Monitor Wars

Maybe monitor wars is a bit extreme. But if you’ve ever been responsible for the FOH (Front of House) mix, you know the battle between the volume produced on stage impacts the quality and the volume of the mix in the house.

I’m not a musician. I’ve tried picking up various instruments but it just doesn’t click in my mind. My brother on the other hand plays several by ear. I think he got all the musical talent in the family.

I said that to say I don’t fully understand what a musician needs in their monitors for them to do their best. From who I’ve talked to the majority see monitors for the band to stay on time and on key. They don’t need to replicate the house mix. They need the best mix for them to stay on time and in key so they can give their best performance.

I haven’t had to fight the monitors war much at Grace Outreach Center. This is because before I came (9+ years ago) they were using a TDM Monitoring system from Harry Boling. Harry was a long time volunteer who ran FOH for us. It was 16 channels that were split at our patch bay. They ran over coax cable to the mix stations. We’ve also had electric drums. (My thoughts on electric vs. acoustic drums).

Eventually the system started to wear down and a little over 4 years ago we installed an Aviom system (my thoughts on the Avioms).

After that transition we had a worship leader who liked the Aviom but couldn’t get used to IEMs (In Ear Monitors). He felt too cut off and because of our speaker placement there is no good locations to get a crowd mic without picking up a lot of the FOH mix. This ended up putting a delay effect into the Aviom. Really goofy. I know there are some better IEM solutions now. Sensaphonics Active IEMS come to mind but they are around $2k for the setup + your wireless if I remember right. And there is someone out there but I can’t remember who it is but they have IEM that you can control how much isolation you have via “plugs”. The plugs give you different steps of isolation. I think they were around $750 + your wireless.

So for that worship leader we tried a “hotspot” monitor from Galaxy Audio. There is now kind way to say it. It sounded like crap. But the volume was much lower than a typical wedge because the monitor gave a more focused throw pattern and was closer to his ears. The next step was to improve the audio quality we tried a studio monitor. We ended up with a Yamaha MSP3. Not the greatest monitor in the world but it’s a small footprint and gave the volume we needed. Everyone was happy.

Well in 2008 we brought on a new worship leader. There was a communication break down and I didn’t know when he was going to be playing. So I improvised when he was going to play. I typically found out about 5 minutes before rehearsal. So I grabbed what I had available and that was a powered Mackie speaker out of our portable rig and ran it as a monitor. He loved it because it was freaking loud!

He eventually wanted to move to an Aviom setup that fed the Mackie. Problem was there would be times where his monitor would be louder than the house and drowning out the FOH mix during quiet times.

So it was time for a fix. He doesn’t want to go to IEM. The budget is tight. So the idea came up to move from the powered Mackie to the Yamaha studio monitor. From the soundbooth, with just his monitor we would measure around 86dB C weighted. This impacted the FOH mix and everyone on stage complained they couldn’t hear their monitors. Then other monitors get turned up now the house has to get turned up and the cycle continues. We switched to the Yamaha Monitor and now his volume was reading around 70dB C Scale from the sound booth.

Now the other vocalists and choir can hear their monitors. The FOH mix is quieter and cleaner. And overall it’s a win.

I know using a studio monitor may not be a typical solution for stage volume so I wanted to share the solution we came up with.

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January 23, 2009. Tags: , , . Sound.

4 Comments

  1. DXEndar replied:

    I’ve had to be the ‘monitor nazi’ for years now.

    Several years ago, we use to have multiple guitar amps on stage, and about 9 monitor wedges with a hot spot for the piano player (that sounded awful as well). Plus, everyone wanted a full mix in their monitors with themselves the loudest in their own mix. Not only was this a nightmare matrix to keep up with, we had the same problem where the FOH was getting drowned in monitor sound. That, and the shape of our room has some standing waves that just go crazy at times.

    So to fix it, we took some drastic measures . . .

    We switched to electric drums (with live cymbals), though the drummer hated them.
    The band started wearing head phone monitors.
    We outlawed amps on the stage (there are some nice POD’s and preamps that sound just as good by the time they get to FOH).
    We added a 1/3 Graphic EQ to each of the three wedges left (the Piano / Lead vox monitor, the Choir / Praise team monitor, and the Pulpit / Special Music monitor).
    And I am constantly giving them ‘just enough’ in the monitors to function.

    Everyone on the stage knows that the monitors can ruin a house mix, and they are very flexible about the mix. But I can see at times that they are frustrated because they aren’t getting the sound they want from the monitors, but the FOH sounds phenomenally better now. We also got rid of the awful hot spot and went with a studio monitor for the Piano / lead vox as well.

  2. Dave Smith replied:

    Glad to hear things are working out.

    One of the best things I’ve done is to show the “more me” monitor person the dB readings on stage. Then have them keep playing or someone playing in their place out to the middle of the house and show them the dB reading and let them hear how much monitor bleed is coming from the stage. I’ll usually turn the house mix off, show them I’m reading xdB and you want the house to be x+ dB.

  3. Tim Gabbard replied:

    Great post!
    I lead worship and have the same setup with the Aviom system but I have a Turbosound wedge instead of a hotspot. I love it and have not had a problem at all with the sound level on stage, something I pay attention to. The rest of the musicians use Aviom with IEMs and don’t mind it. We have moved from 8 monitors on stage to only 3 and it has made a difference.
    On a different note, I have found that most singers have no idea what they want/need in their monitor. I have found that instead of just turning someone up, I ask what needs to be turned down.

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