Mixing with IEMs Update

Since I wrote the original article on mixing with IEMs, I’ve been mocked, dismissed and told that this is a terrible idea to try, let alone recommend to anyone else. As it keeps coming up on Twitter, (and again the concept was thoroughly derided) I thought it would be good to write an update of how it’s working out for us. The naysayers will likely be disappointed as we are still doing it and getting great results. In fact, we continue to get compliments on the mix almost every week  even though there are three of us rotating through FOH with slightly different styles.

Now when I first wrote the article, it was really a, “I didn’t think this would work, but here’s an interesting finding” piece. I couldn’t really explain why it worked, it was simply clear that it was working. However, after doing some analysis and thinking about what’s going on in our room, I’ve come to a conclusion. But first, I should qualify this as saying that this works great for us, in our room, with our band, and our PA. I’m willing to admit that we may be the only venue in the world where it does work (more on that in a minute). Regardless, here’s why I think it works for us.

First off, we have a perfect storm of bad FOH locations. In our room, FOH is in a balcony 20 feet above the audience, 90 feet from the PA. We have a PA that was not designed for our room, and is hung incorrectly. The top boxes (EAW KF750s) are aimed directly at the FOH position. The bottom boxes (KF 755s) are pointed at the front section of seating on the floor. That means the whole back section of the house is entirely off axis of the PA. We have a 10 dB SPL difference between FOH and the back section of seating and 6 dB SPL between FOH and the front. In case you’re not hip to how big of a difference that is (the SPL scale is logarithmic), it’s a lot! And because of the way the boxes interact, the frequency response between the floor and the balcony is completely different. And don’t get me started on the side walls (slanted, but the wrong way) and the hard back wall with no treatment on it right behind us.

We’ve spent hours and hours trying to tweak the PA to create a more even sound across the seating area and in the balcony, however nothing short of a complete re-hang will fix it. And even that solution will put the FOH position off-axis of the mains, and leave us again not hearing what everyone else hears on the floor. As an aside; kids, this is why you pay for a proper design of your PA and don’t just hang any old cabinets in the air willy-nilly.

The net result of all those factors is that what we hear in the balcony is nothing like what everyone else hears on the floor. Seriously; it’s not even close. We may as well be mixing in a different room on different speakers (in fact, we are...). However as it turns out, the frequency and dynamic response of our UE7s closely approximates what the PA is actually doing on the floor. This is clear when we build a mix with the IEMs in, then pull them out to listen at FOH, then go downstairs. The mix built on the UE7s sounds OK at FOH (and often quite a bit bright), but downstairs it is remarkably similar—and remarkably good.

Again, I will point out that we’re not just plugging in our ears, closing our eyes and mixing. Wally Grant pointed out on Twitter (in response to a Dave Miller tweet) that he too thought this was crazy unless we were to give everyone in the house earplugs. We don’t of course; and to make sure we’re not going crazy with the mix, we have an FFT, real-time SPL and SPL logging running at FOH, and have for the past 6-8 months. We know how loud our music is supposed to be, and it’s an easy matter of glancing over at the meter and level graph to see how we’re doing. We also make it a regular habit of popping out the ears and listening live. And we have someone else in the booth listening who can suggest adjustments as needed (which is not that often). Interestingly, we used to get complaints on the volume almost every week. Those complaints have largely disappeared.

Now, would I rather have a properly designed and installed PA that provides even coverage over the entire room and have FOH on the floor so we can actually hear what everyone else hears? Absolutely!! But until someone is willing to write that $150,000 check to make it happen, we can either mix in a different acoustic space, on different speakers and get lousy, inconsistent results, or we can mix on our UE7s and enjoy weekly compliments.

Tim Corder hashtagged a Tweet saying, “Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t make it good.” (To which I wanted to respond, “Guys, I’m right here...I can hear you) But he is right. Just because it works in our room for us doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone. However, the fact of the matter is in our room, it works. I’m even willing to suggest that we may be the only facility in the world where we get better results mixing on ears than mixing listening to the PA. (Actually I don’t believe that, but it is possible.) He also said it’s called “live” mixing for a reason. Again, I agree. I don’t mix dead. I’m listening to the music at the exact same time the congregation hears it. I respond to the band just like I would in any other setting and I watch the crowd to see how they’re responding. It’s all happening in real time; dare I say, live. I’m simply choosing to monitor the mix on a source that more closely approximates what the crowd is hearing.

Now, if you have a lousy FOH position, this technique costs nothing to try and may give you good results. It also may not. If it doesn’t work for you, put the IEMs back in the tin and try something else. All I can say with confidence is that it’s made a huge improvement in our place. In fact, this past Saturday during debrief, our Sr. Pastor commented (on his own), "The sound was awesome tonight." I was mixing, and went back and forth between ears in and ears out all night.

Since I wrote this post, my friend Dave Stagl wrote a counter point explaining why he thinks this technique is flawed. As I said, Dave is my friend and I respect his opinion and skill. Dave makes a compelling argument and I agree with almost all of what he says. We've talked about this on a few occasions and while we may differ as to our approach, we agree completely on one thing; at the end of the day, the people who sign our checks need to be happy. And right now, even with two different approaches, my boss is happy, as is Dave's.

And when it comes down to it, I'm not advocating this technique. I just think it's interesting. If you don't think it's a good idea, don't do it. I won't be offended. Now, can we get on to more fun debates like whether that bottom snare mic is really necessary or if rechargeable batteries work or not?