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Portable Church Advice

Portable Church Advice

Tech-savvy guidance for getting it right the first time

The Bible maintains that we "reap what we sow." This wisdom is ever so true when investing money and time towards the research and acquisition of sound, lighting, and video equipment. Purchasing low-quality gear to save money or making decisions without adequate knowledge can lead to a future of Sunday morning frustrations.

With this in mind, today's portable church is especially susceptible to making unsound audio-visual purchases based on lack of funds and experience. To help church leaders navigate an oftentimes perplexing venture into the technical side of portability, Worship Facilities Magazine gathered advice from a collection of top tech professionals.

Audio Video Systems Designer and Integrator Bob Owens with Owens AV Design, located in Orlando, Florida, defines the typical portable church client. "Most of the time we see pastors who are starting out with a small congregation of one to 150 people trying to grow to a church of about 500 people. At that point they can realistically afford through donations to pay for a building," he says.

Pastors soon discover that the possible settings for a portable church these days are quite colorful. You might find a church gathering just about anywhereschools, movie theatres, bowling alleys, malls, fast food restaurantsthe list goes on. What these diverse locations have in common is their lack of permanently installed gear to meet the church's sound and visual needs.

Advances in technology, especially the availability of digital equipment, allows for a wide array of solutions to outfit any venue, even on a modest budget.

Acoustics Comes First
Worship Pastor Joel Close knows portable churches. His own church, Lifepointe Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been portable for four years now. Just recently, in February of 2008, an additional portable site was established. His primary recommendation for those establishing a portable venue is to investigate how the acoustical characteristics of a room will affect your style of worship.

"Before anything else you need to adequately understand the acoustics of the room you will be worshipping in. For example, if you are going to use drums, can they be live drums or will you need to go digital? Will you be able to add acoustical panels to the room if necessary?" asks Close, who warns, "Things can get too loud in a heartbeat where you can't control anything. Equipment costs a lot of money, so before buying it see if you can borrow it for a demo before you make purchases. With a church plant, finances are an issue and you want to do things for less and [do them] right the first time."

Sound Considerations
Power is another prime consideration; before deciding on a facility, make certain that you have enough "juice" to run your gear. With the majority of churches running both audio and lighting, a check on the electrical load of your expected gear must first be determined. Also, in advance of signing contracts, see if allowances are available to put in additional power.

John Schauer, an expert in live sound for churches and product manager for the Live Sound Department at Yamaha Corporation of America of Buena Park, California, explains a good starting rule of thumb: "Plan on at least one watt per person. If the system is for full range music, double this number. When in doubtmore power is always better."

According to Schauer, every performance space is different, but by following these two basic rules you can be assured the audience will hear the service.

"The closer you place the microphone(s) to the source, the more gain, or volume you can get from your system before feedback (or ringing) will occur. And, the closer you place your loudspeakers to the audience, the more effective the overall system will be." Also, maximize your sound investment by placing your speakers on stands where their ability to project into the audience is enhanced.

Schauer endorses Yamaha's portable systems the STAGEPAS 300 and STAGEPAS 500. "Both are all-inclusive sound systems. All the user needs to do is connect with his or her microphones or instruments and they are ready to go," he says. Speaking of microphonesSchauer stresses the importance of using the right mic for the job. "Don't expect that a handheld vocal microphone will work as a piano microphone. Most manufacturers have the applications listed for each of the mic models they offer," explains Schauer.

Illuminating Advice
Lighting is key to the entire visual set up. When looking for consultation on lighting equipment needs, Mark Shore, director of systems design and installation with High Output Inc. of Canton, Massachusetts, suggests seeking out a qualified theatrical equipment dealer/reseller. A dealer in your area can be found at www.esta.org. "Another option," notes Shore, "is to contact local colleges with technical theatre curriculums. They may have faculty or students on hand that would be able to assist with lighting design and equipment selection."

There is no standard "starter" lighting system. However, Shore recommends beginning with two well-organized, eight-fixture tripod stands with a distributed dimmer pack system. With an elemental rig of this nature, two individuals should spend approximately 30 to 60 minutes to set up and focus. Shore warns against the temptation to go with a lower costing DJ-type portable system. "In my experience they do not stand the test of time. In lighting especially, you get what you pay for," he cautions.

Instead, experts agree that purchasing the highest quality equipment you can afford is most often the wisest choice. Today's lighting technology that lends itself well to the portable application, according to Shore, is the ETC "Smart" line of products. "It's the very best out thereSmartStands, SmartModules or SmartBars, and a SmartFade console can combine with Source 4 Pars or Source 4 Jr.s to make a very effective portable lighting system," Shore notes.

Other fundamental rules for portable lighting are fixture locations and lighting angles. "Establish where lighting stands can be safely set up. If near the audience, the area around them should be roped off and secured out of the reach of small children," cautions Shore. "Additionally, determine where lights can be properly located to illuminate the presenters at appropriate angles. Fixtures should be mounted at an angle of at least 45 degrees above the face of presenters (to keep light from shining directly in their eyes)." Side lighting can also address this issue.

Redefining Portable
Close says that Lifepointe Church staff made the first jump to a digital format in their new portable site. "At our original site (both portable sites are movie theatres) we carry in a nice large sound board. But we also have to case all the racks: the compressors, the EQs [audio system equalizers], the CD player/recorder. All of those things are built into our new Yamaha LS9 [digital mixing console]. It's a set up reducer and a huge space saver. When you add up the cost of those good quality compressors and all the other equipment it replaces, it's really not that much more moneyand one person can pick it up and carry it around," enthuses Close.

For video, Lifepointe turned to the Mac-based program called ProPresenter by Renewed Vision of Alpharetta, Georgia. "It's a great all-in-one integrated program for showing worship slides, video, moving backgrounds, and stills. We purchased a Macbook Pro laptop for each portable location. We bring them to our office to program, put them in a backpack for Sunday services and just hook them into our projector and sound system," explains Close.

Through Lifepointe's good working relationship with the movie theatres where they run services each Sunday, they have been able to permanently install gear to minimize set up time and effort. "We left the theatres clean when we left and built up enough of a rapport so that they allowed us to mount our lights, speakers (up high behind the screen), amps under the stage, and a portable projector in the theatre projector room. They have a smaller window under their main window, which we use. We ran a cable down through the wall to where the computer isthat's been a huge convenience," says Close.

Another time and space saver has been the move towards in-ear monitoring systems. "It clears our stage of floor wedge monitors and personal mixing stands. Our musicians wear a wireless belt pack on their belt and we rely solely on our sound people to mix our in-ear monitors for us. It's really streamlined our set up," Close adds.

Hitting the Road
One aspect of portability that all of our experts agree on is the need to protect your investment. Owens with AV Designs sums up the reality of a mobile church like this: "No matter how careful you are, as you carry your equipment around, invariably stuff gets more abuse in a portable situation than a permanent installation. Road cases along with metal grille covers for speakers will keep gear functional and looking nice for a longer period of time."

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