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The Quiet Stage: Low Volumes, Great Sound

Without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges facing praise bands and church engineers is the need to keep on-stage volumes under control. No one argues about the importance of keeping stage volumes low enough to allow the engineers to mix house sound cleanly and without competition from stage spill. Yet we’ve all heard stories of front-of-house engineers who pull the main fader all the way down, leaving only the stage spill. And still the service is too loud.

If everyone agrees that it’s important to keep stage volumes down, why doesn’t it happen? The answer is pretty simple: all that volume on stage is there for a reason. Performers need monitors loud enough to hear. Guitar and bass amps often sound better turned up. And drums simply cannot be played quietly. So the key is to reduce stage volume in a way that also gives the musicians exactly what they need to perform and sound their best. This is the idea of the Quiet Stage.

The first step in moving towards the Quiet Stage is to remove as many wedge monitors as possible. Headphones and in-ear monitors offer an excellent and cost-effective alternative to wedges, but it’s important to make the switch intelligently. Many performers who move from a wedge to headphones or (especially) in-ears find the experience disappointing at first and, in too many cases, ultimately haul the wedges back out of the closet. While simply substituting headphones or in-ears for every floor wedge on stage will certainly bring instant benefits in reducing stage volumes, this switch will ultimately be unsuccessful unless it’s accompanied by a concerted effort to make sure performers get the monitor mixes they need.

The first point is that a good wedge mix is simply a bad in-ear mix. One critical difference is that a good in-ear mix is in stereo. Wedge-based monitor systems have an inherent sense of space because so many of the sounds the performer hears come from sources other than his or her wedge: spill from the drums, the choir, the guitar and bass amps, and so on. This sense of space is essential for the performer and can be replicated very effectively with in-ears and headphones, but only if the mix is in stereo.

The other important difference between monitoring with wedges and monitoring in ear is that in-ear mixes aren’t very forgiving. Because the mix is literally right in the performer’s ears and is the only thing the performer can really hear (especially with good in-ear monitors), a small change to the mix – which might have literally been imperceptible in a wedge – is suddenly quite noticeable. This means that performers using headphones and in-ears may suddenly seem more picky about their monitor mixes, and they may be much harder for even the best engineer to satisfy consistently.

The easiest way to address these challenges, while also freeing up engineers to focus entirely on the house sound, is to let performers make their own in-ear mixes with a personal monitor mixing system. This kind of system gives each performer independent control over his or her own monitor mix and delivers stereo content to each performer without doubling the number of monitor sends the engineers are responsible for (to the contrary!). With headphones, in-ear monitors, and a good personal monitor mixing system, wedges and their high volumes can be eliminated, and performers can get perfect sounding monitor mixes every time.

Open monitors, however, aren’t the only source of volume on stage. Consider what remains, even if everyone in the band goes to in-ears: Voices. Instrument amplifiers. Acoustic guitars, pianos, and maybe horns. And worst yet, drums.

While some of these (voices, for instance) will never be quieted, tremendous benefits can be achieved by replacing some of these sound sources with electronics. Guitar and bass amp modelers, for instance, are very effective substitutes for traditional amps, and because the tones are generated digitally, high acoustic volumes are not required to get the tight sounds guitarists and bassists want from their rigs. The outputs of the modelers are run directly into the sound system, and because there is no acoustic sound, engineers have complete control over the levels in the house mix and performers all have complete and independent control over the levels in their monitor mixes. Thus, on-stage volume is dramatically reduced without detracting from the performers’ experiences.

Similarly, acoustic drums can very reasonably be replaced with an electronic kit. Recent years have brought significant advances in the sound quality of drum sound modules and the feel of playing on a trigger set. With good electronic drums, stage volumes can be reduced to barely audible clicking and tapping, while still producing excellent sounding drums in the house and monitor mixes.

Some drummers and bassists who make this switch say it just doesn’t feel the same. One good solution is to mount a bass enhancer, such as a Bass Shaker or Butt Kicker, to the drummer’s throne or to the underside of a small platform for the bassist. This will restore some of the low frequencies lost in the in-ears and headphones and will give the performers the feel of standing in front of a loud bass cabinet or playing a miked kick drum, without introducing much ambient volume.

An important side benefit of switching to these electronic versions is improvement in sound isolation and sound consistency. Because there is less miking and less acoustic sound for these sources, there is less bleed and inconsistency from mic placement, and setup is much quicker. Rehearsing a Quiet Stage band is much easier as well, and if you’re splitting your audio into a recording room, the improvements will be seen there too.

With ongoing advances in electronics, the Quiet Stage can be a reality. Success, however, depends on eliminating sound sources without undermining performers or engineers. Done right, the move to the Quiet Stage will give musicians better sound and better feel, engineers more freedom to mix, and the congregation the best sounding service they can imagine.

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