What in the Name of Bono are Churches Doing with In-Ear-Monitor Systems?

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

I love it when great technology becomes accessible to almost everyone. Such is the case with In-Ear-Monitor systems, commonly referred to as IEMs. Thanks to technical innovation and market competition, even churches with extremely modest budgets can take advantage of this powerful tool for maximizing their worship team’s contribution to the ministry. But like many reliable tools, IEMs have become commonplace and taken for granted, to the point that in many cases we’re no longer getting the benefits they are intended to provide. 

As tech and church leaders, we have a responsibility to our musicians and singers to safely provide the best environment possible that enhances their contribution to the team. If we’re not attentive to what they are experiencing in their IEMs we may be stifling their performance or worse yet, actually damaging their hearing.

A few years ago, I was working with a church, upgrading their audio system, and I decided to check out how some of their IEM mixes sounded, particularly the ones used by their singers. I was shocked at how random the mixes were, with no apparent focus on anything in particular. It reminded me of the Infinite monkey theorem, which states that “an infinite number of monkeys hitting keys at random on a keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, including the complete works of William Shakespeare.”  The monkey that created one of these mixes apparently needed lots of floor-tom, click, a small amount of the left channel of the electric guitar and lead vocal, panned to the right ear. Light years away from a useful Shakespearian mix. I would love to say this is an exaggeration, but it’s not. Unfortunately this is all too common on the church stage, and our presentations are suffering because of it. Whether you are a worship leader, singer, musician, audio engineer or tech director, we could all use a refresher course in proper use of IEMs; how to build a mix and implement best practices for our teams.

Whether your church uses a dedicated monitor engineer, personal mixers, mixes fed from the main FOH console, or some combination, individual mix preferences are subjective. But there are reliable fundamentals that will establish a solid launching point to start from. Once these foundational principals are implemented, then you can more easily move into advanced personalized mixes, tailored to individual tastes. 

There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to building an IEM mix; 

  1. Use the bare minimum; consisting of your instrument or vocal, one tonal/pitch reference, and a mapping reference (click/guide) and very little (if any) of the other musicians and singers. There are many examples of this on social media of church musicians sharing their performance along with their IEM mix.
  1. Build a mix that you enjoy listening to; essentially replicating a “studio style mix” with your instrument or vocal slightly above the rest. 

I am a proponent of the 2nd method. As worship leaders (everyone on the platform) we’ve been conditioned over the years to project all our worship energy out and up. Out to the congregation and Up to God. Sometimes we do this at the expense of authentically worshipping with our team, practically ignoring everyone around us. I like to see worship teams leading the congregation of course, but also worshipping together. You can’t engage with other musicians and singers if you aren’t even listening to them. Furthermore as part of the “worship body” you need to hear how your contributions fit in with the songs as a whole. And finally, we want our team members to enjoy the worship experience. I can’t think of anything less inspiring than to have a dry lifeless IEM mix consisting mostly of click and guide and myself. Most of us got into worship ministry because of our love for the art of music. Let’s not take the art out of the IEM mix.

Below, I will present how each technical element and team member can contribute to making your IEM experience the best it can be. For the most part, these principals are applicable to any stereo IEM system (personal mixers, onstage engineer, FOH feed or combination of the three). 

It starts at the source

A key component for building a good IEM mix for everyone on the team is consistent input levels. As you know, input levels, (the amount of signal you allow into the console) affects everything downstream. Unfortunately in many cases worship teams jump right into rehearsal without providing adequate time to line-check each input. This inevitably leads to adjusting input levels on the fly during rehearsal. 

I see this all the time in churches; The worship team arrives, plugs in and starts playing and singing. The audio engineer is going from channel to channel setting workable input levels. This is usually a triage style process, finding the hottest levels first, then the lowest, setting them appropriately and so on. Meanwhile, the worship team is also adjusting their personal IEM mixers or calling for changes to the monitor engineer. At this point in the rehearsal, the IEM levels are changing as you attempt to set input levels, often counteracting what the IEMs are producing. Do yourself a favor and stop this madness. This may require a shift in your rehearsal culture, but ultimately everything will go smoother with a quick line check to set your input levels before the IEM mixing process starts. The idea is that once your input levels are established they should not change for the day. Doing this consistently will benefit every aspect of your audio presentation; in room, online stream and of course IEMs.

Lots of worship leaders/musicians have plenty of experience and are quite capable of building their own IEM mix, as long as you provide adequate consistent input levels. Even so, make sure you or your monitor engineer have the ability to cue (listen to) everyone’s individual mix. This will help when trouble shooting technical issues, as well as being able to tailor the mix as needed. 

Helping the uninitiated

Less experienced musicians and singers will benefit the most from your efforts, and simple is always best. Creating a “2 Mix” which is basically a full stereo mix of the band without vocals routed (via aux or matrix) to specific IEMs is an excellent practice. This enables anyone on the team who doesn’t want or need the granularity of a multi-channel mix to hear the full band without having to create a mix themselves. This solution is extremely helpful for singers and orchestral instrumentalists who aren’t accustomed to using IEMs on a regular basis. The 2 Mix serves as the foundation of the mix and the user only has to determine how loud they want the foundation relative to their own instrument or voice. 

Whether you use a 2 Mix or actually build a mix manually for your less experienced team members, I believe the initial mix should be created by an experienced audio engineer or knowledgeable teammate. 

Equalization

For the most part, since the audio signal is being fed directly into our ears, the EQ settings for IEMs won’t be as drastic as what you might see at the FOH console. I often see most individual channels feeding IEMs flat or with very minor adjustments when using an onstage monitor console. 

I’ve found that the simple High Pass Filter (HPF) has a greater impact on the mix than EQ and is more easily applied. This commonly used filter will clean up low frequencies that tend to make overall IEM mixes sound muddy and steal your headroom. With the exception of kick drum and bass guitar it is almost always a good practice to engage the HPF on each channel.  The specific frequency setting will require some experimentation to find what is appropriate for your environment. Using a vocal mic, start at around 100hz and sweep the HPF higher and higher until it begins to sound clear. 

Butt-Kickers

Butt-kickers are small electronic motors attached to a drum throne or a platform on which the bass player stands. Low frequencies that are typically sent to the subs in the main PA are not easily reproduced by IEMs. Those frequencies can be routed to the drummer and bass players’ butt-kickers enabling them to feel the kick drum and bass guitar. Using butt-kickers will help these two key members of the band feel their own instruments in the mix without having to simply keep turning themselves louder and louder.  

Effects

As a general rule, IEM mixes should be clean and simple. Even for very experienced team members, providing too many options can become a distraction. I recommend minimal use of effects in IEMs. A simple reverb for the drums (particularly snare) will help get you closer to the studio mix. Another simple reverb for vocals is a good option to use sparingly. I am a proponent of zero effects on vocals in IEMs. Effects can be a distraction to singers and fool them into thinking their vocals sound better than they actually do. If the singers can blend and sound good in the IEMs without any effects, then they will sound fantastic in the house and on broadcast. I’m willing to give some grace in this area if a bit of vocal reverb helps singers to be less inhibited. I don’t use any delay effects in IEMs or anything that would inadvertently distract from an authentic performance.

Room or Ambient microphones

Ambient microphones (aka room mics) can be a great asset not only to your broadcast mix but for the IEM system as well. When used sparingly they can eliminate the need for reverb and help your team feel engaged with the congregation. More on that shortly. 

There is some science when it comes to room mic placement depending on whether they will be used for broadcast, IEMs or both. Of course you have to determine what works best in your environment even if you engage a professional to help in the process. 

When using room mics for IEMs there are some standards that I have seen implemented successfully in many environments; 

Dedicate 2 shotgun mics or good quality condenser mics, routed as 2 channels (stereo) into the IEM system, initially panned hard left and hard right. I’ve never seen a successful use of a single channel mono mic in this application. The 2 mics should be located facing the congregation from the stage perspective, not in the back of the auditorium facing the stage/PA. The room mics can be suspended from the ceiling or on stands inconspicuously on or near the stage. If your room has two main line-arrays, a good starting point for placement is locating each mic under and slightly behind an array facing the congregation. The theory here is that when your PA was professionally installed, the AV company installed the arrays to provide optimal stereo coverage of the room. So placing mics in relation to them would theoretically be a great source for hearing a stereo image of the room itself, routed into the IEM system. Again, this is anecdotal advice that may or may not be applicable to your environment. 

I’ve even seen some churches use small desktop mic stands on the front edge of the stage with great results. Most importantly, place them where they will pick up as little of the PA as possible. We’re trying to capture the room. Of course, the PA is going to contribute to the sound but should not dominate it. 

You may or may not need to apply some delay on the room mic channels. Time aligning room mics for IEMs can be tricky and can sometimes do more harm than good.   

When I mix broadcast, I use room mics to add audience response to the feed but also as a softening reverb to the overall presentation. When used properly, room mics can provide a similar effect in the IEMs. 

Volume, Limiting and Healthy Practices

Most wireless receiver belt-packs and personal mixing systems have adjustable limiters designed to protect the user from excessive volume. These are good things, but we need to build our mixes in such a way that the limiting is the last line of defense against poor habits. 

And speaking of bad habits…I wouldn’t be helping if I didn’t point out the worst of them all, USING ONLY ONE IN-EAR MONITOR! If you’ve been using IEMs for a while, I doubt that I’m the first to mention this. Even IEM manufacturers are warning against this. The greatest push-back I get from worship leaders is the need to feel engaged with the congregation, which I completely understand. But if you implement a carefully crafted mix, with judicious use of well placed ambient mics, you can do this. It will improve your presentation and you will be able to hear the joyous laughter of your grandchildren in both ears someday. 

My challenge to tech and worship leaders is to help your team eliminate this bad habit from your worship experience. Lead by example and put in the work. 

We’ve discussed how audio engineers and leaders can improve the IEM experience for the team, but what can musicians and singers do to help themselves and the team as a whole? 

  1. Don’t sandbag;  This applies to everyone. Sandbagging is the practice of not singing or playing at the same volume or intensity during rehearsal that you will during the actual service. Your performance not only affects the FOH and broadcast mix, it also effects everyone else’s IEM mix. You need to be reliably consistent from rehearsal through the actual service. Think of it this way, sandbagging hurts the entire team. Don’t do it to each other. 
  1. Drummers; Use your IEM mix to help regulate your dynamics. Lots of drummers struggle with over powering cymbal usage. See my previous feature on this subject.  This can be mitigated by increasing the volume of overhead mics in your IEMs, thus encouraging you (subconsciously perhaps) to lay back on the cymbals. This can be applied to any area of your technique in need of additional balance.
  1. Singers; Take advantage of stereo imaging. A typical technique is to have your own vocal centered and other vocalists panned in relation to where they are on stage. Alternatively, some singers find it helpful to have their own vocal slightly off center. 

A common problem I encounter with vocalists IEMs is having all the vocals too loud. I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but remember, vocal mics are picking up everything. The more open mics on stage the more cacophonous your mix will seem. This is another reason not to sandbag. 

Start over by turning all other vocalists off, put your voice where you like it and then bring in the other singers to a nice level. Your mix will be cleaner and more pleasant. 

Consider relying more on the room mics and less on reverb. Using both can degrade the accuracy of your mix. I generally encourage using one or the other but not both.

  1. Instrumentalists; Particularly keyboardists and guitarists; If you use multiple settings throughout the day, make sure the levels are consistent from part to part and song to song. The effect of inconsistent levels from your instrument are the same as sandbagging. Again, your consistency, or lack of it, affects the entire team.

Finally, when it comes to your actual In-Ear-Monitors (ear-buds or molds); There are some amazing products available. You can spend thousands or less than a hundred dollars and achieve great results. If you don’t use molds, the earbuds you purchase typically come with multiple rubber or silicon tips of various sizes. Experiment with them and use the ones that provide the most effective seal in your ears. The more isolating the seal is, the better for blocking out unwanted sounds and the less volume you’ll need to drive them. 

By their very nature, IEMs are isolating. Without intentionally being involved you’ll never really know if your team members are getting desirable results from their personal IEMs. At best they may be hindering their own contributions, at worst they may be inadvertently damaging their hearing.  

As a leader, I want to encourage you, perhaps with the help of some veteran teammates, to take some time and monitor what is going on in your team’s IEMs. Make IEM “101 mixing” a part of the orientation to the team. Schedule periodic workshops to review fundamentals and best practices. I look forward to hearing how you are shepherding your worship team’s use of IEM systems.

If you have comments or questions specific to your ministry, I’d love to help. Contact me directly at rcochran@worshipfacility.com 

Always happy to hear from our readers. Until next time, don’t forget to listen.

Interested in getting other Audio Connections articles delivered right to your inbox?

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Sign Up for Connections, the Worship Facility Newsletter!

NEW THIS WEEK

Training new tech team members on video streaming

Training new house of worship tech team members on video streaming involves imparting both technical skills and an understanding of the unique requirements of streaming live events in a religious setting. Here's a comprehensive guide to help you train your team:...

Introduction to the RF Explorer Pro Spectrum Analyzer

For far too long, far too many wireless system designers and operators have had to work in the blind, with little awareness of the RF environments that they work in. Today, with broadcast TV channels more densely packed together in a sharply reduced UHF spectrum,...

Stop Wasting Money

Seriously, stop. If you are not seeking and following energy saving guidelines, you are spending money you do not have to. Money spent on facilities, when not necessary, take away dollars available for your ministerial mission. The logical response to this opening is...