Monitor Masterclass - Getting the best onstage sound
Monitoring: It's an oft-overlooked aspect of playing live, but one which has an absolutely crucial impact on how you as a musician plays and performs on-stage. In turn, good monitoring and a good on-stage sound will help you put on a better show for your audience
So, what exactly is monitoring? How do you construct a monitor mix? And how can you ensure that your onstage sound is as good as possible? Welcome to our Monitor Masterclass.
Your author has spent the best part of two decades as a touring musician and live sound engineer. Apparently, the term used is "industry veteran", although that think that makes one sound rather old!
Having suffered from enough terrible monitor mixes, stroppy musicians, and terrible sounding backing tracks, he can hopefully point you in the direction of avoiding some of the most common pitfalls.
Monitors? Why do we need those?
Back in the early days of live bands, when PA systems were rudimentary affairs, a band was lucky to have a couple of column speakers either side of the stage so that the vocalist might stand a chance of being heard over the drummer!
In time, as live sound became more sophisticated, PA systems got big enough for large stadiums. With all that power though, came another problem - feedback. Feedback occurs whenever enough of the amplified sound from a microphone re-enters the microphone again.
The amplified sound gets reamplified and continues to the point where it causes a feedback loop. We've all heard it before; that horrible shriek or howl which leaves us with painful ears. Ouch!
To stop feedback, we need to control very carefully what sound is allowed to enter any microphones that are on the stage. Cardioid or Unidirectional microphones assist in this greatly, as they allow an engineer to point the microphone towards the sound source and away from the PA system.
It's here, where we now need specialised speakers called monitor speakers; we've all seen these at the front of the stage. Their wedge shape often leads to them being called monitor wedges or sometimes just plain wedges.
A good monitor speaker is very directional, and so can be pointed away from the front of a microphone (which is sensitive to sound) and towards the rear of a microphone, which (if it's a cardioid microphone), rejects sound.
In this way, by placing monitor speakers around the stage, the artist or band can work with the monitor engineer to create the perfect balance of sound across the stage, whilst avoiding feedback. Clever eh!
Creating a Monitor Mix
It's at this point, things can either go really well or really badly; creating a good monitor mix (contrary to some people's beliefs) is the joint responsibility of both the musician(s) on stage and the live sound engineer.
Let's take a typical club type venue: you may typically have three separate monitor "mixes", two wedge monitors at the front of the stage and a third huge one often called a drum fill. Each monitor mix can be constructed to contain different elements of the instruments sent to the FOH system.
It's here where communication between the band and the engineer is vital. In a small club, there will usually be one FOH engineer whose job is to construct both the FOH mix, as well as the monitor mix.
If you're fortunate to be playing a large venue or festival stage, there will often be a separate engineer, whose job is to concentrate solely on creating the stage mix for the band. In this situation, you're also likely to have a great many more monitors on stage too.
As a musician it is your responsibility to communicate to the engineer what you want to hear in your monitor mix. A good engineer may have an idea of what to put in your mix as a starting point, but talk to them and communicate clearly what you need and in what quantity.
As a guide a typical monitor mix might be as follows:
The drummer will want his kick drum to rattle the stage to pieces, as well as having the bass guitar at the same level. He may ask for a little of the singer to act as a guide and possibly some keys if there are any.
The bass player will often monitor themselves off their own bass amplifier which will typically be very powerful. They again may ask for some vocals as a guide, along with any guitars and keyboards.
The keyboard player is usually entirely reliant upon the monitor mix as, with the exception of instruments such as a Hammond Organ, they will be entirely reliant on the monitors to hear themselves.
Guitarist: nothing but guitars, turn them up. Louder. No, louder - louder still... in fact can I have another monitor please, this one isn't loud enough!
Vocals: Can you make me louder than the guitarist, please? Oh, he's turned up. More me then, please!
Monitor Mixes for Electronic Musicians
Creating a monitor mix for electronic bands is utterly crucial, and also very different to creating one for an acoustic or electro/acoustic bands. Typically, an electronic musician's instruments won't make any sound whatsoever without amplification.
Increasingly, also, many traditional musicians are switching from traditional backline (amplifiers, drums etc.) towards virtual instruments and modelled amplifiers. Again, this places crucial and critical demands upon the stage monitoring.
One of the biggest problems, however, with many electronic acts in getting a good stage monitor mix, is when their virtual instruments or backing tracks are already pre-mixed to stereo outputs.
Think back to our traditional rock band for a moment; every instrument has a microphone or DI box of its own. That allows the engineer to send any instrument to any monitor mix. It also allows the FOH engineer the ability to accurately tune and mix each instrument to suit the room and create the perfect mix.
With a pre sub-mixed stereo output, it's simply impossible to do this. Now, an argument that's been heard many times is that "it sounded great in my studio so you won't need to do anything to it". Even worse, "it's OK - we'll mix it from the stage".
With very rare exception, in all his years of working as a FOH engineer and musician, your author has never found that the pre-mixed stereo backing approach works very well. Studio mixes don't travel well from venue to venue, and the monitor mix is just never right.
The Multi-output solution
There are two solutions to the above scenario: In-ear wireless monitors, or multiple outputs...
In-ear monitors are favoured by some artists as it gives total control and isolation of their monitor mix. Rather than sending the monitor mix to loudspeakers on the stage, they are instead sent to wireless receiver packs, worn by the artist, which then feed a high-quality pair of earphones.
In-ear monitors are beloved especially by vocalists, as it allows them to pitch easily against the wash of on-stage sound. In-ear monitors are also highly useful for drummers who may have to play to a click-track from a sequencer.
As the sound in the musicians' ears is the same every time, and utterly consistent from venue to venue, an in-ear mix can be created in advance of the gig. Provided absolutely everything is the same as in rehearsal (which is rarely the case) a pre-mixed in-ear mix can work.
The downsides to in-ear monitors are: firstly they're expensive, and secondly, many musicians find them too clinical and too isolated an experience, complaining that they feel like playing in the front room at home.
Even with in-ear monitors, it's still vastly superior to have the ability to decide exactly what instruments you wish to hear in your in-ears, when you want them. It's how professionals work, and its how you should too!
The real solution is to run multiple outputs - just like a traditional rock band. This, of course, means having an audio interface which can provide more than just a stereo pair of outputs. It's here that multi-output audio interfaces are worth their weight in gold.
Let's take an interface like our PlayAUDIO12, which we designed especially for live musicians; the PlayAUDIO12 gives us ten outputs, plus another two as a monitor mix.
Using a PlayAUDIO12 then, as an example, the channel outputs may look something like this:
Ch.1 909 Kick
Ch.5 Synth Bass
Ch.6 Lead synth
Ch.7&8 Stereo Keys 1 (Piano)
Ch.9&10 Backing Vocals
Ch.11&12 - Click track and drummer mix for headphones
Imagine trying to pre-mix and balance, in advance, all of these separate sources down to stereo. All you're able to do is guess at what you might need on stage; take it from me, even playing the same songs with the same people, that can change night after night.
What have we learned?
- If using microphones live, use only uni-directional cardioid or hyper-cardioid types
- NEVER point a microphone at a PA speaker or monitor speaker
- Point monitor speakers at the back of microphones (or slightly to the side for hyper-cardioid types)
- As a musician, learn to communicate with your engineer what you want in your monitor mix
- As an engineer, be friendly and approachable and help the musicians get what they need in their monitor mix
- Electronic instruments and electronic bands need great monitoring, without exception!
- Stereo backing tracks suck!
- In-ear monitors can be great but are expensive
- Multiple outputs are always better than stereo outputs
- Multiple outputs give you a better FOH mix AND a better monitor mix
So, the next time you're planning to take your music on the road, remember the golden rules above. Good monitoring and a good stage sound make for a better experience for you on-stage, and happy musicians put on better gigs!
Until next time - take care!
Bob Malkowski - iConnectivity