I have to admit this, so why not do it on the internet where millions (i wish) people could read it. (or more likely a few hundred). When I’m mixing sound, the thing I dislike most is monitors. Yeah. There, I’ve said it. Sorry to all the musicians out there.
I would suspect this feeling is actually more common than not though in the world of live sound. I know many FOH sound engineers don’t need to worry about it for various reasons, but I know that many of my colleagues still do, and they also probably wish we could somehow do it another way. Luckily, with personal monitoring systems, there is a good alternative that at least makes life easier for the FOH sound person. Our church will be getting some Allen and Heath ME personal mixers for our band in the next couple of months, but until then, we still work with stage wedges, usually 7 of them.
Our issue lately with the monitors has been a lack of focus. When the musician can’t hear something, they ask for more of it. Then the monitor mix gets louder. As practice on Tuesday night goes on, then run through on Sunday morning, the monitor mixes always get louder as well. To be fair, I am not blaming the musician here, or the sound person, its just what has happened. But what happens when 7 monitors are on stage, feeding back into mics, and also bleeding into the seats because of their immense volume? It affects the mix, and what happens when the mix gets affected? It doesn’t sound. It’s a downward spiral from there.
My worship pastor and I had a discussion about this on Monday and so on Tuesday at our worship practice we had a talk with the band. We need to bring things back in and our way to do that was to educate our musicians and vocalists on what is actually needed in their monitor mix. It’s amazing what a little teaching and communication can do. What’s great is that these tools work whether you are using live monitors or using IEMs (some of the details change, but the overall concept is still the same).
I first told the band that the monitor is not meant to give them a nice clean full band mix, if that was the case I’d just send the main mix to all the monitors and everything would be good. But no, the monitor is there for them to hear what they need to hear, in order to play as part of the band. So what does this mean for everyone? First, it means swallowing a little bit of pride, and secondly, it means thinking critically for what is really needed.
I gave some generalities to the band and asked them to really think about what is in their monitor mix, and what really needs to be in there. For instance, when we have 4 singers, not all 4 singers need to be in everyone’s monitor. Really, just the person leading the song needs to be in any of the musicians monitors. I’m sure everyone wants to hear the beautiful harmonies of the backing vocalists, but other than the vocalists themselves, it isn’t needed.
The bass player needs to hear the kick drum, that is essential for them, the whole drum kit is needed as well, but on most stages with live monitors, the drums will come through without any additional need for them in the monitors. For a quick note, the major difference between live monitors and IEMs, with IEMs more of the drums will need to be in more people’s monitors for the sake of keeping time. Every mic on the drum kit does not need to be there though, I personally usually just put the kick and overheads in the IEMs, sometimes the snare, it depends how well it is coming through the overhead channels. But the Tom mics don’t need to be there, the overheads will pick those up just fine.
The keys are important for the vocalists, often for finding the note, staying in key for a song, the keys can play a significant role in that. The acoustic guitar can also help this as well, as keep track of the feel of the song. What about the electric guitar and the bass guitar? Again, this depends on the song, but they aren’t really needed very much in most people’s monitors other than the electric guitarist and the bassist. And if you have live amps on stage (which we do) then you might not need them at all.
Basically what I’m getting to is that not everyone needs to be heard, in everyone’s monitor mix on stage, whether live wedges or IEMs. We don’t want to deafen our musicians, and we want to keep the sound as clean as possible for the congregation on Sunday morning.
I also am training our sound operators and musicians that sometimes when they can’t hear something that they need to hear, the problem isn’t necessarily solved by turning something up louder, it might be that something else needs to come down. If the guitar player says they can’t hear the lead vocalist, maybe instead of trying to boost the lead vocalist, try turning down the instruments in their monitor. If that doesn’t work you might need to boost the vocal, but often times something can just be turned down to let space in for needed channel.
Thankfully, we lowered our volume on stage significantly on Tuesday evening, I didn’t take before/after db levels on stage, but I can tell you that it was much quieter, and much more bearable to work with, but also was loud enough that all the musicians and vocalists could hear themselves just fine. All this took was some communication on the part of our worship pastor and myself to let the team know. I’m hoping this will help make Sundays sound much more clear to the congregation with less competition on the stage for volume.
Have you communicated your expectations to your band and sound team for their monitor mixes to help them be comfortable while not having to run their level up so high they have a headache by the end of the set?