You can provide the right house volume as well as the right stage volume. It doesn’t have to be a battle of the wills between yourself and the musicians. The key is following three steps during your sound check and looking at three areas when it comes to monitor issues.
The Ideal Situation
The ideal situation for house and monitor levels is one in which the congregation hears only what’s coming from the house speakers AND the musicians hear the optimal volume levels and mixes from their monitors for playing in time and in key. This can usually happen regardless of the monitoring system used on the stage. Yes, in-ear systems can make your job easier in this regard but they aren’t always the right choice for the band and they aren’t always necessary.
You goal shouldn’t be in achieving the ideal situation every time, thought it’s great when it does happen. Your goal should be in achieving the most realistic situation.
The Realistic Situation
The realistic situation for house and monitor levels is one in which the musicians hear the volume levels and monitor mixes which give them the ability to play in time / sing on pitch while limiting the amount of stage volume bleed to the first couple of rows in the sanctuary AND the majority of the congregation hears only the house mix.
Creating the Realistic Situation
This situation is one in which you must work to achieve. It will not fall into place with a little bit of luck. Your work starts with the sound check and the way in which you start the sound check.
Without detailing the full process for the sound check, let’s look at the first three key steps you need to take when the band walks on stage.
- Set the channel gains. The gain structure is always important for ensuring you receive the best signal strength for mixing. It also gives you the best level for setting monitors as you don’t want to alter the channel gain after setting monitor volumes as it will affect the monitor mix.
- Volume balancing. After the channel gains are set, have the band play a song. They don’t get monitors at this point. Spend this time balancing the volumes, such as placing the lead guitar louder than the drums and the lead singer louder than all the other channels. Once you’ve done this, you can hear the sound of the band as the congregation should hear it.
- Set Monitors. Now it’s time to bring in the monitors. The monitors should be set so each person hears what they need to play in time and sing in the right key. Some would say, “Give them something to pitch to.” They already hear a bit of the house mix so you are adding extra to give them what they need. During this time, listen to the house mix. If it starts sounding different such as a muddy sound or an instrument or vocal is suddenly louder, then a monitor mix has affected the house mix. Once all the monitors are set, walk the third row of pews/chairs from the stage and determine if the monitors are bleeding out too much.
Dealing with Stage Level Problems
Stage volume level problems can occur for a variety of reasons. They are based around three issues; guitar/bass amplifiers, acoustic drum kits, and monitor volumes.
Focusing on monitor volumes, when their volumes get so high that they bleed too far out into the house, then you should look at this three-part solution.
- Location. Each person using a monitor should be as close to the monitor as possible. Where the problem usually occurs is when they set their volume level when they are close to the monitor but then when they start singing/playing, they take a few steps back and then say they can’t hear themselves. They need to stay as close as possible to that monitor. I’ve used gaff tape to mark the spot in which they stand.
- Direction. Each person needs to stands on-axis to the monitor. For example, if they are standing to the side of the monitor, outside of the speaker projection area, they will only hear a fraction of the volume as compared to if they stood directly in front of it. As an added note, if they have a music stand between themselves and the monitor, then that music stand is blocking the monitor and of course they’ll need excessive volume. You can move the monitor a bit to the side of the music stand.
- Monitor Mix. The “I need more me in the monitor” issue should first consider the possibility they have too much of something else in the monitor. Cut individual volumes to the monitor before you boost them.
The Take Away
You can’t always have the ideal situation but you can have the most realistic situation. Balancing out the house volume level against the stage level is about giving the musicians what they need while giving a priority to what the congregation hears. It’s about creating a situation so the congregation can fully engage in worship.
Make sure you run your sound check in the proper order; set gain levels, volume balance, and then set monitors. When it comes to excessive stage volume from the monitors, look to the areas of location, direction, and monitor mix. Throughout all your work, instill into the musicians the idea you are working to present the best sound to the congregation.