Lessons from The Wiz – PT3

We are continuing our “Lessons from the Wiz” series and I have to say… it’s been pretty cool. Well, I don’t really HAVE to say it. I just wanted to say it… because it has been really cool.

In case you are just joining the series, this isn’t Tom. It’s a church tech guy named Mark. You can find out more on that story in part one of the series at this link.

So let’s get back to the interview…

[Mark]: I know there are many tech people that are dying to hear about the hardware. So let’s talk toys. What equipment were you and your company involved with?

DSCN0222_noDate_height_no3D[Tom]: We had AMV’s EPIC TV truck, one of the most powerful of its kind in the country. A truck like EPIC is about a $18M dollar investment to build from the ground up. Some of the features are a Sony MVS-8000X – 80×48 production switcher (3D/4K capable, however we were using it for 1920×1080/59.94i REC709 HD video) with five mix-effects busses and twelve dissolvable auxs. A 60 fader Studer Vista 8 digital audio console (with 600 inputs/outputs), a Pesa router, 136×136 RTS Adam matrix for communications and OLED monitors for the video shader.

_DSC2284The Wiz, Live! was accomplished as a twelve camera shoot. Four Sony HDC2000 SMPTE fiber tethered studio cameras on pedestals with box lenses. Eight Sony HDC2500 SMPTE fiber tethered cameras as handhelds, Steadicam and crane cameras. The show was recorded to Sony HDCAM tape, and Sony XDCAM digital optical recorders and Cinedeck tapeless SSD recorders. We also had eighteen channels of EVS XT3 video servers doing a number of chores including pushing clips out to multiple Avid edit systems which were also on-site.

CB_Epic_Floorplan_NAB2010a[Mark]: That’s some serious video hardware! What about other audio equipment? Where does it come from? Can you give us any idea of the scope in those areas?

[Tom]: Audio involves a number of vendors handling different parts of the show’s audio requirements. The final 5.1 air mix is done inside AMV’s Epic TV truck. Upstream of Epic was a music mix system, wireless mics and audio gear on stage provided by Firehouse productions. All of the show talent were mic’ed wirelessly using Broadway style hair-wig hidden microphones from DPA. There were also foot-mics and area mics used …. Basically a very similar set-up to a Broadway play.

4521697379_4acebb660b_o[Mark]: With that much technology, do things go wrong? Are there backups in place?

[Tom]: What’s a back-up? (laughs) The technical planning for a live broadcast like The Wiz, Live! is not unlike a military operation. The first thing you do is get your logistics in place. Who are the friendly countries? Who isn’t friendly. Who’s airspace can you fly over? You then set-up supply lines and command & control communications. Who are the vendors? Who reports to who? It’s typical to then get intelligence by doing a site survey. It is only after all these are completed that you can send in the invasion force, which coincidentally are usually dressed completely in black, carry knifes and can swear like sailors.

Basically you have multiple deployment forces, each which has its own function but some can over-lap with others so if you experience a breach or failure in one place a different deployment force can take over some of that responsibility or work load.

For example, let’s talk about audio mixers and engineers. In the TV truck was the A1 who was responsible for pulling together all the various audio elements from other audio engineers along with dialog and area mics into the final on-air surround-sound 5.1 and stereo mix.

[Mark]: A1? I’m pretty sure you aren’t referring to steak sauce.

[Tom]: A1 is just the designation (title) of the person responsible for the final on-air mix. On the average televised entertainment special there will be an A1 (responsible for the final on-air mix), a Music Mixer (responsible for mixing only singing vocals and band, or track, not dialog mics or video clip playbacks), a Playback guy (responsible for any pre-recorded audio playback), a PA FoH mixer (responsible for the mix the audience in the house hears), a Monitor mixer (responsible for what talent on stage hear) …

[Mark]: Let me jump in here on monitors… where there wedges? In-ears?

[Tom]: Yes to both. Singing talent wore in-ears and dancers could hear the music via side-fill speakers. There were no floor wedges per se. OK, where was I …. I remember; plus audio assistants (A2s) who are responsible for the PA system and back-line gear, and TV A2s who are responsible for micing the audience, comms and interfacing the various audio departments.

For The Wiz, Live! we had all of that except there was no FoH Mixer because we did not have a studio audience. Some TV entertainment specials might have a “Sweetener” who embellishes audience applause and reactions, but that was not done on The Wiz, Live! either. We did however have a crew of “Broadway A2s” with expertise in micing up the talent’s hair-wig mics, etc. The total audio staff alone was over thirty people.

The key here is that if we lost the Playback guy or his gear went down, someone else could pick-up that chore. If we lost the Music Mix guy or his gear went down, someone else could have mixed music. If we lost the final mix audio console in Epic we could have routed a different board’s audio mix to transmission. Everyone has a distinct responsibility, but over-lap is designed in which becomes our “back-up.”

[Mark]: How about communication between the talent and the monitor mixer? I didn’t see any hand signals during the show. How was that handled?

[Tom]: The Wiz, Live! has the advantage of a lot of rehearsal time compared to an award show. So my hope would be that the in-ear mix would be right before we hit air, therefore not requiring adjustments. But with that said, if talent needs a tweak, you would hope they would be professional about it. You don’t want to be giving hand signals while you have lines to deliver, or you are standing directly upstage of someone delivering lines because there is a really good chance you’ll be shot on camera doing your “I’m President Obama’s signer for the deaf at Mandela’s funeral” act.

[Mark]: What about those annoying little things that can go wrong? Bad cables? Pre-maturely dead batteries? Mic goes out? In church production, these seem to happen at exactly the wrong times. How are they planned for and handled in something like The Wiz, Live?

[Tom]: In my experience at my own church and others, compared to my experience in “the marketplace,” there are some important contrasts. (1) Rehearsal time is valued in the marketplace whereas it is often looked at as an imposition on volunteer’s time in church. (2) Good stewardship is sometimes looked at in the church as relying on God’s supernatural capability, just to keep things working; compared to the marketplace where stewardship decisions are made based on verifiable criteria of actual need, projected frequency of use, long term value and then just as importantly, having a replacement and exit strategy when equipment devalues a certain amount. And lastly, (3) technicians I know in the secular marketplace seem keenly aware of the truth behind a Bible verse that I am not sure many Christians apply…

[Mark]: What verse is that?

[Tom]: One of my favorites. Proverbs 22:29. “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before unknown men.”

The entire topic of excellence in production seems quite controversial and twisted at some churches. This is an important and lengthy topic for another interview all together. I’ve also previously written about “excellence.” One such blog post is entitled “Defining Excellence.”

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that if you’ve rehearsed something many times, and your church has made prudent equipment investments where a supernatural intervention is not required just to make it through a service before something breaks, and the tech team values “excelling in their work,” than many of the things you bring up are addressed before they become noticeable to the audience. Bad cables? Our TV truck travels with a second tractor trailer that is filled with spare copper and fiber optic cables. Spare tripods and cameras. Spare video monitors and headsets. If something does break on-site it is immediately replaced and given to a engineer who solders a fix right there or it is marked “NFG” (no freakin’ good) and put aside to be repaired at our shop. Pre-maturely dead batteries? We plan battery changes long before we expect the battery to die. Mic goes out? We do frequency sweeps to see what other RF is in the area.

I guess the question becomes, If you were required to live up to Proverbs 22:29, how would that change your service in church tech ministry? I don’t think there is any one “right” answer. Nor do I believe every church is required to have a certain number of cameras or audio console input channels. That’s not the point. But if the honest answer to the Proverbs 22:29 challenge is something would change, then I think we need to move toward that goal.

[Mark]: Thanks Tom. That’s some really interesting info and it sounds like some pretty expensive hardware. You mentioned yesterday that you are involved in planning, budgeting and managing. Tomorrow, I’d like to get your perspective budgeting: what goes into the spending decisions on production equipment like this and how can we be smarter with our church technology budgeting?

[Tom]: I look forward to it.