(Originally posted in Jaben Forums, March 2009)
I’d been putting this off for a while, as I’d not had the time to type this out, but also because I’d been waiting for some things to happen – such as the installation of a new Aviom system at my church – and for the arrival of my custom tips (see the other thread in this forum). But more importantly, the Aviom system is key to an effective review as it allows me to do a more comprehensive assessment of the Atrio’s performance onstage.
Currently, I use the Atrios as my personal monitors in my church, where I lead worship (sing) and play guitar. We have the blessing and privilege of a leadership who see the value of investing in a good live sound reinforcement, including items which may seem “frivolous” or “excessive” – such as a personal monitoring system. It is a blessing that I do not take lightly, considering how I’ve played in all sorts of situations in my past 12 years of live performance in Singapore and overseas – from venues like a friend’s basement to the original jam studio shows, from pubs to open-air festivals at the Esplanade and Fort Canning Park. I’ve pretty much experienced the full spectrum of live sound – short of having my own full-on international tour complete with personal techs and sound system. If there is one thing that can truly make or break a show, its effective personal monitoring. Most shows I play at have awful monitors, and most of the time we have to really try and manage the noise to come up with some semblance of acceptable stage sound. So I’m really very blessed to have the privilege of using such a system. And it really is such a boon to us – having a user-definable personal mix that doesn’t interfere with the other band members’ personal mix or with the house sound. Makes us happy because we get to hear what we want, and we can tweak the mix on the fly if we need to focus on something, makes the soundmen happy because they don’t need to fight stage volume anymore and get more headroom and clarity in the house, and makes the church happy because they get to hear more with less volume, and the band plays better, which leads to less distraction and more focus on what’s really important.
Anyway, enough preamble! Here’s a brief rundown of our setup. We’re running a full Aviom system, and all 16 channels on the mixer are taken up. submixes to the Avioms are handled by a dedicated monitor board (Yamaha PM5D) that sends two different submixes to vocalists and musicians. Guitar amps are fully baffled with clearsonics panels and sorbers (two layers), with one amp placed backstage. I’m currently running an Egnater Rebel 20 head into a cab – I borrow the church soundman’s mesa cab and we chuck that backstage with the sonics & sorbers so we get to crank the sucka! Bass goes through an ampeg SVT3-Pro head, and then DI from there to the house. Keys go direct to the board – we usually use two sets of keys, one handles pads and strings, the other does piano and leads. The only item that isn’t isolated is our kit, which is mounted on a riser in the corner of the stage, and baffled with clearsonics. But the drummer can get plenty loud in his little without being too loud, so that makes everyone happy. I’ve heard rumblings that they’re considering a roland v-drums system – sacrilege! But that would give us a very very quiet stage to work with, and probably even more headroom and clarity on the house. Worship leaders get a Shure wireless beltpack to run their IEMs through – everyone else plugs into extension cables that run into the Aviom mixer unit.
Most importantly, however, we have a stereo ambient mic setup to capture general ambience. Just two shure condensers set up on either side of the stage, pointing to the congregation. Its not run very loud, but its extremely important for giving some air to the overall mix and making it less “isolating” in that regard.
So in the final analysis, with such a gerek (“happening” in malay) setup, a pair of good IEMs are essential for making all the effort worthwhile! But what makes for a good IEM choice in terms of stage monitoring is the individual’s own personal preference for stage sound.
I personally go for a more organic, bass-heavy sound and hence the Atrios fit the bill perfectly. Because the entire stage is devoid of any musical instrument sound / spill, save for the drums, which are also baffled up, there is no sense of “moving air”, unlike when you have the drums right behind you, with a stack of screaming guitar amps and thumping bass amp. A good solution for when you need a more quiet stage is to use a comprehensive floor monitoring system, which gives the sense of moving air, but may need to be cranked up to convey that feeling, which tends to interfere with the house mix. I needed an IEM that could approximate a sense of “moving air”, with an emphasis on the low end, which i feel is essential for any musician onstage, who need to hear and feel the groove laid down by the rhythm section.
The Atrios performed spectacularly in that regard, giving me thumping low end that went deep and hit hard. I had no problems getting “in the pocket” with the Atrios. Having used UM-1s and E2Cs before this, the Atrios are truly a quantum leap in quality and feel. High end was rolled off, but I found it to be a blessing as extended sessions with a brighter IEM would lead to ear fatigue. There were instances where I wished I could have more clarity and sparkle in the highs, but that was easily solved with a quick tweak of the global EQ control on the Aviom mixer.
Another criteria that I had was for the IEM to reproduce my guitar sound convincingly. As a guitarist, I place a lot of emphasis on hearing my guitar clearly and capturing the overall vibe of my guitar sound, which is crucial for providing immediate response on my playing, and basically just helping me rock out just a bit more. In other settings, I crank my guitar loud onstage where possible, or I get the soundman to pump my guitar pretty loud in the monitors. Not always a good thing, especially where my hearing is concerned! With my previous IEM experience, my guitar tended to sound flat and lifeless, and I could never get the volume balance right. With the Atrios, my guitar sounded more convincing and inspiring. The Atrios imparted thump and chunk to my dirty rhythm sound, and translated my clean sounds convincingly. Whilst having ambient mics and an Aviom system helped to give more “air” to my guitar sound and helped me find a good balance with the rest of my mix, the Atrios were key to capturing the other aspects of my guitar sound which could not be remedied with the Aviom system.
As a vocalist, I have no problems with clarity and cutting through the mix, given that I have a very sharp vocal tone, and that I do go for higher notes during vocal improvisations. Whilst the sound guys have forced me to use their Shure KSM stage condeners (as opposed to the Neumann KMS condensers that I absolutely adore) to help tame the extreme high end, my vocals could still come out rather piercing. The treble roll-off of the Atrios was most welcome in that regard, as it took out some of the piercing highs that I have been notorious for producing, but retained the low-mid punch and thump that I needed to “feel” my vocals. I was warned that there might be bone conduction issues when I used the Softerwear custom tips, resulting in an overly muddy or thin vocal reproduction, but I experienced nothing of the sort, and my vocals came out loud, clear and punchy.
I occasionally play bass in church (much to the chagrin of the bassists in the sound team), and I have found monitoring with the Atrios to be a far superior solution to even using floor wedges (!!). Short of actually having a full 8×10 cab onstage pumping out glorious low end, the Atrios have proven to be an excellent monitoring solution for bassists. The low end that the Atrios pump out is immense! I heard deep, rich low end that even the floor wedges couldn’t produce, right up to the spank and clank of my custom J-bass. I managed to hear the kind of low end that I could not get unless I was a distance away from the amp (as low frequencies develop over distance) – which is a real boon for bassists who are stuck in tight corners, like what I have in my church. The thump of the kick drum is well translated and stands distinct from the bass guitar tone, allowing me to lock in tight with the drummer.
Besides the stellar low-end performance, the Atrios deliver comfortable highs that reveal details without fatigue. The midrange response also contributes to a very natural, organic reproduction of instruments and vocals. Its not accurate in the way a pair of high-end audiophile reference speakers are accurate, but its realistic in that it provides a very organic picture of the overall mix and just feels right. And in my opinion, capturing vibe and feel is far more important than accuracy when it comes to stage monitoring.
Besides sound quality, the Atrios fare well with soundstaging and stereo imaging, particularly so with custom tips, which expand the soundstage and give a better illusion of ambience. I could pan the entire band to specific positions in the stereo field, enabling me to hear every instrument and vocalist clearly, a luxury which I have never enjoyed prior to this! The soundstage was wide enough for me to pan my ambient mics to the extreme right and left, giving me an approximation of hall ambience.
Isolation is sufficient with the stock foamies, but with the custom Softerwear tips, isolation went up a notch. Where previously with the foamies I could barely make out words with people were talking to me with my Atrios on, with the custom tips I could not make out anything at all! It does not absolutely isolate, but for stage use the isolation afforded by the stock tips is sufficient, and with custom tips its more than enough.
I’ll have to say that I’m a big fan of these IEMs, for on and offstage use, and for my preferences and needs it is a fantastic option. I’ve yet to try the other more popular IEMs for onstage use, but as it is, based on what I’ve heard thus far, the Atrios are pretty hard to beat, especially when you consider the price/performance ratio vis a vis other higher end IEMs.