Live Monitoring Systems are 1st Class Citizens…or Should be

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I was just reading through an article over at ProSoundWeb that struck a chord with me.  Over the years, most of the bands I have seen or even played in treat their stage monitoring systems as an afterthought—buying monitor gear with whatever is leftover in the budget, if anything, after buying front of house gear.

The problem with this is that your monitoring system, and the quality it delivers, means the difference between a great sound on stage and a train wreck.  As musicians, we are an inherently creative bunch, driven on stage by inspiration in the moment.  For me, the quality, control, and confidence that you get through the headphones when recording in the studio is huge; it sounds great, I can hear everything, and the inspiration of that environment drives my performance.  The same thing can—and should—happen on stage, and I would argue that it is even more important there.

The fact is that the common scenario is one where the band’s instruments and backline, monitor system (floor wedges) and FOH all compete, with all of them competing upward (in volume) until it is a complete wash of sound.  Putting some thought, planning and consideration into the monitoring setup can be a huge step in bringing the levels into a tolerable range and allow the room to be balanced out with the proper mix.

In my experience, there are a couple of key factors that have worked, which I will never turn back from going forward:

  1. Separate Monitor MixesThis is key…and also where most bands neglect.  Main mix consoles are not designed fundamentally to provide monitoring on the scale that most bands really need.  How many of you use most of your aux sends on your front of house board to feed monitors??  That’s not what they were really intended for…A separate monitor board, at the very least, is crucial.  In order for this to work, a splitter snake is required, feeding both the FOH and the monitor board with the lines from the stage.  Having the monitor board accessible to the band is important, unless you’re fortunate enough to have a monitor engineer to manage your mixes.Having the ability for each member to build their own mix without stepping on their band mates is an incredibly liberating experience, allowing everyone to be free, in their zone, to perform without inhibition.
  2. In-Ear MonitorsHaving your own mix is excellent…having it in stereo, with complete isolation and no “bleed” from the rest of the band’s monitors or backline?  Nothing short of awesome!  This is like the studio experience I mentioned earlier.  Several years ago, feeling strongly about the difference it would make with my band, I sprung for in-ear monitors for everyone.  Once the band, as a whole, experienced them, none of us ever looked back.  The quality was unlike any monitor system we had ever had, and combined with the ability for each of us to control our own mix—which we had never had before, we actually improved on many fronts.  There was no more volume-induced paralysis, and the detail that we could hear actually uncovered mistakes we were making individually, causing us to actually correct those musical and technical flaws, leaving the end result in a massively improved state of quality.IEM’s also took one of the volume competitors out of the race, and put a second one in a distant last place…let me explain—putting the monitors directly in our ears eliminated the need for speakers, therefore removing the volume created by our wedges.  Secondly, the isolation created by IEM’s removed the need for any amplifiers to be cranked at the volumes we were accustomed to, putting that volume source way down on the scale.  What this did was allow the FOH to operate without the hindrances and competition of loud stage volume, which carries another huge benefit—club owners and managers love you.  We even had a complaint one night early on that we didn’t have enough volume in the house, and they asked us to crank it up.  When’s the last time you’ve heard that??  The fact is that we had our ears up at a comfortable volume, so we couldn’t perceive the disparity between our volume and that of the house.  It’s a great feeling knowing that you have plenty of headroom in the house to satisfy just about any club.There is one other benefit that needs to be pointed out, and that is hearing safety and preservation.  While I am not going to go into details about how IEM’s can actually help prevent hearing loss, I can tell you that since using them, and even at what I perceived to be a slightly high volume at times, I no longer experience threshold deafness after playing.

I will go into more details about IEM’s and configurations in a future post as there are so many options and the cost of entry is not unreasonable, in fact, it turned out to be cheaper than the power amp/wedge setup we had previously, which was not in stereo (which is not a prerequisite, but a massive feature—if you have stereo and then switch to mono, you will be racing back to stereo…trust me…), did not have separate mixes, and possibly more importantly, we no longer broke our backs carrying a rack full of power amps and wedges (speakers)—and that means an easier load-in, less space in the trailer, less maintenance—the list goes on.  Additionally, IEM’s also mean that our monitor mixes are consistent from room to room, so no matter where we play, it sounds the same…consistently great quality with little effort.  What this does is make for much smoother sound checks, and in the event that we can’t get one, at least we are able to play consistently (and sound good at least to ourselves, until the FOH engineer gets the mix dialed in…)

Lastly, whether or not you go with IEM’s or not, having a well thought out monitoring system is, in my opinion, a key component for any band playing on a regular basis.  In fact, I view this type of monitoring system to be as equally important as the instrument/gear we use.  Many, if not most, clubs have house systems, but the monitor systems are severely lacking.  By bringing in our own monitoring system, we are not at the mercy of the venue when it comes to our stage setup and sound.  While this is not at all to say that FOH is not important—it absolutely is—but the band that is not happy with the way they sound on stage will ultimately reflect that in their performance.  It’s time that more bands put their hard earned cash into their monitor system and finally make it a 1st class citizen in their gear arsenal.


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