Posted by: worshipguitarguy | December 15, 2006

Monitor This! – The Truth About Live Sound And Monitors

I’m not a sound system expert. 

Thank goodness I don’t have to be one to play guitar.  I look at those huge amp racks with EQ’s, crossovers, limiters, effects devices, and other cool blinking things and stare like a six-month old looking at a TV for the first time. 

Ok, well maybe I’m exaggerating a little…  I do understand a thing or two about sound, but I definitely don’t have a PhD. in running mixer boards.  Regardless, I’m glad that I know a little about how a sound system works. 

But should every vocalist or musician have an understanding of sound?  After all, isn’t that why we have sound techs?

The answer to the first question is absolutely!  And the answer to the second is yes, we have sound techs to run all the equipment… and in fact, they’re the most important link with controlling the audio… but creating good sound is a team effort.  And without our help, even the best sound tech will have problems.   

Ok, ok… this isn’t going to be a crazy technical discussion, but I am going to bring out a few experiences my worship team’s dealt with, because I think many of you face the same issues week in and week out.   And helping you understand what your sound tech goes through is key to helping make their job easier.

What we Face Each Week: 

The main issue we have is that our service meets in our church gym… and that poses some problems.   Gyms are not good for sound.  First, gyms have hard floors, concrete walls, and metal all over the place.  Second, gyms are big boxes which means the walls are parallel surfaces.  Put the two together and you have sound bouncing all over the place.  And for the most part extremely “live” rooms, (rooms where sound bounces alot), are not good places to play high volume music. 

Now, getting good quality audio isn’t a lost cause in a place like this, it’s just a little more difficult.  I’ll share a simple principle we’ve learned that really helps: The fewer things creating sound in a room, the easier it is to get clear sound and good volume levels.   

Ideally, the best of all situations would be for the main speakers and subwoofers to be the only things generating major volume levels.  Truthfully, we can’t do this in all cases, but the closer we get to it, the easier time your sound tech will have.

So here’s how we can approach this: 

The easiest thing we as guitarists can do is to isolate our amps by placing them in an adjacent room or hallway.  For me, I have a maintenance workshop adjacent to the stage where my amp goes every week.  This also holds true for bass players.  Some of the guys I play with will run direct, others (like Cheema) will run a line out from their head.

The real problem most of us will suffer with is dealing with acoustic drum kits.  If you have an electric set, you’re off the hook here, but if you’re like us, you may think acoustic kits sound better.  The problem is, acoustic kits set your volume level, and it’s often higher than may be ideal for your room.  Two things we find that help.  First, have some sound absorbing material or panels between the kit and any nearby hard walls.  Our stage backdrop curtain does this for us.  Second, if volume is still too intense, you may suggest that your drummer try using Hot Rods instead of full sticks.  They may not like the idea at first, but I’ve seen quite a few pro drummers do this when the go into a less than ideal environment.

A second major problem comes from monitor speakers…  if they face a hard wall, or you run them too loud, they’ll destroy the clarity of your sound very fast.  (I’ve seen some worship teams that like them so hot, that the sound tech had to turn the mains almost off… most of the sound in the room was coming from the monitors, after the audio had bounced off the back wall.) 

The first and probably best solution for dealing with this is to use a personal in ear monitor system.  Unfortunately this option is very expensive, and not all practical on a limited budget.  Another option is to use a wired in ear monitor for band members who don’t move around alot.  Our drummer runs a wired in ear system most of the time… it keeps us from having to turn a monitor up loud to compensate for the volume of the drums.

A second option is to approach monitors sutractively instead of adding sound.  This means that if someone’s having a problem hearing a certain thing in the monitors, take the levels of everything else down a little instead of increasing the volume of the one channel in the speakers. 

Another option  if you have extra submix channels and an old amp or two available,  you can run different monitor mixes.  A submix channel is one where you can independently control how loud each channel is in relation to each other.  For example, backup vocalists can get more vocals in their monitors with one submix, and band members can hear less vocals and more of each other in another mix.  This helps give different team members more of what they want, so they have an easier time hearing the stuff they need to. 

Perfect sound in a live setting is something that’s impossible to get.  But by carefully paying attention to how you do things, you can make your sound the best it can be for the place you play in. 



  1. You said “The problem is, acoustic kits set your volume level, and it’s often higher than may be ideal for your room.”

    It’s not the kit that sets the volume level – it’s the drummer. Many drummers don’t know how to play quietly – it can be achieved with hot rods like you say, but it can also be done with sticks.

    The other main problem would be the music being picked. Many modern worship songs are LOUD songs, and for them to sound “like the cd” a drummer needs to hit his hi-hats pretty hard (to get that open, swishy wash sound). Unfortunately, that means PLAYING LOUD.

    So for that problem, the worship team simply needs the freedom to not have to mimic the cd.

    Just some thoughts from a drummer who’s been told to play quieter many, many times!

  2. In ears can make a big difference here… they are expensive, though. We used the Aviom system at my old church. Very cool.

    If you’re stuck w/ wedges, then the subtractive thing is the way to go. In fact, I often wonder if most of us miss the boat on how to set a monitor mix. I really only “need” to hear enough of my guitar to know that I’m in tune. Other than that, I need kick drum, enough lead vocal to know where the song is headed, and perhaps a smattering of the keyboard so I can keep from stepping on their parts.

    Great comment above from David… the drummer is the volume knob for the band. I am enough of a hack on drums that I have a tough time playing at 50%, so I tend to grab Hot Rods in situations where I have to play quieter. That way I can swing away w/ the usual velocity.

    Lately – perhaps because I am not as young as I used to be – I find myself unplugging the monitor (I am currently sharing a mix with the drummer, so it’s just too loud for me), putting in some earplugs, and just finding those couple spots on stage I can move in and out of to hear different parts of the band…

  3. Hey David, it’s good to have a drummer chime in on this discussion… I have to think that the drummers in my life hate me because “play quieter” are two of my most used words…

  4. Our church recenlty renovted our gym and brought in sound guys that made our acoustics amazing. THe gym can be a great place for high volume, if done right.

  5. Absolutely Rockstar… Did you guys install some form of sound dampening gear in your gym? How do you run your system?

  6. If you have to buy monitors anyhow, is there an in ear system that would be comparable in price?

  7. The Shure PSM200, or 400 systems will suit your needs. You can also buy WIRED in-ear systems for much less. Shure also makes Hybrid units that allow you to upgrade to wireless when your ready. Check out their website for more details.

  8. Largemouth – check out the Aviom stuff here

    Way cool. Everyone gets their own little mixer. Mix your own ears, make adjustments, on the fly etc. Runs off a rackmounted processor at front of house and sends signal thru CAT 5 or LAN cable down to the stage.

    Not sure about price.

  9. […] Jerry at Worship Guitar Guy just posted some good thoughts on monitors.  Beyond the technical aspects of setting monitors, Jerry offers some great thoughts on getting a basic understanding of what the sound guys deal with.  Check out Jerry’s post HERE. […]

  10. As a drummer who has never liked the idea of hot rods (unless your going for that sound) i’ve had to learn to in fact turn my volume down most of the time i don’t even notice im too loud BUT i have a friend who lets me know one of our SNS team members and Gerry’s very own sister Joann will let me know in a nice way “Zac i love you…but could you bring it down alittle” and then i pull it off also it’s help to be running in ears that have the drums back in them

  11. Hey Everybody. My first post… I have always led worship with acoustic. Now going electric about 1/2 the time to add punch to our faster hillsongs and passion stuff. Our church likes to ROCK! Here’s the deal though… Our main worship leader wants to go in ear only, IF POSSIBLE. Not dogmatic. I want to go with the program, have been using in ears and playing through my Boss GT-8 processor direct to the PA. The PA seems to over process the already digitally processed “recreated amp modeling” of the GT-8. I can’t stand the tone. It is so messy and gross through the GT-8 and then through the mixing board and then to my in ears. I can’t stand it and REALLY want to kick a small 30 watt or 50 watt amp back on a stand toward me and mic it for the house. Worship pastor is considering using a team leader with a mic that is piped into all in ears on the platform to help guide the service at critical spots. I am a team player, but if I can’t get a good tone, my fingers just don’t do it. I have always been that way. Is there any way to do something different to help the situation? I really want open air sound, as I sing too and the in ears really mess with me, hearing what is in my head, rather than what is coming out of my mouth.

  12. Wow, great question Spacedaddy. Sounds like your WL is taking a page from Hillsongs with the team leader talking through a mic run in an aux channel.

    First of all, what I’m about to say is strictly my opinion, and in no way reflects the thoughts of anyone living or dead, or even myself… 😛

    At some point in my playing, I’ve used tube amps/stomp boxes, a POD, and a Boss MFX unit. If I were to rank them in order of sound quality, I’d do it in the order I just listed. My experience is somewhat limited, but in working with Boss mfx gear, I’ve never quite come up with overdrive/distortion sounds that don’t sound digital or thin. There’s a reason why Line 6 is considered the best in the business with modeling gear… If fact, when doing simple recording stuff, I’d take a Line 6 setup anyday over going through the headache of setting up a ton of gear, my amp, and all the sound stuff I need to record. I can get some really convincing tones from recording from an XTL/GuitarPort/Toneport setup. (As a note about live playing, my amp backup is an old POD 2.0 kidney bean I keep in my gigbag. If my amp dies, which it has before, I’ll pull out the POD and run direct through it.)

    A couple questions:

    1. How many subchannels do you have on your board for monitor mixes, (and how many different in ear mixes are possible with your current setup?) Would your WL let you have your own mix from the board?

    2. You talk about going through a live amp, is there a place you could isolate it near the stage?


    With those questions out there… with overall philosophy, I tend to come from the same direction that your WL does. I steer alot of what happens acoustically with our team, and I really like to minimize stage volume as much as possible to keep clarity in the house.

    That said, one thing you can do if you have your own mix is to run one earpiece in and one out, so you can hear things in the house. If your volume level is crazy loud, this might not be a good idea… But if your stage volume is around 88-92 DB, and you’re not playing two hours straight, this may be an option.

  13. Thanks WGG. I can’t whine too much regarding the number of monitor channels. I was very blessed to have been given my own monitor channel a couple of weeks into joining the team at our new church. (several months ago). I also have an overall level control, so I can bring the volume down for the overall mix in my phones. I can ask for more or less of this or that, but it’s the actual tone of my own stuff that drives me crazy. It’s either tinney (sp?) and too sharp, or dull and blended in. Between patches, just insane differences, although the patches seem to sound better when I plug my in ears straight through the gt-8, but even then, not so good. Nothing can compare to the feeling of open air amp volume hitting my blue jeans as I stand beside the amp and play. It’s like I can feel it in my soul, because I can actually…. feel it. Does that make any sense? And it does not have to be half stack 100w volume either. I am actually in between amps, as I was out of the electric business for 15 yrs, but now that I am diving back in, I am jonesin’ for open air amp sound. As far as a place to isolate the amp on the platform, I assume you mean while pointed at me, either from behind or in front of me. When I am playing as the “E1 or E2” guitar player, I am in line horizontally with the front line singers and other musicians, and my WL has even mentioned building a kind or directional cabinet area to tuck my amp into. He is awesome to work with me, and I don’t want to be demanding, or a whiner, but I also think it is silly not to voice a request or let him know what my desire is, while at the same time letting him know that my heart is to also balance what’s best for the team. On Wednesday nights, I lead, so I am out on an island in front, but a small amp there would still be in front of the congregation.

    A couple of thoughts. Do you think, if I am not able to work out a deal on the amp, pardon me while I wipe a tear away… do you think the difference in the overdrives for clean, crunch and lead tones would be beneficial to go with the pod xtl and take a hit for a couple of hundred dollars by selling my gt-8 on ebay? I bet I would be out a few hundred on that deal. Also, do you know anything about a problem with equilibrium (sp?) if you use only one in ear monitor? Our sound guy, and associate pastor, has his degree in sound tech stuff and has told me that when people only put one ear in at a time, they can spontaneously fall over. Have you played with just one ear in before? For, say a 30 – 45 minute set? Most of our sets are about 20 minutes, but can run longer. If you ran with just the one headphone? If so, I could get by with just running my guitar and maybe the kick drum and WL and then use the sound coming from the wedge to harmonize. Only problem there is that my in ears pop out sometimes and I have been caught with them swinging around behind my back and feverishly grasping for them before my solo part, etc. Thanks for the feedback and your thoughts…

  14. Spacedaddy . . .
    I’m chiming in a month later on live guitar sound. . . . but here’s how I do sound. I run direct (mono L) with the new top line Digitech multieffects, it has good amps/effects/tones if you know how to tweak them (I organize each song in easily to select presets–which of course are footswitchable.). It also has a fully assignable (you can use it to turn on/off–up/down any amp model, effect, etc.) expression pedal–I use basically for volume/sometimes tremolo. It has 2 balanced outs (stereo) and 2 1/4 inch outs. Does a great job. You DON’T want to run good multi-effects/modelers into an amp because it complicates the tone which was meant to go direct.

    Then, I run out another line (mono L) out of my multi-effects into a powerful, small, stand-mountable hot spot-style monitor that I aim right between my eyes. No one really hears it but me. The primary monitors, I hear fine. I just get more of me in a semi-contained way. The hot spot monitor is a simple, powered monitor–it does not color the the sound. So, if you want open-air, “me” sound–this is how I do it. Of course, if you move around a lot, then, this won’t work for you.

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