IEMs in Houses of Worship: Taking the Plunge

by Vince Lepore
in Sound Sanctuary
Non-custom, universal-fit earpieces — such as these Future Sonics Spectrum Series model G10 — are a popular choice for most house of worship monitoring applications.
Non-custom, universal-fit earpieces — such as these Future Sonics Spectrum Series model G10 — are a popular choice for most house of worship monitoring applications.

In-ear monitoring systems are a very mature product in 2016. All types of musical performers, including those in houses of worship, have embraced in-ear monitoring as their go-to stage monitoring solution. The benefits of IEMs are well known, although there are many singers/vocalists who prefer wedge monitors. Without regurgitating what has already been written countless times about in-ear monitoring, here’s a quick overview of some of the pros and cons of IEMs in general, and we’ll examine some questions and issues that often arise when introducing IEMs into the H.O.W. environment.

Pros and Cons

Advantages:

• Artist/performer mobility

• Consistent mix as artists move around the stage

• Freedom from “bleed” from other artist mixes on stage

• Smaller, lighter, easy to transport and set up

• Reduced potential for monitor feedback (or zero monitor feedback if band is all on IEMs)

Disadvantages:

• Cost

• May require additional console outputs

• Can be more difficult to mix, especially in a dual FOH/MON mixing scenario

• Ear buds (generic or custom mold) require cleaning and maintenance

• Ongoing cost of batteries (lessened by reusable batteries, which require recharging before each service).

Wired vs. Wireless

The debate about wired vs. wireless ears is common in houses of worship. Of course every performer “needs wireless ears,” but do they really? I’m a firm believer in hardwired IEM’s for select artists that don’t require mobility onstage. Sure, even for a drummer, a wireless IEM pack is a convenience, but it’s definitely not a necessity. In fact, drummers or keyboard players who aren’t mobile will get better sound quality and greater onstage reliability if they stay wired. Let’s also not forget that the UHF spectrum is getting squeezed tighter and tighter by the FCC and big telecom. Be diligent when adding wireless IEM systems to your inventory. My motto is “buy low,” meaning buy wireless systems as low in the UHF spectrum as possible. Most wireless manufacturers now have UHF products that reach down into the upper 400 MHz range, which is a relatively safe bet considering current circumstances. If you chose to go wired for some performers, you can count on years of low-maintenance, reliable operation.

Stereo is Always Better

If you’re thinking about transitioning to IEMs or adding more to your inventory, a major consideration will be console outputs. Do you have enough aux buses to feed stereo mixes to all of your performers? It’s often tempting to run mono mixes to your in-ears, whether it’s due to lack of console outputs or lack of drive lines to the stage or your IEM rack. I will admit that our church has fallen prey to this mono temptation, and frankly, our IEM mixes suffer as a result. The fact is that a stereo in-ear mix is always better than a mono mix. As an artist, it’s very difficult to distinguish between multiple guitars, vocals and keyboards that all fight for the same frequency space when everything is panned center. A little bit of panning goes a long way in providing the separation an artist needs to feel comfortable using in-ears. If you have a performer on a mono mix that regularly removes one ear bud, try giving them a stereo mix with some light panning (nothing too drastic!) and see how they feel about it.

Beyond Stereo

Continuing the mono vs. stereo question makes one wonder if there’s anything beyond stereo. Of course we only have two ears and two in-ear monitors to work with, but as we know, our auditory system is very complex and refined. In the real world of non-in-ear monitor mixing, we can distinguish and localize sounds with a great degree of accuracy. The phenomenon of sound localization is well understood, researched and documented, so it was only a matter of time before someone started recreating that with DSP.

Several manufacturers with current products do this, either using hardware-based products or plug-ins. If you’re interested in one “beyond stereo” IEM system, see my review of the Klang Fabrik 3D monitoring system (FRONT of HOUSE, Oct. 2015, page 54).

No Dedicated Monitor Desk? No Problem.

Many churches, my own included, struggle with the workload demands on their FOH engineer. At my church, we mix foldback from FOH, including the house mix five-plus IEM mixes and several wedge mixes. It’s a demanding job that a skilled engineer can absolutely handle, but we struggle when one audio engineer leaves and we have to train a new one. The good news is that if you don’t have a dedicated monitor desk, you don’t necessarily have a problem. If you’ve got a well-appointed digital console, it likely has remote control capability from an iPad or similar device. We use an iPad with our DiGiCo board that allows a separate person to mix monitors from the stage. That second engineer wears a wireless IEM pack so they can cue mixes and hear what they are dialing while standing next to the artist on stage. It’s a powerful workflow, so if your console has this ability, take advantage of it!

Personal Monitoring Solutions

Finally, if you’re in the market for IEM’s and you’ve got money to burn, don’t neglect the power of personal monitor mixing systems such as Aviom, Hear Technologies, Pivitec, Roland and others. While these systems require some additional training for your performers, the long-term payoff is immense. I’ve had several experiences where musicians were initially hesitant about dialing their own monitor mix, saying “it’s just another thing for me to do onstage” or “I’m not an audio engineer.” Yet a few months later, you need to wrestle the controller from their hands. Whatever direction you take as you move away from wedges and into in-ear monitoring, you are sure to encounter some snags along the way. Fortunately, any such difficulties can be overcome quickly to the benefit of your audio team, your band and your congregation.

Vince Lepore is the technical director at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando. He also teaches live production at Full Sail University.