The Pros And Cons Of Distributed Monitor Mixing

It’s very neat when it works, but it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Along with folks who rock the bars and clubs, I also work with musicians who rock for church. Just a few months ago, as City Presbyterian’s worship group was expanding (and needing more help with monitoring), I decided to put the players on a distributed monitor-mix system. What I mean by a “distributed” system is that the mix handling is decentralized. Each musician gets their own mini-mixer, which they use to “run their own show.”

The experience so far has been basically a success, with some minor caveats. The following is a summary of both my direct observations and theoretical musings regarding this particular monitoring solution.

Pro: In-Ear Monitors Become Much Easier For The Engineer

One downside to in-ears is that the isolation tends to require that everyone get a finely tuned mix of many channels. This is especially true when you’re running a quiet stage, where monitor world is required to hear much of anything. What this mandates is a lot of work on behalf of each individual performer, with the workload falling squarely on the shoulders of the audio human.

Distributed monitor mixing takes almost all of the workload off the sound operator, by placing the bulk of the decision making and execution in the hands of individual players. If the lead guitarist wants more backup vocals, they just select the appropriate channel and twist the knob. If they want the tonality of a channel altered, they can futz with it to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, the person driving the console simply continues to work on whatever they were working on, without giving much thought to monitor world.

Con: Monitors Become Harder For The Player

Much like effort and preparation, complexity for the operation of a given system can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transferred around. A very, very important thing to remember about distributed monitor mixing is this: You have just taken a great deal of the management and technical complexity involved in mixing monitors, and handed it to someone who may not be prepared for it. Operating a mix-rig in a high-performance, realtime situation is not a trivial task, and it takes a LOT of practice to get good at it. To be sure, a distributed approach simplifies certain things (especially when in-ears essentially delete feedback from the equation), but an inescapable reality is that it also exposes a lot of complexity that the players may have had hidden from them before. Things like sensible gain staging and checking for sane limiter settings are not necessarily instinctual, and may not be a part of a musician’s technical repertoire on the first day.

Also, as the engineer, you can’t just plug in each player’s mixer and mentally check out. You MUST have some concept of how the mixers work, so that you can effectively support your musicians. Read the manual, plug in one of the units, and turn the knobs. Personal mixers may be operated by individual players, but they really are part of the reinforcement rig – and thus, the crew is responsible for at least having some clue about how to wield them.

Pro: You Don’t Necessarily Have To Use In-Ears

I have yet to encounter a personal-mix system that didn’t include some sort of “plain vanilla” line output. If the musicians want to drive a powered wedge (or an amplifier for a passive wedge) with their mixer, they can.

Con: Not Using In-Ears May Cause Trouble

As I said before, mixing in a high-performance situation isn’t an easy thing that humans are naturally prepared to do. Life gets even more hairy in a “closed-loop” situation – i.e., onstage monitoring with mics and loudspeakers. A musician may dial their piece of monitor world (at a bare minimum) into SCREAMING feedback without realizing their danger. They may not recognize how to get themselves out of the conundrum.

And, depending on how your system works, the audio human may not be able to “right the ship” from the mix position.

Even if they don’t get themselves swallowed by a feedback monster, a player can also run their mix so loud that they’re drowning everybody else, including the Front Of House mix…

Pro: Integrated Ecosystems Are Powerful And Easy

As more digital console “ecosystems” come online, adding distributed mixing is becoming incredibly easy. For instance, Behringer’s digital Powerplay products plug right into Ultranet with almost zero fuss. If your console has Ultranet built-in, you don’t have to worry about tapping inserts or direct outs. You just run a Cat5/ Cat6 cable to a distribution module, the module sends data and power over the other Cat5/6 runs, and everything just tends to work.

Con: Once You’ve Picked Your Ecosystem, You’ll Have To Stay There

Integrated digital audio ecosystems make things easy, but they tend to only play nice within the same extended family of products. You can’t run an Ultranet product on an Aviom monitor-distro network, for instance. More universal options do exist, but the universality tends to come with a large price premium. Whenever you go a certain way with a system of personal mixers, you’re making a big commitment. The jump to a different product family may be difficult to do…or just a flat-out expensive replacement, depending upon the system flexibility.

Pro: Everybody Can Have Their Own Mixer

Distributed mixing can be a way to banish all monitor-mix sharing for good. Everybody in the band can not only have their own mix, but their own channel equalization as well. If the guitar player wants the bass to sound one way, and the bass player wants the bass to sound totally different, that option is now very viable. Each musician can build intricate presets inside their own piece of hardware, without necessarily having to consult with anyone else.

Con: Everybody Having Their Own Mixer Is Expensive

Expensive is a relative term, of course. With a Powerplay system, outfitting a five-piece band is about as expensive as buying a couple-three “pretty dang nice,” powered monitor wedges. Other systems involve a lot more money, however. Also, even with an affordable product-line, adding a new member to the band means the expense of adding another personal mixer and attendant accessories.

Pro: Personal Mixing Is Luxurious

When we deployed our distributed system, one of the comments I got was “This is what we’ve always wanted, but couldn’t have. It should always have worked this way.” Everybody getting their own personal, instantly customizable mix is a “big league” sort of setup that is now firmly within reach for almost any band. Under the right circumstances, moving the on-deck show into the right place can transform from a slog to a joy.

Con: Not Everybody May Buy In To The Idea

The adoption of a distributed monitor mixing system is like all personal monitoring: Personal. The problem is that you have to try it to find out if you want to deal with it or not. Unless someone categorically states at the outset that they want no part of individualized mixing, the money has to be spent to let them give it a whirl.

…and they may decide that it’s just not for them, with only 30 minutes of use on their mixer and the money already spent. You just have to be ready for this, and be prepared to treat it as a natural cost of the system. Forcing someone to use a monitoring solution that they dislike is highly counterproductive.

Distributed monitor mixing, like all live-audio solutions, is neither magic nor a panacea. It may be exactly the right choice for you, or it may be a terrible one. As with everything else, there’s homework to be done, and nobody can do it but you. One size does not fit all.