An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Three

Church of the Holy Cross configured for distanced seating. Note camera tripods.

Part Three became inevitable as infection rates in the state of Hawai’i and the county of Hawai’i declined to the point that a congregation could be gathered once more at Church of the Holy Cross. The steps required to reduce risk of virus transmission created new challenges for liturgy. The state still limits gatherings to less than fifty people, which also turned out to be the capacity of the church sanctuary when chairs replaced pews. Having a congregation meant that the sound system now needed to serve two groups: the worshipers in the space and the worshipers over the Internet – and they had different needs.

In many parts of the country, churches still worship exclusively over the Internet because infection risk is still too high in their area. On Hawai’i Island, we went some time with no new cases at all. We are now seeing new cases again, between zero and three a day. We are watching those reports carefully and will discontinue in-person worship if it continues to rise.

Chairs, Masks, Sinks, Books, and Screen

Church of the Holy Cross is blessed with pews that are not attached to the floor. Early on, we thought we might rearrange the pews themselves, but were confronted with the problem of sanitizing the furniture between services. Since four congregations worship in the room during the day, we needed a cleaning regimen. Rather than risk virus material settling into the cloth (and damage to fabric and wood from bleach-based cleansers), we stacked up the pews and replaced them with folding chairs. Those chairs also allow us to seat household groups of different sizes together while keeping space around single worshipers.

All the congregations clean twice: once as they enter the space, and again as they leave. While it seems redundant, it offers better protection and reinforces the sound practices of caring for yourself (cleaning before) and caring for others (cleaning afterward). Chairs, pulpit and lectern, microphones and stands, and window louver levers, and other touch areas get cleaned. All congregations take attendance so that contact tracing can be done if we become aware of someone with a positive test for COVID-19. Worshipers enter through a kitchen with sinks for hand-washing and sanitizer for those who prefer that. Everyone wears a mask (and we have more available). The walks have six foot tape marks to maintain distance. After service, everyone exits through a separate door.

Hymnals and Bibles have been removed. We only provide a large-print bulletin for those with vision challenges; everyone else relies upon the projector screen for worship. We do not sing hymns together. We do speak prayers together. There is singing, however: two musicians sing from near the back of the chancel while wearing masks. The closest seats in the congregation are twenty-five feet away.

The preacher and lay leader now speak from separate lecterns with separate mics (covered with disposable foam shields). And, of course, there is no greeting line at the close of service.

We’ve Got to Move

We discovered the first week that the lack of congregational singing made for a very still hour – too still. While there was a “movement prayer” at the beginning of the service, it was too short and in the wrong place. A church member offered to lead additional movement, so the two vocal performances now also serve to lead the congregation in motion. It’s not actually hula, but the gestures come from that tradition. In addition, I lead a brief prayer in movement immediately after the sermon.

Attendance has been in the forties, which is close to the capacity of the room. We can accommodate a few additional worshipers just outside the sanctuary in an area covered by the roof (and equipped with speakers). We may need to add a screen in our Building of Faith if more people begin to attend.

Still Streaming

With the capacity of the room reduced, and knowing that people needed to continue to reduce contacts, we resolved to continue live streams into the future. We had to do things differently – again.

Video Cameras

With the streaming-only format, we had to do very little camera movement. There were only two places that people ever stood – three on a Communion Sunday – so a single camera operator could manage it even though he was also acting as a musician. Now we have five (and added a sixth) plus seven on Communion Sunday: pulpit, lectern, piano, organ, chancel for vocal anthems, bell (rung before service), and communion table. That meant we needed camera operators throughout the service.

We also had to place the cameras differently. We wanted to reduce the distraction they would cause the worshipers who were present and we wanted to give the worshipers at home the best experience we could. The cameras aren’t really capable of a high-quality shot over a long distance. We also faced cable length limits.

Both cameras, therefore, needed to be toward the front (their tripods are visible in the photo at top). One camera stands against the wall to the right for a shot of the pulpit and organ. The other stands just left of center for the lectern, piano, and chancel.

These are the same Canon camcorders we have been using: a Vixia HF R52 and a Vixia HF R800. The one by the wall now has a much longer cable run. In addition to a fifteen foot HDMI cable with a mini-connector on one end, we use a coupler and a twenty-five foot HDMI cable to reach the switcher. This is close to the limit of an HDMI signal. The first time we set it up, we tried to get some more slack with another cable extension, and it simply would not work. The other camera is close enough that its fifteen foot cable suffices.

For the first couple weeks, we set up the Logitech webcam as a wide shot to provide the switcher with another source. She never used it, so we’ve retired that camera.

We have, however, added another video source. The church has used projected words and imagery for some years. That slide show can also be used as a video source via HDMI.

The first two weeks taught us something else about the video: it was really hard for the director to select a shot without a preview image of it. She needed to know whether a camera had settled – or was even on the right subject – before switching to it. One of the lacks of the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (though not its newer sibling, the ATEM Mini Pro) is a multi view of its sources.

How could we create that? I’ve seen some creative ideas, including using several splitters and a multi view converter, but then I saw someone using field monitors. These are small screens that are mostly used to provide videographers with a better view of their shot than provided by the built-in screen of the camera. Our two Timbrecod DC-80 7″ screens have an HDMI pass-through. We place them between the cameras and the switcher, and now the director can see what the camera sees before choosing it.

Laptop running OBS Studio, two Timbrecod field monitors, and the ATEM Mini on the video director’s desk.

One immediate annoyance was that the field monitors could not be used with the ATEM’s first input. I’ve done some research, and apparently the ATEM misreads the frame rate with some active pass-throughs, but only on the first input. We use input one for the slides, and the cameras get two and three.

Sound

The church installed a new sound system just over two years ago which, frankly, makes the challenge of providing sound to both the sanctuary worshipers and the online worshipers even possible. The old system, well… best to avoid that nightmare.

Our sound mixer is a Soundcraft Ui24R, a completely digital device. It has no physical knobs or sliders, but can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, a network connected computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Its USB connection bears a host of signals, not just the main mix. A connected computer can select individual channels or one of eight auxiliary outputs.

Each auxiliary output can have its own mix. This is a game-changer.

Why? Because there are things that people worshiping over the Internet need to hear through the sound system that people in the sanctuary should not. In particular, we have to be very careful about amplifying the organ. The potential for feedback through the sanctuary speakers is mostly manageable, but it has to be carefully monitored. The organ produces plenty of sound, and amplifying it isn’t particularly helpful.

People worshiping over the Internet, however, need to hear it. They also need to hear the piano. We added two microphones in the chancel area (a pair of MXL 990 condenser mics) to pick up those sounds – and they are not part of the main mix. We include them only in the auxiliary mix.

We confronted cable length limits again. Although we can control the Soundcraft via a tablet, we had to connect our streaming computer to it via USB, and it was twenty-five feet away. USB has a length limit of around fifteen feet. In this case, we were delighted to find that an active extension cable did the job. We also experimented with using an active USB hub in the chain, and found that it didn’t work.

We have been frustrated with a relatively weak signal from the Soundcraft Ui24R. It reaches OBS with relatively low volume. The basic mixing controls in OBS wouldn’t bring it to desired levels – but it turns out that there’s an Advanced Audio panel that allows one to boost the base volume of an audio source. We’ve currently set it to add 10 decibels, and I’m considering a boost to 12.

Catching My Breath

I keep hoping that we can find a “normal” once again, and not have to make too many more adaptations. We probably aren’t there. One of the signals for our worship service is the ringing of the church bell. We’re able to film it because we have lots of windows and the bell is just outside.

What we can’t do in the stream, however, is hear much of it. It’s too far away from any of the microphones. We also can’t hear much of the congregation’s responses. I’m not eager to take on the challenge of adding “house sound” microphones to the mix, but that may be coming.

It is a relief to have a congregation present. They do provide an energy that is missing in the one-way stream approach we chose. My Sundays include a certain amount of anxiety – I’m deeply concerned for the health of the worshipers – but I find I am less exhausted by the experience of worship than I had been.

There will be another installment…