Re-Post: Guest Post: How to Use Amps and Iso Cabs on Stage, Part 2

Throughout the month of April I am taking a break from writing in order to focus on other things.  As a result I am re-posting some of my most popular articles.

Kevin McPeakKevin McPeak is the Creative Director at EastLake Church in Chula Vista, California. He is a proponent of both tubes and digits.  You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinmcpeak or find him on Facebook.  Kevin has kindly agreed to lend us some of his expertise in technical issues and will be posting from time to time.

Part 1 is available here.

Q: I play electric guitar and love my amp sound, but we donʼt use amps on stage because of stage volume. Is there some way I can use my amp so it does not impact stage volume?

Well, first off, letʼs identify the problem, because that will help us find a solution. The reasons that our mix engineer wants us to keep stage volume under control are many:

  • stage volume blurs front of house (FOH) mix clarity
  • stage volume creates ever-increasing demand for volume from stage monitors
  • stage volume leads to “hot spots” and “cold spots” where instruments are either too loud or too soft
  • stage volume dramatically limits the FOH engineerʼs ability to create a thoughtfully and musically designed mix.

So letʼs be clear: amps arenʼt the problem in and of themselves; the problem is that amps tend to get treated like personal monitors and turned up too loud. Furthermore, many amps donʼt sound their best without running at a decent volume. How the heck do we solve the problem?

Letʼs say that youʼve already got a combo amp – in other words, a single unit that has both the amplifier section and the speaker – that you love and you donʼt want to purchase an external cabinet or haul around something big. What can you do then?

In our case, we have an all-tube Mesa Boogie combo amp that our electric guitar 2 volunteers generally use. Although the amp can power an external cabinet, the amp already contains a perfectly matched built in 12” speaker, so we asked one of our volunteers to construct an iso cabinet for the amp.

This is what he made:

Iso Cube front

Iso Cube back

As you can see, itʼs effectively a four-sided cube. (For those of you trying to figure this out, a cube is a six-sided object with equally-sized sides. In the case of the iso cabinet above, we have a cube with no bottom and one side missing.

Okay, itʼs really not a cube because it doesn’t have equal sides. But I slept in Geometry class the day we talked about six-sided objects with unequally sized sides, so you will just have to go with it being called a “cube.”  If any of you would like to educate me as to the correct term for a six-sided object comprised of unequally sized sides, Iʼm happy to listen. If I can stay awake.)

You can see that the idea is to point the business end of the amp into the box. The top and interior walls are lined with sound baffling material and the floor takes care of itself by being carpeted. (If your stage floor is a hard, flat surface, you may want to throw a small rug in there.) This all works together to create a tremendous reduction in the sound output from the amp.

However, there is a catch in this case, and itʼs a very important one: this combo amp has an open-back cabinet.

Front side:

Mesa Boogie Amp frontBack side:

Mesa Boogie Amp back

As you can see, the back of the amp is open. (Thus the name, right?) Many guitarists prefer the tone produced by open-back amps. Open-back cabinets create a challenge because the back of the cabinet emits quite a lot of sound; putting an isolation box on the front of the amp only solves part of the problem of lowering stage volume.

In our case, we solved this problem by placing the amp off-stage, behind a thick curtain, and against a Tectum wall.  You could also create a matching iso box for the back side of the amp to limit the sound coming off the open-back side.  Make sure, however, that you allow sufficient airflow in and out of the amp because the amp will overheat and fail without airflow.

Have another technical question you would like Kevin to answer?  Post your question in the comments.

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Re-Post: Guest Post: How to Use Amps and Iso Cabs on Stage, Part 1

Throughout the month of April I am taking a break from writing in order to focus on other things.  As a result I am re-posting some of my most popular articles.

Kevin McPeak is the Creative Director at EastLake Church in Chula Vista, California. He isKevin McPeak a proponent of both tubes and digits.  You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinmcpeak or find him on Facebook.  Kevin has kindly agreed to lend us some of his expertise in technical issues and will be posting from time to time.

Q: I play electric guitar and love my amp sound, but we donʼt use amps on stage because of stage volume. Is there some way I can use my amp so it does not impact stage volume?

Well, first off, letʼs identify the problem, because that will help us find a solution. The reasons that our mix engineer wants us to keep stage volume under control are many:

  • stage volume blurs front of house (FOH) mix clarity
  • stage volume creates ever-increasing demand for volume from stage monitors
  • stage volume leads to “hot spots” and “cold spots” where instruments are either too loud or too soft
  • stage volume dramatically limits the FOH engineerʼs ability to create a thoughtfully and musically designed mix.

So letʼs be clear: amps arenʼt the problem in and of themselves; the problem is that amps tend to get treated like personal monitors and turned up too loud. Furthermore, many amps donʼt sound their best without running at a decent volume. How the heck do we solve the problem?

First, you may want to give amp modeling a shot. The technology of amp modeling has come a long way in the past few years, so if you tried it before and you didnʼt like it, you might want to try it again. The versatility and tone quality of most amp modelers has gotten quite good.

But letʼs say that youʼre like me and youʼre one of those finicky tube amp people. Youʼve spent a lot of time on your tone and have finally found something you want to stick with, but itʼs dependent upon that magical combination of guitar, whiz-bang pedals, and amp. And at least for me, part of getting the tone I like involves turning up the amp a bit and letting the tubes do what they do, and that requires me to run at a higher volume. When thatʼs the case, what can you do to keep your tone intact but keep the FOH engineer from throwing darts at you?

A few years back, I decided to solve this by purchasing an isolation cabinet for my beloved amp. An isolation cabinet – also commonly called an iso cab – is an enclosed box within which a speaker and a microphone are mounted. The iso cab also commonly features sound baffling to help reduce the amount of sound that emanates from the cabinet once itʼs closed up.

What does it look like? Iʼm glad you asked. First off, hereʼs how it looks from the outside (itʼs the box on the bottom):

As you can see, it functions much like any other speaker cabinet in an important way: It gives me something to set my amp on. (After all, we couldnʼt put these tube amps directly on the floor, could we?) Bear in mind that the cabinet is a completely enclosed box. But how do we see whatʼs inside? Check out the picture below:

Once you open up the cabinet door, you can see the microphone and stand that are used to pick up the natural tone of the amp and speaker. (See below for a closer look.)

The idea is then to take the microphoneʼs signal from the iso cab and send it back to the mixer, where the FOH engineer can use as much – or sometimes as little – of it as he/she needs to create a workable mix. But the use of the iso cab allows me to open up and let the amp sing a little bit without generating angry looks from everyone else in the room.

For the tone purists, itʼs reasonable to ask if the iso cabs alter the sound in any way. The short answer is that they do. My experience has been that iso cabs can inhibit spaciousness a bit, but thatʼs not unreasonable if you consider that the sound is being picked up in a small, padded box. However, for the purposes of live sound, the benefit thatʼs gained by using a favorite amp more than offsets a modest alteration in tone.

So, if youʼve got a favorite tube amp that you want to use in a live setting but your FOH engineer keeps giving you the stinkeye when you bring it in, itʼs time to start thinking about getting yourself an isolation cabinet so you can turn it up to 11 and let that amp sing.

Have another technical question you would like Kevin to answer?  Post your question in the comments.

Devotions for the Artist

The word “devotions” has gotten a bad rap.  “Devotions” are often tied to boring rituals of Bible reading and long prayers, when the “boring” piece is usually the fault of the person doing the Bible reading or praying.

God is certainly not boring; he is anything but.  So how do we resurrect the practice of devotions, and how can artists make this essential discipline a unique expression of their gifts and calling?

Bible

I have had the blessing of growing up in a Christ-centered home with parents who value and pursue a relationship with God.  Since my childhood I have heard and seen them listen to and read the Bible, pray, and do ministry.

My own experience has followed theirs.  I have never second-guessed the need to read the Bible or pray, but I have often missed the opportunity devotions provide to me as an artist.

I remember many sessions of prayer and Bible reading where my mind would go wandering through a to-do list, through a movie landscape, or into a concert hall.  That is, if I had not fallen asleep already!

My dad speaks of the reality of joy in a discipline being on the other side of perseverance, but I often had difficulty finding that joy.  I seemed to get lost in the perseverance stage.

Recently, however, I have found a new joy and peace in my relationship with God, and that joy and peace has filled my devotions more and more.  Here are a few things to consider if you are looking to improve your time with God.

General Considerations

  • Find a quiet place by yourself and away from distraction.  I find it best for me to use an analog Bible (read: paper and cover book) but I do sometimes use my YouVersion app.  The less electronics the better, which will take some discipline at first.  Eventually your heart and mind will crave that silence and freedom from being “plugged in.”
  • Set your heart on knowing God.  I do not mean knowing as in going to the library, but knowing as in knowing his heart and knowing how he looks at and reaches out to you.
  • Ask him to reveal himself to you before you read the Bible or pray.  He usually doesn’t show up in a vision, but you may find your heart and mind drawn to particular words in the Bible passage you are reading.  The Bible promises that if you seek God with all your heart you will find him.

For the Artist

Here is where devotions become really fun.  The options are endless.

Just a note for the perfectionists among us: Don’t judge your devotional art harshly.  God is not looking for perfection in your relationship with him; he is looking for your heart.  

  • Write a song based on a trait of God you find in the Bible passage you are reading.
  • Paint a picture to represent your prayer to God.
  • Write your prayers in poetic form.
  • Build something out of Play-Doh or Legos to represent your response to God.
  • Rewrite a Bible passage in your own words.

Today

This morning I wrote a song based on God’s pursuing love.  That phrase set in my heart yesterday and showed up again in the Psalms I read this morning.  Since I said that God is not about perfection, I am going to post the lyrics here.  They are only an hour old.

Pursuing God

Verse 1
Love of God so great and strong,
triumphant over fear;
reigning over hope and faith
you sing salvation’s song.

Chorus
Pursuing us through sin and death
and climbing Calvary’s tree,
I will sing my whole life long
of how you rescued me.

Verse 2
Leaving heaven’s throne and crown
for swaddling clothes and hay,
laying down his kingly rights
redeeming love came down.

Verse 3
Love exchanged a golden rod
for rugged wood and nails,
set aside his purple robe
for clothes of dust and blood.

Verse 4
Love destroyed the chains of death,
escaped the tomb of stone.
Power of God and Son of Man,
your love has rescued us.

Do something artistic during your devotions and post the result below.  Remember, perfection is not the focus; responding to God is what matters.

A Grid for Choosing Music

Recently my senior pastor and I were discussing music for our church.  Choosing what music to keep and what to get rid of, what to introduce and what to pass over, can be daunting.  You have to create a grid to guide you or your selections could become haphazard and unbalanced.

In the midst of that discussion a favorite scripture verse came to mind, one that has guided many of my worship discussions:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Mark 12:30 (ESV)

Jesus is telling people how they should love God with their entire existence.  As I reviewed a few other translations I found some expansions of this text:

  • All your heart: your devotion, your focus, your motivation
  • All your soul: your whole life
  • All your mind: your mental and moral understanding
  • All your strength: your energy

I have always felt that if a congregation truly grasps this scripture and applies it to their daily lives, worship in that congregation will explode.

This time, however, I saw another application of this verse.  If we want our congregations to worship God with all their devotion, with their whole lives, with all of their moral and mental understanding, and with all of their energy, our music must support these goals.

Here are a few applications:

Heart

  • Songs that help and teach people to love God with the proper motivation.
  • Songs that help and teach people to focus on God in the middle of a very distracting culture.

Soul

  • Songs that teach people a theology of lifestyle worship.
  • Songs that help people worship as they work throughout the week.
  • Songs that embrace the full spectrum of life experiences, from laments to celebrations.

Mind

  • Songs that teach good doctrine.
  • Songs that preach the Gospel.
  • Songs that reshape our understanding of being made in the image of God.
  • Songs about the cross.

Strength

  • High energy and celebrative songs
  • Songs that teach us to rely on Christ rather than on ourselves.
  • Songs on strength from weakness, and that teach us that God’s grace is enough for us.

What other applications do you find for this passage of scripture?  What other grids do you use to select congregational songs?

The Musician’s Most Important Skill

Whether you know it or not, your kindergarten teacher or your mother taught you the most important musical skill there is.  You definitely must have natural giftings in order to be a good musician, but without this rudimentary and critical skill you will be up a creek without a paddle.

While we were growing up almost everything was cool.

“Guess what, daddy!  I can say my ABCs!”
“Listen to me count to 100!”
“I can run a mile in 12 minutes!!”

And every parent’s favorite:

“Look, daddy!  I went potty!”

Once we grow up we take these kinds of things for granted.  And we should, especially if we are talking about bathroom habits!

Sometimes, however, we become too cool or grown up to do important things.

Like counting.

Somewhere along the way to adulthood we get the idea that acknowledging our need to count in music is like saying we are musical infants.  Suddenly we feel like the kid trying to play bass drum in Mr. Holland’s Opus, waiting for the teacher to announce, “Congratulations!  You have found the beat!”

Even worse is being asked to count out loud.  Then we feel like kindergarteners again.

The best musicians are excellent counters.  Robert Shaw was famous for making his choirs count sing (instead of singing the words you sing the beat – 1 & 2 e & a, etc.).  Take a moment to listen one of the spirituals on Shaw’s CD entitled Amazing Grace; you can set your watch by the crisp time.

Here are a few benefits of reverting to deliberate, audible counting when you are learning or review music:

  1. The puzzle makes sense.  When you meticulously count everything out, you suddenly discover how the intricate parts of the music fit together because the parts line up properly.
  2. An “ensemble sound” emerges.  When everyone in the ensemble or section or band is precisely together the sound goes from a collection of individual sounds to one full and cohesive sound.
  3. Your singing is punctual.  Let’s state the obvious: when you count you start and stop at the right times.  Simple enough?
  4. You find your weak spots.  Counting reveals your musical blind spots, spots that had gone unnoticed up to that time because you were not being precise.
  5. You are acting like a professional.  Contrary to what you may think, counting well is one of the marks of a professional.  Orchestral timpanists and brass players often have to count hundreds of measures between passages.  They get paid to count correctly.

The next time you are learning or reviewing a piece, intentionally and audibly count through it and see what happens to the quality of your musicianship.

Post the results of your experiment in the comments section below.

How to Create a Music Video

In today’s world anyone with a little bit of creativity and the right tools can create a video.  All you have to do is upload photos, choose music and effects, and there you have it.

Here are just a few of the online options:

OneTrueMedia
Animoto
Stupeflix

Here are a few apps:

ptch
Socialcam

If you want to create a music video and craft every piece of it yourself, however, have no fear; iMovie is here.  I am certain there are similar programs, but this is what I use.

Not long ago my pastor and I were planning for upcoming services and he mentioned a particular song that highlighted the exact points he wanted to emphasize.  I am not a video expert by any means, but I said, “Wouldn’t that be great as a music video, with still pictures to highlight the key themes in the song?”

He jumped on the idea and before I knew it I had been drafted to create a music video for the services.

I love video, I love music, and I love the music videos that my volunteers and employees have created in the past.  I, however, had only created one brief music video up until that point, and I barely knew the capabilities of iMovie.

Incidentally, by music video I mean a single song accompanied by appropriate pictures and snippets of the lyrics in order to heighten the effectiveness of the song.

I dove in and I loved the process, so I thought I would share some pointers and resources here in case you are trying this for the first time.

  1. Begin with the music.  This is the obvious step, but we can miss it all the same.  In my case I imported the song into Garageband and trimmed off the long gradual introduction.  We wanted to end the song before the final chorus, so I trimmed that off, too, and then looped a final phrase to make an echo effect as the volume died out.  Then I exported the final track.
  2. Import the music track into iMovie (or your preferred software).
  3. Listen and take notes.  Next I listened to the song.  A lot.  I imagined what emotions were happening between the lines and what circumstances might lead to a particular lyrical image, and then noted what obvious images were stated in the lyrics.
  4. Find images.  This step will take you the most time.  After taking good notes as you listened to the song you should have a general idea of what kinds of pictures you need.  Finding just the right photo at the right resolution and for the right price is the challenge.
    1. If “free” is your necessary price, here are two sites I found greatly useful (thank you, Frank De Luccio!): www.morguefile.com and www.sxc.hu.  Both of these sites feature free high resolution photos.  Warning: be careful as you search for images.  You can run into inappropriate images if you are not careful in how you search.  Also do not just pull photos off of the web; purchase photos or use clearly free photos.
  5. Import and place images.  Once you have found the images and imported them into your iMovie project you will need to do several things:
    1. Order the pictures to match the lyrics they represent.
    2. Adjust the timings of the photos to transition on the beat of the music.  Transitions feel “off” when they are not synced to the beat of the music.
    3. Choose the right transition effect.  Some effects are more attention getting and time-consuming than others; choose the transition that fits the situation.  Usually a simple dissolve is best in the middle of a verse or chorus, while something more dramatic can accent section changes in the song.
    4. Fine tune the Ken Burns effect.  Ken Burns is known for his use of zooming in on a still picture to create the illusion of movement.  iMovie naturally sets this for you, but you may want to adjust the start and stop frames to highlight a particular feature in the photo.
  6. Insert lyrical snippets.  The final step is pulling key phrases out of the lyrics to actually bring into the video.  At some points I pull out a single word.  One photo I used was a washed out black and white image of a woman with her head down.  As this photo came up the singer talked about the first lie he told, so I had the word “lie” slide in and out of that picture.  A following lyric spoke about healing, so the single word “heal” slid in and out of the next photo of two children embracing.  iMovie has many different ways of showing words over images; just choose the one that fits your picture and the mood you are trying to convey.
  7. Export to DVD.  You are not finished until the project has been rendered to an actual DVD for viewing.  I made the mistake of missing this the first time I tried using iMovie several years ago.

You do not need a college degree to make a music video; all you need is time, and lots of it.  Please on spend 5-8 hours per minute of final viewing length.  If your final video is 4 minutes long, expect to spend a minimum of 20 hours to get a high quality result.

I felt a huge satisfaction when my pastor used the video I created as the culminating point in his message.  The video enabled him to say more clearly what he wanted to say, and that was my goal.

Have fun with it.  Recruit colleagues and friends to research photos for you.  Take a chance.  You can do it!

What video editing tips do you have for newbies?

How to Evaluate Your Church’s Music

Every worship ministry leader should evaluate the congregational music they are teaching their church, but what should be the criteria?

  • Style?
  • Tempo?
  • Guitar-led versus keyboard-led?
  • Singability?
  • Ease of learning for the band?
  • Newness?

Blue Hollow-Body Electric Guitar

The list of possible criteria is endless.  Every person would probably have a different take on this question simply from personal experience and preference.

In every church job I have had to evaluate our music to see what was missing or in need of shoring up, and I have yet to completely figure it out myself.  There are, however, several criteria that stand out to me.

Doctrine

Teach the whole truth of Scripture through your music.

Over the centuries people have formed their views about God based on their songs.  The Solid Rock taught them that Christ is a reliable, faithful, and dependable God.  Higher Ground taught them that they needed to be pressing forward in their walk with Christ in anticipation of his coming.  It Is Well taught them that even in the midst of extremely difficult times, God was with them.

Theology and doctrine are better caught than taught, and so we must select our music with care, making certain that what we are impressing on people’s hearts through music clearly speaks the truth.  Your Grace Is Enough is a standard reminding us that salvation is through grace and not by works.  In Christ Alone reminds us that Christ is the only way.  Cornerstone gives us the truth of The Solid Rock in a refreshing current setting.

Genre

Keep a range of styles or genres in your church’s music rotation.

Every church has a distinct fingerprint in regards to musical style.  My friend’s church in California is explicitly a rock-n-roll church.  The last church I worked at focused on current and cutting edge music while remaining open to different styles.

The church where I work now has a fingerprint comprised of classical and classic worship elements in one service and more contemporary elements in another service.  Diversity is highly valued, however.

Never paint yourself into a corner stylistically.  Try new things.  Paint with more than one color when it comes to style.

Tempo

Life has its ups and downs, so the tempi of your songs should vary.

I find it helpful to divide songs up into Fast, Medium, and Slow songs.  Just doing Fast songs in a service feels like telling people to perk up even if they are having a bad day.  Playing all Slow songs is just depressing.  A steady diet of Medium tempo songs is like drinking lukewarm water.

Just as in the area of doctrine you should embrace the whole of Scripture, so through tempo you should acknowledge the span of emotions and life experiences.  A response should be in keeping with the element evoking the response.  A delicate moment should include softer music, and celebration should be high energy and passionate.

Singability

Allow for more current syncopated rhythms and wide ranges, but make certain that the range and the rhythms of the melody are singable.

If the people do not sing with us, we have failed.  Recently I introduced All Things New, from Elevation Church.  The lyrics have a good message and we needed a song in a slower tempo.

The melody, however, has problems.  The range is extremely wide and the melody is not terribly comfortable to sing, so we probably will not bring that song back.

A song like O Praise Him from David Crowder, while having an extremely syncopated melody, works because the melody is strong and moves somewhere.  The range is reasonable as well, and the message is good.

These four areas are my primary grid for evaluating new songs.  I look at other things as well, but these are the primary touchpoints for me.

What criteria do you use to evaluate the standard worship music at your church?