Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Monitors - Worst. Mix. Ever.

Stage monitors, whether wedges or in-ear type, are meant to help you hear instruments and vocalists on the stage.

Some musicians love to dial in their monitors like they are mixing the master recordings for the Beatles White album. I have seen friends onstage meticulously tweaking and dialing in every instrument on stage. They'll ask the sound engineer to adjust EQ and compression on the bass guitar and request that the noise gate release time on the kick get turned down 14 milliseconds. God bless them. Trying to get that perfect mix that will inspire them to perform better. (Sorry, did I say "perform"?)

This is pretty much the opposite of how I dial my monitors in. Join me on a little tour...

My vocal is going to be the loudest channel by far. Why? Because I'm just that good and I love to hear my voice. Or because I need to hear myself to stay somewhat in tune. I forget which. Anyway, on a scale of one to 10 for loudness, my vocal is going to be at 8. Why not 10? Because I like to have a little room in case I want that last little push over the cliff, and I have not seen an Aviom that goes to 11.

My guitar is next at about 6.5.

Drums are at 4.

Click track is underneath that. I like it to almost disappear when the drums are playing. If I'm starting a song and nothing else is playing, it's very easy to hear that click even at low volume.

All other singers and instruments are at 1 or 2. I might make an exception if there's a keyboard  or guitar part I really need to hear, but it's pretty rare I'll go above 3.

If the average person plugged in my in-ears to take a listen they might be appalled. It can be a truly awful sounding mix if you are trying to enjoy the music. But that's the thing... the purpose of my mix isn't to enjoy the music, it's to be able to sing and play my parts right.

I'm not saying this method is going to work for everyone. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, your tolerance for a less-than-perfect mix will build and you will save yourself, and the band, a ton of time and aggravation.

There is one practical drawback to this method. If you are in a position where you need to be listening to everything and making sure everyone's parts are working and being played how you want them to sound, it's going to be tough if you can't hear everything. However, in my opinion, leading the band, especially while singing and playing an instrument, is enough of a responsibility without having to also pay attention to the big picture. Something's got to give.

I'd be interested in hearing how other's approach their mixes. Chime in!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Panic First, Ask Questions Later

In my experience, there are two types of people on a tech team, probably any team. Those you want standing next to you when the building starts on fire, and those you hope have that day off.

After reading Change Your Brain Change Your Life I believe it’s just the way people are wired. It’s fascinating to watch though, especially if it’s not an actual emergency where someone’s life may be in danger.

Let’s say, we’re talking about putting on a church service. Is this important? You bet. Is someone going to die if we mess something up during the service? Unlikely. For example: the band is about to finish the last song and transition into a bumper video before the pastor comes out to deliver a message. The person at the Media computer says there is a big question mark where the video is supposed to be. There is about half a minute left to find the video and start playing it, or come up with a plan B.

Image by Ryo Chijiiwa

There is a type of person that when subjected to this scenario is going to freak out. Blood pressure will skyrocket, face will turn red, aimless running, perhaps some screaming. Maybe you pictured someone you know. Or perhaps you are that person. That's ok. Even better if you know it.  

The second type of person will calmly search for the video while simultaneously communicating to the team to get the pastor ready to go on early. You can almost see the internal clock ticking down while they are determining at what point they bail on the search and load the Pastor. This happens to be an actual event and there were less than 10 seconds left when the video was found, relinked and ready to play. The congregation never knew there was a problem. Despite the chaos created by several freak-out prone people in the booth at the time .

I raise this observation because I think it’s important to know how your key people are going to react in a stressful situation before the situation becomes stressful so you can plan for it. If you have a talented person in your FOH booth that you know is going to cave when the ship bumps into an iceberg, it doesn’t mean they can’t serve in the booth. It means you might want to have a buddy in that booth that can handle the pressure. Also, you probably don't want to leave two freak-out prone people alone in the booth at the same time. Although entertaining, that may be more of a disruption than it’s worth.

I have come up with a handy little checklist to help determine if a person is prone to panic.

Is swearing louder than 92 dB this person's first response to stressful situations?

Does this person lose all ability to communicate when something goes wrong?

Under stress, is it normal for vomiting or loss of other bodily fluids to take place?

If you answered yes to any of these, that's what we call a "red flag".

Luckily, I have been very fortunate (actually, as a Christian I think I'm required to say "blessed") to work with people who I'd want next to me if the building literally started on fire. I think it's good to have an educated guess on how all your key people would react if that actually happened. You might want to take it into consideration when you build and schedule your teams too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My Phone Dead

I was sending a message to someone telling them about my idea to start blog focused on leading worship, and it got autocorrected to "My Phone Dead". I was gonna call it a happy accident and go with that name, but then realized it was stupid if I actually wanted people to find the blog. So, I decided to go with I Am Not a Worship Leader. Leading worship is something I do, not something I am. If it's something I am, then I wouldn't have existed most of the last year. Semantics? Maybe. But, I Am Not a Worship Leader is more memorable than My Phone Dead. Also, after researching a lot of worship leader blogs, I think my approach is going to be, um, atypical.

I didn't grow up in church. Instead, I grew up playing rock n roll. I played in bands from the mid 80's until a few years ago and I'll probably do it again. I started serving in church as a musician around 2006. My role began as a back line musician and slowly grew into being a band leader.  It was years before I understood what the phrase "leading worship" meant. In 2010 I was hired by my church in Wisconsin and served as a worship leader about 75% of the time. I left that role in 2014 to take a position as a project manager for another church in Phoenix where they have this thing called a "sun". It is a bright yellow circle that floats slowly across the sky bringing happiness every day. Wisconsin should look into getting one.

This blog is primarily a means for me to share my perspective on leading worship and my church experience. I thought it would be a cool outlet especially while I'm exploring options for a full time gig in the worship ministry again.  Some of this blog will bleed into ideas on live music, recording and church operations.

Some titles I'm working on:

- Guitar vs Keyboard - Which is Holier?
- Panic First, Ask Questions Later
- If We’re Doing This for An Audience of One, Why Are There 3000 Seats?
- My Monitors: Worst. Mix. Ever.
- Be Ringo Starr
- Bar Band Theory

This is going to be fun for me. I hope it is for you too and maybe starts a conversation that sparks some new ideas. Thanks for reading!

- Ron

PS If you want to follow me elsewhere...

Twitter: @ronkujawa 
Instagram: @digitalrelay 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ronkujawamusic 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

This Is Your Brain On "Confidence Monitor"

It goes by several names… Back wall screen, teleprompter, lyric screen, or my personal favorite “Confidence Monitor."

It sounds so innocuous and professional. It’s just there to boost confidence. That’s all. So as you're singing along and not quite sure what the next line is, you just look up and, oh there it is… Glory to God Forever. Yes, you just sang it 14 times in a row, but man, it’s nice to know it’s there… Just in case. You know? It gives you a little confidence.

So you try it one weekend. Not the whole song. Just one line from a verse here, and a phrase from a bridge there. All the other singers are doing it. And it feels pretty darn good.

A few weeks later you realize you just sang that whole second verse line for line. You’re not even sure what it said. Someone could have slipped in a line about how delicious Taco Bell burritos are and you’d have no idea it happened. It’s ok though. It was a one time thing. And you still know the chorus. You even made eye contact with the audience a couple times while singing it.

Months go by… “Why did I just read through that whole chorus? I’ve been singing this song for three years.” You find yourself trying to peel your stare away from that screen, but you just can’t. What if I mess up? I’ll look like a fool! Especially when everyone knows the bloody words are up on a screen behind them! You went from trying to lead people in a worship song to trying not to screw up. Good luck with that. The more you focus on not looking at the screen, the more you look at the screen.

It’s years later now. The band starts the intro to a song you’ve sung for 15 years. Then they play the intro again. And again. The person running the Confidence Monitor computer forgot to hit a button and there’s nothing on that screen. You try looking behind you to see words on the big screen (yeah, that doesn’t look awkward at all), but they aren’t there either. You’re sweating bullets and frozen. And not in a fun Let It Go sort of way.

How’s your confidence now?

I understand the desire to have it. We’re all pressed for time and it’s hard to memorize lyrics for 3 or 4 new songs a week. Especially if you’re a volunteer. I’m not saying it doesn’t make any sense. I am saying I see it get abused as much as I see it save the day. And the fact is, at some point, it’s going to fail.

The operator is going to screw up. The equipment will break. Or maybe your brain will think it’s the wrong section of the song, even though it isn’t. Not that that ever happened to me personally.

What works best for me is to condense all my charts and lyric sheets down to a single (two at most) 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper that lays on the ground and I can read my Sharpie written notes standing up.

Ideally if I’m singing the song, I have the chords memorized and I can boil the lyric sheet down to something like this:

1. water wine.. open eyes..
2. into darkness.. out of ashes..

That’s it. The whole song. If you’re familiar with the song, I bet those nine words are enough to get you through it too.

If it’s a new song that I’m not singing and I need to cheat on the chord chart, it’ll look something like this:

V: G  C  Em  D  C
Ch: G  C  Em  D
Br: G  C x2    G  C  Em D  C

I make sure I practice the entire set on my own using only my cheat sheet. If there’s too much or too little information, I modify.

No worrying about whether the people or equipment in your system might have a problem.

By the way, I started the habit of posting my cheat sheets on Instagram as a way to promote the weekend service, but more practically, it was a way to make a backup of my cheat sheet. If I lose the thing, it takes less than 5 minutes to make a new one based off the picture.

Finally, in my experience, the less you are staring at a chart or lyrics on a screen, the more you are able to engage with the congregation, the band, the experience. Engaging makes you a better leader.

Think about it. Then just say no, kids.