My PyCon.ca 2012 A/V Volunteer Retrospective

This past weekend, November 9-11, 2012, was the first ever PyCon Canada conference, and I participated as a volunteer helping to organize and run the audio/visual side of things (with personally more of an emphasis on the audio.) It was the first PyCon I’ve ever attended, and I had a great time, both in volunteering and listening to talks and meeting so many interesting people. I wanted to write down my reflections as a reminder to my future self and anyone else who finds themselves in a similar position, helping to run a conference.

What Worked

  • The People: my fellow A/V volunteers were wonderful to spend the weekend with, extremely dedicated and and a true honour and delight to work alongside. My heartfelt thanks goes out to Taavi, Carl, Ruban, Marek, Yi Qing, Laura, Ian, Dan and Brandon, you are all champions (I’m sorry if I missed anyone, please let me know if I did!!) Being apart of an amazing team means that the inevitable issues, challenges and last minute things that come up can be dealt with smoothly and without burning out any one person.
  • A Remembrance Day Moment of Silence: the Sunday of this conference was November 11, and Grey Wilson led the main hall (where I was at the time; Taavi Burns led the lower hall) in two minutes of silence at 11am that was simple, heartfelt and moving. It was good to take that time to just completely stop, be still and reflect on the sacrifices of so many people who have enabled us to live in freedom and put on conferences like this in the first place. Thanks to Greg and Taavi.
  • The Rentals: we rented our audio gear from Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill and I really appreciated the time that Ryan, their rental department head, took in emailing back and forth with me to ensure we got the right equipment. The QSC K-12 mains sound great, the Soundcraft MFXi8 mixers were compact but powerful, and I really appreciated the quality and usability of the Sennheiser g3 wireless gear. Working with a vendor who is knowledgeable and has quality inventory cannot be overestimated.
  • The Video Recording: Carl Karsten from NextDayVideo (who is responsible for the videos from PyCon and many other conferences beside) kindly joined us and recorded all the talks, many of which are already posted on his YouTube channel. It was great to meet you in person Carl, and it was a pleasure working the sound board along side you.
  • Carefully Planning Equipment Needs: I spent a decent amount of time working with the organizers (my friend and colleague David Wolever in particular) to understand exactly what we needed on the audio side, and ensure we could get it all. In particular, we needed to interface cleanly the audio from the boards to Carl’s computer interface. I think we did reasonably well on this front.
  • Headworn Mics for Presenters: we rented 3 MightyMic headworn theatrical microphones (two talk tracks plus one backup, which we fortunately did not have to use) which worked well. These mics sound great and can be gently bent and shaped to fit the speakers ear (or left/right side preference). With about 30-60s to fit each presenter with the mic before their talk I had to pretty quickly develop my script (in the spoken sense) to get them up to speed.  I found the keys to be: quickly explain the intention, get them started initially and then ask (always asking their permission first!!) if I can assist in tweaking the position, all the while describing what I’m doing. It usually went like this: “Have you used one of these before? [If yes: So you know that…] they can be shaped to fit your ear, so please first just put it on in what fits comfortably to you. Would you mind if I just reach in here and make a little adjustment [to ensure the mic wouldn’t be pointing off away from them.] Does that feel snug? Feel free to squeeze and shape the mic to feel snug. Would you mind if I attach this clip on your collar to give the wire some strain relief? Here is the bodypack, there are no buttons for you to push, please just clip that onto your belt.” A sound check was generally not possible (time was too tight), so I just tried to ensure a good fitting then would very quickly adjust gain as necessary once they began to speak.
  • Having Outboard Analog 31-band EQ’s: I borrowed two units (one for each of the presentation rooms) with the plan to do some room measurement and calibrations. A lack of time on Friday night after setup (I was there until midnight none the less!) meant I never got to that, but despite that having these to shape the room acoustics on the fly during talks was still hugely useful. We were video recording all the talks so while I did use the channel EQ’s too, I’m glad I had a post-record overall room EQ option so that the recordings did not have to get blemished as I carefully rung out room resonances on the fly. Great tools to have even in this digital age, and the tactical interface was perfect for this (just beware of booth clutter accidentally bumping into them.)

What To Improve For Next Time

  • Venue Power: there were two issues with the power at the venue. The first was they didn’t have any information on which outlets were mapped to which circuits. From a site visit in advance I knew that this way the case, but because the building was in use at that time, it wasn’t until setup on the Friday night that we were able to organize a group of volunteers with outlet AC testers and walkie talkies to painstakingly flip breakers and check which outlets were affected, and create a map. Because of their efforts, we were able to put the A/V systems on separate breakers that fortunately were never tripped throughout the weekend. I’m glad we did because this conference was for technical programmer types, many of whom (naturally enough) brought their laptops and thus we provided as many powers and outlets as we could for them to plug into. At one point some of those circuits did trip, but the A/V was unaffected. The second issue with the venue was, simply enough, maybe of the wall outlets themselves were in some disrepair, in particular they had poor contact friction and extension cords and power bar plugs would easily fall out, requiring additional gaffers tape to keep in place. It seems like a small point, but it’s this kind of unknown I’m glad we were prepared to deal with (having lots of tape on hand), but it would have been nice to avoid altogether.
  • More Training Earlier in the Process: while the volunteers themselves did a wonderful job, I should have been more proactive in organizing the teams farther in advance and arranging time and/or materials for training. I am grateful that we had some people with past experience running Carl’s video setup and others on mixing boards, but I could have saved myself some anxiety getting this side of things solidified sooner. Appropriate delegation is a great skill that I’m continuing to learn.
  • Everyone Using A Microphone Needs Training: like with training the A/V volunteers, I should have tried to make an intentional moment for the other team members who would be using a mic, whether to make announcement or introducing speakers. Simple things like which buttons to push (or not to!) on the wireless mics to mute/un-mute, correct distances from mouth-to-mic for optimal clarity, how to avoid mic feedback by not standing in front of the speakers, and how to establish signalling with the sound board operator to ensure that things will be un-muted and be ready to go by the time you begin to speak.
  • Facial Hair and Headworn Microphones: for male speakers with anything from stubble to a full-on beard, using headworn microphones can be a bit more challenging. You generally don’t want the microphone capsule too far from the source of the sound (especially with a quiet or less distinct speaker, or if the mains/room are prone to feedback and you need more volume.) However, on a few speakers with facial hair, somehow between an overzealous fitting on my part or their own subsequent adjustments, the foam would rub up against their face and add a distinct scratchiness to the audio. I’m sorry!!
  • Projectors: it took a bit of time for the projectors to get properly setup and visually orientated. The fact that they were sitting on a table, and the screens were free-standing (meaning if somebody bumped them the visual setup could be thrown out of alignment) did not always help. Future venues perhaps might have different options, like ceiling mounted projectors and flown screens.

Conclusion

Big shout outs to the organizers and every volunteer and attendee (especially Diana, Taavi, Nicola, Wolever, Mike, Kay, Dan and Bonnie, amongst many others), with special thanks to the conference goers kind enough to help us clean up at the end!! If anyone noticed any issues or saw areas that could be improved with A/V or elsewhere, I’d love to hear your feedback. If I could do it all over again, I would. Will I do it again next year? Let me rest up completely first before answering that one. Am I excited about the next PyCon.ca? Absolutely.

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