Question: How do you mike musicians in a house of worship? (Part 7, In-Ear Monitors)
Answer: You might start off by saying to yourself, “You don’t mike in-ear monitors (IEM) – you listen to them.” And you’d be correct. But in concluding our Question of the Week Blog Series on miking musicians in a house of worship, we thought it would be beneficial to add in a discussion of IEMs as we do get asked about this topic regularly. Also to note, there IS a special way to “mike” an IEM system, which we will get into later in this post. We have spent the last few weeks on miking techniques for vocalists and choirs, drums, piano and organ, strings, and guitars. Yet in order for the musicians to give their optimum performance, they must be able to properly hear themselves and the other musicians playing alongside them.
Musical performances in the ’70s and earlier usually did not have any type of monitoring system for the performers to hear themselves. They relied on the loud sound coming from the performance area with the hard-hitting drums, blaring guitar amplifiers, wailing keyboards, and the natural, raw, unparalleled talent of a vocalist to all perform together in the same timing and key. Musicians eventually started to get stage monitors that were aimed at them so they could hear better what was going through the system. Ultimately, they were able to hear individual mixes set to their own preferences and tastes. While this did help the musicians, it was a nightmare for the audio engineers as it created excessive stage volume to deal with in the house sound system. This issue reared its ugly head most notably in the form of insufficient gain before feedback in microphones and bleeding of undesired instruments into other microphones, blurring the channel separation that allows them to effectively mix. Enter the in-ear monitoring systems, which help resolve a lot of these issues.
Audio-Technica’s in-ear monitoring headphones, including the ATH-E40, ATH-E50, and ATH-E70, offer a great solution to remove the floor monitors. Going one step further and taking down stage volume even lower can be achieved by remoting and miking guitar and bass amps offstage, connecting keyboards and guitars directly into the sound system via a DI box, and using electric drum kits or shielding or enclosing acoustic drums. While doing so feels different to a lot of musicians and might provoke some pushback, a healthy discussion of what is going to be most advantageous to all parties involved – an understanding that the overall sound is what is most meaningful – will often result in the reduction of stage volume and moving to an IEM solution. While the transition from floor monitors to an IEM system is a “win” for the audio engineer, there is always some give-and-take, and the “give” for the audio engineer is a detailed and initially challenging setup when properly putting an IEM system into place. With any and all IEM systems, gain structure is critical! You may want to read up on proper gain structure as material on the topic is readily available. It will not only grow your knowledge of audio, in general, and make you a better engineer, but it will also save you a lot of headaches down the road.
With praise bands growing in number of participants, and with popular wireless frequency spectrums shrinking, wireless IEM systems are at a premium over wired IEM systems. In many places, the pastor will likely have their own wireless microphone for the sermons, a wireless microphone will be set up for congregation questions and announcements, and the worship leader will have a wireless microphone that allows them to move about the worship space. Wired IEM systems are ideal choices for those who are not mobile, allowing wireless spectrum to be used for those with a higher need to be mobile. Percussionists and keyboardists are likely to be in one location and stationary, so they are good candidates for a wired IEM solution. The reliability of a wired connection is ALWAYS better than any wireless. In every “mission critical” application, there is always a backup wired product set up just in case the wireless fails.
Individual mixes for each IEM system will depend on your mixing console and how your system is set up. Commonly, you may use an auxiliary mix output for each IEM mix, but with newer digital systems you may also use a separate monitor mixing console. Additionally, newer systems allow each musician to design and maintain their own mix via a personal mixing control surface or a wireless device, such as a tablet or smartphone. Each person’s taste in mixing differs, and having an IEM mix that’s similar to the one a musician is used to from traditional onstage monitors will help that person feel at home. This is where the special trick about miking your IEM system that we mentioned earlier comes into play. Using an ambient microphone within the mix of the IEM system helps the user to hear what is going on around them, such as talking in between songs, hearing the natural sounds from the drums or amps in the same space, or hearing the congregation singing along. Having this ambient sound will allow musicians to transition to the “new normal” of the IEM system. With the Audio-Technica M2 and M3 wireless IEM systems, you may use the AM3 microphone, which can connect directly into the IEM receiver pack, allowing the user to add the ambient sounds from the microphone into their mix for a more authentic feel.
For more information on IEM systems, IEM headphones, or general information with using IEM systems in your house of worship, feel free to reach out to Audio-Technica’s Audio Solutions Specialists.