Recently I had the opportunity to mix a concert with an incredible band, half of whom are on our worship team at church (including our Worship Pastor), the other half flew in for the weekend. The rented speaker system sounded great and the band was tight. It was an amazing experience for me until I went backstage after the show to connect with the leader only to hear, “Man that was hard, I just couldn’t hear anything from my stage monitors.”
Many sound techs have been in those shoes before, getting up early, pouring every ounce of Sunday morning energy into getting a great mix, only to hear the band was frustrated with their monitor mix. In my situation, we had 6 mixes on 6 wedges on a 24′ wide by 12′ deep stage, so it’s not that there wasn’t volume on stage. It just wasn’t good volume. It was hard for them to clearly hear the detail of what they were playing. I suspect a lot of the problem with hearing the mix at our concert is similar to what many churches experience: lousy monitors.
It’s said that the two most critical pieces to good sound are the first piece (the microphone or source) and the last piece (the speaker). At my church last year, we got 5 new wedges as our team wasn’t happy with their personal monitor system. You see, most of the people who used the personal monitor system would use $30-60 ear buds, so while the whole personal mixer system cost closer to $1,000 per person, it was being negated by cheap consumer ear-buds. So we did the next most logical thing you can do: we bought cheap wedges. While we did a nearly $100,000 sound system upgrade a year and a half ago for our 1,500 seat auditorium, we spent $200-250 per wedge for the musicians creating the music.
Now don’t go thinking I’m venting about my church, I was involved in the decision to purchase these monitors. We had a tight budget and we picked the best thing we could for the money we had. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental problem when we’re willing to spend thousands of dollars on each speaker for the audience, and only hundreds for the piece that allows our musicians to create art for that audience. It seems to me that speaker fidelity and quality should matter as much, if not more, for the creators than the consumers. If the artists can’t hear the detail of what they’re creating, why should we expect it to be any good.
Great race car drivers have cars that go fast and handle well. Great chefs have great ingredients, knives and cookware. In order for your musicians to produce great music, they need good instruments and the ability to hear what they’re doing clearly. If you constantly hear things like, “I can’t hear the monitors” or “the whole stage sounds muddy”, get up on stage and give it a listen. If what the musicians are listening to isn’t at least as good as what the audience hears, it’s time to get them the tools they need to do their job. Low cost monitors can have their place, but know you’re lowering the bar for your artists by using them. And if you’re using personal mixers or wireless in-ear monitors, please do not use any ear buds you can buy at Walmart or Best Buy.
Great artists are capable of producing great results with average tools. They have to work a lot harder to do so, but they can. The challenge most of our churches face is that most of our artists aren’t professional musicians and singers, so they need help raising their game to produce great results. If you’re ok with mediocre results, give average to good musicians good tools. If you want your musicians to produce great results, get them great tools, starting with the instruments they play and the monitors they use to hear