4 Steps To A Better Live Monitor Mix
Stick It In Your EarOn the subject of ear-placed products to improve monitoring fidelity, purchasing a personal monitoring system — which utilizes speaker-loaded earpieces instead of conventional wedge-shaped P.A. monitoring speakers — is an attractive way to better control what you hear in a live-performance setting. As Durkee previously explained, every audible component in a live performance setting simply increases overall loudness levels. Naturally, trading an open monitor such as a wedge for a closed monitor such as an earpiece provides both detailed mixes, reduces overall SPL, and — if used responsibly — can actually protect the user’s hearing too.
“In-ear technology has really moved forward lately, much in thanks to the iPod,” explains Durkee. “People are now demanding better quality at every end-user level, and that’s great. Companies are building much better tiny in-ear headsets to deliver the kind of sounds that musicians demand in gig environments. Today, there are decent in-ear headsets for $100, and you can get complete wireless systems for prices ranging from $500 to $1000. As long as you have access to some kind of feed from the P.A., you’re in business. For the drummer who doesn’t want to add more gear on top of his drum set to cart around with him, spending money on an in-ear system is a cost-effective way to truly control stage volume and hear what you’re doing. And for musicians that want to protect their hearing, in-ear monitors are easily justifiable.”
At Ziggy’s, Parker can easily accommodate bands who arrive with personal monitoring systems, especially when a hybrid of open and closed monitoring — both in-ears and wedges — are used. “I already do that using my own gear,” he offers. “Of course, the band will need to provide the in-ear monitors themselves, whether it’s a wired monitor — headphones, even — or wireless types. I have enough spare channels on my board to do so. But from club to club, you may not find that they have all the facilities that you would like.”
In such instances, using personal monitors for detailed, custom mixes may require a bit more gear provided by the band. Often, a small mixer provided by the band with a sufficient number of input channels can provide positive results.
“I’ve had situations where bands would come in with one or more in-ear setups and those mixes were taken off of my board,” explains Parker. “The problem with bringing your own mixer is that unless you have a split built into the board — or you have a split snake — then hooking up your mixer plus my mixer can be a real issue. In order to deliver a monitor mix at Ziggy’s, we have a snake that has dual outputs on every input: One goes to the front-of-house console; the other goes to our monitor console. So if you want to bring in your own monitor console in whatever form, bigger or smaller, you still have to be able to get a signal to me at front-of-house and possibly to the other monitor console so I can get monitors to the others on wedges. If you go with something like a little Mackie mixer, for instance, you’ll need a split snake — one with single inputs and dual outputs.”
But in weighing the feasibility of mixing your own in-ear monitors, consider the cost/benefit ratio. “If you’re talking about a whole band being in-ear, you’re going to buy a lot of equipment,” states Parker plainly. “But for an individual, just bring the actual in-ear system — a transmitter and receiver buds, if wireless. I can accommodate that most of the time.”
Predictably, using personal monitoring systems also means a learning curve for the user, so again, perfecting a performance and a live mix starts at home. “It does take awhile to get used to using in-ears,” Parker states. “But everyone I’ve ever known that has gotten used to them has never wanted to go back to the situation of loud speakers screaming at them.”
Getting comfortable with performing while using in-ears should also be tempered with another important aspect of gigging: engaging with and being inspired by your band as well as the audience. “It’s important to not feel disconnected from the rest of the band,” says Durkee. “That’s why a lot of musicians will only put one monitor in their ear; the other ear is used to get the ambience of the room and to connect with the audience.”
Communication Is Key (Or, The Soundman Is Your Friend).
First and foremost, a live band is a live band, not a group of live sound engineers. That’s why your best weapon against bad monitor mixes is a great rapport with a venue’s soundman — or soundmen, if front-of-house and monitor engineers are available. Just as you would prefer to perform flawlessly and sound great, so would they. But without monitor mix input from the band — which, according to Parker, is too often provided sparingly — they have nothing to work from.
Durkee agrees. “The number one thing that any musician can do is to make friends with the front-of-house guy,” he insists. “Just be really nice; sometimes being a soundman is a thankless task. Ask them, ’What kinds of capabilities do you have? If I want a feed where I have vocals, guitars, bass, and drums on a separate line, can you provide that?’”
If every moment before a gig is consumed by bandmembers’ gear wrangling and performance preparation, developing a line of communication with a venue’s engineer may require an official band representative (a nonmember, of course) to deal with the issue of overall sound. “If you have a friend that knows a little bit about sound, you might want to start bringing them along to gigs,” explains Durkee. “Having someone that can take the monitoring headache away — someone that will coordinate with the venue’s soundman to make sure the band gets what they need — is indispensable.
But even after sharing your monitoring ideas and requests with the proper authorities, keep in mind that unless you’re the headliner, to quote Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” But more times than not, you’ll likely get what you need. And if you don’t, well, that’s show business, folks.
“If multiple bands are playing one after another, which is increasingly the situation for local and regional acts, a band may not even get to sound check every single set,” explains Parker. “Then there will be shows where a band doesn’t have the available time and — to be honest — just aren’t important enough for all of that detail work. They’re a local support act, and at that, a local support act for a tour that’s carrying multiple bands itself. You won’t get the same time and attention that you would if you were playing with a half-dozen local bands. Sometimes you have to be prepared to show up with a great monitoring system or method that works great for you, and then not be able to use it. You can’t let that affect your performance, though. If you get to the point where you count on using it, it will eventually hurt you.”
Through planning, professionalism, and maybe a few extra pieces of gear, a better live mix can be yours. And a good monitor mix sure beats the heck out of post-show complaints, finger-pointing, and perpetual letdowns. “When you hear what you want to hear, you can have the best show ever,” promises Parker. “Bring what’s important, but if you come to rely on gadgets, it’s not nearly as much fun to perform when you don’t have them or can’t hear them. And let’s face it: In this business, it better be about fun. Most of us don’t make enough money to make it worthwhile without the fun!”