We hooked up two new screens to help us see what we’re doing whilst streaming services and managing the technology within the church building.
Increasing the bus factor
Much of the technology in the church at the moment has been thrown together during lockdown by one person, which has left us with a very low bus factor (the number of people who need to suddenly become unavailable before a project became impossible to continue).
This isn’t a great position to be in, so we spent some time this week filling more people in on the intricacies of systems, and improving some of our documentation.
The process of moving the technology in the church to one single place has been steady. It’s taken time to come up with a plan, build a desk, move the audio equipment (and its cables), move our video equipment (and its cables), install some new video cables and build a power distribution board.
Today we took the next step in the journey to completion – the addition of two new monitors. It might seem a bit over the top, but this is actually the bare minimum we need to have available for streaming our services once we finish the camera installation. One screen will show us the state of our various different cameras and our stream, and the other will be used for a supplementary PC responsible for mixing in graphics (like our title slides) and controlling more complex bits of the process.
Now that most of the physical work has been done for the cameras project and new desk, what have the tech team at Whitkirk been up to in the last week?
We did some more maths on our tech desk’s total estimated power load and refined our numbers downwards. This meant we could swap some of the fuses for something even more conservative, bringing the already small risk of someone overloading the circuit in a dangerous way even lower.
“Il meglio è nemico del bene”
As Voltaire said(1), “perfect is the enemy of good”. The tech team always aim towards perfection, but we take a pragmatic view that most of the time “good enough” really is, and we can make improvements later.
Several years ago, when the Church website was redesigned into its current form, we made one of these “good enough” decisions about the look of our website header images. In doing so, we inadvertently left a bug lying around which would only manifest itself in a specific set of circumstances. Not a totally-breaking-things bug, but one which meant the website didn’t always look quite right. More specifically, if you uploaded an image that was narrower than a 9:2 ratio for the page header then it would be tiled incorrectly and look rubbish.
One of the trickiest bits of continuing to provide worship during the pandemic has been getting to grips with how we define “a service”. This might seem like a pretty clear-cut thing on the surface – it’s a time when we come together to worship, and there’s a set of words which are said.
When we were able to worship together, this was pretty easy to manage. We had an entry in the calendar so we knew when services were, there was a rota so we knew who was responsible for things, and we had some orders of service that people could follow.
And then the world turned upside down, and we found ourselves delivering almost every single aspect of our services in a whole new way. Most of these relied on some form of technology, and since we had to throw things together in a hurry what we ended up with was a bit of a tangled mess.
Things the technical team at St Mary’s have been doing or involved with this week.
Our tech desk has plenty of bits of equipment on it which need power, and we’re about to add even more. Up until now, power was distributed through a tangle of extension blocks which would invariably tie themselves in knots.
This week our contractors Audioworks began the work of fitting cameras to the church building, as part of our Cameras Project.
One of the main goals is in this work is for the new equipment and cabling to be as discreet as possible, meaning most of the first morning was taken up with discussions and investigative work to find the best possible locations and routes.
Unfortunately, all the parts haven’t yet arrived to complete the system, but the team were able to finish all of the cabling work and fit two of the three cameras (one covering the font, and one ‘wedding cam’ with a unique angle on ceremonies). The cabling also involved going through the organ loft, so we could get some pictures of angles you’ve probably never seen before.
Weeknotes are a short summary of what the Tech Team here at St Mary’s has been up to in the past seven days. We keep them as a way of sharing what we’ve been up to, as well as summarising our own progress on things.
We made a brief return to pre-recorded services for Ash Wednesday, for the first time this year.
As part of this, we recorded a number of hymns and sung responses, which helped inform some of our plans for longer-term positioning of microphones in the building. It turns out that organs are really difficult to capture on their own, and this has some implications for how we plan to capture ambient congregational noise alongside the instrument itself once we return to in-person worship.
As our Cameras Project continues we’ve been planning to move some equipment and wiring around the building. This poses a few tricky problems in a place where anything permanent needs to go through a sometimes complex and lengthy approvals process, and since it isn’t strictly speaking part of the work of installing the cameras we need to make sure whatever we do is temporary.
The first step in this was creating a bespoke temporary desk which fits over and around our existing furniture, giving us a single place to control all the technology in the building from, both existing and in the future.
We’ve also shuffled around some of the many bits of wiring in the back corner, to make them tidier, simpler and more robust.
As part of our Cameras Project, we’ll be getting some new bits of equipment which we need somewhere to put. As well as the equipment itself, the person who is looking after the technology during a service needs somewhere to sit and stand as well, plus somewhere to keep orders of service and hymn books.
During the first period of streaming services, this began with a temporary arrangement balanced in a pew. The downside was that this took an entire pew out of action and meant that there was always a tech team member who sat wearing headphones at the front of the church. At best, this looked far from the professional image we try to project, and at worst, it would actively distract other worshippers.
We’re great believers in making small improvements when we can, rather than putting them off in the hopes that we will eventually come up with something that solves all our problems at once. The next iteration of our setup moved the operator to the back of the church (underneath the organ loft), extending the video signal so that they no longer had to be physically close to the camera. This also meant they had more room to comfortably operate equipment and could also reach the audio mixer, allowing us finer control over the sounds which made it into a stream. It also meant that the operator was physically separate from the congregation, reducing transmission risk.
At this point, though, the equipment was balanced on the top of a cupboard which wasn’t really designed to handle it. Along with this the operator was forced to stand for the whole service, and they had to keep moving between two different spots to switch between adjusting audio and switching video. There was also no space left for any of the new equipment which would be arriving, and the whole collection of cables and boxes was not only unsightly but also took up a good chunk of a choir stall.
So we decided to fix a whole bunch of problems in one go, and build a purpose-designed ‘tech desk’ which would let us centralise everything we already did, and give us space to put our new video equipment when it turned up.