Monitors, foldback and lemons

This will be my last entry for 2011, had to squeeze it in so forgive me if it is a little unrefined
A recent ProSoundWeb poll asked “Which is the hardest job in sound reinforcement?”
These were the results:
Monitor Mixer    – 55%
FoH Mixer     – 16%
System Tech    – 16%
Crew Chief    –   8%
Other        –   3%
Shop Tech    –   2%
Pretty eye opening hey!?
As a young engineer, I was encouraged to learn an instrument and play in a band to help me understand the mind of a stage musician better. I did exactly that, and have played in bands at church for several years. From a personal perspective, when I am playing in a band, the mix in the monitors has the potential to make or break the bands playing. If I can’t hear myself, firstly I will over-play, or play too aggressively in an attempt to make myself louder so I can hear, and secondly I will usually make more mistakes, and sometimes be completely oblivious to them!
If I can’t hear the rest of the band, I will miss cue’s, play too loud at a point or too softly, and sometimes even play in the wrong key without realising it!
If ever member of the band is having the same problem, this will result, at best in a busy, boring and unhelpful sound from the band’s playing, that most often causes the sound guy much stress in an attempt to fix this in the house mix.
Additionally, bad monitor mixes can cause other problems such as feedback, and the often missed problem of stage noise. I’m not going to go into why we don’t want feedback in this post, but I will briefly explain why stage noise is a problem.
The monitors and guitar amps on stage are generally, or at least supposed to be facing the band, and thus the sound that carries from the stage to the house, even if it is perfect for the band, will be dull, muddy and well, just plain noise for the house. I have mixed many times with the stage noise being so bad that even with the FoH off I’m expecting people in the house to complain that its too loud…
OK, now that I have scared you with how difficult, and how critical the mixing of monitors is, how about we look at some tips on getting it right.
It may sound obvious, but I see this done wrong way too often!!! Point the monitor at the people who need to hear it. Depending on the setup that you have, the monitor could be shared by the whole band, or it could be for just one person. If it is shared, then place it a little further away, and at an angle that will cover everyone. If only one person is using it, you can place it closer to them, remembering in both situations that pointing the monitor towards the front of any mic is a guaranteed way of causing feedback problems!
Placing the monitor right will ensure that the level of it can be kept down, and the monitor mix will sound clearer and more intelligible to the band.
99% of the requests that I have received from band members is to turn something up. You will constantly be ‘fighting’ with them to keep it down! So, rather start with the level quite low, and work to keep it from becoming too loud.
K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid)
This has got to be a general rule for live sound, but especially when it comes to monitors.
A while ago, in an attempt to make the monitor mixes as concise and minimal as possible, I polled all the members of the band at GodFirst about what they needed in their monitors. I learn’t 2 things from this poll:
a) The most requested element was probably the one that we all neglect, the anchor/service leader mic;
b) Most musicians, when given the choice will want everything loud, and themselves… somehow… louder!
The overall results of that poll which will remain a secret to me, may contradict what I’m saying, but here goes anyway:
Similarly to the Front of House mix, there is a limit to how many things can be put into a mix. Sometimes its helpful to think of the mix as a parking lot, and each element of the mix is a vehicle that will occupy a space in the lot, SO.
Only put what is necessary in the monitor mix…Here is what I do, In order of their priority:
– Everyone will need to hear the anchor mic, and the band leader (Instrument & Vocal) primarily so make sure you start with these channels already at a good level in all the monitor mixes.
– Each person will need to hear themselves in the monitor that is closest to them unless they have their own personal monitor, i.e. guitarists usually have an amp, and drummers usually have an instrument so loud it doesn’t need to go through their monitor!
– Lastly, they will need to hear the other members of the band.
Understanding the balance of these three groups comes with experience, start with a mix based on the first two priorities, then squeeze in anything the musicians ask for, but keep anything additional to a minimum
Humbly take requests from the band (but re-interpret them)
The drummer may request to hear parts of the drum kit in his/her monitor. I will give them as much kick as they want, but will usually avoid putting anything else in their mix as they should be able to hear the drums without any amplification. Remember that drums are super loud, and many of our monitoring systems can’t even match the volume that the drums produce.
Unless the amp is intentionally placed off-stage for reasons that I won’t go into now, rather allow guitarists to hear their guitar via the amp. In most of our setups the guitarist is sharing a monitor with someone else, and it is more helpful to place the amp in a place where only the guitarist gets most of its sound, and the monitor where the guitarist and the other people using it will hear it. Putting the guitar channel in this monitor mix, will defeat this idea and make it harder for everyone else using that monitor to hear themselves.
Mixing vocal monitors is by far the biggest challenge, vocalists are in most cases the quietest things, acoustically, on the stage and are completely dependant on the monitor to hear themselves. Try to keep the vocalists away from the louder instruments where possible, and give them their own monitor(s) and mix. If a vocalist can’t hear themselves they will almost always sing out of tune, so make it your priority to get the vocal monitor mix right before anything else.
Try to give the band what they are asking for by turning things down, rather than up, so if the drummer asks for more of the worship leader, try turning everything else in his/her mix down slightly first, and if they are still not happy, then bring up the whole level of their mix a touch.
During sound check, let the band play through a song and take a walk around the stage and listen to each monitor. If you are pressed for time, or the service has already started, then you can listen to each monitor mix in the headphones. (consult the manual for your console if you don’t know how to do this)
Try and put yourself in the shoes of the musicians listening to that mix and then make adjustments.
Individual and Overall Tone
This can be difficult or impossible on some consoles, but it will help greatly if you can shape the tone of each element of the monitor mix using EQ. This will allow each of those parts in the mix to occupy their own parking bay, and this will make the mix clearer and more intelligible. You may be familiar with how this is done for the FoH mix, there are some differences in what we are aiming for in the monitor mix though. For example I will generally keep the monitor mixes a little less phat and big compared to the Front of House. If you cannot adjust the EQ for each element of the monitor mix without adversely affecting the FoH mix, then many of the monitors that we use have a 5-band graphic EQ on them that you can use to adjust the overall tone of that monitor. I will tend to boost the mids around 2k slightly, and cut the lows out all together. You can experiment and see what works best for each monitor.
To end off I want to stress that mixing monitors is as important as mixing the house. Although the monitor mix goes out to less people, the quality of the mix is more critical for those few people, than for the people in the house. So, next time you are at the console, spend a bit more time getting the mix for the band better, hopefully, if you succeed, the results will be obvious, the band will play better and it will make mixing the FoH that much easier!!!

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