By Brendan Prout
Recently our church moved from using wedge monitors on the stage to in-ear monitors.
The point was not so that we could be really cool looking and have new gadgets to wow the crowds with. The point was not to be extravagant in our expenditures so we could say, “look at what we have at our church!”
The point quite simply was to make an investment to increase the excellence in sound quality in the house for the people attending our church, by removing the excess stage volume from the house mix, thereby allowing the sound board operators to get a cleaner mix overall and have more absolute control over the room volume.
From removing the excess sound formerly produced by our wedge monitors, we can now determine the exact volume level that we want in the sanctuary and hit it with consistency, keeping total volume limited to a level that is right in that sweet zone: where it’s loud enough to be felt, but not offensive in any particular frequency range to where anyone complains about the volume.
To be completely honest, the sight of a sound engineer prowling the sanctuary with a sound pressure meter does instill confidence in our church goers, visually telling them that we are being sensitive to the sound level, keeping it in control (which we are in fact doing). By the way, if you don’t have your sound engineer equipped with a SPL meter, I highly recommend the investment. Or use a smartphone app like the aptly named “SPL Meter” on iPhone. Its performance is within a couple dB of a real meter, close enough for the desired purpose.
Back to the in-ear monitors… there are several general types. The basic ones are wired and only provide individual control over volume of the general monitor mix, and volume control of one individual input, like the Rolls PM50s system, which I used for many years. Those simple setups are available for less than $25 per station, and don’t require anything more than a couple extra XLR cables and some good earsets. Most churches can afford to step into the game with this level of gear.
The next step up involves systems that are based on the auxiliary output from the main board. They basically operate like a wedge, except instead of an open speaker, the board sends signal to a headphone amp on the stage, which you then plug extension cables from your earphones into. Typical headphone amps have 8 outputs, selectable from 4 monitor channel inputs. A headphone amp setup like this can be had for less than $200 new, and often found used on craigslist or ebay for even less.
The more intricate systems involve digital converters, digital workstations or tablet/smartphone control, using either Ethernet or wifi, and some digital consoles now incorporate this as a built in feature, eliminating the need for a separate system. The new Presonus board has this feature, and my friend Kyle is quite happily getting wonderful use out of it at his church where he serves leading worship.
We’re using the MyMix system at our church. I fell in love with it because of the sound quality and expandability of the system, and also because of its multitrack recording capabilities. With a setup such as this, the Aviom, or other similar digital monitor systems, each musician has individual control over their monitor mix and can hear (or not hear) anything they want.
By having direct control over their personal monitor mix, each musician is able to determine how much of any particular instrument or voice they need to hear, and take the front-of-house engineer largely out of the picture. They can each save their own preferences in the system and log into a personal monitor profile, eliminating the need for lengthy monitor mix tweaks. Our sound checks are down to less than 5 minutes total these days, from what used to take 25 to 45 minutes. It was a total game changer for our mid week rehearsals and our weekend sound checks!! We get so much more time to actually rehearse together rather than fuss with mixes, it’s wonderful!
But our musicians don’t know how to mix sound, and barely understand the concept of “reference” for monitoring. How will they deal with mixing their own monitors?
Truth is, there will be a learning curve. Those who understand how to get a good mix will have to help those who don’t. No matter what IEM system you go with, it will have to be learned and mastered by those using them on a weekly basis, in order to get the most out of them. My advice: don’t put up with negativity as a default response, but defeat it with a positive response: serve your team by delivering to them what they need to hear. Eventually they’ll learn how to feed themselves, but in the short term, you may be doing some spoon-feeding. I’ve certainly set up quite a few monitors for others over the past couple years, but I enjoy most when my volunteers take ownership of it and I see them helping newer folks with it.
But we’ll lose the dynamics of a wedge monitor.
That is inherently untrue, and only said by people who don’t understand how powerfully versatile in response IEMs are, compared to the relative flatness of a wedge. Due to the clarity of the in-ear system, each musician is far more aware of their own instrument/voice and its dynamics. The musicianship of the whole team has increased exponentially, as there’s nowhere to hide from poor musicianship when the sound is so crystal clear. If you’re off key, you hear it. If you missed a cue or get off beat, it’s not ambiguous. Our goal is the play the right note at the right time, and IEM’s facilitate that. It forces the musicianship quality bar to be raised.
Our particular system has the ability to do multitrack recording on SD memory cards on each individual workstation. Our musicians can record the live worship sets or rehearsal (or both!) and export the raw .wav files into any music editing software and review/mix/remix it to their heart’s delight. It allows me to review each music session and determine where we need to concentrate, as far as continuing to develop our musicians’ skills and cohesion as a band. Or simply to export a good worship song recording as an mp3 and share it!
A final benefit is that by dropping the stage volume (an average of 20dB) and using sound isolating earbuds (which also drop sound by 26-29dB), we’re saving our musicians’ hearing. No ear-splitting OSHA violating noise levels, even when we’re rocking out!!
We tried a wide variety of different earbuds of price ranges from $20 up to $700, and found happily that for us, the best bang for the buck was right at the $100 level. Shure SE215′s are amazingly the most full range flat response earbuds of the entire Shure line (no need to get the dual driver SE325′s or triple driver SE435′s – they simply don’t sound better than the SE215′s.) The other earsets that we found to be close in performance and price models were the Sennheiser IE6′s. They didn’t quite fit the majority of our musicians ears the way the Shures did, but the sound quality was hard to tell apart. Very crisp.
Of course, you do get what you pay for… and when you step into the realm of custom molded earsets like 1964’s or UE’s, you’re in a completely different realm of quality.
Whether you go for $100 earphones or $2000 earphones, the important thing is that they provide sound isolation from the loud sound producers, namely the drums and possibly the guitar amps. iPhone earbuds are not going to cut it – so do not allow your people to use them. They absolutely must use isolation earphones if they are going to get the most out of an IEM system. Even a $25 pair of Skullcandy or bottom of the line UltimateEars will fit the bill to meet the basic requirements.
But we’re a small church without a big budget. We can’t afford it.
That was us. Budget-wise, it was a long term game plan. We phased in the system slowly, as it was a major expenditure. In order to facilitate getting our in-ears, we bought it piece by piece over the course of the whole year (and then some). First month we bought the analog/digital converter for our board. Next month we bought the ethernet switch & router. Next month we got a couple of workstations and cables and actually had the drummer and bassist on the system. Next month we got two more workstations and got the electric guitarist and keyboardist on there. The next month we got two more, so on and so forth. We still are in process of getting more components – the goal is that by mid year 2014, we’ll have a complete setup for all musicians and vocalists, and budget-wise it will have been spread over 2 and a half years. Made it a lot more tenable for our financial oversight board to approve, rather than a single big purchase.
But I will feel disconnected from my church.
Not true, if you implement it right. Having an ambient room mic in the system is essential for the band, to be able to hear the church singing with them, as well as to be aware of possible feedback issues. Even without wedge monitors, feedback can still happen, if the FOH tech is running a certain frequency particularly hot. Sometimes it takes the band saying, “something is not right” for them to isolate and fix it, and that requires the band being able to hear the house.
But I will feel disconnected from the band.
Quite the opposite! Though I do hear the occasional complainer or naysayer (who usually has hearing loss issues that IEM’s make very clear and unavoidable), the vast majority of musicians love the clarity that IEM’s bring, so they can feel even closer in step with the other musicians, and able to more closely follow their leader. I’ve noticed that musicians with hearing loss using IEMs have often become suddenly motivated to get their hearing problems addressed; they were under the impression with shared wedge monitors, that no one noticed their hearing loss issues… EVEN WHEN WE HAD TO BLAST THEIR MONITOR SO THEY COULD HEAR IT AND IT WAS BLOWING THE REST OF US COMPLETELY AWAY. Sorry, I’m not being subtle here. But it really was that obvious, and I’m sure many of you deal with the same thing in you bands. The fact is, IEM systems properly utilized benefit all involved: the church, the band, the techies, and the worship leader. It’s one of the best tech investments a church can make.
Brendan Prout is a pastor at Community Bible Church in San Diego, CA, where he oversees worship and outreach. He has served in worship ministry leadership for over 20 years and focuses on training and raising others to do the work of ministry they are called to.