All posts by David Henry

Simple Rack-Mount, Rental Proof, AVL Control

The finished product!

One of my biggest frustrations for a long time as a volunteer tech director has been rentals.

We have a smaller sanctuary that can hold around 100 people, and the church loves to rent it out to various eclectic groups. I have no problem with this – it’s great extra money for the church to improve the facilities with, and it provides work for the custodian, etc.

Rentals can use 1 microphone and plug in a device to play music, which the custodian can set for them. If they want more, myself or one of our audio guys gets hired to come in.

Often, the audio system or computer gets messed with and it creates a HUGE headache for me. Things get unplugged, many knobs get turned, or buttons get pressed and then we have issues on Sunday morning.

It’s my simplest room, so my volunteers in there aren’t always knowledgeable to troubleshoot. Plus, I inherited this system from previous tech directors, and nothing is labeled. Ugh.

The Task – Make it Simple, Make it Safe

My biggest goal with the re-do of the control area (FOH) was to:

  • Make it simpler for volunteers to run. The audio console was an Allen and Heath MixWizard 16. While it’s a great console, in my past 5+ years serving here, I’ve NEVER used more than 6 channels. We just don’t do complex things in this room.
  • Lock it down: I needed to get all of my connections and important gear into some kind of lockable rack with venting so that it could be locked while rentals used the facility.
  • Keep it cheap: Oh, did I mention there was no budget to do this…

So, where to begin?

The Rack

I started with a cabinet that was already built into FOH and already had a lock bracket on it to hold a simple padlock.

This particular cabinet was somewhere in the neighborhood of 30″ wide and 20-some inches tall below the counter. And it was already painted black!

I wish I had taken more pictures of the construction, but as you can see in the pictures, I built-out a simple 2×4 frame for the rack rails which I bought on Amazon.

You could use thinner wood (2×3), but we had scrap 2×4 around, so that’s what I used.

This part is my biggest regret about the project. While it was much cheaper to do it this way, I probably should have built a simple pine rack (pine/whitewood 1×12 wood, cut and joined) and mounted the rails into it.

Using this construction method meant that it was very difficult to get behind/beside the rack to wire it. But the price was right!

The Gear

Inside the rack, I mounted:

Outside of the rack sat our wireless units, which I’d love to get into a rack on the counter at a later point to use when we do events outdoors. But for now a basic “surfboard” mounting works.

Putting it All Together

I began my day by pulling all of the gear out of the FOH area and wrapped up all the cables. Over the years a LOT of extra cables had found their way into the system – it was a definite nightmare!

Then, I stretched out the critical wires that head to the stage and routed them to their new location. Thankfully, they were all long enough. I had somewhat checked beforehand but was glad there were no surprises.

Then I mounted the rack shelf (front and back mounts!) and audio console in. I figured out the correct height and then pulled out the console to bring the snake cables in.

Because the snake was much larger than needed, I simply ran it above the console and screwed it up to the countertop with some conduit clamps.

I then mounted and plugged in everything else, with the power amplifier last. I fired it up, tested everything, and mounted in my LED lights.

For those, I simply staple them to the wood frame of the rack with a standard construction stapler. It’s simple, and it’s not going anywhere! The adhesive on most of these LED strips isn’t great, so stapling is needed to hold them up.

And it’s done! Now my volunteers can come in, power it all on and run the service – no more monkey business from rentals!

Best of all, it’s been a few months since I installed it, and I am happy to say that we have had no “surprises” from rentals. Previously, we would have issues at least once per month!

I call that a win!

Custom DIY XLR Stage Boxes on the Cheap

Our stage was a mess, and we needed a fix.

Yes, our stage was a mess!

To give you a little bit of background, we previously would set up and tear down the complete audio system, stage, and chairs every week.

But now we don’t.

In the quest to turn our gym into a permanent, non-gym sanctuary, we don’t tear down anymore.

With that comes a bit of a problem.

Before, we would tear down all the individual cables from our snake boxes to the individual instrument positions every week. Now, we leave them up every week.

Which means after about 18 months, it was an insane mess.

We all knew this, but truth be told we didn’t really do anything about it until we had to.

If we needed to add another channel and we couldn’t find the cable, we just run a new cable,  Or move something else and reuse it.

Then we had a rental in the building. We have rentals from time to time come, and generally, everything is fine. But we had a reoccurring problem with this one rental, because they would leave the stage to be quite of a mess.

So, I sat down with one of our pastors and started explaining why this happens.   This brought me to the conclusion that we really, really needed to fix our stages wiring.

I just couldn’t hold someone from the outside up to the standard of trying to keep this stage neat and clean, when the cords were a huge mess underneath.

Let’s Make Some Stage Boxes!

My biggest goal with these stage boxes, was to do it as inexpensively as possible, while still using high enough quality parts that will have these things for years into the future. But also keeping in mind that we don’t tear down or set up that much, so it doesn’t need to be professional quality!

Because of that, I decided to try out some wall plates and XLR connectors from a company called US Bargain Sound.   They offer these on eBay, and through their own website for a really great price.

Plus, 4-channel stage boxes were about perfect for what we needed at various places around our stage.

I mounted the wall plates into electrical boxes.

I used full-size switch boxes so that there wasn’t hang over the edge from the wall plate.

This meant that I had to drill holes in the wall plates to make them mount.   Not perfectly elegant, but highly functional.

Tip – I started drilling from the backside for a more accurate cut and less damage to the black powder coating on the front of the box.

The Build

To begin, I spray painted the outsides of the electrical boxes black.

While they dried, I stretched out a tape measure down the hallway in my house.

My longest stage box was around twenty feet so I needed a space where I can stretch something out that was 20 feet long.

The next Step – Techflex.

I used some generic brand Techflex that I got on Amazon, to bundle my cables together so I cut that to size next.   A good note here is that you’ll want to set your Techflex to the total length of the snake and cut it there.

Your wires will need to be longer, to accommodate for the wire inside the box and the fan and on the other end.

After that, I measured and cut my wire. I used West Penn 452, and I found the best price on Herman Pro AV.

For my stage, I use about 350 feet of wire to do 5 stage boxes.  As I mentioned above, I added about 2 ft of extra wire to each stage box to accommodate for the fantail, and inside the Box.

It’s a little on the short side, but I knew that in my situation the male ends of the wires didn’t need to have a lot of reach.

I also used my wire labels to label each channel of these 4-channel snakes. Because I was doing 20 channels total, I use numbers 1 through 20 on my various snakes.

Now, it was time to stuff the wires through the techflex. I used my favorite Harbor Freight fishing sticks to slide the wires through the techflex. This is highly, highly, highly recommended because they don’t fish well on themselves!

When you’re done, it’s best to use heat shrink to finish off the end of the techflex. I thought I had the right size heat shrink, but it ended up that I didn’t, so I just use black electrical tape at the end to finish off the connection and it looks fine.

In a few years it’ll probably get goo-y, but I can deal with that then…

Next, it was solder time. I began by soldering the individual XLR’s onto the fantail end.

Notice that I taped the techflex with some electrical tape somewhat loosely around each end. This is important because cut techflex will easily unravel if you don’t tape it.

Once I soldered all of the XLR’s, it was now time to solder the XLR’s on the wall plates. Be sure to check that you’re attaching the correct wires to each plug, so that the order is still logical when you turn it over for use.

Last, to finish it off I made sure to tighten the clamps down on the electrical boxes, label all of the boxes with nice labels, and of course test everything!

Full Parts List:

(5) XLR Wall Plates from US Bargain Sound on eBay (1 per stage box)

(20) XLR Male Plugs from US Bargain Sound on eBay (4 per stage box)

West Penn 452 mic/line wire – I bought it here because it was the best price. It took awhile to ship, but I ordered ahead so it was okay.

3/4″ Flexible Sleeving – 100′ – I could have probably got it done with a smaller size, but this felt fine (not too big), and was simple to fish through.

2-Gang Old Work Metal Boxes

3/4″ Cable Clamps (1 per box)

Cheap Black Spray Paint

Electrical Tape

Wire Marker Book

Label Maker

Tie Line – to tie up the stage boxes nice and neat when not in use (optional)

Running Cat5e / Cat6 Network Cable – The Easy Way

I love network cable, it has a very special place in my heart, and in the church I tech direct at.

Why?

Simply put, it’s versatile and inexpensive.  You can run digital or analog audio down it with no problems.  You can run DMX.  You can run network protocols as well, and it can run video too.

When I inherited my position, I found that there was Cat5e already strung all over the church, some of it unused!

Today, we’re going running the cable itself and putting the connectors on.

Does this have a high perceived “geek factor”?  Yes!

But, if you want to save time, frustration and money when running this cable – keep reading! It’s easier than you think!

Step 1: What Cable Should I Buy?

If you type bulk network cable into Amazon, you’re going to get about a million results and you might be wondering “What the best is for you?”

There are going to be cheap options, slightly more expensive options, and the latest in greatest heavy-duty tour grade Cat6 cable.

First, let’s talk category. Back in the day, we used Cat5 cable. Cat5 cable is untwisted pair and was commonly used for data and phones… But we don’t see that anymore.

Cat5e

It’s likely you’re familiar with Cat5e.

Cat5e was the most common type of networking cable for a good portion of my life. In theory, it can run 1 gigabit-per-second no problem., which should be fast enough for pretty much anything we’re doing today.

This is also a great place for a short aside – cable speed.  The speed listed on any cable is going to be the speed rating at full, maximum length.  Any time you’re shorter than that, you should be able to get faster speeds.

Cat6a

Then, there’s Cat6a cable. Cat6a cable is good for up to 10 gigabits-per-second, is a slightly thicker wire, and also has a separator in the middle of the cable.

This separator makes it a little stiffer but helps keep the wires separate so that the data has less interference.

I didn’t talk about Cat6 (non “A”) cable because it doesn’t have much of a speed advantage over Cat5e, though many sources claim it does.  If you’re going to go with Cat6, go with a Cat6a variety – otherwise it’s generally not worth it!

At the time of this writing, Cat6a is about twice the cost as Cat5e.  But, it’s still relatively inexpensive, at around 20 cents per foot, and it can run a whole lot of data over the long haul!

Cat7

Now, we also have Cat7 cable. Cat 7 allows you to run and a slightly higher speed and seems to be better with processing a ton of data over time. However, at this point, all the research I’ve done seems to tell me that we don’t need Cat7 cable unless we’re building a datacenter…which I’m not!

Why I Choose Cat6a

I am all about being as future-proof as possible, as long as it makes financial sense.

Yes, Cat6a does cost more than Cat5e. However, it’s not a massive amount more, and when you think about the time it takes you to re-run cable in the future, it makes sense to be as future proof as possible!

I personally am very thankful for the previous Tech director who, in 2002, ran Cat5e cable that I can still use throughout the facility today!

Now, back to the Amazon search. If we type in Cat6a Cable, we get a lot of options. The first thing that you’re going to see is cable that is called CCA, and other cable that is called CMR. This may seem like just a few letters that are fairly unimportant, but it actually really matters.

CCA cable is copper clad aluminum. And well the manufacturers of this cable want you to think that it’s a great cable, it’s really not… Not only is it not listed to go inside walls, but it also can’t do POE, or power over ethernet.

Other people have noted that it also is more likely to break and generally just a bad idea to buy. You might save a little money on the short run, but long-term reliability really matters and I don’t want you to be in a bad place a few years down the road!

So, I recommend going with a good Cat6a CMR cable, but if you can’t afford that, look at Cat5e and see if it meets your current needs. It probably does and that’s a good way to save money as opposed to buying 2nd-grade cable!

At this point, you also want to check and see if you need plenum rated cable.

Basically, a plenum is an area in the ceiling where there’s active air flow through your HVAC system. The big disclaimer here is that I’m not an expert, I’m not an integrator, and I’m certainly not a lawyer.

So, if you’re in doubt, buy plenum rated cable and you won’t go wrong. The area in your ceilings may or may not be a plenum, so do your best to find someone who knows whether it is or not.

Not only is using the wrong wire in a plenum against fire code and therefore illegal, if your local building inspector or Fire Marshal takes a look and finds it, you’re going to have to rip it all out and replace it later…which you don’t want to do!

The last thing we want to look at is STP vs. UTP. This defines whether the cable is shielded, or unshielded.

For general computer networking, analog audio, or DMX, you’ll find that unshielded cable works just fine. Not only that but it’s easier to terminate as well.

Shielded cable, on the other hand, may be required if you’re using it as a digital audio snake or for other applications. So be sure to check the manual of whatever device is your connecting especially when you’re connecting audio equipment. Not using shielded cable, and an audio snake situation can cause some real problems that are very distracting!

Step 2: Running the Network Cable

Now that we’ve bought our cable, it’s time to run it through the walls. Generally, you’ve bought some cable that’s probably in a pull box where you just pull the cable out of the box, and as long as the box is upright everything’s going to work great.

You may have also bought cable that’s on a wooden spool, in which case you’re going to want to find something to hang it on so that spool is able to spin freely as you run the cable.  You can often fashion a pretty decent system with a mic stand and 2 chairs…

Regardless, it’s now time to find the best way to get from point A to point B.

You’re going to want to spend some time on this. if you just going a short distance, it may be really obvious what the best route through your ceilings and walls is going to be. But, if you’re going a longer distance, take some time to stick your head up in the ceiling in various places and find the best way to get to where you’re going.

Tools

When you’re running cable, you ideally want to stick your head up through as few ceiling tiles as possible, and you want to make as few holes in walls as possible.

For this reason, you’re going to want to pick up a fish tape, and some fish sticks. At least that’s what I call them.

I buy them at Harbor Freight and they work great. Plus, if I break them(especially the fish sticks), They’re really cheap so it’s easy to replace.

These tools will allow you to easily fish the tape out, or if you can see in a pretty straight line use the sticks, and then attach your wire with some electrical tape (use plenty!), and carefully pull the wire back through in the direction that you’re going.

Depending on how far you go you may need to pull a bunch of wire and part way, then pull your bunch the rest of the way.  This may take some time…

It’s also worth noting that if you think you might run more wire through the same path in the future, also pull a bare fish line.

Nylon fish line like this is really inexpensive, and we’ll save you a bunch of time in the future. Also, if you’re running through a conduit, fish line is a lifesaver!

Get the wire from point A to point B, and leave a little extra at each end for when you go to do the final termination, or putting the plugs on.

Step 3: Terminating (Putting Ends On) the Network Cable

All right, this is the part of the wiring that at first was the most painful for me.

But, when I learned the simple trick from a networking professional, I realize that it’s actually not too difficult.

The question I have for you is this – would you like to line up 8 wires that are really tiny and want to twist in every direction, all at once? Or, would you rather line up one wire at a time, and do it 8 times?

If you’ve ever put the little plastic RJ45 connectors on a Cat5e or Cat6 cable, then you definitely know you’d rather line up one wire at a time!!!!

That’s why I now only terminate the wire with keystone jacks and patch panels.

These have female connectors, which allow you to just simply line up one wire at a time and punch them down. Here’s a link to the tool set that I use which was really inxpensive and has everything you need.

Not only are these connectors easier to terminate than the conventional male connectors, but it’s also a better design. CMR cable is really designed to be in walls and the shield on it isn’t super flexible so, if you move it a lot it may break over time.

Plus, when you’ve got a lot of cables terminating in one place, it’s a lot better organized to just put them into a patch panel!

Even if you’re using volunteer labor to do this, the time saved easily justifies the cost (which isn’t much) in my opinion.

That’s why it makes sense to invest in a patch panel and or Keystone Jacks to go at the end of your cable. I’ve even used these great little Keystone Jacks that are actually built into a box, for situations where there isn’t a wall that you can cut into.

Here’s a link to a video that shows you how to wire these types of jacks. When I realized how easy it was to do, and did it the first time myself, I saved myself a ton of time and frustration!

Last, if you bought a kit as I did for your tools, there will be a tester in that kit.

Now is a great time to grab a couple ethernet patch cables, and test each line that you’ve terminated. Make sure everything works before you plug in anything in, to save troubleshooting time later.

I hope this article helps you the save time, and save frustration next time you’re running cable.

I’ll be bringing more tips and tricks here soon!

How Do I Setup TV in Another Room with a Feed from The Sanctuary?

One of the biggest questions I see weekly on Facebook groups and forums centers around this idea.  Pretty much every church (at some point), has the need to set up a remote audio or preferably video feed from their sanctuary to another space.  And while everyone has a quick “comment opinion”, I want to use this space to explain the full details – how there are different ways to get this one, and which one YOU should choose.

When I inherited the tech direction at my current church, there was already a TV mounted in the lobby off of the sanctuary.  I was then asked to add a feed for a new TV in the nursing mother’s room that shared the same content, coming from a BlackMagic Web Presenter via HDMI.  So, I had the ability to choose exactly which method to use…

2 Ways to Get Your Video Signal from Here to There

There are (2) main ways to get a video signal to travel a medium distance – here we’re talking within 300′ or so.

HDMI cables in themselves, while they are the “go-to” plug for a lot of consumer and prosumer cameras, don’t do well over long distance.  You can buy special “directional” HDMI cables to get you up to around 50′ or so at the maximum.  But these are expensive, and they don’t always work with every source.

So we’ve got to convert our HDMI.  We can either run it over Cat5e/Cat6 cable, or we can covert it to SDI / HDSDI and run it over RG6 cable with BNC connectors.

Running Video Over SDI

I can tell you from experience, that SDI is definitely more bulletproof and works better over long distances, with a minimal signal loss.  Plus, the cost is not a ton more than HDMI over Cat5e/Cat6.

For this reason, running your video over SDI is my #1 recommended way of doing things if practical. 

As a bonus, if your layout allows for it, the SDI to HDMI converters usually allow you to “loop” out of one converter to another – making wiring really simple if it makes sense to go from your control room to TV1, then TV2, etc.  And if you’re going to projectors, many pro-level models have an SDI input, so you don’t need a converter box at the projector!

Here’s how an SDI distribution scheme could look:

If you did need to originate in your control room, and then go 2 different directions, you could place an SDI DA (distribution amplifier) in the control room, which would split your signal, and you could then send separate SDI runs to each TV.

The biggest hurdle with this type of signal is making the cables.  While you can buy pre-made cables in short lengths, running longer distances and thru walls, etc, requires you to make your own cables.  Luckily, my friend Stephen Ballast has made a great video with links to everything you need here: http://www.ballastmedia.com/make-your-own-hd-sdi-video-cables.html

It’s not quite as easy as doing Cat5e/6, but he does a really good job explaining it, and with a little practice you can do it too!

Running HDMI Over Cat5e/6

While SDI is great, I personally had a few hurdles in my way.  Hurdle #1 is that my church has 3 “buildings” that are all connected.  The easiest way to explain this is that there was originally a traditional A-Frame sanctuary.  Then a sanctagymatorium was built, but the 2 were not connected.  Later, a third building was added to connect the 2 buildings and add more classrooms.

For me, this meant that if I were to run SDI from the control room to the lobby TV, I’d go through a block firewall, which is not my idea of fun.  Plus, then I have to deal with the hassle of firestopping all of my cables.  Out of the lobby TV, I’d then go through another solid block firewall to the Nursing mother’s room.

Also, the existing Lobby TV was hooked up with HDMI over Cat5e, using a balun similar to this.  The one that is in place there takes 2 HDMI cables and can have power at both ends (which I have given it!).

So, I didn’t want to redo that work (remember, I am a volunteer tech director!), plus, there were extra Cat5e runs to the building where the Nursing Mothers room was going in.  So, all I had to do was get some fresh cable (I used Cat6) from the utility closet in that building to the TV.  So no going outside with cable and no running in conduit!

The main advantage to running HDMI over Cat5e/6 is that the cables are really easy to terminate (put connectors on), and if you have a network in your building and the original tech director was thoughtful, there may already be wire run for you!  Plus, it’s cheaper, and the leadership is happy with the results, even if it’s not the “perfect” video image.

Here’s what my setup looks like:

I’m using an HDMI splitter like this in our control room to split the signal to (2) TV’s.  While this is NOT the preferred method of doing things, for 2 TV’s it is fine.  This is because HDMI has built-in “copy protection” called HDCP, which is a 2-way “handshake” that kills your signal if you’re being suspicious (so you don’t copy DVD’s of movies).  If you split HDMI more than a couple of times, you can run into issues where it all stops working. (and it is MISERABLE to troubleshoot!)

So, if I was designing this from scratch and using HDMI, I’d use boxes like this: CableMatters HDMI over Cat5e.

Mine are made by the brand “Ocean Matrix”, but the concept is the same – you can bring in 1 HDMI, and then use a basic, unmanaged network switch to duplicate the signal to multiple TV’s.   You run this as it’s own closed system – not on your computer network, not connected to the internet!

Not only is this more versatile as you expand and change things around in your building over time, but it gets rid of that pesky HDMI switch.

In addition, HDMI end boxes like these only need 1 Cat5e or Cat6 cable along with power (which should be there at each TV or control room anyways!).

To terminate the Cat5e or 6 cables, you can follow any number of guides online (future post here!).  You do need to use “real” Cat5e or 6 cable that is rated for being run through walls (“CMR”, not “CCA”).  Here’s one example, though it’s usually cheapest to pick up a box at your local home improvement store.

I would also highly recommend that you terminate your Cat5 or Cat6 cable to a wall-plate Keystone jack or Patch Panel (future post).  These are SO much easier than the little plastic connectors, as you only have to line up 1 wire at a time, instead of all 8!

I really hope that this guide has helped you and your church, but please do let me know via the comments below!  I’ll be bringing more tips and tricks here soon!

-David

What is Church Tech Hacks?

Church Tech Hacks is the website I wish I had, and the answer I wish I could give.

What exactly do I mean by that?

Well, as a volunteer tech director at a church, and the guy who runs LearnStageLighting.com, I know that there is a need and a hunger out there for good, solid information for the DIY, cash-strapped volunteer tech guy.

And when I see posts on Facebook groups and forums, asking the same question that’s been asked many times before, I want to help.  So, this is my place to do it.

Here at Church Tech Hacks, I want to create a place where I can share projects I’ve done at my church, and inspire you to do the same.  I’ll also welcome your submissions to the site as well, so we can truly make a full DIY library of the little things that make AV special.

So the next time you see someone ask “How can I setup a TV or speaker in the nursing mothers room that is across the building”, you can come to one place and find an answer.

This is going to be a “spare-time” project for me, so don’t expect a large volume of articles overnight!  But when I do post, I will make sure it is worth your time, in detail, and complete.

Thanks for reading – and for serving in your church!

-David Henry