3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 3

Continuing our series in mixing monitors, we’re taking today about mixing monitors from FOH. In the previous two episodes, we’ve considered mixing monitors from a dedicated monitor console and personal mixers. Today, we’ll look at mixing monitors from FOH. Now, some might immediately discount the idea of mixing monitors from a FOH console as amateurish. However, my friend Andrew Stone does this, and few—if any—would call him an amateur. 

Making It Work

The basic premise of mixing monitors from FOH is simple; use the aux sends on the console to drive ears or wedges for the band. Often times, this is wireless ears, but wired can be accomplished with the use of headphone amps. Depending on the console, the mixes may be mono or stereo—this will be a function of how many aux sends are available. Again, depending on the console, there may be a bunch of returns in the snake or the outputs will come off a stage box. Digital consoles are making this easier to do as stage boxes typically have a fair number of outputs on them. From the output, you’re either driving wireless transmitters or headphone amps. 

Upsides

The biggest upside to this method is that every input—even local ones—are available for the musicians at any level they desire. You don’t have to worry about splits, or how to get the ProPresenter channels down to monitor beach. Whatever is on the console can go to the band. You don’t have to worry about channel limitations, musicians not being able to mix or how to fit everything in. Having everything centrally located, so to speak, can be a big advantage. Troubleshooting mixes is also easy. If you’re the only tech guy on staff, not having to run between two boards to solve a problem can be a real time and stress saver. But, there are some limitations. 

Downsides

While the biggest upside is that all your console channels are available, the biggest downside is often that you don’t have enough mixes. Small to mid-size consoles typically have between 6-16 aux mixes. And if you want to use effects, you need at least 1-4 of them for that purpose. On smaller consoles, you may have 16 auxes, but if you want to do stereo mixes—and I think you should if at all possible—you will have a maximum of 8 people you can mix for. But since you’ll have some effects running, you probably can only do 7. 

On larger consoles, you can do more, but of course, that means more to keep track of. The workload goes up when you have to keep 6, 8 or a dozen musicians happy plus keep FOH sounding great. This is not to say it’s impossible, it just takes a little more work. You have to be a bit more intentional during soundcheck to make sure you get the mixes dialed in right and quickly before starting on the house mix. 

Is right for your church?

Again, this is something you need to think about. On some levels, the lack of complexity is very nice. With everything in one spot, it’s easy to manage. But it does increase the workload on the FOH engineer. It is cost-effective, however. Personal mixing systems can be expensive, as is a second console. In any monitor situation, you need wedges, wireless IEMs or headphone amps, so when we take those out of the equation, mixing from FOH is the least expensive solution. It’s also not a bad way to start. For a young or growing or transitioning church, you can start off mixing from FOH, then add personal mixers or a monitor desk as money and personnel permit. 

Alright, so those are the 3 methods for mixing monitors. Next time, we’ll consider the .5 way. 

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 2

We are currently in a series about how to mix monitors (which astute readers will discern from the title of this post). Last time, we talked about using a dedicated monitor console. This time around, we’ll consider using personal mixers. Personal mixers are not really a new phenomenon; Aviom pioneered them in the late ’90s. Thankfully, we have many more options today than we did 15 years ago. Let’s first consider how personal mixers work.

Mixers…For Everyone!

The basic idea of a personal mixer is just that—each musician gets their own mixer and can craft their own mix. Most personal mixing systems mix between 16-40 channels, and those channels are either direct outs of individual channels from the FOH board, or mixes from said board. For example, you may use a direct out for the worship leader’s vocal, but a mix for the drum kit. How many direct channels versus mixes you have will depend on how many channels your personal mixing system will mix, how many inputs you’re using and how many mixes you have free on the console. 

Essentially, each musician gets these channels and can mix their ears themselves. When they are working with direct outs, each musician can individually control the level of those channels. With mixes, everyone has to compromise. For example, if you have a mix of the drum kit and someone wants more snare in the mix, everyone gets more snare in the mix. Sometimes it takes some creativity to come up with a mix solution that makes everyone happy, but it can work quite nicely. 

The Upsides

The thing that everyone appreciates about personal mixing is that every musician can have their own, personalized mix. Most of the time, this is true of a dedicated monitor console as well, unless the monitor console runs out of mixes. For the most part, personal mixer systems can be expanded to as large a system as necessary to get everyone their own mix. You don’t run out of mixes on the console, you simply add another mixing station. Sometimes that means adding another distribution hub, but the systems can get quite large. 

With everyone building their own mixes, in theory anyway, everyone should be happy. It also removes a significant burden from the FOH engineer. Keeping the engineer’s workload down is a big benefit of personal mixing systems. There may be some touchup to do on the mixes once in a while, but if the gain structure is correct and the mixes set correctly, it should be minimal. 

The Downsides

Not all is rosy with personal mixers, however. Not all musicians can build a mix and some really struggle with it. Having all those mixers all over stage can also lead to a significant amount of stage clutter (though this can be minimized by moving the mixers off or upstage prior to the service). And with some systems, driving wireless IEMs creates some wiring challenges. 

Some debate how many channels a personal mixer should mix. Often, it seems like 16 is not enough, but many contend that much more than that can be confusing to some artists. Again, they’re musicians, not engineers. Personally, I like the Roland M-48s, which will mix 40 channels, but in 16 stereo groups. As the engineer, I have control over the level of every channel for each mixer, but the artist only has 16 knobs to turn. Digital Audio Labs LiveMix offers 24 channels, which seems like a good compromise, though for some churches, 16 channels is enough (check out Elite Core). 

Another downside is cost. Personal mixing systems are not cheap. Except for the Behringer system. That actually is pretty cheap. And it’s not terrible. But the rest have a cost associated with them. And sometimes, going from 8 mixers to 9 will require another distribution hub, which can add another $1,000-2,000 to the cost of that 9th mixer. This is not to say they are not worth it, but you do have to consider the cost, so to speak. 

Is it for your church?

Ultimately, you have to decide if the upsides outweigh the downsides. I like personal mixers. I have found that when set up correctly, it helps the musicians get what they want, while freeing me up for the task of mixing FOH. It also saves me from having to have a dedicated monitor engineer. But not everyone agrees, so you’ll have to work it out. 

Next time, we’ll consider mixing monitors from FOH.

Roland

Today’s post is brought to you by Digital Audio Labs, The Livemix monitor system is simple for volunteer performers to use while providing professional tools for great mixes. Featuring outstanding sound quality, color touchscreen with custom naming, 24 channels with effects, remote mixing, intercom, ambient mics, and dedicated ME knob, Livemix provides more and costs much less than competing systems.

3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 1

Photo courtesy of Chris Hsia

Photo courtesy of Chris Hsia

Recently a reader in Australia emailed a question about mixing monitors. They are in the process of upgrading their console and trying to decide what the best way to handle monitor mixes will be. As I pondered my answer, it occurred to me that others might benefit from this thought process. In this series, I’m going to give you the 3.5 ways there are to handle monitor mixes and their pros and cons. It should be noted that there isn’t necessarily a “best” method. The best method is what works best for your situation. 

As I see it, you can mix monitors 1) from a monitor desk, 2) from personal mixers, 3) from FOH and 3.5) from FOH using a computer or app to control the mixes while the FOH operator handles FOH duties. Of course, you can also do combinations of these, which greatly increase the permutations. But we’ll stick with these for the sake of simplicity. Today, we’ll handle the monitor desk.

Monitor Beach

Having a dedicated monitor desk has many advantages. Typically, the desk is on the side of the stage, which makes it easy for musicians to communicate with the monitor engineer. Because the EQ, gain and processing is totally separate from FOH, each musician’s mix can be very customized. The monitor engineer can dial up exactly the right amount of EQ for every input that makes for a great in-ear mix without affecting the house. 

A good monitor engineer will be on top of changes and will even make adjustments on the fly based on the changing nature of the set. I’ve known monitor guys to do extensive snapshotting to make sure the artists are as happy as possible with their mixes throughout the entire set. These are some real advantages. In some ways, this could be said to be “best” as the artists really should be getting exactly what they want.

The Downsides

All this goodness doesn’t come without cost, however. First, you need physical space for the desk itself. Not all churches are configured for a monitor desk on stage right or left. You also need a split of the audio signal. With digital growing in popularity, this is getting easier. However, it still adds a layer of complexity and cost to the system. And of course, there is the monitor console itself. Often, this can be a second surface sharing the same stage boxes, but they don’t give those away. 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for churches is the need for a second operator. Finding qualified FOH guys is hard enough—adding a second one every week can be a real challenge. This is especially true in smaller churches. Some view monitors as a training ground for FOH, or will put less experienced people back there. I’m not convinced this is a good idea. It’s one thing to keep one mix dialed in and sounding good; keeping 8 or 10 people happy with individual mixes is not easy and the engineer has to be good, fast and able to work with the band. 

Is It Right For Your Church?

A lot of times, people will go to a conference at a big church, see a dedicated monitor engineer there and conclude they need that at their church. I caution against this. Not every church needs a dedicated monitor position. In fact, I know of an extremely large church in the Midwest that does all their IEMs from FOH. They could easily find room for monitors, they have the people and budget really isn’t a big issue. However, they don’t do it because it doesn’t fit their workflow. 

So before you go rushing out do add a new desk in to the mix (pun intended), consider whether this is really right for you. Next time, we’ll look at personal mixers, and after that mixing monitors from FOH. Hopefully, this will arm you with the information you need to make a good decision.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

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CTA Review: UE SoundGuard

More and more churches are getting rid of the wedges on stage and switching to in-ear based monitoring systems. Generally, this is a good thing. It greatly reduces stage wash in the house, makes for a quieter stage overall, and can do a lot to protect the hearing of musicians and engineers alike. With a custom IEM, you’ll get somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-26 dB of passive noise reduction; which takes a 105-110 dB SPL A stage down to a safer and more manageable 80-ish. Of course, this is assuming that the musicians have the discipline to keep the volume reasonable in their ears. And that feedback never happens. Or a mic never falls over. Or some random, insanely loud bit of digital noise never sneaks into the IEM mix. 

I admit that once or twice I have pushed the wrong button on the console and sent musicians scrambling to rip their ears out. Thankfully, both times I caught it quickly and no one was hurt. But I do know someone who lost a significant portion of his hearing in one hear because he was leaning down to adjust a guitar pedal when piercing feedback erupted from his wedge (thankfully, I was not the engineer on that one). 

As more and more musicians go to IEMs, they have to start thinking about protecting their hearing. A deaf musician has a harder time making a living, or simply enjoying their craft. We can and should be diligent as engineers to do everything we can to protect them (and our hearing as well), but sometimes bad things happen. 

Ultimate Ears has been making custom IEMs as long as almost any company and saw a need to help musicians protect themselves. At NAMM they unveiled a small box called the Sound Guard. It’s under 2” square and about a half inch thick. It comes with a belt clip and two 3.5mm jacks; in and out. A short jumper cable connects the Sound Guard to the wireless receiver or wired cable, and the IEMs are plugged into the output jack. It’s powered by a pair of CR2450 batteries, and runs about 20 hours on a set. Though I’ve been using mine for what seems like a lot longer than 20 hours on the original batteries.

You Have Two Jobs

Sound Guard does two things. First, it handles some impedance matching. One of the biggest problems with many IEM systems is that the output impedance doesn’t match up properly with the impedance of balanced armature-based IEMs. The Sound Guard fixes that. Without getting too technical, it cleans up the low end significantly, and improves transient response. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have heard from reliable sources that the Sound Guard really improves the sound of our favorite personal mixing punching bag, the Aviom A-16 II.

The second, and primary purpose of the Sound Guard is to protect against high-level, accidental transients. It acts effectively like a limiter, monitoring average sound levels and lowering the level of a spike to safer levels. This would include things like feedback, a mic falling off a stand, a cable short or burst of digital garbage. 

Sound Better

I have been testing the Sound Guard with various sources for the last few months and found that it does indeed make most things sound a little better. It’s not an, “OH MY GOSH!!!” improvement in sound, at least in the sources I’ve tried, but there is a noticeable improvement, especially at the low end. It’s cleaner, tighter and better. 

On the listening tests I did, it seemed like I could hear subtle details a little bit better than without SoundGuard. For example, I’ve been a fan of Lone Justice for almost 30 years, and have listened to Shelter hundreds of times. A favorite song is Dixie Storms, it’s just Maria McKee and her piano. It’s a beautiful song but I have never noticed the spring reverb they put the piano through. Now part of it is likely the UE11’s I’m listening with, but I felt like I could hear the corrosion on the springs, it was that clear. 

Protect Me

Because the Sound Guard has a limiter in it, I kept expecting to hear it clamp down on something at some point. I never did. Of course, I haven’t injected a high-level spike into my ears either. I’ve seen test results showing that it does clamp down on spikes and I will take their word for it. Plus, I don’t have a convenient way of testing it. 

So I did the next best thing; I talked to my friends at UE. They told me the limiter doesn’t kick in until approximately 109 dB. They originally set it lower, but the beta testers kept telling them to turn it up. I suggested a switchable setting perhaps between 100 dB and 109 dB. Of course, actual output will depend on the ears you’re wearing, but that gives you some options. I suspect this may be in the works at some point. 

Bottom Line

 The SoundGuard isn’t one of those products you simply must run out and get right now! However, for a musician that wears balanced armature in-ears, especially one who is plugged into a wireless pack or Aviom, it is worth the investment, if not for the sound improvement alone. RF spikes can hurt and can be damaging, and this little box will protect you from them. At $199, it’s not a no-brainer, but consider what your hearing is worth. I know I’m not giving mine back.

I have to mention--mainly to keep the FTC happy--that UE gave me a SoundGuard to evaluate. So technically I don't have to give it back. But I really like it, so I'm keeping it. Disclosure over.