Stage Monitors - A Blessing or a Curse?

by Curt Taipale


I want the musicians and vocalists I work with to benefit from a great monitor mix, and I work especially hard to achieve that goal. But when the monitors get turned up too loud, they can have a desperately negative impact on what the congregation hears. In a large sanctuary, this is especially noticeable to people sitting in the first few rows of pews. In a smaller sanctuary, it can often be heard throughout the congregation.

While churches who use a contemporary worship style (rhythm section) are more likely to experience the problem we're discussing here, even churches with a more traditional worship service can find themselves in this situation.

The natural reaction of the sound engineer is to push the main house system ever louder so that the congregation can hear a balanced musical mix - often to the point of it being overbearing and driving people out of the sanctuary. Sounds counter-productive to me. And when it's just too loud in the audience, and the monitors are still louder than the main system, we're reached an impasse that blesses no one.

There are several solutions we could implement - headphone systems for the band, in-the-ear monitors for the vocalists, and so on - but most of them cost more money than the average church can afford. So we're left with trying to understand what's happening, and how we can all work within the constraints of God's laws of physics.

It's pretty simple, really. If you're performing on stage and you expect to hear your stage monitor correctly, you do need to position yourself accordingly. There's a fairly small target window in which you can stand to hear your monitor correctly. You can't wander aimlessly about the stage and blame your inability to hear on the monitor mix. And, like it or not, your sound engineer is probably the one in the group who has spent the most time studying the impact that those laws of physics have on what you're trying to accomplish. Because of that, your sound engineer is often put in the awkward position of educator. The worship team should heed that advice.

I've often found that beginners and seasoned performers alike may need some coaching (or at least a frequent gentle reminder) to pay attention to where they're standing relative to their stage monitor. I always teach vocalists and musicians to stay close to their stage monitor, and to make sure that they can see down the throat of the mid/high frequency horn. That lets them hear a clean, full frequency sound from the monitor, and it allows me to keep its volume down. High frequencies are much more directional than low frequencies, so if you can see down the throat of the horn, you can rest in the knowledge that you've positioned your ears so that you're hearing all of the high frequencies that the speaker is reproducing. And that will provide you with the best listening position for that monitor.

This brings up a good point about how sound radiates from a stage monitor, or any speaker for that matter. Most stage monitors are two-way speakers (i.e., they have a woofer that reproduces low frequencies and a horn that delivers mid and high frequencies). Low frequencies radiate everywhere around the box, while mid and high frequencies go primarily where the speaker is aimed.

Here's an experiment you can do to prove this to yourself. With music playing over a single stage monitor, walk around the speaker and listen to the sound. When you're directly in front of the speaker, known as 0 degrees on-axis, you'll hear a full range of frequencies. As you move to the left or right of the speaker you'll reach a point where the high frequencies start to drop off. That should occur at roughly 45 degrees off axis. Continue walking around the speaker in a circle. Notice that as you listen from the sides or the back of the monitor, you're hearing very little high frequencies, but you're still hearing plenty of low frequencies, and probably some mid frequencies. This may seem like a silly experiment, but if you've never done it, it's very much worth the time.

By the way, if you're still hearing strong high frequencies while standing behind the monitor, it's likely that what you're hearing is a reflection off the ceiling above the stage, not direct sound from the monitor. That can be a problem, because that's how high frequencies spill into the main seating area. More about that in a moment.

But I want to wander aimlessly about!

Okay. It's probably safe to assume that those who like to "work the stage" while they're singing are used to singing from locations on the stage where they hear little or no sound from their stage monitors. Options to resolve this issue would be to "fly" stage monitors from above the stage, or to add "side-fill" monitors. The objective of either solution is to wash the stage with sound. That solution may help that one person, but it can sacrifice the quality of sound for the congregation. In many cases, flying the monitors to provide a "downfill" wash of the stage would be preferable because much of the energy will be absorbed by the stage carpet and the performers in the stage area. If you don't have carpet on the stage, then I'd suggest not using the downfill approach. Instead, keep the monitors soft and close to each performer.

Oh, oh - The Monitor Spill Issue

As much as stage monitors are a blessing to most vocalists and musicians leading worship from the platform, they can be a frustration to your congregation and house sound engineer. Regardless of what measures you take to combat it, those monitors are going to spill some sound out into the audience seating area. And that can degrade the quality of sound that the congregation hears.

Figure One shows the projection of sound from the main speaker and from the stage monitor in a familiar style of sanctuary. This reveals the typical problem of sound from the stage monitor splashing off the rear wall of the stage area and spilling into the audience area. Sound also spills around the speaker and directly into the audience area.



Figure 1


Figure Two shows a computer prediction of how loud the direct sound from that speaker will be at various seats in the audience. It also shows the Articulation Loss of Consonants (%ALcons) as a percentage, which is a measure of speech intelligibility. A %ALcons value of 1% or 2% indicates excellent intelligibility, while a score of 15% or greater is considered unintelligible.



Figure 2


The system performs as expected when only the main house speaker is turned on. However, when we turn on both the house speaker and the stage monitor, look at what happens to the intelligibility score in the audience area! The %ALcons drops to 11% in the front rows. Where does your pastor sit? In the front row? Where do visiting pastors and other guests of honor sit? Oh, my. Obviously, carefully aiming the monitors and keeping the overall stage loudness to a minimum should be a priority.



Figure 3


Okay, Now What?

So what do we do? We want smooth coverage and high intelligibility in the audience seating area, and at the same time we want high quality monitors loud enough for our worship team to lead the congregation in worship. You may have already experienced the ongoing discussion between the sound team, worship team, and pastoral team that this dilemma usually brings. One of the job hazards of serving as a sound engineer in a church is that they're in the middle of that ongoing debate, and that can get pretty frustrating.

Solutions for controlling monitor spill.

- keep the stage monitor level down
- use headphones for the rhythm section / instrumentalists
- subdue the volume of all acoustic instruments on stage
- don't use guitar amps (go direct, or move the amps to another room and mic them)
- consider acoustical treatment for the stage area

I know you're probably not going to want to hear this, but keeping the level down on stage is the key. By that I mean both the volume of the stage monitors as well as controlling the volume of the acoustic energy on stage. This requires a tremendous amount of self discipline and restraint, especially on the part of the musicians on stage. If you're a player, and you don't want to let go of that "sound", remember that your sacrifice is for the good of the congregation - and I think they outnumber you.

One of the best solutions for keeping the stage monitor level down is to replace as many "open" stage monitors as you can with headphones. In a contemporary worship band setting (drums, bass guitar, keyboards, etc.), there's really no reason why the rhythm section can't be on headphones. In fact, some of the best musicians I know prefer to use headphones during live worship. If you work hard at putting together a great sound in those headphones, you'll provide a "studio" listening environment for the musicians. Even if you buy great headphones (e.g., $95 each), it will still cost less than giving everyone a monitor. Of course there are many ways to spend lots of money on a headphone system, but a simple version need not be expensive.

With all of the band's monitors eliminated, the remaining monitors can be operated at a much lower volume. Next, try to subdue the volume of the acoustic instruments. If your church uses contemporary worship music, the loudest contributor is that acoustic drum kit. (This is a topic all of it's own. If you'd like to read more, see my article on this website entitled "Let the Drums be Heard".)

Next are probably the electric guitar amp(s) and the bass guitar amp. If your system will take it, put those guitars directly into the system with a direct box. The first complaint usually voiced by the guitarist and bass player is that they "won't be able to hear" or "won't get their sound". However, there are many processors to choose from that can create a realistic "amp" sound electronically, and therefore let you eliminate the guitar amp entirely.

Another solution would be to move the amps off the stage into an isolated room, and mic them there. That takes a bit of doing, and many churches don't have any "spare" rooms for such a purpose, but it works well and won't cost you more than a couple of long mic cables and some sound deadening material for the walls of those rooms. I've even "buried" a Leslie speaker for a Hammond organ in a room sixty feet from the stage, and it worked wonderfully! The player could crank up the organ and get that gritty sound they wanted, and yet I had all the control I needed in the house mix.

Remember, every time you drop the sound level on stage you're simultaneously improving the quality of sound heard by the congregation. Because the monitors are being operated at a softer level, less of their energy is spilling into the congregation, so the audience can hear the sound of the main system without it having to get too loud just to overcome the spill. If you take it far enough, the experience will go from chaotic to inviting.

Finally, you can help control the spill from the remaining open stage monitors into the audience by using some sound deadening treatment in the stage area. If you have a low ceiling, you can easily treat the ceiling in a variety of creative ways. Consider how the sound radiates from the monitors, and try to knock down those reflections.

If you typically have a choir on the stage, then all but ignore those comments about putting absorption in the stage area, because most choirs will hate it. People in the choir need to hear themselves, and you probably already know from trial and error that trying to feed choir mics back through their monitors is asking for trouble. The only practical way to achieve that is through acoustic reflections from nearby stage walls and ceiling, or through the use of electronic architecture. (If you'd like to learn more about electronic architecture, click here for the Lexicon LARES website link -also available on our Links page.)

Yes, stage monitors can be a blessing instead of a curse. But it takes some real work along with an understanding of all the parameters. The place to start is to be sure that everyone involved understands why all of this stuff needs to be done. Only then will you be able to successfully create a stage environment that is conducive to worship of the God of the Universe.

Post Script

If you've never illustrated this problem to the worship team, then round everyone up and try this. Have the worship team and the sound team sit in the sanctuary, and play a favorite music CD over the main house sound system. Pick a CD that everyone on the team really enjoys listening to. . Next, have just one person - maybe the drummer - go on stage and sit at the drumkit. Start turning up just his stage monitor until he is happy with the volume. Now, turn off the music for a moment and ask those in your "audience" if they could hear the quality of sound degrade as the monitor came up in level. You might even turn the monitor off and on for an A/B comparison.

Next, send a second person up there - this time, the worship leader. Leave the drummer's monitors set as they are, and now begin to turn up the worship leader's monitors until he/she is satisfied with the volume. Again, ask your "audience" if they can tell the difference. Your audience is experiencing just a fraction of what your congregation has to endure every worship service.

If they can hear how significant the problem with monitor spill is, then you've won a huge battle in the fight to resolve the problem because they understand and they'll support the solutions. If they can't hear the difference, then either (a) you don't have a problem with monitor spill, (b) they're not willing to admit to the problem because it means giving up their "sound", or (c) their ears are toast.

It's worth the effort, so get busy.

Copyright 1997. Taipale Media Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved

After making his living as a professional musician for twelve years, Curt Taipale returned to college and earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Miami in 1980. He has invested his career ever since as a recording and live sound engineer, a consultant, educator, and author. He served ten years on full time church production staff plus many more years as a guest sound engineer. He contributed three chapters to the Yamaha Guide to Sound Systems for Worship, has written numerous articles for several magazines, and is the Church Editor for Live Sound International. To learn more about Curt's background, see Who Are We?


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