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Personal Monitoring for Your Church

October, 03 2011 |
The following article is an excerpt from Shure Notes for Houses of Worship, Issue #47 (October 3, 2011).

A History

Whether you believe that Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, or the Steve Miller Band was the first to pioneer the use of in-ear monitoring systems, one fact is indisputable: this represented a breakthrough in live sound.

With the earliest systems carrying a price tag — $65,000 by one report — placing them far outside the reach of anything but a globe-trotting touring act or a national sound company serving those artists, their adoption by houses of worship didn't begin until the late 1990s when Shure and other pro audio manufacturers introduced affordably priced systems.

Fast-forward almost fifteen years and you'll find personal monitors in wide acceptance, with a wide spectrum of features (full-rack form factor, diversity receivers, auto-scan, with stereo being the standard) at a fraction of the price of their vintage ancestors. There are personal monitors (bodypack receiver, transmitter, and earbuds, but in mono) on the market today for less than $400.

Let's look at the benefits of personal monitor systems:

  • When the entire band or praise team is on "ears," there is no monitor feedback.

  • The absence of clunky stage monitors makes for a cleaner stage.

  • Performers can customize their own mixes and hear their own performances much more clearly.

  • Stage volume is lower (no more turning up the stage monitors), helping to preserve the performers' hearing.

Not Just for Vocalists

Personal monitoring offers a degree of control that just isn't possible with traditional floor wedges: the power to pan, adjust volume, and, in some cases, to choose between multiple mixes on the fly. Wireless systems are more costly than wired systems, but have the added advantage of allowing performers to move freely around the stage.

Along with being able to hear better and control volume, the advantages of in-ear personal monitoring include the ability to individualize what each musician hears on stage. With personal monitors, each musician can have the mix that makes them most comfortable onstage, which makes for a better performance. Best of all, each player can hear his own mix, as loud as he wants, without blasting the other musicians onstage.

"The accuracy in monitoring helps vocalists improve pitch, drummers improve time, guitar players improve tone, etc. You can hear everything — the good, bad and the ugly — and that provides the best platform for improvement." – Jeff Urke

Drummers with personal monitors tend to play quieter. When the loudest instrument onstage gets quieter, everything else can follow suit. Some churches take this a step further by using electronic drums that create little, if any, acoustic noise. Another option for drummers is the throne- mounted ButtKicker; it allows drummers to feel low frequencies without boosting sound pressure levels.

Bass, keyboard, and, electric guitar can also be taken directly into the mixer if the praise band is using personal monitors, eliminating the need for onstage amplifiers. The end result is a cleaner, more controlled congregation mix.

Many other uses are possible for personal monitors. Choir directors use them for cues and also to hear the pastor more clearly.

"Personal monitoring can provide the band flexibility to incorporate extra elements such as loop/click tracks, and even talk-back mics for band communication." – Jeff Urke

The isolation provided by personal monitors can be of great benefit to organists, especially when they are located at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the choir. Timing can be an issue due to the often- lengthy delay times caused by this separation. If the choir microphones are fed into a personal monitor system worn by the organist, the time delay is eliminated, and the organist is able to remain in sync with the choir.

For pastors who want a monitor, in-ears are also a viable option. Lavalier microphones, as well as gooseneck microphones found on pulpits, are especially prone to feedback issues with a floor monitor due to their increased sensitivity and greater distance from the sound source. A personal monitor will eliminate those concerns.

What Happened to the Audience?

Let's talk about psychoacoustics since it's a factor here.

Here's a simple definition: it's the way our brains process and perceive sound, based on spatial information.

"The average in-ear personal monitor can offer anywhere from 7 to 45 DB of noise isolation, which can make you feel just that: a little isolated." – Jeff Urke

One hurdle that personal monitor systems need to clear is the loss of psychoacoustics – producing an uncomfortable sense of isolation. That's a problem on the club stage or in the sanctuary where communicating with the audience demands interaction with the audience. Many performers need to recover some natural ambience.

Here's how to do it:

Ambient microphones are typically placed in a fixed location. They are distant from the listener's ear and the levels are controlled by the sound engineer instead of the performer. The directional cues provided by ambient microphones (assuming a left/right stereo pair) are dependent on the performer facing the audience. If the performer turns around, the ambient cues will be reversed.

Ambient earphones More natural results can be obtained by using a newer technology known as ambient earphones. An ambient earphone allows the performer, either by acoustic or electronic means, to add acoustic ambience to the personal monitor mix. There are two types:

Passive ambient earphones have a port, essentially a hole in the ear mold that allows ambient sound to enter the ear canal. While simple to implement, this method offers little in the way of control and could potentially expose the user to dangerous sound pressure levels.

Active ambient earphones use tiny condenser microphones mounted directly to the earphones. The microphones connect to a secondary device that provides the user with a control to blend the desired amount of ambience into the personal monitor mix. Since these microphones are located right at the ear, directional cues remain constant and natural. Ambient earphones not only provide a more realistic listening experience, but also ease between-song communication amongst performers.

Happily Ever After: Five Ways to Get There from Worship Director and Educator Jeff Urke

So how do we get the most value out of this versatile tool? Here are five tips that may help you in the transition:

1. Give it some time. The most important thing in making the transition to in-ears is getting adjusted. This could take weeks or months of consistently using them for both performances and rehearsals. It sounds simple but the more you use a tool, the more accustomed you are to it and the more valuable it becomes to you.

2. Use both ears. One of the worst things you can do with in-ear monitors is to use just one ear. This is the common misconception: if I only have one earbud in, I can still hear the congregation. In this case, your other ear compensates for the loss and you end up perceiving the monitoring ear as being too quiet causing you to turn it up to dangerous levels.

3. Don't skimp. "You get what you pay for." Generally true with in-ear monitors. One way to avoid dealing with an unnatural, overly contained sound is to purchase some higher quality earbuds (ideally with a dual or triple driver) that produce a fuller, more accurate and open sound.

4. Dig those good vibrations. One of the biggest losses that drummers and bass players experience with in-ears is the loss of the low end "punch" or "rumble" they feel from their kit or amp. There are actually products available now to simulate this vibration and can be mounted to a drum throne or placed on the floor so that they can feel the vibration of their instrument (formerly created by an amp or stage monitor).

5. Use house microphones. Aiming microphones at the congregation is the best (and only) way to keep from feeling disconnected and isolated from the audience.

Depending on the room, this may be a shotgun mic, a large diaphragm condenser, or a small omni mic. I've used everything from a Shure KSM 32 (large diaphragm condenser) to a small homemade omni condenser. There are many options and many preferences. This is ideal: two microphones (on either side of the stage) facing the congregation.

Mixing Dos and Don'ts from Pro Engineer John Mills

DO use a separate monitor board and operator if you plan to have more than one person on ears. If the cost is prohibitive, consider one of the new personal monitor mixers such as the AVIOM®, MyMix, or EliteCoreAudio systems.

DON'T use just one earbud. When you have one ear monitor in, you actually have to turn it up about twice as loud to overcome the ambient sound coming in your other ear. One of the key benefits of personal ear monitors is hearing conservation. By wearing just one, you could be causing damage to your plugged ear.

DO mix in stereo , and pan. When you listen to personal monitors in mono, it's sometimes tough to distinguish between similar-sounding instruments. In stereo, you have the option to pan them a little left or right. The pros know that when you pan something, you make room for something else. Plus, on stage in a live setting, it can give you a very nice "feel" for where that person is standing.

DON'T be afraid to pan something all the way to the left or crank up the audience. The best way to learn something is to grab that knob and twist it. The great thing about a knob is that you can always twist it back. Remember: less is more. Start with an ample amount of your voice and instrument, then fill in the other instruments under those. That way, your stuff stays on top.

DO put the audience in the mix. Add just enough, but remember, like reverb, too much sounds bad. Make sure you can always hear the drums well over the clapping because the audience is almost always off tempo.

A Final Thought

While personal monitoring is no longer new technology, the pain of change is still a factor. Your praise team may have some difficulty adapting to "ears" after years of performing in front of stage monitors.

Then there's cost. Even though they've decreased dramatically, a pro quality wireless system — including a transmitter, receiver and earphones — can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. And if you already have stage monitors, there may be a sense that personal monitors fall more in the "nice-to-have" than the "need-to-have" category.

It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, and while less than ideal, one way to get started is to introduce personal monitoring gradually — one member of your praise team at a time. You'll eliminate at least one floor monitor, contributing to a quieter stage, and give others performers (at rehearsal) a chance to try them out and experience the difference.

The bottom line: The advantages of personal monitoring extend well beyond the benefits to the performer. They can have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of the service and the worship experience.

About Our Contributors

JOHN MILLS is a veteran of the road and a graduate of the school of hard knocks, providing front of house mixing, road manager, system tuning, and audio training services to the Christian music community for over 20 years. He is currently out on the Kenny Chesney country music tour as systems engineer.

JEFF URKE is a faculty member at Biola University in southern California, where he oversees worship ministry bands, produces conferences, and teaches sound production courses. He is also the worship director for Pathways Church, a young church plant in Irvine, CA. Jeff has a passion for excellence in worship ministry and technology in the church and hopes to help the church become better prepared to produce authentic, God-centered worship services without distraction.
Davida Rochman
A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a lifelong career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Corporate Public Relations Manager, responsible for public relations activities, sponsorships, and donation programs that intersect with Shure at the corporate and industry level.