In small to medium size churches, they’re a scourge. In big churches, they’re a not-so-distant memory of simpler times. And for decor and worship committees, they’re an annoying paperweight that must be moved six or seven times a week for other events.
Everyone has struggled against these large and heavy boxes, sometimes called wedges, in order to make their worship environment function. But why? Why are they there, and what purpose do they serve?
The Big Issue
Floor monitors present some specific struggles in live sound, but in my opinion the biggest problem we face is stage noise. In a more traditionally designed church, this is especially true. In my first position as praise leader, I was in a beautiful sanctuary with a large narthex (front area). It was about 40 feet wide, and it had a large tile mural at the back, a raised cement altar for the communion table, and a 7-foot-tall cross. The ceilings were in the classic vault, at least as tall as the front of the church was wide. It was built in the early days of the town, probably a good 100 years old now.Floor monitors present some specific struggles, but the biggest problem we face is stage noise. Click To Tweet
In other words, it was built without a sound system as even a distant consideration. Most old churches were built this way, and even newer churches built to mimic or match older church aesthetics follow the same model. They were, and still are, built to naturally amplify acoustic music and speech. This means that sounds in the front of the sanctuary naturally reverberate all the way back, even to the balcony, without a whole lot of work. Great design sense for the unamplified environment in which it was created.
But for the modern worship team, this means real problems for sound systems. It creates some nasty frequency responses, some strong nulls (dead spots in the sound), and serious concerns over drum volume. But floor monitors make matters far worse. The sound from these wedges is directed straight to the back wall of the narthex, and that sound is reflected straight out into the main sanctuary. This is a very bad thing.
Why They’re There
To put this into context, let’s talk about the purpose these wedges should typically serve. Here are the main functions:
- To allow an individual team member to hear what is going on around them, specifically with vocals.
- To provide a specialized balance of the various instruments and voices in order to give the musician a “foundation” to follow.
- To offer the team some responsive energy in live performance (this might actually be a stretch, if we’re being honest).
When it comes to mixing monitors, we should seldom mix in the same way we would mix for the congregation. Yet that’s often what happens, specifically with inexperienced sound techs. We set house levels, and by default the monitor levels are the same. Adjustments from there are usually in the realm of boosting a channel’s volume (“Can I get more guitar please?”) rather than minimizing the volume of the monitor mix. The result is, in most cases, a super loud monitor mix. And the consequence of this mix philosophy is a muddled, loud, and nearly uncontrollable house mix.We should seldom mix monitors in the same way we would mix for the congregation. Click To Tweet
This is bad news. Very bad news.
The Big Solution
So how do we go about solving this issue?
Here are some things that could help save your mix and make your monitors more functional and less troublesome for your team and for the congregation:
Mix the House First
It seems like an oversimplified solution, but if you start your mix with what you want the congregation to hear, there’s a chance that your team will hear at least part of that mix, even without monitors. This means that monitor mixing becomes a reinforcement to the house system rather than an interference to it.
Mix only the most important elements in the monitors.
And this isn’t about who’s the coolest member of the team. Think of it this way: what would be necessary to keep the group together in a recording session? Does the team rely more on the drums and bass guitar for a groove, or do the members follow the leader’s vocal lines? Does the team listen to the acoustic guitar or keyboard parts to keep the feel and pace of the music consistent? I find most often that praise teams rely on the leader and their instrument as the guide for the music’s progress and development throughout the service. For example, if the team leader plays guitar and sings, make sure that your entire team can hear these two elements in the monitor mix.
Rethink your monitor positioning.
Work towards diffusing and redirecting the sound from the wedges. If you find that your monitors are pointing at a reflective surface, such as a large wall at the front of the sanctuary, you’re probably getting lots of sound bouncing from the monitors into the house. Try pointing the monitors at an angle to such hard surfaces, maybe at 30- or 45-degree angles to the largest reflective wall. Aim your sound at soft surfaces like cloth backdrops, plants, decor, or surfaces with varying depths and angles rather than a flat surface. This will break up the initial reflections and reduce the apparent stage noise for the congregation.
Mix from a minimalist point of view.
When you start a monitor mix, keep it as transparent as possible. If it starts overwhelming the house mix, you’ve gone too far (no matter what the team demands). If you can no longer control the house mix after the monitors are set, you need to rethink your monitor mixes. If you get muddy, confused, or unexpected responses in your soundscape, you should go back to the monitors and see if there’s something that can be changed to solve the issue. The moment your monitors overpower your house, you’ve lost the battle.If you can no longer control the house mix, you need to rethink your monitor mixes. Click To Tweet
If this doesn’t solve the problem, it might be time to start budgeting for alternatives. Moving to in-ear monitors could mean the difference between crazy sound problems and a sane team. If you can make it work, giving everyone an individual mix is ideal, and there are systems that do just this at a reasonable price point. You can also introduce monitor systems that “share” two or three mixes among team members, each geared toward a certain set of musicians(more vocals for vocalists, more guitars and keys for those players, strong drum and bass mix for rhythm section members, etc.). It may also be to your benefit to invest in a system that lets the team adjust their own monitor mixes if you’re going to use in-ears instead of floor wedges.