A head to head comparison of the Hear Back & Aviom Monitor System
It seems that almost every conversation I have with churches today either begins or ends with stage monitor questions. Stage monitors have always been the bane of the church sound system’s existence – most commonly the culprit for muddy front of house sound, feedback, unwanted delay, and other common Sunday morning nuisances.
The common problem with stage monitors is proximity to the microphone and overall sound pressure coupled with the fact that no one ever gets the mix they want and every musician wants “more of me”. By the time you get the stage volume loud enough you’re killing the front of house. Once the guitarist is happy, the piano player doesn’t like the mix, and the drummer is screaming for more keys. On top of all of this, the poor monitor engineer is typically the front of house engineer doing double duty from over 200 feet away!
Until recently there has been no really good solution. Wireless in-ear monitors were so pricey only the most elite could afford them and hardwired in-ear monitors were cumbersome at best. On top of it all, both systems required more auxiliary mixes than the average front of house console offered. Now with the advent of Analog to Digital conversion and Cat5 cable there are some options that are both affordable and usable for the church market. We are going to look at two of the more popular options for the church – one system is created by Hear Technologies the other by Aviom.
There seems to be a lot of confusion as to which system should be used, the differences between them, and how to choose one system over the other. The goal of this article is to help educate you about both systems. I have had the opportunity to see both systems in use and interview several end users. I believe that both systems are very well made and offer their own unique solutions for the church. The primary decision maker will be in how you want to implement in-ear monitoring and what type of mix is important to you.
Both Aviom and Hear Technologies offer scalability and independent musician control although they approach the idea a little differently.
First, let’s look at Hear Technologies. The Hear Back system by Hear Technologies is very straight forward and easy to use. It’s relatively inexpensive and is very musician friendly.
It is important to understand how the Hear Back system is designed to work in order to understand how it is best utilized. The Hear Back system has 8 discreet mixes being sent to each of the personal mixers. The first two channels are stereo. These two channels are intended to be an overall mix of the band as represented by the main house mix – the “perfect mix”. This allows the musicians and vocalists to hear what the house is hearing and adjust accordingly. The remaining six controls are the “more me” controls. This is where the musician has up to six instruments or mixes that they can independently control to optimize their personal mix. If you parallel channels one and two (“the perfect mix”) across multiple hubs, this configuration permits an unlimited number of “more me” controls. The idea is not to force each musician to mix the entire stage, but rather simply adjust their “more me” controls.
The idea here is to have the “perfect mix”, and then simply turn up the individual “more me”. This is an approach widely used in recording studios, greatly simplifying the task for the talent.
A strong selling point for the Hear Technologies system is that it is easy to install and easy to use. The control knobs are easy to handle and responsive. It’s as simple as using a master volume control. There is very little training and a very short learning curve. The musicians we spoke with are very comfortable with the system and love the sonic characteristics. Another feature musicians love is the built in limiter. When set correctly, the unit will automatically limit loud sounds that could otherwise damage the users hearing. In the event of feedback or other unforeseen volume spikes the limiter will take over and release once the offending sound is removed.
If you have a small budget or a small band, the Hear Back system is ideal – no questions asked. If you have a larger band and need more scalability, Hear Back provides for it, but it involves more equipment and planning.
Your basic Hear Back system consists of a cable that comes out of the mixing console and plugs into the Hear Back Hub. The Hear Back Hub is a single rack space unit that takes the analog feed from your console and converts it to digital. It has eight CAT5 sends that go directly to a personal mixer on the stage. The stage mixers can not be daisy chained – each of them must make a home run to the Hear Back Hub. Additional Hear Backs Hubs can be chained together allowing for unlimited numbers of stage mixers. The stage mixer then sends signal to a headphone mix (two per mixer) as well as two, balanced LEFT/RIGHT line level output for stage amps, monitors, wireless in-ear, etc. Additionally, the Hear Back features Analog, ADAT (great for digital FOH boards) and the Hear Bus. The Master volume controls both the line outputs and Headphones, so using a bass shaker and in-ears at the same time is possible. The ADAT option will allow you to use ADAT outs from your digital console directly into the Hear Back Hub – given the limited number of analog outs on a digital board this can be a real life saver!
This system is designed to grow both horizontally and vertically so to speak. You can have different Hear Back Hubs receiving different inputs and sending out to their own group of personal stage mixers as well as a bank of Hear Back Subs receiving the same group of inputs via daisy chain and sending out to personal stage mixers in banks of 8. If you want to combine different groups you must do so using the line level out of one stage mixer into the line level in of another mixer – effectively creating a submix going into your primary mixer. (Not recommended by Hear Technologies) This is not required if you prescribe to the baseline “perfect mix” and the simple “more me” approach. Hear Technologies cited the example of a Symphony. – if every player had to adjust his or her own mix, the recording would take hours or maybe a day! Instead, they propose that everyone hearing an accurate overall mix and then simply layering more of themselves on top of this mix is a better and simpler way to mix in-ear monitors.
Scalability of the Hear Back system is very possible, but will require good planning. You must know who has to hear what and plan accordingly.
I went on site to Northwest Baptist Church in Acworth, GA – they have been using the Hear Back system for about a year and a half. John MacCullen, the Worship Leader for the church, simply could not say enough good things about the system. He did indicate that he wished it had more inputs built into the mixer by default, but said the overall sound quality was superb and the usability was so easy that anyone could use it. He enjoys the fact that sound and power come from the CAT5 cable, thus helping to maintain a clean stage and fewer cables around him.
The Aviom system looks at personal monitoring a little different. They have built a system that can be used any way the user wants to design it. Like the Hear Back system, all audio passes through the CAT5 cable, and uses a central “brain” (the AN16/i Input Module, the AN16/i Mic Input Module, or the Y1 Card for Yamaha digital mixers) but that is where the similarity stops.
Aviom sends 16 channels of digital audio down the CAT5 cable via the company’s proprietary audio network protocol called A-Net. Each of these 16 channels can be independently mixed at each mixer location. Mixers can be daisy chained from one to another or connected in parallel directly from a central hub. There is no single system design or flow to the Aviom system. According to Ray Legnini of Aviom, their components can be connected anywhere in the system you choose. For instance, once you come out of the mixer board into the AN16/i Input Module you can do anything you choose. You can send your single Cat5 run down on stage and connect to a A16D or A16DPro (their A-Net distribution hubs) and from these hubs go out to individual A-16II Personal Mixers – or you can run from the AN16/i out to an A-16II Personal Mixer, daisy chain any number of other A-16II Personal Mixers, and then if you choose, run into a A-16D or A-16DPro A-Net Distributor, and continue on from there.
Each A-16II Personal Mixer can send a line-level or headphone level signal, thus allowing it to control the in-ear monitor as well as amplifiers, powered speakers, wireless in-ear transmitters, etc. You can also control stereo panning per channel – which is really nice.
The Aviom system will give you a lot of flexibility and scalability without a lot of fuss. Each A-16II mixer has a CAT5 in and out as well as a DC power connector. If the A-16II is connected to a distribution hub no power is needed, but if it is being used by itself without the hub it needs the DC power supply.
The Aviom system uses buttons and knobs to control the sound. The musician or vocalist will press one of 16 buttons to choose the channel they want to adjust and then turn the volume up or volume down using the rotary volume encoder. The same is true for channel panning. Channels can be soloed or muted, and up to three groups can be created and saved per preset. Aviom then allows the musician to save up to 16 presets. This is really ideal if you have multiple bands or different music sets from service to service.
I went out to Mt. Paran Church of God in Atlanta, GA and spoke with Jill Warner, Audio Manager and Jeremy Crowder, Front of House Engineer. Both spoke affectionately of their Aviom system. Jill actually commented that she would not want to live without it. Jeremy echoed her sentiment, adding that it had made his life a lot easier as the FOH engineer – he can now focus almost all of his attention on the front of house mix and let the musicians tweak their monitor system until their heart is content. I asked each of them if there was anything they would change in the system and most of their comments have already been addressed by Aviom (such as louder headphone volume). They also commented that they wished it had more channels but recognized that they could link multiple devices together if they had to.
It is important to realize with both systems that although they are using CAT5 cable, this is not the same as Ethernet. This means the normal switches and hubs used in computer networks will not necessarily work. It is also worthy to note that both manufacturers have excellent websites that include wiring hookups and other ideas for using their products.
In choosing which system is ideal for your church I believe you need to look at how you want to mix monitors. How much control does each musician and vocalist need, how many are you planning to use, how many groups do you need, what are the limitations of your console, what is your growth potential?
I would feel comfortable recommending either of these systems. If you are on a tight budget and want to enter into personal monitors, the Hear System is going to get you in cheap. A complete Hear Back system with 4 stations has a list price of $1495. If you’re on a budget you’re not going to get much cheaper. If you have fairly limited in-ear needs or a solid plan on how to distribute your monitor system, the Hear Back system is still a good way to go. It is worth noting that even though you are buying what might seem like redundant equipment – or at least a lot of equipment – pound for pound you’re not spending more money because their individual units are considerably cheaper to begin with.
If, however, you have ever expanding needs or you’re not really sure how you want to implement your monitoring system, you would probably have more interest in the Aviom system. If you have different groups using the system or a varied set of worship services on Sunday, the Aviom definitely has some advantages with the preset feature. Being able to plug a unit in anywhere in the chain and start mixing monitors is really a pleasing idea – not to mention the ability to daisy chain units.
In conclusion, I would not suggest these units for stage control of wedge monitors exclusively. The systems are quite capable of doing such a job, but you are asking for trouble. The primary problem with church sound systems is sound pressure – or, in laymen’s terms, volume. Musicians are notorious for wanting “more me” (the whole reason personal monitor systems exist). If musicians are let loose with complete control of all the wedge monitors your stage volume will be overwhelming – thus creating all kinds of gain structure problems. Remember, the number one cause of problems with church sound systems is too much stage volume. It creates muddy sound in the house and is the primary cause for feedback. Personal monitor systems are a great solution for musicians using in-ear monitors where the overall volume doesn’t affect the dynamics of the room, but I would urge you to carefully consider your options before using this as an all out wedge monitor solution.
For more information please visit the manufacturer’s website. Each site has sample hook-up diagrams and specific information about each of their products.