloading continues. I did think that now we have help to try to lift the trailer off the suburban but as I look around the front I see that inside the back of the suburban is fully engulfed in flames.

I did mention that this vehicle had a 40 gallon gas tank? Just fully filled less than 100 miles ago? I learned later that having that tank full was the best thing for us but I didn't know this at that time. But working that close to flames and the tank wasn't my idea of safe. So back to the unloading. I am just reaching for a piece of gear and BAM. What a sound. Everyone stops, takes a breath. Yep still alive, Unloading continues. I ask one of the road crew what that was, he calmly responds "Tire blew up". Great. . I get to experience this at least 3 more times.

So by now we are almost through unloading and the backup fire truck shows. Its a pickup with tank in the bed and a pull start gas engine for the pump. The truck is there only a minute and it leaves. I ask someone "Where did he go?" I am informed that the guy realized that the little gas engine was empty so he was going to get some gas. We've got 40 gallons of the stuff waiting to burn and he has none. So the suburban basically burns to a shell, the road crew guys pack up their stuff, the fire truck shows up to put water on the smoldering remains and then leaves. Myself and my boss are just left there waiting for the highway patrol. We decide to kill some time and unhitch the trailer and reload it. We are basically done reloading when the highway patrol shows up. They call for a wrecker and after the paperwork is done they leave. Its another 5 minutes of desolation before the wrecker shows.

We get to Kingman and I obtain a U-haul which I drive for the remainder of that trip back to the midwest via Colorado. We get to Phoenix a little late but still in time to do the gig. My boss took the burnt steering wheel as a trophy.

Now the icing on the cake. . . I had already figured out that I was going to have a hard time getting to Colorado Springs on time before but now driving a U-haul I was really concerned. So I had decided that I would just get the to hotel and clean up and leave out that night. The church put up in this resort hotel with a PGA rated golf course (Scottsdale Princess? Don't remember due to the excitement of the day). The hotel was being renovated so the hotel upgraded us to two villas. Biggest bathtub I have ever seen - of course have to use it. A shower room - really at least 6' by 8'. The toilet in its own room with a phone on the wall! 2 sinks and a changing makeup area for the women. You know how hard it is to crawl into an amazing king size bed - dog tired from the day's events - knowing that you had to leave at 3 am (4 hours later). Did I mention that I needed to drive the remainder on my own since the boss was flying there. That drive was one of the hardest that I have done. Drove it straight with 2 hours of sleep along side a road somewhere. To this day I do not remember the route I took. I do remember crossing over a border (Colorado?) through a mountain pass with snow and other freezing stuff. I stopped at a truck stop to splash the coldest water I could get, slap myself and scream a little to try to wake myself up. Had a trucker ask me if the weigh station was open only to tell him that I don't remember because I don't remember seeing a weigh station. I got to the Springs 1 hour after we were to start playing, but the people hung around and I did the gig.

Africa (part 1)

For the last 5 years, I have had the opportunity(?) to go to Africa providing audio for an evangelist. I thought I had seen it all from all of the small churches that I have seen over the years but nothing beats the third world. I feel for these guys because I do understand that financial difficulties but still. . .

Someone, (I think I will blame the British for this since they were the last ones there), has told the Africans that seeing that little red light on the channel input or output is a good thing. Also, no one seems to have explained the purpose of the subgroup other than a way to increase volume to the stereo buss.

Honestly, I thought I might of had a just some isolated experiences. I had a conversation one day with an engineer that works for an evangelist that is in Africa so much that he keeps several extremely large PA's on the continent. At the end of conversation, I made some comment about the gain structure issues I have run into. He immediately understood :)

I believe that if that is the sound that they really want, then instead of beating on the electronics and speakers, just buy a cheap guitar distortion pedal and put it inline on the main outputs of the mixer. Seriously, its that bad.

Again, it is probably not their fault but does that really let them off the hook.

So you take all this in. I am traveling with the VIP and a camera crew. When we do individual churches, we arrive together and I have roughly 15 minutes to find the soundboard location, figure out what they are doing, and get a mix run to at least one camera. Not to mention that even if I am in an English speaking country, they still don't speak English. (Had an easier time in the French speaking countries.) Another interesting thing is that a lot of the churches that we ended up in put their soundboard up on stage (probably to save money on cabling). So you only hear what is bouncing back off the back wall to determine the PA mix.

The first thing that I have to do (after hooking up the camera feed, doing the grunt and point thing of that speaker is where on this board) is to rebalance the gain structure to try to clean up the main microphones so that at least my mix to the cameras is clean. Then try to do what I can for the mains. But gain change messes with the emotions of these people so all of this must be done gingerly.

The Africans are into putting all important people on the stage but they don't give them a separate mix or speakers. Let's just turn up the front monitors until they are loud enough to cover everyone, yeah that sounds like an excellent plan. My VIP doesn't want much if any monitor so I have to kill this speaker when he hits the stage to talk and deal with the local head Freds and their complaining to their audio guys who then try to tell me the issue (this is when communication problems can be a good thing - I know what they want, I just don't have to understand at that moment (see "rule one" blog entry)).

I will have to continue this later before it turns into a book. . .

(I will have to state that I did run into a few, very few folks that knew what they were doing.)