Stage monitors (wedges or in-ears) may be mixed on a stage-side monitor console, from the FOH console, or from on-stage personal mixers. This discussion is specific to mixing monitors from FOH. This dual function creates a much busier job for the FOH operator. Instead of building one mix (for the audience), we may be building a dozen or more. It’s do-able if wisely set up and properly sound checked, but can quickly become a nightmare if not managed well. Great monitor mixes mean a better FOH mix – musicians play better when monitors are inspiring. If you play, you know. Here are ten tips:
1. Gain structure
As with FOH mixing, gain structure comes first. Adjusting monitor mixes before input gains are finalized is counterproductive. Finish setting input gains before tweaking monitor mixes. On some consoles, digital trim and gain tracking helps manage any subsequent clipping. If clipping beyond early sound check is more than occasional, there’s a musicianship issue to be addressed – it’s called “sand-bagging”.
2. Pre-fader vs. post-fader auxiliary sends
This is critical to understand for monitoring. Pre-fader send levels are independent of the channel fader. Post-fader sends levels are relative to the channel fader. Pre-fader sends are a common choice so that the monitor levels don’t change as the faders (house mix) are moved. But post-fader makes sense for any sends the operator intends to actively blend in the monitors. Choose and set up pre/post switches accordingly. A busy combination of both is not uncommon.
3. Input channel processing
Should artists hear input channel equalization and dynamics as adjusted for the house? Maybe. It depends. Typically, aux sends are derived post processing (some consoles can be changed) and the operator should understand that changes to compressors, gates, EQs, etc. are heard on stage. This may be great, but can be awful. Take care not to “wreck” monitors with inappropriate processing such as gating toms in the drummer’s monitor mix – a quick way to make an enemy
Consider a vocal where a different EQ is desired in the monitor mix than the house mix. Patching a source into two channels and assigning one to FOH and one to monitors (only) is a workaround. Maybe an aggressive compressor is used for FOH, but not monitors. Note that there are drawbacks of doing this that sometimes result from detaching the musician from the feel of the house sound (particularly with in-ear monitors).
We might use a dynamic EQ or multiband compressor to manage proximity effect on a vocalist who intermittently leans in close and gets muddy. Great! That means a better FOH mix. Whether we want that processing to be monitored depends on the situation. Sending that to the vocalist’s ears sometimes works. But sometimes it makes the vocalist sloppy with their microphone technique. It might be better for them to monitor their vocal without that processing, or with alternate processing. Again, double-patching allows independent processing for monitors.
5. Wedges and EQ
Wedges are usually processed with equalization at the console’s output bus or downstream to maximize gain before feedback. If an input EQ is adjusted for FOH it probably affects the wedge as well, which may affect the wedge’s gain before feedback. Use caution when doing this.
At FOH, artificial reverb, delay, and other effects are shaped to suit the room, performance style, and sonic goals. We may or may not want these same effects blended into monitors. For vocalists, I prefer to use one static reverb setting for monitoring. If I need to change reverb parameters in the FOH mix, I use a different reverb.
7. Vocalists and IEMs
Vocalists on sealed earphones are unique in that they are occluded (ears plugged) and their instrument is actually in their head. They not only hear their voice in the earphones, but also through their head via bone conduction. And that bone-conducted sound is very tubby or muddy (plug your ears with your fingers and say something – sounds really weird, right? This is why vocalists often have a harder time adapting to IEMs than instrumentalists). This is frequently offset by thinning the vocal in the singer’s IEM (using equalization). Anyone auditioning that vocalist’s ears mix (FOH mixer or other musicians) may find the vocal to sound very thin, while it sounds “right” to the vocalist.
8. Spot checking
The audience doesn’t care what the monitors sound like, and whenever they’re present the mixer’s ears should be focused on the house mix. It’s appropriate to monitor the stage mixes some during sound check and occasionally during rehearsal, but dangerous to focus on them live. This takes our ears and attention away from FOH. Spot-checking a monitor mix for a couple of seconds may be okay when really necessary. As a general rule though, get ‘em right at sound check!
9. Stereo IEMs and panning
Musicians face the opposite direction of the house, and here are different schools of thought when building stereo image in IEMs: 1) “stagger panning” spaces sources for the purpose of “un-mixing” them, keep them separated for easier monitoring, and the positions may have no relation to their physical or visual orientation to the listener (some performers find this disorienting), 2) matched stereo places sources according to their physical orientation for that particular listener position. The floor tom, for instance, may be panned partially LEFT at FOH, but RIGHT in the drummer’s IEM. This requires a bit of reverse thinking at FOH.
Some sources are meant only for IEMs. These sources must be landed on the FOH console and carefully routed as such. These may include clicks, guides, talkback and MD mics, audience response, and/or ambience mics.
For audience response or room ambience, microphone placement is critical. It’s best to keep these in sync (time) with the PA. This often means placing them somewhere along the edge of the stage (under the PA?) or similar. Mics placed halfway back into the house will have acoustical delay, and while this sometimes sounds good in broadcast or recording mixes, it’s a disaster for IEM monitoring.
Finally, find time during rehearsal to walk the venue and listen, and let the musicians see this happening. Even stand beside them as they rehearse, showing interest in their stage experience. Even if no further monitor mix tweaks are necessary, morale is improved and the musicians understand the FOH mixer cares.