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FOH Road Test Review: Hear Technologies Mix Back and Hear Back Combo System

Byline: Bill Evans

Monitor World has changed. Blame it on the increasing use of personal monitors and higher expectations on the part of performers, but the bottom line is that three or four mono mixes and a couple of sidefills will most likely not do the trick on most gigs. Especially in venues-like churches-where a small footprint is needed and where you need to squeeze maximum flexibility from a crew with often limited technical know-how. I have found a solution that works well for me. At a trade show in 2003, I was introduced to an affordable, easy to use and flexible system called the Hear Back from a company called Hear Technologies.

The Gear
The Hear Back is a system that consists of a hub and individual mixers that mount to a mic stand. The hub gets eight audio signals either via an analog snake or a single ADAT digital input. Those eight signals go out over standard Cat5 (Ethernet) cable to as many as eight mixers and each of those mixers has a stereo aux input plus stereo line outs, a pair of powered outputs for headphones or personal monitors plus an adjustable limiter. The line outs can feed either a powered wedge or monitor amp or a personal monitor wireless rig.

That basic system has recently been augmented with the introduction of the Mix Back-a 16 x 12 x 2 x 2 mixer that is designed to integrate with the Hear Back system, extending its capabilities to include more input and mix options.

The Mix Back is rack-mountable with all of its connections on the back of the mixer similar to other rack-mountable monitor mixers on the market (the Crest VX, for example). Each of the 16 inputs has a passive split for feeding the house, plus an insert point and four bands of smooth, well-centered EQ and two aux sends for adding effects. Each channel gets sent to a pair of main stereo mixes and up to 12 other mono outputs.

Looking at the back of the console, you will see XLR inputs and split outs for each channel along with a 1/4-inch line input and an insert send/receive jack. Each channel also has an individual switch for turning phantom power on or off and a ground-lift. In the bottom half of the back are 1/4-inch ins and outs for each of the two stereo mixes and all 12 busses plus mono send and stereo returns for the auxes. Pretty standard.

What makes the Mix Back different is in the middle. Here you will find a pair of outputs in RJ-45 and ADAT optical format that allow the Mix Back to integrate directly with a Hear Back system. Each of these outs sends a digital bundle of signals to a Hear Back hub which means you can run two completely separate Hear Back systems from a single Mix Back console. You will also see inputs for a talkback mic, as well as Hear's optional talkback remote-a pad with buttons that correspond to each of the bus outputs that allows the monitor engineer to talk directly to the entire band or to individuals with a simple button press.

The Gigs
The Mix Back can be used in a number of configurations, including a traditional monitor mixer (inputs go to the Mix Back and from there to the house mixer via the passive splits), a monitor mixer with Hear Back integration (more in a minute) or as a combo monitor/FOH console using the main stereo mix to run the house-which is how we used it.

The gig we used the system on is an outdoor concert series with a nine-piece R&B band with a horn section and five singers. This is a side-of-stage mix position gig with both house and a couple of monitor mixes being run from a single console. Pretty typical for this kind of gig.

Given that setup, all audio sources ran to the Mix Back just like we would have run them with any other console, and the splits were not used. Instead, we used the HearBus output to feed a Hear Back hub, which in turn fed six Hear Back mixers mounted to the mic stands of various players. Each singer got a mixer, with the bass player sharing a mix with the drummer, and the horns sharing a single mix. All singers were using personal monitors while the bass player and horns used the Hear Back to drive a powered wedge. This is one place where the flexibility of the system shone through. Because each Hear back mixer has both line outs and headphone outs, it was a snap to use one unit to feed both the drummer's personal monitors and the bass player's wedge.

Once everything was hooked up it was time to route signal to the Hear Back mixers, and this is the only time when things got a bit confusing. Remember we said that the Hear Back gets eight audio signals from the hub? Well, using the Mix Back console, those inputs are set as stereo output L-R plus busses 1-6 on the first Hear Back output and stereo output number two plus busses 7-12 on the second output. There is a good reason for this that we will get into in a minute, but the numbering system does not match up with what is printed on the Hear back mixers, which caused some confusion. The band had all of the Hear Back mixers pre-labeled for the way they had used them in rehearsal without the Mix Back and it was just not possible-using the console as house and monitor mixer-to route things the same way. This meant some frantic re-labeling on the Hear Back system and some confusion at the Mix Back. The confusion was worsened because it was very hard to find space to label channels on the Mix Back. This is a good small-frame monitor mixer and there is a lot of functionality shoved into a limited amount of space-which is great, but doesn't leave room for even a strip of tape to label channels and busses. A cheat sheet helped (Bus 1 = channel 3 = male vox (inputs 10-12. Bus 2 = channel 4 = bass and drums (inputs 1-4), etc.) but some tape on the mixer would have made things a lot easier.

Let's look at the routing between the Mix Back and Hear Back for a second. The Hear Back has eight knobs, one for Stereo 1-2, and one each for inputs 3-8 plus a knob to adjust the built-in limiter. That's great and it fits perfectly with the Hear philosophy that the key to a good personal monitor experience is a good "baseline" mix for everyone. That is why the Stereo 1-2 input on the Hear Back is hard wired to the stereo main mix on the Mix Back. What was on that knob on the Hear Back was exactly what was going out to the house and served as our baseline mix. Then, each of the other six knobs became "more me" channels allowing each member of the band to dial in more male vox (3), female vox (2), drums and bass, guitar, keys or horns (3). That works great for vox and direct inputs like the keys. But for louder instruments (i.e. horns and drums and guitars), what was in the stereo baseline was not really true to what was being heard in the house as the house sound was a combo of what was coming through the mixer and what was coming off of the stage as a straight acoustic source. That is one place where the "more me" mixes come in handy.

I have been using the Hear Back for several years and with just that part of the system, my monitoring life got easier. The addition of the Mix Back makes the system about a thousand times more flexible and I like it a lot. But is it for you? Depends. While the Mix Back did just fine as a house mixer, we did find the lack of faders and channel mutes difficult to work with. On the other hand, we had features not often found at this price point, including switchable phantom power for each channel (not the grouping typical of lower-priced mixers). This really is a monitor system that we pushed to run both house and monitors. If you are "attached" to an act that you mix all of the time, then adding the Mix Back/Hear Back can be a great way to get individualized monitor mixes even if the house console has just a couple of auxes. Just add the Mix Back before the house console (use the splits to feed house). You can even do this when you are stuck with the "system du jour" at the local club. Just add the Mix Back to the FOH position and feed the split outputs to the house console. Once you have used it a few times and have the numbering/labeling issues sorted out, it is a simple addition to the system that will give you back way more than what you put into it.

Best part is that it is quite affordable as monitor rigs go. The Mix Back runs $2495 and a four-pack of Hear Backs with a hub and cables is another $1495. Additional mixers run about $250 each. Especially for the growing number of artists using personal monitors, this rig is something to seriously consider. I can't count the number of times I have been told by an act at soundcheck that one or more band members were using personal monitors and having to reply that I only had three monitor mixes available so the personal monitor people could share two with the rest of the band getting a single mix or vice-versa. Not a way to win popularity contests.

The combo Mix Back/Hear Back system ensures that I have enough mixes to keep a large band happy and it gives me additional flexibility without a huge price tag and in a fairly compact space. For me, this one is a keeper.

What it is: 16x12x2x2 monitor mixer mic-stand mounts with mini-mixers.
Who it's for: Small soundco's and engineers attached to artists.
Pros: Flexible, makes PM mixes from the stage possible.
Cons: No room for board tape and confusing numbering.
How Much: Mix Back: $2495, Hear Back (4 pack with hub): $1495, Add'l Mixers: $250.

Courtesy of Front of House magazine, August 2006