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.

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