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Creating Digital Participation in Physical Spaces

Not all of the problems we faced in 2020 were new ones, but many of them became profoundly visible or indeed inescapable for the first time. For a small parish church, the issue was how people could continue to engage with services and with each other when they were unable to attend in person. These connections are a cornerstone of functioning communities and the ability of the church to facilitate them has never been so challenging. On the other hand, the technology developed to facilitate remote interaction has seen many exciting developments as global connectivity improves, and a media consultant can help you make sense of the options to create a sustainable solution.

Recording and transmitting a service in one way or another has become fairly simple, even including live streaming of services to home audiences, but as the issues of isolation become more pronounced it is evident that something more engaging is required. Indeed, participation is at the heart of every community so our reactions to the changing communication needs are vital to maintain cohesion.

Our solution was to create a simple 2-way audiovisual system that would not only transport the service to people’s homes, but also bring people into the service without having to leave their homes. This isn’t limited to congregants either, as readers and preachers have all been able to address both the church and home congregation remotely too! What’s more, they can see and hear the people as easily as they would in person.

It turns out that this pioneering digital interactive hybrid service only required the courage to say “let’s try it!” What follows is a detailed breakdown of how this was achieved, so anybody reading this can try it for themselves. I will endeavour to include alternatives and high level concepts for anyone using different equipment or scaling up the premise.

Remember to start every decision with a need, or you may quickly get lost in the possibilities (if you’re reading this you probably don’t need a VR suite for web conferencing just yet). The congregation was quickly able to adapt to meeting on Zoom, which is why the system remains on that service as real life has begun to resume. The digital element will remain in place to support people who are unable to make it into the church for any reason long after movement restrictions have ended.

Getting Started

The systems involved in making this happen are:

Internet – a good connection is essential!

Sound – audio routing is quite complex in this scenario but don’t panic!

Video – most churches and NGOs already have projector systems in place for meetings, so let’s talk about making them do more for you!

Internet infrastructure, some tips for getting the best from it:
Use a LAN connection whenever possible – the physical wire from the computer to the router, is preferable to WiFi because it is more stable and usually noticeably faster.
Use a speed testing service to ensure that your connection is at least 20mbps, which you will rarely get for example, by tethering your phone. This is especially true of buildings with thick (signal blocking) or metal (faraday cage) framed walls. See previous tip.

In this example, we will use ZOOM (paid subscription to remove account restrictions) for connecting our live with our online audience, but this will work similarly via other platforms. Popular comparable systems include MS Teams, Skype, LiveStorm, Teamviewer and GoToMeeting. If the choices are overwhelming, start with something you are familiar with and decide what features are important to you as you get more comfortable with it; or speak to a media professional about your needs.

Sound Systems

Sound: understanding what goes where.

Because of the potential for feedback loops, echoes and delay with complex audio routing it’s easy to see why most people avoid this kind of system, but digital audio devices are making them easier than ever to set up.

The set up we will talk through is based on a minimum spend setup that is reliable, but first let’s take some time to understand some of the principles.

Sound sources/system inputs (where it starts):
1. Service leader/speaker/readers etc. (the person at the front with a mic)
2. Musicians/Singers (representing varying levels of complexity for another day)
3. Pre-recorded media (this will usually be a digital format, make sure it is saved to the local drive and cued up with a compatible program before your meeting starts)
4. People connecting online

Sound services/system outputs (where it’s going):
1. Public address system
2. Zoom attendants
3. Event recording

Assess your needs first - what needs to go where?
Visualizing the places your sound will go

For the speaker to address the attendants in the building, the chain is simply 1 – 2 – 4, but most meetings incorporate other forms of media, for which the routing is 3 – 2 – 4.

For a broadcast service, for the speaker to address the live attendants as well as those via Zoom, the signal chain needs to be 1 – 2 – 3 – 4+5.

For attendants on Zoom to contribute to the other members at home is already incorporated into the program, but for the attendants in building, the chain is 6 – 5 – 3 – 2 – 4.

Please note that the computer is required here to facilitate 2 stereo audio channels. This is best achieved with an audio interface, which usually connects via USB and allows several connection options for input and output signals. It helps to also have at least 2 screens to work on – select extended workstation rather than mirrored.

Gear Talk

Let’s take a closer look at the kit we’re using:

Behringer XR-16: this is a digital sound desk without the actual desk. You can control the mixer using PC and mobile applications. The series in question also scales effectively with your budget.

M-Audio M-track Duo: a simple USB audio interface that allows me to plug in a signal from the sound desk as well as send a separate signal back to the sound desk. More feature rich digital mixers, including the Behringer XR series from the 18 upwards include multichannel audio via USB which means it would double up as your computer audio interface. With the XR16 you can still record audio, but only the stereo mix of your choice.

Line 6 XD-V30 wireless microphone: a good brand for digital wireless technology. Running at 2.4ghz means you don’t have to worry about licenses, but you may find that you need to set up your WiFi to prefer a 5ghz connection. So far this hasn’t been an issue, partly due to efforts by line6 to create a secure connection that doesn’t obliterate your WiFi. There are cheaper options on the market but we are setting a functional base line and I wouldn’t recommend them as things stand (please feel free to send demo kit you think will prove me wrong). As a rule – only use wireless mics if you can’t function without them.

Nobsound 3000W, 15a Power Purifier (Power Conditioner): Ring mains fluctuate and often cause an earth hum on systems, especially in large or old buildings. Making sure your audio equipment is powered via a conditioning unit will almost always improve your sound quality a lot, because it prevents them effecting one another. I would be surprised if you were able to implement a system like this without this kind of mains isolation.

We are keeping the existing amplifier and speakers that the church already has installed but replacing most of the cables. If you don’t remember when you last bought XLRs then you probably need new ones. You don’t have to spend lots, but you’ll have to get used to the differences between good cheap and nasty cheap, but a good starting point is retailers who supply studios. With good care you can get years out of your cables, but they are the weakest point in your audio system and usually the first thing to test if anything goes wrong with a sound source.

Setting it all up – test, test, test!

Plug the mains conditioner into the mains, then add all your other power to it. Check your power requirements don’t add up to more than two thirds of the rating (calculated in Watts).

On the computer, connect audio interface via USB and the Mixer by ETHERNET.
Turn on the computer and install the X-AIR app.
In the app, you will need to connect to the mixer in order to control it. If it is not listed automatically, refer to the documentation for the IP address to enter manually.
The audio output of the computer connects to any stereo input/pair eg. Stereo Channel 9/10 – this will control the volume of all computer sounds, including Zoom and multimedia within the live environment.

From the mixer, AUX 1 (or any spare aux) goes to the computer line-in.
Select this input as your microphone within the ZOOM settings menu – this will give you an auxiliary mix dedicated to what is heard on Zoom. In the X-Air application, the aux channels are selectable on the right, and will present you with a new page to mix that signal. Click on MAIN L+R to return to the main mix page.

Behringer XR-16 interface
All of the inputs and outputs are on one side and clearly labelled. An xlr cable from Aux 1 to Mic L on the audio interface.

Check your routing: connect any mic input and check you have a signal on that channel.

Bring up the MAIN L+R sliders to check the signal goes out to your speakers.
Bring up the channel on the AUX tab you have assigned to Zoom.

In Zoom settings, make sure your Mic/Input is selected from the audio interface using whichever channel you have plugged the aux into. Make sure the Speaker selection is also via the audio interface.
Sign into your test meeting to make sure the mic can be heard online.
Still in the test call, have a contributor speak online (eg into their phone). The signal should appear on the main mix tab in your stereo channel. Turn that up and you should hear the online voice through the speakers – make sure they are outside the room for this or you will get a feedback loop.

Take your time to familiarize yourself with the routing and how it relates to the virtual mixer control panel.
Visualizing how your sound will get there

Scaling Audio

If you’re designing a system, try to plan forwards rather than specifying to your current requirements. If you typically only have a speaker, a couple of singers and a couple of musicians then an 8 channel desk is probably fine for now, but the saving is minimal compared to a 16 channel desk. By the same token, working to 2/3 your power requirements in conditioning allows for equipment not always working to benchmark standards.

Scaling up again in the Behringer XR series, the XR-18 has more sophisticated digital audio. This could save you money if you haven’t yet bought an audio interface as the mixer will perform both functions via USB. Remember that the control program still uses your ethernet (preferable) or WiFi connection.

If you only have one ethernet port available – prefer it for your internet connection and connect to the mixer via wifi, but the reverse will also work.

For individuals who want to explore this technology, scaling down is also possible but will require entering the confounding world of virtual audio routing.

You’ll notice that the AUX sends on most mixers are mono. Sometimes there are separate stereo sends, or you can pair channels for the same effect if you want to create more stereo space online. However, please be mindful that internet audiences are often using mobile devices and other single-point audio sources.

Stereo Vs. Mono

Video Systems

It’s impossible to talk about the video workflow without discussing displays, so let’s talk hardware first. As we are using the laptop to control the sound, we need an additional screen to view the zoom controls. This is added as an extended display rather than a duplicate to give us more room to see programs. The projector can be extended again and some have additional display options. At the moment ours simply mirrors the extended screen because there aren’t enough outputs, but the presentation is usually managed remotely at another laptop (sometimes at home).

In a simple meeting, the open windows in a given session include:
Mixer, Zoom, a presentation viewer and a media player.

Yes, you can ALT+TAB between them, but with the constantly changing display this can get confusing so make it as simple as possible.

Have your presentation in full-screen mode then alt+tab away from it so your Zoom controls are floating in front. Your mixer and media panels can sit on the other screen and your projector can house the full-screen Zoom meeting window.

Workflow Tip

The reason for sending Zoom to the projector is to make sure everyone sees the same thing:

In grid mode, a web camera points at the speaker or congregation so those at home see everything and those in the building can see those at home. Always invest in lights before cameras; we’re using a budget 1080p USB camera on a tripod in this setup and it’s perfectly adequate.

When readings or songs begin, a host will share their full-screen presentation with Zoom, which will duplicate it to the projector screen and to everyone at home. This means that to some extent, even the meeting visuals can be managed in real-time by someone who isn’t even there – but be prepared to do some practice!

Please remember that if you are using embedded media you should always have a copy of the media in the folder with the presentation. If there is sound, remember to check the ‘also share sound’ box when you select ‘share specific window’.

Scaling Video Production

Scaling video is more complex than scaling sound in this setup, so it’s worth experimenting with software to find a solution that works for you.

OBS is a good (and free) starting point for handling multiple cameras, presentations and even overlays. It has a lot of built-in compatibility too, which means less time tinkering with settings.

In this instance, you will want to use the Virtual Camera plug-in to enable your system to see the OBS output as the camera source to broadcast. There are plenty of accessible tutorials online for these but as with everything here, a degree of tinkering is usually necessary.

At this point, it is likely you will need to be working from multiple workstations. In order to separate the audio and video content online, you will need to create additional accounts on whatever streaming/conferencing service you are using.

Conclusions

There are many great how-to guides for many of the specific elements of this system, but I hope this provides some grounding in how they interact and why it’s important to invest in.

You should be able to recreate these results, but don’t be afraid to adapt the ‘recipe’ to suit your needs.

The technology is constantly evolving so maintaining a system like this requires some regular learning, but you don’t need to know all of it! If it all still seems a bit much, consider hiring a media professional to deploy your system and train your team. It’s not going away but it’s more accessible than it has ever been!

Also remember there is a vibrant community of media enthusiasts and professionals who love to get into the technical talk at any level. In that spirit, say something about your system in the comments or ask about details and trouble-shooting. After all, the big lesson here is that we will always find ways to interact with each other.

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