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FOH reviewHear Technologies, Hear Back System

by Bill Evans & Jamie Rio

Artists’ and sound providers’ rapid acceptance of professional earphone monitors (PEMs) has, inevitably perhaps, led to other changes in the way we do things, which means new technology and more gear. The thing about PEMs, from the performer’s perspective, is that the monitor mix becomes more crucial than ever, and with the personal nature of PEMs, what is a “good” monitor mix gets pretty subjective. It goes like this: it is one thing to have a solid, if not “exactly what I want,” mix in a wedge at your feet. It is altogether different when that mix is right in your head. Of course when you are doing big enough jobs to have separate FOH and MON mixers and desks all is groovy. But for smaller gigs—corporates, churches, anything where you are providing both FOH and MON mixes from a single desk—how do you keep eight band members happy with a couple of pre-fader aux sends?

There have been a number of matrix-type add-on products out there that have tried with varying degrees of success to address this, but the Hear Back system from Hear Technologies has a solution that is elegant, inexpensive, flexible and easy enough to use that you can trust a drummer with it.

The two-part Hear Back system consists of a 1R hub that takes up to eight audio signals (analog or digital) and sends them along via standard Cat 5 Ethernet cable to as many as eight mixers (which get their power from the same Cat 5 cable). The mixers mount on mic stands and allow the performer to make his or her own mix of the eight sources, and send that mix to headphones, PEMs or even powered or standard wedges. An included limiter on the mixer keeps headphone mixes from getting dangerously loud and also keeps wedge inputs from overloading.

The hubs include 24-bit A/D conversion at either 44.1 or 48 kHz and can be daisy-chained for larger system needs. The mixers accept an analog stereo aux-in signal in addition to the eight feeds from the Cat 5, and channels can be easily linked for stereo operation.

We took a Hear Back Four Pack (a pre-packaged system with a hub, four mixers and all the cables in a single box) out on a couple of gigs—a corporate event for 300 people with a four-piece Cajun band called the Mojo Monkeys and an outdoor concert event for 500 people with an eight-piece R&B band with horns.

First up—the corporate/Cajun gig. As the band was small and we wanted to try the digital inputs on the Hear Back, we used a Behringer DDX1632 digital mixer, sending eight bus outputs to the Hear Back hub via the desk’s ADAT outs. The Hear Back is simplicity itself, though getting those buses assigned to the ADAT outs on the desk was unintuitive enough that we ended up opting for the analog interface instead. Making the switch was a simple case of throwing a single switch on the hub’s front panel and breaking out the included DA-88-style cable. Inputs 1 and 2 got a mirror of the main stereo FOH mix, and we assigned drums and bass, guitar, keys and vocals to each of the four auxes and made those inputs 3-6 to the hub. As the band had only requested two wedges, we sent the hub signal over the included Cat 5 cables to a pair of mixers, controlled by the front-person/drummer and by the guitarist.

The idea of giving musicians control over a wedge mix gave us both horrid visions of screaming feedback and no way to control it from our mix position on a balcony overlooking the event, at the side of and 20 feet above the stage. To be safe, we ran a mono line out from each mixer into a pair of unused channels on the snake, back to FOH, and we kept the monitor amps next to us. It meant stupidly long cable runs, but we had a degree of control. Turns out we probably didn’t need it, but the point is that this system is flexible enough to get you what you need even in weird situations.

Once we were set up, the gig went largely without incident. The client was happy and the band never complained about monitors. Read that again: THE BAND NEVER COMPLAINED ABOUT MONITORS! When was the last time that happened on a gig? Feedback began to bloom once or twice, but a quick adjustment to the EQ for the vocal aux pretty much took care of that. This was a totally pro band that knows how to keep stage volume under control, but still, it was one of the rare gigs when monitors were not an issue.

On the second concert gig, Jamie provided sound, while Bill was actually there as a performer. His band has several members on PEMs with the rest using wedges. A mix of auxes and direct outs were used to give an eight-way mix consisting of a mirror of the FOH L-R plus stereo feeds for drums and bass and keys and guitar and mono feeds for horns and vocals. Stereo line outs from one mixer went to the wireless rack for those on wireless PEMs, one mixer powered two pairs of wired PEMs directly for drums and keys, while the last two sent a mono line out to powered wedges for those not on PEMs.

Again, the night went pretty much without incident. Most importantly, feedback was never an issue even with the wedges. It was almost as if, because the performers could hear what they really wanted, they kept the overall volume of the wedges lower. In fact, after the two gigs, our only real complaint about the system is that unplugging the Cat 5 cable from the mixers at the end of the gig took some real doing. On one hand, it is a really secure connection; on the other, getting in there to disengage the connector required some pretty major finger-yoga.

Is this system for everyone? Of course not. If you are mixing loud garage bands who think everything is supposed to run at “11,” then giving them the control that the Hear Back system allows is likely not a good idea. But for pro situations with responsible musicians, especially for those using PEMs, the Hear Back is tough to beat. In fact, if you are regularly providing sound for just about any artist using PEMs, the Hear Back system is an investment you should seriously consider making (Bill did–he picked up the demo unit). At a retail list price of $1,295 for the Four Pack, it easily beats just about any other PEM solution out there.

Courtesy of Front of House Magazine, July 2003 Vol.1 No. 10

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