Close Encounters in Music City: Findings from 1999 Sound and Music Trade Shows by CS&S Staff

Rare indeed is the life that has not been profoundly impacted by the dizzying rate of emerging technology. That is true for most of us personally, and for most of our churches as well. As Lavon Oke states in this issue’s article on MIDI use, the scriptures tell us a lot about worship and praising the Lord, but they contain no guidance for dealing with amplifying a sermon, miking a choir in a huge space, or struggling to understand, let alone effectively use MIDI music tracks. In the interest of keeping a finger on the pulse of developments that may positively affect our readers (most often music directors, pastors, and sound technicians in U.S. churches), we share some findings from two trade shows we attended during 1999.

Both shows took place in Nashville this year - a place that’s always exciting to visit, especially for Christian musicians. The first show was in May, the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA) meeting. The second was the summer meeting of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).

NSCA - The Sound Show

NSCA is made up of vendors and contractors who use their products in installation of audio, video, communication, and increasingly computer systems. Many of the audio products that find use in our places of worship are to be found at this show - from microphones and cables, to speakers of all shapes and sizes, to audio computer control systems. Their show took place at the convention area of the beautiful Opryland Hotel - always a treat to visit. Happily, the meeting was punctuated with fairly frequent opportunities to hear real live music. One can only take so much of the (albeit impressive) demonstration recordings played at high volume in the display rooms. The lesson here perhaps as it applies to our mission, is that while it’s great to hear well-produced recordings over spectacular sound systems, there’s nothing like the vitality and sincerity of talented live musicians and singers - especially in heartfelt worship.

This show has traditionally been among the best "pro audio" gatherings. Increasingly, though, video technology is taking its place alongside. For churches’ sake, this bodes well for the increasing use of video projection technology, and its eventual integration with the purposes and infrastructure of audio. Sound and video mixing and control have tended to develop separately, but with the "digitalization" of both domains, more tools to ease their co-processing are in the wings.

Converging Technologies

"Digital" talk may seem esoteric, except perhaps to a relatively few very large churches - who tend to be investing in many of the latest audio technologies. But increasingly, we hear sound (and music) that has found its home as digital data. Everyone who listens to a CD is playing back digital information. Digital Signal Processing (DSP) is now an aspect of many power amplifiers, "active" loudspeakers, mixers, video equipment, and recorders. Early concerns of the loss of "analog quality" (especially in music) was based on the "too crude" approximation that characterized digital representation of continuous signals. With the current explosion of computing speeds and available bandwidth of digital communications (size of data "pipeline"), audio and video now boast a quality of resolution that can’t be differentiated from the perceptions of our innate senses of hearing and sight. With this, we can now control amplifiers with computers; mixers can "remember" their settings; feedback can be automatically and proactively prevented in real-time; and we can automate many chores of media management that had eluded our grasp. [If this is so, how come we still can’t get somebody to put a fresh battery in our pastor’s lapel pack every Sunday?!]

Some New Product Introductions

Tannoy, a maker of loudspeaker products, has brought out an active Ceiling Mounted Subwoofer, the CMS110-B. Described as the first of its kind in the industry, this active subwoofer is designed to boost low-frequency impact from a concealed position in the ceiling of an auditorium or sanctuary. It can reside behind standard air vent covers as the speaker grille. This is intriguing for several reasons. Much of the music we categorize as "high-quality commercial" utilizes powerful bass and low-frequency presence. Since very low frequency (30Hz to 300Hz) speakers are omnidirectional, a single ceiling-mounted subwoofer could be a very effective addition to sound texture throughout the space, while having essentially no visual impact.

Crown’s IQ System software application is a fascinating integration of PC and amplifier control technology. They have designed 24-bit digital signal processing into their power amp interface modules, which plug into certain models of their amps. This integration permits monitoring and control of amplifier levels from a single PC location. This can be a great benefit in large systems that require a centralized point of control.

Sabine, maker of several types of audio signal processing tools, offers a powerful wireless microphone technology: True Mobility. The receiver has their FBX Feedback Eliminator built in. So the speaker or singer can move about anywhere - including into feedback-prone "hot spots" without fear of feedback - all controlled automatically. The system also has signal processing that minimizes sibilance ("s’s"), and built-in battery recharger.

Mackie Designs introduced their DX8-2, a DSP-based digital audio mixer for the sound contractor market. It combines ten inputs and two independent mix busses in a rack-mountable two-space chassis. It includes 24-bit (the current digital standard for sound signal processing and digital recording) analog/digital conversion and a powerful digital signal processor engine. Audio is sampled at a rate of 44.1kHz (44,100 cycles per second - or sufficient for studio-grade sound and music replication.) These are the kinds of specs that characterize this changing world of digital sound.

A Mortal’s Perspective

All this technology can be more than a little daunting, especially when packaged in the glitter and polish of high-powered corporate marketing. You can’t help but be reminded of how nifty that PC looked in the showroom, and how helpless most people felt when they got it home and turned it on. Our efforts in church will only prove as effective as the folks we are able to recruit, inspire, hire, train or otherwise hitch to the wagon of audio and media ministry.

NAMM - The Music Show

NAMM is a show attended by companies whose products cover the gamut of music and sound reinforcement - literally from grand pianos to digital recorders. One of the greatest challenges of the show is to be able to hear yourself play a piano or strum a guitar, there’s so much going on acoustically. Even so, the vast and colorful range of instruments and remarkable technology are fascinating - as are many of the gifted and sometimes well-known players who show up to demonstrate.

At this July’s show in the Nashville Convention Center, we focused on several products, companies, or emerging technologies that have particular relevance to the ministries of music directors. Our choices are not meant to exhaust the possibilities, but we did find several things and people who were kind to be interviewed for this purpose. We were assisted by our elegant Marketing Associate, Kristin Nichols, who typically posed three questions. First, "What new product(s) are you excited about?" Second, "How do you see it helping the director of music in a church?" And last, "What resources do you have to support its use, once the user gets back to their office?"

Larry Marchese, Central District Manager for Sibelius Software, Ltd.

"Sibelius is a music notation software program designed to help choral directors, music directors and musical worship leaders. It helps those who create and print music, or share music on the web - quickly and efficiently. There’s a very short learning curve in getting up to speed on it. It’s perfect for making quick changes on Sunday morning. You can use it to arrange existing music in your church, or adapt by adding or arranging accompaniment or vocal parts. Maybe you need a modulation or a transposition if the key’s not right for your singers. You can add tablature, or guitar/chord charts and standard chord symbols, depending on the level of your instrumentalists, and the makeup of your ensemble. Its highly intuitive interface is a great strength, since it was designed by musicians, for musicians. Notable users include John Rutter, Michael Tilson Thomas and Lalo Schifrin. For training and support, there’s a CD/movie that walks the user through the features. The manual is amusingly presented, and small enough that people can actually use it as a tutorial. Our on-line web offers articles and user dialogue. I was worship leader in my church, and I create a lot of arrangements with Sibelius. I also visit a lot of churches and interview a lot of music leaders, to help keep the product tuned in to churches’ needs." Sibelius runs in both Macintosh and PC environments. You can learn more at: www.sibelius.com.

John Calder, Digital Pro Audio Specialist for Yamaha of America

"The new Yamaha O1V is a 16-channel digital audio mixer. Because it’s totally digital, it has the ability to store every parameter on the board. The obvious beauty is that since it’s stored, every setting on the console can be recalled as a "scene" for a particular event or phase. This can be great for worship because not all churches have sound pros available to them every Sunday. With the O1V, you’d only need a professional to come in once and set up your mixer "scenes." One may be for preaching, another may be for your choir and pianist. Another could be for a contemporary music team. You can store up to 99. With minimal training, a lay operator could then simply scroll through the list and call up the appropriate "tableau" of settings as required at any particular time. This isn’t just mic levels, but all equalizations and faders - every setting on the board! It can take up to 12 balanced XLR mic inputs, so it would be perfect for a smaller church console. Support is available through a great network of trained personnel. All district managers in the service network (for each Yamaha division) are very well-trained in the use of their products." More info is available at: www.yamaha.com.

Steve Heuer, District Manager, PianoDisc

"Our new PianoDisc product can turn an acoustic piano into a contemporary player piano. The player feature allows you to record live play and then replay from digital memory. As many smaller churches may attest, good pianists/organists are hard to find. With this product, you can have a skilled accompanist record all the hymns for your service ahead of time, and play them back as you need. You can also play from our extensive existing disc library of hymns and sacred and gospel music. With our PianoDigital product, we can similarly retrofit your grand or upright, and enable it to also serve as a digital keyboard and MIDI controller. From the same instrument, you could then layer organ, piano, strings, or any of the 128 general MIDI instrument voices. Alternatively, you can mute the natural acoustic piano sound, and individually play MIDI voice organ, horns, or string ensemble - through your sound system, and that’s what your congregation will hear. It’s a way to build on your investment in your existing piano, and still get the benefits of the new digital tools. We have a dealership network for support, including local dealers and an 800 support line. You can call me directly as district manager if you like." PianoDisc’s web site is: www.pianodisc.com for more info.

Joel Brazy, Midwest Sales Manager, Sonic Foundry, Inc.

"Our new product is the Vegas Pro software program - a multitrack media editing system for the PC environment. It complements our media editing suite of tools, giving audio and video editing capability in a friendly Windows interface. You can use this product wherever you’d want to record with a hard-disk recorder. Some churches do a lot of recording. With this tool, they can edit video as well as audio in one PC-based domain. It requires Windows 9x or NT 4.0 and at least a 200 MHz processor to run (400 MHz is recommended). Our user support is excellent - we’re going to 14 hours a day in Central Time Zone. Our support staff can help with Windows and hardware problems, as we’ve tested all the sound cards in the industry. We plan to be there for the long haul." www.sonicfoundry.com is their website.

Dan Slick, Assistant General Manager, Technics Musical Instruments

"That would be our digital ensemble series keyboards: PR702 and PR902. These digital keyboards look great, sound great, and are easy to use. They feature full orchestration and MIDI capability. They have 64-note polyphony (you want this in a MIDI keyboard.) and a color-LCD control display that’s really easy to use. They have a powerful speaker system built in, so there’s no problem being heard in even a large space. It’s not only a great keyboard instrument for the church player, but with the disk drive, you can download MIDI files from the internet and play them back. It can serve as an additional player if your worship leader happens to be a guitar player. Or you can focus on other parts of orchestration for rehearsals and/or during services. It’s a great digital keyboard with lots of possibilities. We support with reps across the U.S., and have dedicated promotional specialists who help train our clients. We also have 800# after-sales support." The website is: www.technicsusa.com.

Doug Hanson, Keyboard Product Manager, Roland Corporation, U.S.

"We’ve seen a lot of interest in the XP-60 and XP-80 keyboard/synth products in churches - they have a lot of features for live performance. But we also see interest in guitar and percussion products. We can support the entire ensemble with signal processing technology. Also we have some new digital recording products that allow you to ‘burn’ a CD master after you’ve finished a 16-track recording. If you want to make your own fund-raising CD, you can record the master yourself. Our XP-80 workstation is general MIDI compatible, so you can play thousands of song titles already available. And you can play along with the prerecorded stuff interactively. Our "PRS" feature lets you assign a key to segments of a MIDI file song, so you can easily repeat fills, say, during an offertory or prayer that varies in duration. We support with ‘getting started’ videos, and have a MIDI in Ministry user’s group, plus a newsletter and our website. We also help sponsor Maranatha! workshops." The website is: www.rolandus.com.

Wrapping It Up

These tools are amazing, and many ministries will be helped in many ways by such. But we also can’t afford to forget that there’s no substitute for the simple heart of faith that we hear lifted up in the plaintive voices of children, or a string quartet playing live, or a lone singer accompanied by a sole piano, organ or guitar during a moment of prayer. God hears our offerings - both with and without all the trimmings.