We are wrapping up our series on Christmas planning with an admonition to not wait until the week before the production (or services, or whatever you’re doing) to begin putting it all together. In this series, I’m focusing mainly on audio, but the same applies to lighting, slides, video and set design. During my last Christmas as a TD, we built the entire set almost a month before we hung it. That created some storage issues, but it was way less stressful. I like less stressful.
Build As Much In Advance As Possible
Many churches have upgraded to digital audio consoles in the last few years. These are a boon for big productions like this. With a digital console, you can typically build your entire show file in advance—sometimes without even turning on the desk! Using the offline software (or the console itself), you can patch; lay out; set up basic EQ parameters, VCAs and groups and maybe even build some basic scenes. This can be done weeks in advance—and it should be!
For my last few years as a TD, my basic show file (including starting snapshots for all program elements) was done by Thanksgiving. Using virtual soundcheck from the previous year, I built my starting vocal IEM mixes (mixed from FOH) by the first week in December. I pre-built and patched all of our personal monitor mixers for the band weeks in advance, saving the show file for easy recall the week of.
Getting as much dialed in as possible ahead of time lowers your workload for Christmas week, and means you’re in better shape to handle things you didn’t know about. I have found that not only was my stress level lower when all this is done in advance, but the band is more relaxed as well. A relaxed and confident band plays better, and the whole experience is improved for everyone.
Try New Things—But Not Too Many
I have seen some productions go completely off the rails because the tech team tried too many new things at once. I love new gear and I love new techniques. But be careful in how many you try at once. If you want to start using scenes or snapshots on your new digital console (or old one…), don’t wait until rehearsal to figure out how they work. Not all scene systems are immediately intuitive, and it may take some experimentation to get the results you want. Try it out in advance with virtual soundcheck on a Sunday afternoon and make sure you know what to expect. Scenes or snapshots can save you for big productions, but they can also kill you.
If you are renting unfamiliar equipment, be it wireless mic’s or a console, make sure it arrives in time for you and your team to get comfortable with it. If you’ve never used a digital console before, don’t buy a new one and have it installed two days before the rehearsal. Same goes if you are renting. Get some training on it first to make sure you know how to operate it quickly and effectively.
Enjoy the Season
Christmas can be stressful, but with proper planning, scheduling and some extra help, it can also be a lot of fun. As I have implemented these techniques the past few years I was running production, Christmas actually became fun again. The last year I did Christmas while on staff was truly a ton of fun, even though we had a brand new worship leader who started December 1. Because my team was ready, it was easy to accommodate his vision. Unlike earlier years when I felt stressed out and found myself exhausted and depressed on Christmas morning, I was free to enjoy the services and be present with my family on Christmas proper. That’s a goal worth hitting. By planning in advance, it’s a goal you can achieve.
It’s Christmas in August! As we started talking about last time, now is the time to begin your Christmas planning. It may seem like you’re way far out, but believe me, the time will go fast. The more you get done early, the easier your December will be. And who doesn’t want an easier December?
This whole series came from lessons I’ve learned the hard way, so learn from my mistakes. Plan early, and work smarter, not harder. Believe me, you’ll enjoy December much more.
After you begin planning the events of Christmas by asking questions and figuring out what you need and don’t have, it’s time to look at what you need to rent. To be sure you get what you need, book it early!
Plan Rentals Early
Christmas is often the most wonderful time of year for rental companies. They tend to rent out much or all of their stock, and if you wait too long, you’ll be paying more or maybe not get what you need. Once you get your quotes together, you can work out the final details with the programming people and make sure everyone is OK with the costs. If they are not, it’s time to figure out how to pull it off using existing or borrowed equipment, or revise the programming.
When you have time to plan, you may even find another church in town that has what you need and would be willing to loan it to you. In fact, Christmas is a great time for churches to work together to share resources. I’ve done this in the past, and to me, it’s a great way to expand the reach of all our ministries.
Typically, a big event like Christmas will also require more volunteers than a normal weekend. Whenever I do a big event, I always schedule a dedicated wireless mic wrangler. A few years back, we did a show that had 14 wireless body packs and 18 headsets—obviously some where shared. There is no way to keep track of that from FOH while mixing the show, so I had someone backstage making sure the right pack was on the right actor at the right time.
If you find yourself short on inputs, you may need to add a second console to handle additional wireless mic’s or other channels. Years ago, we did a show so complicated that it took three engineers and two consoles to mix it; one to manage the band and vocals, another on a dedicated wireless mic console to handle the wireless mic’s for the drama portion and a third to manage sound effects, tracks, monitors and recalling mute scenes. We all stood shoulder to shoulder in the tech booth and had a great time. Just don’t wait until the day before to try to find another engineer to help you.
We always do a band rehearsal the week before Christmas. I don’t worry too much about getting my mixes dialed in perfectly that night; I focus on making sure the band and vocalists are happy with their mixes, then I record the whole thing to our virtual soundcheck computer. I always schedule several hours later in the week (sometimes more, depending on the year) to dial in the mixes based on the recordings.
If you don’t have virtual soundcheck, you may want to either have someone else in to help with monitors and other audio-related tasks while you focus on the mix, or rent a monitor console to take the load off FOH. Either way, you need to arrange rentals (or borrows) and staffing ahead of time.
Back when I was doing musicals, we always did a tech run through before opening night. This was a time to let the tech team run things so we can get out cues worked out. Depending on the Christmas service or production, a tech run through will save you. Tech is not a time for actors to learn lines, work out blocking or for the band to tweak arrangements. It’s a time for the tech staff to make sure the cues and transitions work the way everyone expects them to. A Tech typically runs somewhat slowly, but it’s critical for a seamless experience. If the production is complicated, be sure to schedule a Tech Rehearsal.
As you can see, most of these items can be done months in advance—at least the scheduling. When I was a TD, I always started to get nervous if I didn’t have my schedule done for Christmas prior to October 1. You may feel differently, but earlier is always better for me. Next time, we’ll wrap this series up with some final practical tips to help your Christmas season be more merry