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Burn in Heaven: Church Production and CD-R

Joshua McDaniel
May 2001

Between reports of the persecution of Galileo and the prosecution of John Scopes, it's easy to get, and keep, the idea that Religion and Science don't get along too well. That's probably not wholly true, but the battle lines drawn by those sensational instances stick in minds, the physician-phobic Church of Christian Science, notwithstanding. Still, science's trail of light tells us that Newton was about as devout as they come and that Stephen Hawking wonders if God might not let us see into the Planck Era. What's more, Matthew 28:19 plainly urges us to use CD-R with gusto. But when we think of relations between these two mega-institutions, we'll always see dogged Creationist William Jennings Bryan fulminating against Evolution before God and gavel.

We like that idea, or our mass media do anyway, and thus we'll tend to as well; angry authorities make for good copy, and neat recognizable narratives to comfort ourselves with. After all, science or scripture, teacher or preacher, we're basically buying someone else's story, and stories starved for conflict don't sell. We have an obligation as Americans, too, to neglect what's really at stake for incidentals and symptoms, so it never hurts to believe that our intellectuals are at each other's throats over angels and pinheads.

Being a fervent patriot, I was a little shocked to learn that Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois sports a better A/V rig than the Grammys did this year, though I can't say whether it's the Church part or the Peoria part that shocked me. Everyone knows Jesus would trounce Eminem in a battle of stage presence, but I always figured KISS would clobber 'em both in the Corn Belt. What's more, to see who plays first and last in Peoria materially play itself out in the 16-module video wall, mounted behind a choir, really drives the point home. Ohio's Akron Baptist Temple, too, it happens, recent-ly installed a German-engineered sound system; a church in Florida put up what looks to be a couple 10,000-lumen projectors; production consultants are belting out Jubilees like there's no tomorrow, which may very well be, according to one source. You can read about all of this and more–including a great article on "Some Real World Solutions for Taming Stage Volumes and Room Acoustics"–in the November/December 2000 issue of Church Production Magazine, a publication devoted to A/V technology for houses of worship.

You might occasionally find an unusual mix of advice in the pages of Church Production. "After the program is over, be sure to 'punch out' or change all cassette and DAT recording tabs, so that you do not accidentally erase a program. Most importantly, be sure to pray for the Lord's guidance and assistance before [and during] the program," admonishes Tony Brooks' article "Recording Your Christmas Events" in the November/ December 1999 issue. Another story reminds church A/V coordinators to be prepared for the apathy of non-believing sound engineers.

Still, taken on the whole, it's a formidable technical magazine, useful far beyond its proclaimed audience. Kind of a bizarro-world, upper room EMedia, where technology serves God over Mammon, and hums along to gospel rather than Napsterized rock 'n' roll. Nearly all the content is practical. If it's not an article on sound system optimization, it's a thorough analysis of lighting at a recent large-scale production–and most instances of "Christmas pageant" could be replaced with "Monsters of Rock 2001 Tour" without losing any meaning or value.

In His Own Rimage

It was Church Production Magazine (admittedly, "the fact of its existence more than its content") that alerted CD-R pro/star Rimage Corporation of this ecclesiastical warmth for bleeding edge technology. This, in turn, led to the discovery of a booming trend among some churches: tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of parishioners are leaving Sun- day services with hope in their souls and a CD of the prior week's sermon. According to Rimage public relations rep Keva Meyer, at one company handling duplication orders from an assortment of churches, "demand grew from a minimum average order of 50 to 250 CD-R copies several years ago, to orders ranging from 250, 500, and 1,000 to 25,000 copies per customer per week." Move over, Thriller.

That company, Lacrad International, probably the busiest (and hippest) company I've seen in a long time, has been catering in a variety of capacities to churches, synagogues, temples, and plain old secular businesses since 1984. Today, it offers everything a digital ministry might require, including–and this is only scratching the surface–Internet broadcast (it's home to four Christian Internet stations–picture west Texas or eastern North Carolina in cyberspace), Web hosting for both content delivery and CD sales, and technical consulting. As far as duplication goes, Lacrad offers several different trademarked "media services," such as CD Visitor (for people unable to attend services), CD Outreach, and CD Sermons. All the company's efforts to date have been audio-only; plans for the future include IP broadcast movies and television, as well as conversion to DVD-R on the duplication side, within the year. Lacrad has its own plant in Ohio, all set for the upgrade.

Lacrad's facility in Ohio began with four Rimage Protégé units; later, four Rimage ProStar units were added; today, there are a grand total of eight ProStar units churning out discs. These ProStar systems aren't exactly small change: that's eight drives a piece, officially supporting up to 12X recording, with a 500-disc capacity, which is to say, if one of them fought me, it would win. Cooler than these items, though, is the fact they're run remotely from Lacrad Corporate headquarters in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois: data becomes an image, which, in turn, becomes a disc, all over a WAN. Bill Blank, executive vice president of operations, says of the rig, "It's working beautifully. The primary benefit is the ability to load it up and walk away. Return, and the job is done; the automation is fabulous."

The 700MB Club

In addition to filling orders, companies in this particular niche almost inevitably serve as equipment resellers, when or if that time rolls around; if a church decides to do its duplication locally, it's only natural it would turn to the people its been working with. There's nothing prohibitively expensive, or technically complicated, for that matter, about desktop duplication anymore, so skipping the middle man here is an entirely viable option for many houses of worship. For setup, it's often simply a matter of sticking a SCSI card into a church's existing network–or even that single old machine gathering dust in the basement–and clearing a little space on a table somewhere. Today, too, preparing an image and setting the equipment in motion is similarly simple; a minister of music with even a little computer experience can have a thousand grade-A copies of a service ready to depart Monday morning.

Rimage isn't the only CD duplicator supplier that's been tracking the growth of this market. Another Minneapolis-area vendor, MicroBoards Technology, says 20 to 25 percent of its Pro Audio business is church market these days. MicroBoards has angled its way in with different sorts of products, however. Sales and marketing vice president Chuck Alcon says the most popular products with the evangelical set are the company's Audio Write Pro, a single-drive CD-R system that enables on-the-fly analog recording, digital conversion, and burning; and multidisc "office copier" systems like the DSR 100 and the auto- loading Orbit II. Using an Audio Write Pro and multidisc or autoloading system in concert, Alcon says, a church can have a morning sermon on CD nearly as soon as it's finished, and run off 50 copies by evening Bible study.

What's most interesting in Alcon's observation of the church market's evolution–for lack of a better term–is how quickly religious types, from the ring shout to the rabbinate, have become CD-R true believers. "Three years ago," Alcon says, "we used to say it would take an act of God to get a church to buy a CD-R system." Today, he says, it's easier to find church organization "contractors" at audio shows, like NAMM and AES, than Hare Krishnas at an airport. On a church-by-church scale, these contractors play a role similar to Lacrad's. A parish that wants to record and distribute sermons will hire a contractor to design and integrate what Alcon calls "the entire entertainment package": full A/V setup, from speakers to lighting, and recording gear ranging from single drive to multidisc to autoloader.

In effect, this means, there's no need for evangelizing CD-R to the church crowd, as you might have had to in the days of pre-Millennium nescience. Parishioners are hip to it because they see it in their homes and offices; and with volume duplicators selling for $2,500, it doesn't take an archbishop to authorize the purchase anymore. Even churches of modest means are ready to roll with CD-R, and conscious of the costs.

But cost and other evolutions aside, there's a creationist theory here, too, that goes all the way back to CD-Audio's origins. The traditional strengths of CD technology are driving sales within the churches themselves."It's the convenience and quality of CD," says Yvonne Wagner of Mt. Calvary Church in Youngstown, Ohio, leading the congregation to purchase CDs of the services recorded there each Sunday. People, it is true, have been listening to recorded sermons for a long time now, and have heard The Word preached as far beyond the Lord's house, or brush arbor, as gospel radio signals reach. But up until CD supplanted tape as the medium of choice for physically distributed messages, demand for pressed preaching never reached any appreciable height.

There are all kinds of speculation as to why that might be. Some cite the degraded and cumbersome quality of the cassette tapes sermons were relegated to way back when (and, of course, the antithetical rainbow "coolness" of the CD itself). Others say there are non-technological timelines at work here, and a resurgence of interest in spirituality just happens to coincide with the popularity of CD as a delivery medium. Still others argue that the seemingly sudden technical sophistication in churches owes its emergence to the regular appearance of Gen X'ers in the pews and the pulpit. Whatever it is, CDs are moving, and they're moving in an environment that necessarily, one would think, precludes aggressive marketing. Somewhere, there's probably a TDK logo on a hymnal–but I think that would be the exception.

A Closer Walk With Thee?

When asked whether or not the subject matter of Sunday services changed or was impacted by its being recorded and distributed on CD, Mt. Calvary's Wagner responds with a resounding "no." She explains, "Nothing's changed at all, except that we're now better able to carry out the Great Commission." Here, she invokes Jesus' charge to the disciples in Matthew 28:19, encompassing teaching and baptism. It's hard to say if even CD-R's exquisite PCM audio fidelity can duplicate the touch of God's hands that unleashes tongues of fire, or the transforming power of an earplug-free baptismal dunk. But good packaging must help a burned sermon get over at least a little in this respect.

The medium, as always, though, ends up being the message. "I'm not watching Jack and Rexella!" I'll protest when caught watching a Jack Van Impe Presents televangelist program at three in the morning; "I'm watching TV!" Rexella reads the news, and Jack interprets it, usually as what he calls an "end times" event. He and Rexella light up like Christmas trees when they announce these events portend Armageddon is at hand. Then the orotund and stilted Voiceover From Beyond tells us there's a new movie all about the Apocalypse, starring Kirk Cameron, available from Van Impe Ministries that we may order for $19.95. You actually get to see this person who does the voice over–he's been standing off-camera beside the Van Impe news desk the whole time!–and though his coif could never match Jack's, and though there's the initial shock of realizing that that voice is coming out of that face, he's not a bad-looking guy.

But that's neither here nor there. Picasso said the problem with computers is that they can only give you answers. The great thing about TV is it does give you answers, freely and without ceasing. You don't even have to pray to it, or pledge to it promises you're too human to keep. Without technology–finally, I discover, watching TV–there is no Jack and Rexella, and indeed, no spirituality at all. You can't very well have a Bible, or a Koran, Zohar, or any codification of The Word without at least a stylus and some wood pulp. Conversely, without a scared guy, that person who needs to be comforted about darkness and death, we wouldn't have things like lasers or metempsychosis. A CD, then, no matter what it contains, is a testament to spiritual striving; spiritual striving, in turn, becomes finally a CD-R. It is, after all, written.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Church Production Magazine
25799 Hunt Trail, South Bend, IN 46628; 219/282-1204; Fax 219/282-1205; info@churchproduction.com; http://www.churchproduction.com

Jack Van Impe Ministries
PO Box 7004, Troy, MI 48007-7004; 248/852-2244; Fax 248/852-2692

Lacrad International Corporation
Oakbrook Terrace Tower, One Tower Lane, Suite 2000; Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181; 888/522-7231; http://www.lacrad.com

MicroBoards Technology, Inc.
1721 Lake Drive West, Chanhassen, MN 55317; 800/646-8881, 952/556-1600; Fax 952-556-1620; http://www.microboards.com

Rimage Corporation
7725 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55439; 952/944-8144; Fax 952/944-7808; http://www.rimage.com

Joshua McDaniel (josh@simlacra.to) is a freelance writer based in Glendale, CA. He is also co-author, along with Bob Starrett, of The Little Audio CD Recording Book, published by Peachpit Press.

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