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Tuesday, February 10, 2015 -Christian Gl├╝ck

How many Channels do you need on a Personal Monitor Mixing System?

Focus on the musicians

Looking into the specs of a PMM system many engineers and tech directors overlook the fact that most musicians are not audio engineers and therefore look at things completely differently. While it is  easy for a tech to understand a 3-set gain stage, switching through fader banks, using groups, dialing in parametric EQs and dynamics - these “ simple things” are absolutely strange  sometimes even frightening to most musicians and for those few who do understand, they still represent a distraction to their performance.

Musicians know their own instrument/voice and some of their band mates' - and they can express when the sound is bad - which means it is so bad that their performance is at stake, but they can never say “why”.  The engineer’s main focus is to mix “a good sound”; the main focus for each musician is to perform, not mix.  So less channels that needs attention means less distraction, which always leads to a better performance. 

Everybody wants to hear (almost) everything?

For the most part, that is the case. Certain musicians might not care for the one or the other signal as a necessity, but it’s a known secret that a “full-mix” in studio quality excites every musician and makes him/her perform better – no matter how god the individual is.

What does that mean for the Personal Monitor Mixer system?  Creating a 1:1 copy of the channels from the FOH console?  That’s the case when you have a monitor engineer operating a dedicated monitor console, but with a PMM system that task is now performed by a non-engineer, a performing musician that has other priorities then mixing.   Throwing 30, 40 or more channels at each musician will result in a very poor mix and a frustrated musician!  We have seen this over and over again.

So here is what we have observed to be best practice:  

-  offer all signals that are important for individual musicians as individual channels  and

-  additionally offer a selection of useful (= simplifying) submixes or stems.

What signals should be individual, what should come as submix?

The answer depends of course on the set-up of the band and the technical possibilities but here some guidelines:

The most commonly used submixes are:  vocals - for everybody not singing, and drums, for almost everybody but the drummer. The key behind this selection is from a musicians or singers point of view.  If you don’t sing, you want to hear some vocals, but one channel to control is enough.

If you have a backing vocal group with multiple singers, they understandably want to have each vocal mic, (including their own mic!)  as single channel - however knowing which of the three guitars or four keyboards plays when and what is overwhelming- so you might consider one or two submixes for them, like “band” which contains all instruments or at least “ band rhythm” ( drums, bass, guitars) and “keyboards” (because of the importance of harmonics). Large submixes that contain many different instruments should always be made like a stem- in stereo and with certain effects to allow clear and distinct hearing within that mix.

In some cases, with large bands that include strings, brass and woodwinds, that could lead to a channel count that is about or even more than on the FOH console -  the big difference is that no musicians should deal with that amount. Everybody selects just what is important as single channel and a few submixes/stems.  A good recommendation is to aim for 10 to 12 channels to control.

Submixes and Stems – who should do them?

There are two different approaches on this subject:  the submix is created by an engineer on the (main) mixing console- this scenario allows creating full stems (incl.dynamics, effects etc.).  The second option is that the Personal Monitor Mixer system receives a 1:1 of the FOH console channel and on each unit a submix is created. 

While the second approach, having an individual submix available at each mixer might sound better to an engineer in the first run, think about it twice:  who will do submixes from 40 channels?   Usually not the musicians, so now it is back to the engineer.  A big disadvantage  versus creating one submix on the console is the fact that it has to be done remotely  (hopefully with a configuration tool) and for each and every mix station!  That adds time. 

Creating submixes on the console is not only time saving but also allows much better quality .  Most consoles these days allow creating full blown stems utilizing dynamics, EQs  and effects, while providing much more consistency through a performance (sudden changes get adjusted in the global submix and the “problem” is solved fast and quick for everybody… ).

The major argument we hear against a global submix is something like:  “but the drummer wants a different drum submix then the vocalists”.  Of course!  And it's not a problem:  give the drummer “kick, snare, hi-hat individually and create a submix (mono, if you have the channel count stereo) for the tom and overhead mics…   For “non drummers” make a submix/stem with all drum channels .    So creating submixes/stems needs a close look as to who needs what. You might find that 16, 24, even 32 channels can easily be gone…. So it’s clearly an advantage if your PMM system has a high channel count and allows for easy expansions.

Summary

Again, less is more – but only as far as what each musician has to deal with. A PMM system takes away the duty for the engineer to serve each musician a perfectly individual mix. However for a successful implementation of IEMs the engineer now has to plan and serve the “right diet” = important individual channels and dedicated submixes/stems to ensure the musicians are happy using IEMs.


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