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When Less Is More: Monitoring Considerations

What the congregation in a house of worship hears is often greatly affected by both the source—the musical instruments themselves—as well as the monitor system utilized.

What the congregation in a house of worship hears is often greatly affected by both the source—the musical instruments themselves—as well as the monitor system utilized.

At all of its combined campuses, Real Life Christian Church in Orlando, FL utilizes roughly 40 channels of Sennheiser G3 wireless systems, as well as accompanying IEM systems In considering stage monitor solutions for worship, it’s important to remember that giving the instrumentalists and vocalists involved what they need in delivering musical worship has a large number of variables. Some of those variables cannot be altered—style of worship, sanctuary size and acoustics, and even more challenging, the personalities of those we serve. But there is one constant that applies to all—less is more. As sound mixers, all too often we get ourselves into trouble by adding more than we should in the name of control—more sources, and more volume, which makes things worse instead of better.

What’s Important
Before leaping to the assumption that everyone on the platform and in the choir loft needs to hear every voice and instrument “re-amplified” in a monitor mix (or “foldback” as it is called in some places), the first consideration should be, “What does the performer need that is not already present?” In too many situations (and having made the mistake myself), we can give a performer something they don’t actually need. The most important role of monitors is to add what is missing, rather than provide more of everything. In more traditional worship experiences, the musicians involved are likely to be from a formally or classically trained background, and the introduction of amplified sounds into the monitors in an acoustic ensemble setting can be disorienting. I became most aware of this when working in the studio, recording orchestras. The musicians have learned to listen and blend as an ensemble since Day One, and often by reintroducing unnatural amplified sound, we are re-orienting the musical landscape to which they are accustomed.

In spite of the growth of “contemporary” worship production, many houses of worship today still utilize a more traditional approach. The musical accompaniment consists of more classical instrumentation, and the sound reinforcement component should simply be reinforcement, not the entire sound. It should provide balance to the ensemble, allowing softer instruments to be balanced against louder ones, like a delicate soprano vocal against a mighty pipe organ.

In these more traditional services, it may be simply piano and vocals, possibly adding an organ, and perhaps adding some other acoustic instruments either regularly or on special occasions—acoustic guitar, a string section, maybe woodwinds or brass. The church environment itself is more traditional, often with a platform and pulpit placed well out into a fairly live, open room, which lends itself to natural acoustic amplification. This situation requires a very disciplined approach on the part of the sound engineer (as well as the performers) to understand the impact that monitors can have on the control and balance of the total sonic experience.

In deciding how to handle monitor foldback for the musicians and vocalists, the realities of resources come into play. How many monitor speakers do you have available? Is it necessary for each performer to have his/her own monitor? And perhaps even more important—how many monitor mixes do I have to work with?

Usually, vocalists need to hear different information than the instrumentalists. Each group needs to hear itself well, but there is usually one thing that is most important for each of these groups. For vocalists, their primary concern is usually pitch-related. They need to hear primary pitch and chordal structure, and will most benefit from hearing each other and a primary instrument like piano. The musicians, on the other hand, are usually focused on playing together as a cohesive unit, and therefore mostly concerned with “time.” For them, hearing whomever is defining and leading time for the ensemble is most important—usually is the drummer, or perhaps piano or guitar. But remember, in our less-is-more approach, it’s not necessarily true that the musicians are already hearing a great balance of what they need to play well without additional monitors. The key is to go talk with your performers on the platform, and work together to only amplify what is absolutely necessary, and at the lowest possible volume to support the natural ensemble balance on stage.

Monitoring for choirs can present its own unique set of challenges, due to the distance between the mics and the ensemble itself. The mics are usually placed at a distance of 6-12 feet from the nearest vocalist to capture the group rather than individual voices, but will just as easily pickup anything else generating sound in that area. Usually what the choir needs to hear is pitch and time. Start with the minimal amounts of the worship leader and primary pitch reference like piano, adding something percussive like acoustic guitar or hi-hat only if needed for tempo. Never try to give the choir more of itself in the monitors—this is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Contemporary worship has the benefit of being a more amplified, produced type of music experience, usually incorporating a full rhythm section, electric guitars and keys. It is often easier for the sound engineer, because almost everything is being amplified or reinforced, and higher volume levels are acceptable, reducing the challenges with “stage volume.” Even so, the less-is-more rules still apply, and giving each person a full-band mix with himself “on top” is rarely a good choice, because it only leads to a “volume war.” The solution to not being able to hear something is to reflexively turn an instrument or vocal up, instead of looking at turning down whatever is getting in the way. It is always time well-spent working together with your worship team to achieve a good musical balance on stage before adding more sound to an already crowded landscape via amplified monitors.

At New York City’s Seventh Day Adventist Church in Greenwich Village, the stage area is equipped with four Renkus-Heinz TRX82/12 dual eight-inch 120 X 60 degree loudspeakers for monitoring, powered by a single Powersoft M50 amplifier. Most of the time, a church with a contemporary format will have more resources–more inputs, and the ability to produce more discrete monitor mixes. At this point, it would be advisable to create a mix dedicated to the rhythm section, with a healthy dose of “time” in it for the drummer, bass player, guitar players and keyboard players. Make sure that it has enough kick drum, snare and especially hi-hat so the group has a solid rhythmic base from which to work. These players will also need enough of the worship leader to get vocal cues for reference, especially if there’s any variable to the song arrangements that the leader may choose to “audible.” The worship leader will almost always need his/her own mix, with the person’s voice on top, personal instrument if playing an acoustic guitar or electronic keyboard, and maybe just a little hi-hat for locking in “time.”

Monitor Speakers Vs. Personal Monitors
The most overlooked speakers in any HOW sound system are the performer “monitors.” Wherever possible, it is ideal if all of the monitors in a system are the same brand and model. The reason is that different speakers will exhibit different responses and coverage patterns, and this predictability and consistency of response will make your job easier as an engineer. Extending that line of thinking even further, you will find that most professional monitor systems will utilize the same amplification and equalizers for all mixes. Utilize the smallest monitor speaker available, and place it as close to the performer as possible, because each time you double the distance from source to listener, an additional 6 dB of acoustic output is required to achieve the same perceived volume.

Although monitors are a necessary reality of most amplified musical performances, the negative effects of additional stage volume and its acoustic coloration can be eliminated by trading loudspeakers for “personal monitors.” Determining whether this is right for your worship team involves considerations of musical style, technical resources, costs and, most importantly, the comfort of the team with hearing things in a new way.

The electronics and IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) for a personal monitor system can range from simple hardwired headphone distribution amps with earbud-type headphones to high-quality wireless transmitter/ receivers and custom-molded multidriver monitors. Several manufacturers, like Aviom, Hear Technologies, and MyMix have developed complete systems that provide users the ability to locally control their own mix, and proprietary systems from Avid, Roland and Behringer interface digitally with the manufacturer’s console. These systems offer eight to as many as 48 channels of discreet channel control, and often have EQ and even digital effects on board. Additional benefits to personal monitors are the elimination of feedback due to microphones picking up the amplified signal and creating a howling “loop”—most undesirable, especially during moments of intimate worship.

In spite of all these benefits, special care must be exercised in several areas. First, extreme care must be taken in adjusting levels, because pain and permanent damage could result through careless adjustment of monitor mixes. A recommendation to prevent accidental hearing damage is for the engineer to always actively monitor any adjustments himself while making the adjustment for the performer. Just because the IEM system has “limiters” does not mean that hearing damage cannot result. Also, because performers are so used to playing “by feel” (based largely on aural cues), the sense of dynamics and pitch can be altered. Be aware that if your performer is struggling with either of these, it’s often related to the new monitoring arrangement.

Regardless of which solution is chosen, the rules of “less is more” still apply in almost all cases. Wherever possible, spend the time to work with the musical performers on correct ensemble balance while teaching them to listen each other, eliminating the need for additional “balance correction” by adding volume. Your goal of achieving quality and balance without excessive volume will be easier, and your team and congregation will thank you.

Eric Elwell is a 25-year veteran engineer with studio, broadcast and live-concert mixing experience. His clients include today’s most recognized popular, country and contemporary Christian music icons. He recently joined Technical Innovation, a major A/V integrator with seven offices in the Southeast US, as a project developer for audio installations in the performing arts and HOW markets.