BY ANDY SWANSON
In the beginning, there was an organ and a choir…
There were no microphones, no monitors, and everyone lived in relative harmony.
Somewhere along the way, other instruments—such as keyboards, drums, and guitars with pedal effects found their way onto church platforms. Later, churches added visual communication technology such as projectors, LED walls, and cameras to broadcast/stream video. To compete with stage volume from other sources, floor monitors, also known as stage wedges, were pushed to the limits of their effectiveness.
Consequently, the front rows of the congregation got blasted with sound while the back rows could barely hear. A solution was needed to control the stage sound without adding clutter onstage. Enter in-ear monitors. In-ear monitors opened up a new world of sound control, but they also improved personalization, performance, and communication across the entire worship team.
For all those reasons and more, many churches have transitioned from floor wedges to in-ear monitors. If you are on the fence about making the jump, here are some benefits that might sway you.
IN-EARS ALLOW QUIETER STAGES
Stages have gotten quite loud in the last 30 years. Just the inclusion of a drum kit increases stage volume significantly. The impact is that the monitors on stage must be louder so musicians can hear over the drums and guitar amps. And this means the house mix is competing with stage volume and in many churches, the overall loudness approaches rock concert levels. To combat this, churches have turned to personal monitor systems like Livemix and Aviom, wireless in-ear systems, and even monitoring consoles to help control stage volume. The common denominator in all these systems is in-ear monitors. When the full band is using in-ear monitors, the stage volume is reduced significantly. In addition, since each person has a dedicated monitor…
MUSICIANS AND VOCALISTS CAN HEAR THEMSELVES BETTER
Floor wedges often get a bad rap. In truth, when used correctly, they are a very effective tool. The problem is, we don’t use them correctly. I don’t know about your church, but we often had three or more vocalists sharing a single wedge. This meant two of the vocalists were “off-axis” which meant they could not hear themselves well, leading to them asking for “more of me”, which in turn made them too loud vs. the center singer. This prompted the center singer to ask for…can you guess? More of me, bingo.
When each performer has their own monitor, they can hear themselves relative to other performers much better. With a personal monitor system, it’s better still. They can adjust their mix to hear only what they want to hear. Musicians who can hear themselves well are far more likely to play with confidence. They are less pitchy and off-key. They mesh better with other elements when they can hear them well. When the stage doesn’t have floor monitors, you can also introduce…
CLICK TRACKS, INTERCOMS, AND CUES
Adding a click track to your band should not be optional. With a click track, the drummer can drop out for a measure and everyone can stay on-time. Guitar players can tap in their dotted-eighth delays, keys can sync arpeggios and rhythmic pads, etc. The introduction of a click is NOT an indictment of the drummer’s timing. Click tracks allow the band to be more cohesive. They give you more options for dynamics and feel. In addition to the click, many worship teams are using tracks with cues. Musical directors might have a microphone to call out changes to the team. All these things are possible when you don’t have floor speakers. Lastly, and this may be the most important as far as valuing volunteers is concerned, using in-ear monitors…
PROTECTS YOUR HEARING
It might seem counter-intuitive, but in-ear monitors (IEMS) are safer for your ears when used properly than earbuds or over-the-ear headphones. The reason for this comes down to air, or the lack thereof. How is this possible? In-ear monitors reduce the ambient noise coming to your ear so that what you do hear is from your monitors, not the stage. If your stage is “really loud,” then traditional floor monitors need to be “really loud +10dB” for you to hear them. Most in-ear monitors block around 26dB of sound. So, a 96dB stage would sound like a 70dB stage. Then add10dB so you can hear well and you are monitoring at 80dB, which OSHA says you can listen to for more than 8 hours.
PLEADING NOTE: Please don’t remove one of your monitors. It is tempting when you feel “closed off” from the team or the audience to take out an ear or “crack the seal” a bit so that you can hear some ambience. Due to a pesky thing called biology, our brain wants to equalize the sound in our ears. To hear yourself, you must turn up the monitor volume louder than the stage volume. This means you are listening at levels louder than the stage which is very unhealthy for your long-term hearing.
SOLUTION: Place two condenser mics on the corners of the stage pointing to the audience and mix that into your feed. This gives you the room ambience you are missing and allows you to hear congregation participation levels.
When moving to in-ear monitors, consider the “last mile”. How will performers get audio TO their monitors? Personal monitor systems are phenomenal and allow musicians to make their own mix. Wireless transmitter packs are great but often require someone to adjust the levels for performers on stage. If you are on a budget, stereo headphone amplifiers and an aux feed from the board can save you some money while still getting the benefit of in-ears. Also, please consider who will pay for the in-ear monitors. It’s not uncommon for a church to have a drawer of decent quality universal fit monitors (we recommend that each performer keeps their own set of tips).
Some churches offer a stipend for volunteers to buy custom-fit in-ear monitors. Custom in-ears offer the best overall experience, but they can be more expensive. Some companies, like Alclair Audio, offer group discounts for church teams to help reduce the cost. It’s a good idea for musicians to spend a bit of their own money on monitors as we find they treat them better.
Lastly, one of the benefits of a quieter stage is more congregational participation. It turns out, that when people can hear each other, they sing louder. And when it comes down to it, that is what we are trying to do. Lead people into a communal experience with the Creator. If that were the ONLY reason to make the switch, it’d be a pretty good one.