Part of a soundman’s job that is typically looked upon as an “oh-by-the-way” but can potentially have the biggest impact on a performance is the role of being a monitor engineer. Usually, the monitor system in a house of worship is operated from the FOH position. Only in set-ups where there is a very large budget is there a separate monitor system with it’s own mixing console.
For these predominant set-ups, a pre-fader, pre-eq AUX (or two, or if you’re really lucky, three) sends are allocated to produce a monitor mix to the performers. What is usually required is a way to get the vocals (and other non-amplified instruments) up to a loudness level where the performers can hear them above the amplified instruments or perhaps need audio cues or pre-recorded music. This crucial task is 20% technical and 80% people skills.
What does the audience need versus what does the performer need?
When mixing monitors, a different mindset needs to take precedence. If you are in fact mixing monitors from the FOH position, you don’t have the luxury of hearing the end product like you do the house mix. You therefore have to rely on working (building a relationship) with the performers to get a desired resultSa result that you have total control over yet you have to trust others for the end result. Psychologically, that can be a bit difficult for some people to handle.
To be a successful monitor engineer it is essential that you think like the performer, not like the audience or even more to the point like a separate listener. Not only do the performers as a whole require something different than what the audience hears; each individual on stage requires something different which makes your job twice as hard if you only have one or two mixes.
The thing to remember here is that they require monitors for timing, intonation and sometimes even cues. If this is a musical performance, everyone will need some sort of “vocal mix”. More often, they will also want drums or some sort of percussion for timing (meter). Some may even want their own instrument (though it may already be drowning all of the other performers out and you have to mix around them in the house). The goal here is to try to keep the stage volume down as much as possible and try to avoid a volume war on stage. What you are looking out for is that every time a musician turns their instrument up, another will do the same to compensate. Before you know it, all you have is a mushy pandemonium!
Most commonly, and especially with inexperienced musicians who are not used to having monitors, when asked what they want in their monitors will typically say “I want a little bit of everything” which doesn’t help you out at all, especially if you only have two mixes to work with. So, rather than starting off by asking each performer what they want in their monitors, try to anticipate what each performer (or performers if they are sharing mixes) will needSi.e. A bass player who sings will typically want drums (kick and snare) to keep time and a vocal mix. The important point here is to start with the vocalist’s needs (or whatever instrument needs the most reinforcement onstage). Try to keep things as simple as possible and put only unamplified instruments in the monitors. This is a case where less is more.
For choirs, it is usually as simple as sending an equal mix of each microphone (for the choir) to the monitors in front of the choir. There may be some special requirements from the choir leader in terms of a little piano or keyboard and perhaps a bit of drums so that the choir can intonate and keep time.
Another important thing to remember is that performers will “settle into” a given stage volume regardless of what it is during the course of the performance. Don’t forget that they will also get a bit more from whatever is in the house mix as well.
Trust, communication and building a relationship quickly with the performers on stage is essential to being able to do both jobs successfully. The audience will most likely not verbalize about or criticize whatever mix you happen to put up in the house unless it is obviously too loud or there are problems with the sound (like feedback). In dealing with monitors, the performers are going to be a lot more vocal about what they want to hear out of their monitors.
Be a good communicator. Learn the names of the key performers (write them down if you have to) and use them as you prep for the performance. Don’t be afraid to “chat them up” and become their friend, no matter how short the relationship may last. You’d be surprised at how quickly the word will spread how great it is to work with you.
In communicating, try to learn the performer’s language and respond to it. Many will describe what they want to hear in descriptorsS”it sounds ‘wooly’ or ‘tinny’ or I need more ‘beef’. If at all possible, stay away from “tech-talking” with performers. Just trial-and-error with them until you get it right. It will take patience.
In the next installment, I will cover the 20% technical part which will include a system for “ringing out” a monitor system and finding solutions for reducing feedback. ·