It May Not Be Too Loud

Photo courtesy of Eliazar Parra Cardenas

Photo courtesy of Eliazar Parra Cardenas

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed everyone’s favorite live sound topic in the church; volume! Almost nothing will get people fired up more than trying to figure out how loud to run a service. If you ask 10 people in the congregation, you’re liable to get 11 answers. When I was a TD regularly mixing, I would get complaints from some people that it was too loud and from others that it wasn’t loud enough. And that was for the same service. The reality is, it will be almost impossible to please everyone in the congregation when it comes to volume. However, there are some things that we need to know before we even enter into the conversation. 

It May Be a Style Thing

A service mixed at 85 dBA SPL 10 second average may be too loud for someone if they don’t like Hillsong-style worship music. But that same person may have no problem with a pipe organ cranking away at 105 dBA SPL 10 second average. Some people see guitars on stage and say, “It’s too loud!” even if the guitars aren’t playing. Before you get into a heated argument about actual level, make sure you’re really talking about volume. 

It May Be a Mix Balance Thing

I’m an old guy now, but I still like music reasonably loud for worship. However, I’m not digging the current trend to make the kick and bass the lead vocal. I’ve heard several mixes—if they can be called mixes—where pretty much all I could hear (and feel) was the kick and bass. No vocals, no guitar, no keys, no anything else. And the low end was flappy and all over the place anyway. But for some reason, that’s how the guy mixed it. In all of those cases, the mix was too loud for me. It was just plain unpleasant to listen to. I really wouldn’t have mattered if it was 100 dB or 85 dB. 

I’ve also heard a few rooms where the system was tuned with so much energy in the 1-4 KHz range that it felt like an ice pick to the forehead. Again, it doesn’t really matter what level we’re talking about at that point, it’s too loud. This is where an RTA can be really helpful to see what’s going on in the room. If you see a big hump in the middle of the frequency range, you need to fix that because you’re going to get complaints. 

At that point, you have to figure out if it’s your mix or system tuning. But either way, you need to fix it.

It May Be a Acoustic Instrument Thing

Live drums are generally pretty loud. When churches put a full drum kit on a stage in a small room with all hard surfaces, the drums are going to be loud. In fact, they will probably louder than you want without even putting them in the PA. And you can’t turn them down at that point. I’m not going to go into how to solve that problem here (we’ve talked about that already—search for it), but those cymbals can be a chief source of complaints. Similarly, if you have guitar amps or bass amps on stage, they can often overpower the PA if the musicians aren’t disciplined. 

In this case, it actually is too loud. If you have to run the level of the mix higher than you ordinarily would just to make it work with the drums or guitars on stage, you have some work to do. Floor wedges can present a similar challenge. When I arrived at Coast Hills, when I turned off the main PA and measured just the stage wash, we were at about 86-88 dBA at FOH 90 feet away. At that time, our volume limit was 88 dB at FOH. I was pretty much done, so I went home. 

No, I didn’t go home, but you can see the challenge. It took a lot of energy, time and no small amount of money to fix that issue. But we did. 

The point of this article is to get you thinking about volume in a different way. It’s a much more nuanced problem than just what the Radio Shack SPL meter says. Or worse, the uncalibrated SPL app that everyone has on their phone. And by the way, the next time someone walks up, phone in hand telling you how loud it is, just ask them when the last time they calibrated their phone to an industry standard reference calibration. Then show them the calibration page and ask them where their calibration source is. That usually settles them down. 

Before you go getting into an argument about how loud it is, make sure you identify the real problem. What’s your favorite volume-related issue?

Roland

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CTA Review: Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors Pt. 2

Last time around, we started looking (or listening…) to the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors. We established that they fit well, were of high quality and sounded great for listening to music. But…

Do They Translate?

One of the questions we have to ask with a product like this is, do they translate? In other words, if I put together a mix on these IEMs, do the decisions I make listening to them translate well into other listening environments. Ideally, they would be accurate enough and give me enough information to make good decisions so that when I play a mix just about anywhere else, it will sound good. That’s kind of the point of reference speakers and these monitors. 

For the last few months, I have been working on a mix of a song we did at Coast Hills some years ago. When I started working on the mix, I had a set of M-Audio BX-5 monitors, which are not terribly accurate. I also used various headphones and IEMs to work on it. But I was never happy with the results. The mix either came up too muddy, too busy or lacking in dynamic range. It didn’t feel punchy enough, but at the same time, it felt overly processed. 

So I broke out the Reference Monitors and started over with the mix. Immediately, it became apparent what the problems were. I started making corrections and quickly forgot I was listening to IEMs. They present a terrific sound field and it was easy to get the mix wrangled into shape. Though I had spent hours on the mix prior, in just a few hours I had it rebuilt and sounding fantastic. Now, one could argue I had already done much of the hard work—selecting plug-ins, getting overall tones correct and the like—but it wasn’t until I had some accurate monitors to get it sounding good. 

I’ve also upgraded to a set of Equator Audio D-5’s in the Palatial Studio, so I was curious to see what the mix would sound like on them after I mixed it on the Reference Monitors. The result was quite good. I’m still getting used to the D-5’s, but I didn’t find much in the mix that I would change. Subsequent listening led me to the conclusion that the Reference Monitors are indeed a solid reference. 

The Bad News

If there is a downside to these IEMs, it’s the cost. They are expensive at $999, though they are not UE’s most expensive model. On the other hand, were I a recording engineer and wanted to be able to work on my mixes anywhere, they would be totally worth it. One could pay for them in just a few hours of saved studio time. Personally, I’m not sure I would have payed for them for my needs. However, now that I have them, they are pretty much the only pair I listen to. Whether or not they’re worth it for you depends on what you need to do with them. For a volunteer musician that plays once or twice a month, these are overkill. For a professional engineer, having the right tool at your disposal is pretty much priceless.  

I suppose it really depends on what you want from your monitors. If you’re looking for massive bass, these are not for you. If you want a cheap set to listen to while you work out, again, not for you. But if you are looking for highly detailed sound, plenty of accuracy, a great fit and great support, these deserve a look, er, listen. 

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll be heading back to UE to check out the latest in custom IEM manufacturing. I saw a brief preview of it when I did my last tour, and I can tell you it’s cool. Stay tuned!

Finally, so as not to run afoul of FTC regulations, I’m required to report to you that my super-great sounding UE Reference Monitors were provided to me by UE at not cost for the purposes of this review. There are days when it’s good to have the #1 church tech blog…

“Gear

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Church Tech Weekly Episode 214: It's Sunday Already?

One of the most common questions we get at CTA is how to build volunteer teams. We dig deep into that topic tonight with a guy who is really doing a great job with it. Get out the pencil and paper, you're going to want to take notes...

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CTA Review: Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors Pt. 1

It’s been a few years since UE announced the Reference Monitors, but I’ve been eager to get a set in my ears since I heard about them. They were developed in partnership with Capital Studios to provide pro audio engineers with a flat set of reference “speakers” anywhere they were. I have four other sets of custom IEMs and have auditioned at least another half-dozen units. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say up front that these are far and away my favorites. But as always, there’s more to the story.

What Are They?

Here’s a description from the UE website:

“They combine a new proprietary design featuring three speaker balanced armature speakers. Other new technology includes a rugged low profile, low distortion cable, dual acoustically tuned sound channels and multiple passive crossover points creating the ultimate in separation, detail and clarity.”

So what does that all mean? To put it simply, it sounds good. Really good. Like all UE products (and most other custom IEMs) they are a balanced armature design. Unlike a dynamic driver—which is essentially a small speaker—a balanced armature consists of the armature, which is wrapped by a coil and suspended between two magnets. Sending electricity through the coil changes the magnetic attraction which moves it back and forth. A diaphragm is attached to the armature, and this produces the sound we hear. 

Balanced armature drivers are tuned to be highly effective for a given frequency range, which is why there are three of them in each IEM. But getting a coherent sound out of three separate armature drivers is tricky business. There is all kinds of proprietary goodness going on, some of which I can’t talk about and much more I don’t full understand. But it’s a lot harder than just shoving three drivers in the shell and gluing it together. 

The Sound

The target sound profile for these monitors is a detailed, flat response. I have no real way to test this, but I can report that based on my extensive listening with them for the last month, they are the most detailed and flat-sounding IEM’s I’ve ever heard. One thing that IEM manufacturers often do is tune a particular model for a purpose. For example, the UE Vocal Reference monitor is tuned to deliver the goods over the vocal range. And they do that very well. But I wouldn’t listen to music through them for pleasure. But the vocal performance is incredible. 

I’ve heard other IEMs that are better for bass players and drummers as they have hyped low end. Some push both the lows and highs. Others accentuate the midrange. You can choose the right response for the instrument you’re playing.

But when it comes to mixing, you really want flat. And as far as I can tell, these are. More than that, the detail is just incredible. The articulation of a bass, for example, is often hard to reproduce in a small IEM. These nail it without it being over-hyped. The high end is crisp and detailed as well. Compared to my UE7s, I’m hearing a ton more of the subtleties of the cymbals and keys. 

Fit is another important aspect to the sound. Currently, I have three pairs of UE monitors and two pair of 1964 Ears. The UE’s simply fit better than the 1964s. The better fit means I can listen to them longer without discomfort, and the fit also improves the overall response. When I first started talking with the folks at UE about getting a set (and this was shortly after they were introduced), they said some people don’t like using them to just listen to music because they are so flat. Personally, I have enjoyed them immensely, probably because they are so flat. I don’t feel like I’m getting an over-hyped bass or muddy mid’s and high’s. The music just sounds like the music. That works for me. 

My conclusion is that these are great IEMs for just listening to music. But they are supposed to be Reference Monitors, so how do they work for that task? That’s a question we’ll tackle next time.

Roland

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