upgrade planning, church, audio, installation, Tennessee, LifeWay
An early photo of the Music City Room at LifeWay’s new corporate headquarters.

Upgrade Planning: Five Steps to Focus on for Worthwhile Update

Most tech guys that I know, including myself, get caught up in a situation where something fails, and you need fix something quickly and do something in a pinch.

When LifeWay does a livestream these days, we have seen up to 60-plus different types of devices by which users are watching our content at that moment. 

How does this help me plan for an upgrade? 

At first glance, it doesn’t. I firmly believe, though, that looking back on the past is a great way to learn for the future.

Over just the last 10 years, technology has dramatically changed.

To put it in perspective, Business Insider highlighted a few monumental changes that have taken place over that time span.

For example, in 2010 (which feels like yesterday), the original iPad was released. ETC and Samsung introduced a couple of cellphones that had 4G capabilities, but it wasn’t until 2012, when Apple released 4G (not even LTE) on the iPhone 5.

As with consumer technology over the last decade, AV has also made great strides.

We have seen digital mixing become a real possibility not only for large churches, but financially for small ones as well. Nine years ago, the first generation of PreSonus StudioLive mixers were introduced to the market. That was followed a few years later by the Behringer X32. Since then, the market has been flooded with several mixers that all hover around the same price point and all serve their specific niche.

Audio is not the only thing that has significantly changed over this time period.

For example, also nine years ago, television went from analog to digital. The NPR website has a very interesting timeline highlighting significant moments in this process, and I can vividly remember President Barack Obama talking about this very issue on national TV.

Fast forward to today.

Users are no longer just viewing video content on their televisions. They are viewing on multiple devices and expect the same high-level quality of that content on those other devices.

So looking back to what changes have transpired with technology over the last 10 years, upgrading a system should not be seen as just buying what is hot right now.

Recognize that a good upgrade helps you for the next upgrade, and a good upgrade leaves you room to change as technology continues to change.

Keeping those past historical examples in mind, I am going to provide five steps that you should take when planning for an upgrade. These steps may seem monotonous at times, but they can add significant value to the finished product. 

Step 1: Talk with Your Staff and or Leadership 

While this is formally known as a ‘Needs Analysis,’ you really just need to talk to the staff in your church, the decisionmakers, and ask them questions about what they like and what they want.

This does not have to be technical. In fact, I encourage staying away from technical discussions on how to accomplish something. This can lead down rabbit holes, and ultimately leave you with having learned little from what was being discussed.

Instead, these conversations might include discussions relating to the future direction of the church and how technology can help get it there. You may hear requests within these conversations, such as seeking to annotate over sermon slides, or wanting to start livestreaming during the sermon.

As odd as it may seem, record these conversations and document them.

Ask direct and indirect questions.

The goal of this discussion is not to hammer down a real budget, or to get specifics. You really want to get a general, real-person definition of what each person participating in the discussion would like to see.

At the end of all of your discussions, compile it into a single document to have something to look at throughout the design and installation phase.  

Step 2: Evaluate Your Infrastructure 

Infrastructure is one of the most important aspects of a system, and this is a good time to look at the types and distances of cable that you have already installed. Document these items. These are all critical, as you start to get into higher bandwidth signals that will come with higher definition video and higher channel counts.

Next, look into your electrical infrastructure. If you have multiple power strips that are daisy chained together, this would be a great time to get an electrician in and update your building. Electrical requirements can often be overlooked, but having the appropriate capacities in the right locations can make or break a system.

Additionally, look at the locations of the critical pieces in the system. This includes, but may not be limited to, your mix position, rack rooms, speakers, and image viewing systems. Your mix position needs to be in the same space that you are mixing for. If your mix position is, for all practical purposes in another room, this would be a good time to consider moving it. Check your rack room location for possible distance limitation issues, HVAC considerations, and access restrictions.

If you need a speaker upgrade, will the current hanging location work for a new system, or will specific accommodations need to be made? For your image viewing systems, you might take into consideration the weight of an LED wall, or any possible obstructions that might be made by switching aspect ratios of your screens. 

Step 3: Evaluate Your System 

Most tech guys that I know, including myself, get caught up in a situation where something fails, and you need fix something quickly and do something in a pinch. Then, I say “I’ll come back and fix that for real tomorrow.” And that was three years ago... 

Years of this can lead you to believe that your system is in bad shape and it may appear that something is performing inadequately, when it really only needs some TLC.  Double check your system with any system drawings that you may have. This is time to get a real good picture of everything in your system. It is also a good time to ask questions and research any gear that you might not have a complete understanding of what it does. 

Step 4: Keep Budget Out of Mind 

Before you get wild ideas in your mind, I don’t mean forget about it completely. I mean that you should look at upgrades that you need.

Every device out there has its own successes and failures.

Perform a risk analysis on your choices. If you need a product that does x and you can choose from a, b, and c, take into account the risk of each device. Ask yourself how reliable is this device? Can I depend on it to work when I need it to? Can a volunteer operate this with minimal training?

Some pieces of gear are going to be expensive and some are going to be inexpensive, but by eliminating cost from the initial process of selection, this helps you to look at the reasons for each device, and why you actually need it.

After you have looked at all your gear, then put a price to it. From there, if cuts are required, you will have justification for each piece of gear and can open up a real honest dialogue with your leadership about functionality or reliability of a system, after cuts are made.

In my experience, leadership is usually open to communication if you can justify the reasoning in a way that makes sense to them. 

Step 5: Aesthetics, Aesthetics, Aesthetics 

Jimenez Lai, a UCLA faculty member, has said, “Aesthetics is both politics and philosophy, a series of agreements and disagreements between subjective minds.” I find this to be so fitting in every location that I have ever worked.

With AV, it is best to be invisible.

My favorite thing to tell people new to the industry, is that you do your best work when no one knows you are there.

This being said, physics is physics.

You can't put your speakers in another room, and you have to have somewhere to mix from that is in the environment you are mixing for. These are obviously extreme issues, but some of the smaller ones are making sure that your cable pulls are the appropriate color, if they are exposed to the public. Make sure that your equipment blends into their surroundings, and is as little as an eyesore as possible, while creating a neat and tidy environment.| 

Overview 

Planning an upgrade is a lot of work.

It can be exhausting and frustrating.

It can feel like you are taking one step forward and three steps back sometimes, but taking the time up front to discover your system and fully understanding what one has, can make the overall process a little simpler.

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