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FOH Those About To Mix

For any house of worship that offers a contemporary service involving a praise ensemble, and even those presenting more traditional services that involve a substantial choir, it may be necessary to provide monitoring for the musicians and singers so that they may hear themselves and their colleagues. Assuming that the sound system supports more than simple voice reinforcement and includes sufficient microphones, amplification, loudspeakers and a mixing console, how can a church engineer provide monitoring without substantial financial outlay?

For those unable to spend thousands of dollars on a dedicated monitor desk, or one of the dual-purpose consoles available from several manufacturers, the good news is that it is possible for the majority of front of house (FOH) consoles to do double-duty.

There are a number of different ways that monitors may be provided from the FOH console, including using the auxiliary sends or using the matrix outputs. But while the matrix outputs typically source the subgroups and therefore individual inputs that have been grouped together, using the aux sends allows the level of each input source to be adjusted individually for each separate monitor mix.

Aux send controls have several functions. They can be used to control the levels of the signal going to effects units, to drive subwoofers, as feeds to an external recording device, and to create separate onstage monitor mixes.

The simplest and best method for creating monitor mixes from the FOH console is to use aux sends selected to be pre-fader and preferably pre-EQ. This means that any changes in level or EQ in the main sound system will not affect the monitor feeds since they are sourced, and their levels controlled, before each input channel EQ section and fader.

Allowing those changes to also affect the monitors would be undesirable and could be disastrous. Rolling off a little of the high frequencies on the drum kit in the main system will not necessarily improve the sound in the monitor loudspeakers. And raising the level of a vocal in the house system will increase the level in the monitors and could lead to feedback.

Whether or not, and exactly how, a console can switch the aux sends between pre and post-fader and pre and post-EQ depends entirely on the desk model and manufacturer. Some consoles switch pre/post-fader in pairs of aux sends (Mackie and certain Soundcraft models, for example), or banks of four (some models of Allen & Heath), or even globally, and some not at all. Pre/post-EQ switching may be similar, and on some consoles this is achieved via individual switches on the input circuit boards, not the console faceplate. Consult the console operation manual or the manufacturer if in doubt. If you intend to purchase a new console for the purpose of mixing both FOH and monitors then this is something to keep in mind.

The total number of aux sends available that can be switched pre-fade/pre-EQ will dictate how many individual monitor feeds may be set up. Keep in mind that you may wish to retain some of the auxes for effects sends in the main system, to drive subwoofers or to feed a recorder.

If the console design dictates that all the aux sends must be set to pre-fader then the effects sends will need to be, too. This means that unless you run your input faders around ‘0’ then your input channels will be very effects-heavy. The more adventurous and technically proficient may wish to modify their FOH console to meet the challenge of also mixing monitors.

Sending a monitor mix to the stage without EQ is not perfect, but is preferable to a post-EQ mix that changes during the service as the FOH engineer makes adjustments to the main sound system. In order to EQ each mix it is possible to insert an outboard equalizer into each monitor feed. This is a topic for future discussion in this series of articles.

A minimum of two monitor feeds is probably desirable. How the monitor speakers are physically positioned depends on your circumstances–perhaps front and back or both along the front of the stage. Which aux sends are used to create these mixes is also a matter of choice. Those farthest from the operator perhaps make most sense as the engineer will not be constantly reaching for the controls once the monitors are set correctly, so the controls do not need to be easily accessible.

Taking the instance of two monitor mixes, on each input channel Aux Send #1 (as an example) will control the amount of that channel’s signal that is sent to monitor mix one and Aux Send #2 likewise to the second mix. Aux Send Masters 1 and 2 will control the overall output level of each monitor mix.

So, if the overall balance is good but the performer just needs the level to the loudspeaker adjusting up or down, modify the level using the aux master level control. But if the performer needs more level of his or her vocal, for example, adjust that vocal input channel’s relevant aux send to their specific monitor mix.

In truth, the engineer does not “mix” monitors, whether from a dedicated monitor desk or the FOH console. Prior to the service, each monitor channel is tuned and equalized, console input and output levels are set, and everything is then best left as it is, unless a performer requests a change.

Any musician will tell you that it can be unsettling for the monitor mix to change during a performance just because the monitor engineer has decided that he or she can somehow “improve” it. However, anyone controlling monitor sends needs to be ever vigilant toward performers and quickly make any changes that are requested.

There are a number of basic rules to keep in mind. Above all, when making adjustments, keep in mind that feedback is to be avoided at all costs. And never take for granted that the level at which a musician plays during setup, rehearsal or sound check will be the same level at which they will play during the service.

Assuming that there are sufficient aux sends available, performers within the same group will each prefer very different levels and mixes to be sent to their individual monitor speakers or in-ear setups. Those having little previous exposure to monitors often ask for a mix of everything, which is to be avoided. The goal, after all, is to keep the stage volume as low as possible.

Think like a performer and you will learn to anticipate their needs. What they need to hear to perform well is very different to the audience mix. Vocalists need to hear themselves and those with whom they are harmonizing, and everyone will probably want a mix of the vocals. Rhythm sections will also need to hear kick drum and snare. Instruments with their own amplification don’t need to be in the monitors as they are most likely loud enough onstage already.

Monitor volumes can be a problem in establishing a good mix in the sanctuary if the main sound system cannot overcome the volume from the monitor loudspeakers. High monitor levels can also find their way into the FOH system via the microphones. Monitor speaker levels and positioning must therefore be set optimally to ensure a good house sound. Of course, in-ear monitor systems reduce these problems.

Once levels are set, be wary of making any further adjustments or adding more of anything to the mix. Once a satisfactory onstage level is achieved that does not interfere with your ability to mix the house sound you can maintain that level by making any further adjustments subtractive. The result is the same, but onstage levels will not get out of control.

For example, if a singer needs to hear more of his or her vocal, decreasing the level of the other elements in that mix will raise the relative level of the vocal in that monitor mix, satisfying their requirement without increasing the overall level. The unwanted alternative as each performer asks for more of this or that in their mixes is a steadily increasing onstage volume.

Stay tuned for future issues when we’ll delve more into the wonderful world of audio in worship.

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