In My Head or On the Stage

The house of worship sound reinforcement space can be segmented in a wide variety of ways for a large number of purposes. The simplest divider is whether or not the worship style/service includes musical and singing (vocalist) performers. At this early point in the discussion, it doesn’t matter what kind of music, how many performers or what style of service are involved.

If your worship facility includes music and singing performers you face an upfront and essential set of decisions regarding the type, location and of course cost for the main sound reinforcement system and its deployment (a topic which we have covered in a previous article and are likely to revisit in the future).

But the similarly critical issues surrounding the support of the musical and vocal performers are often initially overlooked. In actuality these requirements may present a far bigger set of problems and technology decisions than anything else on the audio side of the fence.

To quote from a recent article by Anthony Coppedge, rAVe’s house of worship technology consultant, “Thinking long-term about technology is not something most church leaders have ever considered; they have a pain point, so they buy or lease technology to remedy the pain. This piecemeal approach is actually visible to the naked eye when looking at the front of house booth or video production room at a large percentage of churches, with a mash-up of products and brands smattered in equipment racks and on shelves.”

The inherent chaos of this technology acquisition style is further exacerbated by the various interfaces, technology incompatibilities caused by age or obsolescence, and the extreme complexity of trying to teach new people how to use the stitched together system that results. Read Anthony’s full column here.

This article will explore that essential element of delivering the worship service and the decision trees you need to consider in coming to a conclusion on how best to support your worship style, presentation and those delivering it.

Making a List and Checking It Twice

I frankly have lost count of the number of times this ‘minor’ issue has “magically” appeared in meetings and planning discussions, and how often it was not properly budgeted for or even incorporated into the overall design for the facilities’ sound systems.

It matters very little whether this system is a new build, in a new facility, or a re-fit or re-hab of a system in an existing space. The core problems to be considered and solved remain the same.

So before you jump down into the deep end of the audio reinforcement pool — STOP! Take a deep breath, relax and sit down. Make a list of the elements of your service as they currently are constituted and then do the vital (and usually forgotten) step of looking down the road — what kind of service do you expect two, three or five years from now? What will happen if the congregation grows and the worship offerings grow with it?

What if there are suddenly two services every Sunday with differing content and approaches (for example, a service for the older adults and a service for the younger members of the congregation)?

You are going to need one of those nice big legal size yellow pads (or the electronic equivalent) to make this list because you really, really need to put down every possible scenario, even the ones you think are highly unlikely right now.

The old adage of ‘never say never’ is the guiding principal here. The list of projects in which the ‘never’ issues rose up to become major problems is far longer than the list of projects in which they never surfaced. Thirty plus years of real world experience has made that un-deniably obvious. So please don’t ignore any possibility just because it seems outlandish or far off right now!

The primary thing to define is the style and content of the service as it is presented today:

  • How many musicians and vocalists are involved?
  • What type and kind of instruments are being used (acoustic, electronic, etc.)?
  • How are these musicians and vocalists spaced out?
  • Is there a worship leader (lead singer) style performer who moves around or changes locations?
  • Is there a choir, and how are they positioned (on -stage, choir loft, or)?
  • Is there a choir leader (director/conductor), and where is he/she positioned (at the organ, at some other
  • instrument, in front of the choir)?
  • Does that choir leader also sing or just lead?
  • Are there guest musicians and vocalists, how often, how many?
  • What is the facility layout and how will that impact performers, players, instrument locations?
  • Is there a fixed organ (pipe or electronic), where is its keyboard?
  • How professional are the musicians and vocalists ?
  • Do professional musicians and vocalists come to the facility to perform? If so, how often and what size groups are the norm?

Later on in this article we will review each of these questions and what their implications are in your choice of monitoring systems and approaches.

The Unspoken Givens

Before we take the high dive into the audio pool, let’s examine some core issues that apply regardless of what type of worship service you conduct, or where you conduct it.

First and foremost, one of the unspoken givens in any HOW audio system project is that the facility leadership is highly unlikely to fully comprehend the technical intricacies of the project. Sure, they understand (we hope) the need for the appropriate budget and relative merits of the various cost based options, but on what level do they understand it?

It is risky to make assumptions about how well the people who control the funds comprehend the differences between, for example, a generic one-size-fits-all, low-cost, in-ear system and the improvements that custom-fitted, ear-mold-based, in-ear devices might make. Or do you think your leadership grasps the value proposition of self-powered, DSP-equipped, networkable floor wedges (expensive) vs. the much lower cost off-the-shelf basic stage monitor wedge?

Their ability to evaluate any hardware proposal is inherently limited to essentially a cost basis. It is therefore extremely important that you very carefully explain and justify your choices on the basic of need and flexibility (future-proofing) rather than trying to teach them the complexities of the technology. Couching your proposals in terms of long-term usage and the ability to adjust to changes in the worship service, or any number of other variables is much more likely to get their attention.

Wedges and Ears

Although it is increasingly common to see worship venues try to make the transition from “wedges” to “ears” for stage monitoring purposes, they often find that this can be a surprisingly tricky process.

Let’s review the hardware basics. Fundamentally, wedges are loudspeakers that are angled up at the performers, thus the wedge name and shape.

The other method, is the wireless based In-ear monitor systems. This places earphones (commonly called ear-buds or simply buds) in the ear of the performer, mostly sealing the ear and providing a highly isolated monitor mix.

One mistaken assumption about the use of in-ear systems is that their use usually eliminates the need for a monitor loudspeaker “wedge.” This is simply not true. It may be the case, but many musicians and singers find they are most comfortable with having both a single in-ear and a floor wedge. (Things just got much more complicated, didn’t they?) More on that topic later.

In either case, wedges or in-ears, the mix (feed) can be provided from any or some combination of the front-of-house console, a dedicated monitor console, a personal on-stage mixer or a wireless computer or tablet.

There are multiple variations on the standard sized floor wedge available including low profile units like the one pictured here or the more compact variety shown here.

Additionally, floor wedge systems can be passive requiring separate, external power amplifiers and signal processing and heavier cabling, or they can be self-powered, often with built in DSP and networking capabilities, greatly simplifying cable needs (an audio feed), but this approach will also require the availability of electrical power near to the desired location. Another option, increasingly common, is the coaxial loudspeaker, which helps with both size and the ability to limit acoustic spill from the wedge. A coaxial system incorporates the HF section in the center of the LF driver — one example is shown here.

In-ear systems also come in many flavors, styles and cost levels. It is important to note that the lower-cost (often referred to as generic) models, anywhere from $100-$300 per set of ear buds plus the wireless hardware cost, are “one-size-fits-all, which may or may not be suitable for your users. Some of these system do provide various sizes of ‘tips’ for the ear buds to try to accommodate the wide variety of sizes the human ear presents, but any non-custom ear-bud will only work as well as the fit it can provide to a specific user. However, the more expensive custom molded earbuds (usually between $400-$1,000), while substantial, will provide a tight fit and excellent isolation, along with higher comfort levels to the user.

Two examples of the custom molded products available are shown here, along with an example of the kind of ear-mold required to produce the tips for each person.

Almost all of the in-ear systems in-use today are wireless based, which means two things. One you will need a transmitter (which can often feed multiple receivers) and a separate belt pack style receiver for each user. An example of a mid-priced transmitter/receiver system is shown here.

One of the lowest cost options for testing out the feasibility of using an in-ear system in your HOW is to rent a small system for a few key members of your music team. I would suggest looking into a two-week rental time frame so that you have sufficient opportunity to have various participants try things out. One of the many generic ear-bud based systems would be the logical choice. The small cost of the rental can save you  enormous  money in the long term as you can definitively determine what and for whom this might work (or if it won’t) without actually buying anything.

The enormous variety of electronics available to drive in-ear systems requires a separate article, but suffice it to say that you can find systems ranging in price from about $200 per user on up to whatever your budget can manage. One issue often forgotten when deploying wireless in-ear systems is the potential frequency and interference conflicts between existing or planned wireless microphone systems and the wireless in-ear systems. Many operate in the same frequency bands using similar (or identical) hardware, so it is essential to de-conflict frequency spectrum allocation requirements up front. Most manufacturers of wireless mic products provide software and support for this purpose. Be sure to take advantage of this resource to avoid problems at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Back to the List

Remember that list we made? It’s now time to work our way through those questions and give you some recommendations to consider. So to the edge of that diving board and into the deep end of the audio pool we stride.

1. How many musicians and vocalists are involved? Why is this important and why is it first on the list? Because it will set the hardware parameters and total quantity of any specific item, microphones, floor wedges, in-ear units, power connections and so forth. You realistically cannot even begin to create a budget or shop for gear until you know accurately how many of what will be needed today — AND how many of what may be needed in the next year, two years or whatever time frame is viable for your organization. Our recommendation is that you create a spreadsheet-like document with at least three columns:

  • A: What we need right now
  • B: What we need to plan for in the next 12 months
  • C: What we need to think about over the next two, three, four years

Now here’s a hard-won trick — whatever the totals are in each column, calculate your real needs by adding a minimum of 20 percent to each column’s number to cover the “oh, I forgot to mention” that ALWAYS comes up just as you think you have a final plan. It’s not if these will arise, it’s when.

2. What type and kind of instruments are being used (acoustic, electronic, etc.)? The answer produced by this question will tell you what types of microphone you will need and how they will need to be deployed. It will also allow you to sit down with each musician and discuss monitoring needs, based on both their physical position relative to other players and relative to their on-stage location(s) — remember some may move around or get up to work with the congregation or lead in singing or any number of other options. Here is where the first decision point on wedges vs. in-ears is likely to take place. It’s also the time to start asking about experience with in-ears and comfort levels with that technology.

3. How are these musicians and vocalists spaced out? This is the most important early question because it literally ‘sets the stage.’ It will tell you where people are planning to be, where they may end up and what kind of overlap from wedges you might encounter for example or how long the cables to mics needs to be and a host of other core planning items. We strongly recommend making a map of the theoretical layout, on a dry erase board. Then look at what could happen, where people or instruments might end up, and make a new map with first second and even third positions marked. Plan for each, adjust as needed. Then sit down with all the singers, musicians and participants and go over your map for their input — only after than can it be sort of final. By-the-way, experience shows it will never really be final only the best plan you can make for some to be determined by the real world time frame.

4. Is there a worship leader (lead singer) style performer who moves around or changes locations? Knowing this tells you whether or not you will need wireless mics for these person(s), and also whether or not in-ears will work or will you need multiple wedge locations. If it is multi-wedges, plan for a way to mute the unused ones as they move to lower on-stage levels and manage feedback. But be prepared to rapidly adjust depending on their on-stage style and movements.

5. Is there a choir, and how are they positioned (on-stage, choir loft)? Choirs are wonderful and also a nightmare. Since the vast majority of choir participants are NOT performing professionals, so balancing levels, mic positions and covering them with sufficient wedges without cluttering the area or creating high feedback prone levels is a complex balancing act. This is a location where low-profile self-powered, wedges are a boon. Be sure you verify coverage patterns so you can just overlap where needed both left to right and front to back. This is also a prime place to consider small hot-spot-type monitors for covering grouping by pitch or location. Mounting these to short mic stands can allow you to conceal them below sight lines, especially if there is a front wall behind which the choir is located. If they are on risers, this is an approach well worth considering as it makes for less level, more focus for the singers and better control of leakage and feedback. Generally speaking the small hot-spot products are lower cost than wedges as a bonus.

6. Is there a choir leader (director/conductor), and where is he/she positioned (at the organ, at some other instrument, in front of the choir)? This question tells you what kind of monitoring will be needed and where you can put it. In most cases choir directors prefer wedges because it helps them hear the choir acoustically as well and the support musicians through the wedge. Hot spots are another popular choice for this application, often in pairs or multiple locations if the person moves from the organ bench to standing in front of the choir for instance.

7. Does that choir leader also sing or just lead? If they do you will need to balance that support need with monitoring and microphone location and type. In-ears may be the only option in some cases, but a properly configured and feedback suppressed wedge system can and does work, with the right choice of mic and location. Consider one of the many head-worn small condenser mics as they are much better at isolation and feedback rejection. Plus they are normally wireless which gives the director freedom of movement.

8. Are there guest musicians and vocalists, how often, how many? Accommodating guest musicians MUST be planned for up-front. You will need to know how many, what instruments, their experience level both with your worship style and the existing compliment of musicians and singers. Do they have their own preferred mic or monitor choice. If so, TEST IT beforehand to make sure it is compatible with your system, and that it actually works. This is where the concept of the Virtual Sound Check discussed below can be a lifesaver.

9. What is the facility layout and how will that impact performers, players and instrument locations? What is where? How deep is the stage? How wide? Where are the fixed in place elements (pulpits, altars, lecterns, choir risers? What can be moved? All of this is part of the mapping process outlined in item three above. You must know what hardware you can put where, what cable lengths will be needed, how many wireless channels and all the other related issues. Covering a long wide stage with wedges can lead to massive front of stage visual clutter and a trip/safety hazard for worship leaders or singers/musicians who move around. And don’t forget the ever present feedback gremlins lurking just waiting to be triggered by movement of a wireless mic in front of a wedge for example.

10. Is there a fixed organ (pipe or electronic); where is its keyboard? This answer is often lined to the choir director question, and many choirs are led from the organ or primary keyboard location. If feasible an under the seating bench wedge monitor is generally the best choice for this location, as it is concealed visually and close enough to the user to be able to keep its level low. Be sure to verify what the person at that location wants to hear, and what is the absolute minimum they can live with- then find a balance between the two.

11. How professional are the musicians and vocalists? The vast majority of musical contributors in HOW services are not professional musicians by trade. Therefore their ability to adapt to things like in-ear systems, and monitoring in general is often a steep learning curve. They only do this once a week in most cases, plus if you’re lucky, a rehearsal or two. Three words — virtual sound check! Get your side of the process de-bugged without them present, leaving you time to deal with the individual problems, needs and requirements without having the start of services clock ticking loudly in the foreground.

12. Do professional musicians and vocalists come to the facility to perform? If so, how often and what size groups are the norm? First, if this happens in your HOW it’s a golden learning opportunity for you, your staff, your musicians and singers. They can all see how people who make their living with this hardware use it, work with it and adapt to it. But if they do come, you must have enough spare mic inputs, electrical feeds, chairs, monitor feeds and all the rest to accommodate their needs. Most professionals who tour have a printed “rider” document spelling out in detail their technical needs and requirements. GET a copy as far in advance as feasible. Keep it on file for future reference and be sure to ask questions or raise issues before they arrive — that’s what tour managers and their own sound crew is there for. ASK!

These folks can also be a treasure trove of information on the transition to in-ear systems if that is a direction you are contemplating. They have been using those systems for in many cases years and understand all the nuances associated with human perception and similar problems. Use their experience to help your people.

Virtual Sound Check

Perhaps the most under-exploited capability of almost any modern generation digital FOH console is what has generically become known as the Virtual Sound Check option. In essence this incredibly versatile function allows you to replace the live band on stage with a virtual copy, typically recorded digitally to a storage device (USB drive, SD card, portable HD or almost any other similar system including many ADAT type recorders). In many cases a built in multi-track recording function in the console can also provide this functionality.

The major difference between a functional Virtual Sound Check (or VSC as it’s often called) and simply recording a performance or service directly from the console is that to make the VSC you have to be able to archive every channel in use individually. It is also crucial that these feeds (channels) be picked up at a specific point in the signal chain within the console — that is, as close to the mic preamplifier’s output as possible. Or more simply put, we want our pick-off point for the VSC tracks to be right before ANY signal processing of any type other than the preamp’s gain. This is so that what you record is what you would have heard in a real sound check BEFORE you applied any EQ, dynamics, filters or effects — the “pure” sound of that source’s microphone or direct injection feed to the console.
Every console manufacturer will offer their own flavor of this process and even just listing all the options would take pages and pages of data — so you should check your particular console’s manual, online resources or customer support portals for the best way to do this on your specific make and model.

The most useful and functional systems make it easy to record pretty much right after the mic pre A/D conversion, then re-insert the signal at that same point with a touch of a button. Don’t forget that you need to do this for each and every channel you would normally use for any specific service or event whether that is 12 or 48 channels.

Practice, Practice, Practice and Don’t Forget Training

As the HOW audio world, transactions from paid engineers to volunteers or in some cases from full-time to part-time volunteers, having the ability to spend significant practice or training time with a new volunteer going over your FOH and monitor systems, fine-tuning parameters and assembling many variations on any mix or service with no pressure and without the congregation listening is a huge benefit. This is especially true if new equipment is added in or new people join the team.

But… there’s always a but — remember that this is VIRTUAL reality and thus you will not have a key component of an actual live service or event — the acoustic energy coming from the stage. Therefore the perceived sound of things like, drums and solo vocals, choir or that massive pipe organ will be (depending on your particular building’s acoustics) somewhere between modestly and significantly different.

Just in case you think this is not something “real pros” would do — let me assure you that every live sound and live venue FOH engineer I know (lots and lots) uses this almost every show. In fact, many keep specific shows from specific venues on thumb drives to speed set-up the next time they play there or to remind everyone what stuff sounds like in this space. It’s an extraordinarily useful and flexible tool that you should add to your kit. This blows the old scene or preset recall capability out of the water!

The Great DIY Debate

Other than the few dozen super-mega-colossal HOW projects that get built each year, there is one question that always arises, usually at the very last minute, and mostly without serious consideration of the potential issues. This is the “Can we install this ourselves and save a lot of money?” question, or in more prosaic terms — the Great DIY debate. Frankly the answer is always, I repeat ALWAYS… maybe. Since this topic IS going to come up, and will have to be resolved, perhaps a short evaluation of the issues is warranted.

Can DIY be successful? Again… maybe. It depends on so many uncontrollable variables that there is no yes or no answer possible. Each HOW is different, and the available resources are all over the map so — maybe! But there are some don’ts that are well worth remembering. This applies to both HOW staff and professional integrators’ who might be involved:

  1. Don’t plan on doing ANYTHING where you cannot 125 percent verify that the core competencies needed, technical expertise, equipment, tools, etc., are firmly and reliably available. Never undertake a project when there are questions about safety, codes or skills unless you can personally vouch for those issues. People can and do get killed because of mistakes made at this stage of any project. Don’t be one of them! This may appear to be blatantly obvious, but it is a hard wired part of human nature to overestimate one’s capabilities or knowledge. In a lot of areas that’s only a minor problem; in this space it can be fatal.
  2. There are highly qualified professional engineers, contractors (HVAC, electrical) and a host of other specialists in every community. Don’t let arrogance prevent you from seeking advice and counsel when you’re out of your comfort zone. A few dollars spent on the right advice can avoid thousands of dollars spent to pay lawyers or fix avoidable mistakes. Sure there are contractors, integrators and other professionals who won’t offer an advice only option, but for every one that says no, there is usually one who will work with you. But be truthful and upfront about what you want, what your budget might be and honest about what you can and cannot understand or do.
  3. If people can be injured or hurt by what you’re about to do or attempt — STOP! Hire a licensed professional. High voltage, rigging and structural issues are not casual concerns.
  4. Realistically, unless your available volunteer pool is unusually capable or large, you will likely need to find a way to split the job between DIY and professionals. Negotiate UP FRONT with the pros you need and work out a division of effort. Create a written document clearly stating who is doing what, when and who is responsible for the completion of that job to a working level. Don’t handshake this — get everything down in writing for everyone’ sake.

Ultimately saving some money and having staff and volunteers take some ownership of the project is a useful and valuable thing, but be more than 100 percent sure that everyone can safely and effectively do what they have been asked to accomplish. If you have any doubts, don’t go ahead until you have it resolved.