Going In-Ear - Personal monitoring and wireless options for worship
A Look at the products that you’ll want to check out
AKG Acoustics: The IVM 4 UHF Wireless In-Ear Monitoring System includes integrated dbx digital signal processing.
Audio-Technica: The newest wireless IEM system on the market is the M3 Wireless In Ear Monitor System.
Aviom: The A-16ii and AN-16i Pro16 systems are found in many contemporary worship spaces.
Hear Technologies: The Hearback Personal Mixer is renowned for its intuitive operations.
ProCo sound inc.: The key to the new ProCo Momentum In-Ear System is the “Tweak” Wireless Mixer.
Sennheiser Electronic Corporation: The ew300 IEM G2 personal monitor system is very popular in both touring sound and among worship bands.
Sensaphonics: The 3D Active Ambient system uses binaural microphones embedded in custom earphones to provide room sound along with the IEM mix.
Shure: Shure universal-fit earphones are very popular, in part because they can be upgraded to a custom fit (Sensaphonics sleeves shown).
Westone: Often seen in the worship environment, the Westone UM2 is a good example of a dual-driver, universal-fit earphone.
Following the lead of the touring sound industry, many churches have converted to or are considering in-ear monitoring (IEM) systems for the worship band. The reasons for doing so are many and legitimate. But with change comes stress. And questions.
Is this really a good idea? Will our sound improve? Do we need to outfit the entire band to see the benefits? Will this make the sound The physics of the situation are clear. Sound from the monitors spills off the stage and muddies the fidelity of the house system, which must be turned up louder to compensate.
Each IEM system eliminates another monitor speaker (floor wedge) on stage, reducing both the overall stage volume and the tendency toward “volume wars” between adjacent musicians. That means less sound spilling off the stage, which improves fidelity for the congregation while reducing the need to run the house system at high volume.
The Same, But Different
While contemporary worship teams are like touring artists in many ways, there’s no denying that the church venue is different. In touring sound, monitors are handled by a separate, dedicated engineer. However, very few churches have the space and personnel to consider this approach. Typically, there is a single mixing console located out in the congregation, and the sound engineer handles both the house and monitor mixes simultaneously.
The lack of a dedicated monitor engineer has resulted in very different equipment choices in the worship market. Touring artists gravitate toward individual wireless IEM systems. These systems provide a direct stereo mix and offer complete freedom of movement. The isolation from the earphones also allows the artist to monitor more clearly at lower volumes—if properly encouraged (see sidebar).
The most common solution to this problem is the distributed personal monitor system. These systems move the mixing duties from the sound engineer to the individual musicians on stage (more about that in a moment). The individual channels are sent directly from the mixing desk to a digital distribution hub, and from there to a series of individual mini-mixers on stage.
This solution is very popular with system contractors, as it helps ensure good sound while removing the sound engineer’s most demanding task. The distributed personal monitor system was popularized by Aviom, whose Pro16-II dominates the market. The Hear Back system from Hear Technologies has gained popularity in recent years as well. More recently, ProCo entered the market with its Momentum system. And “momentum” is clearly what we’re seeing in this product category.
With a distributed IEM solution, each musician is now responsible for his or her mix, so results will vary. The ProCo Momentum system offers a feature that allows the sound engineer to override the mixer on stage should any of the performers get “lost” while adjusting their own mix. This issue typically disappears after some training and rehearsal. And once a satisfactory mix is achieved, most systems allow the user to save it for later recall.
Another advantage of the distributed personal monitor approach is that it provides a backbone for future expansion, with the ability to run many channels of audio between stage and mixer on a lightweight pair of Cat5 cables. Once the initial investment is made in the core system, it’s a simple matter to add additional mix stations as more band members convert to IEMs (and, of course, as economics allow).
What About Wireless?
Distributed personal mix systems are designed to allow the performers to plug their earphones directly into their personal mixer. Those who need freedom of movement can add a wireless IEM system to the signal chain, typically plugging the output from the mini-mixer into the transmitter and wearing a bodypack receiver.
There has been considerable growth in the wireless IEM product category. While the Sennheiser ew300 IEM G2 system is by far the most popular system, there are plenty of choices available. Shure offers a range of four PSM Series systems, from professional to entry level. In the past year, AKG released the new IVM4 and, most recently, Audio-Technica introduced its M2 and M3 systems. All of these systems are offered with universal-fit earphones.
If your church is already running a lot of wireless microphone systems, channel conflicts are the biggest problem to consider. Fortunately, most premium IEM systems offer a scanning capability to help avoid interference. It’s also a good idea to look at both the frequency range of any system you buy and the total number of available frequencies. Coordinating frequencies is a technical challenge, but it’s one that can be met by purchasing a system that has scanning capabilities.
While it always makes sense to get a thorough demonstration of any audio system before investing in it, here are a couple things to keep in mind. The most meaningful specifications are “total on-board frequencies” (agility to overcome channel conflicts) and “number of simultaneous systems” (literally, how many different frequencies can be operated at once). The higher these numbers, the less likely it is that you’ll run into problems on Sunday morning.
Who Benefits the Most?
Going in-ear is a radical change, so converting the entire band simultaneously just maximizes the problems. Industry expert Thom Fiegle, sound engineering consultant for Sensaphonics of Chicago, Illinois, advises a stepwise approach. “It is an industry myth that the entire band needs to convert,” he says. “The best approach is to identify one or two members who will benefit the most and make their transition a positive, stress-free experience. Before long, the rest of the band will become interested.”
So who should go first? To assure success, give the first IEM systems to the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers.
In terms of direct benefits, it can be argued that lead vocalists are excellent candidates. Singing over a floor wedge can lead to vocal strain, and the accuracy of a direct in-ear mix helps many vocalists achieve greater pitch accuracy.
IEM isolation provides the same benefit to instrumentalists. Acoustic instruments like guitar and piano can be difficult to hear acoustically once the whole band is playing, and their microphones inevitably pick up sound from other instruments. When that sound is played back through floor wedges, the chance of acoustic feedback rises dramatically. For drummers, the problem is the flip side of that same coin―their own drumkit tends to overwhelm the monitor speakers, making it difficult to hear the rest of the band. With the monitors being piped directly into the ears, those issues are dramatically reduced.
Earphones and Isolation
One of the hidden issues in moving to IEMs is isolation. By using isolating earphones, signal-to-noise ratios within the ear canal are dramatically increased. This is what allows IEM users to monitor at lower volumes (when properly instructed). The final issue is whether to purchase universal-fit or custom earphones. Universal designs are much lower in price, and use a “fit kit” of various foam or plastic flanges to seal the earpiece within the ear canal. These are an excellent starting point for those who are new to the world of in-ears. The most popular ones are by Shure, in part because several models can be converted to custom-fit after purchase. Future Sonics, Sennheiser, Westone, Ultimate Ears, and M-Audio also offer solid universal-fit models. A quick note of caution here: Stick with brands that are designed specifically for stage use. Earphones made for MP3 players just don’t measure up.
Custom earphones are more expensive, but they fit securely and sound better. The natural variation in the size and shape of people’s ears assures that a universal-fit design will be a compromise. Virtually all touring musicians opt for custom designs, which require that a mold be made of the buyer’s ear canals. The major players here include Sensaphonics, Future Sonics, Ultimate Ears, and Westone.
Another consequence of isolation is that audience response is blocked out along with ambient sound from the house and stage. For congregations that rely on audience participation, this can be a problem, especially for the pastor. The easiest solution is to set up a couple audience mics and add them into the IEM mix. This allows everyone to hear audience cues. Another option is an ambient earphone solution. The Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient actually puts miniature microphones within the earpieces for mixing with the IEM signal, giving the user the ability to hear everything normally while the earphones are still in place. This could be the perfect solution for the pastor and the praise band leader, who have the greatest need to hear both the musicians and the worshippers.
The best single piece of information to take away from this article is that in-ear monitoring is not just hype. There are very real benefits for both the congregation and the praise band. The ability to reduce volume on the stage enables higher fidelity at lower volumes for both musicians and worshippers.
The result is a stronger, more musical presentation that allows everyone in the building to focus on their own roles in the worship experience.
Jack Kontney heads Kontney Communications Inc., a marketing and content creation consultancy specializing in pro audio and electronics. He can be contacted at www.kontneycomm.com.