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CPM reviewCPM Reviews: Hear Technologies Hear Back Personal Monitor Mixer System

By Don Brooks

In the last two issues of Church Production Magazine, the personal monitor system has been presented as a viable solution to the ever increasing problem of too much sound on stage and the effect it has on the live mix. For this issue, we will examine another product in this rapidly growing segment: Hear Technologies Hear Back personal monitor mixer system. I recently had the opportunity to install this system in my own church, where we were dealing with all of the issues associated with too many floor monitors on stage.

The Hear Back system consists of a hub (List Price: $499) – the system’s controller; a personal mixer (List Price: $199) for each monitor location; and a CAT 5e cable, used to connect the two elements. The hub will take eight inputs – either four stereo, or one stereo and six mono channels – sending them out to eight personal mixers. The mixers also feature an additional stereo input, enabling the musician to directly input another analog stereo signal. Up to 32 additional hubs can be added or daisychained together to send those eight input channels to as many as 256 mixers. This would come in handy if you had a really big praise band, or a choir director that insists on having each member on headset with his or her own individual monitor control.

The Hear Back mixers can output to earbuds, headsets, powered monitors, or even recording devices. The mixer is designed to take a pair of earbuds or headsets plus a stereo or mono line out. The controls are simple to use with separate line level knobs for each of the input channels. This makes the device very user friendly in that you don’t have to select the input first, before adjusting its level. Two additional knobs control the overall volume and the mixer’s built-in limiter. Visible on the mixer are several indicators that confirm signal present from the hub, indicate a fault condition at the headphone amplifier output, illuminate when the limiter is functioning, and are on if the mixer mono inputs are linked in stereo mode. The mixer is self-powered via the CAT 5e cable, resulting in one less cable and wall-wart to deal with. Other similar products that are on the market require you to buy an additional accessory if you want to power the mixer via the CAT 5e cable. The mixer mounts easily to a mic stand with its built-in threaded mic stand mount, again requiring no additional accessory to be purchased. Just screw it on to a mic stand, connect the single CAT 5e cable, and you are ready to go. It even has a built in cable strain relief to protect the CAT5e cable.

The Hear Back hub is just as simple to use as the mixer. Physically, it is a single-space rack-mounted unit with only two switches and lots of LED indicators. It is impressive to watch it operate, and, in the case of my church, it can be easily seen from the frontof- house sound booth to assure proper input level. The switches include the power on/ off switch, and the input select switch. The inputs accepted by the hub are either ADAT, via optical digital audio; analog, for standard line level in; or HearBus, when connecting the hubs together. The LED lights are operational indicators, and three lights per input channel display proper input levels. These three LEDs have four levels of input metering: green indicating signal present; – 32dBu, two brightness levels of blue to indicate –10dBu and +4dBu; and red for clipping at +16dBu.

The back of the hub has connection points for the eight mixer outputs, via the CAT 5e cables, the ADAT in, HearBus in and out, and analog in, for which there is a 25-pin connector that attaches to a 12-foot fan-out snake with eight-inch TRS connectors on the opposite end. The connectors were easy to install, especially with the CAT 5e cables.

If you are not familiar with CAT 5e cable, it is small in diameter, flexible, and very easy to route from the hub to the mixers. Plus, because the cable is also used in the computer industry, it is available almost anywhere, in any length. Or, you can make your own at custom lengths.

As mentioned earlier, my church wanted to eliminate the onstage volume by removing as many onstage monitors as possible. We did this by removing the bass and electric guitar amps and speakers, the powered monitors for our two keyboards, and replaced the acoustic drum kit with an electronic one. This left only two floor monitors onstage, which where used by the vocalists.

We made available to the musicians their option of headset, earbuds, or small powered (hotspot-type) monitor. The bass player selected headset so he could get the low end frequencies; the guitar player picked earbuds, mostly for convenience; our two keyboardists chose headsets; the pianist opted for a small powered monitor, which was OK as she was away from stage; and our drummer wanted earbuds to allow maximum head movement. Even our vocalists got their own Hear Back mixing station, which was connected to an onstage amplifier and two floor monitors, allowing them to control their own mix.

The inputs to the Hear Back hub were bass, guitar, piano, drums, keyboards (one on each side of the stereo in), lead singer, and vocal praise team mix (aux-send) from front-ofhouse. These inputs were sent to a small on-stage rack we built to include an XLR input/output pass-through for all the signal cables that came from the onstage equipment, allowing us to send each of these signals to the onstage monitor system and front-of-house console. Because the Hear Back hub required a line-level input, we used a Rolls RM81, eight-channel audio mixer between the XLR in and the Hear Back hub. The eight-channel mixer also allowed us to set the input levels to the hub at their required level for optimum performance of the Hear Back system.

The system has been operational for about two months, and without a doubt, it has had the most positive impact on the quality of sound ever produced at our facility. The stage volume has been reduced to a level where our vocalists can actually hear each other and the stage volume has little effect on the house mix. The clarity and exactness of sound in the auditorium is to the point that the comment cards we now receive are actually positive. Most importantly, the musicians now have complete control over what they hear, and they can do it without yelling up to the booth. The front-of-house console operator can now concentrate on the house mix, not having to worry about multiple aux-sends going to on-stage monitor feeds.

Was this an easy transition? No. It took the instrumentalists time to get accustomed to the new system – especially those who like a lot of sound on the stage. But all the musicians agree that they like the control they now have over what they hear, and the ease-of- operation of the system itself. They also enjoy receiving positive feedback from their peers and members of the congregation who heard the dynamic change in the house sound. To help all the members of the praise and worship team through this transition, we offered to put it all back the way it was if they didn’t like the new personal monitor system after four weeks. It’s now been two months and they love the system, the congregation loves the sound, and the front-of-house console operator can’t wipe the smile off of his face.

Don Brooks operates a no-fee consulting service called TechMissionS with its goal: “To help today’s church with the issues of technology in much the same manner Paul helped the first church with issues of theology.” He can be reached through his web site www.techmissions.com.

Courtesy of Church Producation Magazine, Jul/Aug 2003 issue

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