I was asked to write some things up with respect to our drive-in church processes. While drive-in church in and of itself can be a pretty safe practice, it doesn’t happen in isolation which I discuss at the end of the post. Here are some of the things we’ve learned, going all the way back to our first drive-in church service when we had snow on the ground. Currently, we have returned to online services only.
Here are a few things we’ve learned which may be helpful to others.
Wireless microphones rule but are pretty expensive. I pulled the wireless receiver module out of our sound system in the sanctuary and built some XLR cables to run into a portable PA system.
Cold weather is a killer of battery performance. In the sanctuary, we could easily go a month, on a single set of batteries and still have nearly half capacity left for the wireless mics. Outside in the cold, even if you have almost all full bars when setting up, your battery can go dead mid-service. Its mission-critical to put in new batteries before every service.
Windscreens are very important when operating outside, as without one, sooner or later, the wind will make a 100% on-axis beeline for the microphone sound hole… and when that happens, no amount of post-production effort can salvage the audio. Also, if your windscreen is made of foam, keeping a stock of spares is prudent, as foam deteriorates over time.
Wrt Covid19, it’s critical that wireless microphones are not shared as the foam can and will pick up aerosolized particles. In the perfect world, not sharing would end at that point, but the sound guy does have to tear things down. What I do is liberally apply liberal hand sanitizer to my hands, both before and after packing up the microphones. Headsets then go into bags, where they are stored until the next week. In the event headsets end up being re-used the same day, I wipe them down with an alcohol wipe. Bear in mind, isopropyl alcohol does increase the rate of plasticizer deterioration.
Mixer and PA amplifier
Old school analog is your friend when it comes to cold weather. Unlike analog, digital gear doesn’t like cold. Most digital gear will operate fine down to 32 deg F. Some gear will work down to 0 deg F, but very little equipment in the digital domain is happy when temperatures go sub-zero. Thus it’s important to check the specs, and test it out ahead of time to make sure it is ok. This also includes the aforementioned wireless mics, as some of them use microprocessors to process the signal. In the case of digital wireless mics, it’s important to keep the transmitter unit inside one’s clothing, and potentially place a heater near the receiver module. When it comes to mixing boards, it’s very difficult to keep the entire system warm enough to preclude cold weather issues.
However, analog gear is not perfect, and condensation can be an issue. Thus making sure the gear has enough time to warm up is prudent in this. You don’t want to store gear outside in a garage, where it cold soaks overnight. Followed by firing it up mid-morning for a service where temperatures and humidity may be quite a bit higher. During the fall weather, I fought issues with condensation which produced random noise on our keyboard numerous times… and this was just from cold soaking in transit from one church to another.
Digital keyboards can work if kept above 32F, but pianists and organists will get very cold. Thus, we now pre-record everything as an MP3 and play it on demand. Touch screens are evil in cold weather. Apart from the fact that fingers freeze and so-called touch screen gloves rarely work all that well, displays can get a bit wonky with cold temperatures. A body-worn mp3 player under one’s clothes can be kept warm, but one with an old-school button control is a better choice.
One idea we pondered but did not implement was locating the keyboard in the church entryway with a heater, and just running cables over to it, along with a monitor feed.
Monitors / foldback
One may be tempted to use an FM radio or boom box as a monitor since its self contained and relatively small. Using FM signals this way does not work out very well from a musician’s perspective, as due to digital processing in the transmitter, the FM audio is delayed 50-100msec. However, for others, who need to keep track of the service, such as parking attendants or bell tower folks, the small delay is a non issue. There is also the issue of monitor volume, and radios and boom boxes are unlikely to have enough power, to overcome the noise of torpedo heaters in cold weather.
Torpedo heaters are incredible devices. We use a 135,000 BTU unit, which goes through about a gallon and a half to 2 gallons of kerosene an hour. It stinks a bit, but not as bad as if one were to run it on #2 fuel oil, more commonly known as off-road diesel fuel. While they provide a lot of warmth when on-axis and relatively close by, they also make a ton of noise. An array of patio heaters running on kerosene would be much quieter, albeit a more expensive solution to the heat problem. Drive-in church, without any means of heating, is pretty brutal. Granted, electric boots, gloves, and tradesman hoodies could work too, albeit at a higher cost.
In the summer months, PA speakers allowed parishioners to open their car windows and listen without having to run their car’s air conditioner. In the cold of winter, PA speakers are a backup system, should a parishioner be unable to receive the signal on their car radio. They also head off any interruptions due to random interference or system failure. We use old school PA speakers horizontally, such that they provide wider coverage up close. Thus, to reach the back of the parking lot, the sound levels up-front tend to be pretty high. This has the added benefit of discouraging folks from getting out of their cars and violating social distance rules.
In a sense, drive-in church services in and of itself are pretty safe. Aerosolized viral particles would need to exist in one car. Then they would need to travel outside through the vent ducting, and make their way to the air surrounding another car in sufficient numbers. They would then have to transition the air intake, and cabin air filter, followed by the vehicle’s air distribution system unhindered in large quantities for infection to propagate.
The challenge is drive-in church services don’t happen in isolation. When folks go out in their cars, they may stop at other places and be potentially exposed. In addition, when folks congregate in their cars, they may be tempted to get out of their vehicles and visit with one another. They may also be tempted to use the church’s bathroom facilities etc. There are also the issues of contact items, such as bulletins, and offerings, or in the case of Christmas, candles and related shared items.
Ways in which we tried to mitigate the above are:
- An announcement that the church building is not open for access.
- Encourage folks to remain in their cars before, during, and after the service.
- Encourage folks to download bulletins, virtual candle apps, and/or print them for others in their bubble who may not be connected online.
- Provide for early pickup from a safe location, such as having items available in a church vestibule the prior week.
- Encourage online and/or mail-in offerings
- Using a mailbox or car side dropbox to collect offerings rather than in person
- Continuing to offer video and audio services via Youtube, Facebook, podcasts, as well as community tv, and sermons, scriptures, and prayers, via mailed newsletter.