In-Ear Monitor Mixing

We've been running wired IEM's at church now for almost 2 years. For the musicians, it's been a love hate relationship. We started with 4 mixes into 4 Presonus HA4's fed from a Soundcraft Spirit 8-32. That was a major pain and everything had to be tweaked on a weekly basis. Obviously mono mixes, no panning possible, like most analog church setups very little compression available for FOH or IEM's. The upside was the FOH mix cleared up wonderfully. The downside was some weeks were better than others for the musicians.

Switched to SAC and I could finally do everything I wanted to in terms of processing. There are many things that made life nicer.

First, we added an ambient channel. It's a double of a gooseneck mic that lives in the middle of the stage for announcement purposes. It's compressed heavily to allow for better onstage communication among band members and also to keep it out of the way when the band starts playing. An additional tweak is to gently reverse gate it so it drops back a few db while the band is playing. The delayed signal from the mains and few onstage amps can really muddy up the mix. People playing instruments while trying to communicate with the ambient mic can be a problem but if anything it helps encourage politeness.

I was able to mix sources tapped post-dynamic with sources tapped off the preamps. This lets me use what I'm doing on things like percussion to even out levels and make it sound more natural in both mixes while also not cutting the muddy bottom out of guitar amps like I do in FOH.

We could now take our sources and pan them for stereo separation in each headphone mix making a semi-natural feel for placement of sources onstage. Yet another good reason for people to leave both ears in and prevent damage to one ear.

Without a second monitor console I'm able to run my IEM's like a traditional monitor console. Monitor 1 is my master IEM mix. Everything panned straight ahead, output routed to nowhere. I apply gentle compression (2-3:1 ratios) to help tame especially dynamic sources without squashing them, EQ for clarity between sources and mix it all together to get a good balance that's heavy on the lead vocal and instrument. All the rest of the monitors are tapped post-fade from there. All channels are up to unity and individual tweaks are made from there relative to the master mix. Mix the master with any amount of consistency and the rest of the mixes fall into line automatically. Just make sure you have a rough mix at FOH first so you don't have to come back and remix everything after. The extra ambient volume can make a difference, even with good isolation in the IEM's.

I added a touch of reverb inserted pre-fader on the outputs to give the ear mixes a natural sense of space. I went pre-fader so I can hear it on the solo bus. Every mix is different, every reverb is tailored for that mix. Reverb isn't tapped from FOH leaving behind reverb tails from a vocal the musician doesn't want to hear. Some musicians like the added reverb, others want it turned off. I was using SAWStudio Freeverb but switched to the Anwida DX Lite since it's also lightweight and remote controllable as a VST.

Lastly, we added limiters on the mix outputs to help reduce the painfulness of instruments being cabled and un-cabled without asking for a mute first. Don't limit too hard, but you can set this so it just barely touches on a very loud and energetic song. Back it off just a few db from there.

So, that's a great start, and life was significantly better than before, but I still had one occasional complaint to contend with. On soft songs, the mix was great. On louder energetic songs, even with gentle compression applied, various sources or the aggregate band volume would overrun important channels and make it difficult to hear. This was especially problematic for an electric guitarist who habitually didn't leave himself quite enough headroom in his volume pedal and our worship leader who wanted to be able to hear everything and be conscious of what the band is doing.

The proposed solution we started looking at was giving everyone control of their mixes. An inexpensive netbook and BCF2000 at each position costs about as much as an Aviom mixer. It's a very plausible solution. The netbooks could be configured for specific mixes, set to autostart SAC and autoconnect to their monitor mix on bootup and I could pass off the setup to each of the musicians. Two big downsides are cost for a 6-7 member team with no budget and the large amount of equipment that a thief could easily walk off with. You'll also run into the same complaint I've gotten from many Aviom users where they spend time tweaking their monitor rather than playing. They often can't stop to tweak something while it's a problem but end up reacting after the fact which may no longer be necessary or might make problems for the next song.

I'll take one brief step back here to explain why I'm not doing the obvious and heavily compressing individual channels to keep it all in line. First, heavier compression kills dynamics and IMO dynamics are something a band needs to play well together. Second, and possibly more important, killing the dynamics when someone goes to "give it more" can cause them to strain and try to give it even more when their "more" doesn't go anywhere. That's a recipe for pitch problems and injury with vocalists and fatigue/frustration on instruments.

Here's where SAC really steps up to the plate and shows its mettle as the best IEM mixer available. After reading Dave Rat's FOH mixing technique it occurred to me that the same balancing technique using an additional layer of gentle compression on subgroups should work just as well on monitors, if you had subgroups for each mix. What do you know, SAC does!

Current working solution? I have 6 musicians and 7 stored monitor mixes on monitor 2-8. Two are dedicated for whoever plays bass or percussion, the rest are tailored for individuals and their set of instruments or vocals. Unused mixes get all their sources turned off and the outputs are re-assigned where necessary based on band arrangement. Duplicating sources from an unused monitor turns everything off, from an in-use monitor turns it all back on. Once I have a monitor mix set it doesn't need to change much.

On top of that framework, I created a simple set of subgroups; Vocals, Instruments, Percussion in our case. We don't have a "drummer" but our percussionist does full duty in the rhythm section. In any other case, use what seems logical, add more groups as deemed necessary. Each group gets its own Levelizer patched across it. You could use a different compressor plugin but when adding so many instances the Levelizer can't be beat. Settings are based on Dave's recommended settings. 2-4:1 ratio, short attack, release at ~10x attack, threshold set so at most it normally doesn't hit or goes into 1-2db of compression, on energetic songs only hits 6-8db of compression. The vocals get a threshold that's a few db higher than the rest so they'll naturally stay on top of everything else. Finding the threshold will take a bit of tweaking. Once I found it I copied it across all the other mixers.

Now the important part, what goes in the subgroups? Everything but those channels pertaining to the mix owner(s). Everything they don't have control over. This keeps everything else from overrunning their mix and also prevents the owner from straining to get over everything else. The preset balance between various sources stays pretty much the same and with everything tweaked right needs little to no adjustment. At worst the volume variations are tolerable and the mix owner still hears everything they need. The lead vocal and instruments could also be broken out of the other subgroups to keep them from being over-run by other sources when the compression kicks in. Set the threshold with a few more db of headroom like the vocal subgroup and it'll also sit on top of the mix.

The result in practice? I implemented this for a few musicians this past Sunday and got a chance to A/B the difference. I'd forgotten to patch the Levelizers on the previously mentioned guitarist's subgroups. After the first of two sets I realized my mistake when he still complained about his mix being overrun. Patched the Levelizers and he was very happy after the second set. Both sets had loud and soft songs and were a fair comparison.
I also gave the leader a BCF2000 to try since he felt certain he needed control before the change. His tweaks with this in place were very minor and probably could have been avoided with additional refinement of the mix before and better Levelizer settings. Everyone was very happy with the results.

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