How to optimize your Monitoring system as a Portable Church – Production System at Saddleback Berlin

7 min read

An important prerequisite for a good sound is that the musicians can hear each other well. You can’t rely on the PA. The speakers are directed towards the listener, not the musicians. In this way we create a good sound for the listener and at the same time avoid feedback. But we also create a situation where the musicians on stage hear themselves less well, because the sound from the room is reflected back onto the stage by the walls. This sound is delayed and echoed, so it is impossible to judge how the band sounds, whether the notes are hit right and whether they play in rhythm.

We used to place monitor speakers on stage that were aimed at the musicians. So we could create a mix for them, they could hear each other well and therefore play their instrument well or sing in a clean tune.

This small venue’s stage shows an example of a typical monitor speaker set-up: there are three “wedge” monitors directed towards the area of the stage where singers and instrumentalists will be performing. The drummer has both a subwoofer cabinet (for monitoring the bass drum and the electric bass) and a “wedge”-style cabinet for monitoring vocals and mid or high-frequency sounds. Source: Wikipedia

Monitor speakers, however, increase the volume on stage enormously, so it’s a real challenge to get a good sound in the room. Especially for small churches this is a nightmare.

The best solution we came up with is In Ear Monitoring. A mix specially put together for a musician or singer is transmitted via radio or cable to headphones. There are special headphones that reduce ambient noise and look inconspicuous at the same time.

A reliable In Ear system consists of three components: good headphones, good transmission technology and a good In Ear Mix, with an easy way to quickly adjust it to meet the needs of musicians and singers.

(1) Good headphones create great sound and protect ears

I think it goes without saying that we should us In Ear headphones on stage. It looks really strange when musicians or singers are on stage with visible On Ear headphones. Sometimes you see drummers or bass players with On Ear headphones. That’s because they usually transmit the low frequencies better, but still I would argue to go for good In Ear headphones.

There is no limit on how much you can spend on headphones. So, I will explain how a headphone gets better but at the same time increases from a pricing perspective.

  • The more drivers a headphone has, the better it can handle complex mixes, i.e. many instruments and voices with high dynamics.
  • Headphones will be better if they absorb ambient noise well, because then the musician doesn’t have to turn up the headphones too loudly to hear everything and thus dramatically protects her ears. Usually the headphones supplied with your phone are not suitable for use on stage. Headphones with noise cancelling are also no help here, as they can usually only reduce constant ambient noise without altering the actual signal too much; this doesn’t help us with live music.
  • The best headphones are custom made for your own ears. You make a plaster cast from your auricle and send it in to the vendor. The vendor will then create your customised In Ear headphone. Brilliant! And incredibly expensive. 😉

Recommended headphones for your In Ear system

Here are a couple of headphones we recommend:

The Shure SE215-CL In Ear Headphone
  • The Shure SE215-CL is a good headphone with very good isolation and good sound characteristics. It has one driver. The headphones has a very good cost/performance ratio with it’s less than 100 EUR.
  • The Shure SE425-CL is quite similar but comes with two drivers that can handle much more complex sound mixes. It is especially suitable for the worship leader who wants to get an overall impression of the mix. It is about 250 EUR.
  • The Ultimate Ears are amazing. With these custom-made headphones the external signals will be reduced by up to 26 dB and the three drivers can also handle very complex and dynamic signals without any problems. This high quality costs you a good EUR 1,000.

(2) A good transmission (wired or wireless)

Now we need a reliable transmission to bring a signal to the musician’s headphones. As with the headphones there are a couple of options for different budgets. We create a mix on our sound board for the band – which I will explain in a second – and now we need to get it transmitted to their headphones.

Basically there are two options:

  • Wired transmission
  • Transmission over the air

Wired transmission

With a wired transmission you connect a headphone amplifier at the output of your mixer and plug your headphones into it.

Pros:

  • Great quality
  • Cheap solution

Cons:

  • More cables
  • More setup time
  • A bit uncomfortable
  • More visible cables to the audience

The Fischer Amps Mini Bodypack 2, for example, is a version of it. This device can be easily attached to the belt, the signal is sent to the device via an XLR cable and the headphones are connected via the mini jack output. The device costs less than 60 EUR and is therefore excellently suitable for a slim budget.

Transmission over the air

The second option is to transmit the monitor signal wireless over the air. The musician or singer has a body pack on her belt which receives the signal via an antenna from a transmitter which is setup on stage or near the sound board.

Pros:

  • Very comfortable
  • Once configured, quickly set up

Cons:

  • Way more expensive
  • Initial configuration complicated (frequencies, antennas)

With the use of radio links, the entire setup becomes much more complex. It is important to take care that the transmission frequencies used do not collide with other signals (e.g. 3G, 4G or Wifi). In many countries the frequencies are not freely available, but the use of certain frequencies must be registered and cost money.

The best quality is being experienced when the antennas of the transmission system and the body pack have constant visual connection. In most cases that is only achievable with extra antennas on the transmitters.

An example of a wireless In Ear system is the Sennheiser ew IEM G4 E-Band Set. Here comes a transmitter with one or two receivers. The E-band describes the transmission frequencies between 823 and 865 MHz. The set costs 1.300 EUR and is therefore much more expensive than a transmission via cable, but wireless systems are of course much more practical on stage. There is less to set up, the stage is tidier, there are fewer stumbling traps etc.. Each transmitter sends two signals. Either one receiver can be supplied with a stereo signal or two receivers each receive one of the two mono signals. The receiver is set to either the left or right channel.

The Sennheiser ew300 IEM Transmitter
The Sennheiser ew300 IEM Transmitter
Sennheiser EK 330 IEM Body Pack
Sennheiser EK 330 IEM Body Pack

(4) Create a great In Ear mix

The musicians now have great headphones and a wired or wireless signal transmission. Now we make sure they receive the best possible mix in their ears. I’m explaining how we do In Ear mixes at Saddleback Berlin in the following article:

Conclusion

When the band hears itself well, the quality of the music increases and distractions are reduced. The church can then tune in much better to the music and it is easier to get in touch with God. Our music should invite to it and the quality of the music has a certain influence on it. There are other important aspects to leading us into worship before God. Nevertheless, we must not wipe away the quality of music as unimportant.

Good monitoring will help the musicians and that will ultimately help the church. Let me know your thoughts on it and feel free to post a comment to let me know how you are doing monitoring in your church.

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