Loudspeaker Buying Guide Pt. 1

Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen

Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen

Buying loudspeakers is perhaps the most daunting task a church tech will face. Today we have powered and unpowered speakers; line arrays and point source boxes; flown and ground stacked; cheap and eye-watering expensive. In each of those categories, we have dozens of manufacturers with hundreds of models to choose from. While it’s not possible in the space of this article to tell you what to buy, we will attempt to guide you through the process of selecting the proper speakers for your space.

The Perfect Speaker

First, there is no perfect speaker. All speaker designs make compromises in deference to the laws of physics. The right speaker for one room might well be entirely the wrong speaker for another room. Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that the speakers in the church that put on that big conference are the right speakers for you. They may be, but they also may not be. 

Second, once you get beyond putting up one or two speakers in a small room, I believe there needs to be some design involved. A competent integrator should be able to model the room and show you some options based on prediction software and help narrow down your choices. Far too many churches make the mistake of just hanging some boxes in the room, pointing them wherever and hoping it sounds good. From experience, I can tell you that most of the time it doesn’t. Plan on spending at least some of your speaker budget on an actual design. You can thank me later. 

As I said, there is no “best” speaker. What you want is the right speakers for your environment. To get to that right speaker, we have to ask some questions, and determine what we are trying to accomplish. Once we know the intended result, we can begin selecting speakers that will effectively deliver the results. It’s much like buying a vehicle; you wouldn’t buy a two-seater convertible if you intend to haul around a lot of mulch. Then again, a pickup would probably not be the best choice to drive a large family to baseball practice. With that in mind, let’s ask some questions.

What is the Source?

Believe it or not, the requirements for a speaker system that will deliver primarily the spoken word and one that will engage the audience with concert-level sound are quite different. Different churches have vastly different programming styles, and the PA needs change as we consider those styles. 

In a very traditional, liturgical setting, the speaker system really just needs to deliver the frequency spectrum of the human voice evenly throughout the room and with great clarity. The volume levels don’t need to be that high (relatively speaking), so we don’t need a bunch of drivers in the air. Don’t be fooled, however; getting a system like this to sound good requires some careful design. It’s just not likely to be as expensive as a full-on modern service system.

As amplified music becomes more and more of a priority, the system needs to adjust. Some churches want concert-level audio, and the only way to get that is with a big PA. Even in smaller rooms, you’ll need to move a lot of air, and that requires a good number of full-range speakers, as well as low frequency drivers (sub woofers) to deliver the goods. Most churches fall somewhere in between those extremes and will need a system designed accordingly.

This is the first in a series of questions we have to ask when it comes to selecting speakers for a venue. Next time, we’ll delve into a little more detail.

“Gear

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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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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Yamaha QL5--First Impressions; The Less Good

We’re in a series of reviews of the Yamaha QL5. We first saw it at InfoComm and did a video about it. It’s the smaller brother to the CL series, and though it has a little less capacity, it has much of the same feature set. Having recently installed one, and spend a weekend mixing on it, I have some thoughts. I’ve already given you an overview of it, and ticked off the positives. But there are a few things that are tricky.

Photo courtesy of Yamaha

Photo courtesy of Yamaha

It’s Complex

As I mentioned in the first installment, this is a complicated system. It has a lot of power and with great power comes great complexity. One of the biggest examples of this is the touch screen interface. Now, I’m a fan of touch interfaces. I even really like the touch and turn concept. However, the main view of the channel on the QL is very dense. They tried to pack so much information to a small space that it can be hard to navigate. I watched the team at the church stare at the screen for a lot longer than they should have to looking for the Direct Out section, for example. 

It’s just a really dense interface. There are so many buttons, knobs and expandable windows, it’s hard to know where to do what. And some controls aren’t immediately apparent. For example, to turn on phantom power for a channel, you touch twice on the gain knob and it brings up a new window with additional controls. That makes sense once you know it, but it’s not right in front of you. 

To be fair, the same is true of many digital consoles, including my beloved Digico. But those board don’t pretend to be novice-friendly. They’re for higher end users, and I expect them to be a little harder to figure out. I was hoping the QL would be a little more transparent. 

The Interface Can Be Confusing

There are several setup screens that look really similar but have different functions. Sometimes you don’t know exactly how to get to a feature you were looking for. Because I did all my console set up in the new QL Editor software on my Mac (which, I will say, is vastly improved over Studio Manager), I couldn’t figure out how to rename a channel (double-touch the gain knob, select the name tab). These aren’t deal-breakers, but I kept feeling like they tried to pack too much information into too small a space. The upside is you’re not many button presses away from things; the downside is, controls can be hidden in plain sight. The good news is, most of those issues are set up functions, and you’re not doing them live during a service. 

Photo courtesy of Yamaha

Photo courtesy of Yamaha

I Miss Dedicated Controls

Most likely to keep budget down, there are but three EQ knobs on the surface. You access the four bands by pressing one of four buttons below the knobs. Again, I expect this on a $2500 board. But on a $15K board, it feels a bit cheap. Though perhaps it was just that the layout of the controls is the exact opposite of what I’m used to and I kept turning the wrong knob initially. You’d get used to it if you mixed on it regularly. Still, I found it a little slower than I’d like to to rapid EQ adjustments. 

Again, you have touch and turn, so you can just use the touch screen and the single knob, which I ended up doing a lot. Maybe I just have high expectations. 

Virtual Soundcheck Is Harder than I Hoped

The big selling point of digital consoles is virtual soundcheck. Record the tracks just after the A/D conversion and then play them back for practice, system set up, training and show optimization. Again, I’m used to the Digico way—which is probably the second best way out there after Roland’s R1000 system. On a Digico, you simply copy the inputs from one MADI bus to the other, record from bus 2, then hit one button to bring them all back in.

I could be wrong—and I still need to get some education on this—but it appears we’ll be doing a full re-patch of the inputs to get them back in. And there are some tricks to getting all the tracks recorded correctly, especially if your stage and inputs aren’t 1:1. When I go back in a few weeks to finalize the install, I’ll be spending more time with this feature and will update you when I know more. But it’s not as easy as I hoped. 

Like I said before, I like the console and will recommend and install more of them. I don’t think any of these things are deal breakers, but I felt you should know about them. I’ve always said I’ll tell you what I like and don’t like about a product, and that’s all I’m doing. Though that attitude has kept several reviews from running in trade magazines, I’m not afraid to print it here. The QL is a good console, and I think Yamaha will sell a lot of them. For that, I give them props. 

Also, thanks to my buddy Jake Cody who helped me troubleshoot my Dante installation. We had some weird issues, and he was great at helping sort them out. Next week, I’ll pull the curtain back on that adventure.

Roland

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