O Say, Can You Hear?: Improving Your Live Monitor Mix

I can’t hear!

Go to any live music venue where beginning bands frequently grace the stage, and I’ll bet that you will hear some variation of the above sentiment. In this feature, we will examine ways to improve what you, the drummer, as well as what your bandmates hear when performing in a live environment. Providing valuable insight on the subject are two notable authorities on live sound and live-sound technology: Bob Durkee, technology accessories buyer for California-based Guitar Center and avid musician for over two decades; and Ron Parker, front-of-house engineer for Ziggy’s, a thriving live-performance venue that regularly hosts hip national acts and rising local and regional stars (ziggyrock.com).

Do Your Homework

As always, a superior solution involves squelching a problem before it ever exists. So when preparing for a string of live dates, do as much self-mixing in rehearsals as possible. “In my experience of playing,” offers Durkee, who cut his live-performance teeth while playing guitar, “monitors were either bad or virtually nonexistent in a lot of the smaller places I played. I found that the best way to make sure that a performance was good was to learn to play without monitors. Lots of rehearsal and experimentation in setting up made that possible.”

Self-mixing often involves strategic configuration of instruments and amplifiers as well as realistic evaluations regarding the very least you need to hear in order to perform sufficiently. In setting up to self-mix, try as many reasonable variations on a traditional stage plot as possible and settle on the one where everyone is most comfortable and can hear the best — not necessarily the one that is the most visually impressive. After all, looking cool doesn’t actually make you sound better.

“The most important thing that local and even experienced bands can do is experiment with different lineups on stage,” explains Parker. “If you don’t have a great monitoring system at a show, then your own setup will at least cover you the best it can. Plus, everyone in the band should know what they need to hear. Usually, for example, engineers know that bands need to hear vocals and the singer needs to hear himself. Guitar players will want to hear themselves, and drummers usually want to hear some kind of a mix. But if you come in with an idea of what is important to you — maybe a bare minimum list and an ideal list — and present that to the soundman when you get there, it’s a great way to improve the performance and experience.”

A list of what each bandmember needs to hear — or better yet, what each member “doesn’t need to hear,” insists Parker — will always improve a monitor mix, as will providing the house engineer with a detailed stage plot with all sound sources to be amplified clearly labeled. “It is key, though, to talk to the soundman early in the evening, not right before your set is supposed to start. By then, it’s often too late.”

Less Level, More Intelligibility

It’s a simple fact, offers Parker: Most live performance neophytes simply play too loudly, which exacerbates the problem of a band hearing themselves in the first place. “It’s the age-old question,” he chuckles. “Ask any front-of-house engineer what’s their biggest problem with new bands, and it’s always, ’They’re too loud.’”

Simply lowering volume levels of individual amplifiers can go a long way to getting a better monitor mix. The best place to start performing at lower volumes is, obviously, during rehearsals. Once a band gets to the venue, the louder a band is inherently, the louder everything else has to be, which usually just worsens the band’s and the audience’s mixes.

“In a club setting, you have the band and the band’s back line,” Durkee explains. “Now you add the P.A. Then everything else has to adjust to the P.A. Then you add the monitors, which is really a negative proposition because you’re taking the sound you’ve already created and you feed it right back into the band. As a result, everything else has to be that much louder to overcome the sound you’ve just shot back at yourself. You’re just adding layer of volume that you must overcome.”

For drummers, playing with less volume is often a challenge and — insists Parker — just impossible for many. “The biggest problem with drums is that they’re usually the only acoustic instruments on stage,” he says. “And often they’re the loudest. Everyone else has a volume control except for drummers, and I’ve never been successful in asking them to not hit as hard!”

While using products such as plexiglass drum shields may help isolate loud drums a bit, they can provide more problems than solutions if a drummer isn’t used to playing with them. “Besides being a little unwieldy,” notes Durkee, “if you don’t practice with a drum shield, certainly don’t perform with one. Most importantly, you should always perform as you practice. A lot of bands don’t do that and are surprised when they get to a gig.”

To help with improving live monitoring situations via lower audible levels, Durkee also recommends purchasing a good set of custom earplugs. The $3 foam plugs just don’t provide the same benefits. “Go to an audiologist and get a set of custom earplugs, which are available for under $200,” Durkee says in an endorsing voice. “It’s a great investment. If you take care of them, they’ll last for many years. Plus, once you get on stage and are done with sound check — having already mixed competing volumes and everything's set — as soon as you put in those earplugs the volume goes down and it cleans things up. Good earplugs cut out a lot of the sound bouncing around in a club and just make everything that more intelligible.”

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Stick It In Your Ear

On 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.”

Last Words

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!”