Sacred Sound: Mixing Monitors In Church
Mixing monitors in a church setting is often a challenging proposition.

May 13, 2011, by Mike Sessler


Most of the time, we’re dealing with non-professional musicians, limited equipment, and tight deadlines.

While difficult, it’s not impossible to produce good monitor mixes and a good house mix.

In most smaller churches, monitors are mixed from the front of house mixing position.

Typically, smaller churches have 16- to 48-channel consoles that have 6 aux sends.

On these consoles, aux channels 1 through 4 are pre-fader (or can be set that way with a switch), meaning the main house fader has no effect on the level going to that aux.

Some mixers allow aux 5 and 6 to be set pre-fade, but because these are usually used for effects (FX), they’re often hard-wired as post-fade.

Since we want our monitors to be pre-fade if at all possible, a church mix engineer normally has only four mixes available for monitors.

Let’s say we have a band made up of a worship leader, a few vocals, a guitar or two, piano, bass, and drums, and let’s also assume we have a 6-aux board, which means we have four monitor mixes.

With eight or so people on stage, some of them will be sharing mixes. Most of the time, we group similar items together in a monitor mix; bass and drums make up the foundation, so they would share a mix. Guitars and piano carry the melody so they share.

More Me
If possible, I like to break the worship leader’s mix out from the rest of the vocals, and that takes up our other two. This usually works pretty well, but it can lead to what I call “monitor wars.”

Because each instrument is playing in fundamentally the same spectrum, they end up asking for “more me” every time the other player wants “more me.” Turn up the kick for the drummer, and the bass player can’t hear his bass. So he asks for more, which prompts the drummer to need more kick, and so on.

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to think outside the box and group spectrally different sources. By that I mean, group instruments that aren’t fighting for the same piece of sonic real estate.

Combine the bass and piano, for example, or the guitar and drums. The bass player can focus in on his instrument easier when he’s not fighting for the low end with the drummer.

This won’t always work and may take some experimentation, but it’s worth a shot if you find yourself reading 98 dB (SPL) at front of house with the mains turned off and the band still needs more in their wedges.

Having a wedge at the mix position to be able to hear the monitor mixes is also a good idea. Not all mixers make it easy to do this, but if it’s possible to solo the mix buses and route the output of that solo to a wedge, it’s much easier to get great monitor mixes.

Make sure you set up your gain structure in such a way that the level you hear out of your wedge matches the level the band hears.

Get Organized
Another key to successfully managing monitors in a church setting is staying organized.

Work to develop a standard board layout that stays pretty consistent week to week.

Input channels should be labeled, as should the aux sends.

When responding to requests for monitor changes, nothing is more frustrating than adjusting the wrong send because they’re not labeled.

Typically, I like to set my console up in the more or less standard layout of kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads, bass, guitars, keys, vocals, effects, playback, and spoken-word microphones.

Feel free to expand or shrink sections as needed based on your actual input list.

Some engineers like to lay out their monitors from left to right (as viewed from front of house), meaning monitor 1 is on house left (stage right) and monitor 4 is on house right.

This works, though I prefer to have my worship leader on monitor 1 and build from there. Usually this means vocals are monitor 2, piano and guitars are monitor 3, drums and bass are monitor 4.

However you lay it out, however, find a method that works for your church, and stick to it as closely as possible week to week. Consistency makes life easier.

Sound Check
If I had to pick one place where most monitor mixes go wrong, it would be sound check, where the initial gain structure is set up. Getting a proper gain structure very early in the process is absolutely critical to good monitor (and house) mixes.

If you don’t get your input gain set up right at the beginning and you start changing it two or three songs into rehearsal, the level of that input will change in all your monitor mixes.

Changing one input often causes the band members to think other things are changing as well. Pretty soon, you’re back to working on monitor mixes.

Some people will differ with me on this, but I like to have the band in the house while I’m building monitor mixes.

I’ve done it both ways and find that because the band will hear at least some of the house sound - and that will effect their monitor mixes - we might as well deal with it from the get go.

Sound check should not be a free-for-all. It needs to be organized and led by one person, preferably the sound engineer, though some churches (inexplicably) like the worship leader to run it. Either way, it should proceed in a logical and consistent manner.

I like to work through the band one mic at a time, getting my gain set correctly with just that instrument playing. I start with drums, then bass, guitars, keys, and finally vocals. Others prefer working from the vocals back.

Try both methods and see which works better for you. Have musicians raise their hand if they want that mic in their mix, and when they have enough, they drop their hand.

Further Adjustments
With vocalists, having them speak, “test, test, test” into the mic is not helpful.

I have all the vocalists sing a chorus of a song together (usually with piano for melody), setting up their gains, and ultimately adjusting their monitors.

The hand signal works great at this time as well.

Once we get through the whole band, I have the band run a verse and chorus, and make any adjustments needed.

Some engineers prefer to have the band just jam while they set up levels and dial in monitor mixes.

That method can work, but I’ve found it takes a lot longer than a methodical, organized approach.

I like to start off my board set up with the gains pretty close to where they end up, and even some rough monitor mixes in place before the band even arrives.

I know from the experience of mixing the band week after week roughly what they’re going to want, and can usually get within two to three tweaks of a good monitor mix very quickly.

There is something comforting to a musician to hear themselves coming out of their wedge when they set up; and when they feel comfortable, it’s easier to make them happy.

Once they’re happy, you can get on with the business of building a great house mix.

Mike Sessler is the technical director of Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. In addition, he’s the author of the blog Church Tech Arts which is also featured on ProSoundWeb.

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Sacred Sound: Mixing Monitors In Church