Six Questions to Help You Choose a Personal Monitor System for Your Church

More powerful.  Less expensive.  And widely accepted.  Today, congregations large and small are benefiting from improved sound quality and lower stage volumes.

The guitarist, in order to hear himself better, turns his amplifier up. The singers need more monitor level to compete with the rest of the praise band. The cycle of escalating stage volume begins again – reducing the overall sound quality and worship experience, especially in a high-ceilinged, hard surface environment designed for choirs and acoustic instruments.

An article in Millimeter quoted worship leader Craig Sibley as saying “Stage volumes in churches have gotten out of control. In church, suddenly you have a heavy metal concert going on. People are literally leaving the church because of the volume. The minute you introduce drums, the guitarist turns up his volume so he can hear himself, then the vocalist needs more volume. Next thing you know, it’s volume wars, with unfortunate impacts on worshippers.”

Today’s systems are far more advanced and far less expensive than those appearing on stages and in sanctuaries just a few years ago. But if you lack the luxury of a professional sound crew that includes a FOH engineer and a monitor engineer and more likely, rely on a resourceful staff of sound vets and volunteers, we can guide you through some of the basics and help you identify a system for your church.

Who will benefit from a personal monitor?

Personal monitors are not just for vocalists. 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.

Bass, keyboard, and electric guitar can also be taken directly into the mixer if the players are 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, or to hear the pastor more clearly.

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 problematic 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 keep in sync with the choir.

For pastors who want a monitor, in-ears are also a viable option. Lavalier and gooseneck microphones 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 eliminated those concerns.

Is wireless necessary or will a hardwired system serve your needs?

Personal monitor systems come in two basic varieties – wireless or hardwired.

A hardwired system requires the performer be tethered to a cable, which is not necessarily a negative. Drummers and keyboard players, who remain stationary, or even back-up singers, can take advantage of the lower cost and greater simplicity of a hardwired personal monitor system.

Advantage: Hardwired systems also work worldwide without the hassle of finding clear frequencies or dealing with frequency coordination  with wireless microphone or intercom systems. And if several performers require the same mix, hardwired systems can be daisy-chained together without experiencing significant signal loss, if the input impedance is sufficiently high to allow multiple systems to be connected to a single output with Y-cables.

Wireless equipment requires special consideration and attention to detail.  But the advantages many times outweigh the increased cost and complexity.

Advantage: One of the main benefits of personal monitors is a consistent mix no matter where you stand; going wireless allows you to exploit this advantage to its fullest extent. And when several performers require the same mix, hooking them up is even easier. You can use as many wireless receivers as you need to monitor the same mix with no adverse effects. Plus, there aren’t any cables to trip on!

How many mixes do you need?

The answer to this question depends on how many people are in your band, and their ability to agree upon what they want to hear in the monitors.

One Mix for All In a perfect world, everyone wants to listen to the same mix, so the answer to this question is: one mix. Of course this defeats the primary benefit of “personal” monitors (each performer hearing himself).

Vocals and Instruments An inexpensive configuration uses two mixes; one consisting of vocals, the other of instruments. Using a system that features dual-mono operation, the performers individually choose how much of each mix they wish to hear (see Figure 1). This is a cost-effective way to get into personal monitors, but it still requires a fairly good degree of cooperation among band members.

Diagram of MixMode in use

Drummer Separate Another scenario gives the drummer a separate mix (Figure 2 below). This option works well for two reasons: Drummers, in general, want to hear considerably more drums in the monitors than other band members, and drums can be heard acoustically, especially in bands that perform on small stages. Drums may not even be necessary in the other mixes.

Diagram of Three Mixers using MixMode

The “More Me” Syndrome We’re assuming that the vocalists are able to agree on a mix of the vocal microphones. While forcing singers to share the same mix encourages a good vocal “blend”, this theory often falls apart in practice.

Separating out the lead vocalist to an individual mix will address this issue. Here’s how to accomplish it in three mixes:

Place some of the backup vocal mics in the “instruments” mix, and adjust the “vocal” mix to satisfy the lead singer, even if that means adding some instruments to the “vocal” mix. This provides:

•  An individual mix for the lead singer

•  A mix for the guitarist and keyboardist that includes their vocals, and

•  A drum mix (The bass player can drop in here, too)

How many mixes are available from your front of house console?

Monitor mixes are typically created using auxiliary (AUX) sends from a mixer, either the front-of-house console or a dedicated monitor console.

A typical small-format console will have at least four auxiliary sends. Whether or not all these are all available for monitors is another matter. AUX sends are also used for effects.  Available sends are the final determinate for the number of possible monitor mixes.

If your answer to our first question (How Many Mixes?) is greater than the answer to this question (How Many Mixes Are Available from the Front of House Console?), you have two options:

Stereo or mono?

Most personal monitor systems allow for monitoring in either stereo or mono. At first glance, stereo may seem the obvious choice, since we hear in stereo, and everything else these days features stereo sound.

Stereo requires two channels of audio. What this means for personal monitor users is two sends are required to create a stereo monitor mix – twice as many as it takes to do a mono mix (see Figure 3). Stereo monitoring can quickly devour auxiliary sends.  If your mixer only has four sends, you can only create two stereo mixes.

While not quite as “realistic” as stereo monitoring, mono allows more mixes from a smaller mixing console – and sometimes fewer transmitters. If you only need one mono mix, these mono-only systems can save you money.

Some stereo transmitters can be operated in a “dual-mono” mode, which provides two mono mixes instead of one stereo. This can be a great way to save money. If you only need one mono mix, these mono-only systems can save you money.

Diagram of One Stereo Mix

How many components will you need?

After you have answered these questions, plug the numbers into the following equations to determine exactly how many of each component you will need.

Chart to Determine Number of Components

Good earphones are an essential component

The key to successful personal monitoring lies in the quality of the earphones. All the premium components in the monitoring signal path will be rendered ineffective by a low quality earphone.  There are three types:

Earbuds While inexpensive, the kind that came with your MP3 player have the poorest isolation and are not designed to withstand the rigors of a working musician’s environment.

Custom molded earphones offer exceptional sound quality and isolation, a considerably higher price tag, and are difficult to test before buying since they’re made specifically for one person’s ears by an audiologist.

Universal Earphones combine the superior sound quality and isolation of the custom molded designs with the versatility, “out-of-the-box” readiness and affordable cost of the consumer phones. Interchangeable sleeves of foam or flexible rubber are used to adapt the earphone to the performer’s ear canal.

Personal Monitor mixers are an optional component Personal monitoring gives the performer an unprecedented level of control. But for the performer who desires more than simple volume and pan operation, a personal monitor mixer can be added.

These are especially useful for praise teams that either have a limited number of available auxiliary sends on the console, or lack a monitor engineer to operate the console.  A small monitor mixer allows the vocalists or players to customize their mixes themselves to hear exactly what they desire.

Theoretically, any mixer can double as a personal monitor mixer, but most lack one key feature; the input signals needed to find their way to the main (FOH) mixer. Large sound systems with separate monitor consoles use transformer-isolated splitters to send the signals to two places, but these are prohibitively expensive for most worship teams. Y-cables can be used to split microphone signals, but they can get messy and are somewhat unreliable.

A few manufacturers have introduced mixers with integrated microphone splitters. These can range from basic four channel mixers with volume and pan controls to larger, more fully featured monitor console.

And one more thing … make that two more things

The pain of change is still a factor.  Your praise team may have some difficulty adapting to in-ears after years of performing in front of stage monitors.

Another concern is cost.  A good wireless system – including a transmitter, receiver and earphones – can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.  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.

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Davida Rochman

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.

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