Mixing Stage Monitors: Part 2

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(Photo Courtesy Of Henodus)

In part 1 of this article we discussed how to set up, patch, and tune a monitor system. Now we get into the fun stuff, sound check, the show, and some general tips and tricks.

Part 2 – Dialing In The Band

Once you’ve got all the monitors patched in and have a system EQ curve going, you can now bring the performers onto the stage.

There are two main methods of dialing monitors in, either channel by channel or mix by mix. The workflow of some consoles favours one or the other, but channel by channel tends to be the most efficient for the musicians.

Start with your first channel. Have whomever is on that channel play or sing and have everybody raise their hand if they want to hear that channel. Send that channel to each musician’s mix who wants it, then keep turning it up until they put their hand down. Repeat for each channel.

If you are able to control your console remotely with a tablet, this is a good time to do so. It’s always nice to be able to stand on the stage and hear exactly what the players are hearing as you dial them in.

Make sure to have the band play a song or two at soundcheck to make sure the levels are okay. It’s pretty common to set everybody channel by channel and then tweak a bit from there.

Tip: If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time for a proper sound check, for example at a festival with quick changeovers, you can save some time by assuming that everybody is going to want to at least hear themselves, so you can pre-set each vocal mic and DI’d instrument to come out of the wedge nearest to it. This will generally get you to a pretty good starting point.

Ariana Grande wearing In Ear Monitors

In-Ear Monitors: IEMs can be a great way to reduce stage volume. Dialling in in-ear mixes is not much different from dialling in wedges, but you should always keep in mind that you’re pumping sound directly into somebody’s ears. Be especially careful not to crank anything up too loud too fast!

Given that in-ears don’t really feed back, system EQ is not as essential, but it is still nice to be able to shape the curve of the whole mix if you have enough EQs available.

A mic or two at the front of the stage, pointing out towards the audience, can be helpful for allowing performers wearing in-ears to feel like they’re in the space and connect with the audience. This isn’t always necessary, but a lot of musicians like some ambient mics in their ear-mix as the IEMs do tend to block out a good deal of ambient sound.

Part 3 – Channel Processing

EQ: Here’s where it gets counter-intuitive for somebody used to mixing front of house or in the studio.

The point of monitors is for the musicians to hear themselves and each other. What they need to hear on stage is not generally what you would want to hear in the house mix.

For example, somebody playing an acoustic guitar on a loud stage will probably want their guitar pretty bright with a lot of top end so that it cuts through the stage wash, whereas you might want a warmer sound with less high end and more low mids if you were mixing front of house.

It is important to note that sound from monitors will be picked up to some extent by the mics on stage and that it will reflect off the back wall into the house. So loud monitors can cause issues for the front of house engineer if you’re not careful, especially in the low midrange ‘mud zone’.

Low cuts and dips in the low mids are your friends. Pretty much all of your mics are going to pick up at least a bit of signal from the bass amp. Any extraneous low frequency content on any given channel should just be removed.

Remember the goal here is maximum clarity, not necessarily a warm or pleasant sound, but a clear sound that doesn’t get lost in the wash of other instruments on stage.

Also remember that you are mixing to the performers’ spec. If they are happy with how something sounds, that’s all that matters.

Compression: Generally speaking, use of compression at the monitor console is pretty minimal.  If somebody keeps asking to be turned up in the quiet songs and down in the loud songs, a compressor can help solve this issue. In general though, most performers prefer to hear their natural dynamics.

Feedback between songs is often caused by compressors easing up after attenuating hard throughout the song. To avoid this, set your compression thresholds above the noise floor so that the GR meters are not constantly showing attenuation.

Part 4 – The Show

The bulk of your work as a monitor engineer is done at sound check. You will need to keep an eye on the stage during the show of course, as performers sometimes need monitor adjustments during the performance. Work out some hand signals with the musicians, for example, have the performers point at what they want adjusted, then up or down. See How To Communicate With Musicians for more detail about this subject.

When adjusting somebody’s mix, you will want to send that mix to your listen wedge. Most other times you will want to have your most volatile mix (the one most prone to feedback or with the fussiest performer) going in your listen wedge by default. If the stage setup allows you to hear everything with the listen wedge off, it is okay to save your ears and not have it going the whole time, but this approach is often thwarted by a loud amp or a drum kit near the monitor console.

Part 5 – General Tips And Tricks

Stage volume: Keep it as low as you can. Loud enough that everybody is happy, but no louder than it needs to be.Emphasize clarity rather than volume whenever possible.

Point the amps at the ears: How often have you had a guitar player with their amp on the ground pointed at their ankles complain that they can’t hear themselves? Try tilting the amp up towards their head — this trick can work wonders. It’s almost as if our heads are better for hearing sound than our feet. Who would have guessed?

Figure 2. Diva Wedges

Diva wedges: This is a colloquial term for a pair of monitors at 135º and 225º relative to the mic rather than one wedge 180º behind it (see figure 2). This has three main benefits:

  • 1. It can go a bit louder without driving either speaker as hard;
  • 2. It prevents sound from the monitors reflecting off the singer’s face directly back into the mic; and
  • 3. It looks cool! As a bonus, you can run diva wedges in stereo, although this is not generally necessary.

Remember who you’re mixing for: Monitor mixes are not for the audience, they’re not for you, they’re for the performers. It doesn’t matter if you think it sounds good, or has a good balance, or the right EQ, it only matters that the person standing in front of that speaker is hearing what they need from it.It is not at all uncommon for a monitor mix to have only one person’s channels in it, if they can hear the other band members from the stage, they shouldn’t need them in their mix.

So there’s our basic intro to the wonderful world of monitor mixing. I hope this article helps clear up some of the mystery behind “what’s up with that other sound board at the side of the stage?”, “why was the singer looking off to stage left and pointing at the ceiling all night?”, and “how do people even hear themselves on stage?”.

If you’ve got any monitor-mixing tips, tricks, or horror stories, please share them in the comments.

Until next time,
Happy Mixing!

Neal Miskin is a producer, engineer, singer/songwriter, and live sound engineer based in Vancouver BC.
You can check out Neal’s music at http://nealmiskinmusic.bandcamp.com