Monday, August 31, 2009

A view from above

The object of this blog is so you, dear reader, how to put on a Living Christmas Tree service by showing you how we do it. Most of the rest of the articles in this blog will be on different aspects of our Living Christmas Tree project for 2009, but this article will be a little different.
Before we move on the "How" of our Living Christmas Tree service, you must first understand the "What". In this article, I will give you a quick look at our facility as we use it weekly, and then cover how we augment it for a Living Christmas Tree. We will also, in this article, touch on the "Who" as well, and cover the "Why" in a later article.
Foothills Baptist Church is a Southern Baptist Church in the Ahwatukee/Foothills Village of Phoenix Arizona. You can visit our web site at Our sanctuary is a fan shaped room that seats 450 people, and we hold two Sunday services. We have the standard array of technology for a church our size. Well, maybe a tad bit more that some.
The sound system includes a 48 channel Allan & Heath analog sound board, an array of Shure UHF wireless microphones, with both hand held and body packs with Countryman head worn microphones, digital effects processors, and six channels of monitors. All of this runs through a Peavey MediaMatrix for routing and room equalization. Oh, and several Aviom personal monitors which are one of the technologies that allow us to hold the Living Christmas Tree services.
We have theatrical lighting with an assortment of PAR and Ellipsoidal lighting fixtures. We also have two High End Studio Spots automated fixtures and some LED color wash fixtures. This year, we plan on renting additional fixtures, but we will cover that in a later article. All of this is driven with DMX from a Zero-88 Fat Frog lighting console.
For video, we have four projectors. A large center screen over the platform is used, mostly, for Image Magnification (IMAG). We have three camera positions and a video router and switcher to feed the screen. There are two smaller screens over the sides of the platform that we use for presenting the words for songs and the like. They are driven from two PC and a Macintosh and run Easy Worship as the presentation software. The last screen is on the back wall of the Sanctuary and is used to give the people on the platform a view of what is going on. All of the screens are independent and any source can be presented on any of the screens.
The lighting and video control positions are in what we call the "Tech Bridge". It is a mezzanine with a large opening in the rear wall of the sanctuary. The sound control position is on the rear center of the sanctuary floor.
There is a Mac Mini at the sound control position that is used to control the digital effects processor and record services. This computer is also used to run the Living Christmas Tree program.
On a typical Sunday service, we have a 35 to 40 voice choir, "Front Line Vocal" teams of 6 to 8 people, and an orchestra of 20 to 25 instruments that includes a band of piano, keyboard, V-drums, bass, acoustic, and electric guitars. For a Living Christmas Tree services, we add the youth choirs that add an additional 40 voices. Also, we usually get ten or so additional choir members that want to sing for the holiday service.
Before we get into how the Living Christmas Tree service is ran, I need to tell you about the special equipment that is used in the Living Christmas Tree.
The first, and most obvious, is the tree itself. It is actually a large riser that can hold up to 93 people. It is constructed of steel beams bolted together to form the basic structure. Unik Riser in Liberty Hill TX supplied our structure. You can find more information at their web site:
The tree is ten tiers tall, each tier smaller than the preceding one. The choir stands on boxes of various heights so that everyone appears to be the same height when they are standing in the tree.
The tiers are faced with six steel panels that have greenery woven on to them. Miniature Christmas tree lights are added over the greenery. There are over 62,000 lights on our tree in six colors; red, white, blue, green, amber, and purple.
We use a system of dimmers that are specifically designed for running Living Christmas Trees. The system is called the MidiLite II from Castle Studios Productions in Forest, VA. You can visit there site at
As the name implies, a MidiLite II system uses the MIDI protocol to control the lights. You can think of a system as a "Visual Synthesizer." I will get into this more when I describe the software we use to run a Living Christmas Tree service.
A MidiLite II system is a rack of equipment that holds "Frames" each of which holds a control card and up to 15 output cards. The control card controls all of the output cards in its frame and talks to the other control cards in the system. An output card, also referred to as a "Block", has six dimmer channels each of which can drive a load of up to 600 Watts, although there is a limit of 1800 Watts per card. Normally, each channel on an output card drives a different color of light.
You can have up to 15 Frames in a MidiLite II system, which gives you a "Matrix" of 15X15X6 dimmers, or up to 1,350 channels of dimmers. The power requirements for such a system would be 15 X 15 X 1800 Watts or 405K Watts! That would require a rather large power source, but, in practice, each Block runs at much less power that the maximum.
To get the output of a dimmer to the tree, you use a distribution cable that carries all six channels of a Block to a "Breakout Box". The Breakout Box is a molded box that has six ungrounded "edison" plugs. You know, the "old style" US wall outlet that accepts two prong electrical plugs.
Each Breakout Box is paired to a panel on the tree with the six colored light strands plugged into one of the channels. At this point, you can control each color of light on a panel independently.
Our MidiLite system is smaller than the maximum. We have three Frames with 11 or 12 output cards. We use this in what is called a "Vertical Matrix" where each Frame drives a column of Blocks on the tree making our tree a 3X10X6. The other configuration supported in the MidiLite system is a "Normal Matrix" where each Frame drives a row on the tree.
You may be thinking, "I thought that he said that there was ten tiers in the tree? Why do you need more than 10 output cards per Frame?" Well, the other cards are for "AUX" channels. These are channels that are outside of the matrix that define the tree, and can be used to drive other lights. In our case, we have 12 channels, two output cards, for driving the star on the top of the tree, six channels for driving six other trees in our "Forest", and two channels for a couple of rope lights along the bottom tier of the tree.
To control the MidiLite system, as I mentioned before, we use MIDI protocol. While it is possible to have the MIDI controller up to 50 feet away, for practical purposes, you are limited to about 20 feet because MIDI uses an unbalanced signal and is subject to noise problems. Unless you want to control the tree from behind it, or just in front, you need to have a much longer run of cable. To help with this, the MidiLite system has a "MidiLink" system built in. This is a data extender that converts the standard MIDI signal to a balanced signal that you can run over twisted pair cable; say like standard CAT5 data cable. Also, because the MidiLite systems need bidirectional signals you would need two long MIDI cables, but the MidiLink handles both for you.
A MidiLite rack has one end of a MidiLink built into it, and an external MidiLink box is supplied for the controller end.
Now let's talk about the controller. In our system, we use the Mac Mini at the soundboard. It is interfaced to the MidiLink with a MOTU MIDI Express XT, which is an 8 in/8 out MIDI interface. Because we are using MIDI protocol to control the tree, we can use a standard MIDI sequencer software package. We use MOTU's Digital Performer 6 software. In later articles, I will explain how the MidiLite system is programmed.
Castle Studios sell software packages for helping to program and control the MidiLite system. We will deal with a couple of others in later articles, but there is one other I want to talk about now. It is called MLcontrol and is a "front panel" for the MidiLite system. It is sold as software package you can run on a Macintosh computer, but it normally come as a complete package with a touch screen display and a detected computer and MIDI interface. MLcontrol allows you to control each color on a block, or do more elaborate effects, and it is possible to control a complete service from it.
We do have an MLcontrol system and I will talk more about it in a later article.
One of the interesting thing about using a MidiLite is that you can control other things that talk MIDI. In our case, we have a MIDI controlled DMX controller called a LanBox –LCX (for more information, see We put the LanBox between the lighting board and the rest of the DMX universe and use a pair of MidiLink external boxes to take the MIDI from the MIDI Express XT to the LanBox. The LanBox is programmed using the LCedit+ software, supplied with the LanBox, to set cue’s that we can then trigger with a MIDI command. This allows us to synchronize the theatrical lighting with the Tree during the service.
Controlling the Living Christmas Tree lights is a wonderful thing. There is a lot of power for creating amazing lighting effect, but you loose a lot of effectiveness unless you can synchronize the music to the lighting.  You could import a track into Digital Performer and then program to the track, but then you would have no use for the choir and orchestra.  It would be nice if Ministers of Music had a MIDI port in the back of their head, then we could control them. That is a pleasing thought, but a tad bit impractical. There is a way to get into their head so that they can stay synchronized with the Living Christmas Tree: use a click track.
Digital Performer can be set up to produce a clicks for beats in a song. We do this and have the click output of Digital Performer routed to a channel on the Aviom personal monitor. Our Minister of Worship and Fine Arts, Craig Anderson, has a wireless in-ear monitor that he listens to the click and guides the orchestra and choir so that they stay in sync with the Tree.
That covers, in very broad strokes, the technical systems that Foothills Baptist Church uses to produce a Living Christmas Tree service. I will be covering more of the system, like how to program the MidiLite system, in later articles.
Speaking of later articles, the next couple will cover the details and motivation for this year’s service, “The Wonder of Christmas”, and how to setup a click track in Digital Performer.
As always, the Lord Bless you,


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