Tuesday, February 5, 2013

New wireless system

I got a question about new wireless gear for a very small church.  Here's my answer, in case it might benefit you.  Note that there are things such as gain structure and RF interference that aren't really covered by this post - this was intentional.

I would check if you need new wireless first.  The 2 most common problems I hear are RF issues (RF dropout or RF clipping) and audio clipping.  RF dropout sounds like bursts of static that happen at random.  You can ease these problems by selecting a different wireless channel (if possible).  You can also help by keeping the antennae of the receiver away from metal and sources of noise (like switched mode power supplies) and by keeping the antennae at 90 degree angles to each other.  It is possible that the RF signal is too powerful and the solution is to either decrease the transmit power (which likely isn't possible) or to move the receiver farther from the transmitter.  This has never been a problem in my experience, but more experienced sound folks have run into it.  Note that all of my practical experience is with Shure ULXP and Shure PGX systems.

Audio clipping is when the microphone transmitter audio gain is too high.  You will only hear the distortion when you talk louder than a certain volume, and never when the volume is below that level.  This can be fixed by lower the gain, usually using a switch or rotary pot on the transmitter.  You will likely have to increase the gain on your mixer to counter the loss of gain at the transmitter in this case.  My advice is to start with the lowest setting on the transmitter and use the console gain to get the rest of the way, though you may have to experiment a bit.  If you find yourself really cranking the console gain just to get any audio out, try the next higher audio gain setting on the transmitter.

If you are using a lavalier system, it is possible that you need a new lavalier microphone.  This is hard to test because you either need a known-good wireless system for the microphone, or even better, a known-good microphone to test in your wireless system, and they all have to have compatible connectors.  I don't know where you're supposed to get either of those with compatible connectors, but it could be worth exploring.

Even if the problem is only the wireless system or the microphone, you may still want to replace everything at once rather than trying to spend money to upgrade an old and shaky system.  Also, it may be a good time to evaluate if you need wireless or if you can replace old wireless with a new, hardwired microphone.  You can save on initial cost as well as battery costs, and it make things much simpler.  And if you only need a wired mic, then you've already wasted your time reading as far as this sentence.

If you're doing a completely new purchase, I would go with the Shure PG or PGX lines.  If you want to use an existing lavalier microphone with the new wireless system, you'll have to get a wireless brand that works with your existing connector.  Shure PG systems are cheap while still being okay.  You do have to manually assign wireless channels to the transmitter and receiver, but they do have a nice dual-receiver package if you need a multiple of 2 channels.  Shure PGX systems can scan for the best frequency to use and then use an IR sync system to assign that channel to the transmitter.  The downside is that the receiver has a very large button that is easy to press on accident, which means you have to re-do the channel assignment.

I pick on Shure because in my experience they're a solid brand from top to bottom and are novice-friendly, at least at the level of wireless systems this post is meant for.  Sennheiser is another solid brand, but I sometimes have a bit of trouble understanding how their products fit together.  My only experience with Telex gear is slight exposure to old Telex wireless systems, nothing current.  There are some other really great brands for wireless gear, but some of them can get very complicated and expensive, so I'll likely never get to use them myself.

You will have to select a frequency band for your wireless system.  My advice is to download software from the manufacturer site which can tell you about RF conflicts.  Shure's version is called Wireless Workbench.  Manufacturers may also have a basic web interface you can use to determine the maximum number of wireless systems you can have based on your location - pick the band that allows you to have to most systems because that's the band with the least interference.  Neither of these tools can predict localized sources of interference, however, so if you're surrounded by folks using various wireless systems, you may want to coordinate a bit.

If you're getting a handheld wireless mic, then it's pretty easy with most manufacturers - get the handheld that goes with the receiver (or receiver that goes with the handheld).  If you're going to get a new wireless system that includes a lavalier microphone, you have some more options.  You still have to get matched bodypack transmitter and receivers, but you can either go with one of the microphones from the manufacture for that system, or you can get a mic of your own choosing.  If you get a microphone of your own choosing, make certain that it has a compatible connector with the wireless system you've selected, otherwise they won't work together.

Whatever you do get, be sure to take care of it.  When you store it, leave plenty of slack in the cord around the connector, don't try to wind it tightly.  Also, mic placement can have a large impact on your sound quality.  For lavalier mics, I tuck my chin to my chest and place the mic within a couple centimeters of where my chin touches my chest.  Feel free to experiment to find what works best.  Also, NEVER walk in front of the speakers with a mic that's turned on.  Positive feedback is not your friend.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Signal to Noise Ratios

I was thinking about signal to noise ratios.  I don't know why reading The Hobbit would cause me to think about signal to noise ratios, but it does.  Sometimes I have trouble communicating topics like balanced signals and CMRR to people, so I decided to make some graphics to help out.

I made some noise (recorded a quiet room with my laptop's built-in microphone) and then generated a sinusoid in a second track.  The two wave forms are in the first picture (sinusoid on bottom).  The sinusoid has an amplitude that is much greater than the 'noise' signal.  I call it the good signal to noise version.

Then I cut the amplitude of the sinusoid to make what I call the bad signal to noise version (sinusoid on top). Note that in both the good and bad versions the noise level is the same, only the sinusoid level changes.

Then I summed each grouping of two waveforms to create a resultant waveform for both the good and bad signal to noise ratios.  The sum from the 'good' version is on top and the 'bad' is on bottom.  Notice that in the top (good) version you can easily tell what the original sinusoid is.  In the bottom (bad signal to noise ration) version, it is extremely difficult to tell what the original sinusoid signal was.

Now for why it's important.  The noise added to any signal is the same no matter what the level (volume) of the signal is.  Pretend that the sinusoid is what you want to hear (perhaps it is part of a guitar solo).  Most electric guitars have a volume control, as do effects pedals and amplifiers.  Cutting the amplitude of the sinusoid in step 2 is like turning the volume down on your guitar or amplifier.  As you can see in the third picture, when you have a bad signal to noise ratio, you can't really tell what the original signal is, but when you have a good signal to noise ratio that guitar solo comes through really well.

So the next time you're trying to set your volume levels between a source and a sink, try this method.  Play something that is the loudest possible volume you'd ever want, then set the source volume as high as you can without getting unwanted distortion (or damaging any of the equipment), but then back off just a bit.  Backing off just a bit allows for those times when you want to play something just a little bit louder than you did during the loudest part of soundcheck.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Adding a sound volunteer

Today was the first planned solo day for Greg, our new sound guy.  He's run the service once before, but I was behind the board with him then (adjusting the recording mix, but still there).  I had hoped for him to run it solo today with me sitting in a far corner, but it turns out that I am expected to attend family functions, so I was hours away.  It's definitely not the best week to have the record snake multi-pin go out when I don't have time to repair it.

Last night I found out the band leader (who is all wireless) would be gone and the pastor (who is wired) would be standing in for him.  I'm glad that I was able to get everything laid out and plugged in last night, but because the pastor rarely sings & plays guitar during the service I don't have any gain or EQ set up for him.  The mix can get along without the band leader's guitar (not great, but it works), but the pastor's guitar and guitar style are difficult to mix into the rest of the band, especially when he can't be at rehearsals or warm-ups.

I didn't get any calls today, and I'm pretty confident in Greg's mixing abilities, so I doubt anything went wrong.  I hope that's not wishful thinking.  I'm interested to hear his evaluation of how he did.  I'm also hoping that as the pastor and the band start to hear two different people mixing on a more regular basis they'll start to give us a little more input (not feedback) on what they want out of the speakers and monitors.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Amalgamation of Sound

My church is an amalgamation of sound systems.

  • The sanctuary has two (or maybe three) - the main one for CDs and microphones for the audience, another one for CDs and microphones for the choir, and I think that the organ is somehow tied into the same one as the choir (the speakers are in the same location), but it might be an entirely different set of mixers and amplifiers.  The main sanctuary system sends a balanced line-level signal to another room and a powered signal to the nursery.  The main sanctuary sound system has been incrementally updated over the years, mostly focusing on new console, CD player, recorder, wireless mics.  The choir area used to have monitors - well, it still does, it's just that someone unplugged them years ago.  I think I found where the wires for those monitors come out, but I'm not certain yet, because some things are labeled while others are not (assuming the labels are for the most recent update and not left over from an old cable patch).  For example there is a rotary pot with two 3-conductor wires attached to it, but aside from that the wires come out of a hole in the wall, I know nothing about it.
  • The secondary worship space also has its own sound system (cassette tape only, no CDs there).  It's tucked away in a closet off a hallway and has a couple of wireless microphones that I'm not certain are still legal to operate.  It's okay, though, because I don't know that anyone else would be able to find them.  A balanced line-level signal comes from the sanctuary (transformer isolated to unbalanced to go into the mixer/amplifier) to be heard there, if both systems were ever turned on at the same time.
  • The gym has a sound system on wheels, one which can be completely taken anywhere, if you've got the patience to move it.  This gym system is the one that I deal with on a regular basis.  Because we take it apart each week, it is reasonably well organized with no fluff or overlap.  I feel that I must note that this organization is not due to me - the system was already very well organized before I started working with it.

Still, because I don't have a full-time job and was foolish enough to announce that I had experience working with sound reinforcement, I'm one of the people who gets asked about sound changes.  The other day, someone mentioned that the choir has a hard time hearing the pastor even though they are sitting on the same (very small) stage with him.  Also, wouldn't it be nice if the worship service form the gym could be sent to the nursery?  Couldn't you just set up a wireless speaker - the gym is just across the hall from the nursery?

While I think I've figured out how to get all of the changes done, my first task is going to be making a (nearly) complete picture of what all we have where, and how it's hooked in.  Then I'll be able to make intelligent decisions about how I would do the changes.  This post is my initial record of the soundscape - as I have time, I'll work to get everything for each system in block diagram format with one page per system.  Then, hopefully, whoever makes changes in the future will update them so that we always know what plugs in where.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Praise in the Park

Today my church held worship service in the park across the street.  The park has a bandshell with benches out in front.  We used the contemporary service's equipment because it is mobile (the contemporary service has to get packed away each week).  Because that includes a lot of equipment, the church band (for which I'm the sound guy) began the setup at around 6 AM.

Things that went right:

  • We had tarps to set the sound racks on, as well as for the cable drops off of the stage.  There was a lot of dirt instead of grass in some places, so this was a really good thing.  We also had a tent over the sound equipment.
  • Orange cones (the short soccer type) on top of the cabling between the sound tent and the stage.  If it had been an indoor location, I would have wanted brightly colored tape to mark which cables to not step on.  And I guess I wouldn't want anyone tripping over them, either.
  • The pastor had keys to the bandshell.  This way we were able to open the bathrooms as well as turn on the power.  One of the most important things to me when running sound is to have access to the circuit breakers via whatever means necessary, including taping over door locks.
  • Water jugs - it's hot and humid, so this is a requirement.  The water jugs didn't show up early enough for the people setting everything up, but luckily some kind soul found bottles of water for us.
  • We have a team of people who know how to set things up - they all know how to do the parts they're usually responsible for, and everyone has enough of an idea of what's going on to be able to help out in other areas on days when everything is different - or at the very least knows who to ask.
  • Additional help from church members - normally everything rolls into a closet that's across the hallway. Having a couple of trailers and extra arms to lift and carry things around was a blessing.
  • We have speaker and snake cabling that we can use in the park - our usual bulk cabling between the stage and the sound console is permanently attached to the building.  Having an extra stage box with the same multi-pin connector that I could hook directly into the sound console was nice.
  • Almost zero feedback in an echoey bandshell.
  • I brought a candy bar for my second breakfast, and I keep a bag of beef jerky in one of the rack drawers.  I know at least one other person was munching on breakfast bars.  Food is an essential thing to consider, though it's not always necessary.
  • The weather - except that even though we had clear skies, it did slightly sprinkle for about 3 minutes, just enough to see water droplets on the concrete and benches, not enough to be a danger to the equipment.  I didn't even know it had been sprinkling until after it had already stopped.

Things that went wrong (and what we can learn):

  • The park sprinklers were still going while we were trying to bring all the equipment in.  Better communication between us and the city could either have told us to start later or gotten the sprinkler sequence turned off for the day.  It might have even been solved by better communication within the church - the worship service was scheduled to start at 9 AM, and the guys who were there at 6 were not involved with reserving the park space.  While it's not important that church/choir/event leaders be fluent in logistics planning, it is important that they know that the logistics is happening and takes time.  I've seen performances cancelled because choir directors were unaware that it took more than 20 minutes to get equipment set up - this church leadership does a decent job of being logistically aware, but it's never something you should leave to chance.
  • An old wireless microphone wasn't up to the task.  Luckily, we have plenty of wired microphones around and this wireless was not necessary for the service.  In fact, it's usually not used at all.
  • The speakers needed to be turned out a bit more to cover where people were sitting.  Because people brought lawn chairs to sit in instead of the benches, they were outside of the benches.  Perhaps this could have been avoided had I tried to think things through the mindset of the people who were just attending the service, but I got too caught up in planning what cables needed to go where to take a step back.  This is another example of why having a team of people who are involved with the setup and capable of thinking for themselves - it was a band member who turned the top speakers out on his own initiative.  I in my sound cave didn't notice there was a problem, because I had plenty of speakers pointed at me, but there were some parts of the audience that weren't properly covered.
  • The snake stage box we used today has fewer channels than the permanently mounted one, and none of the returns are hooked into the multipin connection.  Some instruments are supposed to plug into channels that don't exist on the portable snake, so I had to do a little readjusting at the console inputs and a lot of shouting to the stage about which line goes where (we didn't have the speakers going yet, so I couldn't use the talk-back mic).  I intend to fix most of this with a planned channel reassignment coming sometime soon-ish.
  • The bandshell faces east, so many things on stage were in the sun.  This made the metal parts of the drums very hot.  Next time we'll need to take care to keep the guitar stands further back in the shadows (at least, I think it's bad for guitars).  Also, sunglasses are important during times like this - I didn't need them at the sound console, but only one band member had them onstage.  Also, next time the details might be different in such a way that I would need sunglasses.
  • One band member brought a pair of FRS radios so he could communicate to me from the stage (tell me what I was doing wrong).  Unfortunately we didn't have the right headset connectors with them, so they weren't much use.  We left them on during the service, but we didn't encounter any problem that was worth blaring over the radio speaker.  Everything else had the correct hook-ups.
  • This didn't actually go wrong, but the park across the street is about as far as I'd want to move out equipment.  While it is all on wheels, none of it is in cases.  If we had to travel to another city, or even across town, it would have been a lot more risky.  Unfortunately, storage space at the church is limited and we have to store much equipment on shelves, so I don't see us moving to road cases (nevermind the cost, of course).  I would enjoy taking our band on the road more, but it will require a lot more thought than someone riding on the back of a trailer to hold stuff in place and making 3-4 trips.
  • No order of worship - I didn't know what order things happened in until I saw the bulletin, which was when I learned that there would be an additional song I'd never heard before, performed by unknown persons.  I also didn't know a member of the congregation was going to read from scripture until someone asked about a mic for him.  I'm not sure how the band knew when to do which songs.
I thought that the service went very smoothly.  I normally don't get to mix from the middle of the congregation, so today was a nice opportunity to be able to hear people singing along with the praise band.  And not that I have anything against the traditional services, but if some people enjoyed what they experienced today enough to defect over to the contemporary service, even part-time, I won't complain.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's about Choice

"Do you believe in God?"
"Yes" I replied, uncertain of where this conversation was going.

Why. It's quite the question.

An old Scoutmaster once told of a philosophy professor gave his class the final exam. It was five pages for each student, and they could write on the front and back if they needed. The only question on the exam was "Why?" Students wrote furiously, most filling up at least four of the pages with explanations, paradigms and similes. The only student to get a 100% on the final only wrote two words: "Why not?"

It's a fine argument for a classroom, but I really don't want my belief in a higher power to be based on a lack of reasons against it. That might be because I can think of a lot of good-sounding reasons in response to "Why not?" But then how do I proceed to answer this question, which seems to begging for an answer at the bottom of the instant messaging window, when I struggle answering it inside my own head, let alone actually having to articulate that to someone else?

"Because I choose to" I finally responded. It's the most honest answer I could have given.

A quick search shows that one definition of the word faith is "2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." (The American Heritage College Dictionary - Fourth Edition)

Someone once compared God to a brick wall. All the bricks are made up of the things God does. One thousand years ago, God caused the sun to shine, rain to fall, plants to grow, and plagues when we misbehaved. It was a very big brick wall. Today we know about gravity, the water cycle, photosynthesis, and bacteria and viruses. There are a whole host of things God used to do that He has lately outsourced to science. Maybe He's gotten lazy in His old age, or maybe He has another universe that He likes better than ours, so He decided to let science take over. And by now most of the bricks God has left for His wall are the extremely far away unknowns of space and the extremely small sub-atomic particles - not much of a wall at all.

It's because of this that I'm leery of explaining something by saying "because of God." Someday there could be a scientific explanation for that miracle, and I don't want that scientific explanation to make the event any less miraculous. Instead I believe that God is responsible for everything and that somehow He manages to get everything to work out His way while still providing a scientifically valid reason.

So I choose to believe in God. There is no proof that he has a beard or that he even exists. It is through my faith in his existence that I will list as a reason should any paperwork be required.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I've been a legal adult for almost 3 years now, and I have yet to do any of the flashy things associated with coming of age. To date I have: acted as an adult at a church youth camping event; watched an R rated movie; purchased a knife. I have not purchased spray paint, cigarettes, lottery tickets, plane tickets, a hotel room, pornography, or gone to a bar or club. On one hand, I do want to make use of this "freedom," but I know that as soon as I get into a club or bar, I'll want to leave. Also, the rest don't really appeal to me. So really, why would I look forward to coming of age?