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.
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 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.
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.