How loud is Loud Enough?

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The battle is almost as old as the church sound system.  It has always baffled me that the pipe organ can be played at 100dB, but that when the band plays at 100dB, it's often "too loud."  We're not here today to define how loud is "loud enough" or "too loud" for the acoustic volume of your worship service, but to help figure out how much difference there should be between what your congregation hears from the main sound system and what the congregation hears from the monitor speakers, instruments, and amplifiers on the platform, in order to hear the sound system with acceptable clarity. 
To allow optimal clarity of sound in the seating area, the main sound system needs to be about 25dB SPL louder than the volume from the monitors, instrument amplifiers, and acoustic instruments. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. 
If the platform participants require monitor volume that spills over into the main seating area at 90dB SPL, your main speaker system must be about 115dB SPL to compensate. 
An average sound pressure level of 115dB is much too loud for long periods and impossible to attain in most settings, so it makes sense that the monitor volume (as it relates to the room) must be reduced in order to improve the overall clarity of the system.
Managing the acoustic sound from live drums, live instrument amplifiers, and associated monitor volumes can be a nightmare. Guitar amps sound best when they’re wide open (loud) and a guitar player’s sound is his or her signature. Same with the bass player and the drummer. 
Have you noticed how much more tone a drum set has when it’s played hard than when it’s played lightly?    Therein lies the problem. 
Everything sounds better when they’re loud enough. Unfortunately “loud enough” on stage often forces the sound technician to balance the “it’s too loud” snarls from the audience with making the mix feel good out front.
Make sure to see the companion article entitled "How can I reduce stage volume?" in the Resources section of our site. 

CTA Classroom - Let There Be Light. Or Not.

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by Mike Sessler,

Everybody knows that the purpose of lighting in the church is to put light on the stage, right? I know a lighting director (from my high school musical days) who said his rule of thumb for stage lighting is to, “flood the stage, and make ‘em pink” Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of churches follow the same advice. I’m not sure that’s the best use of light, however. In fact, I would argue that the most creative and effective lighting I have seen includes as much non-light as light. Let me explain.

Stage Lighting

What is the first thing your eye is drawn to in this picture?

Visual Theory
As humans, our eyes are pre-programmed to jump to the brightest thing in our field of view. Try it out for yourself. In a darkened room, with one or two sources of light (the living room at night with a tv on works well), drop your gaze to the floor, then look up. See where your eyes go. More likely than not, they darted to the lightest thing in the room. In my living room right now, when I look up I see the tv.

So if our eyes are drawn to the brightest thing in the room, what else is drawn there as well?

Read more: CTA Classroom - Let There Be Light. Or Not.


The 90 Percent Principle

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Editors Note: To the chagrin of some, we operate on the 90% principle.  The reality is that it's simply good stewardship to realize when eeking out those incremental performance gains isn't worth it.  Mike's column is a refreshing take from someone who's charged with spending other people's money while still doing his job at the high level that's demanded of him.  Thanks Mike, for putting our unwritten philosophy into words.  

The 90% Principle

I’ve been working on this post in my head for a long time. The basic concept for this post is the law of diminishing returns. This law states that as you continue to put time/energy/money/effort into a project, at some point the return you receive for the increased effort is no longer worth it. It’s sort of like a compressor; put 2 dB in, get 1 dB out. Turn up the ratio and put 4 dB in, get 1 dB out. Diminishing returns.

The 90% principle is an attempt to quantify the threshold. That is, at what point does it stop making sense to keep working on or spending money on something. As you can guess, I suggest that point is 90%. But 90% of what? Let’s say that 100% is perfect, the best something can possibly be, whether it’s a product (like a speaker system), or a project (like a video edit). My supposition here is that once we get to 90% of perfect, we can generally stop. To the perfectionists out there, this sounds like heresy, but stick with me for a few minutes.

Real World Example
Let’s take the case of a speaker system. I chose this for two reasons: A) The number of choices in the category make it easy to develop this illustration, and B) I’m in the market for a new PA so this has been on my mind a lot. So, let’s start off defining 100%. The 100% mark is going to be the absolute best (most musical, most even coverage, flattest frequency and phase response, etc.) PA you can find. For this case, I’m not going to define it further than that. Regardless of what PA you choose as 100%, it’s going to cost you some coin. What I’ve normally found is that opting for 90% instead of 100% will probably only cost 50-60% of the 100% system. So, you might save nearly half and still get 90% of the performance.

Here’s another one: Consider a video edit. I’ve edited a lot of videos over the years, both when I owned my own company and for various churches. We used to have a saying, “A video is never finished, it’s abandoned.” When I think of nearly every video I’ve ever cut, I can think of things I would change. Subtle tweaks to edits, minor soundtrack fixes, graphic adjustments, the like. Those changes didn’t get made because we ran out of time or budget. And honestly, the vast majority of people wouldn’t really notice them anyway. In many of those cases, we probably got 90-95% of “perfect.” The rest we had to let go.

Why 90%?

Now, here’s why I suggest that 90% is a fair stopping point: I believe that most people in the pews can’t resolve any differences above 70%, give or take. Sure, there may be a few people out there that could see or hear the difference between the absolute best and 80%, but most of the time, it will only be us, the trained professionals, who can discern the critical differences.

Again, this idea may be raising the ire of perfectionists everywhere, and as a recovering perfectionist, I understand. Here’s the deal; I’m not advocating mediocrity. I’m advocating excellence—but not extravagance. And if you stop and think about it, I’m actually suggesting going above and beyond what most people can see and hear by a margin of almost 30% (90 is 28% more than 70…).

Quite often, trying to push your way to the final 10% of perfection will take just as much effort and cash as getting to the first 90%. So what I’m suggesting is that we really stop and evaluate if that is worth it.

Returning to Examples
Now let’s go back to our examples. Take PAs; for our room, we could easily spend nearly $200,000 on a PA to get the absolute best there is. However, I’m pretty confident we can get 90% of that performance for around $100,000. And the reality is, both of those systems would be a massive upgrade over what we have now. Moreover, I would suggest that almost no one in the congregation would be able to tell much of a difference between the two. Would I be able to? I would hope so; that’s what I’m paid for. But Sal and Sally Pewsitter? I doubt it. So is it worth an extra $100,000 for a difference most can’t hear? Perhaps not.

Or how about our video. Let’s say working a full day on the video would get it to 90% of perfection. Now, at this point, we can go home and spend the evening with our family or stick around until midnight and get to 95%. Is that worth it? Again, I suggest that most people would have thought it was “perfect” at 3 PM.

It’s possible that in some cases it’s worth spending the extra time an energy to get to 100%. However, we have a limited amount of time and resources available, and perhaps it’s a better use of that time and money to wrap it up at 90%. Consider; saving $100,000 on a PA might buy a really nice console, some great mics and have money left over to do some good in the community. In the big picture, that might be a better option.

This is not a hard and fast rule; but it’s one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. What’s really important? What are we as a church really called to do? How can we maximize what we’re given to the greatest good? Can we find away to get out from behind our desks and spend more time with volunteers? Or our families? Give it some thought, see what you think.

To read more of the CTA Classroom series, click here.


CTA Classroom - IMAG Essentials

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by Mike Sessler,

I’ve been thinking about IMAG (Image Magnification) lately. We currently use IMAG at Coast Hills, and I’ve done a ton of it during my career. As I read through the stack of church production type magazines I get each month, it is clear more churches are moving into the IMAG arena. It makes sense, as worship rooms get larger (it seems that 2000+ room are becoming more common), there is a need to help those in the service see those on the platform. I’ve shot 200 some concerts as well as a few dozen other events, and here are few things I learned along the way.

The image on the screen should be bigger than in real life.
Seems obvious, right? But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up at the screen and noticed that the image of the speaker is smaller than the speaker is in real life. The reason is simple:

Directing for IMAG is different than directing for a tape or broadcast mix. Most directors (and camera ops) are uncomfortable staying as tight as they need to for effective IMAG. There is a tendency to pull out and show the overall scene. But think about this—if you’re seated 150? from the platform, you already see the overall scene; what you want is a close up of the speaker so you can see their facial expressions.

The other challenge with staying as tight as we need to has to do with lenses. Long telephoto lenses are expensive, but they are necessary to getting a useful shot. My rule of thumb is this: A standard IMAG shot needs to be head to waist or closer. Ideally, you should be able to go head and shoulders. If all you can get is a head to foot, you will not have an effective IMAG experience (unless you have mammoth screens).

Shot selection should make sense.
If you’re shooting a speaker who stands at a podium, you really don’t need to keep switching shots. I’ve sat through events shot with 5 cameras, and because there were 5 cameras there, the director felt the need to use all five, all the time. Again, consider the goal of IMAG—to show distant viewers a close up of the speaker. Cutting back and forth between cameras for no reason is distracting.

If the speaker walks the front of the platform, having three cameras, house left, center and right, will allow you the opportunity to cut to the camera that the speaker is facing. But if the speaker pauses at stage left, don’t switch to the house left (stage right) camera just to “change it up.”

If you are shooting a worship team or a band, the focus of the IMAG should be the worship leader or lead singer. Having multiple stationary cameras in the house allow you to highlight different instruments or other vocalists occasionally, and adding a handheld stage camera makes that more effective. However, keep in mind that the people in the congregation didn’t come to see a close up of the bass guitar player’s fingers. That can be a very cool shot—for a second or two between phrases of a song. But please, don’t spend an entire verse there (unless you are using instruments as a background for lyrics, which is a whole different style).

When cutting a worship team, the cuts should follow the music. A soulful rendition of Amazing Grace doesn’t require (or benefit from) 30 cuts a minute. However, an upbeat tune like Dancing Generation could be enhanced by a few extra cuts here and there.

IMAG and broadcast mixes are different and need to be treated as such.
There is a temptation to combine the two functions, IMAG for the worship center and a “broadcast” mix for the in-house CCTV network for cry rooms, or hallway monitors. This is rarely optimal, however. As mentioned previously, IMAG needs to be close up shots. A broadcast mix needs a mix of closeups and establishing shots. For years I was stage camera op for a music festival in Ohio. We were supposed to be there for IMAG—our shots were projected onto huge 30? screens for those at the back of the 10,000 person crowd. However, the director wanted to make live concert videos. They looked great when we watched the tapes at home, but the crowd was gypped. That wide sweeping shot of the crowd that moved up to the stage (using the 30? crane) looked really cool, but the poor folks in the back already had that view. They wanted to see Toby Mac, not the people in the first 15 rows.

It sounds like I’m repeating myself, and I am. It’s important to think of IMAG as IMAG and broadcast as broadcast (regardless of how it’s “broadcast”).

Regardless of what you’re shooting, or how you’re mixing, you need the right equipment. Few things are more frustrating than trying to pull together a good video mix using equipment that was not designed for it. In a future post, I’ll give you some of my thoughts on the equipment you’ll need if you want to get into live video.

To read more of the CTA Classroom series, click here.


CTA Classroom - Improving Videos With A Tripod

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by Mike Sessler,

It’s Friday and that must mean it’s time to go back to class. This week, I’m reviving a post I wrote a long time ago. I’ve not written much on video lately, which is a shame because it’s what I spent most of my professional life doing. So here are a few tips on improving the quality of your videos with the use of a tripod.

Camera operator setting up the video cameraphoto © 2009 jsawkins | more info (via: Wylio)


Have you ever had this experience? Someone hands you a tape that was shot on a missions trip, or student event, or other ministry outing. You are requested to go through said tape and “make a video.” This happened to me some time ago. It was a student missions trip to New York City. Since it was student ministries, we sent them off with a small, Digital-8 camcorder. As I scanned through the 2 hours of footage, looking for a shot (yup, a shot), I thought about the need for a tripod. You see, all the footage was shot with the camera moving. It never stopped. Just watching it gave me vertigo. Out of 2 hours, I found less than 3 minutes of usable footage. Now, this is not to pick on our intrepid camera man here, but let’s talk about how to avoid this.

Here’s the deal—watch some TV, or a few films and here’s what you’ll find (save the “reality shows”): You’ll find well composed, static shots. Most of the time, the camera doesn’t move and if it does, it’s on a tripod, SteadiCam, dolly or crane. If and when it does move, it moves slowly and smoothly. Doing this takes practice and good equipment. A while back, I wrote a post called, Being Excellent with Less. In that post I suggested that if we don’t have the personnel or equipment to do a certain task, we should scale the task back to the point where we can achieve excellence. Don’t have a $50,000 Chapman crane for your camera? Then put it on a tripod and work with what you have. Don’t have a tripod? Get creative—the most usable footage we got from the students was when the camera was set on a table and the students shared their experiences.

If you don’t have a tripod, you really should get one. They’re not that expensive in the grand scheme of things, and I would suggest it will make the second biggest improvement in your videos (microphones are #1). For a few hundred dollars you can pick up a tripod that will deliver excellent results with smaller DV and HDV cameras. Check out some of the lower-cost offerings from Manfrotto. They’re not nearly as good as my favorite Vintens, but they’re a whole lot better than trying to handhold your shots. If budgets are really tight, you could even use a super-cheap photography tripod; though they won’t pan and tilt very smoothly, it will at least hold your camera steady.

I’m guessing a lot of the readers of this blog don’t have a bunch of professional experience shooting videos, yet you are being asked (or are volunteering) to make them for an audience ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. If that’s the case, how can you go about improving your work? First, realize there is very little truly original video out there. For the most part, there are accepted rules, and methods that generate good results. So watch some professionally produced programs (they’re free on TV!). But don’t watch them for the story line (at least not for this exercise), watch them for the technical production details. How did they frame the shot? How does the camera move? What angles did they use? How is it lit? Where was the camera placed in the scene? How do the people in the program interact with the camera?

I’ll let you in on a secret: professionals do this all the time. I once cribbed a really cool visual effect from CSI: Miami for use in a video for one of our students. I was watching a show on Discovery channel and saw a lower third title treatment I liked and created a similar look for another video. When I watch a film with really good cinematography, I will watch it again and study what the cinematographer did. Then I look for opportunities to use some of those techniques.

Here’s the why: The people sitting in our churches every week watch TV too, and they have high expectations. Imagine a couple coming into a church for the first time in many years only to see a poorly produced video that bounces all over the place, with poor audio, bad color and is poorly projected. Will that keep them from returning? I don’t know—but it can’t help. Remember, our job in the Technical Arts is to remove all barriers to an authentic worship experience. That’s why it matters.

To read more of the CTA Classroom series, click here.


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