Five Tips for Surviving the Christmas Show

This article was originally published at ChurchProduction.com

It’s that time of year again, kiddies. The annual Christmas production. That great opportunity to develop your character even more than usual. That time when we all figure out exactly how patient and mature we actually are. Yeah. Love it.

One of the toughest battles you will fight, in any Christmas production, will be with your wireless microphones. The more more you have, the more headaches you can generally expect. I wanted to throw a few life saving tips out there and try to make your life easier during the most wonderful time of the year. In no particular order of importance, these are my thoughts on wireless for Christmas.

One. Change the battery.
There is absolutely no excuse for a dead battery. The most common failure of wireless is operator error. The battery is completely blameless. Don’t even try it. Use the same batteries over and over for rehearsals, not a big deal. Save a few bucks and rotate your piles. Make a bucket for used batteries that still have some life left, the rest go in the trash. Immediately.
Here’s the rule. If there will be an audience, use fresh batteries. Period. It’s not worth the few dollars to risk ruining a service or that show everyone has worked on for weeks. Don’t risk it. Even if that wonderful radio shack battery tester swears everything is fine, don’t trust it. If your life depended on that battery, would you trust it? It just might.
Got that one? Good. Next.

Two. Location, location, location.
Line of sight, no interference, not too far away or too close. When you read the manual that came with the wireless system, it should have told you the ideal location. ( You did read that manual, didn’t you?)
If the microphone cost less than $500, you can safely bet it needs to be less than 100 feet from stage. And. It probably needs to be more than 10 feet away from the stage. Some of the less expensive systems have been known to drop out from being too close as well as too far from the action.
I don’t suggest stacking them up on piles of copper wire or placing them near you electrical panel. Anything that has the potential to cause interference probably will. That row of cheap dimmer switches is just waiting to attack your signal. Stay away from them.
Take note of the antennas, too. If you have an old, non-diversity FM wireless unit, here’s the best thing to do. Pull out the cord, walk it into the parking lot and beat it flat with a hammer. That should solve plenty of problems for you.
If you are using the standard, diversity receivers, separate the antennas. I alway had better success with them at a 45 degree angle. Just to cover all the bases.

Three. Practice with the packs.
Do not wait until the last rehearsal to get those body packs on your performers. Make them rehearse with them as offer as possible. If they have been running the same transitions for weeks, throwing a body pack on them at the last run through, can drop monkey wrench in the whole show.
Who will be responsible for turning them on and off? You or the performers? Better work that little detail out as early as possible. Someone who has been memorizing lines might not remember anything else during the show. Nothing like backstage chatter or a nice toilet flush to break up a show.

Four. Take good notes.
I always used programs as a place to make note. I like to be able to follow along and have my cues right there in front of me. Get the same copy the director is using, if possible. Make notes of everything. This is also a great way to keep up with which pack is live, what track starts and ends where, who is swapping mics, lighting changes, etc. you get the idea. Just make sure the note are legible and you can follow them. I always had to make a fresh list at the final rehearsal. Every time.
You are numbering the body packs and taping a note on each receiver, right? Body pack number one has a big piece of white tape with a “1” on it. Just like receiver number one does. Right? No way you will ever get those mixed up. Might as well make sure the performers know that this is their pack. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever rehearse with another pack. Ever. If there has to be a handoff during the show, make sure that you are practicing that, too. Those performers need to know who gets it and where to meet them to make the switch. Trust me. These are not minor details.

Five. Use the right mic for the right job.
We obviously wouldn’t duct tape a handheld to the face of a performer. Not that I haven’t considered it. Just didn’t see a good way to justify it. Those miniature condensers work great for so many applications. They are small enough to hide almost anywhere. But, as with any other situation, keep it as close to the source as possible.
It doesn’t matter how good that mic is, it’s still going into feedback land if you are attempting to pick up a mumbler who clipped it on his belt. Know your mics and their limitations before show time. If it doesn’t work right during rehearsal, you can be sure it won’t get better at show time.
Also.
If that receiver has a balanced connection on the back, use it. That’s a rule for life. If you ever get to choose between balanced and unbalanced, take the balanced. Those unbalanced connections are basically antennas, that search for interference to add into your signal. Those old, worn out guitar cords you keep using are pure evil. Get rid of them. Eventually, they will find an irritating radio station to slip into a show. I promise.

Most local music stores and larger hotels will have equipment rentals available, if you are in a bind. There are plenty of AV companies out there that will gladly rent you the perfect setup for your show. It will be much cheaper than buying them, and usually they will send a tech to set them up. Just a though in case you run out of ideas. Sometimes, we have to admit that excellence is just beyond our reach. Better to call for help than surrender to a bad production.

Hey. Maybe this is a good time to mention that my book would be a wonderful Christmas gift for the other techs in your world.
Just a thought. The Art of the Soundcheck.

One thought on “Five Tips for Surviving the Christmas Show

  1. From my email. He has some great points to add. Thanks.

    Hey Erik,

    Read your article and have a couple of thoughts for your questions on CTL that have worked for us:

    1- what do you wish the non-tech actors understood about the production? How do you prepare them?

    We try to enforce the rule that we’ll hand them their mic or pack turned on. Do not turn it off. We’ll un-mute you when your time comes and vice-versa. This shifts the responsibility from the performer to the tech team. It doesn’t eliminate the nasty bathroom episode if the sound guy is napping, but this is far less likely/frequent than a performer failing to turn their pack or handheld on. Still there’s always someone who does…

    3-what tricks do you use for taking notes and staying ahead of problems?

    This is strictly me and may seem a little goofy, but I have a stock of those colored stickers from Staples that I insert all through the production book as reference points for the tech team… yellow for lighting cues, green for video rolls, red as warning of something important on the next page or a stop/fade to black, etc. I did it for my own reference the first time but have continued each year, spending a day with the production’s director (worship pastor) going through it line-by-line.

    Keep up the good work!

    Jim Lambert
    Tech Director, Westney Heights Baptist Church

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