Last year in the pages of Pro Audio Review, I started a series on managing SPL levels for this, the "Worship Audio" column. I addressed the reasoning involved in the process and suggested methods for isolating guitar amplifiers, drums and other "loud" acoustic instruments. I also addressed acoustical considerations when the instrumentation of your house-of-worship (HOW) has surpassed the capabilities of its physical design. This all led up to this month's installment of the biggest barrier to manageable SPL level: the presence of stage monitors.
Hear Technologies Hear Back personal monitor mixer At my church, we set out to address this problem 10 years ago when we did a full redesign of our AV systems. One of the keys to getting more manageable levels back then is the same as it is today: the incorporation of personal monitoring systems featuring in-ear or headphone-based monitoring. Granted, the technology has experienced some significant advancements (not to mention that we have made some real-world adjustments because what works on paper does not always translate to live worship), but overall the concept is the same: Eliminate anything on stage that lends to a muddier, louder sound.
Making the move to a personal monitoring system is not an inexpensive option, and sometimes it can be hard to explain the benefits to the non-technical or to convince your musicians and worship leader that this would be beneficial to all involved. One approach to encourage open-mindedness toward the personal monitoring concept is to communicate with other HOW that have made the plunge, then get and share their feedback with your HOW.
Speaking from experience (gained at my own HOW and others in the area where I have installed and helped implement in-ear systems), the biggest argument against personal monitoring systems generally comes from vocalists, especially the leaders who want to "hear" the room. We tried piping in room mics that were solely used for the headphone system, which took up channels on our system while not giving them the freedom to move around. So, combating the freedom issue, we gave the leaders a wireless belt pack fed from their mixer, which allowed them the freedom to roam.
Some of our leaders prefer this method, and it is working well for them. To hear the room, they have one ear bud in; the other ear is open to the room. Yet even in this instance, some still felt isolated from the congregation. Ultimately, we landed on installing a small powered monitor at those locations, primarily for the vocalist and leader, fed from the in-ear mixer — the TC Helicon VSM-200XT active personal monitor, a simple box featuring a volume knob, was the solution. The down side to this is they are now in control of their overall level, which is where education — lots of education—comes into play.
Educating the musicians is as critical as the system itself when implementing in-ear monitoring. Studio cat types will feel right at home, not missing a beat. But since most of us don't have the luxury of studio musicians at our HOW, we will spend a good amount of time on the front end with training.
Poor gain structure is likely the most common error made on the novice user's part. Many times they will start with their mic wide open and the master down at 3. Most have been very receptive to learning,and, trust me, teaching them some simple mixing principles is time well spent as they are not accustomed to the art of mixing.
The common point of equipment failure will be the ear buds themselves. Skimping on quality here will negate all of the hard work and training you have put into the implementation. What I have found works best is a nice array of ear buds, headphones that go around the back of the head — yes, some people do not want to mess up their hair and don't like the buds — and closed-ear headphones for the rhythm section (so the latter can really get the "feel" of the music). If budget permits, a ButtKicker or similar low-frequency device (that rumbles the low end directly on their seats, stools, or under their feet) is a great option. The majority of the musicians I have dealt with end up having a pair of headphones as well as ear buds that are both physically comfortable and sonically familiar.
A number of personal monitoring systems have been introduced over the years; here, I will highlight a few. The most common one found in HOW environments is built by Aviom, the Pro 16 Monitor Mixing System, which uses a proprietary format transmitted over Cat-5 cabling. They have an entire network of add-ons, making the system very customizable for the task at hand. Its digital controller allows for grouping faders and setting presets for musicians to do a quick recall. Search the PAR archives (at www.proaudioreview.com) for Aviom to find multiple reviews on its full line of products.
Furman Sound's systems are the ones that I am most familiar with, both the HDS-6 and its bigger brother, the HDS-16. The HDS-16 is the current system utilized in our church. Unlike the others, this is a fully analog system: no D/A or A/D conversion and 50-pin Centronix connectors (two if you are chaining through a box, and that can get pretty bulky). The analog interface controls up to 16 total inputs, four stereo pair and eight mono inputs. It's worth considering that the HDS-16 is limited to 16 boxes total, due to the analog nature. [An archived HDS-6 review, by PAR contributor Russ Long, is available here — Ed.]
Hear Technologies' Hear Back personal monitoring system is the most cost-effective solution that I have used that is also transmitted on Cat-5. From my experience, Hear Back performs as advertised, takes up a small footprint (Cat-5 cabling for interface), has great support from Hear Technologies, and works well. In my opinion, they are not built as sturdy as the other systems, but for a static install of a multichannel in-ear system, a Hear Back solution would be a great entry the world of in-ears.
Furman HDS-16 headphone/audio distribution and mixing station RSS by Roland is the newest player in this market, and a full review of M48-based system is featured in this issue of PAR (just turn the page). I have not gotten my hands on one of the RSS by Roland systems yet, so I am quite interested in seeing what Ben Williams, a Nashville area live audio pro, has to say about it. From what I have read and found in research, the RSS by Roland system appears to be the next evolution in in-ear monitoring.
Feeding your system is another important factor when considering the best personal monitoring option for your HOW. For instance, Aviom has external A-Net converters or interface cards for some consoles with built-in A-Net protocol. Hear Back supplies an A/D box as well. The Furman system, as mentioned earlier, is 100 percent analog; it does not have any converters but does have a main distribution box. So, regardless of the front end, getting the signal into the boxes is best accomplished by a combination of direct outs and aux sends. If your current board does not have direct outputs on each channel, you may have some creative signal routing to do via sends, insert points, or some combination thereof. Be sure to closely examine your FOH console's options as well as its signal flow chart to best determine how you will lay out the sends to the personal monitoring interface.
Perspective Is Key
Worship is not meant to be a sterile experience. It is meant to be lively and fluid in nature with many moving parts. Audio is not the focus, nor is the musician or even the leader. These are all tools to bring together a congregation that can span many generations to lift up one voice in worship. Thus in-ear monitoring is not a fix-all, but it goes a long way in corralling SPL levels, muddiness, feedback, and stress on a FOH engineer who must also manage monitor levels and mixes. It also helps the musician who needs their mix adjusted. Removing stumbling blocks for an optimal worship experience is our primary goal; I can't say enough for the value of implementing some form of personal monitoring control for your HOW.
Dan Wothke is the media director at Belmont Church in Nashville. He invites you to contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.