Monitor Wars - The Solution?

UPDATE, NOV. 20, 2016

As this post was written almost 10 years ago, I want to start off with a huge caveat; a lot has changed! As of this writing, I would definitely not use Avioms for personal mixers--my choices now are Elite Core for basic 16 channel analog systems or Digital Audio Labs LiveMix for Dante-based systems. Also, I would absolutely recommend using room mic’s with any IEM-based monitoring system. Without them, the band loses touch with the congregation, and the band will hate it. There's a lot more to say, but that will be a new post. I'm writing this just in case anyone unearth's this 10 years later... END UPDATE

Not too long ago, in a church not that far away, the battle had begun. It started off innocently enough. The bass player and drummer had to share a monitor because there were not enough to go around (budget constraints, you know). The first request was for a little more bass in the monitors. That was followed by a request for more kick and snare, then a little more bass. Now the drummer needed kick, snare and toms turned up. But the bass player couldn’t hear anymore, so he needed more. By now the level of those two monitors had reached 86 dB at front of house. The arms race had started; the Monitor Wars had begun.

Sound familiar? It happened in my church every week until about 6 months ago. Frustrated at using the house speakers to cover up the stage sound (and just barely at that), I began looking for a better way. Having spent many a summer shooting video of Christian music festivals, I was aware that most of the touring acts had gone to in-ear monitors, mainly the wireless variety. I greatly appreciated the lower volume on stage (I could actually talk to my grip…), but I also knew that without a separate monitor desk and operator (neither of which we had nor could afford), wireless in-ears would not help us.

I remembered an instant message conversation I had with a friend some years back about a personal monitor technology that used Cat-5e cable to send 16 channels of audio to the stage and was distributed to each musician in a way that allowed them to control their own mix. Some quick Internet research led me to Aviom and their Personal Mixing II system.

The concept is simple enough; take 16 channels, direct outs, aux sends, group outs, whatever, and patch them into the input module. Those 16 channels get sent via a single wire to the stage where it is daisy-chained to each mixer. Every musician gets full control over his or her mix without affecting any other. The system is wired, but since our guitar players rarely stage dive, this is not a limitation.

The benefits are many. The most noticeable is that stage volume is reduced significantly. No longer is the house mix merely a mask for the stage monitors. Our FOH engineers can actually create a mix that sounds great, and keep the volume 6-8 dB lower (which makes our more senior worshipers very happy!). It is now possible to turn the electronic drums down in the house, and have them go down – finally the benefit of electronic drums realized!

Another bonus is the generation of additional monitor mixes. Whereas we used to have four, we now have nine – 4 aux sends from the board for vocalists and the choir, and 5 personal mixes for the band. Not only do vocalists require lower levels, but we now have enough that the worship leader doesn’t have to share with the harmony singers, and we have enough left over for the brass section and choir. No more sharing. This makes everyone happy, including the engineers who have far more control to please everyone on stage.

I have to admit to a bit of fear and trembling when I was about to roll out the system. I knew it was a great solution, but would the musicians agree? Would the system be user friendly; would it sound good enough; would they revolt and refuse to use it? Thankfully my fear was unfounded. I made some good decisions (in hindsight) that really helped the adoption go smoothly. First, I talked it up for months beforehand. I knew the musicians (and the sound guys for that matter) were frustrated with the current state. Though I bought the equipment in the summer, I didn’t plug anything in until mid-fall. I wanted time to play with it, show it off and tell everyone how great it would be.

Second, I bought good equipment. The Aviom system rocks. It’s that simple. I also went with good ear buds, Westone UM1’s for the guitars and keys and AKG K240 headphones for drums and bass. I couldn’t afford ear buds that went deep enough (the UM2’s would have been nice), so I bought good headphones. Honestly, they look fine on stage, and some have commented they look really cool.

Third, I rolled it out in stages. I started with the drums and bass first, and they fell in love. It didn’t take long for the guitars and keys to want their own “ears.” I have had almost a 100% acceptance rate, and the only people who weren’t crazy about them at first were those not on ears. Not because they wanted them, but because they missed the “feel” of the sound. Once we dropped the stage level from the mid to high 90 dB range, to the mid 70’s, they didn’t feel the sound as much. It was mainly a problem during rehearsal when the house system wasn’t on. It took me a few months to solve the problem (it should have taken a week, what can I say…). Now we simply turn the house system on for rehearsal - everyone’s happy.

The system is not perfect, none is I guess. At first 16 channels seemed like a whole lot, but when we started breaking it down, we ran out pretty fast. The problem is I have musicians who sing, and they need to hear their vocals and their instrument, so that really adds up. I thought I could get by with using group outs, but that doesn’t allow enough control. More aux sends would be helpful after all. Because we have 4 different worship teams, each with a different musical makeup, I end up re-patching the direct outs each week to accommodate everyone. At first I tried to avoid this, but in the end it makes life easier.

The overall effect of the system is fantastic despite these minor limitations. The house sound has improved so dramatically I actually have people commenting on it (how often does that happen?). Our engineer’s workload is greatly reduced, so they can spend more time finessing the mix, and less time trying to make the monitors work. We can run a much lower house volume, with cleaner sound that still feels great. And the musicians really love it. Some have taken to bringing their own headsets, which is fine and those who are not yet on “ears” are asking when I’m getting them a set.

The cost was very reasonable, and the beauty of the system is its expandability. We started off with an input module and 4 stations for under $2,500. We can add stations for less than $500, and we can add as many as we want. Next budget year I will be buying a powered hub to sit on stage that will power the mixers over the Cat-5, eliminating the wall warts. If you are facing the problem described at the beginning of this article, I highly recommend this system. Not only have we enjoyed a cease-fire agreement, but we are now in nearly complete peace. Worship leading has become fun again!