Every church that utilizes audio, video and lighting technology in a significant way has a lot of work to do to keep that equipment operating. But the portable church especially may just have it the worst in terms of workloadthey are loading in, trouble-shooting, and loading back out again every week in the span of a few hours.
Wireless DMX: A way of transmitting lighting control information through a Wi-Fi network instead of through physical cables.
LED Lighting: Lighting fixtures that utilize Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) as their source of illumination. Traditional lamps generate light as a by-product their primary energy output is heat. In LED lighting, the primary output is light, so they are far more energy efficient and generate much less waste heat. They also put less heat on the stage, so the "talent" is much cooler (and happier).
Laser Projectors: A video projector where the traditional lamp is replaced with a light engine that uses a laser to "excite" phosphor, which then emits full-color-spectrum light. Like with LED lighting, this mechanism generates far less waste heat, and thus is more efficient and removes the constraints of moving the projector while hot.
Digital Audio: A way of processing sound where the audio is turned into numbers on a network and can be transmitted over computer networking cable. Traditional analog audio requires one wire per input to be run to the console; with digital, one light-weight Ethernet cable can transmit many channels of audio.
With this weekly workload, any improvements in technology that can make a significant difference in how well that process goes is a pretty big deal.
In this article, we're touching bases with two industry experts on portable churches to see how the last few years of technology improvements have impacted the portable church. Curt Banter is the director of consulting with Portable Church Industries based in Troy, Michigan; and Mike Gardner is the managing partner of Church On Wheels, based in Madera, California.
"The newest thing that’s really cutting setup time is wireless DMX lighting," says Gardner. "While not a brand-new technology, it's becoming more prevalent. Most of our churches are going to a wireless lighting system, leaving the daisy chain of DMX cabling behind. In a traditional wired DMX environment, there's a chain' of cable going from one fixture to the next. Any disruption in that cable means all the lights downstream from the problem also will not work. In a mobile environment, you have to set that up every week, and that increases the chance of issues. With wireless, you have a wireless DMX receiver on each piece of truss that is stored with the lighting fixtures already attachedall you need to do is connect power to that truss."
To control the wireless system, you would add a Wireless DMX transmitter at the lighting console end as well. Or, there's another option that Church on Wheels is seeing their clients use.
"A number of our clients have moved beyond the traditional lighting control console," continues Gardner. "We've set up a number of our customers with lighting control with an iPad via an app called Luminaire."
A wireless tablet solution also reduces setup time, and removes the need for space at a "front of house" position for lighting. This can also be a huge help in venuesboth for portable churches and those with permanent facilitieswhere there's no space to set up a specific tech position in the room.
With fixtures themselves, LED lighting has shown steady improvements. "It’s getting to the point where LED lighting technology is very strong," states Banter. "The weight of the fixtures has increased, but the electrical needs are still lower than conventional fixtures. LED used to have a really sad output level, but there is a lot of punch now at a decent price tag."
On the video side of technology, both Banter and Gardner agree that laser-phosphor projectors (often just shortened to laser projectors) are a big deal.
"Laser projection has been around for a few years now," comments Banter, "but in the last few years it’s gotten really affordable. We’ve put a lot of laser projectors into our church projects now. They are brighter, look great, and should have a good lifespan. They are lighter than traditional projectors, which is always great for a portable church. Conventional projectors with a lot of punch were big and heavyLaser is smaller and more easily handled."
Gardner adds, "Older projectors needed a cool-down period before they could be moved, or else you could ruin the lamp. Laser projectors don’t have that restriction, and can simply be turned off and packed up. You also get a great contrast ratio with them, and the ongoing maintenance cost is much lower as there is no lamp to replace."
"The power requirement a laser projector is also quite less," continues Banter. "It used to be that you needed to dedicate an entire circuit to your projector; that isn't the case with laser technology."
Digital audio consoles have been making an impact on portable churches for a while now. The use of an Ethernet cable which replaces a thick, heavy analog snake significantly reduces the weight of the audio system.
"A lot of churches are able to get into digital audio setups for a reasonable investment," says Banter. "Many manufacturers have affordable digital solutions. And the introduction of PA systems where there's no dedicated hardware console has made a big impact on the portable church. There's no front-of-house position to set upit's all controlled wirelessly via an iPad."
This brings the same flexibility that the iPad lighting system described earlier has into your audio system.
"These systems work well," Banter continues, "provide a lot of flexibility, and makes the system more affordable. Movie theaters don’t have a good place for a front-of-house position, and this makes it easier for the band to have individual monitors as well."
"Traditionally, if you wanted to set up individual monitors," elaborates Gardner, "you had to run a lot of Ethernet cable. With an Aviom system, you were looking at $500-$600 per musician. Now, all the new digital consoles have personal mixing software built in that is controlled via the band-member's smart phone and Wi-Fi to the audio console. It can be as little as $50 for a wired headphone amplifier, or for a larger investment you can go with wireless in-ear systems to reduce setup time even further and increase flexibility."
"It also seems like speaker manufacturers are catering to the portable market now as well, says Banter. "The speaker cabinets used to be gigantic. d&b audiotechnik, for example, now has small boxes that sound great and are super portable. We now have access to great sounding systems that fit into a portable rig."
All of these AVL improvements combined have lessened the power load required by portable church systems.
"It used to be you needed six dedicated 20-amp circuits for a portable church AVL system," describes Banter. "Now you can configure a system that needs only two or three circuits. In spaces like a gym or movie theater, power circuits and outlets are very limited, so this is a huge benefit."
Audio, video, and lighting technology isn't the only areas where technology has influences the portable church. Social media is also making its impact on those that serve in the AVL space.
"It does seem like there’s a lot more community between church techs happening in Facebook and other social media sites," says Banter. "Churches are talking to each other more about doing portable church, sharing experiences and helping each other out."
The shape of the portable church seems to be shifting as well. Banter says, "Churches are making a shift towards the smaller church movement. We’re seeing a lot of churches that used to do big multi-site campuses that are now doing things smaller and simpler. We're providing a lot of systems that are simpler and not the big show' that churches used to prefer. The focus has shifted to building communities that are smaller and more intentional."
Clearly, today's portable churches are experiencing the benefits from technological advancements. It will be exciting to see what the next few years of advancement will hold for the future of churches on the move.
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Church On Wheels
Portable Church Industries