Working Around a Challenging RF Environment for Worship, Part 1

Beau Miles with Asbury United Methodist Church near Huntsville, Ala. solves a tricky RF environment with Sennheiser. 11/04/2010 11:31 AM Eastern

Working Around a Challenging RF Environment for Worship, Part 1

Nov 4, 2010 3:31 PM, With Bennett Liles

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Working Around a Challenging RF Environment for Worship, Part 2
Antennas and frequency coordination are critical in a crowded RF environment with lots of radio intense government facilities around....

You’ve got a shrinking spectrum and growing need for wireless microphone and in-ear monitoring systems right in the middle of one of the most active RF environments around. Beau Miles with Asbury United Methodist Church near Huntsville, Ala. solved it with Sennheiser, and he’s going to tell us about it.

SVC: Beau, thanks very much for being with me here on the SVC Podcast all the way from Madison, Ala., a suburb of Huntsville I believe it is.
Yes, sir. It is.

OK, and at Asbury United Methodist it looks like there’s a lot happening. What style of worship do they have there?
Every style you could pretty much imagine. Well that’s not 100 percent true. I could imagine a few others, but they do a little bit of everything. Every Sunday morning we have two separate services going on at the same time for a total of four services every Sunday. One of which is a traditional service; it has organs and orchestra and choirs and different things of that nature, which you would be accustomed to seeing. They sing from the hymnals; they do the liturgies—the traditional Methodist church appearance is what it would be. What I am primarily involved in is the contemporary side, and that incorporates a wide array of music and anywhere from the guys like John Mark McMillan, Hillsong, New Life, different things, [and] of course, all the guys who play in Passion—different things like that. We reach out to an audience that ranges from youth groups probably to about their early 40s to mid 50s would be, so it’s a very wide group. But we do that, and then on top of that we recently started a 24/7 prayer house that we are getting off the ground, so needless to say it’s not 24/7 yet, but it will be soon; it is 24/1 right now, every Monday from 7 in the morning until 7 o’clock the next morning. In our traditional sanctuary, there is a wide arrange of music there too, from acoustic to piano to rock ‘n’ roll. And all the while there is prayer and worshipping happening 24/7, and we hope to take that to a full 24/7 so that at any time, if you have something bad happening at 2 in the morning, that you can stop in at the church and go and just worship. And so those are the different things that we have going on, I would say. [Timestamp: 2:56]

And you’re the tech director there, so I guess you’re the man with the wires and the cables and making sure everything’s plugged into the right place.
I am that. Technically I am just in charge of our youth building and our contemporary, but we don’t have a full-time technical director anywhere else. We have other people who deal with the technical side in traditional and for the 24/7 prayer house called Store House, but when things go wrong, I’m the guy who’s here 40-hours-plus a week. And so needless to say, I’m the one who gets the phone call when things go down, so I always try to have something spare on me so when they question for things as simple as a jump drive to a microphone cable that we make sure we have that at easy access. [Timestamp: 3:44]

And in the Huntsville suburb where you are there’s a lot of upscale science going on in that neighborhood. What kind of a congregation do you have in that church?
I am laughing because I just moved here from Louisiana, where it was a vastly different people. We’re here in the South, yet this is probably more northerners than I’ve ever seen in a southern city, which is been a very good change here. It is engineers, scientists, NASA, defense contractors, computer programmers; the intellectual men of our country probably come through here on a regular basis, if not are stationed here. We have several places in this town that are very big into cancer research and are hopefully making some breakthroughs, and like I said, defense contracting from the Predator missiles to the Drone projects and everything like that, the army—almost every major branch has a base here, and so we have everything it feels like. But the congregation is made up of primarily some of the most intellectual people I have ever met. [Timestamp: 4:59]

And you’ve got a new, I believe, a 1,500-seat auditorium. When did that come along?
Well, they’ve been building it now for about two years, and it officially opened in Easter of 2010 of this year, and that has been more than blessing. It’s a 1,500-seat auditorium where we do our contemporary services, and between the two services, we’re averaging probably about 1,500 plus or minus per Sunday. So the second service is pretty packed down. We have between 1,000 and 1,100 every single week, and the first service is a little bit less, about 400 or 500. Those start at 8:45 and 10:30. And at the 10:30 service, we have a lot more practice under our belt, I would guess that would be the best way to say it. [Timestamp: 5:46]

You’ve got a lot of RF stuff going in the church. You’ve got wireless mics and in-ear monitoring, and it seems like Huntsville is an especially challenging RF environment.
Absolutely it is. Before I came here, I designed audio/video and lighting systems, and part of that was me designing the wireless systems and I did classes with Sennheiser. I actually did one with Shure, but I did a very informative one with Sennheiser, and we talked about all of the issues that were coming up, and then I moved here and I now know more why they were talking about all of those issues because here, not only do we, on just this campus alone, have over 40 wireless microphones or wireless transmitters and receivers, but in this whole entire town, we don’t know what could be hitting RF band at any time. Obviously you have your TV stations, but a lot of these defense contractors are doing things on the RF spectrum that is in the open bands, which is where our wireless [is]. So when we do it, we haven’t had anybody break through yet with any kind of cause, but we were very, very cautious as we designed the wireless environment here to make sure that it would be as locked down as possible. And even if someone brings in one more wireless, I have to make sure that I know where it is in the band, what it’s going to do, what it could do, who it could interact with because we have a children’s sanctuary right below our sanctuary. We have a little bit of everything, and so we were very, very cautious and are still very, very cautious with our wireless environment here. [Timestamp: 7:25]

And you’ve got in-ear monitoring systems; did you break that in or if so, how did the performers take to that? Sometimes it takes a little bit of getting used to.
It does. I was not here when they broke it in, but I have heard many, many, many stories from it. We do have in-ear monitors; we use them through the Aviom system. From what I was told, they were brought in a couple of years ago; our worship pastor and one of our associate pastors, Scott Thackerson, said, “Guys, we’ve got to move to all in-ear monitors,” because at that time, the congregation was meeting for the contemporary services in a gym, and so obviously it was a reflected environment. And next thing you know we’re starting to get more and more people in there, so sound and delivering our message became more and more of a concern. And so we had to go to in-ear monitors to reduce the amount of noise stage volume, and so that’s why they went to it and Scott said, “Guys, were going to it.” And we have a lot of guys who are old-school and have played from everywhere from bars and have played professionally and have played all over the country, and probably even a few of them all over the world, and they’ve used wedges for a lot of their career, and all the sudden they get told, “No, you can’t use those anymore.” And so a lot of these guys had to relearn monitoring, and they fought it for a while, and every now and then you still hear something to the effect of, “Man, can’t you just give me those wedges?” when they see me setting up something and I just laugh and say, “No way, man. I won’t. I can’t do it,” and I just go, “No way, it’s not going to happen.” And they just laugh at me, roll their eyes. They like it, but they have learned that the Aviom system is reliable, and they’ve learned trust it, so it took some time. We also make sure they all have very good ear buds. We buy for the church, not for them. But we buy for our church 12 sets of Westone UM2s, and we have the inner-changeable foam tips, or we allow for them, if they want, to go buy the molded tip and do that, and so we make sure they have that so that they can hear a true frequency response in their ear. We don’t want them to put in—no offense to Apple—but to put in iPod headphones to monitor their mix. And so a lot of guys have, once they saw it and played with it and practiced with it, they still tentatively walked out on to the field, but they walked out and I think we’ve even made a few believers out of them. [Timestamp: 10.01]

Working Around a Challenging RF Environment for Worship, Part 1

Nov 4, 2010 3:31 PM, With Bennett Liles

Well, sometimes it just takes really hearing the results first hand. Once they do that, they’ll learn to trust it. Now you went with Sennheiser mics, and who was that, American Audio over in Reston, that helped you out with that?
American Audio out of Reston, La., who I can’t say enough about the professionalism. They helped us make sure that everything was coordinated with the wireless. They paid attention to the smallest detail, and when you see the smallest detail paid attention to, you can know that the largest detail is covered. I was able to see from Gwin Edwards, the owner and system designer, where the coverage angles are, and they came up here, were always very professional, became very good friends with them, and they put in a great system. I couldn’t say enough about them. [Timestamp: 10:50]

And I guess you helped out with breaking these wireless mic systems in or testing them before. I mean, you didn’t just throw them into the first live service.
No. No, that’s actually a funny question because it’s my mode of contention here every now and then. […] We started this whole project, and when Scott, before I was even hired, Scott Thackerson said—he told everybody on the building committee—he said, “We need one month of just practice in that building,” and they said, “OK,” and they agreed to it and that was what every plan was. For us, in the South, we had several snows and a lot of rain this winter, and so it pushed things back, and then we got into the building just a few days late. They hit their date. American Constructors out of Nashville, Tenn., built it and did an amazing job, and they hit their opening date. But the move-in date was like a day late and then we ended up adding—we chose to add a commissioning service where we prayed over the building and consecrated it—would be a better word—a consecration service, and so after everything was said and done and we got offices moved and everything, I really only had about two weeks, which cut my time down drastically to train over 50 volunteers to run it. Had we not had American Audio helping us break things in, it would have made those two weeks incredibly rough. We were able to go before those two weeks and give the system a test run with the audio. We were able to break it open and let it run wild; when people weren’t expecting to hear music let it … I was able to sit in there and let’s push it to its limits and EQ a few some small things and hear some CDs on it and different things like that so I was able to describe it.

We were also able to test the wireless mics with the help of Sennheiser and their program, Wireless Systems Manager or WSM for short. We were able to take them and we did what you should never do with transmitters and receivers: We took all the transmitters and all the in-ear monitor receivers and put them all literally in a box, maybe a 12”x12” box, turned them all so all their antennas were touching and crossing, which would provide a lot of crosstalk and a lot of people would be going, “You’re nuts. You shouldn’t be doing this.” But we did it and then what you can do is you can record the signal, not just the audio. You can record and see where you have drop outs and we walked around that building. Let’s see, you can’t see the stage, but we have this stage, and on the left side, we have a baptistery and on the right side, we have what we call the actor’s area where they’re able to come out. We had guys walking with these mics one at a time all over the stage, and then they would walk into the baptistery and there was one place of a small drop out, and when I mean small drop out it was small enough that it would just switch to the next antenna and had no problem and we were just looking at it going, “This is just wild,” that we were able to see where our spectrum is dropping in and out, where our frequencies were having problems, and so we gave it the worst test we could. We called Sennheiser, and they said, “Put ‘em in a box and try it. If it’ll work like that, it’ll pretty much work at anytime.” And so we did that and along with the help, we got some external antennas and things like that. But, man, it was the easiest wireless set up I have ever been a part of, and we have over 20 wireless frequencies in this room alone. [Timestamp: 14:37]

Well, you’ve had quite a challenge with the technical side of it, but I know that in any church or performance environment, you’ve got some challenges with the people as well. You probably have several pastors over there and they’ve probably got several different styles as far as how loud they speak and how mobile they need to be and everything.
Absolutely, absolutely. Again, I’m sitting here smiling and laughing because we have five separate pastors, and one of them being a senior pastor; we have a senior associate pastor and then three other associate pastors all of which preach occasionally. Typically it’s only the senior associate and our senior pastor, and they’ll flip sides of the street because that’s where we have our traditional is on one side of the street and contemporary is on the other, and they’ll flip the sides of the street. And so we had gotten very used to their teaching styles. But I’m laughing because also every one of them comes from a different background; one of them came from a Catholic background, one of them would probably describe them self as Bapticostal, one of them grew up in a Pentecostal church, and that’s where he learned how to do a lot of what he does. And then the rest of them, one of them was an engineer working for the Navy at one point and then the other one would be more of a—he teaches more like, I don’t know how to describe him, more like a Rob Bell—I really don’t know a title for it. So they’re all five different and all five a great challenge. In the audio world, one has a lower voice and one has a higher voice, and so what we were able to do though is, before the system was taken off the ground, I was able to come in and just get them to talk to me; I gave them a book and they would just sit there and read it to me and walk around and then I was able to save their EQ. We have a Digidesign board and we were able to save our EQ in that and that was [and] still is helpful because when I have one of those pastors who hasn’t preached for a service for three or four weeks or three or four months even, we’re able to just recall his channel and say, “It’s not a problem. We can just pop it in real quick.” And on top of that, the video. Our pastors walk a lot and some of them walk less, some of them walk more, and so we had to teach all of our camera people. They were used to having one camera, one shot; they use it during one service that was it. They were also taking the camera off the screen whenever a PowerPoint slide would come up. Well, we went to lower thirds, so the cameras were always on the screen, and we went to four separate cameras, so our switcher changed his job drastically, and then the camera guys had to learn a much larger stage how to control everything and how to make sure they weren’t getting the pastor’s back in it. So there were a great many challenges, but I’ve felt like we’ve come through them decently well right now. [Timestamp: 17:38]

Yeah, it sounds like there might be a little bit of a challenge in terms of breaking in new church volunteers on the tech positions.
Absolutely; we have over 50 volunteers, which is tough, [and] from all age groups too. We have some youth who help with us backstage, we have middle age, we have older people ,and we have people who have never touched technical equipment in their life, and my challenge when I came in was, “Teach ‘em, let ‘em run; we’re a lay-led church and not a staff-led church.” So I don’t have staff of 30 guys or 10 guys or five guys; it’s just me as of right now, and so we are teaching constantly of how to do this and how to do that and at times people go, “Can we do this?” and I’m going, “Yes, we can but let’s learn how to do this first thing first,” and so that has been a challenge. But again, I can’t take all the credit for it because I’m very blessed and in that same breath that we do have a lot of engineers and contractors. All of them read manuals and so they like reading the instruction manuals; in fact I have rehearsal tonight with a new sound guy who I really didn’t worry about teaching him too much because he knew sound. He just went and read the manual on the Digidesign book. And so that makes it easier; I can’t take all the credit, but it does make it a lot easier. [Timestamp: 18:54]

Do you have the capability or do you use a different board for stage monitoring? How do you have that set up?
Right now, all we do is off the same board; it is actually, again, the Digidesign system. You can put in a card in the stage rack and it will carry 16 channels to the Aviom over Cat-5. And so since they can mix their own ears, we don’t have a separate monitoring board yet. There is kind of in my mind the idea that one day it could happen, but that would only be if things just get out of hand and we need to make sure that we can mix their monitors for them. Again, that’s years and years away, so right now the only thing that affects their ears is when we mess with gain, which occasionally does happen, and so I don’t like it like that because I like to have a separate board that I can say, “Cool, it’s not a big deal.” I can mess with whatever gain to get a better gain structure out of it, but it hasn’t bitten us in the foot yet—knock on wood—so we’re going to keep running with it. [Timestamp: 19:59]

Well that’s always a big step up when you can get the performers used to the system to the point to where they can do some of their own monitor mixing. It really takes a load off the people out front. Beau, it’s really been great hearing about how Asbury United Methodist does all this, and in part two, I want to get more into the software you were talking about before and how you have the wireless mic antennas set up because of that RF situation you’ve got there, but it’s been great having you here and we’ll see you for part two.
All right; thanks.

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