By TJ Cornish, January 2017
Stage monitors, whether they are monitor speakers or in-ear monitors, are critical to the artist being able to do their job; however, it’s not always intuitive what to ask for, or how to communicate to the sound person what you need. This article is written to musicians and will help you understand what should be in your monitor mix and how to help the sound person deliver this to you.
Cacophony or Clarity
The speed of light is very, very fast. If you shine a flashlight on a wall and then shine another flashlight on the wall, the wall gets brighter. Sound travels much slower than light – slow enough that we can perceive its path and perceive multiple sounds interacting with each other. Short duration sounds like drum hits or claps often retain their character as they bounce around the room, something we would call an echo. The more general case is sounds smear together and linger after the sound source stops, which we would call reverb.
Our brain works to interpret all of the sound around us. The multiple arrivals and reverb can be good things as our brain uses this information to localize sound sources, and some amount of reverb makes music sound more natural than “dry” sound, but for the purpose of stage monitoring, this extra sound is detrimental and makes our brain strain to focus on what we need to hear – our vocal pitch, instrument intonation, or the other musicians on stage.
The natural tendency is to want to hear everything on stage. Musical performance is collaborative, and feeling connected to the other musicians is critical to feeling in the groove, however more sound is not automatically better. The essentials of a monitor mix are a timing reference, a pitch reference, and your own part. If these things can’t be easily heard – either because of too much or too little other sound – you will struggle to function.
A timing reference is the most fundamental element of the music. There are two components of the timing reference – song position, and tempo. The song position reference ensures you know where you are in the song, and the tempo reference ensures you are playing in tight timing with the other musicians.
Your song position reference is likely to be a guitar, keyboard, or lead vocal. It may shift during different parts of the song, so you may need to combine information from a couple sources. Instruments that play all or most of the time and are the bread and butter of the song are good choices. Lead instruments like strings or woodwinds and background vocals are poor choices as they are not as integral to the basic song structure.
The tempo reference is likely to be some part of the drum kit or a click track. The best tempo references happen often enough to keep each musician from drifting significantly before the next reference happens – ideally quarter notes or eighth notes. The high hat is usually the best source of timing information from the drum kit as it tends to be played consistently through the song, and is also high pitched, which makes it easier to hear in the mix.
The kick drum and toms are poor tempo references, as they tend to not be played often enough to give a good reference, and their low tones can interfere with other things in the monitor mix, so they can easily be lost.
A solid pitch reference is critical for musical quality, particularly for vocalists and strings or brass instruments that lack frets or keys that hold the instrument to a particular pitch.
Good pitch references are instruments that have fixed pitch, such as a piano or guitar, that play consistently through the whole song. Vocals and fretless instruments are never good pitch references. While it is important for vocalists to hear each other for blending, this shouldn’t be confused with the song pitch reference. Vocalists need to take care that their mixes contain a strong absolute pitch reference, otherwise the tendency is for vocalists to blend to each other, which may or may not be in tune with the rest of the band.
The third essential component of your mix needs little elaboration – you need to hear yourself adequately so you can play your own part well.
A note to musicians who use on-stage amplifiers – your ears are much more sensitive to sound than your knees. If you are using your amplifier as a monitor source, be sure you are pointing it at your ears.
After the essential elements, the next most important mix element are the parts that correspond to your role in the band. If you are a vocalist, hearing the other vocalists to ensure your part matches well is your next priority. If you are a lead instrument, hearing the other lead instruments to make sure you aren’t playing over someone else is the next most important thing after the essentials.
Whatever is left – the rest of the drum kit, secondary instruments and vocals can be added in as long as they don’t interfere with the essentials and the corresponding parts.
Now that we have a better idea of what we need in our monitor mix, let’s move to how we achieve this.
One of the most common and, unfortunately, least helpful things a sound person hears from a musician is “I can’t hear myself”. The natural response to this is to attempt to turn that person up in their own mix, but often this is the wrong thing to do, and may create other problems elsewhere. If you find yourself unable to hear yourself in your monitor mix, before asking for more, take a minute to listen and try to figure out why you can’t hear yourself. Is something too loud in your monitor that is drowning out your part? Is there something on stage that is too loud? It may be that the necessary change is getting more of yourself, but trying to turn something else down will help deescalate the volume war.
Stage volume is one of the greatest enemies of sound reinforcement. Do everything possible to minimize this – relocate amplifiers off stage, switch to in-ear monitors instead of monitor wedges, and coach drummers to have stick control. Stage volume is a vicious cycle. If something is too loud, the tendency is for everybody else to turn up, which causes other things to be drowned out, causing more volume escalation. Fortunately, it also works in the positive direction – if you can reduce even one source of stage volume, everyone else can probably turn down a little more too, giving a double benefit.
Remember to consider the varying dynamics of your whole musical set as you build your mix. For example, if you set the level of your timing reference on a song with sparse instrumentation, you may find that you can’t hear your timing reference on a louder or busier song. Make sure you can always clearly hear the mix essentials – the timing reference, pitch reference, and your own part. Compromises will probably be necessary – on slower or more spare songs the essential mix elements may need to be louder than seems natural so that they are not lost on a song with fuller instrumentation. You may also need to turn down or eliminate some non-essential things in your mix that, while nice to have, make it difficult to hear the essentials.
It may be possible for your sound person to take notes and make a few predefined changes during the performance to counteract some of the differences in song instrumentation or intensity. This is particularly true if you have a sound person dedicated to stage monitors, but usually the sound person is fully occupied focusing on the house sound, and it’s safer to set up your mix to be resilient and functional for every song, even if that means accepting some compromises.
Speaking the Language of the Sound Person
Knowing how to tell your sound operator what you need will go a long way toward getting what you want.
As mentioned above, “I can’t hear myself” isn’t very helpful. Take a minute to listen, and then give specific direction. “Would you please turn me up a little bit?” or “Would you please turn down the acoustic guitar a bit” are much easier to act on.
If a fellow band member plays and sings, remember to indicate which of their functions you need changed. “I need more of Sally” isn’t helpful if Sally both sings and plays guitar. “Could I please have more of Sally’s guitar” is much better.
If there are multiple people playing the same instrument and you’re not sure which one needs adjustment in your monitor, before asking the sound person to “turn the guitars down”, take a minute to watch each player and try to determine which person needs to be changed, then ask the sound person “Could you please turn Jim’s guitar down a bit?” If you’re still unsure which instrument needs adjustment, you may be able to ask during a quick break in rehearsal “Hey Jim, could you please play for a second? I’m trying to correct a monitor issue.”
Hand signals are an inevitable part of being a musician. After getting the attention of the sound person, pointing at the person you want adjusted in your mix (indicate which function if that person is doing more than one thing – e.g. vocals and guitar) followed by an up or down signal is pretty clear. Avoid using the “thumbs up” gesture to indicate you’re happy with the change as that can be confused with “I need more”. Instead, use the “OK” sign to indicate you’re satisfied.
Most sound folks do a good job of interpreting a large array of potential amount adjectives. “A little bit more/less”, “a good amount more/less”, “quite a bit more/less” are usually adequate. A “titch”, “touch”, “hair”, “tiny bit”, “37.6%”, “smidge” or other words that you would like to use are fine too, but will probably be interpreted into one of the “little bit -> good amount -> quite a bit” buckets.
The goal of a monitor mix is not necessarily to give the musician a high-fidelity surround sound stage experience; though it’s wonderful if various elements combine so that happens. A good monitor mix clearly presents the information the musician needs to do their job – a timing reference, pitch reference, and the musician’s own part through the entire musical contour of songs in the set.
Compromises may be necessary to ensure the mix essentials are not lost through different songs, but focusing on the essentials gives the musician confidence to perform their part well.
Knowing the goal of your mix and being able to clearly articulate what you need to the sound person will help you get what you need to do your job, and will reduce rehearsal time and stress on both sides of the sound board.