It’s something that every musician and technician has had to deal with at one point or another: stage monitors. When perfectly positioned and correctly set up, you’re looking at a smooth show and maybe a post-gig beer with the band and sound tech, but bad stage sound can lead to dirty looks, the exchange of dirty words and – ultimately – a bad show, simply because the band can’t hear themselves. This is a big shame, because everyone involved is striving for the same goal: to put on a brilliant gig. So, to avoid any annoyance on either side of the mixing desk, we’ve put together a few tips to help perfect the monitor sound.
We’ve split this blog into two sections where, at one end we have the musician and at the other end, we have the sound engineer.
As the musician, making sure that you have good monitor sound actually starts in the rehearsal room. Safe in your inner sanctum, you have the space and time to have a good think about what you need to gain from your monitor mixes and discuss it with the rest of the band or musicians you’re working with. This way, you’ll have a clear idea of what you need to hear and what the most important elements are. Then, you can add those details to your rider. For example: Billy: 100% vocals, 75% backing, 75% kick, 50% bass and guitars and so on. If you know you’re going to be on a stage with fewer monitors than band members (which still happens), then you can also figure out what can be left out and who’ll be sharing monitors.
What can also help, is to make sure that the on-stage volume is kept as low as possible by making sure that every amplifier or instrument sits at around the same volume level – i.e. the lowest (acceptable) volume level. If everyone on stage is cranking up their amplifiers, then the sound technician will have a really hard time making sure that everything sounds clean and balanced. From there, you can focus on the stage sound and let the sound tech do their job rather than rushing through sound check. If the sound engineer has made your monitor mixes, using your rider as a guide, then check that everything’s sounding right. If it’s not, then let the tech know what needs adjusting, check your sound again and pay close attention to anything that could do with improving. If it’s still not sounding right, then you might need to ask yourself if your demands are actually humanly possible.
No matter how much preparation the band has done to help make your job easier, the sound technician still has to make do with the equipment that’s available, whether it’s the venue’s, the band’s or your own. One monitor is never exactly the same as the next and your only means of control over the entire deal is your mixer. Ideally, you’ll be able to set up a monitor for each artist and position them in a way that limits the chance of feedback as much as possible. But how can you make sure that the basics are on point?
It all starts with your mixer. Via the AUX or monitor sends, you can control the levels of the incoming sound per channel before it’s sent out to the monitors. Depending on the number of sends you have, you also know how many instruments can be individually monitored. Of course, if something needs to be a little louder or quieter, then you’ll immediately know if that’s actually possible.
The next step is the floor monitors. By waving a microphone in front of the monitor, you can use your equaliser to suppress any possible feedback. This will give you a good guide for how high the frequency levels can go and what frequencies need pushing down (although you want to avoid doing too much of this). Another option is to use a microphone with a different polar pattern.
Listen, Listen, Listen
Once you’ve done all of your prep and the band arrives, loads in, sets up and finally gets onto the stage, you can do a quick line check to make sure that everyone has a workable monitor mix and fix any issues by simply turning up an individual channel, like the kick, or by turning everyone else down. Another option (but one that you’re less likely to be thanked for) is to lower the stage sound… by asking politely if everyone can turn down their amps and play a little quieter.
A good tip when treating the vocals is to give the frequencies that lie between 1kHz and 5kHz a little push. The downside here is that the same frequency boost is applied to the rest of the sound, so it’s a question of whether or not you’re happy with that. If you can’t figure it out from a distance, then it’s best to actually walk up to the monitor and have a listen for yourself. Often, you’ll have a better idea of what’s needed and can quickly find a fix. Obviously, this method requires a bit of experience, but don’t be scared to try it out!
If you really want to overcome the feedback and potentially bad sound of stage monitors once and for all, then you could always turn to in-ear monitors. These little ear-buds mean that some band members or the entire band no longer have to depend on floor monitors and, using their own set of in-ears, the sound engineer can also clearly monitor everything. Using in-ear monitors gives you far more direct stage sound, closes off any environmental noise and even protects your hearing – all in one go. The only thing the sound technician needs to know is how it all works. So, a working knowledge of different wireless frequencies and the difference between various in-ear systems and so on, will really help. On stage, you also need to know how to work with your in-ear monitor system. Suddenly it’s a lot harder to hide a bad performance behind a bad stage mix (which shouldn’t happen in the first place if you figure out what you need in advance and let the sound tech know). Also, when wearing in-ears, you can feel a little cut off from the audience, which you might miss. But of course, any real artist will find a way to make that work 😉
How do you overcome bad stage monitor sound? Let us know in the comments below!